The vet slipped his hands under Harold’s hind legs, I placed one under his chest and we lifted him onto the table. For a second he stiffened, a soft moan dribbled then he sank onto the rubber mat. It was clear that he was in the type of pain that wouldn’t go away. The vet moved his hands forward and eased Harold into standing on his front legs, then felt around his ribs and stomach, holding a blank stare as he focused on what he could feel. I stroked Harold’s jaw, tilted my face towards his and spoke softly.
A mild grimace appeared on the vet’s face.
“I can feel it,” he said. “I think you’re right. It’s a tumour.”
I pressed my chin onto Harold’s forehead. It was what I had expected but it hurt. I had grown fond of him, despite what had happened on the day I took him in.
The vet moved his hand further down and his grimace tightened.
“There’s something else down here. Smaller, but it could be second tumour.”
I shifted and slid my hand to the spot near Harold’s hind legs. It was new to me, another internal lump that felt hard and threatening. The last shreds of hope were disintegrating.
“Is there anything you could do?”.
“I could send him for an X-ray, see if we could operate on it. But he’s an old dog, he’s very weak, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we find other things that are wrong.”
“So it’s time for him to go to sleep?”
“It’s for the best. If you want another day or two with him I can understand, and I could give him an injection to relieve the pain, but it would leave him dopey, not able to do anything. And I should warn you that his incontinence could get worse.”
He meant the sooner the better. I pressed my face onto Harold’s head for a moment, ran a fingertip under his ear, then looked up and said: “Can you do it now?”
The vet nodded and asked me to wait for a couple of minutes while he made arrangements. Harold slumped onto his stomach again and I crouched beside the table, massaging his jaw and earlobes and offering words of comfort he could never understand.
“Don’t you worry mate. We’re going to take away that pain and you’re going to have a nice big sleep. It’s all going to be better.”
He looked up at me, big sad eyes inflicting a spasm of guilt, moaned again then settled with his chin on the mat. The vet removed a glass vial and a couple of small white packages from a cupboard and turned his back to shield the putting together. Then he asked if I wanted to stay for the end, I nodded and held Harold as he slid a needle into a spot between the hind leg. My stomach tightened and I could feel my heart beating.
“I’m taking a guess that he’s not distressed, so we won’t use a sedative,” the vet said. “I’m just going to give him pentobarbital. It should shut down his heart and brain in less than a minute. Just tell me when you’re ready.”
I lowered my face to stare directly at Harold, looked for a final word but found that all I could do was ruffle the spot between his ears and stare into his eyes. The sadness engulfed and clawed at a memory I was desperate to suppress. I looked towards the vet and nodded. As he fixed the vial to the catheter I felt a moment of fear, not wanting to look into Harold’s eyes again, but made myself do so thinking that I owed it to him. Then I was back in my kitchen confronted by cousin Jamie’s bad teeth.
“You’ve nicked ‘em!”
“I’ve put them in a safe place, until everyone gets to see her will.”
“Bollocks to that! You just want ‘em for yourself.”
“So why have you gone poking around her flat?”
“I went in to help Aunt Lisa.”
“You never help anybody. You were out to see what you could grab without anyone noticing.”
He took a step towards me, a scrawny mess of bristle, bad breath and belligerence. I stood my ground and growled. It was common knowledge in the family that he often visited Aunt Mel, usually to tap her up for some tens or twenties to feed his habit. It was also common knowledge that she had kept some decent jewellery in a slim box under her bedroom cabinet, along with an envelope containing a do-it-yourself will. I had guessed on the day she died that if Jamie had a chance he would be in there, scooping up anything that could finance his next fix. That was why I had borrowed the key from my mum to transfer the box and will to the safe in my stair cupboard until we could get the family together. To my mind it was keeping things above board, and none of us knew what Mel had left to who; but Jamie’s mind was way past thinking that anyone would ever play things straight. He straightened up, pushed back his shoulders and growled. I balled my fists. Then he smiled.
“Alright,” he said. “We can split it. I’ll keep quiet about you going in there and helping yourself.”
“I wasn’t helping myself, and my mum knows about it, and Aunt Lisa and Uncle Keith. They all agreed it was we should do.”
“You can call them and ask.”
