The last time I went anywhere independently further than the local barber shop without my dear guide dog Vance was eight months ago, back at the end of August. It was one of those trips that I undertake each year with my friend Mark. We never make it especially easy for ourselves, travelling on multiple train services across Europe, battling the various obstacles that the environment throws in our way. But that's really part of the attraction, and we'd rarely seek an easier route. Though my long white cane and I have always had something of a love-hate relationship, packing the dog off to my parents and wielding a carbon fibre rod for a while is a fair price to pay for an occasional bit of adventure.
Tomorrow is one of those occasions. One of those days when I'm torn between nervous pre trip excitement and the genuine heartache of leaving behind my constant companion and best friend in the world. I know he will be fine. He'll be delighted to be with my parents once more, delighted to have a grassy lawn on which to run and roll and lie, and delighted to have a few days away from mundane hours in the office and crowded commutes by train. He'll be fine, but I will miss him terribly.
That was always going to be tomorrow, but today I sit in a bland hospital waiting room, having trekked across London without my guide.
Even without the questions from my doctor, asking how Vance is getting on, I am constantly reminded of his absence. From walking down the High Street in Richmond, crowds of pedestrians no longer parting to make way, to the bollards, poles, pipes and passengers that appear from nowhere and seemingly frustrate my every step. Actions I take for granted, like finding a train door, the top of an escalator or an underground ticket barrier suddenly become hurdles in their own right, requiring planning and care, a thick skin and a steady heart. My muscles tense involuntarily, anticipating the next bump and bruise. Maybe its just lack of practice, or perhaps it's a taste of the week to come.
And whilst I sit here on a hard plastic chair, waiting to have my name called, so bright lights can be shone in my eyes and comparisons made with last year, Vance lies sedated in a veterinary surgery, his right hind dew claw having been cut back to the quick. It is bad enough that I didn't spot the problem when I fed him this morning, and that the exaggerated limp and tender paw only became apparent as I slipped his harness on before heading out the door to work. He is such a brave dog, and a conscientious worker that he hadn't whined or refused to move until that point.
A taxi ride and cursory examination later and Vance was admitted for the day. He seemed relieved to be there and barely paused as he was led away, leaving me in reception with only my white cane to accompany me home.
Vance will be fine. He's a strong dog and gets through these things. He hurt his back two years ago, during that strange interval between the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. It happened out of the blue, a freak accident as he jumped into my mum's car, a jump which he had made on so many previous occasions, but which would forever more require him to take strong pain medication.
And then there was one of his other dew claws, torn whilst playing with a friend's dog in Germany, which became infected during the long train journey home and required weeks of rest and the imposition of the largest Elizabethan collar ever seen.
He was fine then and will be fine now. I just need to get on and stop worrying.
I wrote the above earlier this afternoon, and am pleased to say that now, at half seven in the evening, Vance is back with me, resting quietly in the hallway. The offending claw has gone and his paw patched up, and he now just needs to rest. Tomorrow he'll be collected by mum, and then it will be me and the dreaded cane for a whole week.
Both of the pictures accompanying this post were taken by me. The first depicts Vance gazing out onto the Thames in Richmond a couple of days ago. The second shows him as he is this evening, rather dozy after his earlier sedation.