I walk into the downstairs room and the dog rouses himself from his bed, stretches, walks over and nuzzles my hand. “Happy New Year,” he growls. “Happy New Year. How’s the leg?” “Seems to be better,” he tells me. “Any chance of a walk?” “You betcha.” “Good.”
I put on my boots and my waterproof, while the dog waits, and watches – as he always does – for the moment I pick up the lead. That’s the proof we really are going for a walk and I’m not about to change my mind, or be distracted by the urgent need to scribble a half-formed poem on some random piece of paper.
It’s miserable out, but the dog sniffs in all the usual places on the way round, and leaves his mark in the time-honoured fashion. He’s moving more slowly than normal, but I don’t think anything of it. Not at first. But he gets slower. By the time we get home, he’s barely moving.
“You OK?” I ask. “Define OK,” says the dog. “I’m not sure I like the sound of this.” “Well, there’s good news, and there’s bad news.” “Right….” “The good news is you’ll be saving money on dog food.” “What??” “The bad news is… internal bleeding. A tumour on the spleen.” “You’re kidding?” “Mine, not yours, if that’s any consolation. I won’t be making any long-term plans.”
I genuinely don’t know what to say. This really wasn’t how 2017 was meant to start. I open my mouth to say so, but then I realise the dog already knows. My hand drops and fusses him behind the ears.
“I’m going to miss you,” I say quietly. “I’ll bet you are. How you’re going to manage without me to set you straight, I dread to think.” “As if – ” “I mean, someone needs to keep your feet on the ground.” “You little – ” “And there’s been no-one better at the job than me.” He sighs. “I say that with all due modesty, you understand.” “Shut up, will you.” “Have you got something in your eye, you daft ha’porth?” “I may have.” He licks my hand. For once, he says nothing. We sit in silence, his head on my feet, my hand stroking his thick, dark fur. “Squirrels,” he says, eventually. “I planned to chase more squirrels.” “I’ll bet you did.” “And I had so much more to say about that tangerine cockwomble, Trump.” “I know.” “Good word, cockwomble,” he muses. “Wish I’d used it more often.” “I’ll pick up your slack,” I tell him. “Good man,” he growls. “Make sure you do.”
We sit for half an hour or so. The clock ticks. The radio burbles from the other room. Then the dog shifts a little, moans softly. “It’s time,” he says. “Let’s go.”
I get the car from the garage, lift him into it, and the pair of us drive to the vets. A little later, one of us comes home.
The other is chasing an army of squirrels out among the stars.