Arthur and Galahad were the much loved dogs of my sister’s family. They were chihuahuas, or something similar; little, yappy creatures that could get under one’s feet or could sneak out of the door in the blink of an eye. They were very dear to those whose home they shared, lying on the bed at night and watching over their human companions.
Last month, my sister was getting her two boys organised for the morning school run and had put the two Knights of the Round Table into the car. Something was forgotten and a car door was opened. Arthur saw a chance to go for a run. They lived on a busy Belfast street and it was just before nine o’clock in the morning and Arthur was crushed beneath the wheels of a passing vehicle, heading to the canine Avalon years before his time.
My sister and her boys were distraught as such a thing happening, as I would have been if confronted by such a scene. Arthur had been a constant companion since he and Galahad had arrived in the family and there was a very real sense of bereavement.
Perhaps someone had witnessed the death of Arthur, perhaps someone had heard of it; a while later, a little dog was left at the door, with a label attached to her collar saying she was a gift to the family in their time of sadness. My sister assumed the arrival had been organised by her husband; he knew nothing of it.
Such moments undermine the sort of theology that was so prevalent in Belfast in times past: the idea of “total depravity” drawn from the thinking of John Calvin, the reformation theologian, and propagated by generations of fundamentalist preachers. Human beings were intrinsically evil, there was no possibility of them being good by themselves. The Presbyterian academic who taught doctrine to Church of Ireland student in the 1980s used to try to counterbalance the total depravity stuff by arguing that original sin was accompanied by original grace; he made little ground among those intent upon a message of hell and damnation for those who disagreed with them.
Perhaps original grace may be overstating the case, but, in most people, isn’t there an original decency? Isn’t the person who left a wee dog at the door of my sister’s Belfast flat a sign that there is a kindness and a warmth of heart that is too often forgotten? Don’t he stories of human responses after disasters and tragedies tell us that there are more good people than bad ones?
The little dog left at the door and her new friend Galahad moved from urban Belfast to rural Somerset last week, where their walks up the farm track beside the house will bring them to a view of Glastonbury Tor, the mythical resting place of Arthur. And being female, and being the companion of Galahad, there could only be one name given to the new arrival – Guinevere.