So Brian let the dogs in. It would never have happened if Maria had still been alive. She had seen no need for their new villa to be messed up with dog hairs and that awful smell. Because all dogs smell and she didn't want to be one of those people that just got used to it. It's not that she didn't like dogs, but pack animals need to know their place, or else they get spoilt. The kennel was a covered shack in the courtyard with no door, and that's where they'd stayed. Not much of a kennel, but it kept the rain off, rattling on the tin roof like angry mice steps from early October. After all, it never went much below 15C here, even at Christmas, when her sister came over to get away from the cold.
Her sister made a fuss of the dogs.
In fact they were both bitches, mongrels, rescue animals that they had saved from a dogs home. It was a purely practical arrangement. They were going to a strange country and felt the need for some noisy protection. Most of their stuff they had sent ahead in packing crates, so the dogs were able to spread out on the back seat of his estate car. He drove down on his own, sleeping in lay-bys and truck stops, the route map open on the passenger seat.
She didn't see the point in bringing the car all that way. And he gave up driving almost immediately, couldn't get used to it, just the sheer unpredictability and the apparent lack of road markings. He would marvel at the number of family members they could squash into a small saloon, at children bouncing loose on the back seat. They didn't seem to bother with seat belts and mopeds wobbled along the dusty roads with all manner of produce dangling from the handlebars. Anyway, it was a short walk to the village and they could get most things delivered. So he gave up the car, sold it cheap to an English couple, going back home for the summer.
That was why she took the bus, when she went for her first hospital visit, on her own, not wanting to waste money on a taxi, not realising that her medical insurance would have covered it.
After her second visit she was admitted. Initially just for further tests. And when it got really bad, when he knew she hadn't got long left, a sickly smell hanging over her bed and her skin starting to turn into yellow parchment, he stayed with her as long as they would let him. Then he would return to a small hotel room, with a single bed and no English speaking channel on the TV.
The Colonel had claimed to know the old town well, drawn maps and directed him to bars and guesthouses. Either he was deluded or the place had changed, because none of the scribbled beer mats and napkins amounted to anything.
The Colonel liked to help people.
Brian knew that while he was away the dogs wouldn't have to fend for themselves, because the cleaner came every morning. She let them run on the beach and her son tossed bits of meat and scraps over the wall in the evening, careful to remove any cooked bones and sausage skins beforehand.
They decided to stay on once Maria had been diagnosed. It wasn't easy and they were both wary at first, because they saw so many doctors. But this was their home now, so there was no use in going back to the cold, no point in going back to die.
He had grown to like the young doctor, the one that they saw most of. Her young doctor as she called him. He had a smudge of a beard and his English was excellent because he had studied in London. He looked a bit like a dog, with his liquid brown eyes and beetle black eyebrows.
It was only one word, a phrase in itself, '...inoperable'. It hung in the air momentarily then clanged on the floor like metal, as they both looked up in shock hoping that he had said it wrong, that it was his accent. There was no getting away from it, they would make her as comfortable as they could but they couldn't help her beyond that.
They called it breast cancer, but the lump was almost inside her armpit, like a marble under her skin. When she came out of the shower she placed his fingertips there because she knew what it was. They were almost tempted to go home for a second opinion. She didn't want her sister to know, but she thought he ought to tell their son.
Their son kept in regular contact, phoning most weeks, sometimes from the office and sometimes from his 'den', with the sound of children playing outside the door, trying to get their father's attention. They hadn't seen the two girls for months, their daughter in law didn't like flying, but mostly she didn't see why they had to spend all their holidays with his parents just because they lived somewhere hot.
He didn't phone his son, he didn't want to cause alarm, he knew it wouldn't be long before he phoned and he could tell him then. He didn't want to show any unnecessary emotion. But he had to get it right, remember the precise wording, exactly.
At first the bluntness of the locals, their direct way of speaking, took him by surprise. He blamed it on translation, on their clumsy English, but as his understanding grew, so he realised that that was just how they spoke to each other. And he was thankful to their young doctor, the way he left no doors open, no shadows of hope to hide in, because it meant they could be realistic, plan properly.
So even though he was guarded in the way he broke the news to his son, he was proud that he had the strength to include that word, 'inoperable', so there could be no misunderstanding. His son's calmness at the other end annoyed him, he could hear his granddaughters' laughter, their Sunday shoes clumping on the polished wood floor outside his study, and there was a coolness in the way his son spoke, repeating everything carefully but in a low voice. And then the questions started like a careful interrogation. It was almost as if he had been expecting it.
Their son did visit her once in hospital, but he didn't bring the girls, maybe he had misheard, or hadn't understood. By the time he got there she was already quite ill. She had been admitted to the General Hospital, but she was in a corner of it reserved for those with no hope of recovery. They had to pay extra for the private room. And her only son turned up wearing a business suit. All she could say was didn't he look smart, didn't he look handsome, their only son, Ian. And then the next day 'didn't he look smart, Ian, standing there, like a proper businessman'. It was so like her to be grateful, grateful that he had bothered to come at all.
