We buy the dog, the puppy, whose name in this story is Maggie, though really it is Sylvie. We might have considered calling the dog (as opposed to the fiction) Maggie, but some friends called their baby Maggie, removing it from our list of possibilities. Besides – perhaps particularly being Scottish – the name still feels too redolent of Thatcher to give to a dog. But in the story she is Maggie, who, even if just in this notebook, will therefore outlive Sylvie and also pre-decease her. (One of the few things I know about Maggie’s role in this story so far is that she will have died before the end.)
Maggie is a black miniature schnauzer. The day we meet her she is bounding around a small fenced garden, benevolently ignored by her shaggy grey and white mother. Maggie bounds, and she licks at Alex’s fingers as if she knows that she has walked into an audition. Dark and completely disinclined to stay still, she is impossible to photograph. Her two unclaimed littermates are also healthy, fluffy, easy to fall for, but she is mischievous, playful and curious, or we project these traits on to her. Quickly, ineradicably, she makes a claim on our hearts.
She is six weeks old and we come back two weeks later to collect her, having bought everything we think it’s possible we’ll need (it’s not enough, not nearly). She lies in a bed in Alex’s lap and I drive with tender slowness, keeping the car at least 10 miles below the speed limit. Maggie edges to the lip of the bed as we travel and when we realise that she is trying to escape the glare of the sun, the terror of our new responsibility is such that this feels like a crisis, as if she might fry like an egg.
It is on about the day that we take her home that a friend of a friend is beginning to notice something apparently wrong with his hands. Is it harder for him to tie his shoelaces? Why should holding cutlery feel a little awkward, as if his hands are stiff with cold? He’s busy with work and won’t find time to explore these questions for a while, but maybe, about now, they start to occur to him.
At home we enter into an enforced fascination with piss and shit. For weeks we note each minute at which Maggie empties her bladder or has a bowel movement. We write this down because we are too tired to remember it, tired from taking her outside to piss or shit every hour and from not sleeping through the night. There’s tedious work and sleeplessness, but she makes up for it. She is an affectionate, adorable delight and we are, basically, ensorcelled. She is also an incredible silent comedian, falling off sofas and cushions with a graceless precision that Buster Keaton would envy. Still we exhaust ourselves with anxiety.
Puppy rearing, it turns out, like so much else (any attempt to carefully assemble words, for example), means moving at multiple speeds simultaneously. We are like cartoon characters racing at leg-spinning speed only to be trapped in the stasis of a looping background. Except we zombie-shuffle through constantly recurring episodes of piss and shit, while at the same time newness occurs at great velocity. We take the dog out, and take the dog out, and take the dog out, and take the dog out. Meanwhile Maggie can’t make it down the steps and then she can, she learns to sit on command, she chases after leaves for the first time, and plays fetch, she starts to nip and learns that she isn’t to nip, her first baby tooth falls out and then her last, she is fully twice the size she was.
We are eager for the arrival of the well-behaved dog in place of the exhausting puppy, and already nostalgic from watching the puppy depart day by day.
In the fourth week that we have her – while she is still a terrifying vulnerability, a tedious chore and a ceaselessly original delight – there is an election. This passes dispiritingly but predictably, and I can’t bring myself to be interested in it.
Normally politics has an unpleasant fascination for me. It feels, particularly around elections, as if I am sitting in a public space overhearing a conversation about a medical complaint – maybe something grotesque and purulent the person has discovered growing between their toes – and every time feel compelled to lean over and ask if I can see. I want to read long newspaper interviews with this weeping sore. I want to fave forty thousands contentless joke tweets about it. I want to dab my finger against it and taste the pus.
For whatever reason, the election passed without this instinct inhabiting me.
