Many of you will be familiar with the tale of Tyger, the heroic dog whose stone memorial stands on the Lookout headland. Knowing that the centenary anniversary of his brave deed comes in September, Lisa Savijn has written this tale about him. Lisa’s son, Peter, drew us this picture:
Cassie’s feet ground the gravel path as she raced down the hill. Ahead lay the warm glow of the pub, like a lighthouse beckoning her out of the gloom.
‘Has anyone lost a dog?’ There were still quite a few people in the dining room, and as she spoke, they all looked up. One or two shook their heads, the rest simply looked bemused and turned back to their companions.
‘I was just on the headland,’ she tried again. ‘On the Coastal Path. There was a dog. It sounded in trouble.’ There was still very little response and a knot of embarrassment unfurled inside her. She turned to the bar, to the young man frozen in the act of wiping a glass. ‘It was so dark, and I couldn’t see a thing, but I heard it. Jesus, it was very close to the cliff.’
‘Are you sure love?’ queried the bartender, returning the glass to its shelf. ‘It’s a wild night, are you sure it wasn’t a bird?’
She shook her head impatiently and freed a necklace from inside her clothes. It was warm and as she rubbed the pendant between her finger and thumb, tracing every familiar curve, she felt misaligned, like a loose page in a book.
‘Have you got your phone on you?’
‘No.’ She didn’t need a phone.
‘No problem, I’ll post a notice on Facebook; did you get a look at it?’
‘As I said, it was pitch black and near the edge. It was whining.’ There was no way it could have been a bird.
‘What name shall I give?’
‘Cassie. Cassie … Can you just say to contact the pub?’
“Course. All done,” he said after a few seconds. ‘Now, let’s get you a drink.’
As she watched him open the wine bottle, the storm clawed at the windows. Her heart raced, she found it hard to swallow and if her hands didn’t stop trembling by the time he’d filled her glass, she would go back. Out there. To stand in the palm of the wind and see everything, and nothing.
‘It’s probably back home already,’ offered the bartender, placing the white wine before her. ‘A local dog would know the area and a tourist would never let their pet out of sight.’
The seconds hung in the air. Then she breathed out slowly and forced her shoulders down. She steadied herself on a barstool and reached for the wine. The pub was bigger and glossier than she remembered, even though most things seem smaller when you grow up. About half of the tables were occupied; the warmth of the Welsh language drifted from one group, from another she caught snatches of a day spent climbing. She had once read up about Rhoscolyn’s famous cliffs and rainbow geology. The two tables nearest the door had been pulled together. They were crammed with people chatting about walks along the Coastal Path; where to park and whether it was muddy. Cassie looked at her boots and the scraps of soil on the floor around her; she hadn’t thought to check.
She touched her pendant again; a twisted platinum heart, studded with five tiny diamonds, one for every year they’d been together.
‘If you don’t mind me asking,’ it was the bartender again. ‘Why were you on the headland so late?’ She traced the stem of the glass slowly before replying.
‘I used to come here as a child, with my parents.’ A past life, magical, when holding a starfish meant the whole world and a sea-arch was an enchanted portal. ‘Lost track of time.’
Jon would have liked it too; the craft beer, the walks and the soft accent of the three gnarled men at the bar. Two were deep in conversation, their last orders foaming in front of them, but the other was alone, in the corner nearest her, by an empty tankard and a folded newspaper. His face was tired and lined, and he was staring straight at her.
‘It was Tyger.’ He spoke calmly, with an old-fashioned inflection.
‘The dog you heard. His name is Tyger.’ A fragment of memory stirred, like seafoam in a breeze. A carved stone, a shipwreck and a dog. A child’s story. Cassie stared back and he must have taken it as a sign to go on.
‘The Mary Eliza was a two-masted sail boat, bound for Liverpool. There had been a deep fog for days.’
Around Cassie, the bartender wiped down the optics and put the glasses away, chairs scraped back, and people asked for their bills, but as the strange man talked, all other noise seemed to recede.
‘She had a crew of six men and a boy. They knew the waters off Rhoscolyn Head well; had sailed them, fished them many times, but that night it was black as a mine and the mist returned like a curse. They missed their bearings and headed straight for Maen Piscar, a dark rock that rose from the water like a knuckle. The noise when she struck was like lightning and the splitting of the boards like gunfire. It was violent and cruel and at first, they thought Tyger was dead. He was the captain’s dog, an enormous black retriever. As the waves pounded the ship, the men called out and prayed.
