My Home Town – A Love Story
I entered this short story for a competition recently – for me the joy was having the motivation to complete it. I wasn’t short-listed which neither surprises nor bothers me, because I have had some supportive, honest and appreciative feedback, so I thought I’d share to a wider audience. Sit back for 15-20minutes and enjoy….
Mark let out a long sigh, stretched as wide as possible exploring each corner of his bed before settling back for another snooze. But before he could drift back off, Jinty was nudging him to get up and let her out so that she could chase the brazen rabbit from their garden. He begrudgingly tickled the Border Terrier’s tummy, trying in vain to entice her to stay a while longer. Jinty, not to be mollified, responded by rapidly thumping her tail close to his face, spinning piteously round in circles, licking her lips and whining pathetically. He knew the routine all too well and although he had hoped for a reprieve this morning, he also knew that in spite of his best efforts, the small dog’s in-built six o’clock alarm would triumph.
As he watched the little dog wolf down her food he fondly remembered the day two years previously when he had brought her home as a timid rescue dog, barely older than a pup herself having already born a litter. Mark never did ask why the breeder wanted to sell her, but she had turned up at just the right time, hours before he acquiesced to the mounting pressure from his wife and children who had been incessantly pleading for a puppy.
Mark had always leaned towards having a rescue dog, just as his childhood dog had been, but in spite of his intense research he had been unable to identify a suitable match for his family. Just as he was about to consider a puppy, one of the breeder’s sites he had recently perused showing that Jinty – a two year old Black and Tan Border Terrier was for sale. It had been a fairly tortuous five hour journey from North Berwick to Ecclefechan in the Scottish Borders, but he had been buoyed up by the certain look of joy on his children’s faces, and possibly even his wife’s.
When he first met Jinty she was a smelly, quivering wreck, had been unceremoniously lifted from her kennel, and handed to Mark who immediately regretted his decision not to have changed out of his new business suit. To add insult to injury, Jinty had thrown up all over the front seat of his beloved MX-5 and the resulting stench had taken weeks to evaporate. When he had arrived home after dark and with a whimpering dog, Jack and Hannah had heard the commotion, appeared sleepy eyed in the bright kitchen and threw themselves onto Jinty who proceeded to eject whatever remained in her stomach, and peed on the kitchen floor. Mark and the children laughed while Sarah walked off muttering that they could clean up.They did so gleefully.
Mark was suddenly brought back to the present as he became aware that Jinty was staring up at him, imploring to be let out and exorcise the hunting instinct that coursed through her veins.
He opened the back door before returning to bed with his cup of tea. He stretched out again and this time drifted off almost immediately, before being unceremoniously awakened by a cacophony of barking and squealing from the garden below. Peering from his bedroom window he could see a small rabbit contort itself under the fence a second before Jinty was able to secure it’s rump in her jaws. His tea was on the verge of becoming tepid, so finally conceding defeat to any more snoozing, he drank it and watched her through the window: still a young terrier, Jinty certainly hadn’t lost her instinct, but perhaps becoming a spoiled and much loved companion had caused her to lose her touch.
His usual dog walking attire comprised an old pair of jeans, ancient band T-shirt and jacket – but today he decided he wanted to present a fresh, clean image of himself.
Having showered and dressed, he called the over excited dog to his side, clipped the absurd pink lead onto its matching collar and headed down the track towards the beach. Hannah had insisted on pink for Jinty because as she put it ‘she had had such a rough childhood and deserved some luxury’. A lot of insight for an 11year old Mark pondered, wondering if she’d follow her grandmother into social care.
His daily beach walks often reignited Mark’s love for the seaside town he had lived in for most of his life. In truth he didn’t much care for his marital home, or the part of the town it was in, but he had been coerced by Sarah and, once more, had appeased her. It was a decent house, large with plenty of space inside and out but lacked individuality and charm, unlike the house he had been raised in. He was looking forward to visiting his childhood home the following day and enjoying a full Sunday roast overlooking the Forth.
It would just be himself, his parents and Auntie Trude to play a four ball at The Glen, Sarah having taken Hannah and Jack to visit her parents in Tynemouth for the start of the Easter holidays.
