The "accidental" adoption of an abandoned dog
It was something of an accident when I adopted Buster the dog from my local RSPCA animal shelter.
I had been thinking about taking in a cat, for the first time in my life, as I didn't like living in a house with no animals.
I had grown up with dogs and could not remember a time in my life when I didn't have a dog around me, from being six months old.
But following the death of my little Chihuahua-Papillon cross, Susie, when she was almost 18 years old, I didn't think I would ever have a dog again, as it broke my heart. She had been my companion and confidante through my teens and into my 30s - and when I lost her to a heart attack, I thought I would never recover from the pain. I felt no other dog could ever replace her and I didn't even want to try.
However, having just moved into a new house, I decided it seemed too quiet and cold without the companionship of a furry friend. So one Saturday morning, a year after Susie's death, I set off for the RSPCA animal home, intending to adopt a cat.
But I hadn't bargained on meeting Buster.
A quiet dog who followed me with his eyes
As I walked through the shelter, I heard the frantic barking of many dogs, all locked in their little pens, bouncing around and hurling themselves at the bars, hoping to be chosen by any of the people walking through looking for a new four-legged companion.
They all seemed to be saying, "Notice me! Notice me!" and there was something very sad about their behaviour. They needed some attention and a loving new home.
While I had arrived looking for a cat, within five minutes, I found myself looking at the dogs. I was just drawn to the kennels and I hadn't even realised the time was right for me to take in another canine companion. I would never forget Susie, but I needed a dog again.
There were some beautiful dogs in there and I wondered how on earth they had ended up in the shelter. How could anyone not want or love them? It was heartbreaking.
I first became aware of Buster as I approached his pen and saw a quiet, thoughtful little dog, sitting with his nose pressed up to the bars, but looking very serious and not barking manically like the others. He watched me approach and I looked at him in awe, wondering what breed he was. He had the upper body of a Rottweiler, but little legs that resembled a Corgi's. He actually looked like a Rottweiler until he stood up. Then I saw his stumpy little legs and he made me chuckle. He was so cute.
Buster was living at my house two weeks later
As I walked on from his pen, I noticed he followed me with his eyes, not moving or barking. Even when I was 20 yards away, I turned round and saw he was still watching me. I was smitten.
I applied to adopt him and every day for the next fortnight, while home checks took place and paperwork was completed, I went to the shelter and took him for walks. He was described as a Rottweiler cross, under one year old and had apparently been abandoned at the shelter when his owner said she could no longer keep him. Other than this, I had no knowledge of his history.
I was thrilled when I was accepted to adopt Buster and he soon settled in at my house. He was a very loving dog, but I soon found out he was nervous of people and not friendly towards other dogs that were bigger than him. He loved my parents and my dad enjoyed taking him for walks, or having Buster "help" him when doing my garden. By "help", I mean Buster would run through the piles of raked up leaves, or chase the garden hoe as dad tried to turn over the earth. Dad used to laugh a lot and thought Buster was a character.
How lucky I was to have parents who loved animals
I had grown up in a house surrounded by animals. My mum and dad never said "no" when I took another one home with me and I remember well sitting in a chair, reading, with my budgie on my head, my dog at my feet and my hamster asleep in my lap.
I was so lucky to have a family like this. Mum loved Buster from the outset and when I was at work, she either came to "dog sit" at my house, or he went to my parents' house for the day. He loved his life and was absolutely spoiled!
Over time, I realised what a little tough nut he was. Walking in the park one day, I met an elderly gent whose old bulldog had recently died and he had taken in two adult dogs - mother and son - from a rescue centre. It was his first walk with them and he had let them off their leads. As soon as they saw Buster, they ran at him and to my horror attacked him. I thought he would be savaged, but he fought them both off, the mother dog running off whimpering, leaving Buster pinning down the younger assailant by the throat. It was left to me to split them up, as the elderly owner stood there panicking.
I was quite cross that he had let both his dogs run loose, having no idea of their temperament, nor how to catch them or break up a fight. But I was startled at how aggressive Buster was when cornered and it made me a little wary of how he would react to other dogs in future.
Elderly and battle-scarred cat appeared in neigbour's garden
I had been living with Buster in my new house for several months when I first started noticing a very elderly, ginger cat in next door's garden. It was summertime and the cat was lounging on my neighbour's patio, sunning himself. He looked very battle-scarred, with tatty ears from many fights.
I asked my neighbours, an elderly couple, about their visitor, as I knew they had a little house-cat who rarely went out, but the ginger tom was always outdoors. It was a sad story - he had been a stray all his life, they told me. As a kitten, he was given to a little girl who lived further up the street by a friend and she hid him in her bedroom for a few weeks, as her father wouldn't let her have a pet.
She had named him Prince Marmaduke Gingerbits - Ginger for short.
But when her father found out she had a kitten, he told her Ginger was not allowed in the house any more! Thank God my own parents were so different from this!
From that moment, Ginger had been relegated to the garden, where the little girl would feed him at the back door. But she grew up and left home, the family sold the house - and poor Ginger ended up totally deserted and rummaging in neighbours' bins for scraps, or relying on kindly people leaving him a bowl of food at their back door.
I was amazed when my neighbour told me Ginger was 20 years old! She knew his age as she had lived there for 40 years and recalled how old the little girl was when she first brought him home. She was now married and had children of her own. I thought what a great shame she had forgotten her little fur-baby when she moved out and started a family.
Buster's first meeting with a cat
Buster spent a lot of time in the back garden that summer. It was a beautiful garden, 70ft long and full of hundreds of flowers, trees and bushes, a blaze of colour, with a lawn on which he loved to roll. He would take a nap on the patio most afternoons.
