The Grey Dog

                                                              

After Lockdown The Town Moor was invaded by the hoi polloi. Muriel missed the times when she could stroll with her dachshund undisturbed except for occasional dog walkers.  Now it was a free-for-all with zealous cyclists, neon joggers and anxious families competing for social distance.  When Sammy died a year before the Pandemic she stopped going for walks.  She felt excluded from the camaraderie of the dog scene.  People looked uncomfortable when they met her, yanking their pets away as if she was the Angel of Death. She’d missed the exercise and fresh air, the gossip and the joyful sight of dogs running free.  But the Covid cloud had a silver lining and these days she could blend in with the masses, trudging the straight and narrow paths anonymous behind her face covering.

Muriel liked to sit on the bench where the paths crossed, a stout figure with red hair, wearing a tweed coat and emerald green scarf.  She would study the Newcastle skyline; the curves of Central Motorway, the Civic Centre tower, the rooftops of Spital Tongues and the amputated Chimney Mill. The cattle grazing on the Moor were incongruous against an urban backdrop.  She had scattered Sammy’s ashes at precisely this spot. 

Muriel experienced an intense grief at the loss of her dog whereas when her mother died  thirty years ago she felt only confusion. At the age of twelve she’d accepted her father’s version of events and his desire that the matter never be discussed after the funeral.  Christmas was always a difficult time of year for Muriel.  Mother had drowned herself in the River Tyne on Boxing Day after yet another marital fight.  These rows happened so often that Muriel stopped feeling upset when her mother made dramatic claims that she wanted to die before disappearing into the night.  Sometimes father and daughter drove out looking for her along the riverside.  Father would beg and grovel until his wife climbed into the car, then they would return home and go to bed as if nothing untoward had occurred.  Eventually her father despaired, gave up on these rescue missions.  He sat at the yellow kitchen table and drank vodka.  Muriel hid in her room and listened to BeeGee records. When the police called to inform them that mother’s body had been discovered under the Swing Bridge Muriel was playing How Deep is Your Love.

So on Christmas Eve, nine months after the world had changed into a dystopia. Muriel visited  her favourite bench on the Moor to think about the past and to remember happy times with Sammy.  She wasn’t looking forward to Christmas Day. Since the divorce she usually spent it alone and this year was no different.  The air was cold and crisp.  Muriel closed her eyes and breathed deeply. She could almost feel the warmth of Sammy’s body pressing against her legs, almost feel his tongue licking her outstretched hand and hear the jingle of his brass name tag.  So real. Muriel felt a shadow fall upon her and opening her eyes saw a woman silhouetted against the late afternoon sun.  She wore a diaphanous dress of pale gold despite the chill.  By her side was the biggest dog Muriel had ever seen with a thick, curly grey coat and green eyes like a wolf.

‘My dog like you’, said the woman in an Eastern European accent. ‘He see you’.

‘Those green eyes are unusual,’ said Muriel.  ‘What type of dog is he?’

The woman laughed. ‘He is special breed from Carpathian Mountains. He chooses you.  He has waited long time.  Now you take him.’ She began to quickly walk away not following the path but across the rough grass.

‘What? Hey!  hang on a minute,’ called Muriel.  ‘You can’t just leave him here.  I don’t want him.’ 

The woman kept on walking.  ‘Hey, stop!’ shouted Muriel.  She leapt up and tried to follow but the dog circled around growling.  She watched helplessly as the slim figure of the woman drifted away across the moor dissolving into dusk.

The dog stopped growling and for a long moment he and Muriel locked eyes. Then he took off at a trot in the direction of Exhibition Park.  Muriel found herself following but she wasn’t sure why. She could go home and phone the police to report the incident. The weird woman had abandoned her dog which was surely an offence. There was no way Muriel wanted him.  She tried to imagine his shaggy bulk ambling around her small flat and her brain would not compute.  Muriel had to run to keep up with the dog.  She felt ridiculous.  They passed a jogger going the opposite way and he gave her a cheery wave.  She found herself waving back.  God knows why.  He was a stranger and she didn’t like men with beards.  In her experience facial hair signified secrecy. 

By the time Muriel reached the avenue of trees in Exhibition Park the sun had set.  Large snowflakes, luminous in the lights were spinning from a deep violet sky.  They skirted the disused boating lake where a lone swan cruised. The water was turgid, ice forming at the edges. The abandoned café was boarded up and adorned with graffiti.  Apparently Elvis had fucked Tracy and Ronnie was a virgin. The dog stopped to piss on a lamp post, then started sniffing the litter under the rhododendrons.  Muriel collapsed breathless on a bench.  

