The following short story made it into the list of 6 finalists for the Scottish Arts Club competition in Edinburgh, judged by Alexander McCall-Smith. August 2014.
Tony watched the fat grey bird with mild disdain as it hopped from yellow foot to yellow foot, inching its way across the damp grass. What was it with seagulls that made them so undesirable? Rats with wings, someone had once described them. A slither of paper, possibly a sweet wrapper was the object of this one’s attention, lying on a patch of damp sandy dirt under the wooden bench. With little consideration, Tony put his foot over it, the worn tread of his walking boot obscuring it from view, and then glanced out over the estuary.
Faint lines of distant white waves rose and fell from the dappled surface, as though raising their heads and then lowering them again like meerkats peeking out to see if the coast is clear.
Across the bay, two identical hills loomed from the otherwise darkening skies over Fife. It must be nearly two years that he had been coming here to this bench, and yet still he hadn’t gotten around to finding out what they were called. The Queen’s nipples, he always referred to them as, due to their shape with a pimple on top, like a woman lying topless on a chilly beach. The Royal reference was to Fife itself, known quite boastfully as the Kingdom of Fife as though a powerful King owned it personally. Well a king had a queen, didn’t it? And its queen was right there, lying on her back. Tony had never really discussed this with anyone; people didn’t like that sort of thing when it came to nudity and royalty. And anyway, since Laura had gone, he didn’t much talk to anybody else. At first he had tried to be brave, and even ventured down the Bissets pub on the main street and chatted with John behind the bar; but it wasn’t really conversation, just talk, pretend to listen, and then wait for your turn to talk again. He had an idea the few locals laughed about him when he left. After a couple of visits, he got bored with it - and them -and got a dog instead.
By his foot, the grey bird had got nearer and was now inspecting the area where his boot was. He glanced down at it, staring into its shiny eye. For a second, it reminded him of Ralph, and the way that he had always looked at him with that expectant expression when he wanted something.
‘Oh Ralph,’ he sighed. ‘Why did you leave too?’
‘Ralph!’ squawked the feathered creature, its beak open at right-angles.
Tony let out an involuntary laugh. Ralph had been called Ralph as a joke, because when he barked it sounded just like that very word. The dog was a walking onomatopoeic creature that would be a sketch-writers dream.
‘Ralph! Ralph!’ he said it out loud, to no one in particular.
The bird glanced down at his foot, repeated his words in its birdlike tone, and then pecked at his boot.
‘Are you mocking me, you scavenging creature?’ Tony raised his foot to push it away but the bird ducked its head underneath it and snatched the sweet wrapper like a well-practiced pickpocket. He watched it back away, hanging on to the white paper so that it didn’t take off on the breeze, and then turned his eyes back out over the dunes to the sea once more. Out in the bay a giant oil tanker sat empty and motionless, its red whale-like body sitting high up out of the water and exposing its lower waistline a like an old man’s sock at half mast. As usual, it wasn’t the boat or the water that interested Tony, but the thicket of gorse and buckthorn that smothered the rolling hills of sand for the quarter of a mile or so between him and Gullane beach. To the right it extended back towards Edinburgh, culminating with the massive old house that towered over the golf course, backlit against the afternoon sky. He had searched there, so many times. Out to his right, sprawling eastwards towards the North Sea and past Muirfield course, the dense buckthorn gave way to spindly pine trees that flailed and thrashed in the wind on blowy days.
It was there, within a stone’s throw of the second green, that he had last seen poor Ralph.
That had been over a month ago.
Each morning, at first light, Tony had checked outside the door of his tiny house in Broadgait, in case he had come home during the night, returning after a frantic scurry around in the undergrowth, momentarily forgetting the time or day. Each morning, the heartache wrenched at Tony’s soul, like a sucker punch to the stomach. With every morning, the hope grew thinner until now it was barely more than a distant wish. Time was healing, just like they said it would, but as the optimism faded so it gave way to an emptiness that was filled with scolding pain.
‘Are you still out there, Ralph?’ His eyes scanned back and forth, pulling a pair of field-glasses tight into his sockets like his old tank commander done in the dusty desert.
Since Laura had left him over a year ago, that scruffy dog had been his only friend and, in a short time, they had been through immeasurable emotional turmoil together. Late into the night, he would sit and hold perfectly acceptable conversations with him, while the dog sat and listened patiently about life with all its horrors, prospects and values. Occasionally, when he understood words like birdies or sausages, he would chip in with a few of his own. Ralph, Ralph.
Tony considered that it was everyone’s wish that their dog could talk? Or their cat, or hamster? On patrol, one scary night, he had even talked to a lizard while, somewhere inside him, willing it to talk back to him in words he could understand. Just a few words of encouragement - that was all he needed? Well, that’s what made Ralph so special. He did that.
Tony surveyed the land again, casting his eyes across the thorny bushes, their once bright orange berries fading like forgotten Christmas decorations, as winter turned its head towards springtime. A young couple on the distant beach were throwing a ball for their own dog on the beach, adding pain and guilt to the thoughts he already harboured, about what he once had, now all gone.
‘But gone, it is!’ he sighed, addressing the obese bird as it watched him, now perched on a gnarled wooden fence.
‘Ralph!’ squawked the bird again, but this time, to Tony’s surprise, opening its wings and swooping the 10 feet or so towards him. As he flinched, it stuck out its claws, heavily thudding onto the back-rest of the bench and balancing there, the green wooden rail bending fractionally under its weight. Still in slight shock, he watched it fold its wings up like a child’s transformer toy, tucking them away until it resumed its rotund shape once more. Resisting the urge to chase the seagull away, Tony turned towards it, admiring the intricate array of dark and light feathers that together made up its grey appearance. Still wary it may attack him, he spoke to it again.
‘Have you seen Ralph, my friend?’ he asked, quietly. ‘Is he out there, chasing birdies like you, and causing menace?’ As he stared at it, tears uncontrollably welling up in his eyes, the bird fixed his gaze once more. ‘Is he out there now, running free?’ Tony swallowed hard. ‘Or maybe up there?’ He broke the animal’s stare and looked up to the grey skies overhead, where a few clouds were assembling like a gathering army of grey wool-sacks. ‘Do you think he will come back, some day?’ When he glanced back down, the bird was looking up too, following his gaze.
‘Ralph,’ it said, much quieter this time. Then there was nothing, except the silence of nature’s own background.
For the first time in weeks, Tony felt his pain drain away as his lips slowly widened to a smile. Their eyes locked again as its pupils, jet black against pools of vibrant yellow, seemed to peer into his soul. His heart quickened, and the young man felt his voice drop to a whisper:
‘You can understand me, can’t you? You know, don’t you? You know all about Ralph?’
Using slow movements, he delved his cold hand into the depths of his coat pocket, burrowing beneath a mass of tissues before bringing out a small plastic bag. He tore open the top and offered a brown object in the palm of his outstretched hand.
‘Are you a smart birdie?’ His voice raised in encouragement. ‘Do you like sausages?’
‘Ralph! Ralph!’ came an eager reply.