I’m rather proud of Whitevanwoman because she has written a short story which means she is now an author. Just like me. And the story is about me, which means I’m a celebrity.
The story is called “How a bear became a pig” – I hope you enjoy it. Please feel free to leave comments about it. I’ll pass them on to WVW and will pass on any criticisms gently, so as not to damage her fragile ego.
How a bear became a pig
“Do you know anyone who is looking for a puppy?”
I should have just said “No” and carried on walking but the question startled me out of a daydream; I’d been mooching through the woods, following the usual path with the two dogs, who were racing around, chasing each other in turns, and excitedly following the scents of squirrels and rabbits in the warm Spring sunshine. I’d been wrapped up in my own thoughts, so familiar with our daily walk that I hadn’t been aware of what was going on around me.
It was Nicola, one of the stable hands. She was emptying the wheelbarrow into the steaming pungent midden, and was now paused, expectantly, wheelbarrow poised upended, looking at me, waiting for an answer.
Somewhat nonplussed and momentarily lost for words, I groped around for something to say.
“Um, no, not really, why? What breed is it?” I hesitated, my question buying me more time to think up a more suitable reply.
“It’s a Staffordshire bull terrier cross. My mum’s dog has had pups and they are ready for homing now. There were 7 in the litter, but there’s only one left now which needs a home, the others have all gone to new homes”, Nicola replied, wheeling the barrow towards me.
“He’s a charcoal colour, ever so cute, he looks just like a little bear, my mum calls him Little Ted. There’s actually 2 left, but my mum is keeping one”, Nicola added, perhaps sensing that she was talking to someone who was what people would call “soft” about dogs.
I tried hard to quell my rising interest. “I don’t know anything about Staffies. I’ve only ever had collies”.
“The father was a collie, a working sheepdog from a nearby farm”. Nicola looked meaningfully at my two collies, one trained as a working sheepdog, who had come to heel when I had whistled. I was sure that Nicola could sense my reluctant interest.
“A Staffie-Collie cross. I’m trying to imagine what the pup must be like”. I avoided Nicola’s eyes.
“He really is lovely. We aren’t sure how big they will end up. Probably about the same size as a collie, perhaps smaller. The mother is very gentle, really good with people. She was a rescue dog and my mum didn’t know she was pregnant until she started having the pups. You can tell that the father must have been a collie from the markings on some of the pups. Some of them look very like a collie. We think the father was the sheepdog at the farm near my mum’s house because that’s the only collie within about 5 miles of my mum’s”.
Nicola was answering my questions before I’d even asked them. I knew that there was only going to be one outcome to this conversation.
“Can I come and see it?” I gave in.
But I tried not to appear too keen, as if I was merely interested to see what sort of a crossbreed the dog was.
“I’m curious to see a Staffie cross Collie. I’m not really looking for another dog, two is enough for me but I will put word round and I’ll let you know if I hear of anyone looking for a pup”.
Having made an arrangement to go and see the pup that evening, I made my way home, wondering what I had just committed myself to. I knew that I hadn’t technically committed myself to anything other than going to have a look at a mongrel pup, but the words “there’s only one left now, which needs a home” kept ringing in my ears in time with my footsteps.
* * *
I drove slowly into the yard behind the low stone cottage sheltered from the sea breeze by the dunes beyond, sand dancing and whirling in mini tornadoes across the cobbles and then settling in corners and along the bottom of the stone wall like a light dusting of snow on a windy day. Through the open car window, a sudden outburst of excited high pitched yapping drowned out the raucous cries of the gulls wheeling overhead. I smiled, as I always did when I heard the sound of puppies, and parked up.
As I approached the cottage, two balls of dark fluff, screaming incessantly for attention, hurled themselves at the home-made wire puppy pen extending from the open back door of the cottage. As I got closer, they both suddenly turned tail and scampered back inside the cottage. I laughed out loud at the false bravado of their greeting which reminded me of the cowardly lion in the Wizard of Oz.
A woman, perhaps late 50’s, appeared at the back door of the cottage, and introduced herself as “Nicola’s mum”, inviting me to step over the puppy pen and into the cottage. It was clean and well-kept, homely and practical. An Aga squatted against the far wall, and next to it, in a crate made from old pallets, sat a medium sized honey coloured dog, with a wriggling mass of dark fluffy legs and tails, squirming and guzzling between her front legs.
