Meet Howard, a neighbour of mine. He’s retired and walks his two dogs past my house every morning. A permanently disparaging expression clouds his tight features. The walking stick he carries (and doesn’t really need) flicks out at his feet with every step hiding a deep-seated, hidden frustration. He mutters a lot, to himself or the dogs. He reprimands them like children.
Howard recently moved from his home of thirty-five years to a smaller property down the road, but he can’t seem to stay away. History seems to nag at him. Every day, using the dogs as an excuse, he walks up the road, turns onto our lane and positions himself within viewing distance of the old house. But he doesn’t look straight away. He does everything he can not to look. And with the weight of effort, both hands twitch at his sides as he fights the urge. He pretends not to care, looking down at the dogs, the old stone wall, the grass on the small hill behind him. With a sharp tug on the dogs’ leads, he starts walking again, as if he’s going to make it, then right at the last moment he caves in, turns slowly and steals a wistful look back into his past.
For years, I thought of Howard as nothing more than a wandering soul living a simple life. I never expected I’d have a reason to speak to him. But last week, a reason offered itself up. I was outside at the front of the house sweeping some leaves away. Returning from his morning dog walk later than usual, Howard approached and walked behind me and probably hoped to pass by without any interaction. I heard shuffling footsteps and turned. A frown ate at his eyes when he said “hello”. He’s not the friendliest of men, by nature, but I felt sorry for him and asked how his walk had gone.
He paused and nodded down at the dogs. “They listen, eventually.” He looked at me. “How long have you lived here?”
He hid his surprise.
“It’s a nice area,” I said.
“A pleasant enough place, with its secrets.” He started to walk again, then turned and whispered, not unkindly. “People round here talk. And if they can’t find anything to talk about, they invent it instead.”
I think Howard protects a secret of his own. I’ll probably never know what it is. I was sure I saw guilt beneath his frown, or perhaps some kind of fear curtailing whatever sense of humour he once had. He might have felt lightness, once upon a time, but now it’s gone. I took what he said as a warning, even as help. I also think it was a window into that past he seems to want to leave behind, but can’t. Just before he walked away for good, I smiled and let him into a secret of my own. “Maybe they’re all just writers, desperate for a juicy plot-line.”