Mark strode purposefully through the estate and eventually felt sandy loam beneath his sturdy walking boots. Jinty was still hyper alert after her near miss in the garden so he kept her on the lead until they were past the telltale signs of rabbit warrens. Small for her age, Jinty was agile and pretty and often mistaken for a puppy. He walked past the quiet play area and through the cool woods, observing the buds unbind themselves in preparation to emerge onto a palette of glorious greens. Daffodils and primroses had pushed through the soft earth during the last spell of good weather and as Easter was late, birds and insects had already begun their annual courting, mating and nesting rituals. Mark and Jinty emerged from the shade of woodland trees, near the ancient, bent and twisted pines, a sight which always made Mark catch his breath. He had brought Jinty and his new camera here recently and having finally mastered the art of aperture took a triptych of the ancient Yelllowcraig pines through different filters which were now proudly mounted in his home office, the branches achingly reaching towards a silver blue sky and the beginning of an exceptional sunset.
Heading over the dunes towards Broad Sands, mindful that the West Links golfers would be in full swing, Mark decided it was safe enough to let Jinty off the lead. No sooner had he unclipped her but she shot off, careering through tufts of sea grass and onto the beach, springing and leaping, twisting, turning, rolling and revelling in her sudden freedom.
Mark usually listened to a carefully composed playlist to tantalise his memories as he walked, but today he wanted to hear the waves, smell the salt water and relish in connecting with his beloved seaside environment. He had been raised to be an observer, and to listen carefully to the life around him feeling changes though his skin and letting them filter into his sub-conscious.
Another memory propelled him to his childhood. He was about twelve years old walking on this very beach, heading away from North Berwick with his younger brother Tom and they had run and splashed in the waves, chasing and being chased by their faithful four legged chum, Molly. Exploring the rock pools around Fidra imagining that Long John Silver was going to appear from behind a rock, they had eventually returned home, soaking wet with sea water sloshing in their welly boots but instead of being chastised by their mother she had laughed uproariously, coaxed them into dry warm clothes producing hot chocolate and marshmallows and indulgently listening to their tales of crabs, tiny fish, hidden gold and obstinate barnacles.
As young adults, Tom had taken a very different career path to Mark and had joined the Army after two years completing an engineering course. He was eventually posted to Afghanistan with the Northern Alliance peace keeping corps. But three years after starting his tour of duty he had returned shocked, disassembled vowing never to return but unclear as to what to do next. After his initial elation at being home waned and his unknown future loomed over him, Tom began to seek solace in bouts of heavy drinking in the town’s pubs staggering between The Ship, The Golfers Rest and Auld Hoose and regularly being thrown out of all three. He would disappear for several days at a time emerging in a post drug haze, retreating into his childhood bedroom, his mother and father attentive but wary of intruding on his fragile mental health. He refused to open up as to what the tipping point had been and one day in January during the bitter winter when North Berwick was cut off from its surrounds by the Beast from the East, he hadn’t returned home after the pubs were forced to close, on account of the heavy snowfall. His body was found at the foot of the Law having remained undisturbed for two days until a good Samaritan, taking supplies to friends in their isolated cottage, had recognised the distinct green leather jacket Tom practically lived in poking through the snow.
Tom’s death had a left a painful hole in the family and over the years, they silently and privately indulged in mourning their lost son and brother whilst keeping a firm lid on the void where he should have been.
Jinty barked and brought Mark back to the present once more. He chuckled to see a black and tan blur skittering over the sand with a scruffy playmate at once chasing and then being chased. The owner of Jinty’s playmate had stopped and was laughing at the little dogs’ antics. There was something about the way she shielded her eyes and stood tall and self-contained which caught Mark’s attention. He walked slowly towards her.
* * *
Lottie had not intended to walk so far and her foot was beginning to hurt but she was determined to reach Fidra, but in spite of its literary status there was nothing very remarkable about the small island as far as she could see. Her attention was suddenly caught by a blur of black and tan dancing and cavorting in front of Poppy who, unable to resist, began taunting and cajoling before shooting off over the golden sands.