The dog studied me curiously, with friendly eyes, but with a weary sense of resignation. She shook herself as if trying to dislodge an irksome fly, but the pups hung on tight, squealing and scrabbling harder than ever. It was impossible to tell how many were under there, but I knew from Nicola that there were only 2 pups left.
I stroked the top of the dog’s head, murmuring gently to her as I did so. She lifted her head up to meet my hand and licked it gently. There was no doubting her Staffie ancestry when she looked straight at me; the distinctive bulge on either side of her neck just behind her jaw, the flat solid forehead and the side angled flop ears. But apart from her head and neck, I would never have guessed at her Staffie genes.
Sitting at the kitchen table, Nicola’s mum told me about Lucy, the mother dog, whilst I petted the dog. I wanted to fuss the pups, but I knew I should win the mother’s trust first.
“She’s a lovely nature, has Lucy, very gentle and friendly. We haven’t had her long, only a few months. She was a rescue dog and we thought she’d been spayed. We didn’t know she was pregnant, we didn’t even notice her being in season. I don’t know how she managed to get pregnant, the first we knew about it was when the first one popped out one night, just as we were about to go to bed.”
Lucy seemed to sense that she was being talked about and stood up suddenly, impatiently shaking herself free of the pups who squawked in protest. She stepped out of the crate and sat next to her owner, who fondled the dog’s ears whilst she talked. I could now see the dog clearly and could tell that she was taller and leaner than a Staffie, a similar build to a collie but her colouring and something about her nature and eyes convinced me that this dog had Labrador genes. I’d grown up with yellow Labradors as a child, and something about this dog was bringing back childhood memories of Sam and Max.
Nicola’s mum continued the story, “When the first pup was born, we knew straightaway that the father was a sheepdog, you could tell just from the markings. We think it must have been the sheepdog at the farm up the road, although we don’t know for sure as we never saw him hanging round here. Most of the pups had collie markings – a white blaze on their face, a white collar and white markings on their feet and tails. Most of them were dark, like these two, but two of them were the same colour as their mother with the white markings. Little Ted is the one with the least amount of white markings, he looks less like a collie than his brothers and sisters, although he has white tiptoes, a white chest blaze and a bit of a white goatee beard!”
She leaned forward and lifted a wriggling, bleating mass of black fluff out of the crate, and handed it to me.
“Here he is, Little Ted”.
My heart melted as I cuddled the little creature whose protests were now subsiding as the effect of a full stomach of milk set in. He snuggled into my arms, eyes fighting sleep, tail wagging as if in time to a fast disco beat, tongue licking my hands.
Whilst Nicola’s mum busied herself making a pot of tea, heaving the lid of one of the Aga’s hotplates up against the back wall and lugging a cast iron kettle onto a grease-stained circular hot plate, the wet bottom of the kettle spitting and steaming, I looked down at Little Ted and almost gasped out loud in surprise. He did indeed look just like a little grizzly bear cub, with a long snout and jet black glistening nose.
With dark blue eyes, the outer iris tinged with a hint of yellowy brown, and floppy “cock-eyed” ears set aside a solid flat head, his features blended into the dark fluffiness of his body, gleaming and shining with good health. He couldn’t fight sleep any longer, and his eyes closed gently and he relaxed in my arms, head lolling backwards, his tail gradually slowing in tempo rather like one of those executive desk toys, where the pendulum balls bounce against each other, gradually slowing to stillness. Occasionally there was a sudden twitch, and a squeak, and I half expected to hear him start snoring any moment. He seemed most content, snuggled into my jacket.
It wasn’t until Nicola’s mum handed me an old blue sock “So’s he’s got something with a familiar smell on it”, that my conscious brain finally accepted what my subconscious had been trying to tell it; that Little Ted was coming home with me.
I sensed a change in the atmosphere inside the little cottage – a sudden authority in Nicola’s mum’s voice, “Well, time’s ticking on…” and there was most definitely an air of relief, as she deftly swept the tea mugs from the table, and into the washing up bowl. Almost in one fluid movement, she wheeled round, dish cloth in hand, and gave the kitchen table a couple of swift wipes, as if sketching rainbows on a flat canvas with a wall paper brush.
A cardboard box suddenly appeared in the same efficient no-nonsense manner and Little Ted and the blue sock were parcelled up. Phone numbers were exchanged, and Little Ted was deposited safely in the back of my van.
