by Tony Curtis
Each one must fit into the palm of my hand, anything else is a boulder, a rock. And I spend as long as it takes to find, an hour, more – that is not the point. What could be urgent about this place, the waves, the sky to the west? And sometimes there is nothing to take home; and that’s alright too.
Laura used to say that this sky went on for ever and ever, over the rim of what you could reach. Gazing down at the beach, scuffing pebbles with my foot, always my right foot, I get lost in that concentrated searching, sifting shapes and uncovering what might be the right curve, ventricles and that indentation for the aorta where the forefinger fits and the pericardial space which should snug into the palm. The heart is a messy complex, a thudding, pumping organ with its valves the semilunar and tricuspid, and tubes and the vena cava, superior and inferior, the atrium each side. None of which seems to matter to us for the heart has been simplified to a song, a greetings card, an emoji, a balloon to be let loose on special occasions. And that’s fine. The heart shape is what I have chosen and what I remember from the visits we had to all the beaches all through the years together.
This beach is where I return because this was our last beach, the last few visits while she could still manage it, the journey and the unpacking, the queues and road-works, dusting the caravan and weeding around the wheels. Not to mention the steps and the narrow bed, which later she had to have to herself.
Here’s one with a flinky edge squat in the sand which uncovered becomes a torso if you hold it on its narrow end and stand it; it could be mounted on a small wooden plinth; the Venus of Willendorf, plump belly, but without the enormous breasts. Laura without breasts.
Because this is how things start, beliefs, seeing what you wish for in what you happen upon, what you find. The shadows in a cave, the figure in the stars, the shapes of life in the driftwood and the pebbles. Worship this as the image of what you need they seem to say. Hold this and feel that which is ineffable. Let what is above you, or in your hand, be the meaning. What is given you take and turn into what you want it to be, whatever significance you need.
Buster was an alibi, as most dogs can be for the solitary walker, the couple who no longer talk directly to each other. In that respect I miss him, we both, at first, missed him terribly. When Jane the vet put him down it was tough, a rehearsal for worse to come. Pentobarbital works efficiently and Jane explains that what Buster experiences is a gradual sleep during which his heart “shuts down”. I’m convinced by that and the way that it validates our decision; but Laura says her heart can’t shut down. She takes it badly.
We had no choice: he was a lively and healthy black lab we’d had from a reputable breeder in Glamorgan, which was when we started to return to this part of the coast and became attached to it. Buster was a failed gun dog, but only, apparently, as his nose wasn’t up to it. ‘This is one is ideal as long as you don’t want to hunt and shoot with him. He’s been a quick learner, but the nose has been a problem. And without the nose….’
‘We can live without a perfect nose,’ said Laura and she was proved right for that dog was glued to her left side and sat and set at our command. He was a professionally-trained sporting dog, as the breeder had claimed. That was his great strength and his undoing.
We had moved from the city and found a perfect house outside Chepstow. “Pen yr Allt”. Later living for posh people, as Laura put it. Liquidising West Dulwich meant that we could comfortably afford a larger place, landscape the garden and have a conservatory which these days, if you were selling, would be “an orangery”. We’d both put in the years and retirement was timely. Roger had settled in Chicago after his masters over there and there were no promises of grandchildren. Pen yr Allt could accommodate that future anyway. Having grandchildren over the other side of the Pond would be something we’d have to negotiate if that ever happened. A blessed challenge, Laura called it.
Our house had mature hedges but the other field had been earmarked for a small housing development, which became a larger housing development, as these things do. No problem. A good hedge makes good neighbours. We had no idea what Buster was up to on his wanders until one day he returned with blood on his paws. Recently the post office and several of the lampposts on the way had missing cat notices stuck up, a much-loved tortoiseshell, but we assumed that Buster had taken a pigeon; you didn’t have to have a hunting nose to spot a pigeon, did you?
Then a black cat called Shirley, then a tabby called Bagpuss. And then the man who lived at the end house of the estate called. His wife was too distraught, he said, but she had seen a large black dog taking their cat and shaking it by the neck. It was a torn and limp mess in their border. Did we have a black dog? Which seemed a bit clumsy as Buster was stationed at Laura’s left thigh as she opened the door.
That would have been the end of it; what proof was there? There were other large black dogs in the area. We kept a close eye on Buster, but the following week he wandered and came back with a kitten in his mouth.
We were responsible owners: he was taken for his walk morning and evening and most dry days we’d drive him down to the river and walk the tow-path. Buster was impeccable on or off the lead – alert, attentive, obedient. But he couldn’t be confined to the house and our garden was quite large and impossible to fence in. I suppose that would have been the next step, but it didn’t come to that. Three of the Willows couples came to the door on Friday evening, which took me aback.
Laura said that she hadn’t been surprised: she’d pop to the post office for bits and bobs and to retrieve parcels which we’d missed, but had been received frostily of late. Mr Patel has suggested that she tie her dog outside; his wife had developed allergies and dog hairs didn’t help.
The three couples, “The Petitioners” or the “Vigilantes” as we’d come to call them, were adamant. Cats had been lost, savaged. Loved ones taken: something had to be done: Buster had to be put down.
The first heart I placed on the mantle-piece along from our wedding photograph. Then when it got to three or four I arranged them in a circle on the sideboard where we show a bit of pottery. Nine of them made a heart shape there. But when it got into the teens I decided to put them outside – the rockery? But where we had buried Buster in the west corner near the large hydrangea seems the best place and so when I go back after this weekend this grey stony heart will add to the pattern. I can still discern that nine-stone-heart in the middle of the arrangement, though no-one else would be able to.
Tony Curtis is emeritus Professor of Poetry at the University of South Wales. His From the Fortunate Isles: New & Selected Poems was published by Seren in 2016 and in 2017 Cinnamon Press published his selected short stories Some Kind of Immortality. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society for Literature. Tony is currently working on a new collection of poems as well as a novel set in wartime Paris – Darkness in the City of Light.