“Max! Where have you got to this time?”
Harry could only just hear himself above the crash and rumble of the waves below and the breeze buffeting and flattening the grass on the cliff top. It was chillier than last time he had been here, but at least the rain the weatherman had forecast had stayed away. Max was nowhere to be seen, as usual.
The trouble was, thought Harry, Max always followed his nose. He seemed to remember every winding path through the thrift and samphire above the little seaside town where he had holidayed every summer of his life with Harry and Maureen. Now he was eager to revisit them all again, haring back every so often to sniff the air and lick Harry’s hand apologetically before lolloping back to pick up all the private messages other doggy friends had left for him over the two years he’d been away.
When Max was a puppy, Maureen used to bring tasty liver treats in the pockets of her mauve fleece jacket to tempt him back from the exciting adventures he was enjoying down in the gulleys and caves along the shoreline. He could always find something more interesting to do than come running back to his master’s voice.
“Harry, you old duffer, Max knows you don’t mean it!” Maureen would say. “I bought you that ultrasonic whistle but you always forget to pack it! Lucky I remembered his favourite snacks. His tummy always wins in the end!”
Maureen was right. Max would always come bounding back up even the steepest path when treats were on offer, panting and smiling to get his reward. For that moment, he forgot about the special smelly seaweed and whatever the gulls had left on the rocks. Sometimes he brought some of that back on his nose or his paws but Maureen always had a packet of those wet wipers to clean him up again.
“We can’t go back to the guest house with all that flotsam and jetsam on us, can we, Max?” she’d say.
Harry chuckled as he remembered how she had used the wipes to tackle a huge blob of rum and raisin ice cream on the back of his own jacket. He’d blamed that on the gulls, too, until Maureen poked him and said:
“Harry! It’s not the gulls. You’ve only gone and sat on your cornet!”
They’d had a fit of the giggles, then, just like they’d always done together since they were teenagers. They shared the same sense of humour. That’s what made Harry notice Maureen at the dance all those years ago; her sparkly eyes and the way she got his jokes and made even funnier ones of her own that made him howl with laughter.
Harry blinked, disappointed with himself.
“Silly soft old sausage,” Maureen would have said. It was no good keep dwelling on those last precious few months over that awful winter and getting upset.
“You need a holiday, dad. It’s no good moping about again in the house all summer. Anyway, you and Max will have lots of lovely walks on the promenade and then there’s the crazy golf and the café that looks out onto the seafront. I’ll phone Mrs Archer for you, if you like.”
Kathy was right, just as grown up daughters seem to have an annoying knack of being. She was a lot like her Mum, too, practical and sensible where Harry often seemed in a muddle and a dream.
“I’ll do it myself, love. Max needs the exercise, the great hairy lump, now he’s an old dog.” But when Harry booked himself into the pet-friendly guest house where he and Maureen had always stayed, he was determined not to avoid their familiar well-loved walks. Where was the fun staying on the flat bits? That was for old codgers! Even when the doctor told him he had diabetes just after he retired, Harry was determined everything would be just the same. His own dad had “had sugar” as they used to say back then, and Dad had carried on regardless till the day he died.
“Mr. Collinson,” his new young consultant had said more recently, “now your pancreas isn’t working quite as it should, it’s important you get some gentle exercise to help the insulin to do its work; just remember always to carry something sugary with you in case your blood glucose drops too low.”
Harry had been hopeless at timing the injections at first, when they told him tablets were no longer enough to control his diabetes. Sometimes he would go a bit wobbly and sweaty and Maureen was always the first to notice.
“Do you need a sugar tablet, Harry? I think you do; you’re getting a bit argumentative and wibbly wobbly, you know.”
Sure enough, Maureen would fish out the packet of special glucose tablets from her pocket or her posh handbag if they were at a dinner dance or a café, and Harry would soon feel better and raring to go again.
“You’d forget your head if it wasn’t nailed on with glue,” she joked. “Lucky I remembered to bring the spare packet with me.”
Harry heard Max’s barking coming up from the path that descended steeply to the shingle strand where the limestone caverns dotted the coast like a doggy paradise. At least he hadn’t fallen in a rock pool, but what if he was stuck on a ledge? Harry imagined the big yellow rescue helicopter whirring overhead and the photos in the local rag showing a soppy old Golden Retriever with a silly smile on its face getting winched to safety with the locals and holidaymakers whooping and applauding.
Harry had always tried to keep himself as fit as he could. A few years ago he could have shimmied down there and been the hero himself.
“You’re always my hero, you old softy,” he could hear Maureen saying.
Harry felt in his pocket. His fingers closed on the neat embossed tin with ‘Best Dad in the World’ on the lid. Kathy had bought it for him as a holiday present to keep three whole packets of glucose in. It felt very light. Then he remembered putting the packets on the bedside table ready to pack into the tin in the morning. They must still be sitting there, along with the wet wipes he was going to put in his pockets for the usual little mishaps Maureen always dealt with so sensibly.
“Max! Come on up! Time to go for walkies back to the cottage!”
