She found a seat at the top of the ramp leading up from the beach, looking out to sea and across the bay back across the three miles of sands they’d just walked. Slipping Bodie’s lead through the arm of the bench, she stretched her legs, lifted her face to the warm sunshine and smiled. Phil was seeing Filey now in all its full late-summer glory and he’d remember it like this and not wet, windy and cold as it had been for the last three days. So he couldn’t go on about the ‘grim, grotty Northern seaside’ as he was wont to do.
“You’re looking very smug, missy”, he said, returning with ice-creams.
“Just enjoying the sun. Bodie, don’t get any ideas, mate!”
“How can you resist those eyes?” he laughed and tousled the spaniel’s long ears.
“Quite easily when it’s stuff that’s bad for him”.
“See the fat lady over there?”
“Phil!” she reprimanded him, “that isn’t kind”.
“Whatever. Anyway, she’s feeding that bloody poodle chips, for heaven’s sake! It can hardly waddle along as it is”.
“People treat their dogs like kids. It’s not fair on them”. She sat up to enjoy the cornet better. Somehow, just like fish and chips, these things tasted better eaten in the open air by the sea.
“Have you noticed how some people get to look their dogs?” He mused, as he licked away.
“I don’t have long ears, do I?”
“Not you. Although you both like your belly tickled’ he winked at her, “But take the fat woman and her fat poodle. They both have similar hairstyles. The shaggy mop look. And that guy”, he nodded over at a young man with tattoos holding the chain lead of a Boxer dog, “see the facial features?”
Laughing, she had to agree. “Oh and how about him? The little old fellow with the Jack Russell?”
“Exactly! Both small, wiry with spindly legs and the grumpiest of faces”
“I think they’re both just hot.” She felt mean now for drawing attention to him. He was clearly exhausted; leaning on the railings while the little dog drank thirstily. She’d seen him yesterday, this tiny ancient, when she’d walked here in the pouring rain. He’d been huddled into his coat, the same one he was wearing today. Why, when it was so warm? He’d come down the hill, past the glen, the old terrier trundling alongside him, and had stood in the same place, at the far end of the walkway, looking out to sea, gripping the railings. Maybe it was his daily constitutional? He looked so weary and, not so much grumpy, as Phil had said, but addled (she loved that word!), as if he had lots on his mind and couldn’t clear it. Maybe he stood here in this spot every day to try and blow the clutter that crowded his thinking space away and out to sea?
“Yummy, eh? Don’t tell your mother” Phil had finished his ice-cream and was feeding the end of the cone to Bodie, while she’d been distractedly musing. He grinned and gave her that ‘What am I doing so wrong?’ expression that he did so well. Shaking her head, she brushed crumbs from her shorts and stood to stretch. Bodie was on his feet, ready to go and as she turned to her dog, she heard the old man shout out,
“You can’t take dogs on that side of the beach!”
A young man, twenty-something, blond, good-looking, with naked, bronzed upper torso, was about to walk down the ramp at the other end of the walkway from where they were sitting, with his black Labrador. He halted for a second and looked back at the old man.
“Says who?” he demanded, in a mocking tone.
The man pointed at the notice ‘Dogs must not be exercised on this part of the beach’. “You can walk on that side of the beach” and he pointed to the bay, where they had walked from the holiday village.
“Huh! I’ll walk where I damned well like!” he fired back, laughed, swore again and proceeded to stride down the ramp.
There were a few people who heard the exchange, of course, it being a warm Sunday in late September. There were tuts of disapproval but no-one made a move to stop him or say more. Except for the little old man. He sprang into action, finding a sprightliness that Sarah couldn’t quite believe, let go of his own dog, and ran after the fellow, catching him and tapping him on the shoulder (which actually took some reaching up on his part, given that the younger guy was around six foot and the older barely five).
“I said, you can’t walk your dog here! It’s prohibited!”
Sarah found herself taking a sharp intake of breath and stepping forward.
“And I said I’ll walk where I like. Now piss off, you old tosser!” and he shook the older man off him and walked off down the ramp laughing to himself. “Silly old sod” He called back when he’d reached the beach and laughed again.
“Don’t you dare laugh at me! Do you hear me? I say! Don’t you laugh at me!”
Sarah was afraid the old man would give chase and she realised that she was still holding her breath, but instead he stayed at the top of the ramp, glaring down as the young fellow strode out, in all his vigorous vitality, laughing as he went. His dog now off the lead and frolicking happily on the forbidden part of the beach. The families down there were packing up their deck-chairs, wind-screens and blankets and, apart from a few who glanced disapprovingly at that rule-breaker, no-one took much notice of him and his dog. Their nonchalance seemed to enrage the old man still more.
