This story is by Nina Doyle and was part of our 2017 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Before winter started, Ray bought a dog. She was a kennel hound, a reject and a mutt. An abandoned, quivering wreck, with wide, panicked eyes that kept a terrified watch for the beatings and abuse that were her former, miserable life.
She shook as she ate, she whimpered as she slept, and she soiled various corners of Ray’s home. But Ray didn’t care. She’d be a welcome winter distraction. Winter had never been his best season. Even when the house had boasted happy noise and banter, he’d still struggled with the premature darkness and that endless grey hang. But this year’s winter would be different; it would accentuate a loneliness that he never imagined would be his. And there’d be nothing or no one to give him any reason to haul his sluggish limbs from the sanctuary of his now oversized bed.
But a dog – a dog was a reason. A dog needed someone to physically do things for it. And this helpless thing? She’d be a nuisance and a bother, but she’d be a constant distraction – something to drag him from this grief-induced lethargy that would only intensify as the year darkened its days.
Ray called her “Red”. He took the “re” from rescue and the “d” from dog, and he quietly announced it to her on their first, nervous walk together down Washbrook Lane – that quiet country lane where, on a summer morning nine weeks and three days ago, a car had hit the three people he loved the most with such force that it took the police a day to find the youngest one. She’d been catapulted into the next field; her mother and sister were found crumpled together in the ditch.
On that particular summer morning, Ray had been at his usual place: his car-repair garage, his wide, weathered hands a mess of oil and grease. When Sargent James pulled in, Ray had assumed it was yet another visit about the exhaust on his patrol car. But as the Sargent approached the garage door, his helmet respectfully tucked under his arm, Ray saw a pained expression that clearly had nothing to do with an exhaust pipe. And there was no jovial banter when he saw Ray, just a calm request for them to go into the back office to sit down and maybe make some tea. Ray knew they wouldn’t be drinking tea; he knew they’d be discussing something dreadful.
Ray took the news standing, holding an oily rag, which he rubbed harder into his hands as the Sargent quietly explained the morning’s fatal events with a slow precision interrupted by an occasional catch in his voice, for he himself knew the victims. Washbrook Lane… that nasty bend… a car speeding… Kate and the girls walking… driver also dead… identify the bodies. All simple words that when put together had destroyed Ray’s world. He had known love for one woman only for 23 years, and in the last 10 years, they’d created two souls for whom he’d felt love on an entirely different level. But in just seconds, all three were gone.
Since that morning, Ray had been given no space to grieve. This quiet corner of Ireland was known for its tea, its scones and its fine views of the moody Atlantic, but now it was known for its grief. The parents, the in-laws, the siblings, the locals, all of them round at his door, on his phone. All of them wanting to help. Well-meaning comfort foods would frequently appear on his doorstep: meat-filled casseroles and hearty home-baked goods. Some went in his belly, most went in the bin, but all came with little notes offering condolences and help. “Well you could help by leaving me the fuck alone for a while,” was how Ray wanted to reply.
But he never did. For he was Reliable Ray – the 6ft 4 gentle giant of the village, the fixer of cars, boilers and pipes. Ray could fix anything, but since that morning, he’d had no clue how to fix himself. When you’re a husband at breakfast and a widower by lunch, there’s no tool to repair that; no tool to bring back those three innocent souls, or to at least let him hold them all for just one last time. He now had no purpose, no goal. No homework to help with, no bedtime stories to read. No shoulders to massage, no loving body to caress. His voice didn’t need to scold or soothe anyone. His cholesterol didn’t need to be watched. Even his dirty socks didn’t need to be moved. He was living by himself and for himself, his house and his mind a museum of memories.
But now here was Red, this scrawny, miserable creature that was to somehow be his project and his purpose. His quivering companion. And here they were on their first early evening walk together: a damaged man with a damaged dog.
Ray’s boots crunched the gravel as they walked down his short driveway, with Red securely but reluctantly on the leash. She lowered her head and tucked her long tail between her thin legs so that she appeared smaller, almost apologetic in her movements. Once out onto the road, he saw that last night’s winds had left a messy autumnal carpet for their first walk, and he wished this season could stay, wished it could be the backdrop for his grief, instead of the cold, stark greyness that would soon creep in.
As they turned left outside the driveway, the local bus went by and sneezed its air brakes, causing Red to slam herself against the stone wall in fright. Ray made some soothing noises, they slowly continued on, and after just a few minutes they reached the top of Washbrook Lane. Ray stopped, Red dropped her head, and in that silence he spoke to her. “Well, dog. Your name is Red. That’s what I’ll call you. I hope that’s ok.” She didn’t move, didn’t seem to register. She simply hung her head and waited.
It had taken Ray nine weeks and three days to make this short walk to the lane. In all that time, he’d had no interest in visiting the place of their deaths, no interest in coming here for the “closure” that people kept going on about. Yet as the days wore on, he felt pulled to the place. And it seemed fitting, seemed right, to make it his first walk with Red.
He already knew the lane so well. He’d driven down it many times to rescue the many drivers who’d misjudged that nasty bend and slammed into the exhausted hedge or careened into the battered ditch. There’d been broken bones and broken cars, but never a death. Until now. You don’t get any deaths, and then three come along all at once.
As they continued down the lane’s narrow grass verge, anchors of dread churned around Ray’s stomach, and his legs felt heavy and cold. When he reached the nasty bend, he simply bowed his head and listened. Creatures fidgeted, cows grazed, and some angry crows heckled in the distance. He slowly looked up to see the sun making its graceful exit, leaving behind a sky of colourful, hopeful magnificence. He kept his head turned up to that sky, for he didn’t want to look at that nasty bend, and he didn’t want to see that ditch. Eventually, and with a deliberate deep breath, he forced his eyes to settle on them. But for this gentle giant, it was too much. His legs buckled, his knees plunged to the damp earth, and he lurched forward, convulsing and heaving with guttural howls of grief. The ache that seared through his chest was none he’d ever felt before, not even at the funerals.
His thick hands dug into the damp soil to steady himself, but then they dug with rage – rage at the erratic driver, rage at his wife for choosing to walk here, rage at the girls for no doubt begging her to take them here on their beloved morning walk, so they could twirl around in all these bloody autumn leaves.
But as Ray bowed and shook through his grief-stricken rage, Red silently stood. Not shaking, and not troubled by the quivering human at the end of her leash. She stood patiently, almost guarding. When his convulsions stopped enough to allow him to slowly sit back on his heels, she sat too. And it was her still presence that brought him back to awareness. Maybe she’d seen worse in her miserable life. Maybe a man wailing at the ground was nothing to her.
He stood slowly, his damp jeans sticking to his knees, his face a puffy, wet mess. He looked down at Red, who had resumed her cowering position. They would both need to mend. They would both need to heal. And there, he made a quiet promise that as each season changed, somehow so would they.