The following is a submission by Callum Saunders, from Glossop, England. Throughout the year we’ll feature different stories that have been selected to be part of our book. This is Ruby.
There are many stories I could tell you about Ruby. And many different ways in which I could tell you those stories. But after several weeks of gestation, I kept circling back to one driving force: the only way to truly tell Ruby’s story is through the lens of an old photograph. How a visual image triggers a written story is less an irony and more a confluence of currents.
And as those currents started to become words flowing from my fingertips, it became clear that I wasn’t writing “a story” about Ruby, but more how her story continues to move through me today; how I see, navigate, and sense a world of memories all around me whenever I am back at the family home. Perception, space, and time dance with each other in mysterious ways.
And the flow of Ruby’s energy continues to be felt today.
I found a box of photographs the other day. Real, physical photographs, glossy, tactile and wonderful. Even the most innocuous of memories feels somehow more meaningful when committed to physical print. One of these photographs was slightly bent in one corner, where it had clearly been squashed into the box. I picked it up and looked upon it, instantly transported back to a time and place as the beauty of what it captured drew me in.
The landscape was the Sussex Downs, right behind my mother’s house—up high on chalky downland that has curved and undulated for millennia. I am lying prone on the grass, giving a lower sense of perspective. The midpoint of the photo is the horizon, where the warm, pallid earth meets a pastel sky. My three siblings are there, walking up hilly tussocks toward an eternal July evening. I can feel their motion and hear their chatter right now.
In the foreground, plodding after them, is a black shadow with four legs. To say she is shapeless is not intended as factual, but a reflection of her age; the glossy contours of a Labrador’s prime long gone.
There is no specific symbolism behind this particular photograph, no occasion beyond the very scene it captures. It merely framed a moment in time, when four siblings had managed to come back home together at the same time. I remembered feeling as if we had the Sussex Downs to ourselves on an evening when heaven and earth seemed fused as one.
And it’s this singular image that evokes everything Ruby was to me. Her loyal following and slow gait, her subtle yet constant presence, her inquisitive and loving eyes. Her happiness just lying somewhere, being with her family, and taking in the world around her—as though she existed on a time continuum slower than our own. Even today I often see parts of my own personality in hers: the humanity of a dog is never to be underestimated.
The English poet Edward Thomas penned a poem titled “The Unknown.” Three lines have always struck me:
“The simple lack of her
Is more to me
Than other’s presence.”
I look upon the garden on warm summer days and gaze longingly at the same patch of grass where she lay in her final years. Silent, content, and immovable, she was a black rock: steadfast and true, in the humming, pulsing rhythm of an English garden in August. Her ashes are buried right behind it, and feed a rose we bought for the occasion—a variety named Ruby (what else)—but it’s that patch of warm, baked earth, rather than the blooms her ashes send forth every year, that sings to me and speaks to my soul. “The simple lack of her is more to me than others’ presence.”
At the family dinner table, I can almost feel her head upon my thigh—Labradors and the eternal optimism of a tidbit from the table. How strange it is that she has been gone all these years, and yet my soul still has the muscle memory to outline the shape of her head with my hands, to still know the very weight of that old head as it plodded down upon my leg.
As I move through the family home, there are tens of different spaces—worn patches, scratches, chewed baskets—that still tell her tale to those who knew her and can read the inscriptions. Her story is not reimagined and retold in our minds. It’s there in physical space, while time dances around it.
“The simple lack of her is more to me than others’ presence.”
As I look at this photograph now, I can feel her heat in dusty whispers.
Author: Callum Saunders