‘Regrets I’ve had a few / But then again too few to mention’, the famous song declares. It is enduringly popular: the singer did it his way. This hymn to individualism I heard broadcast the other day to us shoppers, one familiar song following another, in a place of conformity and predictability, a large supermarket, where occasionally a distracted customer, oblivious to others, will sing along or hum. I didn’t—I’m reasonably sure—in that somnambulistic state generated by supermarkets, as shoppers drift down one aisle after another, sing snatches of ‘My Way’ but I did, masked no doubt by an expressionless face, wonder about regret.
There must be categories of regret, ranging from the severe to the trivial, just a few severe ones, too few to mention, perhaps easily dismissed along the highway of going my way. Next song, please. It was raining when I left the supermarket and I regretted not bringing my fold-up umbrella. Trivial, too, a thousand other regrets, though not immediately, say, amid a downpour, the heavens grumpy with thunder. The voice raised in anger, the uncharitable act, the parked car, one’s own, with the keys left in the ignition, stolen, then the consequence: regret. Murder might not easily qualify for the regrets too few to mention—for, that is, a repentant murderer. The other guy, the deceased, has run out of manifold opportunities for regret most of which, thankfully, and in the interests of waking up in the morning with the prospect of a fair day ahead, flicker a bit then fade. Making room, I suppose, for the next bunch of regrets, a common feature, from the severe to the trivial, surely being that someone who regrets something must be the agent of that regret. It can’t be inflicted upon him: the world may seem a terrible place but that’s not a cause for regret; the fact that he personally contributed to this situation might well be should he happen to pass judgement on the matter.
It follows, possibly, that such a person might regret being born. Since hearing—once again, once too often, individualism being rampant—Frank Sinatra skating over his regrets, the big ones maybe, the ones most people can’t hum along to, I’ve paused to consider my own regrets, the trivial too many to mention and mainly forgotten. But how about any up the scale that are outstanding? Sorrows, yes, certainly they hang around since they generate themselves—if, incidentally, Paul Anka, who wrote ‘My Way’ had written ‘sorrows’ instead of ‘regrets’ the song’s authority would have been compromised, try singing it and see—and in our transient, mortal lives they are the common, regular lot. Regrets? I am not a repentant murderer although I have felt murderous, inclined towards justifiable homicide; have been rash, bad, a cad, myriad things I might not be glad to find in others, a sporadic hypocrite therefore, and thus a fine, sometimes desperate, example of a man born to be flawed—indeed a man who once owned a dog, still the subject, decades later, of abject regret.
It is one thing to treat another human being casually—did Neville Chamberlain on behalf of his fellow countrymen and women come to regret appeasing Adolf Hitler?—quite another so to treat a dog. The name I gave her was Almost. She almost died—hence her name—the day or days after I spontaneously bought her, rescued her, as I valiantly saw it, from a stall dealing in pets at a large inner-city market. The stallholder lifted her out of a cage from among the rest of the weeks-old litter, I parted with some cash from my gardening round—this was back in my student days—carried the warm pup, which made high-pitched sounds that did not yet qualify as barks, to my old VW, which barely qualified as being roadworthy, wherein, soon after I drove off, the pup threw up. There seemed to be more vomit on the floor of the car, undigested offal, than dog. The quivering little creature, wide-eyed with fear, had been starved then stuffed to be made to look more robust. This was a poor start to a dynamic master and dog relationship. My live-in girlfriend, who was with me, witnessed it, and this was fortunate, indeed there was no arguing—at least in respect to this unexpected situation—about the fact that the yet-to-be named pup would, if she were to survive, benefit from the attentions of a team rather than a single person to which, in the days following, gravely intestinal, we added a vet.
The pup lived to respond to her name. Almost was predominantly a kelpie and, at this stage, her every sharp, sensitive instinct would have told her that her master was up to the job. I walked her, I fed her, I trained her. When I left inner-city Melbourne to live in outlying country she, sitting obediently in the back seat of the car, came with me. I regretted, for her sake, I had not done it earlier. Almost! I’d call, masterfully, Almost! Almost! and she’d appear immediately, ears pricked, run towards me away from some secondary business, probably olfactory. There was a consistency in our relationship, a lack of high drama, decidedly missing in the parallel relationship I had with my girlfriend, no longer live-in, which frequently took me well away from my studies in a way that a long walk with Almost—no lead, across paddocks, through bushland, startling kangaroos, all the while being wary for both of us, since it was summer, of snakes—simply did not. There’s a reason why there are countless individuals out on the streets, in parkland, anywhere, walking dogs, talking to them. I regretted some of the things I said to my girlfriend, maybe she equally regretted some stunning things she said to me—we had a significant, dynamic capacity to generate possible regret. Act first, regret later was our unofficial slogan. For which we had a shared responsibility, as in any such relationship. Double the responsibility to the full 100 per cent for the committed owner of a dog.