As I drove home, I reflected on the past hour, somewhat dazed, and with a suspicion that I had just been emotionally mugged by a kind-hearted woman who simply wanted her life to get back to normal after the disruption of looking after a litter of puppies for the past couple of months. The realisation of what I’d just done was beginning to sink in – 3 dogs! It had never crossed my mind to get a third dog – damn, damn, damn.
The blue sock didn’t seem to be much comfort to Little Ted, as he cried all the way home to NewtonRiggCollege, where I worked as the live-in Warden with a house provided on the campus. I tried to not notice his whimpering and attempted to distract myself by coming up with a name for him. I wanted something short, uncommon, and ideally related in some way to his origins in the same way that Lanky had been named after Lancashire where he was born, and (Wenndale) Penny was so named as I’d just moved to Penrith shortly before she arrived. Both of their names had come to me almost immediately I first saw them as pups and I was hoping for a similar flash of inspiration this time too, but nothing had come to me by the time I turned into the college drive way.
And then, right outside my house on campus, I saw it – the “Welcome to Newton Rigg” sign and the flash of inspiration hit me. The young male students described themselves as “Riggers” to distinguish themselves from the local “Townies”, a form of tribalism which was particularly apparent in the early hours of every Friday morning as “Blues” and “Toppers” nightclubs emptied and there was a brutal scrabble for taxis, and clan loyalties became vitally important to avoid ending the evening stumbling home in the cold.
“Riggers”, I tested it out loud. Not sure.
I had said it before I realised it, and but I knew immediately that was it. Just “Rigg”. Quick and easy to say. Unique but memorable. Perfect.
And so by the time Little Ted was carried into his new home, still whimpering inside the cardboard box, he had become Rigg.
* * *
At eight weeks old, Rigg was a hit with the students from day one, and word soon got round the campus that the Warden had a new puppy. Seventeen year old animal care students spent their morning and lunch breaks in my front garden, cooing and fussing over Rigg. I often wonder now if it was this frequent and positive contact with so many people in those very early weeks of his life which was responsible for his total adoration of the human race in later life.
As well as the three dogs, I also had two cats, three Indian Runner ducks, four hens, and two pet lambs which I’d been bottle feeding and who were living in my coal shed. The ducks and hens had their own respective coops, but they and the lambs all shared my garden with the dogs during the day. Rigg was introduced to all the various creatures as a very young pup, and has, ever since, assumed that all other dogs, cats and lambs are friends to play with, and he learned that chasing ducks (which he could never get near) resulted in a strict scolding, and that hens peck at dogs’ noses and are best avoided.
It was towards the end of May when Rigg came to live with us, and the ducks and hens were laying well, and most mornings there were four warm speckled brown eggs and two larger duck eggs, an indescribably beautiful pale blue-green colour, almost too beautiful to destroy; it felt wrong, like smashing a piece of delicate antique porcelain pottery, to crack them open and toss the empty shells onto the compost pile.
Rigg grew at an extraordinary rate and as his curiosity and confidence developed, the number of items which got “Rigged” increased on a daily basis. The green wire border fencing in the garden was an enemy who grabbed at his paws when he tried to jump over it and therefore needed to be frightened off with a good scrap; the stone wall around the garden was an agility exercise – his reward for scaling it and exploring the car park beyond was more fuss and attention from his student friends; and visitors who thoughtlessly left the gate open meant an opportunity for a sprint around campus in search of new challenges or a game of “Catch me if you can”.
He also discovered how useful his sharp little puppy teeth were for chewing a hole in the dustbin which stored the hen food so once the lambs were moved out of the coal house and went off to join a flock, the hen pellets found a new home under lock and key.
I had to become more anticipatory and resourceful. By the time Rigg was six months old, he had discovered that unwashed plates in the kitchen sink tasted good, but had also learned that knocking the plates onto the floor gave him away and earned him a detention outside in his kennel. So he learned how lick the dirty plates quietly and carefully, standing on his hind legs, his nose in the sink, managing not to dislodge them or send them crashing onto the tiled floor. He also developed a liking for bread, a loaf at a time, fresh, stale or frozen, but experience taught him that it was best to hide the empty half-chewed bag somewhere out of sight. This habit persists to this day but he gives himself away by putting himself in his kennel before I’ve even realised he’s been up to no good.
