The dog is sick. It is unfair perhaps that having come through alcoholism and his brush with the Horned One he should have had fallen foul of natural causes, but that is what has happened. Whether it comes of ingesting something that he shouldn’t at the all-male pond at Hampstead Heath or whether cancer has caught up with him in his old age, he has half the weight and half the energy that he had six months ago, he is kept going by steroids and continence is nothing but a happy memory.
The steroids don’t make him noticeably perky, but I suppose that we don’t know what he would have been like without them.
He’s also on a strict diet. His food is as bland as it can possibly be and still nourish him at all. It looks and smells like nothing so much as the ‘white chicken sausage’ to be found on Islam-friendly airlines. The vet says that it is ‘partly pre-digested’. This raises an involuntary picture of school-leavers in Cameron’s Britain, huddled in their hundreds in draughty halls, chomping dog food and then spitting it out into the receptacles provided – anything rather than the dole.
Actually as regards continence, he still does his best; it is just that he is now on a short fuse. Every couple of hours throughout the night he taps shyly on my shoulder with his paw. I struggle out of bed and check the weather through the window: the dressing gown will do unless it’s raining, in which case it will have to be topped with a sou’ wester. He also hesitates at the top of the stairs. His energy levels are not so great as to allow a fruitless journey down the top stairs and, worse, back if I am to change my mind. In that case one or other of the Turkish kelims in the bedroom gets it.
But we set off down, first the top flight and then the main staircase. Once he gets the rhythm he cleverly lets gravity take the strain. Then out into the yard where he does his filthy business. Depending on the nature of his filthy business, I take him inside, go back out and hose it down. Thank God anthropogenic climate change, the terrible drought and the consequent hose-pipe ban have eased their steely grip on Clerkenwell, even if, as the Guardian assures me, the respite is only temporary.
Usually when I get in again he will have got himself up the main stairs and will be lying on the landing floor panting a little.
Back to bed, I say encouragingly.
He does not move.
I explain that it is, as it might be, three in the morning, that he has dragged me from deep sleep (though not a lovely dream, as kefir has been abandoned for the duration) and the last thing that I want to do is to carry him.
He does not move.
I gather him in my arms, bag of bones that he is, and carry him up the top stairs. I deliver him gently onto the bed. He can no longer jump up to it.
Do you want to sleep with us?
This is a special treat. When he was well that was never allowed.
He sniffs the sleeping form of the better half. He sniffs me. After a moment’s considered thought he slithers down and goes to his own bed where no doubt the smells are better.
This disturbs the better half, who demands: What’s going on?
I resist the temptation to say something fanciful, and I report on the nature, extent and quality of the dog’s filthy business. If I can justifiably do so I put an optimistic spin on this.
The better half grunts and goes back to sleep. The dog also drops off and I lie awake listening to their respective nocturnal sounds.
I reported on all this to daughter one. She was the worst person to choose if it was sympathy I wanted. Every night had been like that for her, she said, since the grandson was born six months ago.
But it’s different, isn’t it: the grandson’s optimistic opening sallies compared with what are as likely as not the old dog’s closing scenes.
And besides it is not sympathy that I want. It is only right and almost a pleasure to minister to him after all that he has done and been as part of the family.
There was one terrible night which I thought would be his last. He was in great pain and hallucinating, staring aggrieved at things that weren’t there. I waited up with him and finally at about four o’clock he went to sleep on my lap exhausted. After that he went into hospital, courtesy of Sainsbury’s pet insurance, and he has not been nearly that bad since – although there is a Peter Lanyon etching which when he is at a low ebb he stares at with great hostility and suspicion.
As we used to say when he had his passage with Famous Grouse, one day at a time.