The snarl fell off his face and his eyes weltered in desperation and irrationality. Then something nudged at my leg and a slobbering bundle of fur padded between us. Jamie dragged Harold around in an effort to appear normal, and to scrounge scraps to feed the animal. I glanced up to see him clatter against a saucepan on the draining board. Harold nudged me again and I looked down to see pleading eyes and realised he was probably hungry. It crossed my mind that if I offered some food for the dog it might break the tension in the room, then I realised Jamie had opened a drawer and pulled out a serrated knife.
“I’m not arsing about.” He pointed the knife towards my chin. “You’re going to dig out that jewellery right now.”
“Then what?” I asked. “You take it, I call the police, and you get nicked.”
“Your word against mine.”
“And everyone knows you’re a thieving junkie.”
He swung his arm, but he was slow and shakey and I was able to sway clear of the knife. Then I swung a hand to slap his forearm and push the weapon away. For a moment I stared into flaming eyes, then realised the knife was still in his hand. I skipped to his side, grabbed the saucepan and smacked him hard on the head. He went down, jerked a couple of times then rolled onto his side. I waited for him to groan or flap an arm, but then saw the blood running from his nose and watched as he remained still. A whimper came from under the table and Harold moved towards Jamie, sniffed at his face then looked up at me. I leaned over, shook Jamie’s shoulder, rolled him over and recoiled from the stare of lifeless eyes.
I spent minutes on a chair with head in hands, distracted once by a canine sigh and a glance that showed Harold sitting beside the body, staring at me with a confused mixture of abandonment and accusation. Then I thought about Jamie, the family waster who nobody would miss, and my van by in the car port by the front door. I took a canvass sheet and two extension leads from the storage cupboard, rolled the body over the sheet and wrapped it all up with the leads. Then I cleaned the blood from the floor, fending off Harold as he nuzzled at my arm, and waited until it got dark. It took the precaution of reversing the van so I only had to drag the body a few feet in the open to push it into the back, shut Harold in the kitchen and drove fifty miles to a deserted stretch of canal. I stifled the fear of being seen as I pulled the body from the van, slid it into the water and watched it sink; then felt the fear remain with me as I drove home.
Harold was whimpering when I returned, but a bowl of corned beef and another of water brought him some comfort. I stayed up all night cleaning every inch of the kitchen, then off work the next day as I tried to straighten the mess in my head. For a few days I expected a knock on the door, someone asking if I knew anything about the disappearance of my scumbag cousin; but it didn’t come. I began to think that nobody knew he had a reason to come banging at my door and the only loose end was Harold. So I told everybody that Jamie had come around, ranted and raved about my precaution with the will and jewellery, then stormed off in a filthy mood and left his dog behind. It matched what everybody thought about him, so nobody asked awkward questions and Harold became my dog.
The dog that was now dipping its head towards me on the vet’s table as I rubbed his forehead and the injection set in. He looked up at me and I was trapped by his eyes again: bewilderment, grief and that lingering sting of accusation. What have you done to my master? Then his nose touched the mat, his neck twisted and he went limp. The vet waited a few seconds, slid a stethoscope under his chest and said: “He’s gone.”
He gave me five minutes in the room, staring at Harold’s corpse, reminding myself this was the point at which I shed any guilt attached to my secret. It had all been about defending myself against a madman with a knife, nothing to do with a dog watching its master die. Except that I couldn’t shake off that look in Harold’s eyes. The vet returned to the room and said he would look after the body, and that I could sort out the fee with the receptionist. I didn’t answer.
“Are you OK?” he asked.
“I think so.”
“How long had you been together?”
“He was older than that. Who had him before you?”
“What happened. Couldn’t he look after him?”
I waited a moment. A simple ‘Yes’ would have been easy, and conclusive.
“I killed him.”
The vet’s mouth twitched as if he was ready to laugh, but he kept his eyes on me and realised I wasn’t joking.
“He was a thieving junkie. He threatened me with a knife so I hit him with a saucepan. It burst his brain and he died in my kitchen.”
The vet stiffened and stared at me, mostly shock but with a sprinkling of fright.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “It’s been six years and you’re the first person I’ve told. I shouldn’t have unloaded that on you.”
He took a step backwards and relaxed a little, but struggled with his words.
“You seem to be distressed,” he said. “Can I do anything?”
I thought for a moment.
“Just tell me where I find the nearest police station.”
Image by Billy Bob Bain, CC BY 2.0