The Geezer in the Fur Coat
MY DOG ERNEST was a geezer. He was a bloke’s bloke. Know what I mean? If he had been born human, we would have enjoyed a pint and some chat down the local where he’d laugh and crack jokes in rasping Ray Winstonesque tones. Ern was always the life and soul of the party, happy to be at my side, nudging into my chest and smiling: ‘All right, my son?’
To me, Ern was a proper East Ender. And like his namesake, my Uncle Ernest, a good old boy, a generous salt-of-the-earth character to the core. Ern may have had a fur coat and four legs, but he was the kind of creature I knew that I could trust, who would patiently hear me out and know how to keep a secret. I trusted him. I loved him. And he loved me back.
When I rescued Ern’s adopted brother, Eric, it was the happiest time. Those two Frenchies were the centre of my universe. We were the ‘Wolfpack’, an invincible team: me as pack leader, Ern as our tough-guy bodyguard and Eric as our loveable joker. We went everywhere together, and life was sweet in a way I hadn’t thought possible.
For a while I felt I had it all: success in business, the Wolfpack and my exciting new venture into television with ITVBe’s TOWIE (The Only Way Is Essex). I guessed that this was how happy was supposed to feel. I certainly hadn’t known it before. But on Wednesday 24 August 2016, my happy world came to a shocking, agonising standstill.
Ern died and so did a part of me.
If I could have that day over again I’m sure I would do things differently. Or at least that’s what I have told myself a million times over. Every time I replay those moments in my head I tell myself that I failed. That I could have done more for Ern. The funny thing is, if it had been raining we wouldn’t have left the house at all.
Ernest hated the rain. I can see him now, standing at the door of our ground-floor apartment, his lumpy front paws planted firmly indoors, his face screwed up at the sight of raindrops. On days like that he would turn his silky, fawn-coloured head towards me, his eyes saying: ‘Dad, are you serious? You can’t want me to go out in this? Really?’
I only had one answer for him. ‘Yes mate, I’m very serious; now let’s get going.’ I always thought I was in charge, but who was I kidding? I think we both knew that Ern always called the shots. As for walking in the rain … the first puddle we hit – dead standstill. And when Ern decided he didn’t want to do anything, he absolutely didn’t do it. If I was stupid enough to make him go out, I’d end up jumping the puddles like an overgrown toddler and holding Ern in my arms!
It seemed such a pain back then but now I’d give anything to carry him through the rain with Eric plodding at my heels. It was funny, and all the time Ern gave me his ‘grateful look’ – that’s the one where the corner of his mouth turned up and his big, dark eyes smiled. He knew he had me, every time.
There was no rain that day in August 2016. It wasn’t a hot day, but it was warm and breezy, so I had plenty of water for Ern and Eric and they looked happy to be out in the fresh air. Ern had given the day his usual double-nose-take on the doorstep before deciding to make a move, which was good enough to encourage Eric to follow him. The boys blinked in the sunshine, I donned my shades and the Wolfpack headed for the park.
I was in a good mood and it was one of those great days that calls to you to get outdoors – you know what I mean? And I’m lucky to have plenty of places locally to go for walks and plenty more just a short drive away. That day it was enough to go to the park where the dogs could bustle along at their own pace and I could trail behind them, lead in hand.
There’s me, such a proud dad, watching Ern stomping along at tough geezer pace … Eric, his solid body rocking in Ern’s shadow. I loved that. That was us – me, Ern and Eric out on a walk on a beautiful Essex summer’s day.
Eric, bless him, always wants to be friends with everyone and still has to learn the hard way that most dogs respect personal space and few dogs appreciate his rush to sniff their bum. If Ern was Ray Winstone then Eric has to be Alan Carr … right in the face and givin’ it a bit of chat here and there without taking a breath. That day Eric was on top form being super-chatty, which left Ern doing his protective big brother act and me in dad mode. We both let our guy waddle ahead while we stayed at a safe distance ready to step in if another dog decided to turn on him. Pity, that happens too often. If he was a human Eric would be the kind of mate you would love for his easy company and – let’s be honest – daftness, but at the same time you’d want to protect him from himself.
Eric, I love ya but sometimes you’re such a doughnut!
As it turned out we didn’t stay out too long that day. After about an hour I could see that Ern was starting to pant a bit heavier than normal. It was time to go home.
When we stepped in through the front door Ern went straight to his drinking bowl and then flopped out on the wooden floor in the hall, just as he always did. It wasn’t long before I could hear him snoring. Good old proper snoring it was too. I decided that I’d take a leaf out of Ern’s book and crashed out on the bed.
I woke about an hour later with Eric pawing at my face.
When I came around all I could hear was Ern breathing but he wasn’t in his usual place lying on my bed. I leapt through to the hall, but he had moved from there. Something was wrong. I stood still for a second to tune into the low, hollow, rasping noise, which led me straight to the spot where Ern was lying on the cold tiles of the bathroom floor. Eric was standing over him wearing an expression that said: ‘What’s wrong, Dad? Help him.’
What the f**k?! I grabbed every towel I could lay my hands on, threw them into the bath and turned the cold tap on. Then I lay the cool, soaked towels over Ern’s body and called the vet.
