Max, by Sadie Moden
Ted eased Max into his trusty VW and fastened the seatbelt around him. Max allowed his life-long friend to fuss over him; although never one to complain, his grimace was all too telling.
‘I’ll be back in a minute Max. I just want a quick word with Mr Reeves,’ said Ted, full of concern as he shut the car door carefully. Max’s eyes were closed by the time Ted reached reception.
Ted steadied himself for the worst as he took a seat, which looked as tired as he felt, in the otherwise empty waiting room. Mr Reeves and his late wife had set up the practice after they had qualified over 30 years ago; the decor hadn’t been updated since. The dark mahogany reception desk and magnolia walls were covered in the usual self-help leaflets and posters of dietary and eye health advice, vaccination reminders and emergency, out-of-hours contact numbers. It was a busy mess of a room, but Ted found comfort in its familiarity.
Ted turned his gaze to the door as it opened and Mr Reeves walked into the room, taking the seat beside him. With a full head of grey hair and the start of a stoop in his back, Mr Reeves, at least 10 years Ted’s junior, was nearing retirement.
‘Thanks for popping back in, I imagine Max was relieved to see you,’ said Mr Reeves with a warmth in his face that Ted had come to know well.
‘He seems rather tender and withdrawn?’ Ted hadn’t meant to be questioning in his tone, but he had never seen Max this way before. Even after the last operation and round of chemo, Max had seemed a little more energetic.
‘Yes, I imagine he is,’ said Mr Reeves. ‘The operation went well,’ he continued, ‘we managed to remove the lymphocytes from Max’s throat, but he’s a long way from recovery. He’ll need another course of chemotherapy; Rose has everything ready for you.’ Ted glanced over at Mr Reeves’s receptionist, who was talking quietly into the phone, before returning his gaze to the man beside him.
‘I took some samples from Max’s liver, and bowel too, as cancerous lymphocytes can spread, and quickly. We’ll get the results in a few days.’ Mr Reeves’s momentary pause did not go unnoticed by Ted. ‘I have to be honest with you Ted. I’m not sure how much fight Max has left, he’s been through the mill these last few years. It’s going to be a difficult journey, but he’s got you, and I know how deep your love for each other goes. Be patient with him, but firm too. He’s not going to want to do very much, but a little fresh air and a stretch of the legs will do him the world of good. Perhaps just to the end of the driveway and back, if that’s all he can manage.’
Ted thanked Mr Reeves for his time, before collecting the chemo drugs from Rose and making an appointment for the following month.
It was less than two years since Max had been diagnosed with lymphatic cancer. When the signs had first appeared - loss of appetite, discomfort, reluctance to even leave the house - Ted simply put it down to Max’s ageing. Neither of them were young any more, but when Max struggled to get out of bed they both knew something was seriously wrong. Ted’s world had collapsed when Mr Reeves had told them, but he hadn’t let Max see; he had to be strong.
As Ted opened the car door and slid inside, he could hear the gentle snores of his soulmate. Oh Max, he thought. Conscious of the early spring crisp bite in the late afternoon air, Ted reached behind his seat and pulled through a new red tartan blanket. He carefully laid it over Max so as not to wake him, then started the car and drove home.
Max stirred as Ted pulled into the driveway of their cottage and parked the car a few minutes later. They had lived there together for well over a decade, ever since they had been in each other’s lives. Both of them loved spending time in the garden and all their efforts were now evident: the daffodils were beginning to bloom, the rose buds were readying themselves and the leaves on the trees were peeling open. Ted glanced at the sycamore tree that he and Max had planted together all those years before. Max had made a start digging the hole and, seeing the mess he was making of it, Ted took over while Max lazed in the shade of the old oak tree. It seemed to Ted that while the sycamore grew stronger and taller, Max became weaker and more frail.
Ted jumped out of the car to heave open the oak door to the stone cottage. By the time Ted had returned to the car, Max was more alert. He looked at Ted with his deep chestnut eyes. The pain was clear but, as ever, Max was brave and, with a little help, he made the short journey to the house with Ted.
‘We’re going to have to get in the garden soon Max, before the weeds take hold,’ said Ted. Max gave Ted a look that told him he was on his own this time. ‘Yes, alright,’ he sighed, ‘you can watch from the living room window perhaps.’
After a light dinner of chicken, Ted helped Max into the office which he had temporarily transformed into a bedroom. Max halted and looked at Ted questioningly.
‘I know, I know, but I didn’t think you’d manage the stairs particularly well just yet,’ said Ted, helping Max into the bed and pulling the covers over his frail body. Ted noticed that Max had sprouted more white hairs since their trip to St. Ives, late last summer. It had been a wonderful few days away. Long walks along the golden sands with the September sun gently warming their bodies. The sea was still pleasant enough to ‘dip a toe in’, as Ted had said, but while they were splashing about in the shallow waters, Max’s legs had given way and he had collapsed. Ted had seen such agony when he looked into the deep wells of his closest friend. Feigning optimism, Ted had set about helping Max regain his balance and reassuring him that all was well. All the while, Ted was thinking of how they had only recently received the all-clear following Max’s chemo treatment. Ted was certain the cancer had returned; a visit to Mr Reeves the following day had confirmed his suspicions.
