My parents were never without a dog, and Bill was their second. He came from Battersea Dogs & Cats Home during the second world war, having been found wandering in the street after an air raid. A medium-sized mongrel with a lot of terrier in him and a foxhound’s colouring, he was blessed with a biddable temperament and a pair of very expressive brown eyes.
His experience of the blitz had left him with a canine version of shellshock. We children never played with toy guns near him, because even clicking the trigger would make him quiver with fright. Bonfire Night absolutely terrified him, and someone had to sit with him under the stairs until it was all over.
In normal circumstances, Bill calmly blended in with family life, only losing composure if a cat crossed his path. At mealtimes he would select one of us children, gently rest his muzzle on a knee and fix us with his appealing eyes, until a bacon rind or a bit of meat was smuggled under the table.
Bill’s passion was retrieving balls. If we played cricket, we would have to shut him in the house because he would grab the ball before it had travelled more than a few inches from the bat. We would let him out if we’d lost the ball, though. We just had to point at whatever thicket it had disappeared into, say “Fetch it!” and he would plunge in, locate the ball within seconds, and drop it at our feet.
I don’t remember our parents ever taking Bill for a walk; I doubt they even owned a lead. Our garden was unfenced and backed on to the Malvern Hills. It was assumed he would exercise himself by chasing rabbits up there.
However, we discovered eventually that instead of going up the hill, every morning Bill headed down it, towards a row of shops. Somehow, he’d worked out that around 11am the shop assistants took a break, at which point there were biscuits to be had. He would do the rounds at the appropriate time, and people would share their snacks with him.
One of his benefactors was a lady who ran a bookshop. She dressed in tweed suits and wore a monocle. A notice on her door read: “No dogs allowed.”
One morning, our mother was in the bookshop when Bill emerged from the owner’s inner sanctum. Embarrassed, Mother confessed he was her dog and expected to be ejected from the premises in disgrace. But the tweedy owner said Bill had so charmed her that she had made an exception to her “no dogs” rule. She even kept packets of sugary biscuits in her office just for him, because he preferred them to the more spartan variety she ate herself.
My whole family was grief-stricken when at the end of a long life this wonderful animal died. He had many successors and there are stories about them too, but Bill was the very best of them.