“Stop that blighter! Stop him! Wretched devil! I tell you, he’s a demon. A devil, I say!” he roared.
“Oh Lord” muttered Phil, “come on, let’s get out of here. Nutters out in force today”.
Sarah didn’t move. She went on watching the old man who continued to shout down the beach. The couples at the tables stopped eating their burgers and chips, laughing with each other, at him. Children ran up to where he was, giggling and pointing, nudging each other The little dog sat faithfully by the railings, not at all disturbed by this odd behaviour, as if he had seen it all before. Still the man went on shouting; much the same things, in that strange, old-fashioned language:
“Come back, you terrible demon! You should be whipped! Whipped, I tell you. Wretch! Devil!”
Sarah could just about see the black Labrador, jumping around in the incoming waves, but the young man was almost out of sight. He hadn’t looked back once. For him, the whole hilarious episode was done with. So trivial he probably wouldn’t even mention it to his friends. Still the old man went on shouting.
“Swine! Devil! Come back here! How dare you laugh at me! I tell you, how dare you!”
Quite a crowd had gathered on the walkway now. The laughter had faded and most were simply watching. Phil had hold of Bodie’s lead, seeing as how it looked as if Sarah wasn’t going to untie him, and was urging her to go.
“I can’t just leave him”
“Sarah, for crying out loud! You don’t even know him! I hate this sort of thing. Come on, please”
The old man’s face was crimson and tears were coursing down his cheeks.
“He’s crying” Sarah pulled her arm away from Phil.
“It’s nothing to do with us. There’s nothing we can do”
The old man had stopped shouting now. He fell down on to his knees and was sobbing. Really sobbing. Great big sobs that shook his body. Head in his hands. No one in the small crowd was laughing any more, but neither did anyone move.
“‘There’s a fellow crying in Martin Place. No one can stop him’” She whispered the words and turned and repeated them to Phil, looking at him, longing him to understand.
“What?” he was mystified and aghast that she wouldn’t just come with him.
“A poem. Les Murray, I think. No one could stop him crying. But it wasn’t like this.” She turned back and looked at the old man. “I can’t do nothing. He could be…someone’s” Without looking at Phil again, she gives him the lead “Hold on to Bodie.”
She pushes through those staring at the old man, watching as his dignity lay in tatters on the concrete around him. Kneeling by him, she gently touches his sleeve. She smells that musty odour; of clothes that’ve been soaked and then dried out too slowly in airless conditions. But they’re good clothes; he’ll have been a smart man once, she thinks. She hasn’t thought what to say or do, she acts on her instincts, what feels right.
Putting her mouth close to his ear, she murmurs, “Come on, now. There’s nothing more to do.”
He turns his tear-streaked face to her; eyes glazed and uncomprehending.
“We need to go now” Her right arm around his shoulders now
She touches his face with her free hand; strokes his cheek; realises then, she too, is crying, but quietly, softly. He peers into her face, beginning to focus now, as his sobs subside. He lifts his hand and his thumb traces a tear from her cheek to her chin. He has snot on his upper lip. They look at each other, saying nothing. She tries a smile. Then a woman touches her shoulder, as she kneels there on the concrete beside the old man, and gives her a handkerchief. It’s a man’s, blue-striped, fresh and pressed. Sarah looks at it and feels she may cry more, but she takes it, wipes his face and gives it to him and he blows his nose noisily, crumples it in a ball and wipes his eyes. A man has appeared on his other side and he takes his arm, helping him into a standing position. Sarah has her arm linked through his and she and the other man lead him to a bench. Another woman (from the café perhaps? She’s wearing an apron anyway) appears and places a cup of tea on the wooden table in front of him. He takes it, drinks it greedily. A boy brings his dog to him and smilingly holds out the lead. The old man pours some of his tea into the saucer, bends to his dog, strokes him and gives him the tea, which is lapped up.
The crowd has more or less dispersed. The warmth of a full day’s sunshine can still be felt, but the shadows are lengthening as people drift away, back to campsites or to pack up their cars. The shutters on the café are closed and young girls are clearing away rubbish and collecting up cups. Sarah stands, places a hand on the old man’s shoulder; he squeezes it, looks up and nods. She bends to the dog, ruffles its fur and walks down the ramp to where Phil is waiting on the beach. Her own dog greets her as if she has been away for months, as dogs always do and there is no recriminations or questions, just that joy at seeing his mistress return. They walk back along the sands to the holiday village and there are no words. Later, they will pack their bags and she will drive them home. They will chat about all sorts of things on the journey but not the things that really matter. But she will know, as he must surely know now, that they will go their separate ways from this point, because, even though he appreciates that the sun does shine in the North, this, whatever this was, just will not do.