The photograph, black and white, now 40 years old, I still have of Almost, though not, as a constant reminder of her, on view, shows her sitting on her haunch looking up at the camera, at me. Her look, in spite of the strange mechanical object, a Minolta reflex, I am holding to my eye, is one of absolute trust. Her forepaws are white, her legs fine, her fur particoloured, brown and white if the photo had been taken in colour. She was small for a kelpie, perhaps because of her wretched start in life. In her movements, briskly running about in open spaces or trotting along beside me, she was elegant. When daily I returned from university to the self-contained outhouse, which I’d rented on a farm, and released her from a long leash—there were cattle and other hoofed animals around to which she might have been tempted to give some genetically bred-in bother—she would, there seems no more accurate word for it, dance, on her hind legs, her tail wagging heart-fast, and I’d hold her forepaws, reaching up to me, in mutual greeting.
A surprised onlooker would have observed a man and a dog perform a jig. That dog, born on the wrong side of the tracks, was naturally refined: her face was symmetrically white around the nose and drew attention to her dark, alert eyes. Those eyes that again looked up at me with complete trust after, exhausted and vulnerable, she’d given birth to a litter of six—the scent of a bitch on heat can travel for miles so there must have been many eager contenders in the region, beyond my knowledge, to sire them—for, well, five of them, weeks later, delivery to exceptionally good (vetted) homes where refinement in a dog did not necessarily correspond to the snobbish need for pedigree. The sixth pup we kept—another lovely bitch to love.
Memory is the location of regret. It is capacious. The farm didn’t need to be large. Memories inspire tunes in the minor key, the sad one. If I could play the fiddle, it now might be appropriate in the course of this recalling of events to angle the bow and begin to play such a tune, preparatory, in A minor, to be specific, as if after years of practice. Get out maybe, like those guys one sees playing bagpipes in unlikely places, who seem to like nothing better than to stroll out into the dark, an open space, moonlit or misty for effect, and play, plaintively, to no other audience, unless inadvertently, than the night air. Doing it their way.
However, right now there’s another thing it pains me to recall, insists on a hearing, and therefore that I move on as a dog does from an excused bone: Almost was fiercely loyal. It seemed to be her version of a vocation. Of course her complex, unique interior life was beyond me—my attempt to do her justice now is in spite of this—but a matter that was serially evident emerged when someone she perceived to be a stranger approached me, a possible threat, an agent of the unexpected. She would bare her teeth and snarl, ready to defend. Then, since I assumed I wasn’t about to be shot or mugged, I’d signal to her, firmly, to withdraw her best of intentions, back off from frightening an innocent party. Judging from the activity of her tail and the relaxation of her ears, this came as a significant relief during those times given to constant vigilance when we were at large, off the farm.
Then once again we moved on. This was farther up country both in distance and altitude. Three of us now, the two dogs and me, a cohesive little pack in which each member knew his or her place, the dogs’ loyalty genes in top working order. I led us in my old set of wheels to a fibro shack surrounded by bush, ticking in the summer heat that day. When I was at work nearby, labouring—indisputably not what a university degree had prepared me for but I knew my place, at a remove well north of where the degree was earned—I generally left the dogs, once we’d settled in, as lookouts, sentinels, defenders, each to her own particular place on the rented property. On my daily return, there was confirmation. At such times in their young lives they were suddenly meteors circling the shack and, boy, could they also leap and yelp to let a leader know that he was needed.
The day I came home and they were nowhere to be found was wickedly hot. In place of the dogs stood the bush, a presence, withheld, silent, in a lull. My enquiries went beyond there. Days later I found them lying together, Almost and her pale grey and white progeny, which I’d called Sprout, under the shack, hidden away, where they’d gone in agony to die, dogs being the most correct of creatures. I hadn’t reckoned on the locals laying fox baits. My charges’ vigilance had not been returned. I couldn’t more completely have let them down. The dogs I have since taken for walks, taken to a beach or park, looked after, fed, thrown a bone to, patted and played with, have not been my own. I own a deep regret. It dogs me to this day.
Andrew Sant’s most recent book is a collection of essays, How to Proceed (2016). His most recent book of poems is The Bicycle Thief & Other Poems (2013).