Joe Gibbs: The sad and beautiful tale of the dog that walked to Istanbul (and my son, who walked with him)

Joe Gibbs pays tribute to a much-loved family pet: the dog who joined his son on the adventure of a lifetime.

I have done mostly what most men do
And pushed it out of my mind
But I can’t forget, if I wanted to
Four-Feet trotting behind

When our boy Eion set out one summer’s day to walk from the Hook of Holland to Istanbul some eight years ago, he left these shores as free of responsibilities as any young man of 21 setting out on an adventure should be. Like Laurie Lee or Paddy Leigh Fermor, an earlier traveller between the two same points on the map of whose existence Eion was unaware when he departed, the only baggage he carried was on his back.

Along the way, la vie bohème in Budapest caught his fancy and he rested there for early winter. A local lass persuaded him that to resume his journey alone would be unnecessary. Should he not, she suggested, take on his first significant responsibility in life? Should he not adopt an abandoned mutt? Thus, persuaded by the thought of a canine companion — and perhaps out of regard for the lovely young lady — Eion became the keeper of Malek, whom he named for the horse that accompanied Leigh Fermor, whose story he had now read.

Malek was mostly German Shepherd with a dash of something quite indefinable. He came with some unusual factory settings. The wail of a police siren or bagpipes prompted him to give tongue. Highland Cathedral, in particular, inspired the most soulful harmony, perhaps for atavistic reasons, as it was written by two Germans. Something had charged him with a mission to uncover every half-buried rock on the globe. There was, of course, a language barrier, until he learnt that ‘Ul!’ translated as ‘Sit!’ and ‘rosse kutja!’ as ‘bad dog!’.

Eventually, in late winter, the yearling dog with the irredeemably floppy ear and the boy with a mission slipped out of Budapest on the rest of their journey.

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Day after day, the whole day through
Wherever my road inclined

Four-Feet said, ‘I am coming with you!’

And trotted along behind.

There may have been times when Malek’s get-out-of-jail card seemed a mixed blessing. The two slept rough, keeping each other warm. The walks were often 30 miles. In Romania, Malek attracted vicious packs of stray dogs. At Friendship Bridge into Bulgaria, an elderly lady taxi driver appeared wielding an ornate stair baluster and laid about the attackers.

Having given Eion those parental ‘this is your dog, you can’t dump it on us’ lectures, we, of course, fell completely for Malek when he came home. Everyone did. He had such playful charm.

But in January, he began to cough. The vets diagnosed lung cancer and prescribed a five-figure operation. It worked for a while, until the cough came back. Only nine years old, Malek shrank to skin and bone, albeit in no pain and still avidly playful. On his final day, he followed Eion into the surgery and, with a deep sigh, lay down and died. In the post came a package of his ‘individually cremated’ ashes. Good to know there was no labrador in there — he couldn’t stand them.

We will scatter him on the hill here, a piper will play Highland Cathedral and we will slug down a Floppy Ear cocktail: whisky, angostura bitters, lime juice, sugar syrup and egg white. And, with Kipling, we will think:

Now I must go by some other round
Which I shall never find

Somewhere that does not carry the sound

Of Four-Feet trotting behind.