david and timmy
Produced by Michelle Ransom-Hughes, featuring David Astle.
(Alongside Radio, 2018)
SFX Montage of dogs talking
My life is predominated by language. It’s just this continual spin dryer of alphabet, just tumbling in my head.
Something about a dog... just flushes all that away. It's just animal and animal.
And yeah, You can talk all you like to a dog, but in the end you're just doing that Gary Larson, ‘blah blah blah’.
And for all the intelligence and for all the education you’ve got, in the end you're gonna have to try and decrypt this kind of strange animal you've got in your life.
And that’s not a language thing either, that's about really closely observing and being very present, and trying to just unravel what you’re seeing
and try and anticipate how to best connect.
This is David Astle,
David makes cryptic crosswords for the newspaper, he writes books and columns and presents a radio show.
David’s not just clever, he’s actually a kind of genius with language, with English.
So it’s interesting that some of David’s most treasured relationships, are those he has with dogs.
This story is about how a dog named Timmy became a huge part of David’s family life,
even though they didn’t share a language.
I’m Michelle Ransom-Hughes, and this is Oh My Dog.
THEME “Run to Me” (by Seja Vogel)
About a dozen years ago, when his kids were still in primary school, David walked into the local animal shelter.
We went along the lines of enclosures, and the first one was this manic, hairy, yippity dog I didn't quite know how to take.
And then there was Tim, sitting there, looking very composed, looking at me with those beautiful tadpole eyes.
And I looked at him and I thought, ”You’ll do”.
I think he knew that I was looking for a dog that was almost sitting back with a cigarillo and a banana lounge.
I was looking for a dog that was gonna be really tranquil.
Because our kids were young and we had lots of nieces and nephews, who would be pulling his ears and his tail, I knew that.
So I couldn't afford to get a dog that was twitchy.
David had grown up with dogs, had a strong affinity with them.
But his wife Tracy had a difficult history with dogs, and their kids hadn’t had pets at all.
I was the dog apostle, I was the one who convinced them to bring the dog into their life, ‘the gospel according to the dog’.
And Tim came along and everyone was convinced.
Because after a rambunctious year of one-year-old Labrador cross being a little more headstrong and mischievous than you can imagine,
He then became our absolutely beloved family pet, for ten years plus.
Timmy was our first love as a family.
He was black with a dash of white on his chest. To be honest he was ‘Labrador cross 101’.
I think I have seen about twelve Timmys.
To a point that when we tied Timmy outside of a supermarket we found him once not there. And we realised another woman had taken Tim home.
And in all honesty she wasn't stealing the dog! She thought that her daughter had left their family dog.
And we since saw that dog, that was the match of Tim,
That really underscored for us that we had just got ourselves a complete, generic mutt.
I love the fact that when you find a dog it's almost like they find you.
I know that’s a bit romantic and complete loony… but I do like the idea that they are selecting as well
And they're putting on their A game when they see the family they want
In Timmy’s shelter records, it mentioned he’d already been adopted, then rejected, by a another family before David took him home.
But, could it have been Timmy who rejected them?
The other thing that Tim knew, he was very wise, was that I spent most of my hours at home as a writer, and he liked that idea.
And also, I didn't realise it at the time, but Tim was a great wordsmith.
Why do you say that?
Tim had the sharpness and the insight to be able to help draft numerous novels, and books and clues.
Because I'd always be trying out new column ideas or sentences on him.
And Tim would just look at me and tell me, really quite directly, when things just didn't sound right.
He let the silences be their own critiques. And that's really wise.
Without trying to put in any of that sort of passive-aggressive behaviour or commentary,
he just looked at me and said, “You know it's got hairs on it, I don’t need to tell you that. You go figure it out, but I'm here, when you need me, for the redraft”.
Tim spent so much time with David in his study over the years,
he came to be known as ‘the Editor’
As a writer I was spending most of my time here at home: kids were at school, Tracy was working… and so I found myself here at home, not alone, I had Tim.
And often we would, chat’s the wrong word, I would speak to him as though he was my listener - which he was.
And his responses were usually just a presence.
They say that the cure for loneliness is solitude, which I think is a really wise truism.
But the other cure for loneliness, is having a dog.
Timmy was David’s editor, but he was also the family dog.
The fifth member of the Astle/ O'Shaughnessy family was a Lab cross, with an insatiable appetite, and partial to making a bit of noise.