Shouting made Harry realise his voice was going a bit funny as though his cheek muscles and his tongue were made of rubber and when he looked where the gulls were wheeling over the sea, they were mixed up with little swirling spots and squiggles like bits of burning paper blowing up from a bonfire. He was starting to feel quite weak and shaky and although the wind was cool and bracing on the cliff, he was getting so sticky hot he felt he wanted to peel off his jacket and sit down on the ground.
As though he was a million miles away, he could still hear Max barking above the sound of the waves that seemed muffled, somehow, as though his ears were full of singing cotton wool.
The familiar woofing started getting nearer and nearer.
“Good boy, Max. I’ll be up in a minute, I’m just having a little lie down,” Harry heard his own voice saying, as if he was a stranger with detachable lips. He couldn’t remember actually laying down, but his body had taken over somehow, trying to conserve his energy for fight or flight. He had never ever let his blood sugar get so low before, or rather Maureen hadn’t. She always saw the signs long before anybody else even noticed, including Harry himself, and brought out the sugary lifesavers.
Then something warm and wet was tickling his hand where it lay palm down on the prickly grass that felt like little spiky tufts of that artificial stuff greengrocers used on their stalls. His brain was whizzing round trying to make sense but he felt so weak he could only think of giggly silly things as if he was drunk. He hadn’t been drunk more than once in his life when he was just a tiny bit tipsy at a neighbour’s wedding as a very young man. After he met Maureen he never bothered with more than a glass of shandy, so how did he know this felt like being drunk? He remembered then the glossy leaflet the nurse at the Diabetes Centre had shown him describing the symptoms of a ‘hypo’ attack when your blood glucose is too low.
“Be careful as people can sometimes mistake a hypo for being drunk,” the leaflet had spelled out in large underlined capitals.
What if somebody found him like this and called for the police? The tickling got even more slobbery on the back of his hand and he could hear a woman’s voice, now, close by, though his eyes wouldn’t seem to open to let him say hello.
“Are you alright there?” The owner of the voice was kneeling by Harry’s head. “Well, obviously not. Are you diabetic, by any chance?”
Harry managed to nod, but he wasn’t sure which way was up and down, so his head ended up flopping around in a way he hadn’t quite planned, but he did manage to tell the lady his name.
“Alright now, Harry, you’d better have some of these jelly sweets,” the lady attached to the voice was saying, very gently but matter-of-fact. “First we’d better see if you can sit up and swallow properly or I’ll have to call for an ambulance to get you off to A&E. Thank goodness I have this terribly sweet tooth and I carry a big bag of jellies with me whenever I go for a walk. I’ve just been exploring those caves. I felt rather like a smuggler! My grandson calls me Dora the Explorer. Cheeky monkey.”
The voice went on saying soothing, funny things that kept Harry chuckling and concentrating. She helped him sit up and as soon as she was sure he could manage them without choking, she fed Harry some of her jellies. At first his mouth was so numb he couldn’t taste anything but soon the different fruit flavours came through. Gradually, he began to feel much better and they sat at the side of the footpath, with Max trying to sit between them, begging for a sweet of his own by putting his paw on Dora’s wrist.
“Quite an intelligent dog, aren’t you, Mr Max?” said Dora as the three of them made their way back along the cliff top path.
“If he was clever he wouldn’t keep going AWOL and leaving his lord and master stranded miles from nowhere,” joked Harry, “but he’s sharp enough to know which side his bread’s buttered when he wants something.”
They both laughed as Max nuzzled his nose into Dora’s pocket.
“He knows which side pocket the sweets are in, you mean,” she chortled. Harry found himself rather taken by Dora’s laugh.
“How did you know I was a diabetic?” Harry was suddenly curious. Dora smiled.
“I’m a retired nurse. Endocrinology was my specialism so I’ve worked in a lot of diabetic clinics in my time. I used to come to the little fishing village in the next cove every year with my husband Stan. When he passed away I decided I just couldn’t face the same old same old. I started coming here when I needed a break. I love walking the cliff and exploring the caves. Usually I have the place to myself but today Max kept running up and barking at me. I realised he must have somebody waiting with a lead somewhere so in the end, when he wouldn’t be shooed away, I thought I’d better climb back up here in case he got lost or stranded when the tide came in. Dog’s know, you know.”
“Max knows when he’s onto a good thing, that’s for certain,” Harry smiled as Max managed to tweak a jelly out of Dora’s pocket when she wasn’t looking.
“I mean some dogs know when their owner’s in trouble; sort of a sixth doggy sense. You can train some dogs to alert people when they start going hypo, or get help if they are prone to seizures.”
Harry grinned and patted Max’s head.
“Can’t teach an old dog new tricks, eh, Maxy?”
But he wasn’t so sure about that any more.
A few summers later, after endless emails and long phone calls and meetings in country pubs with Max in tow, Harry and Dora were walking on the cliffs again. They stood for a moment, close to each other, in the special place where Harry had had his little lie down, as they always called it, just listening to the seabirds squealing and crying as they rode the air currents over the ocean.
A dog was barking somewhere on the beach. They could hear its owner calling it and whistling for all he was worth. Dora squeezed Harry’s hand tenderly the way she did when words weren’t quite enough. They thought of Max, always running on ahead, nose quivering towards hidden horizons, but always coming back when Dora rattled the liver treats that she kept in her pocket next to Harry’s special sweets.