Her husband, Jim, was not a dog person, he had never experienced the depth of bonding that Bet felt for Wills. He found dogs rather too needy and demanding and did not like the mess that Wills now brought into his tidy house; the half-dead mice, moles and voles. He did not like the dog hairs that he found everywhere from his dinner plate to his toothbrush. But for Bet the dog was everything that she ever hoped for.
Bet and Jim lived in an old gamekeeper's cottage with a large garden surrounded by woods and fields, an ideal environment for an energetic terrier. Jim taught art at the local school. When early retirement was offered he was happy to accept. Now there was the pleasant prospect that he and Bet could spend more time together and he could re-engage with his creative life as an artist. In a sense, this moment was what they had both been working towards all their lives, a time of togetherness in lots of quiet, simple ways, a time to pursue their own interests and enthusiasms. Jim converted the old game store at the bottom of the garden into a studio. He put in good lighting, a pot-bellied stove and embarked on his career as a painter.
In the evening Jim, Bet and Wills rested comfortably by the fireside in a tired and contemplative way. Their lives were developing a mutually appreciated routine of work in the garden, dog walks and quiet periods of reading, painting and reflection. Each seemed to gradually accommodate the others needs and Wills animated their daily routine. Life promised to be quite fulfilling.
One evening, at 9.12 precisely, a month after his arrival, Wills was curled up on Bet's lap by the fireside as she stroked him adoringly. Jim lay sprawled on the sofa watching the gentle cooing of Bet and Wills whilst half watching a shocking documentary about the rearing of dogs for the restaurant trade in the Far East, when suddenly he felt a pang of such violent intensity that the whole basis of his life was shaken. JEALOUSY! He had never experienced such a feeling before. An aching panic settled in the pit of his stomach. How could it be? This display of reciprocal love and affection reminded him sadly of what was missing from his life, of the intensity of their young love in their early relationship, of what had been lost when they were plunged in to earning a living, rearing a family and trying to maintain a creative career. Jim had to think this through, he headed upstairs to bed, murmuring to himself, "this is ridiculous, jealous of a dog, a grown man of my age!" He decided to dismiss the thought from his mind and put his sensitivity down to tiredness and to the effects of a recent virus.
In the morning, after a difficult nights sleep, the shock of the previous evening was submerged in concerns of the day. But although life carried on much as normal, a small worm had begun burrowing into their relationship.
Since arriving at his new home Wills had grown in confidence. He had become familiar with every part of the garden, digging and exploring in the vegetable patch and flower borders, shadowing and chasing any white vans that happened to pass up the lane alongside the garden and taking an active interest in anything that 'happened', such as seed planting, blackbirds building nests and even the occasional stand off with the fish that stirred in the pond. Wills thrived, the space and attention suited him, he got on well with the other dogs and their owners in the village and the all pervading presence of pheasants, deer, ducks and other wild life gave his daily walks a terrier edginess. In the house and garden he began watching his owners carefully as they went about their tasks, he learnt to anticipate and gradually participate in the work at hand.
In the garden he watched Bet and discovered he could elicit wonderful praise and adulation by helping her to complete a job. It felt quite natural for Bet to talk to and direct Wills during the work, to such an extent that he gradually began to sense what she wanted, and could almost read her mind. He was soon planting potatoes, after all, digging was second nature to a terrier. He was able to dig several rows, four inches deep, gently placing the tubers evenly at the bottom of the trench and then cover them with earth. He helped with the watering during dry spells, turning on the hose, and by skilful use of his mouth and paws was able to direct the spray at the rows of plants. Bet had only to start a job and Wills was often able to complete it.
In the house he soon learnt to read the 'wearing of the shoes'. The old, casual ones meant work in the house or garden, the smarter, shiny shoes meant that Jim and Bet were going out, so he headed straight for his basket by the Aga. But best of all were the socks with boots or wellingtons that meant a walk was in the offing, particularly between three and four in the afternoon. He learnt to use the back door handle and in the daytime was able to come and go at will. The electric can opener proved more difficult to master but the incentive of opening his own tins of dog food helped him to find a way with the aid of a bent stick.
