Hampstead truly is a wonderful place to live. People round here really do look out for each other. Since Ella and I separated I’ve lost count of the number of lovely local residents who have come up to me, patted me on the back, enquired after her well-being and offered their sympathy. They all tell me how much I must be missing her. I never knew so many people cared. In London we get so used to being invisible; one more face in the ever-growing crowd. But up here, with the lungs of the Heath to feed oxygen to our minds, it is different.
And that’s where Ella was in her element. She was never happier than when she and I strode out onto The Heath and she could gamble ahead of me, glancing expectantly over her shoulder, willing me to chase her into the bushes and roll around with her in fox-shit.
But my dog days are over. Ella has gone to stand at another man’s side and, I’m sorry to say, I really don’t miss her. Clutching my white cane, I’m happier tapping my way through life alone and at my own speed.
Ella always was just a little too fast for me, a bit too eager to get to where we were going.
The final straw came when, with the prospect of running free of her harness ahead of her, she pulled me into East Heath Road and the path of a speeding van. The bond of trust between us, never that tight, started to unravel and I knew I’d have to let her go. After all, I can have my own accidents; I don’t need an over-enthusiastic guide dog to lead me into peril.
So where did it start to go wrong?
Maybe, Dr Freud, it was when I was three years old and the neighbours’ Alsatian jumped up and bit me on the face. I still bear the scar, perhaps it’s deeper than I think. And growing up in rural Sussex the only dogs I came across usually belonged to ramblers who let them run amok terrifying the horses, which hardly endeared them to me.
I confessed all this to the Guide Dog people who assured me that a guide dog is a working dog, not a pet. Mollycoddling them confuses them. However, guide dogs also tend to be rather needy, it’s what makes them form a such a close bond with their master.
And I guess that’s the root of the problem. I don’t see myself as anyone’s master, or god. I love companionship but on an equal footing. One of the great joys of parenthood is watching my children develop into my equals. Ella was and always will be a toddler with arrested development who looks to me for guidance and reassurance when that’s what I need from her.
And gosh was she needy. As soon as I was out of her sight she’d bark and whine. It was impossible to take her to yoga (although she was positively gifted at demonstrating the downward dog position). And though she led me beautifully across the Heath to the Men’s Pond she hated me swimming. Like The French Lieutenant’s Woman she’d stand at the end of the pier awaiting my return, and howl. It got so painful I considered taking a taxi there instead!
Needy and greedy. Always possessed of an eye to her stomach (she was a Labrador remember) Ella had seen us banished from several shops for sneaking food from the shelves. Oh how she loved to chomp on a carrot or bite into a bag of sugar!
There were good times too of course. But the only place we were truly happy together was The Wells. She with a regular supply of gravy bones courtesy of the attentive staff and the prospect of her beloved Heath close by; me nursing a pint of Hackney Gold. It was hardly the basis for a healthy relationship and I had to limit our visits to days with an ‘S’ in them.
But before Tony Parsons or anyone accuses me of being a dog-denier, let me say that in the eight months Ella and I were together I finally learned to like dogs. I miss being part of the wonderfully welcoming dog-owning community and hope they will not ostracise me for admitting that my arranged marriage wasn’t working.
Ella made me feel inadequate. As a person with a disability it’s a demon that lurks close to the surface. Like so many people who met Ella, I expected her to be a cross between Lassie and Google Maps. She wasn’t. She was just a highly trained but fallible and slightly neurotic, dog who like me wanted more than was feasible from our relationship.
And so, last week, I phoned my guide dog instructor. I told her that I felt lousy, that it was probably all my fault, but that, though I’d given it time, it really wasn’t working out between me and Ella.
Hearing her name Ella trotted over and laid her soft furry head on my lap, showing me those puppy-dog eyes. They had no effect – I don’t think she ever understood that I can’t see.
They came in a van and took her away a couple of days later.
So when you see me please don’t ask me where she is or if I’m missing her. I’m not. Since making that call I have felt only relief. It just wasn’t the right relationship for me and I’m happier to be out of it.
I hope Ella finds happiness with someone who can give her the attention and long walks she craves. And that she learns to curb her enthusiasm so that she and they can live to enjoy years of frolicking on the Heath together.
I meanwhile have returned to do bruising battle with Hampstead’s street clutter. Armed with my trusty white cane I am wary but glad to have my independence back.