A short story from a few years ago about loss and ageing. I’d been waiting patiently over the last several weeks for a photo opportunity to present itself that would have given me the perfect subject to go with the story but my patience has been thwarted and so you get a tractor from the archives instead. Sometimes a little compromise is unavoidable.
He felt the spade bite under his boot and promptly applied extra weight to get greater depth out of his effort. He withdrew and entered again at right angles. Thrust, push, bite, deepen, withdraw. And again at the other end. Flip the sod. Move along the line. Repeat the process. The metronome clicked in his head. One click for every individual movement. Very hard to get an actual rhythm going. The ground was hard and the soil mostly stony and unyielding. The whole thing was going to be a right pain in the hole. Still, he was gradually warming up and the sharp arrest of the morning was something he enjoyed. The spade jolted beneath him and shook through his arms. He hated that. He gave it another crack knowing a different result was unlikely. The sole of his foot flinched on contact and he wondered about the men who did this kind of work for a living. He looked back towards the house and could see no signs of life.
Into the neglected shed and out again with the pick and crowbar. He checked the head of the pick was secure and spat lightly in his hands before swinging it anti-clockwise above his head and impaling the blameless dirt at his feet. It sunk in and he knew he was on the right track. Up and over again and down with a muted crunch as the spike made its mark. He heard a pigeon in the woods below and thought about a walk once he was done. If there was still daylight, maybe. He stopped to see if he could hear the river. The bit of wind in the trees was playing tricks with him and he found himself smiling at the ease with which he was distracted. That wouldn’t have done in the past. A few more goes of the pick and then he was driving the crowbar into the broken ground to try and loosen it even more before he reached for the spade to start clearing out. He worked slowly around his estimated perimeter and eventually had the top layer off completely doing his best to keep the sods clean and good for finishing afterwards.
He removed his jacket and hung it on a branch of the tree that overhung his workplace. He pushed his thumbs deep into the small of his back and gave out a little groan in acknowledgement of the stiffness they were purging. He looked forward to the muscle-tiredness that would later overtake him and thought it might be a good night to open that bottle of Burgundy he’d been saving since Christmas. He thought when he’d got it he might last til summer and her return but here he was, barely two months later, already changing his best laid plans. No will power, he thought, as he turned back to his jacket to find his fags. He held the smoke in his lungs as he looked at the pregnancy warning on the back of the box. He exhaled and wondered if he’d ever manage to give them up altogether. He wasn’t too bothered either way. Still, having the girls’ packet helped his denial. They knew him well enough at the shop by now to only hand over a box with the pregnancy guff on it. He always made a joke of their complicity but knew they were glad of his custom.
He’d decided he’d have to go about four feet deep but the stubbornness of the ground was dampening his vigour and so he was trying to convince himself three would be good enough. Again, he knew that wouldn’t pass muster in certain quarters. Four feet though. It’s not like he was twenty. Not even bloody thirty. Christ, he’d have settled for forty. He’d just get on with it and see how he got on. The shirt sleeves were rolled up but he kept the hat on knowing he’d easily catch himself out. The sun was nice but it was definitely more bright than warm and he’d only have to find himself in a bit of shade for a short while with a sweaty head before he’d do himself some harm. He was determined not to get sick if he could help it. He believed in spite of the fags that he was in good shape for his age and it was one of few sources of pride he still hung onto. He resumed his efforts and picked and crowbarred and dug his way down another eighteen inches or so. He scraped off again and marvelled with some consternation at how so many little rocks and stones could present such an obdurate challenge. He supposed he’d be in worse shape if they were any bigger. He shovelled the lot up onto the bank and gave it another good lash until he instinctively felt it was time to get the tea.
Sunlight streamed into the kitchen as he drew just enough water for two good sized mugs. The stiffness he’d felt earlier had gone into hiding though he knew it would return. He dropped a couple of slices of bread in the toaster and fished around the press until he found the butter and marmalade. He was disappointed to see it was the stuff without peel. He spotted the teapot out of the corner of his eye and wondered if he shouldn’t have filled the kettle altogether. Feck it, it was boiled now. He threw a teabag in each mug, poured over the water and turned his attention to the just done toast while it brewed. He scraped off the top layer of butter which had what could have been little teeth marks in it. He’d reset a few traps after. He lashed on the butter and covered it in a couple of generous knifefuls of the marmalade. Teabags out, milk and sugar in, a quick stir and he was right. He opened the hall door and called down to the front room.
