Our praises are our wages, as Shakespeare said. And today I have been praised. Exhausted from my passive endeavours I now lie asleep, having discharged myself with honour and smelling literally of roses. Today the boys and I have been on a quest, a seventy-mile round trip at the mid-point of which I was bathed, shampooed and cut, very carefully and very thoroughly, by a nice woman called Julia who said I was one of the very best dogs she had ever worked on – better even than her own. Her astonishment at my behaviour – which I didn’t think that singular – makes me think that some beasts must be very intractable indeed. I took great pleasure in having a professional, with the utmost patience and very sharp scissors, unknot the fur beneath my Charles II ears, as thick as carpets. I now smell delightfully fresh and clean but without overpowering anyone (by contrast, a product called ‘Hiz’ of which I have experience is not recommended in that regard). This all took place in a low-lying spot beside the River Coquet, just across a little bridge from quite deep woods. There Newman and Barnaby climbed up from the river until they breasted the top of the valley where they ate blackberries from brambles beneath bright red hips, and delightedly dashed by gorse and small blue scabious into broad fields the harvester had recently shaved. They filled their lungs with air less salty and rolled in the grass, considering the blessed unexpected change. Praise indeed.
Without Uncle Jonny, I should not understand as much as I do. He made me part of the collective memory, ensuring I too know the meaning of everything and everyone who came before us. When this afternoon we heard Terence Stamp choose Elgar’s Enigma Variations on Radio 3, the line of beauty evoked by his pictures revived stories of Great Malvern, one of Uncle Jonny’s favourite places; a world of wonder known well to Barnaby and Newman too, who are Midlanders unlike me. There were picnics by the British fort; walks round about it, once you got to the top – ears like banners in the wind – lunch at the Malvern Hills Hotel or tea at Warwick House or in the railway station with old-fashioned trains; and remember, if you were driving, it was not far to Ledbury and beyond, to Stoneberrow House, from there. The plantswoman’s garden, bordering on an overgrown canal now housing piglets fit to pop; wild daffodils along the Poets’ Walk, the perry at the pub. Memories just kept coming, on cue cards showing faces from a dim and distant past: legendary Dickens Dogs, long taken from us, but yet to be written about, sleeping inside an ivy-clad hotel, walking in wind and rain; the greatest friend we ever had, taken from us, long gone and far away. The chain of thoughts runs down the spine of England as Nimrod fades away, long and glittering, like letters to Gascony from distant Northumberland; living, pulsing memories of the dear old friend, dead a full year after Jonny, with whom all this is twinned. Eyes fill with tears, the sobbing starts and the paint brush is rested for a while. ‘The last composer to be in touch with greatness,’ someone said of Elgar, and what we felt showed it was true.
These last couple of days have brought unexpected turns of event: both busy – painting, reorganizing, dutifully travelling on one another’s business; days by turn pleasantly warm and miserably drizzly. Enough rollers for a surfer or two yesterday and today a calmer sea, low tide and a glimpse of weathered rock. I was gazing into the horrid pool when this chap and his companion were spotted bobbing like seals beyond the rocks. It brought a touch of California to a chilly Northumberland afternoon when each in turn stood upright on the waves, though his ride was short-lived and the vicarious fun all too fleeting, a dangerous collision on the cards. Only Newman would have joined the lads, fearless and skilful both, not to mention already wet through. What lies beneath holds no fear for him and he throws himself into the pool as readily as a cheery cove. For me, though, the mysteries of the horrid pool can never be fathomed: its waters once blue-black like oil, sometimes absinthe green; the tiny bubbles popping to the surface as it breathes. After clearing completely through the high tide’s good offices, it is darkening and beginning to murmur again. Creatures are caught in the strata which enclose it: maybe they can explain why some act while others watch.
Only yesterday a thick fog clung to the shore, out of which a single curlew leapt into life, peeping his call as he flew over. Nose to the sand, I ran in pursuit of life as is my custom but I could feel the damp on my back and a sadness on the silent sea. The oystercatcher nodded but he was all alone as well; the heron, once again, a miserable wretch fishing lanquidly, all interest lost, between the rocks. All of us wet from that jungly drizzle, there was much melancholy then. And yet this morning, as once again day dawned, a golden sun warmed and filled the dunes with light the colour of Lucozade. A new haircut, a favourite trip out, the arrival of some special soap, the chance to paint some more – such tiny bits of grace but all the more delightful for their inconsequentiality: these are in my mind as we trudge home and I chance upon a dead tennis ball with which to tease poor Barnaby. Happy are we who take each day in our stride, leaning hard and looking out to sea, towards the east, no matter what the tide brings: ‘The words of Mercury are harsh after the songs of Apollo’.
A misty morning was brightened by two wild things thrown into our beach path. First, a perfect mackerel, ejected by Neptune for our consideration; in their souls the boys would have loved to eat it but are well trained enough simply to admire. The sea being so calm, it is surprising that the waves had found strength enough to wash it up, which makes me wonder if it had jumped out of the path of a pursuing seal, driven from the rocks off shore. Glistening and mottled with blue and pink, it was reflected in a splendid shaft of sky gleaming in the east on an otherwise monochrome and moody day. The heron sat on the shingle not far away, a few feet from the water. As we approached he stiffened, extended his neck in disappointment and flew across in front of us, off over the dunes. We always think of Uncle Jonny when we see this lovely bird, as he fills Jonny’s place upon the rocks in a very special and mysterious way: such meetings are charged with meaning. If this was his mackerel he seems not to have cared, for when we returned the poor fish was still there, waiting for a passing gull. So it all goes, lives in a landscape, plans and routines cruelly cut short.
Pink-footed geese flew across us this morning, moving from Inner Farne on to the land beyond the dunes. It seems like yesterday that we all stood in almost exactly the same sunny spot on the shoreline as they squawked their way in the other direction, off to I cannot imagine where. We waved them goodbye and hoped we would see them again – nothing being certain in this uncertain world. Much has transpired since we saw them last; much remains the same.
Those whose faces are turned always towards the sun’s rising See the living light on its path approaching, As over the glittering sea where in the tide’s rising and falling The sea beasts bask, on the Isles of Farne. Aidan and Cuthbert saw God’s feet walking Each day towards all who on world’s shores await his coming. That we too, hand in hand, have received the unending morning.
I turn towards Barnaby and then towards Newman, running into them, nudging their necks as I jump in greeting. It is warmer than spring and hotter than August today. The circle is turning, too.
In the midst of twenty-four hours of death and cruelty elsewhere in the world, we enjoyed some peace this morning. I ruin the quiet by barking for joy as we see the moon in the blue sky, the calm sea lapping at St Cuthbert’s cell in the distance and even further away, the castles of Bamburgh and Lindisfarne. Only a snapshot; a poor thing but our own. The tide will be high by the time we return this afternoon, so there will be no shells to collect. Even here the shadows are long, betraying more than just the time of year, it would appear.