A letter from Ellie

3rd May 1996 at 01:00
Heard the one about the dog which replaced the low-maintenance stick insect that replaced the psychotic budgie? To help mark National Pet Week, which starts tomorrow, Victoria Neumark trawls through menageries past and present, while Jill Craven (right) digs out a precious letter.

In the great quilt of life, as they might say, a pet occupies a far-flung corner. But when my middle-aged black labrador died a month ago, the house echoed with his absence. He'd been a good dog; anxious to please with a pinch of hooliganism. About the right mix.

One morning, two weeks after my return from New Zealand and five months after the vet said he'd a tumour on his spine, his back legs crumpled. He was put down the next day.

He'd been around for eight-and-a-half years, and perhaps figured too large in our lives as we have no children.

But I do have a six-year-old goddaughter, Ellie, whom I treasure. She's a composed child with a hint of rebellion. About the right mix.

They say pets help children learn to cope with death. Ellie, I thought, had never taken much notice of our dog. He'd just always been around whenever I was. But she liked keeping him in line and knew he mattered. A week after he died, she wrote to me. She had taken herself off to a quiet corner and wrote, said her mother, because she wanted to. Ellie cannot be told.

"It was very sad when Hadlee died because he was quite well when I last saw him. Mummy said he was very ill when you came back, just like he had been waiting for you so he could be with you when he died and to see you for the last time." Maybe he did. No one had said it before.

She then talked about school, the school gerbils, her gerbil Tibbles and the fish "that don't have names".

She asked too about the homeless puppy we'd had for a few months. "I hope Spud's fine. I heard he'd chewed Bob's glasses. I bet he's sad about Hadlee and you are too. I hope you are having a nice time with him." We are.

Two careful pages later she remembered her last time with Hadlee in Richmond Park. "I can remember because me and Matthew (her brother) pretended to be a train and I'll never forget it."

Ellie's letter arrived two days after the horror of Dunblane. She's the same age as the children killed. Pets may teach children about death; her letter taught an adult a lot more. I shall keep it safe.

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