“Tea up, Da.”
Satisfied the sounds of movement indicated he had been heard he sat down with his tea and toast and got started. He loved that first sup of freshly-made tea and in spite of knowing better hoped the last mouthful might be as good.
His father came through the door slowly and sat down carefully across the table. He had taken to not shaving until asked and looked unkempt in his thick jumper and old jeans. His eyes were sharp though and he stared at the empty space beside his mug.
“No toast for me?”
He got up and put more on and got the jam out of the press. He returned to the table for a slice of his own toast and brought his mug back with him to the sideboard. He looked out the window and thought there were still a few hours of decent light left in the day. He’d rather be done before dark if he could help it. He put the side-plate down in front of the old man and sat down himself.
“Is it done yet? I hope it’s deep enough.”
“Nearly there Da. Over halfway.”
“You’d want four or five feet anyway. I’d say you’re not getting too much joy out of that ground.”
“I’ll get there.”
“I’ll come out and give you a hand, help you finish it off.”
“You will in your arse. You’re to take it easy. You’ll have yourself back in hospital before the doors have stopped swinging.”
He grunted dismissively at that and followed it with an open-mouthed but silent rant that by a stranger might have been misconstrued as a touch of madness but to his son was of no real consequence other than to remind him of the silence left behind by his mother this last fourteen years. He never thought that Mam would go first and he certainly hadn’t expected that his father would survive her as long as he had. He looked over at a man who had been without his sparring partner for so long, a man who had to finish his own conversations and settle his own arguments, a man who defied his terrible grief to linger stubbornly into a half-life of joyless irresolution. And now the only thing that had given him some respite in the interim was lying dead under black plastic in the shed.
He’d only half-argued with him when he said he was naming the dog after her. He knew there was no point. If he was really honest about it he’d admit that what became unhinged after her death had never come close to reattaching itself. She died and his father didn’t speak a word for eight months. He’d watched him retreat into himself and at the same time increase his prickliness and bull-headed ways. Diminished and liberated all at once. He recalled the declaration upon the dog’s arrival. A shaggy, awkward limbed pup with paws that foretold the beast she would eventually become.
“I’ll call her what I damn well want. She’s my fecking dog. If people don’t like it, they can feck right off. And that goes for you too.”
The animal seemed to recognise the laying down of terms and allied herself quickly with her quartermaster, prostrating herself at his feet on day one and suppressing her skittish instincts in favour of biddable docility. When they went for walks she’d maximise her chance to sprint through the fields and woods and dash off on some return trip with a scent for a driver. The odd time she might catch a rabbit or even a pheasant but she was well enough fed and trained not to become a nuisance to the neighbouring farmers and huntsmen. Alert but not aggressive, playful but not destructive. Smart. She knew when to be still and when to keep pace and he’d often thought it remarkable that she appeared to understand the stage his father was at and almost rushed herself into old age as if to make herself more companionable. From the very start she was granted access to the bedroom and to the armchair near the fire in the front room, indulgences that would never have happened if Mam was still there. The place certainly didn’t smell as good even with the once-a-week bit of housekeeping done by the various local women over the years.
Anyway, she’s gone now, he thought as he drained his mug before heading outside again. He’d stayed in the kitchen just a little too long and it almost felt like he was starting again. He knew better than to dwell on it and reached once more for the pick to try and knock it out in one last go. The blood pumped round his body and made him aware of how seldom he now got calluses on his hands or swung anything heavier than the ash walking stick he always had in the boot of the car. Calling it a walking stick gentrified what was essentially a good straight branch he’d picked up in the woods at the back of his own place. A lump of ash. The top of it darkened and smoothed by the grease and grip of his right hand on his countless rambles and explorations that had become an unthinking part of his daily routine.
