The sparrows profit from his absence, undisturbed, the sound of their squabbles rises to an unbroken crescendo. A plump cock pheasant struts to the bird feeder, nods his head – bold as brass and twice as glossy. He was not always so dignified – squawking and whirring in startled flight as a delighted Alfie saw him off, threw two barks at his tailfeathers and enjoyed a victory circuit of the garden. It is quieter now, and the woodpigeons do not break their cooing with sudden clapping bursts. There is no one to applaud.
We expect him still, at our feet on walks or barking from the wrong side of the door or sidling up to place his head on our knees. Quietly demanding: an ear rub please, or a biscuit – maybe two. He allowed us to teach him ‘paw’ but drew the line at ‘roll over’. He learnt ‘gently’ and would lick a biscuit from a half closed hand with patient delicacy.
Eleven years is a long time, and the habits made aren’t easily broken. His absence follows us as he did, following his routine to the letter. Invisible, inaudible, you can track it by the tears in our eyes – Mum’s or mine – unbidden but on schedule.
Without our old dog we must learn new tricks. I find myself wildly, weirdly drawn to bark at the postman just as he approaches the door. To chase next door’s smug tabby cat down the street, past the neighbours’ gates. To race out, pell-mell, arms flailing, and send the birds up, flustered, flurried, flapping, like a signal into the sky.