Ryan Wiles lives in Belfast, Northern Ireland. His work has previously appeared in The Honest Ulsterman.
She bought the house after her mam died—a handsome cottage on a narrow lane, a backyard overlooking the sea. It seemed awfully remote for someone who had recently lost both parents. But sure wasn’t she always stubborn as a goat?
She adopted Archie soon after moving in—a sad-eyed whippet with bowed legs and a greying muzzle. He was the reason I found myself taking the train down on a miserable Friday in late August.
Millie picked me up from the station. The inside of her car was clammy, the windows crawling with condensation. She nattered away as we trundled out of town, past a golf club and down the tree-lined lane. She unlocked the front door and dashed into the hall to get the alarm. Archie bounded in from the kitchen and leapt up on me. His sharp claws dug into my abdomen. She wrestled him away by the collar.
—Thank you so much for doing this Aoife. You’re a life saver.
—Honestly, it’s grand. Gives me a chance to get caught up on work. Have you time for a coffee before you go?
The cafe was packed. Sullen couples wrested with squirming babies, bored teens jabbed at their phones, affluent business types sipped at lattes. We managed to get a table by the window. I wiped away the condensation for a view of the dreary high street.
Millie talked about her new job. Her company had been bought out by a London firm and she travelled a lot now. They were talking about relocating her. It wouldn’t be a huge problem because she could rent out the cottage, but then what about Archie? He was too old for the move, but at the same time life was too short wasn’t it? And sure Dogs Trust would probably take him back, did I not think?
It was time to go. She drained the dregs of her cup, pecked me on the cheek and left.
The rain had cleared to let in a late summer’s morning, the sad sort that seemed all too aware that its days were numbered. I lay a while on the fresh, white sheets and gazed out at the sea. The sound of scratching forced me to rise. I opened the door and met Archie’s dejected gaze. He led me to the kitchen and I poured him some biscuits. I perched myself on the kitchen island and smoked a cigarette while some coffee brewed on the stovetop.
Millie had tried to arrange the kitchen to look like the one from her family home. The modern fixtures and obvious lack of use gave it away. It felt sterile and cold.
Dinnertime at their house was always an event. The family gathered around the table, sometimes joined by a passing aunt or uncle. Afterwards, they would sit around for hours, guzzling wine and sipping coffee, reminiscing and gossiping. It had always been a novelty for me, being from a small family that didn’t do that sort of thing.
I tossed my cigarette butt into an empty Coke can. A sharp rap of claw on tile announced Archie’s return. He trotted over to the stool and gazed up at me.
You’re not supposed to smoke in here.
Millie always smoked indoors.
I flung open the patio doors and turned on the oven’s extractor fan. He munched at the biscuits and lapped at his water, then scampered out into the yard. I joined him there and rested a hand on the side of his face. He acknowledged me with a soft snuff.
What would you like to do today?
Of course I’ll walk you. His tail began to wag. Does Sara not walk you?
The wagging stopped. Sara was the next door neighbour—an English woman who had moved here after retiring from the army. She normally looked after him, but Millie said she was on holiday.
I attempted to get some work done but was interrupted by a call from my mother. It was only noon, but she already sounded locked. I could see her in the kitchen; slowly braising a pork belly, shelling organic peas into a deep, silver bowl. Declan would be out coaching rugby.
—Have you heard from your father lately?
—Not since my birthday.
—He’s over in Limerick working on some big case. Won’t tell me what it is. That used to mean it was a rape or a murder, but who even knows these days? Will you be over at all this weekend?
—Sure I told you I’m down in Bray mam.
—Of course, of course, looking after the cat is it?
—Dog. Archie. His head cocked at the sound of his name, he sloped over and I scratched behind his ears.
The line distorted without warning, that’d be the blender.
—I best be going love, Declan’s on his way. I’ll send him your love.
Archie spun around and began to gnaw at his tail. The fur was threadbare, suggesting he’d been in the habit for some time.
Maybe you have fleas.
You don’t like your mother, do you?
Your tone was quite harsh with her. You don’t sound very keen on her at all.
She’s ok. Eat your biscuits.
I spent the afternoon in the front room, slumped in a leather sofa. Millie had recently redecorated and the room smelt strongly of paint. It was incredibly comforting and I drifted in and out of a doze. Archie would occasionally jump onto the armchair under the bay window and bark at passers-by. Dog sitting wasn’t so hard.
By the time I had summoned the energy to walk him, the bright day had let in dark clouds and a biting breeze. He led me to the beach, down a steep muddy path that I had to side scale. He bounded away and inspected the lapping tide, returning with blazing eyes and a panting tongue.
Will that do you?
I read you only need a good, quick sprint once a day. That you’re actually quite a lazy breed, despite the common misconception.
It’s not nice to be pigeonholed you know. He cocked his head and stared at a stick that I had picked up. I flung it as hard as I could manage.
The beach was deserted. We strolled along the damp sand until we reached a mound of jagged rocks. I climbed after him to the top, a good fifteen feet clean above the beach.
We stood on the slimy rock and watched the high sea shiver in teal and petrol, folding over in foamy, white curls all the way to a line on the horizon. I felt the day crawl into slow motion. The feral sea, the wide, yawning beach; the point in the middle where Archie and I stood.
He shivered. I had forgotten to bring his cold weather coat. I put him on the leash and we made our way back to the cottage.
As we reached the front door, a woman appeared from behind the hedge. She was clutching a pair of shears.
—Hello, she said. Her tone was taut and cautious. I gave her a warm smile.
—Hi. I’m Aoife, Millie’s friend. Her expression didn’t soften at this.
—Here to look after the dog are you?
—I am. Did you have a nice holiday?
She gave me a quizzical look, then clipped a rough clump of hedge.
—You’ll want to let him out good and early in the morning, she said.
What was that about with your one next door?
Archie tucked his head under his leg and pretended to be asleep.
I opened a bottle of wine and wandered the house. Millie’s room was opposite the guest bedroom. I quietly opened the door. Inside it was immaculate, boarding on spartan. She hadn’t been this neat when she lived with me.
A huge Monet print hung above the iron bed frame. There was a photo of her parents on the nightstand, sitting at a table in Rhodes. We went there the summer after Leaving Cert.
A long, black evening dress with gold shoulder straps hung from the open door of a white wardrobe. I had never seen her wear something so elegant. I held it to my face. It was rich with the scent of a perfume I didn’t recognise.
It was as if something had broken off of me and spiralled into the stratosphere, spewing toxic plumes of nostalgia; ephemeral and untouchable.
I went into the yard and stared once more into the creaking, black blanket of water. Archie approached and I scratched behind his ears. His buckling legs shivered. He curled his body around my shins.
Are you scared of the dark?
Don’t talk such rot.
I wake and dress in a hurry. Archie sleeps on at the foot of the bed as I creep from Millie’s room. I make my way down that muddy path to the beach. The rain is coming down in graceful sheets, turning the sand a dark brown. The tang of sulphur fills my nostrils and rattles my temples. The sea rolls on—a fitful, noisy static. It all feels unreal, a silly little theatre staged for someone else. And here I am, intruding on it all.
I’m sodden when I arrive back at the cottage. I change out of my wet clothes and hang them on the radiator. Archie yawns and stretches. He follows me around the guest room as I pack my things. His tail wags.
He follows me into the hall and watches as I set the alarm, unlock the door and leave without a word.
© 2019 Ryan Wiles