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A Winter's Tail

A Winter’s Tail

It is a long February. Albeit that there were only twenty-eight days in the month, it seems more like a year. The elements are against us; gale-force winds blow in from the south, waves crash against the cliff faces, icy cold rain drives into our faces, cliff paths are washed away, seafronts closed to save vehicles and their occupants from impending disaster from the giant waves that somersault the sea wall submerging the pavement and the road beyond. Amid the gloom, tiny glimpses of the forthcoming spring tease us; snowdrops and primroses peek their heads through the rain-sodden grass and banks as if knowing how great our need for our spirits to be lifted.

I do not let the weather prevent me from taking my daily exercise. I have four regular routes each of which starts with a bracing walk along the cliff path reached by way of a park. Breathtaking views over the sea distract me from the sheer physical effort of maintaining my balance and staying on my feet, and not joining the fishes below. Often I stop to take photographs and capture images of the ferocity of nature. However unwelcome the wind, the rain, and storms, they were nonetheless dramatic, a reminder that when we were gone, they will prevail.

A constant hive of activity the park never sleeps; heads down against the wind, cyclists pedal up the steep, boulder-strewn paths and freewheel down the slopes; walkers clad in padded jackets, knitted bobble hats and gloves and wearing their stoutest walking boots stride relentlessly on; children hang from their parents’ arms wishing only that they had been left behind to watch TV or play with their iPads; dogs race breathlessly back and forth, oblivious to the weather, their tails wagging, their tongues flopping from their mouths, fetching and carrying.

I don’t own a dog of my own. I travel a lot and have never felt it fair to kennel a dog just to satisfy my own spontaneous whims to wake up in another bed, in another city, in another country. Instead, I revel in watching the antics of other people’s dogs – the good, the bad, and the ugly – they all have their own personal charms.

That day I was out walking late in the day; the park was all but deserted. I watched, amused, as a dog walker fought valiantly to persuade his Springer that the day’s fun and games were at an end and that it was time to slip his lead back on and head on home. In desperation, I noticed him reach onto his pocket and, as if by magic, pull out a dog treat which he held up in the air. It is a trick that never fails to work. It reminded me of the two biscuits I had slipped in my pocket in case I should get peckish.

As I stood, with my camera poised and focused on the rocks below, my back turned against the park, I started as I felt pressure on both my shoulders. Initially, I froze thinking the worst, and then gathering my wits I reached tentatively with my right hand to my left shoulder. I felt something cold, wet and furry. It was a dog’s paw. I changed hands and reached with my left hand to my right shoulder. It was the second paw. In that same moment, I heard a whimper ringing in my ears. It was a pitiful sound. Slowly I turned. The dog’s paws slipped from my shoulders and he stood on all fours. It was a greyhound, grey around the mouth, with a mottled nose and big brown sad eyes. Water ran off his coat and down his legs, his tail sagged lifelessly down between his back legs. In that moment I could have sworn that there were tears in his eyes. He wore an ornate collar. I bent down and stroked him, ran my hands across his head and down his back. I wondered where he had been all his life. Had he spent his every waking moment chasing hares around a track? Had he been abandoned when he was no longer able to outrun his compatriots? He was of an age where that might well have been the case, but the collar he wore belied the fact that he might have been abandoned. Somebody loved and cared for him.

I looked around for signs of the owner but there was no-one. I reached into my pocket, pulled out the two biscuits, broke the first in half, and offered it to him. I felt his tongue rough on my hand as, so gently, he took it from me. He sat down on his forelegs, looked up at me, and waited patiently. It was too easy to reward his patience. Again I scanned the park and listened. Surely I would hear the call of his owner. Surely an anguished owner would appear looking for him. I heard nothing and saw no-one. It was then that I noticed a silvered tag hanging from his collar. I reached down and read it. “William,” it read. Not Bill or Billy, but William. “The Cedars, Grasscote Avenue, Bilscote.” It was not a million miles from where we were standing. Indeed, it was less than a fifteen-minute walk.

Once more I studied the collar he wore; it was unusually ornate. Beneath the dirt, I caught a glimpse of something that sparkled. In Los Angeles, in Hollywood even, it would have been a suitable accoutrement for a poodle. In Bilscote by the sea, it looked so totally out of place on a greyhound.

I started to walk in the direction of Grasscote Avenue; never straying or looking back, William followed at my heel. We made a strange pair - me, five foot nothing, William three-foot-tall on all fours. Our only feature in common that we were both of unusually slim build. As we left the coast, the wind died down and we were able to gather speed. Within ten minutes we had reached the beginning of Grasscote Avenue. It was not a road to which I had ventured in the past and it took me by surprise to see a magnificent tree-lined avenue with three-story-high, red-brick dwellings set back from the road. The Cedars was the second house in the avenue.

No longer the quiet unassuming dog that he had been since we left the park, William raced ahead of me up the drive and towards the front door, barking loudly, he pawed at the front door. I rang the doorbell and waited. There was no sound. William barked and jumped up at me. On instinct, I tried the door. It was unlocked. An eerie silence pervaded the inside of the house, broken only by the heart wrenching howling of a dog. Warily I stepped in through the hall and followed the direction of William’s mournful cry.

There, beside the fireplace, William stood high on his forelegs, his tongue licking a wrinkled old face. The scene bought tears to my eyes. An elderly gentleman lounged comfortably in an armchair, his eyes closed, newspaper folded in his lap. He looked the picture of contentment, at peace, a faint smile on his face. He was cold to the touch, it was some time since he had passed on.

I phoned the police and reported the death. No, there were no suspicious circumstances, I said, the gentleman appeared to have slipped away in his sleep. No, I was not a relative, I had found his dog and returned him to the address on his collar.

While I waited for the emergency services to arrive I strolled around the room. An antique sideboard held what I believed to be a rare collection of Royal Worcester, the paintings on the wall were of oil and signed by their artists, a fine collection of Doulton china figurines had been carefully arranged on a dust free sideboard. My eye caught a small note propped up on a round, cabriole leg side table. It was short, to the point but cryptic: ‘Please look after William; his collar is his pension.’

I had no way of knowing whether the elderly gentleman had any relatives but from the absence of framed photographs in the room and the circumstance that he had died on his own, I guessed that there were none. He had known he was dying. His dying wish was that someone would take William in and look after him for the rest of his life. It was destiny. William had found me; it was the least I could do.

I gave the police my name, address, and phone number and showed them the note explaining that I was happy to take care of William. Then I made a solemn oath. “I promise you,” I whispered, as I turned to leave the house. I picked up a lead that I found in the hall and offered it to William. He glanced back and whimpered as if saying his final goodbye. He looked up at me with those big brown eyes and wagged his tail.

It was not until I got home that I slipped William’s collar off; it was splattered with dirt. I ran it under warm water. As the mud washed down the sink hole, the light dawned. Set deep in the thick leather collar was a row of diamonds. His collar was indeed his pension. William lived with me for four more years. I believe that he was fourteen when he died.