Sarah hadn’t even seen the woman coming. She couldn’t decide afterwards whether that made it better or worse. It saved her from having to walk slowly towards a confrontation that she didn’t want but it also meant that when she stopped admiring the little brown terrier who was powering along on the end of his lead and looked up to smile politely at its owner she was within three feet of one of her worst recollections, and it was beaming at her. Suddenly the fullness and beauty of a soft June day had clouded over, bringing a soft drizzle of bad memories. A fixed smile, an insincere apology that fooled nobody and a slamming door. Feelings that had taken almost six years to bury had been blown back up to the surface in an instant.
“Sorry- I hadn’t seen you. I was looking at your dog. Milo doesn’t always like other terriers.”
Milo wasn’t bothered this time. He was halfway up the bank side, under the trees, eating grass and mud. The woman shook her head.
“He’s not mine. We’re just looking after him.”
The words kept coming. Children, house, holidays, husband, job. Sarah listened and nodded, asking no questions and when the question to her finally came, she avoided giving an answer.
“Oh, nothing Earth shattering.”
Let the woman make what she could of that. What was she expecting to hear? It was hard to tell what was going on behind the performance that was being acted out for the benefit of an audience of one. An audience who was not going to give her the satisfaction of walking out- however much they might want to. Had she no shame? Did the woman know that she was lying to herself with every word that came out of her mouth or was she stupid? No, she wasn’t stupid. She knew. One look right into her eyes and the woman jerked her head back like a startled horse. She was scared. She was relying on Sarah to play the game, keep her mouth shut, and pretend the past hadn’t happened. Well it had happened and now it had come back to leer in her face.
It was all over in ten minutes. The woman bustled on her way and Sarah didn’t turn round to watch her go. No grievances had been aired, no scores had been settled and no wrongs had been righted. All the thinking that she had done, thinking that would have allowed Sarah to take down that facade of blameless, vacant goodwill had been wasted. She had missed her chance. Now there was nothing to do but turn left at the end of the lane and follow Milo out across the public footpath that led over the open field. He was already on his way, heading for the mud in the hedge-bottom and the rabbit holes on the far side, almost invisible, secure in his moment, just his tail end waving like a tiny flag of joy in the long grass.
Sometimes the past can be every bit as real as the present, not just something to remember but something to relive in every gut wrenching moment, something which can grab you by the scruff of the neck and refuse to let go. That was what Milo did to rats in his dreams, even though he had never seen one. They would race out from the dark corners of his imagination while he slept and he would make tiny faraway yaps, claws scrabbling against the side of his dog bed as he chased them.
Sarah walked out across the middle of the field, following the line of flattened grass that led out towards the open sky. It was a part of the walk that she always enjoyed but today she felt vulnerable. The small red dot of her coat would be visible from the crest of the hill, nearly two miles away. She felt as if she was being watched. She was a tiny clay pigeon, shot across the field from the meeting with the woman, target practice. She speeded up, telling herself that she needed to know where Milo was. She could hear him barking. It was the bark that meant that he had found something and wasn’t sure what to do with it. Usually there were four choices, shake it, eat it, destroy it or wee on it but if none of those options seemed possible he just stood there and barked.
When she reached him he glanced sideways, showing her where to look, feet trembling with excitement.
“What have you got?”
It was a squirrel. Lying perfectly flat on the ground as though it was dead. Only Milo knew that it wasn’t. Sarah picked him up. His nose continued to point towards the small grey shape on the ground who was still fervently pretending that it wasn’t there. Milo’s eyes never left that shape and a tiny growl vibrated in his throat. One movement from the squirrel and he was ready to explode into action.
“Leave it Milo.”
Of course he wasn’t going to leave it, so Sarah kept him, wriggling in her arms, as she walked alongside the hedge to give him time to forget. He would do that sooner than she ever could. Snatches of the conversation with the woman replayed themselves over and over again in her mind.
“How are you feeling these days?”
“Have you heard the news about Richard Porter?”
And most galling of all, as she walked off,
“Don’t be a stranger.”
What was that supposed to mean? A get out of jail free card, that’s what it was. A way of pretending that Sarah might, in any circumstances, want to spend a single second in her company in the future after not seeing her for six years. As if.
Milo gave a determined wriggle and she put him down. He rushed off, dragged a stick out of the hedge-bottom and dumped it at her feet, giving the tiny sharp bark that meant “do this now”. Sarah picked it up and flung it out across the grass. He set off after it as if bringing it back was the most important thing in the entire world and for him, at that moment, it was. There had been no sticks in the past, and there would be none to come in the future, there was only the one stick that was flying through the air in front of him and the one joy of racing after it.
As the stick was brought back tirelessly, over and over again, Sarah’s mind wandered to what the over enthusiastic Australian counsellor had said to her about building a protective thought bubble around herself. There had been some nonsense about it letting good things in and keeping bad things out. It had been irritating then and it was irritating now- she could still hear the upward inflexion at the end of every sentence which had made her visualise slapping rather than the positive energy and benign power of a caring universe. The universe didn’t care- that was the whole point. It just was.
The common orchids were sending up their purple spikes through the grassy banking under the hedge, waiting for the Burnet moths to find them. Sarah bent down and touched one gently. It was beautiful and at this moment nobody else had the joy of looking at it. It was hers for as long as she choose to look, serene and stately in the afternoon warmth. It asked for nothing, gave no opinions, took no liberties, only registering her presence as a dip in the sunlight. For the moment it had everything it needed and that was enough.
Milo stared at her, every atom in his body shouting as loud as it could.
“Just throw the damn stick!”