He clambered up out of the hole to clear away the soil and stones that were too close to the edge. They had started to fall back in as quickly as they were shovelled out, like sea-lashed lemmings furious at being put back on top of the cliff they’d just launched themselves from. He’d made good progress and realised he’d been restored enough by the cup of tea to not notice the ground yielding a bit more willingly than earlier. He lit another fag and sat down beside the mound that would soon make short history of his morning’s work. He considered grabbing his phone from the glove box to see if she’d sent him a message but decided against it as it made him feel raw and adolescent and momentarily desperate. Sure he might give a call later if the mood was right. Satisfied with his conclusion he settled himself and as he did so spotted a fox skirting the woods’ edge at the far end of the property and wondered what mischief he’d be up to later and where. Once he was done he’d knock in on a few of the farmers on his father’s road to let them know.
He’d grown fond of the dog himself and he took no pleasure in pulling back the plastic to reveal her lifeless form. She still looked better than the stuffed animals in the local. He’d never understood the need for the taxidermist’s art. Without fail the shivers would ripple down his spine when he spotted the old glass cases and their inhabitants between mouthfuls of stout. They frightened him really. He had an urge to rip them off their dusty perches and scream at them to stop looking at him with their black eyes and their eternally exposed teeth. A little freak show of woodland favourites. He preferred animals alive than dead, of that he was certain. And now he was there in the shed standing over a fourteen-year-old German Shepherd called Hilary. He took her in and was surprised at the sudden welling of emotion that accompanied his need to greet her one last time. He knelt beside her and stuck a hand into the thick coat around her neck.
“Good girl, you’re going to make me go a bit deeper aren’t you? Feck ya anyway.”
Back in the hole he found himself being more thorough than earlier and determining to have cleaner lines, straighter edges and sufficient depth. He bit and scraped with the spade, he broke and pierced with the pick and he drove and plunged with the crowbar. Sweat soaked through the folded brim of his woollen hat and he also felt his shirt collar damp and sticky at the back of his neck. The new pile he’d started on the other side of the hole was already a good size but before he could make a decision on it himself he heard his father’s voice above him. “That’ll do you now, that’s a good size. She’ll be happy with that for sure. Good man. Get it finished now.”
He watched him turn away so as to avoid looking at the shed at all. The old man then made his way back over to the house, his shambling, uncertain gait precarious and brittle. He’d always walked the same way, just less fragile. Mam used to joke that he might not know how to walk, but he knew how to dance and that was far more important. He’d never seen him dance but supposed she’d no reason to make it up. He threw the tools up onto the bank and got himself out one last time. It was a good hole. Long, straight, and deep. Clean. You could do a lot worse, old girl, he thought.
There wasn’t going to be anything easy about the next bit. He found a couple of old scaff planks in the shed and laid them down against the bank forming a sturdy ramp. He tested it by walking up and down on it a couple of times and giving it a few kicks where it looked like it might shift. There was no point in going for the barrow with its dodgy wheel. It was only fit for light stuff anyway and he could see it buckling under her weight. He’d also probably do himself an injury trying to get her into it. No, he was going to drag her up the boards on the plastic and hope his momentum took him over the line. He had the condemned man’s last cigarette and got to it. He grabbed two fistfuls of the plastic sheeting and started to lug her, like a giant tortilla, across the floor of the shed and out into the fresh air. It was worse than he expected and he cursed his father under his breath for not getting a collie or some other normal sized dog. He felt like he’d just been thumped in the solar plexus, things tightening and burning all over. He steadied himself and started to pull once more, inching his way towards the ramp a few steps at a time. The metronome in his head started off again. Painfully slow. Almost hypnotic. There somehow wasn’t enough oxygen and his ears were muddy and uncooperative and made him more aware of his heavy breathing but he persevered and gradually found himself at the foot of the ramp looking disbelievingly at the incline he had yet to negotiate. Never mind the burgundy, he thought, it’d be straight to bed later, no messing.
