“I’ll never talk to you again, Mum, if you have him put down!” Sally shouted over dinner last night. Mel had made the mistake of bringing the subject up. She thought her children were old enough to understand but she could see now that they weren’t. She’d also wanted to share the burden with them, to have someone to cry with for once, rather than to be the one to do the comforting. Duke was, after all, her dog and she loved him like a child.
She looked at him now through the rear window of the Volvo and noticed again the profusion of grey hairs on his chin and his weepy right eye. He returned her gaze with a barely perceptible wag of his tail. Darling Duke. They stared at one another through the glass and it felt like they were looking into each other’s souls. How lucky she’d been to have him. He’d been the one constant in her life these past fourteen years. He’d been an honorary page boy at her wedding, adorned with a cornflower silk collar; he’d comforted her through two miscarriages; paced the sitting room with Simon when she’d gone into labour with Sally and Jack and had waited for her at home after the divorce had come through. Still loyal, darling Duke. He was the only one who was. He was always pleased to see her. Never cross. Never argumentative. And he never doubted her love for him. She opened up the boot and stroked his head; instinctively Duke licked her hand.
“I know it’s hard,” she’d tried to reason with Sally, “but he’s old and in pain.”
“And so’s Granny, but I don’t see you trying to have her put down.” Mel couldn’t help but smile. The thought of having her mother put down when she was being particularly trying was tempting.
They’d watched Duke struggle even to stand up to go outside and he’d looked at her with such pity, begging her even, to put an end to his suffering. She’d tried to explain that Labradors weren’t meant to live this long, that he had no quality of life: he was incontinent and in constant pain and now that his eyesight was starting to fail he kept walking into things.
“The vet says it’s the right thing to do,” she argued.
“And what does the vet know about it?” Sally snapped. Mel looked at her and thought: you’re still such a child. She went to put her arm round her but Sally shrugged her off. Angry, always angry with her. This would just give her something else to be cross about. Sally allowed her rage to simmer gently, ready to boil over at the slightest provocation. “Please Mum, please don’t do it,” she begged. “He’s fine, he really is. He’s just old. He’s not ill. He can just sleep here till he’s ready to go. Please…”
Jack asked her what Dad thought about it. He always brought Dad into it. It’s no longer up to him, Mel had wanted to shout. When he left us he lost the right to make these kinds of decisions. But she knew Jack still hadn’t accepted that Simon had moved on. He still needed to feel Dad was part of the family, despite the divorce, despite the girlfriend and despite the baby. And Mel was willing to admit to herself that she missed being able to share the burden, share the decision-making, even share the blame. She longed for Simon to be rational and understanding but those qualities of his character had long been lost to her. Once upon a time he would have put his arm round her when they broke the news to the children and they would have hugged them together and he would have reached into the boot and carried Duke gently into the vet and laid him on the table and he would have stroked Duke’s cheek while the vet did whatever he needed to do. But he wasn’t bloody there, was he? He’d buggered off and gone and found himself a whole new life to ruin.
In the divorce case, he’d tried to argue that Duke was his and had even produced his original bank statement as proof that it was he who’d bought him. He’d argued that it would make the transition to a new house for the children so much easier if he had the dog with him to make the unfamiliar look and feel somehow familiar, but he hadn’t counted on her being a sentimental fool who’d kept every card and letter he’d ever sent her, including the one attached to Duke’s collar the day Simon gave him to her for her twenty-eighth birthday. So she’d kept the dog but not the house. She knew Simon would come now if she called him but she couldn’t bear his pity, so no, she wouldn’t let him be privy to her pain. She was on her own now and she had to do this by herself.
“Do you need a hand, Mrs Jones?” She turned round. It was Tom, the vet.
“I’m sorry. I’m just trying to summon the strength to do this.”
“We don’t have to do it today,” Tom replied kindly.
“If not today, then it will have to be tomorrow or the next day. I’m fine, really I am. I just need to be practical.” If only he could sit in the back of the car forever. “Look at him. He looks so happy. If he didn’t have to move he’d be fine. Wouldn’t you, boy? You’d like that, wouldn’t you?”
“Why don’t you leave him out here in the sunshine while we sort out the paperwork? Give you time to decide if this is the right moment or not.”
