Walking through the past

· mumblings · life ·

Panorama from Brandon Hill Park, Bristol

A few weekends ago, Mr. B and I went to Bristol for the day. He had got a print into the Royal West of England Academy’s annual Open Exhibition, and it was the ‘varnishing day’ and preview. The first part was artists only, so after we had enjoyed a lovely late breakfast at Yurt Lush (my favourite yurt-based cafe), he went on to the gallery while I re-acquainted myself with Bristol.

I’ve mentioned before that I was an undergraduate at Bristol, more than 25 years ago1. While I have been back for visits a few times since I left, I have usually been there for some other purpose, and haven’t had much time to just wander around and explore. This time, I decided that I was just going to follow my nose and walk around the places that I used to love.

The fragmentary nature of memory always surprises me. Places that I walked through every day for nearly three years seem simultaneously familiar and yet subtly shifted, like looking through a distorting lens. The places haven’t changed much (shops and restaurants have changed, but the structure is much the same), but I am trying to step back into a river where the water I knew has long since flowed out to sea.

I decided to go and look at the flat where I lived for two years, and wandered there via Brandon Hill Park, which gives you wonderful views of the city. You can actually see the back of my old flat in the picture above, beyond the row of colourful terraces in the foreground. My flatmate’s room was at the back with the view of Brandon Hill Park and Cabot Tower, while mine was in the front, perched on the edge of a steep drop down to the Docks.

I had forgotten how hilly Bristol is. Brandon Hill Park is a series of fierce slopes, then half way up Constitution Hill, I remembered why even my 25 years younger self usually chose the longer but flatter route to my home. That hill is brutal. The old wall at the corner of my road was instantly familiar (why do I remember that wall so clearly?), but the road itself seemed shorter than I remember, as if it had folded out a section of itself over time. And there was the building containing my flat. It is a tall terrace, with four floors, including the basement. My flatmate and I lived in the ground floor flat, somewhat above ground level because of the basement and the way that the ground sloped. It looked just the same, except that the old, rattling wooden sash windows had been replaced with windows that looked better sealed. Just as well: in winter my closed windows let in both wind and rain, and my curtains would belly into the room like the mainsail on a square-rigger. I have lots of memories (mostly happy) of living in that flat, but one in particular shone out vividly: finding the little dog.

It was one Sunday in early autumn I think, and I had walked into Clifton to buy a newspaper. It was a crisp, sunny day, so I sat for a while on a bench in a little area of green space, reading the paper. After a while, I felt that I was being watched, and looked down to see a small, brown dog at my feet. She was a lovely mixture of Jack Russell terrier, a dash of wiry Norfolk terrier, and perhaps a bit of dachshund too. I said hello, presented my hand for her to sniff, then stroked her head. She moved closer and leant against my leg, a warm pressure in the cold air.

I looked around to see if I could spot her owner, but she seemed to be alone. Eventually, I got up to walk home, said goodbye to the little dog2, and wandered off. She stuck to me like glue, and it became clear that she was lost. On the way back, I stopped other passing dog walkers and locals to ask if they had seen the dog before, or knew her owner, but no-one had seen her. As we arrived back at my flat, there was no other choice but to bring her inside with me. Our rental agreement did not allow pets, but she had found me, and there was no way in the world that I was just going to leave her outside.

I found an old bowl and gave her some water, which she drank quickly and noisily — she must have been very thirsty. As I moved around the flat, I had a small canine shadow, her nails clicking softly on the lino. I phoned around the local vets, finding their names in the Yellow Pages, a process which seems antique now. I asked if any of them had received calls about a lost dog, but none had. They took my phone number and promised to call back if anyone enquired. In the meantime, I found a bit of string to act as a makeshift lead (I didn’t know how the little dog was with traffic, and didn’t want her to get run over), and we both went to the 10 O’Clock Shop. Back in those days when shops generally didn’t open late or on Sundays, this shop came to the rescue of students in need of emergency milk, bread, beans or cider. Or indeed, dog food. I was pleased to see that it still survives today, looking exactly the same, and somehow resisting competition from chain supermarkets that now open all hours. Back at the flat, the dog practically inhaled the food.

The mundane aspects of my time with her have somehow evaporated. I think she was only with me during that day, not overnight, but in memory it feels as if it must have been longer. Did I take her out again to let her fulfil her bodily functions? No idea. If I did, I would hope that I was a responsible temporary dog guardian and cleaned up after her, but that part is just a blank. I remember her sleeping on my bed but dashing after me the minute I looked like I was leaving the room. Oddly, I don’t remember her name for sure, but I can picture myself reading it off the inside of her leather collar, where it was written in biro.

What I remember so vividly more than 25 years later is her eyes looking into mine as if I could help. I remember her solid warmth and slightly wiry fur, the way she sighed as she settled. Overwhelmingly, what I remember is the look on her worried owner’s face in my entrance hall as she saw that it was indeed her beloved, and the little dog’s sheer ecstasy at seeing her person again. She trusted me to help, but I was only ever a conduit towards this moment of joy. I remember how empty the flat seemed that evening without that warm pressure, without the little dun ghost following me. It was such a brief moment, but so emotionally significant that it has somehow survived as a vivid, sharply-cut jewel over all these years of other memories.

Back in Oxford last month, I was thinking about Philip Pullman’s ‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy again3, and his concept of people’s souls (their daemons) taking the form of animals. Pullman has written about seeing Leonardo da Vinci’s painting “Lady With an Ermine”, and recognising the bond between the woman and the ermine as being like that between his characters and their daemons. He apparently now collects similar examples from other paintings, seeing them as unacknowledged daemons. This bond is one of the most vivid and touching aspects of his books: when it is broken it is deeply harrowing. I think the reason that these parts resonate so deeply with us is that we (some of us, anyway) feel that kind of connection with certain animals, and they with us. When we are separated, it feels as if a part of our soul has been pulled violently from our body. When we are reunited, everything feels right and whole. Pullman’s trilogy was published several years after I left Bristol and moved to Oxford, but when I read the books, the reverberations of that moment in my scruffy entrance hall lingered on.

  1. Gulp. ↩︎

  2. I am very polite to animals. ↩︎

  3. Again, geographically-triggered thoughts, since the book is mostly set in the city, and I first read the series there. ↩︎