We all recognised the old man with shaggy silver hair who walked his dog around the block every day. Over the past five years I had become accustomed to seeing them plodding along ever more slowly, usually setting out as I was returning from my early morning run. Whatever the weather, the old man was always dressed the same: stout shoes, baggy long trousers, an open-necked collared shirt and a shapeless tweedy-looking jacket with leather elbow patches. He never wore a hat.
At first we were on nodding terms. Later I used to wave as I ran past and he would lift his fleshy left hand to wave in return. I could see the gold band on his ring finger glinting in the morning sun. We gradually discovered his name was Professor Barnes, that he had long retired from the English Department at the university, that he was a widower, and that he seldom received visitors.
Knowing this, I began stopping to chat to him. We mostly wondered when it would rain, deplored the fact that the street lights weren’t working, or enthused over the beauty of the jacaranda blossoms if it was that time of the year.
My sons were fascinated to learn that his dog was called Timber. “Good morning Timber!” They would shout their greeting whenever they saw the Golden Labrador shuffling past the front gate. “Good morning Professor Barnes!”
“Morning lads,” he would respond. “Timber is a bit slow this morning.” He would lift the lead with a gesture to show how loose it was.
“He must be so lonely.” Emma is a tender-hearted soul who stopped him in the street one morning to invite him to join us for tea on a Sunday afternoon. Timber came too, settling down as soon as they arrived, promptly at four o’clock.
It wasn’t long before Emma began taking him home-baked biscuits. Jonathon sometimes slipped tins of dogfood into our grocery trolley. “Timber is old and he can’t chew bones anymore,” he would explain. The first time it took both him and Simon to muster up the courage to open the gate and walk along the cement path to deliver their offerings to Professor Barnes. He would ruffle their hair and sometimes gave them a chocolate bar from the drawer of a small table in his hallway.
“Timber was really my wife’s dog,” he told us over dinner one evening. “She and our son … well … Susan and Allan were killed in a head-on collision. Timber was a youngster then.” He dabbed at his eyes with a large handkerchief and lifted his wine glass with a hand so shaky that we all wondered if the wine would make it to his lips.
“I was meant to fetch Allan from the airport that day, but there was a seminar I needed to attend.” His voice choked and he bent down to stroke Timber lying, as always, at his feet. “Allan had just completed his doctorate at Oxford. We were so, so proud of him.”
How can you break the silence following such a revelation? I could see tears glistening in Emma’s eyes. We had all stopped eating, not knowing where to look or what to say. It was Jonathon who rose from his seat to stroke the old dog. “Poor Timber,” he said softly. “What a good dog you are. It’s been a long time.”
“Yes, indeed it has.” Professor Barnes picked up his cutlery. “It has been a long time. Timber and I look after each other, don’t we?” He patted the top of Timber’s head between his ears. “You are a very good dog, old boy.”
Three months ago I began noticing that Professor Barnes and Timber were often missing when I returned from my morning run. They had always been as regular as clockwork, so I even ran around the block to see if I could find them before turning into our gate. On those days I could see no sign of them.
“Is everything alright?” I thundered to a halt when I saw Professor Barnes and Timber barely moving along the road last week.
“We’re getting old, but we’re getting along,” he told me cheerfully. The lead dragged on the ground between them even though Professor Barnes held the free end wrapped around his right hand.
Our doorbell rang on Monday afternoon, shortly after I had returned from work. I was taken aback to see Professor Barnes standing on the front step for he had never come to our house uninvited. We had also never seen him without Timber at his side.
“David,” his lips trembled. “Are your sons strong enough to dig a hole? A big hole?”
I swallowed hard. “For Timber? Is Timber okay?”
He nodded, tears welling in his eyes. “Timber is getting old. I must be prepared.”
My sons and I dug a deep hole in Professor Barnes’ garden on Tuesday afternoon while he and Emma sat on a bench nearby and drank tea. They both stroked Timber lying at their feet. Simon looked up from his labours. “Is Timber going to die, Professor Barnes?”
“Only when it is time, my boy. Only when it is time.”
“Do you want us to bury him when he does?”
“If you will. Yes, if you will.” The old man blew his nose on his large handkerchief. “That will please me.”
The telephone rang on Wednesday afternoon. Emma answered it cheerfully and then burst into tears. “Timber has gone,” she whispered. She made tea and sat on the bench with Professor Barnes while the boys and I wrapped Timber in a blanket and laid him gently in the hole. Simon collected the framed photograph of Susan and Allan from the old man’s trembling hands and tucked it under the blanket. I could see Emma linking hands with Professor Barnes as Jonathon placed a plastic sheet over the blanket and we filled in the hole.
Professor Barnes declined our offer of a meal. “I need to spend time with my thoughts,“ he explained, patting Emma’s hand. We watched as the boys collected small stones to make a pattern on the earth mound. Emma picked some flowers. We all hugged the old man before walking home.
An ambulance took Professor Barnes away on Friday morning. There was no need for a siren.