A man was walking towards her, presumably the little dog’s owner and she shielded her eyes for a moment before freezing, heart racing, her stomach flipping. He walked in the same way as Tom, taking long confident strides across the sand. He called Jinty but there was no response engrossed as she was with her game. Lottie wanted to grab Poppy and leave but her sore leg and energetic dog put paid to that and before she knew it, the man had approached. His eyes twinkled making her pulse quicken. She couldn’t fully focus on what he was saying, intending to remove herself as quickly and politely as possible. However he was so charming that she responded to small talk about pros and cons of having terriers, knew she was rambling and found herself recounting how she had had to wait six hours to retrieve Poppy from a rabbit warren on the edge of the New Forest when she was visiting her best friend Maggie. She laughed, naturally but with a hint of shyness as she shared her fear that Poppy would never return, how she and Maggie had sat waiting until the sun was setting and were on the verge of giving up, when Poppy reappeared, her long hair covered in teasels and sticky willow, a clump of mud hanging from a scraggy ear and paws that were black and sticky with mud. Poppy had been cleaned, untangled, fed and cooried in on her sheepskin rug which went everywhere with her.
Taking inspiration, Mark started to describe how he had discovered Jinty’s fondness for sheepskin rugs and had bought one from a weaver near Applecross, but he was cut short when he heard,
‘Sorry, got to go. Nice to meet you, enjoy your walk’ and she was gone.
Taken a little by surprise at her abrupt departure Mark nonetheless smiled to himself and was grateful that he had showered and put on decent clothes – not that he was looking for any connection with a stranger but he had a bit more confidence to be himself. As he turned the corner and caught sight of the Hello Goodbye stone he wondered just when he had stopped having confidence and lost that part of himself.
His phone vibrated and expecting it to be Sarah his face lit up when he saw that his best friend Rob was calling. To Mark’s shock and delight, Rob was not in fact calling from his home in Norway, but from three miles along the road in Gullane, suggesting they meet for a drink that evening. He was on a flying visit to finalise his parent’s estate in the event of their death or if senility got hold of either of them, but as Rob laughed,
‘They’ll probably outlive both of us – old man nearly eighty-three years old and played off scratch yesterday.’
Mark was elated that his day had been given some structure and to celebrate he bought fresh rolls, eggs and a slab of Anderson’s finest black pudding to prepare himself a sinfully decadent breakfast.
He called Sarah and talked about Jinty’s near cull and cavorting on the beach, but made no mention of his encounter. Sarah mumbled some pleasantries and taking a moment to collect his thoughts Mark enquired carefully as to what was bothering her.
A moment’s silence before Sarah’s quiet voice came back,
‘I don’t know Mark. I’m sorry, I think I still love you but I dunno… I’m lost. I thought coming home for a few days might help me get my head together, and last night when I was out with Tracy I just felt so free and I miss that. Look, this isn’t the time to talk, the kids want to say hello and Mum and I are going for a spa treatment, Dad’s taking Hannah and Jack to the cinema and then pizza.’
Mark heard Sarah calling for Jack and Hannah, his mind confused, his heart heavy that his marriage could further deteriorate, but before a downturn in his mood had time to settle, it was lifted up by the excitement of Jack and Hannah’s immature banter which reassured him that whatever else was about to happen with Sarah he knew that his relationship with his children was solid.
After breakfast Mark occupied himself with weekend garden duties: cutting grass, weeding, moving plants and finally touching up the wood stain on a replacement fence panel, broken when a heavy branch had crashed down during high winds in February.
Rob had texted that a table in Zitto’s was booked for 8pm. Mark was delighted that after spending longer than he had planned in the garden, and with some of his resultant body aches painfully reminding him of his age, the last thing he had to do was cook or even reheat a frozen meal. In spite of her earlier exertions and unlike him, Jinty’s energy had not diminished and she was obviously eager to accompany him. He paused as he often did at the family photograph collection in the hall near the front door, searching for Tom as a baby, a teenager and latterly in the army on his last tour before returning and his untimely death. Tom was head and shoulders above his command and to his left stood an attractive woman who suddenly seemed familiar but Mark couldn’t think from where. He locked up the house, let Jinty jump into the front seat and drove into town, having arranged to leave his car and golf gear at his parents’ house, planning to walk back in the morning.
