Morning walks are not what they used to be. For years, my whippet, Oscar, and I would take a brisk hour’s trot at eight, taking care of business, physical (him) and mental (me). His bladder and bowels got a workout; the rhythm of our steps and the changing-unchanging view provided a gulp of oxygen and thinking time for my groggy brain.
Now, Oscar arrives outside my bedroom door at about 5.45am, making a polite but insistent noise like a slowly deflating balloon. When I get up, he shadows me, still making this noise, his eyes pools of anxiety, until I give up and grab his lead. Despite every appearance of tearing impatience to get out, the minute we leave the house he grinds to a halt by the front step and licks it insistently. If I don’t move him on, he will spend five minutes doing this, before peeing slowly on the spot, eyes fixed on me in a way that would be deeply creepy if I didn’t know him so well.
This is how our walks go now: he truffles away at lamp-posts, hedges and bins at great length; whenever I start to get into a walking rhythm, he jerks me back, arrested by some particularly compelling pool of urine. Each day, we cover less and less ground and move a little slower. I haven’t had an uninterrupted morning train of thought for months.
I would like to be the kind of person who accepts this with Zen patience, but most days I hiss: “You’re driving me mad, Oscar,” or: “I don’t have time for this,” at least once. I often stand in front of his favourite patches of verge to stop him getting stuck for 10 minutes.
My dog is old. I have known and loved him since he was a scrap of a puppy; now, somehow, he is 12. He used to have the muscular gallop of a miniature racehorse and leap into 5ft hedges to retrieve his ball; he still loves a ball, but his legs give up after two throws. His once-black muzzle is silvery white, his breath has the foul stench of a Grimsby trawler in the sun and his body is thinner than ever, battered and balding. Lying on the bed in my office – as he does for hours a day, motionless, more pancake than pet – he has the bruised, almost corpse-like, palette of a Lucian Freud: muddy pinks, greys and putty; still beautiful, but plainly mortal. His flank is bisected by a huge, jagged scar from when a German shepherd attacked him; it still hurts my heart to remember my peaceful gentleman cowering in a ball, not daring to defend himself.
I was terrified we had lost him then – the vet wasn’t sure his delicate skin would hold the web of sutures – but now every day is a fractional, inexorable step towards losing him. I forget for a while, then I catch sight of him limping after an unwise ball chase and it brings me up short. He is no emotional support dog – he likes his own company, wants to be stroked only at four each afternoon for no more than five minutes and greets most affection with a martyred sigh – but he has been there, solidly himself, for 12 years: a funny, consoling, reliable presence. It is outrageous that he will not be here for ever.
I had to break off and stroke his silky ears after typing that (he hated it: 9am is not stroking time).
So, I am trying a new approach. On today’s walk, I let Oscar stop as often as he wanted and lick as much disgusting street filth as he fancied. Instead of chivvying him on, I watched the bounce of his neatly folded ears as he meandered slowly and enjoyed his happy, pottering absorption. I didn’t have a single coherent thought and it took an age: I am horribly behind on everything. But it is abundantly clear that there are a finite number of these morning walks ahead of us; let’s squeeze every lingering second of lamp-post-inspecting, pee-licking, bin-sniffing canine joy out of them.