The other day – and have no fear, this isn’t another Crufts story – I watched a dog go for a last walk with his owner. Don’t ask me how I knew it was his last walk. I could tell, that’s all. Finalities are unmistakable. Perhaps I should have looked away, but neither dog nor owner was aware of me. So my silent requiem was not, I thought, obtrusive.
I’d been shopping with my wife in Marylebone, buying what you buy in Marylebone on a Sunday – farmers’ market breads and cheeses, rare-breed potatoes, oak-smoked garlic cloves. The good life. We’d paused on a bench in St Marylebone Gardens, right opposite the Fitzpatrick Mausoleum, an elegantly domed stone memorial to Susanna Fitzpatrick who’d given up the ghost in 1759, aged only 30. That teaches you something when you’re sitting there laden with indulgences, though I’m not sure what.
A small child was struck by the mausoleum too. She kept running up to it and knocking on its bolted wooden doors. “No one in,” her mother told her. But the child wasn’t convinced. “Knock, knock.” A quick listen, a quick retreat, and then back again. It was just as she had finally decided that there really was no one at home, or at least no one she fancied meeting, that the dog appeared. A black Labrador as old as Methuselah. “Done in” is the best description I can give of him. A Macbeth dog who had grown aweary of the sun and for whom each day was now too like the day before.
He walked with agonising difficulty, his hind legs arthritic, his back a terrible burden to him. It was as though will alone kept him upright. He was barely able to round the mausoleum, and kept stopping. With each tired step he took, his owner stooped to say something to him and patted his head. Laid her hand upon him would be a better way of putting it. A long, infinitely gentle touch, as though to lend him some of her vital spirit.
Whether she was urging him to get up and walk a little further, or telling him he could just sit down now in the gravel if that was what he wanted, take his final rest there and then, I couldn’t hear. But by some agreement they reached a bench where they could pause: she on the seat, he, folded under himself, at her feet.
She was an elegant woman in her middle years. Soberly coiffed and dressed in a smart grey wide-skirted coat and black boots. Had I been a dog I’d have been proud to have such a woman take me for a walk. “This is my mistress, where’s yours?” But the Labrador was past all erotic vaingloriousness now. He didn’t look at her or make any acknowledgement of her presence. For a moment I even wondered if he were blind.
Children scooted past him, cruelly young, carelessly wheeling close to his paws, but he didn’t flinch. It seemed not to be sightlessness that afflicted him, though. He didn’t have that air of relying on other, sharpened senses. It was more indifference. The presence of children didn’t arouse his curiosity, nor did the wildness of their spirits agitate him. What harm could they do? Lay on, Macduff.
I can’t fully explain why he reminded me of Macbeth. It had to do with his blackness – “come thick night” – the sense of something once strong ebbing from him, the dignity of his defeatedness. He’d reached that point of knowing himself to be beyond amity with another being.
His owner seemed to understand that perfectly. She didn’t ask for anything from him. She didn’t badger him. She held his lead with an exquisite gentleness, careful to do nothing abrupt, as though the lead were the last thread that bound them. She leaned forward, stroked him, laid her hand upon his head, and whispered to him. What did she say? God knows. But he gave no sense that he was required to respond in any way. I doubt she lied to him. I doubt she told him it was going to be all right. She had a gravity that was the mirror image of his. Between the two of them existed all that was serious in life.
The most sombre beings I have ever known are dogs. I never had one of my own, but I sometimes accompanied my father when he walked his Labrador. That dog, too, lived a long time, and in the end decided he would take his final walk on his own. Somehow he escaped the house, made straight for the lake around which my father had walked him for years, and strode calmly in. Couldn’t face the emotionalism of the goodbyes.
Odysseus’s dog Argos the same. This is the saddest story. Argos has been waiting for his owner to come back from the Trojan wars. Twenty years and not a word. Once upon a time he and Odysseus had hunted together. But now his only function is to wait, lying on piles of dung, infested with fleas. And then suddenly Odysseus reappears, disguised in order to surprise Penelope’s suitors. Only Argos recognises him. In his excitement he drops his ears and wags his tail. Odysseus, however, dare not let the dog betray him. “Dashing a tear from his eyes”, he ignores Argos and walks on. Whereupon, in Homer’s words, “Argos passed into the darkness of death, now that he had fulfilled his destiny of faith and seen his master once more after twenty years.”
“Destiny of faith” is not a term that enjoys much currency in our human world. Try saying it to the trivial-minded gasbags and laddish swindlers who govern us, who run down our institutions, fondle small boys, lie about what they know, think destiny is five thousand smackers a day and a motor yacht, and don’t know when it’s time to quit.
I watch the black Labrador attempt to lift his handsome head to smell the air one last time. But he can’t do it. His owner kneels and lays her hand upon him. Then we get up and leave.
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