Jeremy Clarke

Low Life | 8 August 2009

Unusual behaviour

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I hoped Joe was following me down the cliff path. It was unusual for him to lag behind. Normally he likes to lead the way. Perhaps he’d stopped off to self-medicate at the bank of tall grasses where he sometimes likes to browse and bite off a few individual stems, making judicious choices like a careful shopper. Perhaps he was feeling particularly seedy today and he needed to stop off. Certainly his rolling, spastic gait was more pronounced, so he must have been feeling his arthritis.

I was about to call him, when he came careering around the bend in the cliff path, grinning at me. The path at this point is a foot wide and bordered by brambles on one side and tall stinging nettles on the seaward side. (A hundred and fifty years ago this was the main coach road along the coast. Today the road runs inland and the council has to employ a man with a powerful strimmer to keep even a foot-wide footpath clear. Very lush, Devon. Subtropical, virtually.) He was coming down the hill not quite sideways but on the skew. And instead of keeping to the path, he was crashing through the tall nettles. Joe is not normally one for barging through undergrowth. Not his style at all. The grin wasn’t quite like him either. Unlike the smiles of other dogs I’ve known, there is nothing obsequious or ingratiating or silly about Joe’s smile. Joe’s is intelligent, self-possessed, even ironic. He’s the first collie I’ve known, and if he is representative of the breed, I think it must be true that collies are brighter than most. But Joe’s grin, as he came blundering through the stingers towards me, was uncharacteristically fatuous.

Because he is such an understanding and responsive dog, I rarely speak to him when we’re out unless I have something pertinent to say. I don’t nag him, for example. I give the old timer his independence. But seeing him galloping towards me through the stinging nettles and grinning like that, I thought perhaps I ought to congratulate him on his exuberance. And I was about to ask him what he was being so cheerful about, when he collapsed on his side with his legs thrashing, as though he believed himself to be still upright and running. Then he began to tremble violently, his eyes rolled up inside his head and he started convulsing.

It looked to me as if he was having a heart attack and that the convulsions were his death throes. So this was it, I thought. I squatted down and smoothed his face with my hand and told him how much I had enjoyed his company. His eyes were now tight shut and his tongue lolled hideously out of his mouth and lay on the broken nettle stems as though disassociated from its owner. He seemed to be enduring a terrible agony and I wished it could be over for him more quickly. But when I thought I’d seen his last kick, another convulsion would seize him, and his death agony was drawn out still further.

Gliding lazily by, a herring gull saw us and cocked his head inquisitively. On the naturist beach far below us it was knocking-off time. Windbreaks were being dismantled and rolled up. I could hear a car start in the car park. Then I saw a lone figure making his way up the steep, overgrown path towards us. From his mahogany complexion I gathered that he was a nudist now reluctantly back in his clothes and heading back up to the village. He had to step carefully around us.

‘Is he all right?’ he said, pausing to look at my collapsed, convulsing dog. ‘I think he’s dying from a heart attack,’ I said. Obviously a man of appropriate, readily accessible emotions, the naturist looked absolutely devastated. ‘Oh, the poor darling!’ he wailed. ‘Can’t we do something for him?’ ‘He’s old,’ I said. ‘We’ve been expecting something like this to happen. In a way it couldn’t be a better way for him to go, out for his walk.’

Joe opened his eyes. He’s always reacted extravagantly to the word ‘walk’. Could it be that the word would now raise him from the dead? Incredibly, Joe staggered to his feet, wagged his tail by way of a greeting, shook himself, and trotted off, very unsteadily, down the path. ‘Well, I thought it was a heart attack, anyway,’ I said, a little deflated.

It was an epileptic fit, said the vet when I rang him and described what had happened. Nothing to worry about, apparently.

A daily tablet will stop it happening again. Joe could go on for years yet, he said. And then he laughed — at yet another example of the amazing resilience of old dogs, I suppose.