Awarding himself a break he stood by the open boot of his car taking hungry draughts of water from a five-litre keg he kept strapped inside the back left indicator. He picked up the blue rope beside the jump leads and took himself back to the hole and back to the dog for what he hoped would be the last time. Stunned by how much it had taken out of him to get her that far he was putting his faith in the rope to give his plan renewed life. He went down on his knees and managed to get a large loop around the plastic and pulled it taut so it effectively lassoed her midriff. He then turned his attention to his own not insubstantial gut and wrapped the rope across his breast and down to his hip, tug-o-war -style. He used his original method to set her properly on the lowest edges of the scaff planks to be sure he’d have the best possible start. Delaying any longer would achieve nothing so he started up the boards until he felt the slack resist and then bore down with as much sensible strength as he could muster and thrust his upper body forward. His load shifted and a wave of relief swept over him. He stepped up again and pulled with real feeling and the dog moved another bit. The metronome clicked and he called out:
“Come on now.”
He heaved again.
“Come on now.”
“Come on now, we can do it.”
One more go and he knew he’d have her where he wanted. He was off the boards, standing just past the hole and she was one good pull from being right on top of it herself. He went for it. An enormous wrench, his face bursting red and spit flecking from his grimaced lips, he felt her land and simultaneously lost his footing, dropped the rope so it slid down his body, and fell like an old tree face first into the dirt.
“Fuck yeh anyway,” he said.
He sat up, stood up, stepped out of the rope and brushed himself off. He untied her, opened up the plastic and got close to her for the last time. He quietly apologised to her before simply lifting the plastic enough for her to gently slide off it and drop into the hole with a solid thud.
It took him an hour to fill it all in although there was plenty of dirt and stones left over which wasn’t just a result of the space she was taking up. He shovelled it on top and patted it down as compact as he could make it. With the sods he’d set aside earlier he made a green border that he hoped would take alright. It actually looked reasonably pretty and once he’d put the boards back and got rid of the remaining soil it really fit in nicely on the bank in a spot that would catch a nice bit of sun and have a fine view of the woods. Happy with his work, he carried the tools and the plastic back over to the shed and tucked them safely away.
As he wheeled around from closing the old padlock on the door he saw his father walking solemnly towards the bank. He was struck immediately by the dark suit he was wearing and on his way over to join him he realised he had also shaved and had a little vase of flowers in his two hands. There was a little step cut into the bank further up from the hole and his father detoured that way before bringing himself to a stand directly over the burial spot.
“I suppose we can call it a grave now Da, can we?”
“That’s what it is.”
He looked at the old man’s flowers.
“I didn’t know you had snowdrops.”
“We’d be here a long time discussing what you don’t know about me. Stay quiet now.”
Doing what he was told, he rolled his sleeves back to their original length and fastened his cuff buttons. He took off his hat, smoothed his hair and wiped his face, neck and forehead with a handkerchief from his back pocket. He was cooling down quickly but he wasn’t going anywhere until the old man was done and he hoped that wouldn’t be too long. He caught his father’s lips moving in his peripheral vision and presumed he was off on one of his inaudible chats but within moments the late afternoon silence was broken by a voice he didn’t think he’d ever heard his father use before. Soft, anguished, emotional. Not knowing where to look he fixed on the branch that that held his jacket earlier.
“I should have spoken long before now and I am sorry for that. I suppose I’m just a bloody old fool. But sure you’ve always known that. You were a great girl, the best, far too good for the likes of me. Hilary, you were loyal and kind and left me in no doubt of your love and that’s more than I ever did for you. I’m sorry, old girl. I’m sorry it’s taken me so long. Here, I got you some flowers. I know you like them so don’t say no. You rest well now and God willing, I’ll be with you before too long.”
Ever so slowly, the old man lowered himself until he was kneeling beside the grave and placing his vase with enormous care over his old dog’s final resting place. He knelt up, produced a tissue from inside his jacket and blew his nose and dabbed his eyes before he spoke again.
“I’ll take a hand please, son.”
He leaned in and helped his father to his feet and walked him inside the house where they toasted old Hilary and agreed long into the night on her beauty, her class, and her undoubted pedigree.