I have been back from Llanbedrog for over a month now.
I miss the beach mostly. The static crackle of the surf pushing and pulling the shale on the shoreline. The suck and hiss, back and forth. The wind rushing along the coast and the crash and return of the waves fills my senses. I cannot hear my heavy-booted footsteps.
It’s not a sense of happiness I’m trying to achieve with this immersive sensory walk, or even contentment. I am simply absorbed into the elements, so I don’t matter, my grief is drowned out, my lack of purpose in the world irrelevant. I am matter moving through space and time. I am flesh, encased in cotton, denim, and wool, propelled by biomechanical action and a central nervous system designed to allow me to do this without much in the way of conscious thought. I am a human being, walking on a planet. I am a biological mass, part of an ecosystem that is part of something bigger, beyond my comprehension. My thoughts and feelings are of no consequence to this sea, these pebbles, the clouds above me. All that matters is that I am here, a moving feature in the landscape, unbound by roots, momentum determined by physical laws of motion and force of gravity. I am fuelled today by cheap instant coffee and oatmeal. Particles of me squeeze from my eyes, stream down my face and are blown away, moisture absorbed into the air, salt drying on my cheeks.
I pause, squat down beside an elephant sized hunk of grey volcanic stone. The sound of the world changes, the pitch of the wind lowers, the fronds of hair that have been whipping my face still a little, swirl, flutter. Maggie plods to me. In my hunkered stance she can reach my face, ruddy between my orange beanie hat and my black scarf. She nudges in to lap away the salt. A tongue on legs, she will never miss an opportunity to swipe a lick at the least hint of exposed flesh.
‘I’m trying to be at one with the universe, dog,’ I say, as she sits in front of me, tongue lolling. ‘You are sort of ruining it.’
It is eleven years since I found her shivering beside an unlit road on a pitch-black October night in a rainstorm. Holme Moss is 500ft high, miles from any town, and cars race at unregulated speed up and down its steep sides. It’s amazing I saw her at all. If a distant car hadn’t momentarily braked and swerved, I wouldn’t have been alerted that there was anything untoward. I slowed and there she was, her black coat barely discernible against the late autumn night. I bundled a meek, submissive young mongrel dog into the back of the car. Dan, almost eight, was next to her in his booster seat. He reached out a hand to stroke her and she licked him. ‘Can we keep her?’ he asked. We did. Did we find her or did she find us? Whichever, from then we were unified, harmonious, a trinity – Deb, Dan, Dog. Now it’s just the two of us.
She is giving me her broad Staffy smile, and stands again, moves in for another lick. I put my hand out to stop her, overbalance and end up rocking back onto my bum on the wet pebbles.
‘Urgh,’ I complain, and heave myself inelegantly to my feet, where the wind strikes up again and the drizzle spits at me. There’s no-one paying attention to us. The weather is too vexatious today, squally, and cold. A few swaddled dog walkers with irrepressible spaniels or labradors wander the coastline, the dogs bounding in and out of the foamy waves.
Maggie is looking up hopefully at me now. I move my hand to my right-hand coat pocket. She shifts her position, eyes fixed on my pocket. She smacks her lips. I retrieve a biscuit, toss it a few feet towards the shoreline and she shoots over to it, snaffling it up in two crunches, one swallow. Then it’s as if it has never happened, and her eyes track back to my pocket.
I cannot disappear again into the beach’s mighty cacophony, not with a needy, greedy dog in tow. I do have a purpose. I am Maggie’s keeper, and she needs me. She is as loyal a dog as I could ever wish for, a bit too clingy if anything. But she keeps me here, present, in the real world. She waggles her greyed eyebrows as I show her empty hands. She manages to look disappointed. Her black and old-lady-white hair lies in flat and wet clumps. Even her soft velvety ears look bedraggled.
‘Come on then, Maggie-moo,’ I say. We set off against the wind walking back towards the cafe at the entrance to the beach. There, Maggie tries to divert under the canopy to see where that lovely smell she is sniffing is coming from, and I call a low warning to come here, good girl, and the promise of another biscuit just about outweighs her curiosity.
And by the time we have tumbled steaming through the porch and into the warm living room of the cottage, I have forgotten that I was momentarily just atoms existing among other atoms. I rub Maggie dry with an old pink towel. My face tingles as it dries and my hands throb as they warm, and my legs are red as I peel away my sodden jeans and step quickly up the stairs to find my soft fleecy jogging bottoms. Maggie follows me up and then back down, trotting quickly back to the kitchen. She sits, fidgeting, drooling, and staring at the work surface where she knows her post-walk dentistick lies. I give it to her, and she takes up what has become her customary position by the back door, on the mat, and chews and swallows the whole thing before I have had time to fill the kettle for my customary post-walk tea. And when she has had a big drink from her water bowl, and I have carried through my hot tea to the living room, and we have settled onto the blanket-covered sofa we both glance at each other and sigh. We each have our purposes; I look after her and she looks after me. And we are each other’s universes.