Subscriber OnlyPeople

Hilary Fannin: I don’t really believe in the notion of a truer, deeper self

At the beach, the dog would sniff out swimmers’ carefully tucked-away underwear and eat it

Making friends: dogs on the beach at the end of a warm and sunny day. Photograph: Eric Luke

I’m still trying to figure out if I agree with the notion that the death of both parents can be a catalyst to becoming one’s truest, deepest self.

I sat outside a cafe on the pier last weekend, idling, watching a woman of my vintage park her car in the disabled space, place a permit on the dash and disembark, pulling her coat tight against a mean wind that was yo-yoing the seagulls up and down over the fish boxes. I watched her patiently help an elderly woman from the passenger seat and wrap a scarf around her neck, and I kept watching as they walked hand in hand through the salted air towards the fish shops. Who’s to say, I thought, that those two woman, most probably a mother and daughter, aren’t being their truest, deepest selves with each slow step towards the salmon darnes?

I walked home along the beach, negotiated dry rock pools and enthusiastic unbounded hounds, stopping at the disused slipway to look at the wet sand, pockmarked with lugworm castings. A pale yellow retriever bounded over to see if I was edible. A handsome, sympathetic dog, he looked like he could rustle up a spaghetti Bolognese, uncork a bottle of plonk and sit with you late into the lengthening autumn night discussing the tenuous concept of true selves.

“I have nothing to give you,” I apologised. “No doggy biscuits or saliva-threaded tennis ball. I’m sorry.”


He stood looking at me, head cocked, until his owner whistled from the depths of his waterproof jacket. The dog departed, his wet, disappointed eyes reminding me of a nun I once knew.

Later, lying on the shabby couch in my kitchen, ignoring the ironing and the abandoned potato mouldering under the press, left there so long it was growing tentacles and digging itself into the foundations, I tentatively asked if anyone would like to get a dog.

The cat looked so horrified you’d think I’d eaten the last sachet of her pulverised goat genitalia. One of my sons ignored me completely (actually, I think he’s developed some kind of internal frequency blocker that automatically mutes anything that comes out of my mouth) and, all in all, the general consensus seemed to be that no one relished the idea of picking steaming dog s**t up off the streets and popping it into scented nappy sacks. So that was the end of that.

I had a dog when I was 13, a black Labrador. I loved him with the kind of ardour only 13-year-old girls can truly muster. Ours was a mad, toxic kind of love. I had been lonely – our home had been repossessed, my older siblings had scattered, even the furniture had left. We’d moved, my parents and I, to a rented cottage on the edge of a cliff. I didn’t see my friends, who were far away in a street-lit suburb, and the nuns had expelled me when my father was no longer able to pay the fees for the smug private school he had misguidedly sent me to.

The advent of the dog, though, with his boundless enthusiasm and insane affection, was enough to compensate for all of it. We’d go to the beach, the dog and I, and he’d sniff out the swimmers’ carefully tucked-away underwear and eat it, before burying their shoes in the sand. It was brilliant. We were pirates.

He was killed chasing the little local bus that whipped my mother and I away to the supermarket, mistaking it, I suppose, for a monstrous rival.

I remember the grief. I remember the hopelessness. I remember the brutal actuality of fur and blood.

I find myself remembering a lot these days, spliced-up images from earlier years bundled up with recent memories of death. I find it hard to recall any of those childhood times of careless insouciance that some people cherish and reminisce about. Not to say that I was unhappy; just cautious and watchful. That dog, though, brought some wonderful anarchy to our lives; he ate up sadness with the same relish as a pair of discreetly secreted frilly knickers.

Unfortunately, I don’t think the freedom to become one’s truest, deepest self lies in pet ownership. In fact, I don’t think I really believe in the notion of a truer, deeper self at all. I think life continuously constrains and releases. It’s just the slow adjustment to the unfamiliar that takes getting used to, the tremor of possibility when you realise you’re off the leash.