Lottie’s heart was thumping as she packed up the van. There was no way she was going to stay another night. Her intention had been to see where Tom had lived, and died. She had known him for three years and he was a trustworthy colleague, confidant and friend who always had her back, and if things had been different who knows how their relationship might have developed but they had both taken their army careers seriously and had witnessed how painful a potential fallout from losing a close friend could be.
Lottie could not help but remember the fateful day in Kabul when Tom had been keeping lookout, Lottie a short distance away and he had turned his back to light a cigarette hanging from the twitching mouth of a malnourished teenager whose life had been torn apart by the war.
They were on routine patrol and there was no suggestion that the division should be on high alert, in fact Lottie was watching a group of younger orphans playing a version of hopscotch in the hostel courtyard. One girl in particular was waving to her and giggling, and as Lottie returned the gesture she was propelled from the wall by Tom as a rogue sniper had started to fire haphazardly. Lottie recovered her stance and rushed to chaperone the little ones under the protective arch of their hostel, the children scrambling for shelter, but the little girl who had been waving was standing stock still unable to move from fear and shock.
In the split second it took to turn back, grab the girl and throw her into the arms of her guardian, Lottie’s left foot was ripped apart by a hail of bullets which tore through her boots, leaving a bloody mess of shattered bone and decimated tissue.
By the time she had come round in hospital several weeks later, her foot having been amputated at the ankle, Tom had finished his tour of duty, left a hastily written note saying he was sorry and to all intents and purposes had returned home.
Witness accounts detailed that if he hadn’t responded as he did, not only would Lottie have lost her life, but the children would have died or been badly maimed. Lottie’s overwhelming fear, knowing Tom so well was that he would have internalised the event as a personal failure. She tried to make contact with him directly to thank him for his quick action but had no response. She became aware of Tom’s final years from a third party and had been heartbroken to hear that he had endured such a tragic ending. Travelling to North Berwick had been borne from a desire to see where Tom had lived, spoken as he had so eloquently about his childhood growing up there and she hadn’t been disappointed. She had spent three days exploring the area, fantasising about the simplicity of a childhood in such an idyllic setting with the dramatic Bass Rock, The Law and eclectic mix of shops, bars and restaurants. A perfect seaside town.
Meeting Mark had shaken her to her core. She knew Tom had a brother but they could have been twins with those striking aquamarine eyes. Tom was leaner, possibly due to age and fitness when she knew him and at least two inches taller than Mark, but they had the same gait and spoke with an intonation underlying a shy confidence. It had taken all her resolve that morning to engage in the small talk rather than run off.
Mark and Rob chose a table outside Zitto’s under a heater, notionally for the fact Jinty was with them, but truthfully because Rob still liked an occasional cigarette. They opened a bottle of Montepulciano d’Abruzzo and skimmed through inevitable chat covering children, wives, ageing parents and mortgages before more serious banter about rugby and food as they stared at the immense menu, more out of habit than anything else, both instinctively ordering the seafood pizza.
When Rob went to the toilet, Mark found himself fighting his natural instinct to turn to his phone in case there was anything, or nothing, from Sarah. Instead, he looked up and watched as a familiar figure approached the North Berwick Fry. He continued watching absent-mindedly until a small scruffy dog bounded across the road unaware of its narrow escape from the wheels of a passing car. Jinty leapt up, wagged her tail and whimpered excitedly to see her new friend. Lottie looked up, saw that Poppy was safe, swore under her breath and smiled tentatively before walking over to retrieve the little dog.
‘Hello. We meet again.’ Mark stood up smiling.
‘Hi, yes the beach, this morning. I…’ but she stopped fearful of saying any more.
Lottie suddenly realised how lonely she was and in need of company. She had been on the road for six long days and nights and was getting tired of being alone. She surveyed the scene, and as Rob reappeared he good-naturedly invited Lottie to join them.
She hesitated, desperate to join in but anxious and nervous should the truth come out about her reason for being in North Berwick.
‘Great idea,’ cried Mark perhaps a little too enthusiastically. ‘Here, have a seat. Red wine? The weather’s seldom this good and look the dogs are happy to see each other.’
‘That’s very kind, but, I can’t, I mean, we’ve only just met and the van. I .. it’s all packed up. I’m heading off later tonight. Just came down for fish and chips to eat on the harbour.’