Tim was a big wagger and Tim was also a big tap dancer. When he was excited, he would tell you through morse code, with his claws on the wooden flaw, exactly what he wanted. And usually it translated as food or walking, and each one had a different rhythm.
He could be just as expressive with his tail.
We live in a weatherboard house, and Tim was smart enough to realize there were certain boards in the house that had that perfect thunderous resonance, with minimal effort.
So it was just a couple of shrewd beats to those blanks, and suddenly action would happen, or, he’d get roused at and sent off to the garden.
I remember when I first got Timmy I was a little worried, we didn’t really know what kind of behaviour to expect.
And I said to my Bosnian neighbour on one side, “Look we’ve just got a new dog, he may be noisy, he might bark for a while”.
And he goes, “He's a dog, dogs bark”. I thought, gee that's right.
But that same Bosnian, was very attached with Tim and would inveigle him away, off the property, and have him as his own dog for a little while.
I’d go out the front and suddenly the dog’s not there, and I thought, ‘What’s going on?’
And Steve would say - ‘Oh, he found his way over here’.
If anyone had a sandwich, he was open to negotiation.
The stomach was his tyrant and so consequently he became very teachable, very tameable.
That same appetite you had to keep an eye out on, because as much as he loved his Vegemite toast, he would also eat a splattered possum on the road if you looked the other way.
And he would eat all the wild mushrooms that just popped up around our garden and I’m sure most of them were not edible.
He was tripping continually. Tim was pretty much in his own little aerospace there, particularly in springtime.
To the point where I think he believed himself to be possibly a Hungarian resistance fighter.
But, you know, he came back down eventually
Timmy’s iron stomach was true to type for a Labrador, but love of water, another Labrador trait, not so much.
Tim hated water things like puddles, scared the hell out of him
But he was a Lab Cross.
And so it is with adopted dogs: they come with genetic and behavioural surprises.
This is serendipity spelled with an X.
The first few months that we had Tim we were on the farm of some friends and they had a dam that was covered with thick green algae.
And Tim went bounding toward that, thinking it was part of a paddock, and sank up to his flues.
So we think that really shocked him. He was panic stricken and had to claw his way back to the bank, and shook himself off.
I think if he ever had any affinity with water, that pretty much shook it out of him. It was bloody funny though!
As well as this, the shelter suggested Tim’s first family, may have tormented the pup with water.
I think they used a hose as a disciplinary tool.
Every time there was a suggestion of water coming out, whether it was the clamshell pool, whether it was the bath, he would just go missing.
He just couldn't get out of there quick enough.
Timmy definitely had his triggers, and being ignored was another. For several years, he became known as ‘the phantom pee-er’.
That was his way of expressing jealousy or resentment: he would piss on something. And he’d do it in a real ninja way!
He’d just sneak up behind a person and just give them the old furtive hose, including a football coach's wife,
who I happened to be chatting with on the boundary line of a kid’s football game.
He just thought, “Enough's enough. The deal is you came to the football with me, not with this glamazon, and ah, give me some attention here”.
He got it.
Again, again with these eloquent silences or eloquent body functions.
I do find something really quite calming in looking after a dog. Including just looking after a dog’s mess. Because that’s also reminds you, this is what you signed up for. And these are the fees of the love you get back in return.
There’s something quite singular about picking up a calcified turd in your garden.
It’s those sort of incidental tasks you have in your life, where you often have your most inspired thoughts.
So the life of the family rolled on, and Timmy was there for it all:
Tess’s show and tell; Finn’s footy games; camping trips; birthdays; fetes, and dog park jaunts.
He oversaw the publication of books, columns and crosswords, (most of which he approved).
He also ran and ran and ran alongside David and Tracy, retrieved thousands of balls,
(Good boy Timmy),
ate his weight, so many times over, left black hair everywhere, and was happy to photo bomb any and all occasions.
Tim liked to hold court on the front porch. And it gets most of the sun, it’s position A.
So we set him up there, with a little dog sort of trampoline and a mat.
And he could see the street, watch any cars, or pedestrians, or yap at any couriers that had the temerity to come into the property.
Or he did like hanging out close to you, if you were involved in a task, knowing that you were there, he was beside you, and potentially, that could turn into a walk or into a snack at any moment.
Tim lived up to his promise from the animal shelter, becoming an uber-relaxed family dog, who taught the kids they weren't the centre of the universe, but didn’t add drama to the house.
Except, when the sky filled with balloons, as it often would, especially in spring and summer, the house being under the flight path.
