I am amazed when I look at my dog. His eyes are mahogony brown with just a touch of amber, gleaming jet pupils; in my sentimental imagining they are deep liquid jewels. The high curve of his tight belly could have been drawn on the wall of a neolithic cave, the hounds chasing down the deer in the leg-stretching lope of the eternal hunt. The deep “V” of his chest is a cage for huge heart and lungs: an incredible aerobic machine full of seemingly limitless strength. He has run and walked with me on suburban pavements and remote mountain tops, sailed with me on dive-boats and yachts, always at my side, always my shadow. I know the grain of skin on his lips, the cleft above his lip, the webbing between his paws, the delicacy of his eyelashes, the thump and rushing rumble of his heart-beat. I can feel his warm breath on my face and have come to love the odour of butterscotch and mildew that he emits after getting a soaking.
Just watching his perfect movement, that beautiful extension of the stride that made him more a creature of the air than the earth, is a delight. His legs have taken him from the wild beaches of Kintyre to the moors and mountain tops of Scotland. Rock or sand or forest floor, he is in the words of Edwin Muir, “like a wild wave charging”. He is at one with the land in a way that eludes me. The soft rush of his stride is evanescent and eternal. He is perfectly made with tangled fur, knotted ears and mud-dipped to the shoulder.
Putting my face against the soft velvet of his cheek, my hand entwined in the thick guard-hair above his shoulders and hearing him let out a crooning groan of content will always make me smile. For so long his tail, held out straight from his back, would flicker like a crazy metronome- ever-increasing speed until it became blur.
It was when his tail dropped that I knew something was wrong. I felt that he would go on forever, this elemental powerhouse, tough and strong. After all he is a spaniel from the working line who was built for a life flushing game on the moorlands, finely muscled and beautiful in temperament. He was no soft and neurotic show breed. He was walked, trained, stimulated, loved- all of this would make him strong eternally.
So to see his tail droop and curl mournfully and painfully between his legs was a blow. To be on the floor with him hand feeding pieces of chicken that would have been hoovered from his bowl a few weeks ago was mystifying. The visit to the vet told us that he was suffering from an enlarged prostate gland. It could be treated with hormones and there was an immediate boost in his vitality. But the sense that he was invincible and eternal was gone.
A couple of weeks after that we were on a walk in Mugdock Park. He had a great time- he remembers places well. When he leapt into the River Allander this was just normal, but he struggled to get up the high bank again, something that would have been a breeze to him only a few months ago. I helped him up an we went on with the walk. He was fine. Back at the car he went to jump into the boot. Whether it was lack of power in his hind legs or the oblique angle that he attempted the jump, he didn’t make it and landed heavily on his lower back. It looked sore but he didn’t make a fuss and I scooped him up and put him in the car.
On the journey home I started to feel tears roll down my face. The two events happening in such quick succession had told me a story: he was not invincible.
His appetite then fell away and there was something strange about his movement in his rear legs. On a Saturday morning at the local park, on a perfectly mundane walk compared to his epics on the mountains I saw him dragging his rear-end and thought that his anal glands were troubling him: a routine irritation for a spaniel and easily dealt with. His glands were engorged, but there was also the beginning of a tumour. Another blow for this tough and sweet little dog.
As I sit here images present themsleves in my mind: his needle sharp milk teeth biting my finger when he was only weeks old; the restless surge of his energy as he leaped up at me and knocked a bottle into my front teeth; his attempted devouring of a bloated seal-pup carcass on the beach at Bellachantuy on the Kintyre penninsula- I had to dive full length on the sand to catch him and remove the putrid flesh from his mouth; his refusal to run with me and the sit down protests that ensued- running was never his sport.
Now all this stuff is little anecdotes, moments of pleasure caught in the amber of memory. And that was just the “bad” stuff. I am forever grateful for other moments, in dark times, in a house alone, when he jumped on my bed and thumped against my side with the length of his back. Some ancient pack solidarity can be quite a restorative to the spirits. His old and quiet days still have their compensations, softened by sleep and warmth.