At first Marian couldn’t pin-point when the reoccurring dream started. Her acknowledgement of its presence was so slow that it was hard for her to place when it had first come to her. As time went on she became increasing aware of its presence until she awoke every morning with its essence consuming her. This is when she realized that, in a bizarre way, she had fallen in love with her dream; or, more precisely, she had fallen for the man in her dream. It was the man who, accompanied by two white dogs, always walked beside her or away from her. Marian, who was over sixty, had lost her libidos; yet in her dream she burned with desire, and an intense longing to get to know him.
This consuming desire gave her resolve and, by careful concentration she was able to analyze when the dream had first come to her. It was spring, when she moved houses, about a year after her husband had died, and after the last of her two daughters got married and left home. One had gone to Sussex to take up a position with her husband’s firm in London the other had emigrated to join her Canadian husband in Ottawa. Marian even wondered whether, in some inexplicable way, the man in her dream symbolized her dead husband and the small white animals her daughters,
At this time Marian was alone in the north of England. To cope with her solitude, she had sold her large rambling out-of-town house and garden and bought a prestigious townhouse on South Street, in Durham City. It had a tiny back garden but no garage which suited Marian, as she no longer drove. What drew her to the house was its view. It had a ground-floor living room bow-window and second floor master bedroom window both facing east, to look across the, tree-shrouded, River Wear to the magnificent west end of Durham Cathedral. It was a picture post card view. Her analysis confirmed that her new address had triggered the onset of her dream.
The conundrum associated with the reoccurring dream was the man. He was clearly elderly with a slight limp and yet still had a good stride. He was clad in dapper clothing and was constantly accompanied by two white dogs. The strange thing about the dream, apart from its incessant reoccurrence, was that Marian never saw the man’s full face. In her dream she moved stealthily behind, or beside, him attempting to catch a glimpse of his face so that she could look into his eyes, hear his voice and study his smile. Sometimes she lifted lightly off the ground and flew over him but she awoke before she was able to gather enough speed to get in front of him. Because the dogs might be a clue to his existence Marian researched and found that the dogs were West Highland White Terriers or Westies. One day she took the train to Newcastle to visit a pet store to see a Westie up close. She petted a small female Westie puppy with affection but didn’t buy.
Although the man and his Westies were constant the rest of the dream continually changed. Marian watched him, clad in a navy blue jersey and matching pants, walk through green woods, the filtered sun-light dappling the ground, the woodsy smell of damp leaves permeating the air, the dogs scampering in and out of lush fern undergrowth. She heard a cuckoo calling its mocking call and doves cooing. She saw the dogs chase a red squirrel up a tree and watched the man stoop to examine a wood sorrel. In the spring she saw him walk the same wood, now wearing a brown corduroy jacket and khakis, the ground bathed in a brilliant carpet of bluebells, and the musty wood smell mingled with the distinctive scent of bluebells. In the morning she had awoken to smell the same sweet fragrance on her sheets.
Another time he walked along the sea shore, his shoes in his hand, his trousers rolled up to the knee, the sound of gulls overhead and the waves rolling upon the shore, and the dogs in and out of the water. On this occasion she managed to move to his side, her shoes in her hand. He picked up pieces of drift-wood and threw them for the dogs to retrieve. She was glad that at least they were able to run toward her, or more precisely toward him. She noticed their footprints in the damp sand, his with a slight emphasis to the right, the dogs’ prints a jumble and another pair of human footprints, smaller than his, imprinted beside his. When she woke up in the morning she was convinced that she had sand between her toes.
Yet another time she saw him walk a country lane, the ground muddy from recent rains, the hedge-rows bursting with birds and greenery, the dogs running hither and thither in and out of the ditches. Their white fur dirty up to their bellies. She never heard the man speak but on this occasion she heard him laugh at their dirt and saw him pause when they shook their coats in front of him.
“Yes,’ she thought, “I like this man!”
In the fall the trees along the banks of the river Wear lost their leaves and gave Marian a clear view of the path on the opposite banks. It ran parallel to her window with one branch climbing the steep side of the river valley leading to a passageway under the buildings and out to the close on the south side of the Cathedral. That second fall after her move she had taken to napping in front of her bow window as she gazed at the changing scene before her. One afternoon she awoke to see a man with a barely perceptible limp, walking up the path on the opposite bank toward the Cathedral. She thought that he looked like her man as his gait matched that of the man of her dream. The only inconsistency was that he had only one white Westie with him. As she wondered whether she was asleep or awake he disappeared under the buildings. She knew that he must have taken the passage leading to the south side of the cathedral. She continued to stare; soon to her amazement, he reappeared accompanied by a small figure clad in the purple uniform of a chorister. They walked down the path toward Prebends Bridge. This is when Marian deduced that this was not a dream as he walked across her field of vision rather than away from, or beside her.. Soon she lost sight of him as the path descended to the edge of the river. That night she didn’t dream but the next day she stationed herself before her window and watched him walk up the path with his dog, and back down again accompanied by both dog and boy. After Marian had established that this walk was a daily routine she decided that she would take the same route to effect an encounter.
