There is something different about today, Sixth thinks as they walk along. Gran is walking so much faster, almost as fast as she used to walk when Dear was with us. It is as if Gran has somewhere that she really wants to get to, or something that she really wants to do. But then again, she smells scared. Or at least if not scared, then nervous. Edgy. Like the way he feels when there is a thunder storm on the way. Perhaps, the dog thinks, she has something to do and it's big and scary, so she wants to get it done before she changes her mind.
One thing is for certain – Gran has liver in her pocket. It might be wrapped up in a plastic bag, but it is there and he can smell it, tender and rich. She even showed it to him as if to say, 'This is what you are playing for today, my boy!' Well, if she wants to do some games today, that is fine by him.
They walk through the quiet village and then down a rutted lane into the fields. The ground is firm under his feet because it has been frosty and the mud is not as bad as it sometimes gets. Because of the cold, Sixth is wearing a little coat. It reminds him a bit of the coats he used to wear when he raced. Sixth likes this walk very much because there are so many interesting smells and lots of messages left by other dogs for him to investigate. Normally Gran dawdles along this bit because she knows that he likes to sniff about, but today she seems impatient and calls him to keep up.
On and on they go until Sixth can no longer hear any sounds of cars and buses. Fields surround them on every side for as far as he can see. The wind brings him scents of smoke from a bonfire, miles away towards where the sun rises.
"Here we are, Sixth." He looks round at his name, and Gran comes to a halt. "Now… let me remind you about this…" And again she shows him the liver in the bag. He tries to get his nose in but she is too quick for him and all he can do is savour the scent of it, so succulent and tangy that it makes him drool.
Gran stands up straight, as if gathering courage. Sixth notices that she has the whistle round her neck. This whistle is something that he likes very much because peep-peep on that whistle means liver. Sometimes she says 'Sixth! Come here!' and sometimes she says 'Peep-peep' but either way, if he comes to her, he gets liver. If he comes to her and sits down he gets extra liver. If he comes to her, sits down, lifts one paw in the air and puts his head on one side a bit, he gets tonnes of liver plus a large helping of 'Aaaaaw, ooosie clever doggie den? Eh? Eh?' It's a simple system. Even a Daftbugger could master it. Eventually.
"Right…" says Gran. "Now don't bring me back any dead rabbits, please, Sixth. Or pheasants. Or muntjac deer. Or Yorkshire Terriers. All right? Understand? And you bloody well enjoy yourself! This is what you were bred for. Do you see? Everything about you – your legs, your heart, your lungs, your spine – were made for running. Everything, and that includes your brain. All right? And I know you don't understand a word I'm saying and I don't care, because if I want to talk nonsense to my dog, then I will talk nonsense to my dog! Okay? You run and you enjoy yourself!"
While she is saying all this, she is taking off his coat and fumbling with the clasp of his leash where it fits to his collar.
And then, to his complete and utter amazement, she takes the leash off altogether and stands back.
He is free.
He can run.
"Go on!" she urges. "Go on! Run!"
Sixth looks out across the field and then back at Gran. Human faces are hard to read, but she is smiling, she is waiting. She makes a little movement with her hands, just like she does when he's in the house and she wants him to move out into the garden. It is enough. He understands.
Sixth remembers the whir of the rickety bunny on its track. He remembers the shouts from the crowd, the barking of the other dogs next to him in their traps. The metal bars flash up in his mind's eye and suddenly everything is clear.
He tenses his great muscles and then hurls himself forwards, reaching and stretching, pulling the ground towards him and throwing it back. Ten strides and he is flying, barely skimming the ground, and his mind sings with the power of it. The sheer joy of running floods through him, the glory of it, the sweet music of breath and heartbeat and paws. Far behind now he hears a human voice crying out 'Go on! Go on! Run!" and he knows she is not calling him back but urging him on, just as he used to be cheered on in the stadium under the hot lights, and he finds more speed for her, as he has never been able to before, because now it is Gran who is calling, and for her he would run until his heart burst.
And this is better than the stadium because his run can take him where he wants. Out of the corner of his eye he sees a big black bird on the far side of the field. He leans into a corner and brings himself around on a trajectory that will unwind right in the path of it. The bird struggles to get into the air and Sixth's heart soars at the thought of catching it. Already he is thinking what those coal black feathers would taste like, how hot the flesh would be, how rich the blood…
But it is a long time since he has run like this. Already he can feel his breath labouring and a stinging ache in his muscles as he tires. The bird flaps up and away out of his reach, and it is gone, and at last Sixth allows himself to slow.
Ringing out across the field comes the sound of the whistle and he has reacted before he has even had a chance to think, turning his course to its call, pulling his weary limbs round in a long arc until he can see Gran waving to him with her arms out wide. His strides come slowly now as his gallop becomes a lope, a lope becomes a trot… and now he stands in front of Gran, sides heaving, legs trembling. He raises his head to look at her, and in her face sees such emotion that for a moment it scares him. But she is Gran and his trust is absolute.
He sits down in front of her…
…and raises one paw.
All of a sudden it is raining liver!
The lead is going back onto his collar but that doesn't matter because he has liver in his mouth, and Gran…
… Gran is laughing and crying and shaking and clapping all at once. And there is a name that she is saying, over and over, half in a chant, half in a moan – "Henry! Henry! Henry!"
Sixth eats his food, and waits patiently as Gran cries and cries. Even as she puts the little coat onto him, there are tears dropping from her face and her hands are clumsy with the buckles.
"Oh, God, Henry! I miss you so much!"
Sixth understands none of this, so he stands and waits, and looks across the vast field that was his racetrack only a few minutes ago.
The sound of Gran's weeping fills the air as if there is a lifetime of pain to come out. But he trusts, and waits, knowing that there are times when an owner must look after her dog, and times when it is the dog's duty to be strong for the owner.
At last Gran quietens, until there is nothing but sniffing and the occasional juddering breath.
And then she bends down, cradles his long, narrow head in her hands, and says in that lovely soft voice, "Thank you!"