Rigg-proofing became a regular part of my routine; a final check round a room before leaving to ensure that nothing edible had been left carelessly on the work surface or kitchen table, kitchen chairs blocking the sink to protect any dirty pots from ending up smashed into smithereens on the floor, and a card board box on the sofa to prevent dirty pawprints. Although Rigg was only a quarter Labrador, and even that wasn’t certain, his “Labradoristic” qualities where food was concerned meant that nothing below five foot which was remotely edible, was safe.
This “healthy” appetite meant that training him using “food motivation” (dog treats) was easy; as soon as Rigg realised that there was food on offer, his “sit”, “stay”, “lie down”, “come here” and “No!” commands were soon perfected. But it had to be in moderation – too many food rewards and he became giddy and over-enthusiastic, his total focus on food made him deaf and totally unaware of anything else. Another habit which persists to this day.
It wasn’t long before Rigg would sit perfectly, paw raised to say please, and head cocked sideways in expectation, in front of anyone wearing a black bumbag. It is firmly rooted in his brain that black bumbags mean food, and he will display his best manners on the off-chance of a food reward.
But the most momentous occasion was the morning when I came downstairs and discovered the wicker basket in which I collected my eggs each day, upside down in the middle of the kitchen floor. In my pre-caffeinated state, I simply picked it up, and put it back on the kitchen worktop where it lived, and switched the kettle on.
It must have been the caffeine hitting my brain which suddenly jerked me into the sudden realisation that the egg basket had contained two days worth of eggs yesterday, at least seven or eight eggs, maybe more. I backtracked mentally through the day before – I hadn’t given any away, I didn’t eat any myself… had I put them somewhere else instead of in the egg basket, in the fridge perhaps?
A quick check, no eggs in the fridge. There was only one possible conclusion but I still kept looking for other explanations.
I inspected the kitchen floor, not a trace of egg or shell. I inspected the basket, again not a trace of egg or shell. I couldn’t quite believe what I knew to be rationally true – no dog, not even Rigg, could have eaten 8 eggs, shells and all, and cleaned up so completely that the only clue was an empty basket on the floor. Surely there would be some evidence? Dogs wouldn’t eat egg-shells, would they. Or would they?
I thought back to how excited Rigg had been to discover the compost heap and I had been forced to stop adding food waste to it. I thought about his liking for hen pellets. I thought about the shreds of blue plastic dustbin which reappeared from the depths of his guts a few days after the hen pellets incident. I thought about his partiality for exploring the unwashed pots and crockery in the washing up bowl.
And I knew. There was no way I could blame the missing eggs on Lanky and Penny, the two collies – they were not in the slightest bit food orientated. Trying to train them with tit-bits hadn’t worked; they showed no interest in food during training sessions. Giving them a ball to have a quick play with or just a kind word as a reward was sufficient motivation for them, their instinctive work ethic taking a higher priority in their hierarchy of needs than food.
A collie’s need to work, which in a pet collie translates as a need to interact with humans and engage in alternate forms of physical activity and mental stimulation, overrules all else and a collie will continue to work, or engage in a work substitute, on an empty stomach, in all weathers, for hours and hours, even carrying an injury. I had never had to worry about food thieving by the other two dogs, it had simply never happened with them.
There was a few seconds pause after I told the vet on the phone, “My seven month old collie-cross has just eaten eight eggs, shells and all. Will he be ok or do I need to bring him in?”
Then a chuckle from the vet and her advice, “He should be ok but keep him outside for a day or two! Bring him in to the surgery if you have any concerns but there shouldn’t be any ill-effects, maybe just some unpleasant ones!”
I followed the vet’s advice, and kept Rigg outside for a couple of days although he seemed totally unaffected by his midnight feast. He even managed to eat half of a cardboard egg tray the following day when my back was turned.
Not long afterwards my five year old niece was visiting me. She was at that delightful age when children discover alliteration and rhyme in speech, and for a while everything which caught her attention was renamed, sometimes bizarrely, sometimes illustratingly but also sometimes most appropriately. A rabbit bobbing across a field was a “Funny Bunny”. There were Funky Monkeys, Lonely Ponies, Licky Biccies, Dirty Doggies and Purry Pusscats.
The other two dogs had become Manky Lanky and Wenny Penny, so it was only natural, that on hearing about Rigg’s naughty greediness, for him to become “Rigg The Pig”. He has continued, somewhat proudly I suspect, to live up to his nickname which has stuck firmly ever since, and which has brought many a smile to many a face over the years.
And that is how a bear became a pig!