Mel followed Tom into the surgery and pretended to read through the documents presented to her. If Simon had been here he would have brought Duke home and buried him in the garden and made a cross with Jack, with Duke’s name on it, but she no longer had an acre garden with a stream at the bottom where he could be buried just near enough to the house to be a reminder of the good times and far enough not to be a burden. Now she only had a postage stamp so she agreed to have him cremated. It cost more to have him cremated alone so he would be done with all the strays and unloved animals that happened to die today.
“Will he go to heaven?” Jack asked her when she said goodnight last night. “Only Granny says dogs don’t have souls, so they can’t.” She kissed him on the forehead and told him to look into Duke’s eyes in the morning and he’d be able to see his soul longing to get out, to cause havoc in heaven where Grandpa would be waiting with a pile of sticks to throw for him. She’d wanted to call Mum up to tell her to stop being such an old cow and just for once to tell the kids what they wanted to hear but she knew it would be pointless. Sentimentality was not Mum’s thing.
She signed her name. I can do this, she thought. I can be strong. This is the right thing to do. Duke had shat all over the kitchen floor again this morning and the stench had been unbearable. His body had given up and she knew it. Sally just opened the back door without saying anything about the smell – usually she’d make a huge scene about wanting to throw up – and let him outside. Mel watched her from the kitchen while she bent down with her yellow marigolds and scooped up his mess one last time. Sally was saying her goodbyes in the garden. “I love you, Duke,” she heard her say and Mel let out a sob into the bucket.
She went back to the car and wrapped Duke up in her walking jacket and kissed him on his nose. It was still cold, still wet.
“I love you,” she whispered to him.
“Are your ready?”
“As much as I’ll ever be,” she replied. “You take him.” The vet bent down and cradled Duke carefully in his arms.
“Are you coming?”
She shook her head.
“I can’t,” she muttered into the empty boot. “Be gentle with him.”
“Bye, darling Duke,” she whispered after him, then shut the boot door and crawled into the front seat and sobbed into the steering wheel. I’m sorry, Duke, I thought I could come with you to the end but I couldn’t bear to see you with all those tubes stuck into you or dead, no I couldn’t bear to see you like that. I’m sorry. I should be there for you but I no longer have the strength to hold you while you pass through to the other side. Go find Grandpa for me. She could hear Simon torment her. So you couldn’t even do it properly, could you? If he was mine, I would’ve been there ’til the bitter end. No, I ran out of strength, Simon. There’s nothing left in me to give. She wanted to be with Duke, he’d know that, wouldn’t you boy?
Mel took a deep breath then started the ignition and left, glancing just once through her rear view mirror at the green door to the surgery.
At home, she worked methodically to clean the house of all the painful reminders of Duke to make it easier for the kids when they came home from school. She threw his soiled bedding and toys into a bin liner. She picked up his lead from the back of the kitchen door and put it away in a drawer. At least you’re no longer in pain. I hope you’re running free somewhere. The phone rang but she ignored it, she couldn’t trust herself to speak to anyone yet, and heard it click into the answer machine. It was Simon. “Jack texted me about Duke. I’m so sorry, Mel. You must be devastated. I know how much he meant to you. Remember how we used to call him our first child.” Mel leant against the work surface and listened. She’d forgotten how kind he could be. His voice shook a little while he spoke. She heard him clear his throat. “I was just wondering if we might bury him here, if it’s all right with you. I think it would be good for the children to have somewhere to go to mourn him. Just a thought. Anyway, give me a ring when you feel up to it. Bye.” course, how stupid of her to think he was being kind. He was just up to his old tricks again, wanting to snatch everything away from her – first the house, then her children’s love, given half the chance, and now the remains of her poor dear Duke. He couldn’t let it go, could he? He’d lost out on Duke in the divorce and now he was trying to get his grubby little paws on him again. Well, she wouldn’t let him have his little ritual where he got to be the good guy and she got to be left out in the cold yet again. So no, if he was going to be buried anywhere, she’d scatter his ashes on the Common and Simon could bloody well go to hell.
She filled the kettle with water, switched it on and waited for the water to boil. She needed a strong cup of tea before she called the vets to instruct them to set some ashes aside for her. When the children came home from school, they could sit down together and plan their own ceremony for him; Jack would draw a picture and Sally could say a few words. Together they’d decide where best to scatter his ashes. Just the three of them.
Victoria Pougatch asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work