They wandered onto the common together, as they always did. Through the entrance, almost hidden by tall hedgerows as if it were a secret passage to a magical world, their own enchanted seclusion, they walked along and down and then back up the long winding track of dirt and stones, edged to the left by aged oak and beech standing imprisoned behind iron fencing and to the right by a forest of overgrown nettles, grass and buddleias and, beyond them, the boundaries of houses and gardens that backed onto it. Eventually they reached the point where the narrowing footpath branched with options; to the right they would head toward the landmark of the water tower and its flat, vertical panels, turning then onto a well-used bridleway that completed the square, straight ahead went further into more dense woodland and left, their usual route and the one they took again today, passed through a beautiful tapering copse and onto the golf course that twisted and sprawled around and across the heathland.
Depending on how early in the day they arrived they would either find themselves completely alone, other than perhaps one or two people walking their dogs in the distance, they might come across the groundskeeper who was usually driving somewhat erratically on his ride-on lawnmower, or there may already be the genesis of a procession of golfers on the greens or dragging their carts along the fairways. Today it was early and quiet with just a pair of elderly gents in suitably garish attire about to tee off a few hundred yards ahead of them as they left the grove and walked onto the open plain of the course, leaving the dappled shade and emerging into the full morning sun.
This circuit spanned about a mile, encompassing long gradients of fairways and bunkers before crossing to another wooded area that cleaved two stretches of open grass and pointed them towards a way out, back onto another narrow track and along to the estate where they lived. This was a daily exercise for them and few words were spoken because conversation wasn’t necessary, the couple content to take in the views of the gorse and trees and the horizon reaching up to kiss good morning to the open sky, breathing in and enjoying their place within the magnolious nature that cocooned them. Occasionally they would spot grey squirrels scampering up into the trees or see sparrows and wood pigeons sitting just a little way ahead of them, audaciously waiting until they got close before making their escape as if daring each other into some kind of cryptic contest of avian tag. Later in the year as autumn brought its mist and damp they sometimes encountered frogs and hedgehogs in the longer grass, and even on the quietest mornings in the depths of winter when not even the most committed putting enthusiast dared brave the conditions the territory was still alive with small sounds, the rustling of unseen birds and animals in the undergrowth and thickets, the melting frost and ice giving way under the struggling winter sunlight or, like today, rain from the previous night dripping from the leaves and providing them with a natural rhythm by which to gauge their journey.
They would very often gaze happily at each other, checking that they were okay, making sure the other was keeping up or not getting too far ahead if they began to drift off the path or track, distracted by flowers or insects or something else of interest. Once they stopped to watch a pair of dragonflies locked together, dancing in an elegant airborne embrace while on another occasion a badger shot them a comical double-take before rapidly disappearing into a mound of leaves and fallen branches. They wouldn’t rush even if the weather became inclement, if the wind suddenly picked up with an extra chill or if it began to rain, still they always took their time, preferring to find shelter rather than hurry home, both wanting this small adventure to last for as long as possible. To this end they sometimes liked to drift further still, heading straight instead of left towards the golf course and advancing deeper into the wood, the light obscured by the thickening canopy even on the brightest days and the terrain ever more acclivitous until they reached the large man-made pond that lay close to the perimeter, where the peace was broken by nearby traffic rushing along the main road that led into town. Periodically he would bound ahead to the embankment and investigate the clouded water, sometimes returning muddied but proud with an abandoned golf ball as his prize, and there were intervals when he would appear lost in thought, sitting on the tee above, staring down at the fairways with the breeze skimming his hair, and she too would allow her mind to stray, relishing their alliance, thankful for and cherishing each moment they shared.
She had met him by chance, their paths crossing close to the water tower, both lost and alone, and she had almost instantly fallen in love; his deep brown eyes, scruffy dirty blonde hair and her own vivid sense that he sustained a depth of loyalty and affection to match her own drew her to him, magnetised, as though in orbit around him. She just knew that he was the one for her, she felt it like upholding a promise she had made to herself without even realising it, successfully accomplishing a task that hadn’t been set. She had been at her lowest then, trapped beneath a heavy cloak of dark despair for a friend she had lost, a friend she had relied upon and to whom she hadn’t even been granted the chance to say goodbye, taken from her by the wicked maelstrom of a house fire. But then he came and made her world bright again, made her feel that she could, that she wanted to once more open and share herself with another. He gave her hope and reason, something to live for, to care about with honesty and selflessness and purity. He saved her.
Sometimes she would hold onto him for as long as she could, attached so there was no chance they would lose each other amongst the field maples and bracken, but then he would want to go off in another direction to investigate something that had caught his attention, sparking his innate inquisitiveness and so she would often wait, fumbling for her phone to record the moment, making sure she would always remember these tiny utopian slices of time even though she knew that forgetting these mornings would be impossible. She took photos almost every day, sometimes videos too, and although the scene barely changed – apart from the backdrop of the changing seasons – and despite him often having the same expression, that same unkempt look that she found so charming she would still marvel at the images when they were apart, when she was at work or he was sleeping. He meant more to her than anyone, any thing, and she could never forsake him for any other. Somewhere buried inside herself, hidden from view, locked away and ignored, she did bear the agonising understanding that at some time, some point in the future it would have to come to an end, but that day wouldn’t come for many years.
When they finally arrived back home she stooped down to him, slipped his collar off, stroked and patted him, felt the velvet of his ears between her fingers and spoke to him softly, lovingly, and he looked up at her, head tilted as if he understood and as if he wanted to tell her that he loved her too before he ambled off, tail raised, to slurp at his water bowl and leave a trail of drips all across the kitchen floor.
By Justin Rulton