Part of it might have been just the recent weeks of dog-tiredness. Another part of it belonged to a much longer process of attrition, the feeling that, through the course of my life, politics had worn down to a point. A distasteful if working model of governance had successfully embedded itself and ensured that, whatever happened in any given election, power would simply pass on power to power for ever more: inequality would continue to widen, anger at the system would be diverted into resentment (for immigrants, for the working poor…), the market would slowly and surely overwhelm all notions of shared, public good, and so on. The ineluctable slowness of this narrowing of what politics could be was its great victory. It became, ultimately, just too fucking boring and predictable to resist. Or any way, I can’t bring myself to think about it any more. I concentrate (this is, admittedly, when I concentrate on anything, and I am slothful and distractible) on work, on writing (moving from short stories I’d sometimes never finished in the past to a novel that promised a similar lack of conclusion), and on the pleasures of owning a dog.
We give her so many nicknames it’s amazing she ever realises she is called Maggie, but she does, and we can’t get enough of her.
Some of the nicknames fall from the pup as she grows from puppy into faithful hound. She doesn’t trot to her food bowl with quite the same puppyish energy or fall from furniture quite so often, but she maintains a saintly and beautiful-to-witness belief that everybody she meets is good and worthy.
Meanwhile, Liam (not his real name, to make it easier to lie about him, as I’m lying about Maggie, and ‘Alex’, and me), the friend of a friend with the new dexterity problem, takes it to a doctor. They give him some tests and tell him that he has Motor Neurone Disease – an incurable, progressive illness that will see him dead, in all likelihood within the next two years. He can hope to live to 30; it is extraordinarily unlikely that he will live to 35. Over the course of the time he has left his body will shut down in stages. Like a block of ice warmed from all sides, less and less of his physical self will remain until finally none of it does. This is a process that he has already noticed in the compromised movement of his fingers, but which will spread, which will restrict him to a wheelchair, remove his voice, his ability to feed himself, his ability to breathe without a ventilator, and which will finally kill him.
He has gone for reassurance or treatment, and instead found that on his way to the doctor’s he has accelerated through life to his very deathbed.
What has he sped past? 50 or 60 years he could reasonably have expected to enjoy. And then he has entered into an awful slow motion: the final instants of existence, the body’s closure, prolonged to incrementally degrading months or, if he is lucky, years.
What does this feel like?
Depression, in my experience, retreats unhurriedly and when it advances moves in a single leap. Over the course of more than a decade, I’ve had the tempered pleasure of feeling it recede, like something grand but infinitesimal — like coastal erosion, or gum shrinkage. (The pleasure tempered by the knowledge that it is just receding, rather than gone). And although it’s true that it can still pounce, the further it has to travel the less force it seems to achieve. I no longer think that any pounce will dislodge me from existence, which at one time wasn’t beyond contemplation. Instead I’m here, I wait it out, and it grows bored of me and, inch by inch, it cedes the possibility of freedom.
How would this slow expansion of wellness be affected by sitting in an NHS office with a doctor (a doctor unable to hold back his own tears, we’re told by the friend who gives the story of Liam’s diagnosis) and being told that you have MND, and what this means? How would the rest proceed?
I worry that depression would arrive, victorious and gloating, for this final triumph. Maybe just to stand over me victorious, and send scrambling from the crevices of my soul any ability to find joy in the time left. But maybe – worse – to turn me into a co-conspirator, a vector of hatred and spite, embittered and impossible to be around, almost spitefully eager for the end.
At any rate this isn’t what happens to Liam.
The next two years pass quickly, which is to say, they take two years to pass and still we barely notice them. I take up the hobby of watching YouTube tutorials for things I have no intention to do. How to build a bathroom cabinet, how to set and check lobster traps, how to design a Soviet-era-style logo, how to fix a tumble dryer, how to install a wireless doorbell system: the important thing is that they have no utility for me.
I discover that it’s possible to consume YouTube tutorials at double speed, and cannily free up time to consume more of them. If, after watching two or three accelerated YouTube tutorials, you watch one at its intended speed the instructions sound drunkenly slurred out. If, after watching them for hours, you have a phone conversation with a parent, you can momentarily convince yourself that you are hearing them in the grip of a stroke.
