Accompanied by his aged and limping border collie, Greg makes his way slowly along sun-lit pavements, now quickly drying after a brief autumn shower. The dog stops, and languidly wagging his tail, looks up at his master of many years.
“Ah Billy, you want to go home,” the old man murmurs. For a moment they stand together, then tugging gently at the lead, Greg attempts a smile. “Not long now, Billy old chap, not long now.”
The receptionist, a young woman, slightly plump with dimples and a broad attractive smile, glances at the computer screen. “Yes Mr Henderson. You’re slightly early. Can you and …”
“Can you and Billy just take a seat for a few minutes?”
Greg finds himself following the second hand as it sweeps around on the large round clock high on the pale green wall behind the receptionist’s desk. A door opens, words are lightly exchanged and a young girl and a woman carrying a green and cream-coloured cat carrier emerge. They glance at Greg and Billy as they pass.
A moment later a pleasantly featured, middle aged man in a white coat emerges. “Mr Henderson.” He pauses and smiles “… and Billy”. His voice is even and reassuring.
Lying on a gurney on a white sheet part of which drapes down to the surgery floor Billy looks up at his master, shuts his eyes, and after a moment takes his long last breath.
Greg briefly strokes the dog’s head, briskly nods at the vet, then as he turns to go points at the worn leather lead now lying on a chair. “Can I leave this with you?” At the surgery door he allows himself to look back at his dog now being covered by a white sheet. Farewell for the present old friend, he thinks.Perhaps we will not be parted for long.
He becomes aware that he has unconsciously chosen a homeward route which has taken him to the park where he used to throw a ball for Billy. For a moment or so he stands absorbed by the image of a young, fit Billy, crouching low in the grass, several yards in front of him, muzzle on the ground, eyes locked on him, anticipating the instant when the ball would fly above him, then, leaping and turning, streaking away across the park.
Seating himself on a bench he starts to leaf through his memories of Billy, then his other dogs, then his several romances, then happy times as a shepherd in the Scottish Border country, when on sun drenched summer days, he felt at one with his world. His mind reels backwards to youthful episodes with friends – uproarious, joyous, alcohol-fuelled adventures, when recklessness was no sin. But now? His life behind him! What’s it all been for? he wonders.
As he sits, a dog – some sort of feisty, cross breed terrier – bounces across the grass towards him. “You’re a cheeky wee fellow, aren’t you?” he says affectionately, extending a hand to the animal, which it immediately sniffs. Then, in response to the summoning cry of a woman standing in the distance, the dog turns and scampers away.
“Will I get another dog?” he hears himself muttering, a question he has asked himself many times in recent months. “Nah, too old! Not sensible. The dog would probably outlive me.”
“How are you, Greg?” A voice wrenches him from his reverie. He turns to find Jimmy, an elderly acquaintance and near neighbour, standing beside the park bench grinning down at him. “Away in a wee world of your own, weren’t you?” He pauses. “Billy not with you today?”
“Billy’s gone to dog heaven. Left him at the vet.”
Jimmy looks sad for a moment, then briskly nods. “Best thing, best for him, best for you.” He seats himself on the bench and for a minute or so the two old men look across the expanse of the park. Jimmy breaks the silence. “So, are you going to get another dog? You’ve always had dogs in your life, haven’t you?”
“Nah, too old. Not sensible,” Greg replies, echoing his previous thought. He frowns at Jimmy who is chuckling. “What’s funny about that?”
“Sensible!” exclaims Jimmy. “’Sensible” can be a dangerously big word for folk our age. Taking too much pride in being sensible can snuff out the spark of life, squeeze out the joy. Then you begin to dwell on the meaning of life. Then, you start thinking, “Life makes no sense, life is absurd”. Then, you find yourself asking, “Is my life pointless?” And then, you get near to the point of thinking, “Why bother?” His voice is momentarily subdued. “You can find yourself in a very dark place. That I know.”
A bit of an exaggeration, Greg thinks then smiles. But up to a point, quite sensible. “So that’s your philosophy, is it Jimmy?”
“Philosophy!” Jimmy retorts. “That’s another big, dangerous word. No, not anything like that, just a habit of mind. I take pleasure in small things whenever I can.” He waves towards the nearby trees. “In the colours of autumn, or the geese flying south, in small jobs completed, in always being open to the good things of life.”
Jimmy pauses, glances at his watch, and smiles mischievously. “And, at this particular moment I am focussing on my stomach and the wonderful prospect of a big plate of fish and chips in Mary’s Cafe in the High Street. You’re welcome to join me.”
Greg nods vigorously, stands as quickly as his creaking old joints allow, then laughs. “I will take pleasure in that.”
Author is an old chap, grappling with themes of limits, longings and finitude. Worked for many years with people with double trouble: mental challenges and involvement with the criminal courts. Lives in St Andrews, Scotland, an ancient town with an ancient university, home of golf, home also – allegedly – of many ghosts. (He has not met any yet.)