His career peaked in the 70s and early 80s. Back then he won every sled race worth winning, home and abroad.
He turned up a few weeks ago with his white van. Says he lives in Scotland at the moment, but his accent puts him somewhere in the Southern Counties. A wizened, smallish man sporting a three-day stubble. I have a vague uneasy feeling that he may have spent the night in a dog kennel. A distinctive musty smell permeates the room.
“I’m actually on my way to France with the dogs”. He points to each in turn and strokes them affectionately: “This one was a winner just last year. That one produced a few top runners in her day.” Each of them is a sinewy athlete, a world apart from the usual pampered pooch that comes through the doors every day. They have eyes only for their master.
They’re sitting tight for a few weeks while we sort out their pet passports for the trip. During this period I saw them quite a few times. Last week I had to staple up a gaping wound under local anaesthetic, whilst the dog stood there like a statue. You can’t help but admire them; no slobbering smiles here, but a zest for life just the same. They move like a single organism, in their eyes the same desire to run when given half the chance.
The oldest one is 9 years old. She still runs in harness with the rest of them. In Scotland there was enough snow for a sled, but down here they have to pull a cart through the woods.
“Where are you staying over, sir?” I asked the last time I saw him. “I’m parked up at a friend’s place”, he said.
Today he’s here with one of the older dogs in his arms. “It’s the mother of that one over there”, he says. “He’s also a champion.”
But she’s got cancer, and she can’t go to France with the others. Her tumours are spread throughout her body.
An old man with an old dog in his arms, forlorn.
Afterwards, we carry her on a stretcher round the back of the building where his van is parked out of sight, our feet crunching on the gravel. The next minute he stumbles and falls awkwardly on his back, the dog half on top of him. He lay there stunned for several seconds. Then we manage to get up again and reach the white van. He slides open the side door. On the front seat is a young dog, effusive in her welcome. In the back of the van are several cages with about 7 more dogs.
On the far wall a mattress, kettle, backpack and harness, a loaf of bread.
The old dog won’t be joining them in France next week.
Tonight he’ll bury her in the woods where they used to run together.