‘Oh,’ replied Mark, feeling uncharacteristically deflated. ‘Is someone expecting you?’
Lottie looked into his bright eyes, smiled, looked at Rob, midway through pouring her drink and said, ‘Oh what the hell! No, I have no other plans. Thank you, a drink sounds lovely.’
Mark formally introduced himself and Rob and gave a brief history of their friendship, peppering it with tales of misdemeanours and high jinks.
The way he spoke reminded her of Tom and how decisive he would be, unlike some of the weaker men she had known who had toyed with her heart, reeling her in only to walk away when she started to let down her guard.
She took a grateful swig of wine, and quickly settled into conversation with Mark and Rob under the street heater telling of her craft shop and community knitting group in Warkworth. Laughing off Rob’s playful claims that she looked far too young to be running a knitting group, she commented that it was really her therapy before glancing towards her leg and trailing off.
Mark picked up on the subtle cue, and said, ‘I noticed you were limping a little when you crossed the road just now, have you hurt yourself?’
‘Oh, that? It’s nothing, happened in another life.’
‘Go on, we have time.’
Lottie took a deep breath, looked from Rob to Mark and then, bowing her head, quietly reeled off an abridged version of her army service history before making mention of her close friend who had lived, and died, here in North Berwick.
She paused, ‘It was Tom.’ As she said this, Lottie looked up and straight into Tom’s brother’s eyes, which could have been his own.
Mark’s heart almost stopped.
‘Tom? As in, my brother… Tom?’
‘Yes. I should have explained this morning but I didn’t expect to see you and I was so taken aback when the dogs started playing. Tom and I were friends, good friends in fact. We had each other’s backs and were together when… she stammered, ‘but he blamed himself for this. I lost my foot, hence the limp. But it wasn’t his fault – if he hadn’t reacted so quickly more lives would have been lost, including mine.’ Her eyes prickled, a painful lump appeared in her throat before she sobbed, ‘I never got a chance to thank him and by the time I had been rehabilitated I turned my back on the army. I was devastated to learn Tom died so tragically. He talked about you and North Berwick with so much fondness I had to see the place for myself, but now I fear I’ve opened up old wounds.’
Mark couldn’t quite shake the disbelief that this was the woman in the photograph at home but as the night continued, they relaxed with each other, talking, laughing and crying and with Rob having grown up as though he was the third brother, he recounted numerous childhood anecdotes and did a masterful job of facilitating both the humour and sadness, allowing Mark and Lottie to finally open up about their shared loss.
Lottie was introduced, and very warmly welcomed into the fold of Mark’s family. Instead of her arrival disturbing the closed box of emotions that had served to contain the empty space Tom left, she gave them the final piece of the jigsaw they so had so desperately needed to understand why Tom had changed. She became naturally close to Mark and Tom’s parents, and would regularly visit enjoying time in Tom’s childhood sanctuary.
Three years later, when his parents chose to downsize, opting for a modest modern retirement flat on the High Street, Mark moved back into his childhood home. Sarah’s countless affairs and indecision about whether or not she loved him had finally taken their toll. She stayed close enough to see the children regularly but Mark had insisted on being their primary carer and finally felt free to share the magic of North Berwick, as he had experienced in his youth. The practical boxy house that had served as an onlooker to his home town sold quickly and after some mild renovations, he created a comfortable new home for Hannah and Jack in his childhood home. Six months later he told Lottie it was inappropriate that she continue to stay in the spare room and since her visits were increasingly frequent, he asked her to move in permanently.
They had never kissed or touched other than lingering embraces and faltered kisses on receptive cheeks but their love for each other had been obvious and when they were finally able to unite in love making, the peace and joy they had silently craved sealed their union.
Mark took in his surroundings before pulling Lottie close to his side as guests departed from a memorable ‘Hello Goodbye’ party thrown in the Glen Golf Club to celebrate their union and to remember the best of Tom as he had been. As the sun set behind Fidra Lottie looked forward to welcoming the sunrise behind the Bass Rock with Poppy, Jinty and their latest rescue dog, a lumbering over affectionate black Labrador aptly named Shadow.