Jim, however, was not happy. His help was need less and less so he spent more and more time in his studio. He would sit, drawing and painting at his easel, or occasionally doing a little reading. The world of art became more stimulating and challenging the more he committed himself to it, with all it's tantalising promise of hope and fulfilment. He would often have breakfast and then go straight to his studio, not coming out until early evening. His paintings were rather rigorous in style, an austere form of abstraction, it was his response to the fripperies and fol-de-rols of Post-Modernism. He thought of himself as a Post-Post-Modernist and in his enthusiasm would sometimes paint all night, just snatching odd hours of sleep.
The relationship with his wife was under strain, they were beginning to lead separate lives. Bet was still entranced by her garden and her little dog while Jim withdrew further and further into the world of art and failed to dismiss his deep-seated resentment of this animal interloper.
Bet could see that Jim was becoming more withdrawn, spending so much of his time in the studio. She asked if he would make a painting of Wills. Jim's abstract work was terribly exciting to him but meant very little to Bet, or indeed to anyone else who saw it. Jim welcomed the opportunity to please her and agreed to paint the dog's portrait.
The painting went well, Wills seemed to enjoy being the centre of attention and was quite happy to pose in the studio. The spotlit plinth brought out an inherent theatrical streak in him. He was particularly fond of a pose similar to the one on the old record label, he could hold that position for hours. He was soothed by the procedure, the careful observation, the movement of the brushes, the colour mixing on the palette and the noises that Jim made as he muttered to himself. A certain degree of bonding was taking place. The painting was complete after two weeks of patient work. Jim was quietly pleased with the result and Bet was delighted, she hung it in pride of place in the sitting room, then, without telling Jim, she submitted it to an exhibition at the Royal Society of Animal Painters. The painting was not for sale, of course, but it succeeded in creating a lot of interest. Jim was surprised and shocked at this attention after years of neglect and was thrilled to receive fourteen commissions to paint dog portraits, enough work to last him at least a year. Somehow his ability to capture a certain indefinable 'dog-ness' about his sitters had struck a chord with many owners.
As demand for his work increased, he was able to command higher prices. The money and success allowed Jim to indulge a latent foppish tendency; he grew a goatee beard, wore a red silk neckerchief, an artist's smock and beret and purchased a large mahogany palette from a London sale room which was rumoured to have belonged to Sir Edward Landseer. Jim enjoyed the praise that he received as a successful dog artist although his workload was quite punishing. Wills was needed regularly as a model to assist with the tricky problems of anatomy. He missed his time with Bet and was also having difficulty with some of the dog visitors. There was a large poodle from Pimlico with pom-poms who periodically pee'ed on the plinth. Wills was disgusted! The chihuahua from Cheltenham chose to chew his favourite chintz cushion. Unforgivable!
One morning a chaffeur-driven car with an heraldic crest on the bonnet pulled into the driveway. A disdainful-looking corgi was lifted carefully from the passenger seat and carried into the studio. Before Wills could enter the door was closed and locked. He peered through the window. The arrogant expression on the corgi's face made Wills wince. He scratched on the door but Jim took no notice. Wills was livid, this was too much! He felt let down. Jim was just an opportunist, a fair-weather friend who had used him only to further his art career.
When the sitting was over and the studio door unlocked Wills collected his cushion, his water bowl and his rubber bone. He carried them back to the house with a somewhat injured air. Bet was delighted to welcome him home. She patched his cushion and payed him lots of attention. Wills was so happy to be helping Bet again in the house and garden. He fetched logs for the fire, put the rubbish bags in the bin and even helped her to set the table.
One Tuesday morning, about nine-fifteen, when Jim had already been painting in his studio for several hours, he heard his car start up and was shocked to see it being driven slowly past his window. In the passenger seat was Bet. In the driving seat sat Wills, looking assured and confident, wearing Jim's cap, tilted at a jaunty angle.
Bet wound down the car window. "Wills is taking me to Tesco's. We've left your breakfast in the oven."
Jim blinked his tired eyes, but Bet and Wills had gone.
Woodcarving and story are copyright of Peter Murphy.