The Last Good Day
A rare day of November sunshine. The sun hanging low and the light so piercing that you have to screw up your eyes to take in the view. For weeks now you’ve been predicting that the good weather cannot last, but this year summer seems reluctant to give way and, like the doctor said, it’s no use moping indoors. Got to make an effort. There is a gusty wind bending the tops of trees, sending flocks of brown-yellow leaves flying into the sky but perhaps this will be the last good day so you wander out and find a bench along the river towpath, squatting in shelter between two sets of bushes.
The doctor gave you that book on mindfulness a while back, so you decide to give it a go. There’s one exercise where you’re supposed to imagine a river flowing by and you watch the leaves of memory float past. See them. Note them. But then let them go without regret.
You stare at the river, focusing on the lichen-choked surface, but it hardly seems to be moving and after a few minute your mind wanders where it shouldn’t go and you get the paper out instead.
It is mid-morning. Most other people have somewhere to get to – work or school – so you more or less have the place to yourself. A couple of cyclists, students probably, leave shreds of conversation as they whirr by.
“… you going to see her again?”
“ Maybe. Didn’t reply to my text.”
“I dunno …”
You strain to hear more, randy for some taste of other lives and their numberless possibilities, yours shrunken to a single channel, but they zip out of earshot and are lost.
A few minutes later you hear a jogger puffing in your direction. A woman, older than you and drainpipe thin. Black singlet and shorts, day-glo yellow trainers. She straightens up as she nears you, gives a thin smile and a sort of “this is good, you should try it.” look as she shuffles by. But you are not fooled. Running won’t make any difference.
So you settle back into the not-quite silence, the boom of distant traffic taking the edge off. Looks like you have the river to yourself now but after a while you start to have that familiar sense of being observed. Like before. They’ve warned you about this. All that’s in the past. You need to move on. Even so. You turn round suddenly but only catch sight of a swirl of leaves as something scurries into the bushes. You can hear it rustling about in the dead undergrowth.
You decide to play it cool, put the newspaper down, cross your legs and lean back on the bench, head lolling upwards as you breathe in the rushing air. You close your eyes and see the orange glow on your eyelids, the sun’s warmth seeping into your head. It feels good.
After a while you hear scuffling by your feet, but you stay still. With your head resting on the back of the bench you open one eye and squint downwards. A small, reddy-brown mongrel with floppy ears and black ankles, as if it had socks on, is staring at you from a few feet away. Its head twitches from side to side and every gust of wind causes a spasm in the legs. It looks behind to check there is no-one there and then straight back at you.
You open the other eye and slowly raise your head. The dog draws back a few paces. It looks ready to flee, fearing the worst, but is also expectant, hoping there will be something worth staying for.
“Hello there. What do you want?”
You speak to the dog like you did when Zoë was a baby. So many years ago. A kind of sing-song, your voice rising and falling in tune with the words, the tone more important than the sense. You want the dog to know that you are good. Kind. Worth the effort.
You notice it has a collar on.
“Are you lost?”
You let your arm droop by your side and wait until the dog sniffs the back of your hand and then retreats. You remember that you have some biscuits in your bag, a treat for later. The dog watches intently as you ease the top one out of the packet, break it into small pieces and let them fall to the ground. It inches forward and then, all in a rush, gobbles up the biscuit and steps back. Its ears are slightly pricked now.
You toss down some more pieces and this time the dog does not retreat after it hoovers them up. You reach out your hand and stroke the back of its head and feel the soft bones in its ears as they bend beneath your touch. The dog bows its head and lets you run your hand along its spine right down to the tail, which flicks up as you let it go. It pants and moves its head towards your hand again.
“Hey you! Grab hold of that dog.”
Instinctively you obey and grip the collar, something in that harsh voice making you clench your fingers round the strap. The dog goes stiff, braces its back and tries to pull away, straining against your hold. It starts to whimper.
A man is pounding down the towpath, pointing at you.
“Don’t let it go!”
You can see terror in the dog’s eyes when it hears that voice. It pees on the path as he approaches. About 50, unshaven, black greasy hair splattered with grey, heaving with the effort of running. He bends down and fastens a lead to the dog’s collar. You almost gag on the mixture of sweat and garlic as he pulls himself up. You let go your grip.
“Thanks. Been looking all damn morning.”
He leans down and roars in the dog’s ear
“Haven’t I?” then turns to set off back to town.
“Nice dog. What’s his name?”
“Bella. She’s a bitch. Like the one I bought her for.”
He leans down and slashes at Bella’s head with the end of the lead. She staggers and would fall but that he tugs hard and pulls her back upright.
“Wait till I get you home.”
Bella cowers and presses herself close to the ground. Then she stops resisting and trots away. As they leave the path, heading towards some houses, she stops and turns to look at you and then disappears behind a wall.
You hang on for a while, staring at the river, but it’s getting colder now so you decide to call it a day. The wind has picked up and you have to bow your head against it. You drop the remaining biscuits in a waste bin as you pass.
lives in York, England and has written several stage plays, two of which - Refuge and The Taskers’ Trials - have been performed locally. He is a former winner of the Iikley Literature Festival Short Story Prize and his debut novel – Tracking Back – is due for publication in 2023