Well, first of all, he wasn’t a soldier.
When he got to that age when boys in cities decide how their friends should address them, he chose ‘Soldier’ or (‘Soulj’ for short).
Second of all, she wasn’t a lion. She was a beautiful, ginger mixed breed dog with an upturned nose and a crooked smile. Her huge brown eyes melted my tired heart when I returned from work one October evening. This surprised me because for 18 years I had said, “No, not under any circumstances, no! No dogs, no, never, no”. So Soldier took it upon himself to bring her home the day before we flew to Jamaica on our family holiday!
So, with the help of ‘KRO’ (not his birth name either) and his family, tons of newspaper, Dettox and bleach, we barely survived the first few months of puppyhood. She literally ate the sofa, the skirting boards, whole hands of bananas, precious photo albums, all sorts of paperwork (if Soldier had ever done homework, she would have been the perfect excuse). But we survived!
She grew into a gentle, loving, protective companion for a boy who needed to feel safe as he negotiated East London, those streets filled with the scent of fried chicken and weed. Streets that were policed by one set of men but controlled by another. Men who’d had doors closed in their faces so many times they decided to own the space behind the doors. Using language, secrets and violence to codify power.
So Soldier loved Lion, and Lion loved him back. She loved hanging out with Re, Froze, PhZr, P Man and Bounce (not their birth names) while they played FIFA, lifted weights, laughed and argued up in Soldier’s room.
She chased and ate the huge spiders that appeared one summer. She looked confused when we asked her to do the same with the mice that periodically returned (that’s east London for you!).
We both waited up for him on those long nights swirling with a mother’s darkest fears and once, when those fears became a reality, she guided him home so I could call the ambulance. They were a team.
Then, Soldier got a new ‘friend’ and Lion didn’t like her very much at all. Lion would sit between them on the sofa and gently lick his arm! She’d follow them around trying to ensure they had as little alone time as she could.
But one day, Lion sensed something, and that was when everything changed. It was long before Soldier stood outside the bathroom door waiting to tell me news he wasn’t ready for. Long before the difficult conversation and thoughtful pauses, Lion began to warm to the girl that was spending more and more time at our house. Instead of licking his arm, she would lay her head in the girl’s lap and lean into the cuddles that would follow.
Nine months later, Soldier’s daughter was born. Now he had his own family, and Lion spent more time with me.
Our lives were quiet, more ordered. We had our routine but we’d both pause outside his bedroom and remember the loud laughter, clank of weights and the heady, vaguely illegal aromas that would filter down the stairs.
Lion and I were middle aged together. I was a grandmother now, and we’d travel to the seaside together to visit ‘Soulj and fam’. She loved seeing them and the looong, windswept walks. We both felt sad when we left and she looked really confused every time we stood outside the train station and said goodbye. “Why aren’t they coming?” her eyes seemed to ask.
So it was decided that Lion would stay with them for a while. Now I’m not entirely sure what went on while she was down there, but I know she got a new family member called Nemo (a cat of course!) and Lion and my granddaughter worked out a very mutually beneficial arrangement around meal times.
When the young family had to move to a bigger flat, Lion came back to London to live with me and we muddled along. Between the Sunday feasts that my partner cooked (always with a little extra for ‘the Lion girl’) and our daily trips to the park, life was ok for an aging dog.
But….every now and then, a lump or bump would appear and she’d go off to the vet to have it removed, checked or treated. One lump seemed to persist though. It grew. And although it wasn’t cancer, it wouldn’t go away.
Slowly her walks got shorter, more difficult. Climbing onto the sofa (the one that was just for her) became too much.
One afternoon, the lift broke and it was going to be several days before it could be fixed. I couldn’t carry Lion up and down the four flights of stairs 3 times a day (she weighed nearly 30kg!)
So Soldier came home to help look after his best friend.
He carried her. Up and down those stairs, in two manly arms. She looked uncomfortable though, and I thought it was because she didn’t like how dependent she had become. She tolerated it but no longer tried to go any further than the patch of ground outside the front door. She knew she couldn’t manage.
It was me that said it first.
I don’t know what I said as the tears had begun to sting before I, once again, hovered at Soldier’s door, not quite ready to have another difficult conversation. One that had been inevitable for months. One that would mean a goodbye too painful to think about. But think we did.
So there we sat, waiting to hear from the vet about “next steps”. And I thought about all the ways, all the places, all the people that this one animal has changed for the better. All the young men who got lost for a minute in her gaze. All those who thought they were tough, hardened and had proved it several times, but still jumped when she barked and never stood too close. My granddaughter who would be the first up to take her out in the morning. The kids in my block who slowly began to trust that a ginger beast with crooked teeth could gently nuzzle against their out stretched hand and squealed with delight when she did so!
But mostly her Soldier. She’d loved him, softened him, protected him when I didn’t or couldn’t. She’d taught him about limitless, unconditional love. And as he carried his elderly friend down the steps to the car, for the very last time, I knew none of us would ever be the same.
She left this world as she had lived in it, quietly and with such dignity, both of us holding her as she slipped away. I think she knew she was the love of his life; I didn’t know that she had become the love of mine too. Rest well ‘the Lion Girl’, look after the house til we get home x.