The Black Dog

The salt of the cold winter sea air was coating Bangor pier. You could not breathe without wincing at the sting of each inhalation. The sun was already beginning to set, filling the Menai Straits with burning orange light, like a sea of fire. The wind was relentless. The rain was unyielding. The wood was rotting. The steel was rusting. Plaques on benches were weathered away into smooth silver squares. The seaweed that littered the shingled shore was black. The mussels that were clinging to the decaying legs were black. And the looming cloud ever-present on the horizon was black. The air sucked the warmth out of all that it touched, even the tea sealed inside James’ thermos flask.

He clutched at his coat as the wind jostled his ink black hair, scraping away at the cheap hair wax he had so carefully applied before leaving the house. His thermos flask was advertised as being able to keep hot drinks warm for at least twenty-four hours, yet one sip of the tepid liquid inside proved this was not the case. James emptied the contents over the flaking handrail and watched as the harsh wind picked it up and carried the murky droplets away before they could touch the gloomy water. He paused for a second, and then dropped the useless flask in too. He zipped his long coat right up to his face and walked back along the blustery pier. He could see the freezing cold water below through the uneven cracks between each splintering plank, they once were pure white but now the paint had peeled off revealing the sodden wood within. With each creaking step the week-old stubble on his cheeks bristled irritatingly against the scratchy wool lining of his waxed coat. His horn-rimmed glasses were steamed up by his hot breath and tiny rain droplets coated the surface of each lens, partially blinding him. Every so often, the terrible wind blew so ferociously that James had to clasp at his pasty face and hold his glasses in place for fear of losing them to the elements. His leather boots were soaked through to his unmatching socks, and with each strenuous step, water seeped in and squelched between his wet toes. James peered over his foggy glasses and watched as a warped broken umbrella danced helplessly in the sky above him, jerking this way and that, possessed by the weather. The wind died down momentarily, and the umbrella hovered peacefully for a few seconds before plummeting into the endless water below. It did not float.

He was the last visitor of the day. An old man stood impatiently at the gate as James walked sluggishly down the pier, he was dressed in a heavy fisherman’s coat that was faded yellow and buttoned all the way up to the top. He had left the hood down and wore a green wool knitted hat. Long silver whiskers crept their way out over his high collar and swayed in time with the coming winds. He was supporting himself with one bony hand on one of the bars of the tall black iron gates that secured the pier and was holding a loop filled with various shapes and sizes of keys in his other hand. James continued walking past the long dead flowers in their memorials, past the cracked windows of the long-abandoned fishing hut, past the lampposts now glowing orange with artificial light, James was in no hurry. Just before he reached the gate, he turned to one side and sat on the nearest bench, it sagged precariously as James forced his weight upon it, but it held. There was a plaque fastened to the bench, its letters were faded and faint, but James could just make out the inscription:

Helena Jones
14 February 1929 – 11th November 2009
Every time we pass this place, we’ll close our eyes and see your face.

He considered whether anybody would make a plaque for him when he died and buried the thought. He reached into his interior coat pocket for his packet of cigarettes, pulled one out and stuffed it between his chapped lips. He patted down his many pockets in search of his lighter and found it nestled between some loose change and crumpled tissues in his right trouser pocket. The cigarette hung loose and flaccid in his mouth as James tried again and again to light the damp cigarette. On the eighth or ninth attempt, James succeeded and drew in a deep breath of hot sickly tobacco smoke. He looked up and found the old man was now standing before him, with his arms crossed and a well-polished boot tapping impatiently on the wooden deck. James exhaled a haze of smoke from his lungs which dissipated quickly in the gale. He could hear the old man tutting loudly, despite the wind beating away at his eardrums.
‘I saw you!’
The old man spoke loudly to be heard over the storm, his voice was hoarse. James had no interest in conversation and took another drag from his fizzling cigarette.
‘You deaf or something boy? I said I saw you!’
The old man jabbed one of his skeletal fingers towards James’ face and his bushy eyebrows frowned deeply. He had a face like thunder. James tried to ignore the old man, but his finger was so close to his eyes that he could see the black grime under his dirty yellow fingernail. He took one last breath of his cigarette, dropped it to the floor and crushed it under the heel of his boot. The cigarette butt fell through a narrow crack between the planks and down into the salt water beneath them. James stood up and responded,
‘So what?’
James towered over the old man and looked down at him through rain splattered spectacles. The old man’s grey eyes looked up at James and widened, his wrinkled brow furrowed deeper. He was not going to back down.
‘You shouldn’t do that!’
James sighed deeply and fumbled around in his jacket pockets for another cigarette.
‘Don’t try and pretend you didn’t do nothing! I saw you chucking something into the sea, it’s not right you know, there’s fish in there that might mistake whatever it was for another fish and then we’re in trouble; next thing you know, you’ll be finding man-made waste inside your next fish dinner, mark my words!’
James said nothing as the old man proceeded to lecture him on the intricate and highly fragile ecosystem that was the North Welsh coast.
‘It’s tourists like you that are the problem, there wouldn’t be half as many boats spilling oil and God-knows-what  in these waters were it not for the likes of you out-of-town folk.’
‘I’m not a tourist.’
The old man hesitated almost as if he had forgotten he was talking to another human being rather than an inanimate object.
‘’Scuse me?’ The Old Man said, pretending to have misheard James.
‘I. Am. Not. A. Tourist.’
James emphasised each word loudly, zipped up his coat further and started towards the black iron gates.
‘Well you don’t look like a local to me. My family’s been living in these parts for hundreds of years, I’m Bangor blood through and through. I ain’t never seen you round here before…’
The old man’s voice became lost in the ferocious wind as James walked further away from him. His language slipped between English and Welsh several times. He did not follow him, but he continued shouting in James’ direction until it was clear to the old man that he was alone. As soon as he was out of earshot, James smiled from ear to ear.