My neighbours had told me they fed Ginger outside, because they felt sorry for him now he was so old and still a stray. But they would not allow him in their house, because they claimed it was "impossible to litter-train him at that age" and he had apparently urinated in their kitchen. They were very house-proud and would never let him through the door again, although they had provided him with daily meals and a bed in their greenhouse, which was always open for him.
I saw Ginger at the bottom of my garden sometimes and I was very nervous about what might happen if Buster saw him. As far as I knew, Buster had never met a cat in his life - and having seen how aggressive he was towards other dogs, I was worried he may chase and attack Ginger, so I always kept a look-out.
But Ginger was a very determined cat. One day, without any warning, he strolled up from the lawn and climbed the steps on to my patio, where Buster was dozing. I watched anxiously, but even though Buster awoke, to my surprise, he was very disinterested in Ginger, merely sniffing him and then going back to sleep!
The unlikely duo of a young dog and an old cat became best friends
From that moment, Buster and Ginger became inseparable. Every day, Ginger came to join Buster on the patio, so I started providing him with a tartan blanket, thinking the concrete flags may be too hard on his old bones.
Buster would greet him warmly and lick him when he arrived. Then they would settle down next to each other to watch the world go by, or doze in the sun. Ginger was a very friendly old cat and always came to greet me too, purring as I stroked his head and tickled under his chin. When I saw him close-up, I realised how very old he looked.
Of course, it wasn't long before I started feeding Ginger myself, giving him a bowl of food and some milk on the patio every day. He devoured it quickly as if starving, though my neighbours assured me I wasn't the only person who fed him. In the evening, he would normally wander off to my neighbours' greenhouse again. But soon, he began sitting on my back doorstep and I started feeling mean when Buster came in the house for the night and Ginger was left outdoors.
Not long before Ginger became "my" cat
Soon, I was leaving the back door open so Ginger could come into my kitchen, while his food and milk bowls were next to Buster's indoors, instead of on the patio. They spent every day together and obviously adored each other.
As autumn passed and winter approached, I made the decision I would take Ginger in full-time.
My neighbours did their best, with his bed full of blankets and a pillow in their greenhouse - even giving him a hot water bottle each night - but freezing weather was on its way and I thought how awful it would be for him outdoors once his hot water bottle had gone cold.
So I opened my home to this majestic old cat, ignoring my neighbours' warnings that I would never house-train him. In fact, it was easy to do so. Once he was given the run of the house, rather than staying in the kitchen, I kept a close eye on him and when I spotted him preparing to urinate, I'd run and grab the litter tray and stick it underneath him! He soon learned this was where he must go and I never had a problem again for the rest of his life.
As time passed, Ginger remained healthy for his age and always enjoyed his food. He went out less and spent much time sitting on the settee with Buster in the evening as we watched television.
Ginger "vanished" one day
When Ginger was 23 years old, he disappeared one day.
Even if he went outdoors, he never left my back garden, so I was distraught when I saw he had gone. Although it was summer and very hot, it was so unusual for him to go missing - from around 11am - that I honestly thought I'd never see him again. It was a Sunday and I spent all day walking round the neighbouring streets, alleys and gardens, taking Buster with me and shouting, "Ginger!" as loud as I could, in case he was a little deaf.
Buster seemed anxious too and looked very fed up sitting alone on the patio.
By 6pm, I was convinced that was the end of Ginger - when all of a sudden, I noticed him strutting up the street and walking through the front gate! He never went out the front at all, so God knows where he had been. I was so relieved, I went tearing out, picked him up and couldn't stop hugging him, while he had a nonchalant air of, "What's all the fuss about?"
There was extra chicken and milk for him that night, as I was so pleased to see him, while Buster would not leave him alone.
Great sorrow when we said goodbye to our old friend
As time passed, Ginger remained in good health for his advancing years, but slowed down considerably.
When it was bedtime, after lying with Buster on the settee, he began sleeping in the kitchen on blankets, so as soon as the weather turned even slightly cold, I would leave the central heating on for Ginger all night. He loved his little spot in the corner, behind the door, snuggling down to sleep. Buster would sit with him for much of the time, before eventually going to bed himself. Buster always slept in my room.
Every morning, as soon as Buster awoke, he would go tearing downstairs in great excitement - and the first thing he did was race into the kitchen and start licking and nosing Ginger to wake him up. The two of them really did become inseparable.
Ginger lived to 25 years of age and never suffered poor health right till the end. He passed away in his sleep while lying on the settee one night as we watched television. He had been quiet and lethargic all day and I felt a great sadness, as I knew the end had come.
I ushered Buster off to bed, not wanting him to be upset at seeing his old pal had gone. I cried non-stop as I put Ginger in his final resting place in my back garden, with the usual short service and a prayer which I always conducted for my animals.
Buster never forgot his pal
With hindsight, perhaps I should have let Buster know that Ginger had passed away, as to my great sorrow, the following morning, my beautiful boy went tearing downstairs, as he had done every morning, to wake his old friend up in the kitchen.
Buster was visibly surprised and upset when Ginger wasn't there under the radiator and began running round the kitchen, checking the cupboard and sniffing behind the units, unable to understand where his pal was.
This behaviour continued for six months and I knew Buster couldn't understand what had happened to Ginger. It was painful to see him looking round the kitchen and the garden every morning. But as time passed, he seemed to accept his companion had gone, although I'm sure he never forgot him.
I write this story with my eyes filling up with tears as I remember two of my greatest companions, Buster (1998-2008) and Ginger (1979-2004). It makes me realise animal friendships are as strong as human ones and the pain of the final goodbye is just as vivid.