The next few minutes are still a blur, but I must have managed to lift Ern and the heap of soggy towels into the back of the car and I know that Eric was with me because he would never have left Ern. All I could hear was Ern’s shallow breathing and Eric’s high-pitched whimpering. Horrible noises. I can still recall them. The whimpering was worse. It kind of drills into your head, but I couldn’t leave Eric at home, he was far too stressed. I lifted him into the car and we set off the couple of miles to the vet’s surgery.
My head was somewhere else – or at least I wished it was. I don’t know how fast I was going but the police didn’t catch up with me. Funny how even the shortest journey can seem like the longest when you know that everything rests on your actions.
I can’t remember arriving at the surgery or parking or being shown into the consulting room. ‘It’s a heart attack,’ the vet’s words rang in my head. ‘I’m sorry but all we can do right now is apply ice to cool Ernest down, watch over him and hope for the best. I promise you we’ll do all we can for him here. I promise you that.’
I couldn’t have asked for more, but I thought, if I believed in God, now was the time to pray. Eric was with me the whole time and he was not in great shape. I know it sounds awful, but all my focus was on Ern – but then I could tell that Eric’s focus was on Ern too.
I watched over him. Didn’t take my eyes off him.
‘How’s he doing?’, I asked the vet. I needed to know.
‘Well, I think we’re on the right side of it now, Pete, but let’s not count our chickens quite yet. We’ll keep him on obs, won’t let him out of our sight and just go where Ernest takes us.’
I could feel the edge of panic slip away as if someone had pressed an emotional dimmer switch. I knew Ern wasn’t out of the woods, but he looked as if he was coming around. I needed to let my mum know what was going on and this seemed to be my chance for a quick call.
I cried my way through every word as I explained the whole thing to Mum. ‘Pete, it sounds like you did all you could. Even the vet said you did all you could for Ernest so please don’t blame yourself,’ she said. Listening to Mum I could tell that she had obviously guessed how guilty I felt but as I was responsible for his care it was difficult for me to see it any other way. ‘How’s Ernest now, sweetheart? When can you bring him home?’
I didn’t know the answer to that and I didn’t want to stay any longer on the phone. ‘Gotta go and check, Mum. I’ll let you know.’
I headed back into the consulting room with poor Eric at my heels and there, right in front of me, was a scene I hadn’t prepared for. I never dream. I just don’t and never have, but this was a nightmare for sure. The vet and her team were standing over Ern. Their faces said it all: NO! NO! Oh my God, NO!
Ern had flatlined on the table. My boy Ernest was gone. The tears arrived and wouldn’t stop. I hated the tears and the reason for them. I was hurting. It just hurt like hell.
Eric was in a state, shaking and whimpering. He had seen more than me because the little man had been with Ern in the bathroom before coming to wake me. And now I was no use to him. My head was in a right mess. It was blown. I couldn’t believe what was going on. Somebody needed to wake me up because surely this couldn’t be happening?
The wonderful vet and her team were very understanding and said I could stay in the consulting room with Ern for as long as I liked. I probably stayed longer than they expected but I didn’t want to leave my boy. I tickled Ern’s lovely, wrinkly, still-warm belly just as I always did but this time there was no reaction. He was so still and that wasn’t right. He had this spot where, if you tickled him, one leg would automatically kick like crazy. It was always so funny. But not that day. I spoke to him; I asked if he blamed me. I asked if he could forgive me.
I sobbed so hard I thought my chest would burst.
Somehow, I found myself in the car, heading for home. Eric refused to go in the back, so I had to secure him in the front seat, but he was shaking so much it scared me a little bit because I didn’t know what to do to help him. Our return journey was long and silent except for the loud thumping in my head – I’d failed to bring Ern home and I dreaded walking back through the front door without him.
I called my mum who had been waiting to hear that we were home so that she could come over. I was trying to hold back so that my distress didn’t add to Eric’s upset but as soon as I saw Mum I collapsed into her arms and, although I was twenty-seven years old at the time, I cried like a little boy. I’ve never shown emotion easily, Mum knows that, but I’d never experienced loss like this before. She held me and cuddled Eric at the same time.
It was good to have such closeness but suddenly I had an overwhelming urge to get out of the flat. Mum understood that I needed to be on my own to try to work out how to cope with what had happened. I rushed out towards the park for some space where I could shout, scream and punch a few trees. I shouted until I was hoarse and lashed out until my knuckles were bleeding but, as I walked back home, I knew it wasn’t enough.
In hindsight, I’m not sure I did the right thing but at the time I thought he would be better off spending time with my nan. To be honest I came to the conclusion that it would be better for both of us: Nan loves Eric and she would give him plenty of cuddles and know what to do. I didn’t know anything and felt I would be better off on my own for a few days.
As soon as I got back from dropping off Eric I went straight to the bathroom and fell on the floor. The tears returned and did not stop.
I slept on the bathroom floor for three days. Then I brought Eric home and we slept side by side on the bathroom floor, every night for two weeks. Eric wouldn’t leave, and I didn’t want to see anyone. So, we did nothing – together.