James strode down the streets of Bangor with his eyes fixed on the pock marked pavement and his hands shoved firmly in his pockets. Nobody dared to brave the weather, so James was alone, the streets were empty. It was Sunday evening, the shops were also empty. One by one, the street-lights buzzed to life and lit up the darkening streets of the City. The Christmas lights from the previous year still hung inelegantly down the high street, and the smell of fish and chip shops and kebabs lingered in the air as the numerous takeaways all fired up their ovens. He walked alongside a terraced row of houses, one of which caught his attention: the curtains of the living room were wide open, and James could see through into their front room. There was a family in front of a flickering television but no one was watching it, there was a nature documentary involving sharks. They were spread out across on a long corner sofa, at one end sat a boy whose attention was focused on a tablet, at the opposite end a younger girl sat next to her mother who held her softly in a loving embrace. James watched them involuntarily for a few moments before looking away. He continued his journey home.

James lived far enough away from the sea that his house was protected from the endless onslaught of corrosive sea winds but was close enough that it was always damp. It was a small two-bedroom terraced house at the end of a miserable council estate. The house was made of concrete and built to last, the outer walls were pebble dashed with a grey aggregate, the windows were grubby and unwashed, and the house was enclosed by a tall untamed hedge that spilled over onto the pavement. James brushed his way through the gap in the hedge where a gate once hung, it leaned against the post it once swung from, its hinges exposed and twisted. He kicked through an assortment of litter that the wind had blown in through the gaps in the hedge. He had given up maintaining the front lawn long ago, it was always too wet to cut and was now overgrown. The grass had become intertwined with crisp packets, bent cans and plastic bottles. He jammed a key into the lock and shoved hard against the stiff front door. It opened onto a small hallway decorated with a brown patterned wallpaper that was slowly peeling away. James stepped over a small pile of letters, picked them up and added them to a much larger pile of letters that extended half way up the wall. His coat dripped puddles of water onto the smooth wooden floor as he walked through the house directly into the living room. He kicked his boots off next to the fireplace, he peeled off his wet socks from his soggy pruned feet and hung them up on a small rack. He shrugged off his sopping waxed coat and hung it on the rack next to the socks. He removed his glasses, exhaled onto each lens and with the corner of his shirt, he polished away the cloudy marks. He shivered in the bitter cold room as milky water droplets mixed with the remnants off his hair wax dripped from the tips of his black hair.

James knelt close to the empty fireplace. It was a magnificent piece that one might not expect to find in a house like this. The mantel was made of a chocolate brown coloured walnut that hung effortlessly above the firebox. The surrounding trim panels were of the same rich walnut and were decorated with intricate carvings of sailing boats, fish and seashells. The metal grate was of two interweaving Welsh Dragons, their spiked legs and forked tongues crossed symmetrically around each other. The hearth was made of local Welsh slate and had the fossil of an ancient species of starfish sprawled out in the bottom left hand corner, its long winding legs frozen in time by the metamorphic rock. The fireplace looked out of place, it did not belong.

James lit the fire, starting with the kindling and building up to larger and larger sticks until the flames were hot enough to take a whole cut log which he placed carefully into the middle of the intense crimson flames. He rubbed his ice-cold hands together in front of the fire, and relief flowed throughout his body as he began to warm up. He dragged a deep-seated armchair closer to the hearth and collapsed into its comfortable embrace. The dampness began to fade, the cold was now a distant memory and James stared blankly into the all-encompassing flames.

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