This post comes with a confession, and an apology to all my pet-loving friends. Please do not hate me, or unfriend me, after what you are about to read.
The fact is, I have never liked dogs. It would be truer to say, I have always disliked dogs. It is only with the most concentrated effort that I can even imagine how anyone can bear to share their space with a dog, let alone love one. I know this makes me a seriously defective human being (see Genesis chapter 1). But it’s just the way I am. I would like to say, it’s the way God made me (if it’s even possible for God to make seriously defective human beings?) … but I don’t think I’m going to change at this point in my life. Sorry, and all.
So, one of the stories of my cynophobia goes like this.
The Methodist Sunday School was an extension and outreach work, run from what used to be Bowes Road Methodist Church. There’s still a church on that site, but it’s now something that looks like an imaginative contemporary community church called Trinity at Bowes. Since that main church building was a couple of miles from the neighbourhood where I lived, the church leaders had decided to run this Sunday School annexe in a small meeting room above the Co-op Shop at the end of Chequers Way. There was always a strong link between the Methodist Church and the Co-operative Movement, so it seems fitting.
The access to this meeting room was through a gate at the back of the store, after which you had to climb a metal staircase with those kinds of grille-like stairs, through the gaps in which you could look down and see the ground hundreds of feet below. So it seemed to 9 or 10-year old me. The secret, of course, was Don’t Look Down. This was maybe the first lesson you had to learn from the Sunday School.
But there was an even greater terror involved in getting there, and it was compounded by the fact that I was responsible for taking my sister Sally to Sunday School, and bringing her safely home. We would turn left out of our front garden gate, walk to the end of Empire Avenue, cross Pasteur Gardens and on down Chequers Way. The first part of this was just the same familiar way we walked to school each day, between the ages of 5 and 11. Then we’d cross over Tile Kiln Lane, and continue past Jack’s the grocer and the Post Office, over Pymmes Brook, and past the Metal Box Factory that always seemed so huge.
It was on the first part of Chequers Way, the hill going down to Tile Kiln Lane, that the danger lay. On a quiet Sunday afternoon, when there was little traffic and no people about, you were bound to encounter the Cerberus who was set there to guard the way, and prevent anyone from passing. There a little alleyway ran between two houses, leading to the gardens and garages behind. As we walked past it, on the other side of the road, this monstrous small dog would see us, and run out barking. It was obvious that it was out for our blood, would pursue us, bear us to the ground and tear our throats out.
My Cunning Plan to avoid this fate was about as successful as you would expect. Instead of walking down on the opposite side of the road to the dog, which gave it a wider field of vision in which to spot us, we would cross over to the same side. When we reached the alley we would peep round the wall to see if the dog was in sight, and dart across before it could see us. But the dog did see us. It ran out barking and chased after us. We ran, terrified, down the rest of the hill, hoping that when we crossed the lane, it would give up its pursuit.
I was nearly four years older than Sally, and could run faster, especially with a dog behind me. I reached the edge of the pavement, didn’t stop to look or listen, leaped into the road, heedless of anything but canine homicide, and crossed to the other side. There I stopped and looked back. My little sister, much more obedient to the Highway Code (Stop. Look right. Look left. Look right again.) was standing at the kerb. With the dog at her side, attempting to lick her knees.
“COME ON! COME ON!” I yelled. But she wouldn’t come on. She had been commanded not to cross the road unless her big brother was holding her hand to keep her safe. It was clearly not going to be possible to leave her standing there while I went on to Sunday School, in the hope she would still be there, uneaten, when I returned. In what felt like one of the bravest things I had ever done, I crossed the road again, took Sally’s hand, and dragged her back with me to safety. The dog, I suppose, shook its head and went back home.
We never tried that Cunning Plan again, and it’s more than likely I resorted to the alternative strategy of always thinking of a new excuse for Not Going to Sunday School Today. But I promised in my last post that this is a story of something I learned about myself. I suppose what I learned was Shame. I learned that I was really a coward who would sacrifice others, even those who looked to me for protection, to save myself. Nearly sixty years later I would like to hope that, even if and when I’m still afraid, I would now try to help and save other people in danger. But I’m not too confident about that, and am rather grateful that I’ve never been in a situation of having to find out.