Sleeping in the place where we last saw Ern alive was comforting.
Now we only had each other, and I was well aware that Eric was giving me more support than I was capable of giving to him. After a few days I found enough strength to take him for a walk over the field but almost as soon as I stepped outdoors I broke down in a heap of tears, shouting at myself: ‘I’m a terrible dad! I shouldn’t have taken Ern out that day. I should have made sure he had more rests or at least I should have seen some warning signs. Why didn’t I see them?’
I have a small, close family, so it was lovely that over the days that followed Ern’s death they folded in around me to protect me, but I was in a weird cycle of wanting comfort and then struggling to break free. No matter how hard anyone tried they couldn’t say anything that could help me – or Eric. We were in our own little bubble of grief and I couldn’t explain how painful it was for us. So it was easier to send people away than try to bare my feelings. I appreciate that probably doesn’t make sense but that’s how it was.
And then there was social media, which at any other time is a total blessing but at that moment in my life was a curse. It was six days before I felt capable of sharing my dreadful news with my followers on Twitter and Facebook. My family and my mates told me that I would feel better and that it would help me come to terms with Ern’s passing, but I really wasn’t ready. I know everyone meant well and they were doing their best to comfort me, but I just wasn’t in a place to cope with these new feelings. I probably behaved very badly and I’m sorry for that. Ern had gone, and I was lost, angry and wanted to hide away.
Hiding was fine for me – but what about Eric?
Eric was in a really deep, blue funk, missing his big brother. If there was one time I wished he could talk to me it was then. The dynamics of our little family had changed: the Wolfpack was a ‘wolf’ down and the gap in our lives was suddenly huge.
To make it worse there were the reminders of how things used to be for us as a team.
The week after we lost Ern it had to be business as usual for the photoshoot for my 2017 calendar but it was not normal in any way because Ern wasn’t with us. Eric stepped up to the mark and did his bit, bless him, but he wasn’t comfortable posing for the camera, he never is – that was Ern’s speciality. Ern loved the camera and it loved him. Things that had been fun with Ern around were now just routine; we were just going through the motions of getting up, going to work and going to sleep. We were just getting things done.
I hated this stage of missing Ern. Mostly because it wasn’t fair on Eric and the more we did without Ernest made me more aware of the horrific responsibility I had for Eric. The problem was, everything I tried to do for him felt wrong or not good enough. I couldn’t bring Ern back and I knew that was the only thing that would take Eric’s pain away.
And that wasn’t all. I was convinced that Eric blamed me for Ern leaving us. I felt he was picking up on my negativity, which was making everything worse – it was all because of me and my shortcomings as his dad. And that’s the nub of it – I felt guilty. I hated myself for it and I felt I deserved to be punished in some way.
I guess I was in shock. If Ern had been ill, then I would have had time to prepare and come to terms with knowing that his ill health would take him. But everything was normal … it had been a normal day, walking the dogs, and then my world had suddenly ended. In my book that’s not fair. That’s not how it was supposed to be. We were the Wolfpack – indestructible.
Without Ern, Eric and I were flung into a very dark place. And I wasn’t sure how we were going to get out of it. While I was in the middle of the whirl of guilt, anger, confusion, shut-out and shut-down I failed to appreciate the massive positive that Eric was still alive and wonderful: yes, we had lost Ray Winstone, but we still had Alan Carr and he really is a funny little f**ker!
When I said Eric’s name he looked at me and I saw that he was trying to carry on as normal – for me. Truth is, for 364 days of 2016 we had good times, me and Eric. It was time to count my blessings and the inspiration for getting up and dusting myself down was right there in front of me in a blue-fawn coat.
Eric was and is the joker in the Wolfpack: the loveable doughnut. And who doesn’t love a doughnut? Eric needed me and there was only one thing for it: I needed to man up and STEP UP – for him.
Without Ern, it was all up to me and I have never felt so alone and angry. Looking back, I think it was pure emotional overload that made me react this way but even as I write this I can still recall the whirling feelings of loss, loneliness and panic that were compressing my chest. It’s not easy to function with a chunk of emotional concrete weighing you down but I now realise that’s all part of the normal grieving process. Surviving it, stage by stage, I gradually came to see that all we both needed to do was learn how to live differently – without Ern.
I held on to the thing that Ern had given to me and then Ern and Eric had given me together – loyal companionship. The Wolfpack is the most honest relationship I have ever known and probably will ever know. But that’s because dogs only do honest. They’re only capable of unconditional love and don’t make the human mistake of promising more than they can deliver when it comes to emotional honesty. I still had all of that with Eric. Ern didn’t take that with him.
Ern taught me a lot about myself when he was alive, and his loss is still teaching me more every day. I didn’t lose him because I was a rubbish dad but, just like it said in my school reports, I could have done better. In my mind if I use the grief to learn more now I can do better for Eric and through that journey repay my debt to my mate, Ern.
That’s Ern’s legacy: it’s time to learn what I’m made of and what I can give back to the Frenchies who adopted me, gave so much to me and made me a less selfish human being just by knowing them.