Ted kissed an already sleeping Max on the head. Turning off the light, Ted climbed into the bed beside Max. ‘Goodnight my love,’ said Ted.
Over the next few weeks, Max rested, ate, slept and took his medicine, albeit with not a small amount of encouragement. Ted had hoped the gentle regime would be enough to help Max regain his strength, but he didn’t think that was the case. There had been a time when they would go running together. Ted wasn’t much of a sportsman, but Max came to life whenever they went for even a quick jog through the woods out the back of their cottage. Max would run circles around Ted but he never left him behind, just as Ted now made sure he didn’t leave Max trailing behind him on their gentle strolls to the top of the driveway and back. Max struggled to catch his breath during these short walks and it seemed he was finding them increasingly difficult.
‘I think we need to go back to see Mr Reeves again Max. I know we have an appointment booked for next week, but you’re nowhere near as strong now as you were after the last lot of chemo,’ said Ted. Max closed his eyes briefly as if to shield Ted from the pain he was in, but Ted knew him too well.
‘It’s not good news,’ Ted told his sister, Maureen, later the next evening. He and Max had seen Mr Reeves earlier that day and received crushing news. The cancer had spread and the chemo wasn’t making any impact. Mr Reeves had said further operations and chemo would be too much for Max’s already weakened body to cope with. The look exchanged between Ted and Mr Reeves said all that was needed; Max was on borrowed time. Mr Reeves had been worried about Max returning home but, after a lengthy discussion with Ted about how best to care for his companion, they had agreed that home was the best place for Max.
‘Oh Ted, I’m so sorry. Should I come up? Let me come up. I’ll bring a roast lamb with me, you know how much Max loves my roast lamb!’ said Maureen. He could hear her walking around her house collecting things to pack.
‘No,’ replied Ted with a kindness, yet firmness to his voice. ‘He’s barely eating or drinking. I…,’ Ted paused, momentarily unable to continue. ‘He doesn’t have much time left Mo and I just want to share our last few moments together.’ Ted’s words caught in his throat and, for a few minutes, he simply listened to his sister’s soothing words while he tried to regain control of his emotions. It wouldn’t do for Max to see him like this.
As they said goodbye, Maureen asked Ted to tell Max how much she loves him.
‘I will Mo, I will,’ said Ted with a heavy sigh. He replaced the receiver in its cradle and looked out of the window to the front garden. The sun had set and the soft glow of the waning moon was just visible, low in the sky. A light breeze rustled the leaves of the trees and brought the gentle fragrance of blossoming honeysuckle through the open window. Lost in his thoughts, Ted turned as if to invite Max to breathe in the fresh evening air. Seeing his friend was not there, Ted returned to a reality he wished was not his. He pulled the window to, drew the curtains and, with a heavy heart, he headed to the office to see Max.
Ted stood quietly for a moment, outside the makeshift bedroom, to calm himself before going in. Once he was sure he was fully composed, he gently opened the door. Max turned his head at the sound of Ted’s approach.
‘I’m sorry, old bean. I didn’t mean to wake you,’ said Ted.
Ted sat down on the bed next to his greatest love and laid his hand on Max’s head, stroking him gently until he fell back to sleep. Climbing into the bed next to Max’s, as he had done since Max was a spritely puppy, Ted took the paw of his chestnut Labrador in his hand and held it lightly until he fell into a deep sleep. He dreamt of running through the woods once more with Max, a smile on Ted’s face and Max with his tongue lolloping from the side of his mouth as he willed Ted to chase him some more, to throw another ball, to tickle his stomach again.
When Ted awoke the next morning the sun was streaming in through a gap in the curtains. Surprised he was still holding Max’s paw, Ted looked over at his friend but the light that had once shone so brightly in his closest companion was gone. Ted’s eyes grew wide and he felt his body begin to tremble.
‘Max?’ said Ted, knowing he would receive no acknowledgement. Ted’s breath caught in his throat and the flood of tears he had held at bay for weeks spilled down his face. ‘Oh Max,’ he said as he embraced his friend, and laid his head upon Max’s still body.
Perhaps it was because Ted was, himself, now an old man that he felt Max’s passing so deeply. He and Annie had had many dogs, but maybe it was because they had welcomed Max into their childless family together, only three short months before his wife of 40 years had died. Ted wept for Max, as he had wept for Annie all those years ago, but there was no-one there to comfort Ted as Max had done before.
When at last he was able to prize himself off of Max, Ted spoke briefly to his sister and left a message for Mr Reeves at the veterinary practice. He then dressed in his gardening clothes and set about the meditative digging of Max’s final resting place. Ted had decided on the perfect location to bury Max the night before; in between the rose bush and the honeysuckle that blossomed near the sycamore tree.
Later, after he had covered Max’s body with the last of the dirt, Ted sat on the wooden bench opposite Max’s grave and felt the warmth of the afternoon sun beating down upon his back. As he wiped away a lonely tear, Ted imagined Max once more digging holes for trees and running as free as he used to once more.
‘Goodnight my Max, run free once more old boy.’