In the end, the end came swiftly. On the first morning of a new year, I got up to tend the fire and there was no familiar click-clicking of claws on the floor tiles. No bedding by the standard lamp. As I fed the cats, I had to deal with their incomprehension. Why are you feeding us here where the big fella used to eat? Where is he for that matter? Why's our friendly canine compatriot not here? I had to explain that the big fella was no more.
In some ways, the worst part of the ordeal was having to leave him outside in the cold, wrapped up in his bedding while the world celebrated the parting of the old year and the arrival of the new. It was as if we had simply discarded an old ex-dog, as the farmer in the nearby hamlet would bring out a goat that had died inside the hangar. It seemed quite wrong that there was no lying in state and no procession of local people to sign the book of condolences.
Considerate to the end, Alf chose the last day of the year for his departure. He stayed with us long enough to celebrate his 14th birthday and one last complete family Christmas. He left us with an anniversary that we are never likely to forget and a very good excuse for turning down invitations to share in the new year merriment.
We'd got used to the routine of getting up at around 5.30 to let him out for his first desperate matutinal pee before breakfast. But when I got up on New Year's Eve, there were puddles everywhere, as if he'd leaked all through the night. For the first time, he was in evident distress. After breakfast, he kept going out into the cold and wouldn't come in. He kept trying to pee, but nothing would come. The vet told us to collect what we could and bring it in for analysis. So I took in a few dribbles in one of those individual jam jars that hotels provide for 'continental' breakfasts.
At lunchtime, I phoned my working wife to tell her that I thought the time had come. She agreed that I should phone the vet back to ask her to administer the last rites. Although she was on her own at the practice with a waiting list of urgent operations, she would do what she could at the end of the day. By now he was wandering around the house in the biting cold, almost literally like a lost soul. I told our daughter my feeling that he was looking for a place to die quietly and she burst into tears.
When, finally, she arrived, I helped the Angel of Death into our house with all her veterinary impedimenta. Although it wasn't Alf's usual vet, the law of serendipity dictated that she was absolutely the right one for the job. Kindness and empathy itself. She explained how she would give him an anaesthetic first to put him into a deep sleep before the lethal transfusion. He would feel nothing. She also identified straight away a tumour by his groin, which reassured us that our intervention wasn't untimely. With this assurance, it wasn't quite as distressing as I had envisaged when we gathered around his old duvet to stroke him and say our goodbyes before the anaesthetic kicked in. He looked peaceful and, when I buried my head in the thick fur around his neck, he still smelled of McVitie's digestive biscuits.
The vet had trouble finding the right vein and had to pull out his left leg from under his prone body to try again. This time, the sickly red poison drained down into his bloodstream. It seemed like he panted at one point and his heart convulsed briefly, but it was mainly a case of just slipping quietly away. The vet stayed until he'd gone and, once she'd gone, Debs and I carried out our dearly beloved dog, wrapped up in his bedding, and left him covered with a tarpaulin to discourage any passing famished wolves or bears.
New Year's Day was frigid but blissfully sunny. Debs and I debated his final resting place and located an appropriate spot between a pair of young fruit trees at the back of the house: a spot where he could continue to survey the dog's meadow and protect his family from marauding hot air balloons and the like. The concrete topsoil yielded to my manly pickaxe and underneath we found the familiar rock-filled clay that clings to the blade and sticks to your boots. It took two long sessions – either side of a little lunchtime New Year's Day party at a friend's house nearby – to dig something suitably large to accommodate a Labradorable dog. This was the sixth burial during roughly 25 years of Sampson Hall & Co. (since 1987), but the other five were feline and rather smaller in stature.
Worse, far worse, than the digging was the business of uncovering the heap by the wood store and reminding ourselves that the cold ex-dog there was once our faithful companion. We hauled him down to his final resting place and lined the bottom of the grave with some cardboard as a kind of token biodegradable coffin. At this part in all those familiar film scenes, onlookers shovel dirt into the hole and someone jumps in for a final dose of melodrama. The earth we'd dug up, though, came in big cloying clods of clay, so we had to mould it around our dog, like a rather macabre bit of modern sculpture destined for the Tate Modern. Then we added a cardboard lid, before kicking in the last of the soil. We used the stones that we'd painstakingly unearthed and separated to create a kind of random abstract expressionist dolmen, partly to mark forever the spot and partly to keep the creatures far hence that are foe to dogs. The plan is now to plant some rods of willow around the perimeter that will one day create a veritable living installation.
We wished him well and God-speed on his journey to wherever his soul is or was bound. My wife believes in reincarnation, but knowing how statistically unlikely it is that any subsequent Alfic avatar will be as happy and as fortunate as this one, I merely hoped that the soul of Alfred Lord Sampson would simply orbit the earth and check in on us from time to time. 'I don't necessarily mean a dog,' she told me. 'He might take some other form. A world leader perhaps.'
Well, there's an idea. Certainly Alfie was loyal, loving, sensitive, considerate, fair, faithful and diplomatic. Even, one could argue, empathetic. All important qualities of leadership. I'm not sure, though, about his uncommon greed. But on the other hand, these days...