by James Roderick Burns
IT WAS THE middle of winter and the old man sat on his bench, watching everything and nothing in the park. It was too late for children – at least those old enough to walk the links on their own, though the whoops of little ones in the play-area, the high concern of a mother or a father’s gruff reprimand could still be heard – but the benches on the north side had yet to fill up with their usual gaggle of street drinkers, nursing bottles of strong cider and terriers on strings. Mostly it was dog-walkers and those, like the old man, with much time to spend but nowhere to spend it.
He shuffled around to get comfortable, adjusting his overcoat so the occasional breath of wind would not dart through the vents of his sport-coat. Mary had bought it for him years ago. It was still reasonably serviceable, and he realised he would go on wearing it till the lining frayed, the pockets came out in holes and its clean hound’s-tooth rubbed down to a muddy, disconsolate grey.
He looked at his watch – mid-morning. Any time now the young woman in the scarlet raincoat would come by with her pug, his chubby body straining enthusiastically at a navy-blue harness.
Morning, he’d think, tipping his hat.
She would smile and walk by. Next came a pair of beagles, so wrapped up in themselves their leashes inevitably tangled together; a tubby Jack Russel; another pug; then a great lolloping beast with its fur rolled up like mop-strings, white and bouncing in the weak sunlight. He had been meaning to look up its breed, but could never seem to find time to go to the library. Never mind – the parade was what mattered.
After they had come and gone, a new actor made his appearance: a young man, little more than a boy, but healthy-looking, blessed with the wiry energy he normally associated with dogs. He wore a thin shirt – in this cold! – with its cuffs rolled up, scuffed work-boots darkened here and there by frost. He carried one of those plastic ball-throwers that had appeared ten or fifteen years ago. This one was orange. The young man flexed it compulsively, back and forth, in pale hands, calling for his dog to return the ball. The old man had not seen the ball thrown, but doubtless the sprightly hound was too quick for his lacklustre vision, the boy too anxious to say hello.
‘Dougal – here, boy. Bring it back!’
He moved to his right, behind the pair of trees that overhung the bench, still calling, calling, his voice fading like a radio driven away at increasing speed, a man hollering from the train to one fishing on a bridge. Soon the park was silent, the old man’s view unencumbered by dogs or people. He watched the thin winter clouds amble behind distant hotels, a hulking lorry round a corner.
He closed his eyes and disappeared into the pinkish wash of noon.
It seemed to him he’d been wandering the park for years, though it was barely midday. Dougal’s infernal theology of balls (I’ll happily chase one if you throw it, but they belong to me, and I won’t give ’em up without a fight!), so raffish and charming at first, had quickly grown old, and now the young man stood in the shadow of the trees overhanging the old man’s bench, awaiting the conclusion of another performance.
‘Bring it back. Here, boy.’
A few moments’ more loping silence, but no dog.
Eventually the mutt showed on the far side of the green, orange ball clamped in his jaws, tail going side-to-side like a loose gate in a storm. The boy peeped around the trees but the old man wasn’t paying attention. He was here every day, in that same position, only his rheumy eyes moving round the park. But now the man’s head had dropped to one side, hat touching his shoulder, and in the weak sun he hardly seemed there at all. Still, it would be rude, the young man thought, to bawl at Dougal across the intervening yards of grass, and though the links were thick with frost, he did the courteous thing and walked the long way round.
As he crunched across the frozen stalks he flexed the ball-thrower, handle up, handle down, its neck creaking like an elderly swan. He spent so much time here with Dougal (and the old man, now he came to think of it) – the majority of it distracted, wool-gathering as his mother would have said – that he rarely paid much attention to his hands. He could make the same easy motions with juggling balls, or dried-up tangerines, rolling and spinning small weighty things as though they were tethered to his fingers, while his thoughts floated away over the horizon.
Now, though, the thrower slipped from his grasp into an icy thicket surrounding a sapling. It was hedged-in with a wire cage meant to keep away mice, and the plastic scallops had caught in one of its coils. The boy bent down in the chill and tried, without success, to pry its orange teeth from the wire. All the while Dougal romped twenty feet away. He saw between his knees, as the plastic finally came free, that the day’s parade had begun: the huge Hungarian sheepdog, shaggy and half-blind; a pug; the waddling Jack Russel – surely anyone could see it needed to lose weight! – and at last a second pug, proud and boisterous, his mistress splendid in a scarlet mac. He stepped into the shadow of the sapling-cage, cheeks red as her coat, and they passed by smiling, unseeing.
On the other side of the park he emerged, Dougal in train at last, the thrower slipped in a belt-loop, and looked at the stripe of frost separating grass from pavement. It looked like black ice there, dead ahead, but caught in its dark-running lines was the first glimmer of sun.
James Roderick Burns is the author of three short-form collections, most recently 'The Worksongs of the Worms' (2018). His flash fiction has appeared in Burnt Pine, Flash Fiction Magazine, Funicular and other journals. He lives in Edinburgh.