When Timmy was scared of hot air balloons, I'd just chastise him in that gentle, dog-man way,
“Relax, mate, relax. It’s just a balloon, it's just a bag of air”.
But the more I thought about it, I think, well I can, and a lot of people can be scared of, things that loom large in your own imagination… things that are bigger than they really deserve to be. And that’s enough to make you anxious, because you start to associate those phantasms with your own inner foibles and deficits.
And I know this is psychoanalysing a Labrador, but I grew to love him more deeply, for having that empathy with his phobia. He had a phobia.
One day a balloon happened to land at the local park and Tim for the first time saw a balloon up close, a balloon on the ground.
And of course what does a dog do? It went up, as Tim did, and pissed on the basket.
And I didn’t begrudge him doing that. I thought well, if you can piddle on this thing that's terrifying you, maybe you can look him in the eye and say,
“Well, hey, I bested you. There. I conquered. I am your master”.
Nah - He's still terrified the next day, absolutely spooked!
Ten years pass since Timmy moved into the house. The paint is fading. The ‘children’ are now young adults. Everyone in the family’s changing.
We knew that Tim was getting old, because balls didn't have the same magnetism as they used to. The grizzly snout started to come in. He was looking much more an elder of his people. But he always maintained his dignity and his affectionate nature.
But when he was becoming too decrepit for running, and the day I had to leave him behind, was a sad day for both of us. Um, not that he begrudged it. He kind of understood it. He didn't go crazy, he just looked resigned to that.
And that was a sad day, and in a way when you have a dog that dies slowly, which Tim did, it's a bit like any relationship that just slowly wanes in its intensity, it just diminishes to a point that you know, there's this kind of vanishing point that they’re entering.
And for all the love that you gave them, you know that you can't salvage them, you can't bring them back.
Ideally when Tim died, we would all have been there, all four of us, because all four of us were deeply connected to him.
And it didn't happen that way. It happened that I was at home, and thankfully Tracy could make it home from work, because I told her, “This is it, I just know it’s it”.
And I could tell because I still walked with him a lot, even though he was very fragile, but he couldn't even walk a block without being in complete pain.
On that day, David and Tim were out walking, when it was clear Tim could go no further.
I more or less had to carry him back home. And I put him on the mat on the front porch and he didn't budge from that mat, even though I put things in front of him, food, he could not budge, did not want the food, lost his appetite... had lost his desire, to be.
We used that matt as his stretcher, put him in the back of the station wagon. Drove him to a vet. The vet looked, and the vet knew immediately too.
We signed papers. Both of us, Tracy and I, knelt down beside him as the vet administered this solution. Solution?
And I remember that Tim, despite the fact he was so torpid and so listless, just doing one final wag. Just one single wag, and looking at us both.
And then he sighed and we sobbed.
And it was incredible to think that that hairy lump there on the floor meant so much, to us and to those who weren't in the room.
The kids were equally upset when they got the news. My daughter was overseas, which is the reason we chose to have him cremated because I wanted Tess to be part of his final farewell.
But we drove home with that same sad green mat in the car. Um, no dog.
Living in the house without Tim was like living in a, um, living in a space that had a draft and you didn't quite know where it was coming from.
It just had a cold unnerving feeling that you would get, register, on your skin. And, um, we had his lead hanging off a door knob for a while, and sometimes I would just tinkle the lead, or tinkle the collar, just to recreate the sound of him.
(Laughs) It sounds so schmaltzy now.
But it was almost like you had to let him go in your heart by degrees. You can’t suddenly move on. All the stages of grief quite rightly apply to a companion animal, you bet. Because they’re a very important part of your life and memory.
And we still haven't determined where to scatter the ashes. They’re sitting in this sort of like picnic thermos, in a paper bag marked ‘Timothy Astle’, which sounds like he was in trouble.
I think the reason we haven't scattered his ashes is he's right there in the room next door. And kind of that's where he was for most of his life, he was just next door.
Maybe we should just scatter him in the garden because that was a pretty happy place.
Or maybe, that porch is due to be painted… so maybe we should just mix up the ashes with a new sort of blue, water-resistant Dulux and just slap him on the boards.
Yeah it would be!
Huge thanks to David Astle for bringing the story of Timmy to us.
Oh My Dog is an Alongside Radio production, with original music and sound design by Seja Vogel. Our special thanks to Dylan Ransom-Hughes.
Please get in touch with your feedback or ideas for our next season!
Find us at oh my dog podcast dot com. We’re also on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.
SONG Into The Blue by Seja Vogel