Let me be clear: I am not sentimental about my animals. I love them as much or more than anyone else, and can be as soppy as the next man, but I will not stand by and watch them suffer. I have shot my dogs and my horses when there was no way out of their pain; blown out their brains in a final act of respect and oblation – a personal covenant I cannot and would not delegate to another. So when one day I noticed Tumble straining unnaturally to defecate, my heart sank. I knew where we were headed. I had lost Hobson to a horrid bowel problem and I didn’t like the look of this at all. We tried laxatives to no avail. Volcano-like and ominous, a bulge appeared around his tail. To begin with it was soft and painless – not like a tumour – so I guessed it was a rectal hernia.
Town or country, when your dog is ill, it’s a crisis, in our case made worse by living up a remote Highland glen. John Easton, our friendly local vet, is only twelve miles away and regularly comes to attend to our horses and cattle. He confirmed my suspicions: thankfully not a tumour, but two hernias not just a single, one on either side of his tail. ‘Sorry,’ John shook his head, ‘there’s nothing I can do. There’s no medical treatment or cure. Your only hope is a risky and complicated operation with no guarantee of success.’ Worse still, John couldn’t attempt the surgery himself, it would have to be Glasgow: the highly respected University of Glasgow Veterinary Hospital, on busy summer roads a drive of four gruelling hours.
Tumble had become my dog. Once again I had a shadow, always there, always pleased to see me, always keen to join in with whatever I was doing. And in the evenings he would curl up on my lap in my fireside chair, snoring and dreaming in the oceanic slumber of contentment only a dog can know.
All summer the condition worsened. We kept him going on liquid paraffin. In front we had an alert, happy, healthy, fun-loving terrier; behind he was pained, distorted, grotesque, eventually unable even to wag his little tail. When I took him out it was taking him up to half an hour to evacuate pathetic little caterpillars of excrement, and then only with my help containing the obscene bulges on either side of his tail with my hands. Daily they grew larger. Incontinence followed, the internal pressure overcoming him so suddently that he wallowed helplessly in the pathos of his own distress.
‘Do we risk the surgery?’ I asked Lucy and Hermione, now eleven, who had hijacked both puppies five years before and, although she had reluctantly conceded Tumble to me and made Rough her special dog, her own constant companion, she had always doted on them both.
‘Daddy,’ she said to me, fighting back tears and in a voice I had not heard before, ‘you are to try everything.’ I phoned for an appointment in Glasgow.
A few days later we were there, Tumble and I, face to face with a smiling young Australian surgeon named Ross. I stood Tumble carefully on the stainless-steel examination bench. Ross was pulling on surgical gloves. ‘I need to investigate the extent of the hernias. Will you hold him firm?’
‘Sure,’ I said, and to Tumble, ‘Sorry, little man, he’s going to stick a finger up your bum.’ It hurt and he yelled, and I felt a traitor for having to hold him so tight. ‘Sorry,’ I murmured again, when it was over, burying my face in his velvet ears. ‘Please don’t stop trusting me just yet. Can you fix it, Ross?’ I asked.
He promised he would do his best but warned that if it failed there would be only one outcome. There was a moment of silence, broken only by the slap of the rubber gloves springing off his fingers. Hermione’s words swirled round my brain. ‘Do we give it a go?’ he asked at length.
I liked his honest eyes, and his bare, scrubbed forearms seemed to evince an inner strength. This young man had the air of a real professional. Sometimes I think Aussies are more straightforward than us Brits; I trusted this one instinctively. I nodded. Just for a moment I had no words.
I had to leave him, of course, and trail back up north through the wide, empty mountains to our lonely Inverness-shire glen, the lonelier for Tumble’s absence and made more poignant by Hermione’s tears and Rough’s whining restlessness. Three days passed, then the phone call.
Ross said that it was much worse than he had expected. When he opened Tumble up he’d found the whole bowel distorted and doubled back on itself in an S-shape. He’d had to straighten it by hitching it permanently to the abdomen wall. Then he darned the splits in the ruptured muscles where the hernias bulged, stitching them together in a mesh of zigzagged sutures. The little dog had come round, but he was sedated and drowsy. They wanted to hold on to him until the bowel moved, to see if it was going to work – the crucial test. It would be another day or two perhaps.
The next day a friendly Glaswegan nurse phoned: Tumble had eaten a little, but still no movement. Another twenty-four hours dragged by. It was the same the following morning – still nothing. It might be better, she suggested, if I came down and took him home … ‘Some dogs are very particular about where they go.’ That’s my Tumble, I thought, and ran for the car.
In three and a half hours I was there, pacing the corridor, like a prisoner awaiting sentence. The door opened. I knelt to greet him. The same small, blotched black and white face with tan eyebrows, the little black nose, the same eyes of polished oak, ears cocked in woozy recognition, only a bald patch on his neck where the anaesthetic had been. For a moment I held his head in my hands, staring into those deep, unreproving eyes. Could he possibly understand why I had abandoned him?
It was just as well I was braced for his rear end to be a mess. His underbelly, tail and backside were shaved to the pink, the whole region angry and swollen, sutured like a Christmas turkey right down his belly and round his unhappy tail. Gingerly I carried him out to the car. ‘We need a good movement to know if the bowel is working properly,’ smiled another kind assistant as I left. ‘Please give us a ring and let us know.’
On the way home I stopped to stretch my legs on the one thousand five hundred and eight-foot high-point of the Drumochter, the high mountain pass that separates mellow Tayside from rugged old Inverness-shire where the treeless hills veer skywards to the clouds on both sides of the road. Tumble looked up from the blankets as if he wanted to do the same. ‘OK,’ I said, ‘gently does it.’
He wobbled out onto the deer-cropped sward, looking round at the fragrant, cooling hills of late summer, as if to say, ‘This is more like it.’ He stood still for several minutes, occasionally lifting his nose to test the air. Then he glanced up at me for reassurance before sniffing a tussock of rushes. He eased forward, went to cock his leg, winced with pain and thought better of it – after all, he had been gutted like a fish. He looked back to me for guidance.
‘What a good boy,’ I said reassuringly, in the voice I have always used when my dogs perform their functions satisfactorily. I wanted him to have another go, however sore he was. I know how vital kidneys are. But something bigger was on his mind; he had grander designs than that. For a moment he looked nonplussed, eyeing first the mountains and then me before moving stiffly and purposefully to a place of his own particular choosing, an intimate amphitheatre of lawn encircled by a lilac pastel haze of fading heather. Awkwardly and painfully he bent to a faecal crouch. I held my breath.
A moment later the finest, glossiest, roundest, most spectacular four-and-a-half-inch polony of healthy terrier excrement launched itself triumphantly into upland Perthshire. I never dreamed that I would be so thrilled to see a dog turd. Smiling broadly, I reached for my mobile phone.