Waiting On the Tide’s Turn

This story came to me from a retired head-teacher. His school was one of the village schools on the north Cumbrian coast, where the Eden and Waver and Wampool rivers run out into the estuary of the Solway Firth. It is low lying land; so low that the high tide laps and washes the shoreline pastures, and below their crumbling edges the mud is smooth as silk, and soft, and the gullies and little streams that run into the estuary, that lie, mere trickles between high, mud-soft banks when the tide is out, fill to the brim with rushing waters when the tide has run in.

The story involved one of the mothers at the school he ran. She was an aristocratic lady: haughty, imperious. She was better with horses and dogs than she was with people. She kept the dogs on a short lead and barked out orders that they obeyed instantly. They gazed at with attentive eyes awaiting her next command. She kept her horses on a tight rein and they pricked up their ears when she was nearby, and rolled their eyes at the sight of the short whip she carried. She wore dark stockings and tweed skirts, with a flounce of something soft and white at her throat.

She used to bring the dogs with her when she delivered her children to my informant’s school. She had no cage in the back of the car, and would let the dogs out to be patted by the children. But they wouldn’t jump up and make a fuss like ordinary dogs. SIT, she would command, and they would do so, immediately, and stare up at her as the children crowded round to pat their heads. Then when the tide had subsided she would rap out IN, and the dogs would leap back into the car and take their places, not on the seats, but on the floor behind the driver and passenger seats, where they would curl up and tentatively sleep.

One day, the ex-headmaster told me, she came into the school at lunchtime. The dogs were not with her. She looked distressed. In fact, she looked as if she had aged several years in the few hours since the morning. Have you seen my dogs? She asked. Nobody had seen them since that morning’s school run. She was distraught, and the colour had risen to her cheeks. It was unheard of that she did not know where they were.

That evening, when she collected her children she looked even worse. The headmaster was so concerned that he reached out to touch her arm. That she did not pull away, or look scornfully at him when he did so was perhaps even more disturbing to him. She looked embarrassed, he told me. I’d never seen her show any signs of human doubt before. The dogs were not in her car. Have you found the dogs, he asked, thinking that he knew what the answer would be.

Her voice faltered as she spoke.

I had forgotten them, she said. This morning, when I left after dropping off the children I had taken them for a run on the foreshore. There was a ewe, struggling in the mudflats of the estuary. I told the dogs to sit, and wait, while I tried to free it. It was mired deep, and I struggled with it for maybe half an hour until it finally came clear. I was in such mess then. It scampered away, as they do, over the sea washed turf, as if nothing had happened, but I was soaked and filthy. I went back to the car and drove home. I showered and changed, and then I went down to have coffee. It was only then that I realised the dogs were not with me. I couldn’t think what had happened to them, where they might be. They have never wandered off before. She said, I thought perhaps, they might have come to the school, which is why I drove over to ask you if you had seen them. It was when I turned back that I recalled the events of the morning. They were always such obedient dogs, and I had told them to wait.

And were they still there, he asked?