The Swim by Muriel Cooper
The old beagle looks up from his basket. His muzzle grey and his eyes bleary.
“Come on, Barney, my old darling. Time for your walk.” He perks up when he sees the lead, his tail wags, he struggles out of the basket and licks her hand as she clips it on his collar. They slip out the door into the bright sunlight, Barney hobbling along beside her.
Barney was a rescue dog, already old when she picked him up from the animal shelter. Rehoming an older dog was not pre-planned, but at the shelter, when their eyes met, she knew Barney was the one. His previous owner had died in a fall from a ladder. He had stayed beside his mistress and barked until someone came and found the body. Except for Barney, the woman had lived alone. He pined for her at the shelter for months. No one in her family was willing to take on an old dog.
That first night, she let Barney sleep on her bed. She could feel his warm body tucked into the crook of her legs and sense his immense gratitude at having a human companion again. He licked her hand at various intervals throughout the night, waking her. She didn’t mind. She stroked his grizzled head and said, “It’s okay buddy, you’re home now.”
The following day Jess took Barney for his first walk, and she realised something. She would have to change how fast she walked. Jess was in her mid-twenties and an athlete. Everything about her showed it. Her slim, muscular body, her short hair, and especially, the way she moved, briskly with purpose. That first time, even though Barney was livelier in those days, he walked at an old dogs’ pace. He resolutely plodded along, and Jess had to fight the urge to speed up. She plodded along beside him. Barney occasionally turned and looked at her as if to reassure himself that this was really happening.
They turned the corner, and the golden sand of Frankston beach spread out before them. Barney stopped suddenly, seemingly unsure of what to do next. “Come on sweetie,” she said, Let’s see if you can swim.” Jess gently tugged on the lead, and Barney gingerly walked out onto the sand, the soft surface unfamiliar to him. “Gosh mate, is this your first time at the beach? First time for everything,” Jess said. She bent down and unclipped the lead, not knowing how he would react, but he was old, and she didn’t think he’d run far. The old beagle moved with new vigour, his tail began to wag, Barney walked across the sand to the water’s edge.
The bay was so calm it caressed the shore only in tiny ripples. The sun glimmered off the water like pave diamonds. Barney hesitated. A small wave flowed over his paws. He jumped back in surprise. Jess took the initiative, left him on the shore and waded in up to her thighs. “Come on, Barney, here, boy!” Barney barked at her. “No, I’m not getting out, you have to come in. Come on, sweetie, you can do it!”
Barney took tentative steps until he was immersed up to his chest. Then he began to swim towards her. “Good boy Barney, good boy!” She picked him up and hugged him tightly, soaking herself in the process. “Good boy!” Barney licked her face ecstatically. Jess put him back in the water and waded back to the shore. Barney swam after her, trotting on to the sand and shaking himself, then looking back to the water as if to say,’ Can we do that again?’ “Sure buddy, we can do it as many times as you like.” At last, she clipped on the lead, and they walked home.
There had been so many walks and swims since then. Jess grew to adore the old dog, who patiently waited for her to come home from work every day, greeting her with a lick and a wag. Many nights had been spent on the couch, watching TV, or listening to music. Barney loved classical music, especially Ravel’s Bolero, when he would join in, howling along and making Jess cry with laughter.
Slowly the grey spread from his muzzle to his fur, the walks took longer, and the swims became shorter. Jess became accustomed to the slow pace, enjoying the peace and companionship at the end of the day. One possible boyfriend was discarded because he couldn’t understand why Jess would have such a ‘Mangy old dog.’ Now, two years later, Steve had come along, a man who finally passed the Barney test.
On this particular walk, Steve is waiting for them to come home. There is a journey to make they cannot bear to think about. Even more slowly than usual, they take the old familiar route to the beach. Barney struggles across the sand to the shore. Jess picks him up in her arms and strides into the water. Bending down, she holds his body, supporting him as he swims. Then, just as she did that first time, she picks him up and hugs him tight. Weakly, he licks her face. She cannot see the shore for tears.
“Last swim, buddy,” she says, “Last one, you beautiful boy.”