I was a bit of a loner as a child. Not an unhappy loner, not lonely; it was just that I mostly liked to be on my own. I was – am – an only child, born late to parents who’d struggled for years to have me, and maybe this was one of the reasons for my self-reliance. With no brothers or sisters to play games with me, fight with me, drag me off on their adventures or follow me on mine, I learned to do things for myself and by myself. My parents supported this: desperately wanted and hugely loved though I was, they still allowed me my freedom. Perhaps they were aware of how easy it would have been to go the other way: to mollycoddle their shrimpy little daughter with the sticky-outy ears. Perhaps this pushed them to allow me to develop at my own pace and in my own way. Whatever the reason, from an early age I was something of an independent explorer.
We lived in a little house in the middle of the countryside, and this suited me. The expanse of fields, woodland and open sky surrounding our home were perfect for a young girl with an urge for adventure and as soon as I was old enough, my parents let me go exploring in the fields and woods beyond the house. I could happily while away hours climbing trees, damming streams and building dens in the undergrowth.
Despite being happy on my own, I think on the day I met Max I was ready to make a friend. It was one summer at the start of the school holidays and I was in the process of constructing a rather intricate dam on a little stream going through the woods next to our house. There had been a heavy rainfall the previous night and – not convinced that mere rocks and pebbles would be able to hold back the faster-flowing water – I was attempting a woven barrier of twigs which I intended to stuff with moss and plant in the stream bed.
The plan was not going well: the twigs kept snapping, I couldn’t seem to gather enough and a full two hours went by with very little progress made. Tired, I was sitting back on my haunches wondering whether to abandon the whole plan when, with a ‘plop’, a little stick landed next to me. I looked to my right and there was Max. For a moment we just stared at each other. He was about my height with a slightly impish look in his brown eyes, and his scruffy hair looked very similar to how I imagine mine must have done. My perfect adventuring companion. I looked down at the stick and realised it was really a very good size for my weaving project. “Thanks,” I said, picking it up and readdressing my task, then casting back over my shoulder, “You can help me do this if you like.”
And that was that. We worked side by side, Max bringing me sticks and me painstakingly constructing the dam. When it was complete it was pretty impressive – to our young minds at least – with an ever-deepening pool poised temptingly behind a surprisingly robust wood-and-moss barrier. A cursory inspection of our work complete, we both leapt into the water and played around happily, shattering the peace with our excited splashing.
When the time came to go in for tea I tried to persuade Max to come with me. “Come on! My mum’s a great cook and I’m sure she won’t mind me bringing you along.” But he wouldn’t, instead turning and walking off further into the wood. “I guess I’ll see you tomorrow?” I called at his retreating back. He didn’t respond, but I had a hunch I’d see him again.
The next few days it rained so heavily that even I – who normally couldn’t bear to stay indoors – wasn’t tempted to go out. Instead, I wrapped myself in a blanket on the window sill and gazed out at the rain-lashed scene. I told my parents about Max and asked if they knew where he lived. My mum knew that the farm over the ridge had been for sale and speculated that it now had new owners… perhaps we could go over together and meet the whole family sometime? I nodded, although I wasn’t particularly interested in that; I just wanted to see my friend again.
When the sun finally came out the following day, I rushed off outside and headed in the direction of the river. I was hoping I’d meet Max on the way, or at least spot him in the distance, but the wood was silent. Wandering the well worn tracks, I tried calling his name. There was no response. I was just pondering heading up to the farm to see if he was there when a rustling, cracking sound behind me alerted me to a presence. I turned to greet him with a huge smile.
We played together all that day and all the next and, as the summer days rolled on, we became inseparable. He started having tea at our house most days (he showed a healthy appreciation for my mum’s cooking, so he was always a welcome guest) and even slept over some nights.
In Max I had found my ideal ally. He understood me like no one else could and, through his friendship, I learnt about companionship, trust and loyalty. With him, nothing was complicated: he seemed to have a gut feeling about what was important, and he stuck to that. I respected and trusted him. With Max, I felt safe.
Summer gradually stuttered to a close and autumn brought a return to school, whereupon Max and I were separated. I missed him, but school gave me plenty of distractions. I found I felt more confident than I had done before the holidays and I started to form more friendships. I suppose my summer with Max had encouraged me to seek out companionship in other places and I began to want something more than my previous solitary pursuits. Anyway, there was still plenty of time during weekends and holidays for me to seek out my friend from across the fields.
This pattern continued as the months – and then gradually years – went by. School, friendships I formed there, and life outside of my home in general became increasingly important, but I always had time for Max too. Whenever I introduced him to friends they always got on – Max had a way with people – but no one ever took my place in his affections, just as no one ever took his place in mine.
Years rolled on. Our friendship lasted through the gangly, tormented adolescent phase and into adulthood. Things changed as we got older, of course. As time progressed there was less damming of rivers and racing through fields, and more time sitting around eating, drinking and contemplating life. Yes, I had become more sociable as I grew older, but I never lost my love of peace and quiet, of nature and of losing myself in thought. Max understood all that instinctively, and with the passing of the years came a contentment on both our parts to just spend time together. There was no need to actively do anything like we used to, we could just be.
Then one autumn, returning home from college, I met Max outside our house, just as we met at the end of every term. But this time something was different: he looked tired and ill, and his brown eyes seemed sad. Of course, I ushered him inside immediately, and once he was sitting down I gave him something to drink. We all wondered if he was alright and if we should call someone, but as he settled down to one of my mum’s famous shepherd’s pies he seemed much brighter. We all began to joke together as we used to; it was a happy homecoming.
After my parents had gone to bed that night, Max and I settled in front of the fire together. As the crackling flames sent dancing shadows across the wall, I looked at him and felt utter contentment. I thought about my happy childhood here in this house, of the summer I’d met Max and the years I’d spent with him by my side. I thought of what I’d learned from him and how my life had changed.
But as I looked I felt a sadness creep in too; I’d known when I’d seen him today that he’d have to leave me soon. His youthful exuberance had well and truly gone. As I’d grown up, he’d grown old. Yet I was determined to make whatever time he had left as good as it could be. I’d stay by his side until the end. I bent down from my chair to stroke his fur and scratch him behind his ears, “I love you Maxy-boy.” Stretched out on the hearth rug, Max opened his eyes to look at me and gave a huge sigh of contentment.