Having developed a close friendship with Poppy’s breeder, we were among the first to know when Poppy’s parents were expecting a new litter.
Among the tiny bundles of floppy, round-bellied fluff, was a little chocolate-looking stripe of baby-dog called Willow. She was such a pretty little thing with perhaps the saddest eyes I had ever seen.
Of course, we went to see her and I was gone. The hell with practicality. She was coming home with us.
A beautiful name, no doubt, but we couldn’t call her Willow.
Years ago, when others of my age were discovering their capacity for alcohol and diving into various gynaecological trysts, I was watching daytime TV.
I became a student of human behaviour and could sing along to every advert on the box. Ah, youth.
Among the many fat again, thin again, fat again, thin TV hosts was one who kept her figure and talked a lot of sense.
Every day, she told us that if there had been any history of mental illness in our families, we should avoid cannabis as it could bring on symptoms of paranoia, among other disasters. I come from a long line of frustrated artists, and Ireland flows through my veins.
There’s potential there.
Also, we may have had a murderer in the bloodline and I don’t suppose that makes for happy mental health.
My mother approached retirement with a brewing passion for genealogy. Her grandparents were from a time before television. No-one could afford hobbies. They had a decent dozen or so children. These tiny-footed hopes for the future filled their days.
Among the many, many siblings my grandmother grew up with, was Willa.
My mother left me in no doubt, if I ever researched the family tree, I was to skip over Willa. I promised I would. And I probably will.
Even if the stories I was raised with turn out to be true, in my mind, they’re soft and washed out, like a watercolour left in the attic. Actual police evidence would be stark and disappointing.
Willa was a teenager in the 1940s. So many of the young men had gone to fight in the War. She was never much courted. Willa stood almost six feet tall in her stockinged feet. She was gangly, and having broken her leg as a child, she’d been left in a full-leg cast for months on end, and couldn’t bend her right knee any more. To walk, Willa stepped one foot forward and swung the other round from the hip. She cast quite a formidable shadow.
With such a large family, my mother was only ten years younger than Willa, so spent some of her youth with her child-aunt.
Children seem to have a morbid fascination for anything a bit different, so I have come to the conclusion that it’s best to cherry-pick from my mother’s remembrance of Willa: her opinion before the age of twelve was that Willa was a foundling, left on an Ealing doorstep, by a fairytale giant.
With the young men away fighting, and life perilously close to death, marriage was inevitable and long-engagements ridiculous. Everyone got married, and quickly.
The world is, delightfully, very different now. At the time, Willa was considered rather elderly by the time she found a man to marry her. She was twenty-four and the oldest of all her friends to become engaged. Her fiancé was in his eighties. Let’s just have a moment for that.
When my mother recalled the stories of Willa in all her oddness, I was a teenager – strange in my own way, and I told her I thought I would have liked Willa. She agreed. Looking back, I’m not sure if there was something in her nodding to suggest that Willa might have been gay.
The parlance of the time, thankfully, never really made it into my grandmother’s house. Friends of her father might have used the word ‘Queer’ with every ounce of disgust and malice that they could muster. My grandmother only ever said ‘Query’ because – maybe they were, maybe they weren’t, but it was none of her damn business. I think I would have liked her, too.
So, Willa was engaged. She married her somewhat desiccated husband, and they went on honeymoon somewhere on the coast of County Clare.
Okay, so Willa might have killed her first husband.
From the news reports at the time, he had been walking back from the pub, on the second night of the honeymoon, along a cliff path on a moonless night. He fell. Nobody knew where Willa was at the time. She may have been in bed. Very few people had sex for entertainment, and nobody had affairs. Of course, she had no alibi.
However, she was a young-ish bride, days into her marriage, and widowed. And suddenly very wealthy.
Coming home to her family, she dressed herself in the finest jet-black silk and burned through the money with alarming speed. Everybody agreed: she needed a man.
Willa became engaged to a chap who either wound up taking her surname, or who was actually related to her. Apparently, nobody knows what happened to him. Perhaps, nothing entirely remarkable. Anyone who would remember is dead now. Which is rather disturbing.
My mother was completing her training in London, and staying with the family in Ealing while a leak of unknown origin was fixed in the nursing accommodation. Three in the morning, and my mother was shaken from her bed.
Willa was on the move. She had ricocheted down the unlit, narrow stairs, high-necked nightie and curlers, and gone charging down the road, swinging her bad leg out to the side, yelling that the church was ringing the bells and the Nazis were coming.
My mother was not a mental health professional, and it was the late 1950s and three in the morning, she was terrified. She reached up and caught Willa, brought her back to the house, filled her up with brandy and put her to bed.
I don’t think either of them slept.
Willa remains my favourite relative I never met, but I couldn’t give a name so close to hers to a small, sad-looking puppy.
She suits Pumpkin.