Claude was like me: he loved going for long walks, enjoyed a joke, and was always ready for food. From the day he arrived, he was always at my side and always on my side.
When we finally decided to take the plunge and get the dog we had wanted for so long we made a couple of heartbreaking visits to Battersea Dogs Home and from them gained the address of Labrador Rescue. They asked me exhaustive questions about my home circumstances and why I wanted a dog. It was like arranging to adopt a child. A few weeks later they arranged for us to meet Claude.
His first family needed to find a new home for him because their lives had changed. They were running a hotel and had one baby and another on the way. His brother, Henry, had been successfully resettled with an elderly widower, but Claude was being unavoidably neglected and spent his days lying in the laundry waiting for someone to give him attention. The family had been looking for a place for him for a long time, and although he had tried other homes, he had been unable to settle and the proposed new families had been unable to cope. When we went down to Southport to meet him we opened the car door and he jumped straight in. He was our dog. From now on we looked after each other.
Claude was in early middle age when he came to live with us, and the vet was not happy with our choice. He said that we had taken on a lot of problems with Claude: a weak heart, ankylosing spondylitis (a painful back condition), arthritis and broken teeth. Over the years, however, he came to believe that we had not done so badly. And he certainly got to know him well. Like most of his breed, Claude could not resist food or rubbish, and seldom distinguished between the two. He savoured in equal measure a near-fatal corn cob, which failed to show up on X-ray, and a Mars bar, complete with wrapper. He relished both the rotten fish carcass on Brighton seafront and the fresh plaice he somehow, miraculously, found in Dulwich Woods. Claude became a nice little earner for the surgery.
Towards the end, he developed diabetes, and I learnt how to measure his blood sugar level and administer daily insulin injections. The vet gave him another two years to live - with proper care. Well, Claude had the best care, and he did have his two years. He coped with slowness and blindness and never lost his zest for living, but his incontinence made us both unhappy, and we knew the quality of his life was no longer sustainable.
The hardest thing about his death was deciding the date. It made me feel I was playing God, but the vet's reassurance helped immeasurably. He suggested we come in at the end of evening surgery so that we didn't feel pressured. On the telephone, we discussed the disposal of Claude's body. We have a small garden, and because I was not sure I could dig a deep enough hole in the winter-hardened ground, I felt sick at the thought of foxes digging the body up. Even thinking about such practicalities led to feelings of guilt.
The vet explained that he could arrange cremation. He dealt with a reputable pet cremation firm and, if we wanted it, an individual cremation could be arranged and the ashes returned to us. We loved Claude, but we have photographs and numerous drawings of him, and didn't feel we needed a special place for his ashes. We opted to let the vet take care of it.
This was about a year ago last Christmas. Since then I would guess that I have thought about him every day. Not long, weepy recriminations . . . I just think about him a little bit every day. I still hear a loud silence when the doorbell rings. Sometimes, in the garden, I remember the day he began picking his own fruit, or I suddenly realise how easy it is to work without him investigating every spadeful of earth. Sometimes it hits me that there is nothing to stop me from going off for the day on the spur of the moment.
I think about him with affection, amusement and, of course, sadness. We took responsibility for each other, and he had a good life and a good death. He enriched my life and I loved him for it - and still love him. And there are no regrets.