The last morning of his life was one of sudden flawless beauty; a glittering warmed jewel of a morning, given to him as if a
He was a large, pure-white boxer dog, over six stone of packed fluent
muscle, pulling ahead of the two younger boxer bitches as usual on that morning. A dog of a dog, full of his prime, strutting it out, centre of the road, like an invitation or a
We'd had a week of grey skies and more rain, and as we took the road out of the village on that drab dawn in early May, the
fields were lost in a ground mist and the wood below held the weather like a marsh.
And then, in the lanes beyond the wood, with only a gradual, almost imperceptible, flush of warmth and light to tell of its coming,
the sun gathered and rose above the brow of a hill. Rose burning in a dissolving mist, the valley steaming under it, the air as we walked shining like a thing newly and frailly
The climbing sun struck liquid sparks from the fields, the air above them rushed with lark song, and the dogs, free of
their leads, chased after this new bright world like a thrown ball.
Heads down tracking the scents of the morning, bloodhound-like in ditches and along banks, their scuts of tails an ecstatic blur,
they quartered the lanes in a burst of energy as uncomplicated as a shout.
And Sikes, wearing a black eye of dirt from a rabbit burrow, and ditch mud on his legs like disreputable socks clean on that
morning, careless under the sudden beneficence of the day, heedless of how or why. A Just William of a dog with the sun and the high road calling, trotting ahead with that sideways rolling gait of
his to meet them.
He arrived at the age of six weeks in a shopping basket carried by my wife at a time when we were between dogs, and entered our
world in a small explosion of savaged book covers, chewed furniture and missing, presumed buried, shoes. We christened him Bill Sikes because his Toby-jug villainous looks seemed to carry that name
already, like an inscription stamped on his bottom.
But despite what it said on the outside, his was essentially a mild disposition; a disposition that was quite prepared to allow
humankind and the rest of the dog world their space, if they would allow him his. Although he would never remember a previous engagement when it came to a fight, he would never start one, and dogs
intent that he should involve himself in the sport soon emerged from it wishing they had left well alone. Sikes, with the agility of the breed and the business end of his six stone, would finish it
there and then by flipping them over on their backs, and growling meditatively while holding them there, as if wondering which bit to chew on first.
But they always escaped unchewed. Sikes being pulled off or trotting away, confident and quite content in leaving behind a lesson
With old people and small animals, he was either indifferent or, if he decided to involve them in his world, mindful of his power
and fanged strength. He once, presumably for the sheer hell of it, chased and caught a rabbit. Scooping it up without breaking stride, he went the full circle of a three-acre field as triumphant as
a greyhound who has at long last caught the hare.
And when he did finally trot back to us, we steeled ourselves for bloodied fur and whimperings of pain. But as Sikes opened his
jaws, the rabbit, damp and bit chewed looking, and no doubt a little confused, dropped to the ground in one piece, and reorienting itself, took off, ears flattened, for the nearest
With children he was as patient as a seaside donkey, and with adults friendly but aloof under the admiring word or hand. It was for
us, the people who fed and walked him, that he reserved the works. To wrestle him off a chair or, simply so we could get in it, the bed, was to unleash a rising, bloodcurdling chorus of snarls and
growls, spittle bubbling like a lubricant for those terrible, bared teeth.
But there was of course no harm in it. Not in Bill Sikes, with his battered bowler and red-spotted kerchief tied at the throat,
growling stage curses from that Dickensian underworld where all shadows are larger than life.
And it was, I suspect, those shadows, thrown against a backdrop of memory, that was at the heart of much of the affection given to
him in his life. Sikes was a dog who seemed to appeal to men more than women, and I believe that it was an appeal which went back to childhood and innocence. He belonged in that cupboard in the
imagination of a man where the wooden swords, catapults and bent pins for fish hooks are stashed still. He was tramp, pirate, outlaw and Dick of the Bloody Hand in the day-dreaming underworld of
the small boy. A half-remembered figure that beckoned outside a classroom window when the sun shone and the lessons droned, to follow, carelessly and gloriously free, Sikes on some country road
It was, we were told, his heart. That muscle which had given him so much boisterous life had suddenly failed
We returned from the walk that morning with the sun still climbing, Sikes strutting ahead of us, swaggering through the gate as if
bringing it home, a shower of bright coin over his shoulder. When he faltered, faltered and then fell.
He tried to rise, his face a terrible and deeper shade of white, distress and bewilderment in his eyes. And the knowledge, finally,
that whatever had struck at him with such dreadful force was not to be flipped on its back this time; was not something he could trot away from, confident and content in leaving behind a lesson
He died some minutes after we reached the surgery. Reviving in the car on the way there, he shouldered his way through the door,
Sikes again, centre of the road and ready for anything, out on his own with us as he was in the beginning. The hand that had struck him down, and held him there for the first time in the five, game
years of his life, forgotten.
In the reception, he jumped up and put two paws on the counter. A dog sure of his welcome, and poised there still in my memory, Bill
Sikes, breasting the bar of the Pickwick Arms. Before falling back as if pushed, and lying there, still, on his side.
Rushed onto the surgery table, surrounded by humans in a drama of attempted resuscitation, he died as he had lived. In a circle of
attention, centre of the road, upstaging us to the end.
© Copyright 2016 Peter Maughan. All rights reserved.