I watch these videos with my legs up on the sofa and the dog curled into them. It feels as if she exudes peace – she is a hearth I huddle to for it. (Though if we leave her alone she sparks and yips with anxiety: it’s clear from the greeting we get on our return that this time without us is horribly extended.)
Liam dies – in increments, as the disease requires. But he also manages to live at an astonishing pace. He travels, he marries, he fundraises and campaigns. The campaigning results in changes to the law, and to the quality of care that others will receive who follow behind him. The fundraising produces an amount of money that I’ll withhold in case it appears unconvincingly large when transposed to fiction.
We observe this at a distance, and it’s something to see. Close up maybe there is more spite, and rage, and a person would be entitled, certainly. But he has been pressed into a hell of being dismantled, and as he has been picked apart, he’s made something quite incredible from himself. It’s an effort that exists entirely beyond my capacity for cynicism, in a different space-time, where words hardly seem to exist.
Five years must have passed, because there is another election, though I barely notice it. By this time we’ve moved to the countryside, regretted it, moved back into the city – we’re thinking of moving again, maybe. Alex has climbed higher and higher in the structure of her NGO with an admirable steadfastness of purpose.
I’ve basically meant to leave both the jobs I’ve had in this time, but so far have only got around to leaving one of them. I’ve written half a novel that’s eagerly awaited by no one, the usual number of people to eagerly await tiresomely clever-clever postmodern literary novels about detectives and time travel. In the novel a character sits endlessly in a chair, wrongly convinced he is going to find a way to redeem his wasted life, which runs out of him like he’s a barrel with an open tap. I spend a lot of time sitting in chairs working on this novel, in a parallel which (implausibly) it never occurs to me to unpick until just now, this moment.
Maggie has a bad encounter with another dog when we’re out walking. I get to her in time, and she only needs a few stitches, but for the next month she goes back to pissing and shitting indoors, too scared to go outside. During this month we begin to let her sleep with us on the bed sometimes. She will never be quite as friendly again, except to us – her love narrows.
Politics becomes more and more insistent, nastier and nastier, and I catch myself beginning to lean over, to attend to it again. There is a referendum and I stay up as the votes are counted.
The night of a vote, the people on television drop out of time. Every ballot has already been cast, but they are stuck peering into detuned crystal balls. It is worthless in a categorical way that few other things can aspire to be: all of the insight and accuracy of clairvoyance, about a decision that has already been made. Nothing would make as much sense as getting some sleep and waking to the result, but the whole cargo cult ritual has to happen, and I get lost in it.
Over the next few years we find that politics is, in fact, capable of change and of speed. Things become crueler with an intensity that surprises us. We go to protests, sometimes; sign petitions at a rate that by itself would demonstrate how token an effort this is; we read John Gray. I wish I had the energy, the quickness and vigour, to respond to the world as it deserves. I learn the theory of how to speak in a British accent and how to juggle fire.
Maggie slows down. She develops an old woman walk. I buy a small ladder that is specifically made to enable old dogs to get on to your bed. She has pancreatic problems that develop into diabetes. She has what the vet says he is ‘pretty sure’ is cancer, but he doesn’t want to explore too thoroughly because of her age. Treatment, even diagnosis, has become less kind than doing nothing.
In an irrational pique at absolutely fucking everything I finish the novel in a week-long push. The whole thing has taken more than a decade and can be read in an afternoon. Maggie also reaches a conclusion, but we are slow to accept it. It gets so she can only move when we hold her hindquarters up by the tail for her. She is a space dog, shot out at a relativistic speed that has separated her experience of time from ours. I am still in the same long moment of my life that I was when I met her, but inside it I met my best friend and she grew old, and her last moments after the injection are hard to describe and feel very slow.
Alan Trotter's debut novel, Muscle, will be published by Granta Books in the not too distant future.
Photograph by Alan Trotter