Then over the uproar, they heard the captain cry “Tyger” and they saw that the dog had managed to break free of the wreckage and was trying to keep his head above the water. You could hardly make him out, but for pearly white glow of his eyes. He started to bark and in terror, the ship’s boy grabbed his collar, almost dragging them both to their deaths. They came back up and the dog started to swim, as though he knew which way to go. Two men and the captain followed, battling the turbulent sea, but keeping their eyes fixed on the dog. The first mate and the cook were left behind, one was already dead, and the other trapped, unable to swim or be heard. He watched as his crewmates made for what he hoped was land and prayed for their deliverance.
‘It took over an hour for the dog to make land; to a rough cliff face with hardly any purchase. Tyger led the boy into a gully, then instead of climbing onto the rocks with him, turned and swam back to his master and the other two men. He guided them all to safety. They were exhausted but alive, and when the Captain regained his breath he reached for his dog, but Tyger was spent. He gave a gentle whimper and lay his head on his master’s chest, he licked his hand and died.
‘The captain was heartbroken. In honour of Tyger’s bravery, he buried him high up on the headland, near to where they made shore and looking out over Maen Piscar. He placed a stone there, to mark the location.’
Cassie’s skin prickled as he finished and she was looking down a long, narrowing tunnel. Her vision grew darker, kaleidoscopic.
‘Why were you on the headland, Cariad?’
The wind outside had found a loose slate and the steady rattling transported her, appallingly, to that day three years ago, when another knocking woke her from her sleep. She remembered thinking it was very late for a visitor.
There were two of them at the door, grave and smart in their uniforms.
‘Miss Cassie Evans?’
‘I’m afraid we have some very bad news. Can we come in?’
They had used words she recognised from TV shows, …head-on collision… instantaneous… We’ll need you to identify the body… Is there anyone we can call?… Can we make you a cup of tea?
And then she fell.
The old man knew. He knew why she had been on a lonely, treacherous headland, at night, during a storm. Shame filled her, but she didn’t know why. Was she a coward for not jumping off that cliff, or a coward for choosing not to live with the burden? This burden of grief that choked her. Was it braver to jump into the unknown, or braver to carry on? She knew what Jon would have said; they had spoken about it once, in the giddy, pristine days when you talk about everything. Do you believe in god? Can you fall in love more than once? What happens when we die? I couldn’t live without you. Questions and answers you never think you’ll need.
‘If one of us dies,’ he’d said, ‘the other has to live for both of us. Anything else would turn a wonderful thing into something terrible.’
‘But it’s not that easy!’ she had screamed into the night; into the heart of the storm. ‘It’s easy for you to say because you’re the one who died. Dying’s easier than living without you.’
There was an imprint of a small heart on her palm now and the pendant was hot. With great gentleness, the old man asked, ‘What changed your mind?’
Cassie shook her head. Although some deep part of her knew that he understood perfectly, her sceptical brain, still faintly anchored to the present and the reality of the pub, denied it. There was no way he could know.
‘I’m sorry, it’s very late and I think everything’s got to me a little.’ She tried to make her voice sound lighter as she slid off the barstool. ‘Thank you for the story, but I don’t really know what you mean.’
She hadn’t changed her mind at all, at least not until she heard the whimpering. There had definitely been a dog, and it had distracted her. She thought it had come from the edge of the cliff, but it must have been inland a little because when she followed the sound, it led her back to the safety of the path. Obviously, all she could think about then was the dog, so she ran to get help. It wasn’t that she changed her mind at all.
‘I’m going to go back in the morning, see if there’s any sign of him.’
‘He won’t be there Cariad, not in the morning.’
Her mind regained another memory, of a little girl, holding her mother tightly with one hand and a painted pebble with the other. ‘Don’t let go Cassie,’ her mother had said, ‘there’s a massive drop down there.’ They had placed the pebble on the grass next to an uneven stone stuck in the ground. It had stood up like a domino, rough beneath her fingers and covered with lichen and strands of sheep’s wool. It had been towards the end of the day; they had been on a long walk across a beach, past a white stone well and a sea arch sparkling in the sun.
Tentatively, she felt it would be a fine walk to do again. She could sit on the sand for a while, maybe choose a pebble. There had been something written on the stone, her mum had asked her to read it out loud, Tyger, Sep 17, 1819.
September 17th. Cassie didn’t need to look at her watch. ‘That’s the same date as today.’ She turned to the storyteller, but he was no longer there; and there was no pint glass, no newspaper and no softly closing door to mark his leaving.
A mile or two away, on a cliff high above the crashing waves, the mist swirled, and the wind howled through a ghostly white sea arch. Next to a stone that bore his name stood a great black dog, darker than the night, staring out to sea.
Lisa Savijn 2019
Ed’s note: You can see a picture of the actual Tyger stone and read the simpler story of his heroism on the History page.