It was his ex-wife's dog, a German Shepherd with a white beard and sad, gunky eyes. She had run off with a sales rep who turned up once a month at the office where she worked. Who would lean on the tall counter out in Reception, his keys on the glass, a briefcase between his feet, smiling like a boy. She couldn't resist him, even as she recognised that he was smiling the same smile at young women all over the South-East.
He remembered the first time they'd been here, when Ralph was neutered, snarling in the back of his old Cortina estate on the way, as if somehow aware of what lay in store. Altogether quieter on the way back, trying to puzzle things out, perhaps. A new melancholy hung about the dog, but only for a while. He was doing her a favour. And they were back again five years later, married now, when she was convinced Ralph had hip dysplasia, which turned out instead to be a piece of glass, an inch of viciousness, buried in his left forepaw. Or was it his right? He'd have been seven then, half a lifetime ago, and always so healthy otherwise.
But not now. Opposite the house (emptier, quieter, since Cindy moved out) was a school. He knew the caretaker from the pub and had a key to the small gate twenty yards down the road. Every evening he'd take Ralph over there and let him run loose on the sports field and every other evening Ralph would shit in the long jump pit and he'd have to pick it up in one of those bags you put loose vegetables in which he stole occasionally from the supermarket for this specific purpose. I must love you, he remarked once to the dog, I carry your shit around in a bag. Ralph did not answer, other than by continuing, on alternate evenings, to shit in the long jump pit.
Until recently this had been the best bit of both their days. While Ralph chased around the field Terry would smoke and look at the moon, if there was one. Terry didn't know if such a thing as fellowship could exist between a human and a dumb creature, but he was pretty sure he was happy, and so was Ralph.
A month ago, perhaps a little longer, Ralph had stopped jumping up at the sound of his chain being removed from the hook in the porch. Then his back legs started to go. Terry was helpless, fucking helpless, witnessing the sudden deterioration of a dog he'd never asked for. Because a dog really can be a friend, but in at least one way a useless friend, because they can't tell you what to do. So Terry had brought him here, carrying him out and laying him on a blanket in the back of his Mondeo, and the vet had told him what to do, and he'd agreed. And now he watched the dog on the table, apparently sleeping, the fur on his side rising and falling, ever more slowly, until it stopped.