by Chris Dolley
Zaphod, named after the former President of the Galaxy in Douglas Adam’s Hitchhiker books, was our first dog. We found him at an animal shelter in Leeds. He was two years old and in bad condition – he was thin, his fur was matted and, from the marks on his body, it looked as though he’d been beaten frequently. But there was a brightness in his eye and from the moment we saw him we knew we weren’t leaving without him.
We soon discovered that Zaphod was a dog born to run. He loved running, and he loved running fast. We’d take him for walks in Roundhay Park and he’d take on all comers – challenging every dog to catch him if they could. No one could. He was part whippet – which gave him speed – and part streetwise mongrel which gave him showmanship and a never-say-die attitude. If he thought his pursuer was losing interest, he’d slow down and let them catch up. Then wait until they were in tail-nipping distance before changing gear and leaving them mouthing air.
And, boy, could he turn. He could change direction at full speed, digging his claws into the ground, leaning over like a speedway rider and accelerating away in the tightest of turns that left pursuing dogs flying past or tumbling over if they tried to emulate him.
Our one fear was what would happen when he eventually met a faster dog. Could his ego take it? Because, however fast he was, he was still only a whippet-sized dog and would be no match for a greyhound or any of the larger running dogs.
After a year or two of being the undefeated King of Roundhay Park, Zaphod met his first Saluki. It was big, flashy and gaining on Zaphod every time they ran in a straight line. So, Zaphod threw in a dazzling series of fast turns that kept the Saluki shooting off at tangents. This only made the Saluki more determined. And was Zaphod tiring? He started leading the Saluki further away from where we were standing. Towards the large lake. The large lake with the rising bank that obscured the water until…
You guessed it. Zaphod circled closer to the lake, then raced straight for the bank before throwing in a tight 90° turn. The Saluki went flying off the bank and landed ten yards out … in the lake.
I’m sure Zaphod was smiling when he ran back to us.
And he didn’t need a park to run in. Our postage stamp sized back lawn was plenty large enough for a determined dog who could corner on a sixpence at full speed. Especially if he could run through the house as well. Several times a day he’d go through his routine of running full tilt from our lounge through our dining room, out the French windows onto the lawn. Then throw in a quick 180° turn and race back, throwing in another 180° on our carpet. Or, when he felt like it, our sofa. This was by far the most frightening – he’d use the back of the sofa as a banked ‘wall of death’ track so he could corner at full speed. Sometimes when people were sat in the sofa. And, let me tell you, nothing prepares you for the shock of seeing a hairy whippet flying towards you at 50 mph, hit you in the chest and then run across you and your neighbour’s chests before racing back into the garden. And then flying back towards you five seconds later.
Years passed. We moved from Leeds to Buckinghamshire, to Wiltshire and then to Devon. Our postage stamp sized back garden grew into a 40-acre farm. And Zaphod aged. His running days grew less and less as his health suffered. He had occasional fits, his selective deafness became even more selective, his eyes grew cloudy, his brain fuzzy, his joints stiff, and he could no longer manage the stairs. As he was used to sleeping with us and, in the winter, on being under the covers, I started carrying him up and down the stairs. This went on for two years.
At the grand old age of 17, Zaphod still loved his daily walk. He couldn’t walk very far or fast, but he wouldn’t miss it for anything. We’d take him for walks over our fields so the ground was soft under his feet.
One day from that last year stands out far above all others. Shelagh had gone shopping and I was left to walk Zaphod on my own. He padded slowly behind me, up the track and into our top field. We stopped many times so that Zaphod could catch his breath, sniff the more interesting scents and add his own. Then we climbed the small hill to the far end of the top field where we could stop and sit and look back down over the farmhouse and all the fields nestling around it. It was a bright spring day and everything looked idyllic.
Then we started to walk back and Zaphod tripped.
As he stumbled forward, he instinctively stretched out his front feet to get them underneath him… And his momentum carried him forward into the beginning of a slow loping run. I ran after him thinking he was going fall and hurt himself – his legs had a habit of giving way at unexpected moments – but he kept going, the downhill slope and a distant memory giving new life to his old limbs. I hadn’t seen him run in over a year. But now he was running! I couldn’t keep up with him. He was picking up speed and stretching. Limbs that had failed him for the last two years were suddenly swift and sure-footed. He reached the gate at the bottom of the field, but wouldn’t stop. The gate may have been closed but he was running on the spot, a slow jumping motion as his body refused to stop. I ran even harder. I couldn’t let him down. I had to get to that gate and let him through before the moment was lost.
I pulled the gate open and he was away, tearing off along the track – not the one towards the house, but the one to our other fields. I ran after him. He may not have had the speed of old, but he was still faster than I was. And this time there wasn’t a hill to help him. He was lolloping along on the flat.
He stopped by the next gate and waited, rocking more than jumping on the spot, his legs in constant movement. I threw open the gate and let him through. Off he went, running across the field towards the house, those tired old legs refusing to give in. I was in tears at this point. I hadn’t expected to see this sight again. Zaphod was running! The dog born to run was back! Re-born. The clouds of age rolled back for a few precious minutes.
We tore across the field. I opened the last gate and let him through. He ran in a straight line towards the house, ignoring the small bridge that crossed the ditch that separated the fields from our front lawn. He was going to jump the ditch!
I shouted at him to stop. The ditch was V-shaped and a couple of yards wide. But he was as selectively deaf as ever. He jumped.
And didn’t make it. He crashed into the far bank but the bank was shelving and he pitched and rolled, scrambling to his feet again. Albeit with a slight limp, but he was on his toes and bouncing – in a subdued but enthusiastic fashion. And he was smiling, his mouth wide open and his tongue lolling to one side. His eyes as bright as the day I’d first met him.
I started to run up the track again to see if he’d follow, but he stayed where he was, smiling back at me. He’d had his last run.
Those few minutes remain in my memory as one of the most unforgettable in my life. I sit here typing, with tears streaming down my face, remembering the day when I saw cruel age defeated and had the privilege of being part of Zaphod’s last run.
Chris Dolley is an English author living in France with a frightening number of animals. More information about his other work can be found on his BVC bookshelf .