When they met, when he saw Ian in the lobby of his hotel, his first thought was that his son looked so much like her, everyone always said so but he hadn't seen it before. At least he had finally shaved off that awful moustache. And there he was in a business suit because his boss insisted that he visit the local office, as he was there anyway 'if it isn't too much bother' and that way he could claim it on expenses. His mother had inoperable cancer and he was worrying about expenses. Perhaps he hadn't heard properly.
Ian hadn't brought the family. It wasn't an easy decision, he realised it might be their last chance to see Nan, he had discussed it with Jean and they believed that it was best for them to remember her how she was. The girls were ten and nine, old enough, Brian thought, to make the distinction. He found himself nodding, but inwardly he hated the way Jean had so much control over his son, the way he did everything as she expected it to be done. There was no consideration for his parents, even when one of them was dying.
When they first arrived, when Brian and his wife first set eyes on the Colonel, he still insisted on wearing a jacket and tie, even when walking on the beach. So she turned to her husband and out the corner of her mouth said something about coach parties for pensioners. Brian had always assumed that the Colonel was a bachelor, he had a neat fastidiousness and a fussy cleanliness about him that went beyond his military past. But it turned out that he too was a widower. His wife had 'keeled over one day with bit of a stroke'. She'd been hanging out the washing and he had been sitting at his desk in the 'library'. He was only 55 when it happened and they had no kids, so he sold up and left. He liked the heat, he'd got used to it in the army. So he settled here.
The Colonel didn't in fact make colonel, but that is what 'they' (a collection of English residents mostly retired, mostly snow birds) called him because of his haughty speech and the mean, slightly greying Ronald Coleman moustache that accentuated the thinness of his top lip. The Colonel had earned his commission in Malaya and soon afterwards was wounded and returned home.
Towards the end Maria lay on the Hospital bed, looked up and asked him if he planned to stay on, just him and the dogs. 'You've always got the Colonel for company', she whispered hoarsely. The blinds shut out the harsh sun and the white, tabletop fan ticked away filling up the silence. She was joking, she smiled to show this and he was sorry that he couldn't reciprocate, but he didn't want to be pushed ahead. All he could think about was making her 'as comfortable as possible'. Although her death was inevitable he didn't want to have to face up to that just now. And as much as he loved her he didn't want her organising his life from beyond the grave.
His son had asked much the same question, just after he had let her ashes go near the rock pools. His son said it would be OK if he wanted to come and stay with them for a bit. He couldn't think of anything worse. Yes he didn't get on with his daughter in law, but that wasn't it. It was the thought of being surround by shinny folk playing at happy families, carrying on as normal when his life was wiped clean.
It was a kind of amnesia almost. One minute you have a family home and garden and a job and you think nothing will ever hurt you. The next minute you don't know where you are. You don't know what anything is for.
Ground Zero was the title on the videotape recommended by the Colonel (although he had been a little unsure about the accuracy of the technical detail). It really wasn't his thing but it carried away some time. An evening ran out with the inevitable holocaust being averted. And sipping on an ice-cold sherry.
So he let the dogs in, and it was a comfort to have a lump on the end of the bed a cold wet nose thrust under the sheet in the morning.
The Colonel was one of the few who stayed on during the tourist season. The Colonel seldom wore a tie any more but he was always neatly pressed in lightweight trousers (never shorts) and a short sleeved open-necked shirt that made him look even more like a matinee idol. Brian suspected that the Colonel may be an alcoholic, and began to wonder about his own drinking habits. Sherry started with the morning coffee in the square outside the bakers. It was usually a strong black coffee and sherry or occasionally a shot of the local spirit that was clear and tasted like it should be used externally but if you poured it into the coffee it masked the taste. Then at around ten they would move to a chess table under the shade of a large tree and - in the summer - drink small glasses of cold beer, one after the other. Sometimes they would play each other and sometimes he was content to watch the Colonel take on the locals, old fishermen in flat caps that only spoke in the local dialect but understood every word said to them or about them.
Apart from the occasional fish and chips he had not much bothered with the seafood, and for the years he had spent here with his wife, they would search cafe menus for meat dishes. It was the Colonel who encouraged him to eat lobster and enormous prawns, sold by the kilogram. And for lunch they would wander to a restaurant with a view of the harbour and watch men toiling lethargically on the few remaining fishing boats, drying their nets on the sun scorched concrete. The local white wine was dry and had a slight fizz. He found that if he had no more than three glasses it would clear his head of beer and give him the necessary pep to get him out of his chair and back to the villa to let the dogs out to run on the beach.
Even when Maria was still alive, the dog walking had always been his routine chore. It had given him a chance for some time to himself, and spot other, mainly English dog walkers, who would always stop for a chat whether he wanted to or not.
He liked the sunrise. Now the dogs were allowed in they would wake him before dawn for their walk. He would always go to the same spot and sit on the same rock, looking into the rock pools or feeling the spray off charging waves. There was something iridescent about the light here. On the rare occasions when clouds gathered to meet the sun on the edge of the horizon the effect was like a bursting kaleidoscope. It was the size of it that held his attention, the broadness of the sky. That is what made him want to live here, the noise of the sea the sound of sea birds and the warmth of the sun.