The final memory I want to discuss is really a juxtaposition of two memories, separated by a decade, and recorded in Running with the Pack.
Brenin has lymphoma, the vet tells me, and the prognosis is what, in the profession, they call “guarded”. In other words, he is going to die. It is going to be soon, and my primary duty now, the last important thing I can do for my old friend, is to make his death as easy as it can be. As easy as it can be for him, I mean. That probably means making it hard for me. If he could just slip away in the night, painlessly, unaware … but I suspect that is not the way it is going to be. I am going to have to make a decision, a final judgment. The judgment will be that Brenin’s life is no longer worth living. Not a second less of a life worth living, and not a second more of a life that is not. That is the goal. Then I will have to take him to the vet, and I will have to ask the vet to kill him. I suspect that whatever decision I make will always be riddled with doubt. Years later, I will ask myself: Was that the right day? Did I get it right? Was it too soon? Or was I too slow, already too late – too weak?
We have just returned from taking Nina and Tess to boarding kennels, for a few days. They are still young, exhausting to be around; and I decided Brenin might benefit from a short rest, a break from their grinding effervescence. Upon our return, I quickly notice a change in Brenin’s demeanour. Brighter, more alert, more interested, hungrier than he has been in weeks – I offer him the spaghetti I had made for my lunch and he quickly devours it. Then he does something altogether unexpected. He jumps onto the sofa and howls.
When he was a young wolf, Brenin had a little party piece that he would perform most days. He would run, full tilt, at the settee, jump on to it, and then continue his run up the wall. When he had got as high as his momentum would carry him, which was typically around three-quarters of the way up a standard living room wall, he would spin his back legs up and around – a kind of canine cartwheel – and then run back down the wall. This was his way of letting me know we had been dawdling in the house for far too long, and that it was time for a run. Time had stripped him of this sort of outrageous athleticism – jumping on the settee and howling had become his middle-aged substitute. Still, I know exactly what he is suggesting.
There is a ditch at the end of the garden, and when we get there, Brenin begin to run up and down it, over to the trees on the other side and back again: a display of excitement of the sort I have not seen – not from him anyway – in a number of years. When we left the house, I had envisaged a gentle stroll, an opportunity to sniff a few smells, and mark a little territory. But something in his behaviour, perhaps it was a glint in his almond eye, convinces me that something strange is happening. And so we do something that even now I still cannot quite believe.
I had not been running for the best part of a year. Whenever I tried, Brenin, more than a decade old now, would soon start lagging behind. At first, I had tried to incorporate this into the run: running forward for a while, then jogging back to reunite with Brenin, before heading forward again to catch up with Nina and Tess. I think it had been the look of desperation on his face, the desperation that goes with understanding that your body will not do what you want it to anymore that convinced me to stop doing this. Nina and Tess could still run all day, of course. But I couldn’t do this to my old wolf brother, and so my running with the pack had transformed into gentle walks.
So, this is how we begin our last run together. I quickly put on some shorts, dig out my neglected running shoes, and we set off through the woods, along a narrow path that brought us out to the Canal du Midi.
For the first couple of miles we run in the shadows of the giant sycamores. If this had been July, the trees would have been a blessing. But it wasn’t, and they weren’t. This was January; we are only a few days into the New Year. The tramontane – the mountain wind – tasting of the snows of Lozère and Auvergne, sweeps down between the trees, a sycamore wind tunnel. This is a run as cold as death. Every run has its own heartbeat, and this is the beat of a heart that is cold. The barren, leafless branches of those giant plane trees dance to the wind of snow and mountains. Our feet are soundless; our breath, and the jingle, jingle, jingle of Brenin’s chain are lost in the wind. We are not here.
I had expected Brenin to tire quickly. I had expected a quick return to the house. But he does not tire. Not a bit: he drifts, apparently without effort, over the ground beside me, almost like the Brenin of old – almost as if he was floating an inch or two above the earth; almost as if he wasn’t dying.
There is a turn off from the Canal, down a little dirt track that runs along the edges of the village’s vineyards. I was getting a little worried, because we were approaching the furthermost point of the run from our house. The cancer has robbed Brenin of a considerable amount of his weight. But, even so, he is still around120lbs, and I really do not relish the prospect of having to carry him three miles home. But he glides on, apparently inconvenienced by the death that grows inside him. After about a mile, the track swings south and brings us to the eastern edge of the grande maïre. On one side, there is the maïre, the densely bullrushed marsh. On the other there are fields scattered with the white horses and black bulls of the region. The sun warms us slightly, now we have left the trees behind. Even the tramontane can’t quite take that away from a sun that has begun its slow afternoon descent into the sea, and dances fiercely on the wind-worried waters of the maïre.
After a mile or so of tracking the lagoon, we reach the digue, the dyke built to stop the storm surges of the winter Mediterranean. We run along here for half a mile or so, and then turn south again, and we soon reach the beach. It is here that we rest and sit in the dying January sun, watching the waves wash gently onto the golden sands, sands littered with trunks of trees and assorted detritus from last week’s storm. The sun sinks slowly over the snow-peaked Canigou, nestled in the mountains that wrapped around the coast, south down to Spain.
The empty house is waiting for both of us. But, for a while at least, we sit and watch the sun.
Ten years later I find myself on the same beach in the south of France. I have built sandcastles, surrounded by a system of moats that would not have embarrassed Pierre Paul Riquet, the man who built the Canal du Midi. The sole purpose of these sandcastles is to be destroyed at some subsequent time to be determined by my two sons. Running from distance, they perform graceless belly flops on the castles, hitting the sand hard, yipping like hyenas over and over again, aided and abetted by Hugo, the dog of their childhood, who bounds along beside them barking and frothing like a dog in the grip of la rage. I might have played this game once. But then I got old and didn’t understand it any more. Perhaps I am beginning to understand it again.
I suspect children, and the dogs of children, understand what is important in life far better than adults. When I build the sandcastles, it is work. I do it for the enjoyment of my sons. When they destroy those castles, it is play: they do this for no other reason than to do it. As the castles die the death of a thousand belly flops, I can think of no more emphatic affirmation of the value of play over work. There is a joy that goes with this – the joy of giving yourself over wholly to the activity and not the outcome, the deed and not the goal. Perhaps I can no longer understand the game; but I can see the joy, I can feel it: I can hear it echoing out across the water towards Africa.
And yet: we are not far away. I can see it. We’re no more than a few metres away from the place where I once sat with a dying wolf, and watched the cold winter sun set slowly on his life. That this life, this single pathway through space and time should contain both memories: this is what seems so improbable to me. This is what, for me, is a “faintly surreal discovery”.
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