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.