Sunday Reading: Byootiful Holly

Words: Poppy O'Neill
Illustration: Kate Rowland

Shirley rang. V.nice tea - Holly bit better. Fire done - see you later. A note scribbled on the back of an envelope in 1991. Twenty-five years later I find myself carefully scanning and saving it, safe in the digital world from fire, theft and spilled cups of tea.

My grandmother, Sassy, came across these scraps of paper during a grand spring clean. It's a hoarding instinct I share with her, that causes bank statements to sit for decades, just in case. Pieces of official paperwork and personal ephemera that may possibly, maybe one day, be wanted. It was in this big clear out of seemingly useless paper that the preciousness and vulnerability of these jotted sentences became apparent. Holly was Sassy's beloved Jack Russell, who passed away not long after the notes were written. 

I time-travel by means of this informal letter-writing; messages left by those who dropped in on Holly while Sassy was out. All hopeful, all testament to a cheerful dog, wagging her tail and scrounging from the table. She might be downcast by the evening, but when the note was written she was happy. The granddaughters have grown up, but when the felt-tip touched that paper, they were little girls. Holly might have died many years ago, but when the words were jotted spontaneously down, she was there, she existed. I revisit these letters and a past us, kept as a gift to our future selves. 

I look at the other items Sassy kept. Appointment diaries, facts of the day, people to meet and events to attend. The details that seem small at the time become the concrete, provable key to the cherished essence of a memory. There is a list in her bundle: Things I Want To Remember, and it runs over two sides and up the margins, recalling the quality of Holly's movements – kangarooing through high grass – her habits – biting car tyres – small things that make it seem incredible, once they are gone, that pets never speak a word to us, and yet their personalities are absolutely individual.  

The letters I wrote Sassy at five years old show a child trying desperately to comfort an adult. Holly saves the day, Holly lives with the Flower Fairies, Byootiful Holly. I remember her solid barrel of a body, her warm wiry hair and her pink bacon-rasher tongue. I remember it dawning on me some months after her death that she was truly gone forever. 

These little scraps of evidence are trivial, but they become important precisely because they are kept. The timbre of our voices is in these notes. Relics to conjure a moment, a feeling, a smell. And when they are read alone, while that feeling of a loved one in the room is slippery and comes always with melancholy, we hold on to it and in a small, personal way they are there.