Suddenly, she noticed a figure standing on the bandstand and in the same instant, the street lights began to go out, one by one.  A tide of darkness swept over the park. She turned rigid with fear.  She listened intently but all she could hear was the distant throb of motorway traffic and a faint hum from the nearest lamp as it expired.  After a while her eyes adjusted and she could see bare branches outlined against the sky and a shimmer on the lake.  No lights showed on the horizon.  Muriel remembered her mobile had a torch but when she checked it was lifeless. No signal and no torch.  She’d only charged it that morning.  Then she saw a pair of green eyes glowing from the shadows.  The grey dog was still there, watching.

Muriel wanted to call out to him but her lips refused.  Spittle frothed at the corners of her mouth and words congealed on her tongue. A weary numbness spread throughout her body.  She tried to stand but couldn’t.  Her phone dropped to the ground as her fingers weakened.  She slumped against a picnic table.  The snow continued to fall and a frosting soon covered her hair and coat. My God! Was she going to die here? She remembered her friend Bob had died in his sleep from an undiagnosed brain tumour. Muriel had difficulty breathing; a tightness in her chest. She tried to count each breath the way she’d learned in meditation class. But she couldn’t concentrate beyond number three.

Her mind flashed a jumble of images, strange faces scrolled by in a grotesque procession.  The visions coalesced into one face.  A dark bearded man wearing a hooded robe.  He had a striking, angular face with a hooked nose and brooding eyes. He towered over her.  Muriel wasn’t sure if he meant good or ill.  Then his face transformed into that of her mother, plump and youthful.  They were alone in a small red boat drifting further and further out to sea.  A dazzle of sunlight refracted on the languorous waves and Muriel felt an exquisite joy.  Her mother was struggling to row the boat back to shore with only one oar. Perspiration beaded her face.  Muriel looked back at the distant beach and saw all the people she had ever loved standing in a line.  They were waving and shouting words of encouragement. Muriel did not wave back. She trailed one hand in the warm water and gazed at the open sea.

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First Breath

The cries of curlews
hang silver in the morning
light my heart glides


Each year we have curlews nesting on the ground in the back field where cattle graze. Each year chicks are lost to predators including cats, buzzards, foxes and owls. One year the farmer ploughed up the field nest and chicks and all. The parent birds work so hard to protect their offspring. Night and day they circle around emitting a raucous warning cry. Sometimes they dive bomb me in the garden but I don’t mind although those long sharp beaks look a little scary! I worry about those chicks. But some must survive and in the spring when I first hear the beautiful curlew call I am filled with joy.

Turn Off the Lights

She longs for the refuge of dark interiors.
The Tiffany lamps and plush burgundy
of city bars, torn between Aqua Velva
and a Dirty Martini. In the gloom, eyes
gleam and lies bloom unseen on dry lips.
Dimly lit, anyone will be someone.

She dreams of peering through the gap
in the chintz curtains as his family coils,
roils in the blue flicker of a widescreen.
He sips tea from a cracked mug, The Best
Dad in the World embossed in faded gold.
Dimly lit, anyone will be someone.

She imagines the marine glow of their bed
-room, matching furniture and fluffy robes.
The green drapes smother the rumble
of traffic on Harbour Road. Newborn
light pales his face when he smiles.
Dimly lit, anyone will be someone.

She craves the murk of musty hotel rooms.
A silk scarf cast over a single lamp, sheets
and limbs tangled, the acrid taste of him
on her lips. His sleeping foot dangles,
sock still on and she sees a hole in the sole.
Dimly lit, anyone will be someone.

She recalls the tobacco heat of his BMW,
leather beneath her thighs. The dashboard
flickers like broken glass. Fireflies swirl
in the beam of headlights. Morse code.
His face turns away when he speaks.
Dimly lit, anyone will be someone.

She longs for dark interiors, not this naked
white room. Fluorescent light beats down
and she shrivels under their weight like a moth
who finally made it to the moon. She’s waiting.
She’s been here so long, she forgets why.
Brightly lit, someone will become no one.

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The Wall

This weekend I discovered the most marvellous novel that I’d never heard of before. Its called The Wall by the Austrian writer Marlen Haushofer, first published in 1968. Although classified as science fiction and ecofeminist it is really a profound philosophical meditation on solitude and the relationship between humans and the natural world. It contains beautifully intense descriptions of the close bonds that we can form with animals without being sentimental. The story is set in the Alps and recounts in diary format one woman’s struggle to survive in total isolation. The mysterious transparent wall that appears over night is a metaphor for the divisions between us all in a time when we interact with screens more than other living beings. The book was ahead of its time in anticipating many social and environmental issues we struggle with today. The Wall is one of the most powerful novels I have ever read and I would absolutely recommend it particularly if you are a person with a love for animals and nature.

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The Ripple Effect

A metaphor for life?

