When I was a pup, I had a dog. Prince. Half Collie, half Labrador and nothing about him that fitted together properly. A small head with large ears perched precariously on either side, one most likely inside out for most of his life. Back legs that would stick out at odd angles whenever he sat, much to his alarm. A big fat pot belly, and not the brightest of canines but one of the most friendly and fun loving.
As he reached about fourteen one winter, he began to slow down. Whiskers became greyer around his snout, the pot belly “pottier”, and the time between dreams of chasing three-legged rabbits across summer fields, his legs twitching and muffled woofs escaping his chops, shorter.
“Oh dear”, we all thought as a more sombre, doleful expression began to replace his normal one of constant cheer and bonhomie, “Our Prince will soon be going where the good doggies go, just like Old Shep before him”. So, off to the vets we all went with lumps in our throats and many consoling, “chin up” looks to each other across the car seats while Prince lay farting on the back seat oblivious to his likely impending demise.
The vet did prod, and the vet did poke, and the vet did push a thermometer where the sun don’t shine, causing Princes baleful look to be replaced briefly by one of shocked, indignation, and a slightly startled “humph”, to escape his lips. Then the vet did take one hand and with it did stroke his chin and ponder, (his other hand on his hip in case you were curious) and finally pronounced, with the confidence of a man who knows he will be paid come success or failure, “This dog must be operated on immediately!”. I think at that point there may have been a brief cartoon moment as my mum looked first at her chequebook, then at me and my sisters’ faces, then back at her chequebook again, and then sighed and reached for her pen. Suffice to say that a week later, Prince was back at home with an embarrassing shaved patch on his belly, surrounding an angry looking wound, decorated with the vets finest needlework; strict instructions to watch his diet, cut down on the fags and booze, and to get more exercise, watch less TV, and, most importantly, he was less a dysfunctional spleen.
Who knows what a spleen does? Something to do with blood I vaguely remember from the anatomy segment of my Human Biology A’ Level. Think I may have missed the details by being in the canteen cum bar eating chicken and mushroom pies and under-agedly drinking subsidised pints of Budweiser that came with a free classic Mowtown single seven inch for every 4 pints you bought at the same time. (“Go on have one then I can get Ball Of Confusion by The Temptations.” – those brewers ain’t stupid you know!)
Anyway, one spleenless Prince sat on the floor before me expectantly and I would not let him down. His last pack of 20 Canine Filter-less Full Strength went in the bin, his bottles of Dogka down the pan, and I drew up a comprehensive exercise regime, possibly influenced by having recently seen Sylvester “Sly” Stallones’, “Rocky 1”. A convoluted thing it was, just stopping short of graphs showing timing and improvement (I thought I could keep most of that stuff in my head) but it did involve, as a kind of doffed hat to Mr Bilbao (or however you spell it), a big set of outdoor steps in the form of a railway bridge, which, once a day, Prince would have to try to scale, although he did stop short of trying to do the air-punching bit, it being a mite too complex for a dog and possibly ending in a badly grazed dog chin.
For weeks, every day, Prince would attack his new regime, the sparkle coming back into his eyes by degrees, and the jauntiness back into his off kilter, slightly sideways walk, that slowly developed back into his signature, lolloping , ears flapping every which way, tongue hanging out, run. And, every day, towards the end of his walk, he would be confronted by his Nemesis, The Bridge. Like Connery in “The Hill” he would bound the first few steps with gusto, and the theme from “Rocky” playing in his ears, but then his leaps from step to step would start to falter, and finally, about half way up, his back legs would rebel, and he would flop down on his rear, panting for his life, and looking up at me to let me know that he understood his failure, and was most apologetic for it, Stallones’ music echoing off into the distance mournfully.
I would then pick the big lump up, carry him over the remainder of the bridge, and put him carefully down on the other side, and we would walk the last few hundred yards home, both in silent reverie, barely acknowledging the others presence, both lost in our failure.
Month after month, through the harsh winter we would repeat this ceremony, our breath from a distance like two steam engines side by side. Some happy days He would climb more steps before collapse, and some sad days, less, but no matter how much he tried, and I encouraged and cajoled, he just couldn’t get to the summit of Mount Railway Bridge.
That is until one morning whilst taking our daily constitutional, both possibly aware of the impending failure and the progress charts, flat-lining in my brain, just short of the goal, we fell into step with a new neighbour and her cute young Border Collie bitch. For fourteen years Prince had never really had an eye for the ladies, leading the family to believe that perhaps he was one of those select breed that preferred the company of men and the sound of high energy disco music. But, this young lady, it would appear, was special, and had awakened some long dormant gland somewhere in Prince’s nether regions which after many years of inactivity had found its purpose in the September of its life. Tails wagged, both dog and bitch started doing those playful little jumps towards each other with rear ends high in the air and front paws down low, then the young lady of Prince’s desire hared off down the path in a “Chase me! Chase me!” way. And Prince? He did what any red blooded dog would do in the situation and careered off after her… towards… the… bridge…
At that moment, I reacted like any caring parent. My heart was in my mouth. Please don’t let him fail. Let him have this moment. Oh god don’t let her see him collapse half way up the steps, with the confidence we had been building for him post-illness in tatters.
I needn’t have worried. Like a good’un he took the steps two at a time, barking happily, and shot to the top of the bridge without a moments pause, launching himself down the steep drop on the other side, after his lady love with careless disregard for his advanced age and personal safety. And I stood and watched, full of pride for this daft looking hound with his ears flapping crazily in the wind, racing after the girl of his dreams, for I could see now that it had been her and not three-legged rabbits he had been chasing in those dreams that we had laughed at…
Recently, twenty years on, with Prince long gone, I’ve noticed that I’ve started to slow down, to spend more time sleeping, and that there’s a bit of a doleful expression on my face as I look in the bathroom mirror of a morning. My belly has also been becoming more “pot”. So this morning, I finally watched my illegally downloaded “8 Minute Abs!” DVD and did everything the strange, endorphin-pumped, thick-necked goon on the screen shouted at me to do. Then I went into the village, had a light breakfast, a bit of a read of Mark Gatiss’ excellent new novel “The Vesuvius Club”, and then I took a deep breath and climbed the Million or so steep steps up to my tiny apartment in Forty degree heat. And, as I got to the top, pouring rivers of sweat, struggling for breath, feeling terrible and with my head spinning, I remembered Prince, and I smiled.