The sea mist was swirling around the marsh, pulling everything into its damp cloud. Coco bounded up to Carmel, her four puppy legs still unbalanced. She panted the eager panting, typical of an exuberant Weimaraner. Underneath her startling yellow eyes, her open mouth, turned up lips and crinkled cheeks, gave the appearance of a human grin. She sniffed then nuzzled, the dripping, bedraggled Labrador. “Tell me, tell me, what are you thinking about?”
“The old days, the dripping dark streets in Cambridge on the night the car drove away, and I was wondering what Jamie and Isabel are doing now.” Said Carmel who was sitting on an irregularly shaped, dry patch amid the damp sand, under the vast grey sky of the Stiffkey Marsh, gazing dolefully out over the muddy creeks, inlets and channels. She lay down, crossing her right front paw over the left one and sniffed at the sweet and salty smells in the purple carpet of Sea Lavender and Marsh Samphire. Pink Restharrow grew in spikes. The turf was springy with Haresfoot Trefoil. The Common Blue butterflies were released from the chrysalis of caterpillars clinging to their stems. The fast ebbing tide was running out, the sea only a dusty blue line on the horizon. The straggling grasses were trampled by paw prints. There wasn’t a human, apart from her own, in sight. There was no tourist debris of sandwich wrappers oozing with forgotten mayonnaise, no sweet papers with a slither of chocolate left to lick at, not even a Stiffkey Blue cockle.
Before Coco could ask more, Carmel heard Bryan call them, his wispy brown hair ruffling in the breeze, his rangy frame stooped with arthritis, and conspicuously wearing his bulky, bright yellow waterproof. Whimpering and barking, the two dogs galloped over to him. Bryan scratched their heads and smiled at them before they all set off towards home, passing the high hedges, covered in red berries, and the cottages of grubby whitewash and flint with backyards running down to the river.
The birds were still tweeting in the towering trees of the elevated garden of Warborough House protecting the grey, pink and white flint barn from hostile winds in winter. Their own home: Rooster’s Barn was abandoned by the chickens, pigs and cows, and left to the elements nearly thirty years previously. Apart from the dogs, other livestock were still in evidence. A barn owl had set up residence in the hollow of an oak tree and fed on the rats and mice that lived at Harrison’s farm on the other side of the river. Dotted around Home Hill and the Parish Pit, the cows, were feeding on grass which glistened in the sunlight.
Once home and having drained their water bowl, Carmel and Coco snuggled up on their mat by the warm, blue Aga. They let their damp, furry coats steam, sending a pungent aroma of salty, wet dog around the kitchen.
“Please carry on with the story”, Coco pleaded as Carmel looked round the kitchen furnished with seaside themes: the blown glass sea pictures on the wall, the painted fish on driftwood, the mussel pots and salmon kettle on the shelf above the Aga. Nothing matched but everything blended harmoniously in shades of green, turquoise and blue. All cosy and welcoming Carmel’s eyes moistened, her ears dropped down and her tail flattened and drooped as she recalled memories of her earlier life.
“Well, I was dumped…. thrown out of the car in the middle of Cambridge. I was only eleven months old and had been very happy living with Jaimie and Isabel and their parents, but one day some men arrived. They were smelling of rancid sweat and shouting. They took the television away and some of the furniture. Everyone was crying and one of the men aimed a kick at me, so I hid under the table”.
Coco tucked her head against Carmel’s neck.
“I remember the family couldn’t afford to keep me. Dinners became smaller and smaller until eventually they stopped. Finally, I was left alone, shivering and hungry, on a dark, rainy night in the city centre. Luckily a lovely lady found me, took me home and gave me some warm milk with a drop of honey in it, before calling the dog warden. I ended up in the rescue centre near Cambridge where I was very uncomfortable and worried about what would happen next. After a long time Bryan, Gill and the children arrived to look for a new friend”.
She blinked and a tear ran down her nose as she explained that they hadn’t wanted a Labrador but when the boys saw her, her clear liquid brown eyes framed by thick lashes and set wide apart in her broad face, giving an endearing look of gentleness and innocence, they couldn’t resist her.
Caramel was the name given by the rescue centre on account of her colour, but the young work experience lady had misspelt it, so Carmel it was. She quickly became Gill’s dog, another female in a house full of men – even the cat was male. They were inseparable, taking long walks in the wide, open countryside. They had lived inland, in a converted village school at the time, bounded by vast fields with huge round bales of golden straw in autumn, and orchards growing red and black currants, succulent damsons, crisp apples and juicy pears. For Carmel, they were golden years: plenty to eat, plump rabbits and energetic hares to chase, the sun was always shining.
She continued, “after a while, I began to realise that Gill often forgot the way home and sometimes the children arrived home from school to an empty house. Then Gill forgot my name and called me ‘Dog’ while Magic became known as ‘Cat’. Strange women came and stayed at the house. I was really unsettled and often had to help myself to my dinner, ripping holes in the big white bag in the utility room. Gill clung to me, wanting my company, stroking me and playing ball in the garden although the walks became shorter and then they stopped. Gill seemed to be cross with everyone for no reason.
Eventually a day arrived when Gill had to leave home and go and stay with other people in a new place. She was frail and had to be helped into the car, still cross, shouting angrily that she didn’t want to go. I hopped in beside her and went with her”.
She moved round on the mat, while explaining that she had spent two years in the home where most of the people were forgetful like Gill. Carmel became everyone’s dog and enjoyed lots of pats and cuddles, forbidden chocolates and other treats. There were trips out to the Pier where the wind roared, sea gulls swooped in the cobalt sky and the huge white crested waves crashed against the promenade. Gill became very sick and eventually she died.
Carmel continued “I laid in my bed, making myself as small as I could, thinking I would be sent back to the rescue centre in Cambridge. Early one morning I recognised the tall man with the smiley face that appeared at the window. Bryan had come to take me home again. We collected my lead, food and bed and we set off in the car but home had changed. No longer in the converted school house, home was here, on the coast in the flint barn at Stiffkey. The children had grown up and gone to university and there was a new lady living here with Bryan.
Carmel looked up at Coco, and her tail started to wag slowly. She snuggled up and went to sleep, happy with her bedtime story.
The next morning, Bryan called to them and Coco and Carmel set off with him. They walked past the Red Lion with its enticing sign for fresh crab and Brancaster Mussels. There was a smell of last night’s stale beer emanating from the open door. The dogs trotted down the Greenway where the famous Lucy Lavers was restored by the Rescue Wooden Boats Group, then bounded across the cornfields to Stiffkey Marsh. They clambered over the footbridges, sniffing at the cockle gatherers with large baskets of Stiffkey Blues on their backs. The dogs kept running until they reached the sea which was sparkling turquoise in the bright sunlight. Carmel jumped in and swam to a short spur of sandy bank where she stopped and shook her coat – crystal droplets of seawater sprayed around her, as she whimpered with joy.
She looked back and saw Coco, waiting by High Sand Creek and not wanting to get into the chilly water. “Come on Coco”, she barked. “Jump in, seize the day, you never know what will happen tomorrow”.