Do you ever wonder why some people seem to lead charmed lives whereas others, no matter how hard they try have nothing but bad luck? Some say we make our own luck. I think this is true only up to a point. The truth is shit happens to good people. And what about the expression, to have the luck of the devil? Or the good die young? Many of the most beautiful, intelligent and kindest people still end up getting cancer or being killed in a car crash by a drunk driver. In fact the most terrifying things are beyond our control and that is why humans have invented religion. For protection.

The ripple effect takes place when one massive disaster befalls a person, eg. a serious illness, war, an abusive parent, and this leads to other negative consequences. More and more bad luck follows like a chain reaction, eg. illness – loss of job – loss of income – loss of home – loss of friends or partner who don’t want to associate with someone they label as a loser – loss of self esteem which leads to bad decision making, depression and even more bad luck.

Too often in our therapy obsessed world we end up blaming the victim. Therapists may suggest we are the ones who need to change, we have distorted perception, wrong attitudes, etc. Is this necessarily true? Or were we in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong person? We employ this weird magical thinking…..did your house flood because you are a negative person or because it was built on a flood plain by an unscrupulous builder. Yes, we must take responsibility for our own lives but we are not to blame for everything. I was once told by a so-called friend that my disability must be due to my evil actions in a previous life! You’ve got to laugh! And this woman was a teacher working with disabled children!

So yes, let’s be positive and try our very best to live an honourable life but we are not responsible for all the sins of the world. Call it Fate, call it Luck or God but there are forces beyond our control.

What do you think? Do you agree?

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Life

I am always astounded by the strength of life force in nature if unhindered by human activity, the pollution of drugs and chemicals. A few weeks ago I cut a couple of branches from my Woolly Willow tree (yes, it’s really called that or Salix Lanata if you want to be formal). They were covered in gorgeous catkins and made a stunning statement in a vase in my hallway. When I decided to throw them out I was surprised to see they had grown roots so now they are destined for a new life in the garden next to their mother tree. Happy trees! I have many different willow trees; scarlet, golden, black, purple, Swiss, a ground cover variety, one that has spectacular black catkins in the spring. It is a wild, windy and wet location and yet they thrive. Branches may break off in a storm but they go on undaunted. If only we humans could do the same.

Tips from Felix the Feline Philosopher

Love is a bee dressed as a butterfly
Love warms the cockles but leaves you hungry

Patience wins the mouse but loses the bird
A starling in the belly is worth three in a tree

A clean litter tray makes a real home
Happiness is a long hot piss

Adopt a human if you need a hobby
Humans lie when they smile

God drives a white van
The Devil wears a white coat

Hell is the cupboard under the stairs
Trust your whiskers

Never give up unless it’s raining
Eat your rodent while it’s hot

Life is hedgehog
Sleep with one eye open

Love your neighbour but protect your parsnips
Beware the cat in a hat, he is a narcissist

If you meet puss in boots – run away!
Revolution is like catching snowflakes

Jesus was a dog person
Dick Whittington was not Jesus

Reincarnation is for pussies
The moon shines on the hunter

Never climb the willow in a blizzard
Death is tiger lily

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Renewal

Easter is my favourite festival. As a natural born pagan I love the nature symbolism and message of renewal and rebirth. Those of us lucky enough to be not living in a war zone are able to celebrate with flowers and chocolate. In the UK the weather has been kind and we see signs of new growth and green shoots in the gardens. The Russian Orthodox Easter is not till next weekend. I have many lovely memories of Easter rituals growing up in a Ukrainian family. Easter is a big event in the Orthodox Calendar. Special food is prepared in a basket including hand painted boiled eggs, cold meats and a sweet bread called Paska and then taken to the church to be blessed by the priest in a midnight ceremony. It is later eaten for breakfast on Easter Sunday. This year I am having a peaceful and joyful time although separated from loved ones and have enjoyed painting eggs for the first time in years! Also having fun with my new rainbow lantern, (really cool!) eating cake decorated with bluebells and bumble bees and delicious chocolates in the shape of butterflies.

HAPPY EASTER EVERYONE!

Waking Up

I woke up crimson
autumn to gypsy 
clouds a home 
not my own.

Bonfires warm the cockles
said my neighbour as flames 
split the dark.

I stirred wrathful
winter to trees
stripped of branches
only trunks remained.

I tried my best
said the Gardener spitting
dust and wielding a chain saw.

I roused one dizzy
spring to my lover
floating dead
in the fishpond.

Where were you this morning?
the police officer asked
but the carp refused to comment.

I woke one summer 
night to blue flaring
beyond Ben’s farm
stressed over deadlines.

What the fuck’s going on?
asked the cat
tucking into her fish supper.

This poem is an example of my new work in progress, a poetry collection called Conversations With My Cat. More details here later.

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