by Sarah Juggins
Slowly, oh so slowly, the old woman walked down the street. Every five yards or so, she would stop and peer into a garden or at a sign on a wall or just at the traffic as it whizzed past. Then she would place her stick with renewed vigor onto the pavement and set off again, slightly hunched, her eyes looking just a few paces ahead, placing her feet carefully on the ground after each hesitant step.
Patiently walking besides her, stopping when she stopped, walking when she walked, was Patch. A white mongrel, with terrier looks but a Labrador’s devotion to duty. One black spot covered his right eye and one splotch of black, no bigger then a coin, sat on his back, where his tail began.
They reached the end of the street and Patch unerringly turned left. The park was ahead. Here, he was released from the leash and he ran around the park, rushing at the ducks as they sat besides the stream, almost laughing as they plopped into the water, quacking indignantly at him.
On these daily excursions, Patch met other dogs, performing the age-old rituals of sniffing, playing, pretend-fighting and running in circles. His owner would sometimes have a few words with other dog owners, the long-time regulars, but mostly she would just stand, leaning on her stick, watching Patch as he followed his routine.
Today was no different. Patch ran around until she called him. He took one last look at the ducks. They had hopped back out of the water and the look in the eye of the nearest was almost daring him. Patch made a move towards the duck, who reared up in a combination of alarm and defense, then the dog turned his back and trotted back. He obligingly lifted his head so the leash slipped on easily and then woman and dog made their slow way home.
“There you are, Mum,” exclaimed the man waiting at the gate. “I thought you had forgotten.”
The woman didn’t speak, she just fished in her handbag for her key and then walked up to the front door. Patch waited by the door as she slowly reached up to insert the key in the lock. The man jumped forward and took it from her. “Here, I’ll do that,” he said. Helpful attitude disguising the impatience.
As they went into the house, Patch’s owner slipped the leash off his head again. “Should I put him in the car?” asked the man.
“No,” was the reply. “Let him play in the garden until we go. I’ll put the kettle on, we’ll have coffee.”
“I think we should make a move Mum, really,” he said, but she was already at the sink, filling the kettle.
“Are these your bags?”
“I’ll pop them in the car. And are these the dog’s things?”
Again a nod. The man hefted the bags and went out to the car. Patch sat by his owner watching expectantly as she went to the cupboard. A biscuit appeared above his head and he sat to attention waiting for his treat. His ears were ruffled and his head stroked. Patch sat waiting. Eventually the biscuit was handed over and he took it to the mat where he always ate his treats.
“Come on then,” said the man after he had drained the coffee from his cup. “We are expected at 10am and it is getting on for that now. Have you got a travel basket for the dog?”
“He sits on my lap,” said the woman.
“But the car has been vacuumed, there’ll be fur everywhere.”
“He sits on my lap.”
The three of them made their way to the car. The man held the door open and the woman gently lowered herself into the car, hanging onto the sides as she did so. She swung her legs around and then fumbled over her shoulder for the seat belt.
“Here you go,” the man pulled the belt and helped lock her in. Patch waited until she was comfortable and then jumped up with agility. Her arms closed around him and he felt the heat of her body as she hugged him close.
Ten minutes later they pulled up at a low-roofed building.
“Here we are then Mum,” said the man, pulling into a parking space. “You wait here.”
The woman didn’t move. She ran her hands over Patch’s head, stroking his ears and under his chin. She held him even closer and tickled his chest. Patch licked her hand and nuzzled her. When she stopped, he pushed her hand with his nose to ask her to keep stroking him.
She buried her face in his fur and stayed like that for long seconds. Then she sat up straight and handed his leash over wordlessly.
The man pulled the leash and Patch jumped out. The woman watched as the dog walked obediently beside the man into the building. Then she stared ahead into the distance, no expression on her wrinkled face.
“That was painless,” said the man, getting back in the car. “He was a good dog, just went off no fuss at all.”
Two weeks later the man and his family were called into the nursing home.
“I am sorry we had so little time with your mother,” said the kindly nurse. “She was a lovely old lady, kept to herself. But she seemed to know she didn’t have long, she just went off with no fuss at all.”