Ten weeks ago, in mid-September, I was walking Ollie and Dylan out at Winterton-on-Sea. Dylan had been misbehaving with the rabbits, as is his wont. Having finally got hold of him, I had clipped him onto the lead, and we made our way back to the car park along the ridge of dune. It was a beautiful evening. Ollie, unusually for him, suddenly dived after a rabbit himself. He went up and down a couple of dunes at full pelt. At this iniquitous turn of events, Dylan was rearing up on his back legs, and bouncing, both to achieve a better view, and also because he was very cross. I let him go, to join in. I lost sight of him (of course), and of Ollie too, but I heard some crying. O shit, I thought, The rabbit’s had it (in the normal run of things, neither of them ever catches the prey). The crying became louder, and then I realised it was a noise I recognised: it was the sound of Ollie in distress. He was still out of sight, but I found him in the dip of a dune, holding his leg up, at the first major joint above the foot, the high-ankle, as I think of it, which is actually called the carpus. My first thought was that he must have twisted it, maybe even in a rabbit hole: it seems a miracle to me that they have both avoided an injury like this so far. I was in a bit of a spot, because Dylan was once more on the missing list. Ollie wouldn’t move at all, so I carried him to a high dune, eventually found Dylan, and nursed Ollie back to the car, half-carrying, half-hopping along on three legs. Though Dylan is clearly missing his brother now, at this point he appeared to have no canine empathy whatsoever: certainly, he was no help, appearing to regard Ollie’s malingering as one of his usual prima donna acts.
X-rays were taken at the vets the following morning. Painkillers were given: perhaps it was tendon damage. Ollie was restricted to short exercise on his lead around the block. Our local vets ‘didn’t like’ the look of the x-rays, and so sent them to Ollie’s specialist up in Fakenham. There was a set at the surgery there from when he had broken his leg a few years earlier, they wanted a comparison. On October 2nd, on the official publication date of Along Came Dylan, I was preparing to leave the house for a train to London to have dinner with my agent when I took a phone call from Lucas, the second in command at the local vet, who said, No beating about the bush, it’s bad news: Ollie almost certainly has oesteosarcoma (cancer) in that bone, but we need to have him in to take samples for analysis, and to x-ray his lungs to see whether it has spread. Trezza was at work at UEA, teaching. For twenty minutes I thought I was okay, and then I started crying, and then I phoned Derek and cancelled dinner. I went downstairs to stroke Ollie’s head and to tell him not to have cancer.
The weeks that have passed since have been quite simply awful. Two bone samples were taken, neither of them would give a positive result. His lungs were clear. I convinced myself that the vets were quacks and that all he had was a bone infection: Ollie is only six; he cannot die. BUT: his leg was not recovering, there was a lump there that was not going down, and though he was getting around the block without too much trouble, he was limping slightly by the end of these (relatively) short excursions (they took quite a long time because of all the ‘sit-down protests’ that Ollie included into them). On Halloween I took him up to Fakenham to see the specialist, Gordon. Gordon ran me through the various treatment options.
1. Keep up the painkillers until he shows signs of distress then take him to be (and this is the word that is used) euthanised. I prefer ‘put to sleep.’
2. Chemotherapy. Trips to Cambridge: side effects can include sickness and fur burns. This technique really only offers pain relief too, because what is happening – and here Gordon became dramatic and compelling in his description – is that, ‘the main site is firing off clusters of hundreds of thousands of cancerous cells into the rest of Ollie.’
3. Amputate. Could arrest progress for a while, perhaps up to a year. There was no way I was going to let Ollie be a three-legged dog. I have seen them thrive, but not ones built on his supermodel lines, with a very high centre of gravity, who also have cancer.
4. There’s a technique pioneered in America whereby the bone is taken out, irradiated, put back in, pinned and plated. The technique is not at all widely available here, and comes with a great amount of side-effect such as infections and other complaints. Gordon was sceptical about this way forward, but did not rule it out entirely.
After the consultation I went and sat on Fakenham racecourse, pretending to read. It was grey and wet. To kill time I walked up to the finishing post and back. One hour later I was looking at some new x-ray plates. The bone was deteriorating: where the line of the radius should have been sharp and white, it was nibbled at, like a mouse had been at it. But never mind that, Gordon said, ‘Look at this.’ He clipped a huge plate of Ollie’s enormous lungs up onto the light box: there were more than a dozen tumours. Options 2, 3 and 4 were no longer options. How long has he got? I asked. Six to eight weeks, Gordon replied.
A couple of Sundays ago I took him up to Winterton-on-Sea to have one last look at the beach where he had unwittingly had his final run. There could have been no better spot for it than there, at least, Winterton was his favourite place on earth. It was dark, dusk, cold, and almost deserted. One elderly lady came by with an elderly dog and remarked on how beautiful Ollie was. At moments like that over the past few weeks, as many fellow owners and other friends of Ollie have said many kind words, we have had it confirmed how everyone loved him, and we have cried many tears. His final days were all organic chicken and sirloin steak, though, if the truth is told, that was his general lifestyle anyway. As I often used to tell him, he was the Jose Mourinho of dog world: the Special One. In certain lights and environments he didn’t even look like a dog and was sometimes mistaken for a deer. You can’t be more of a Special One than that.
Ollie was put to sleep a week ago, Monday 17th, at eleven o’clock. He is a huge absence around the place. As Trezza says: I even miss his toxic breath.
He looked a picture of health as we took him into the surgery, still gleaming ‘like a giant mole,’ as my friend Philip, who also advised me to hold him in my arms as it happened, describes him. He had coughed a couple of times in the few days before, and had suddenly cried out from nowhere, as he sat on the leather sofa, and then held the leg up, all of which at least helped convince us that what lay ahead was the right course. It had to be done sooner rather that later too because the worst case – and likely – scenario, was that he broke his leg, that it simply crumbled under him as he was walking round the block. We could not have that, we could not have our last memory being of him screaming out in pain.
As Gerhard, the chief vet at our local practice, the one who knows him best, and who also loves him, I think, injected his leg with a lethal overdose of sedative, he was apologising. ‘Sorry Ollie,’ he was saying, ‘What am I doing to you, boy?’ he was saying. Gerhard is a good man, with deep brown eyes set into a kind face. You could not ask for anyone better to carry out this task. Trezza was cradling Ollie’s neck, whispering to him and crying onto his head. I had his body held against me, his huge deep chest alongside against my own. In my right hand I could feel his heart beating, too rapidly. As the fluid ran through his blood I felt the beat slow, and slow, and slow, until it stopped. He felt soft and warm in my arms, as if he were still alive, and his eyes remained slightly open too. We lay him onto the floor where Gerhard tested him for reflex: it was done, it was over. You were very brave, he said to us. Shall I leave you alone with him for a couple of minutes? We nodded; we were not so brave that we could actually speak. He lay on the floor, looking as beautiful as he had ever done. Trezza finally found her voice and told him that she loved him. I stroked his side and tickled his belly. Just before we left the room, I arranged his ears to look tidy.