Marian didn’t know where the man came from or went before or after the bridge, so she planned to place herself there at the time that he and the dog began their climb up the steep side of the river valley toward the Cathedral. She underestimated her speed and was breathing heavily when she arrived on the west side of the bridge to watch behind him and then, taken by a wave of embarrassment, she hid in the Charles II hollow oak.
This hulk of an oak tree stands close to the east side of the bridge. It is dead and black inside. It looks, for all intents and purposes, as though it was burned out after being hit by lightning. Local myth has it that this was the tree in which Charles II hid after his defeat at the battle of Boscobel. It is true that the tree is hollow and a good hiding place, but as the battle took place in the south of England and Durham is several hundred miles to the north; this means that geography doesn’t support the claim. The smell inside was rancid; it consisted of an overwhelming the odor of urine. Marian shook as she stood and tried not to breathe the putrid air. The Westie approached and barked at her. She waved him away and listened as the man called,
“Wally, heel, Wally heel.”
Marian quivered at the sound of his voice. It was authoritative, but to her ears it sounded pleasantly inviting. Wally returned to his master. Although Marian couldn’t decipher their conversation she realized that the man and boy were talking. When they were half way across the bridge she emerged from her hiding place and followed at a distance. After all she had followed him so often that this action felt familiar. She was careful to note that they walked up the path to Pimlico. She heard a car start and assumed that they drove away.
“So,” she thought, “he isn’t a neighbor. Pity!”
Marian didn’t like being a stalker but she confessed to herself that this is what she had become. The following day she opted for a different strategy and called the pet store in Newcastle. When they confirmed that they could locate a female West Highland Terrier for her she made arrangements to purchase the dog and have it delivered to her home. She named her Phoebe and began a rigorous routine of training walks mostly along the river banks. By now school was out for the Christmas holidays and she no longer saw him or his dog or the boy. In some respects she was thankful for this opportunity for her and Phoebe to bond and for her to become fit enough to walk the steep river valley paths with ease.
It snowed during the night before the first day of the spring term. It was a light snow but it was cold enough for the magical dusting of white to last all day. When Marian took Phoebe out for her morning walk she noticed that against the snow the white dog looked almost grey. In the afternoon she timed herself perfectly so that she and Phoebe walked up Pimlico at the moment that he arrived in his car. When he opened the car door his dog immediately ran to Phoebe.
The dogs sniffed each other and twirled in a circle of noses and wagged tails. Then they ran off together into the undergrowth of the river banks. Marian wished that humans could accept each other and become acquainted so easily.
“Good afternoon.” She almost stammered.
He turned and looked at her. His face was clean shaven, his eyes a deep blue, his cheeks a little ruddy from the cold, his smile gentle and reassuring,
“Good afternoon,” he replied, his voice gentle and sonorous, “lovely cold afternoon isn’t it?”
“Yes it is, perfect for a brisk walk!” Marian said this by way of explanation of her presence.
He nodded as though he already knew why she was there. He spoke as he locked his car, “I agree, and look the dogs seem to like one another. They are already exploring. Perhaps we should join them?”
They fell into step together and chatted as they walked. After they crossed Prebends Bridge he hesitated,
“I generally go up the steep slope to the left to pick up my chorister son. Where do you go from here?”
“I think that I’ll wait here,” she said “perhaps we could walk back together?”
“I’d like that.” he replied as he took off his glove and offered his hand. My name is Michael and my dog is Wally. We are pleased to meet you.”
Marian pulled off her mitten and shook his hand. It was warm and slightly callused. “I’m Marian and my dog is Phoebe, we are likewise pleased to meet you.” She hesitated and then added “Could Phoebe accompany you up the hill – she and Wally are having such a good time together?”
Marian waited beside the oak tree. She enjoyed watching them walk up the path. It was a familiar scene; a man and two dogs exactly as she had witnessed so many times in her favorite dream. Soon she saw them returning. Michael introduced his son. On the way back the boy entertained them with his narration of the first day of the spring term.
When they reached the cars she asked whether she could join him again on the morrow and was pleased by his happy acquiescence. The next day, when they met, he told her about his son. He said that after his first wife died he had been lonely and had remarried a much younger woman who was the mother of this chorister boy. He told her that they had divorced when the boy was six years old. He mused that youth and old age don’t blend well in marriage partners. He explained that every school day he picked up his son and took him home to give him his tea and to guide him through his homework, so that his mother could pick him up on her way home from work.
Time passed and the walks became a central aspect of Marian’s life. By the end of the spring term he asked her to accompany him to Newcastle for a concert. Over the Easter holidays they spent a different time together until one day, perhaps loosened by wine, she asked him about his other dog.
“What happened to your second dog?’ She asked.
“Second dog?” He paused and looked at her quizzically. He reached for her hand, “No there is only Wally. Why do you ask?”
Now she had to tell him about her recurring dream and how she had seen a man going on daily walks accompanied by two dogs. She described the beach walk in detail. He nodded as she spoke, and stroked her hand. When she paused he responded,
“I’m glad that you told me this for I have had similar dreams. In my dream I am always accompanied by two dogs and feel a presence beside me. I wondered whether the dream was a subconscious response to the fact that neither Wally nor I have female company. My most vivid dream was walking along the beach, as you describe. The oddest part was that morning Wally had sandy paws and I, sand between my toes.”