Tulsa’s low growls woke Robert. He looked at the bedside alarm clock. 1.18 am. He slid out of bed and put on his dressing gown. It was summer and he slept naked, but had no desire to meet a burglar without clothes.
Tulsa looked up for instructions. Robert ruffled his long ear as he grabbed his cricket bat. He’d seen enough American films to know a baseball bat was a good defense weapon when woken in the early hours, but he knew his English equivalent would more than suffice.
‘Walk, ‘ he whispered as he opened the bedroom door. Tulsa had been trained from a pup, so Robert knew he would walk by his side, not bound down the stairs into potential danger. They crept down to the hall where he selected the lounge as the first room to check, pushed on the door one handed, gripping the bat in the other.
He saw the intruder, lowered the bat and relaxed. A young girl, asleep, wrapped in a thin blanket wasn’t a threat.
Tulsa released a guttural growl and her eyes shot open. At once, panic showed in her face and she was up and off the sofa in a second. She looked around and realized she was trapped.
‘No need to be scared, as long as you don’t try to escape.’
‘You sure, mister? Big dogs scare the crap out of me.’
‘Did you enter through the dog flap?’
‘You should have realized he was big from the size of the flap. I must have forgotten to close the latch before I went to bed.’
She continued to look for possible means of escape, either through the window onto the street or through the conservatory to the garden.
‘You won’t get far. Tulsa may be as old as me in dog years, but he can still out run you. Sit down.’
She was wary, but sat back on the sofa. ‘What you going to do with me, mister?’
Robert sat down opposite her. She looked like one of those ultra-thin models, but not so healthy, nor as tall. ‘Give you a meal, I guess, if you don’t mind a late dinner.’
‘You going to call the police?’
‘Why would I do that?’
She shrugged. ‘Dunno.’
‘I can’t think of any reason either.’ He stood. ‘Beans on toast?’
‘Coffee or tea?’
He ordered Tulsa to sit. He sat, never taking his eyes from the young visitor.
Robert returned ten minutes later with a tray and placed it in front of her on the coffee table. He sat beside her and took one of the mugs. She didn’t wait to be told, but started to wolf the food down. He studied her as she ate. Beneath the dirt, she was pretty, with long blonde hair, also matted with dirt. At a guess, she was mid-teens, far too young to be alone on the streets. She cleared the plate and gulped down a mouthful of tea.
‘More?’ he asked.
She turned to face him. ‘Really?’
Five minutes later she was feasting on another portion of beans on toast, plus a Wagon Wheel.
This time she thanked him before devouring the food. She was a tad slower as she finished the second helping and, for the first time, looked relaxed. She settled back into the sofa with the mug of tea in one hand and the chocolate in the other.
‘Mom would always put one of these in my lunch box, ‘ she said, munching on the round bar.
‘Mine packed a Penguin for school.’
‘Penguin bar, ‘ he corrected.
‘Oh!’ She finished her Wagon Wheel, drowned the mug and stood up. ‘Thanks for the food, mister ... and sorry I broke in. I’ll ... I’ll go now.’
She shrugged. ‘Dunno. There’s always somewhere.’
‘Why don’t you stay now you’re here?’
‘Where would I sleep? With you?’
‘Sheesh, no.’ He was taken aback by her question and was speechless for a few seconds. ‘Er ... I have a single mattress in the garage. It hasn’t been used since my daughter visited, but it’s almost new and I shrink wrapped it. It’ll take no time to bring in and there’s plenty of room in the conservatory.’
She pondered on the offer for a while, before shaking her head. ‘No, the sofa’s fine ... is that ok?’
‘Of course. I’ll sort out sheets and pillows.’ He nodded to her dirty blanket. ‘I can put that in the wash for you.’
She looked at the rumpled blanket. ‘No, it’s ok.’
It was after 2.00 before he switched off the light and whispered, ‘Good night.’
Later that morning, Robert was up at 8.00, but when he and Tulsa shambled down, she was gone. He checked to see if anything was missing. She hadn’t taken anything. He felt bad at doubting her.
Robert didn’t see her again until four days later.
It was after ten in the evening when there was a knock on the front door. It was her, looking as pretty as before, but with a black eye.
He smiled. ‘Come in.’
She entered and walked into the lounge. Tulsa ran down the stairs and, by the time Robert joined them, she was seated and Tulsa was offering his paw, his tail sweeping the carpet.
It was the first time he saw her smile.
He sat down opposite them. ‘Hi. You lost your fear of large dogs?’
‘Not really, but yours is fine.’
‘His name’s Tulsa. How you been?’
She shrugged. ‘Oh, you know. I’m ok.’
‘Hmm, doesn’t appear that way, ‘ he responded, pointing to his eye.
She tentatively touched the bruised cheek. ‘It’s nothing.’
‘The dog flap hasn’t been locked since your visit.’
She looked up from tickling Tulsa’s stomach, who always lay on his back for visitors, hopeful of their attention.
‘Wow, for me?’
‘You’re the only night time visitor I’ve ever had.’
She began to fidget. ‘If that’s the case, do you think we could come to some ... some arrangement? The place I was dossing, isn’t safe now.’ She gestured to her black eye. ‘I don’t have much money, but I’m sure we could ... sort something out between us.’
‘I hope you’re not offering to share my bed again.’
She looked him in the face. ‘I wouldn’t mind, mister. I’m not up-tight about age.’
He chuckled. ‘Neither am I, but that’s not the point. It’s not an arrangement that would ever suit me.’
‘Oh!’ There was a long silence before she said, ‘I don’t have much money. I have a job, but its cash in hand. Doesn’t pay much.’
‘What’s your name?’
She blinked. ‘Val ... Valerie Nash.’
‘Val, I don’t want any payment. It’ll be a pleasure to help you.’
‘Oh!’ She looked around the lounge. ‘Nothing? Really?’
‘Yes, really. There’s no hidden catch.’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘Let’s just say, once I was almost homeless and it made me sympathetic.’
Tears trickled down her cheeks. ‘Thank you.’ She struggled to spill out the words despite her crying.
Robert moved over to the sofa, sat beside her and put his arms around her. She allowed herself to nestle in his embrace. He said nothing, just waited while she released the pent up stress. It was obvious she needed an outlet. She took his handkerchief when he offered it.
When she was calm, he whispered, ‘Eat?’
‘I can’t... ‘
‘I hope you’re not going to say you can’t afford it. Food’s part of the arrangement.’
‘Doesn’t appear to be an arrangement that favours you.’
‘I hate housework. Maybe, you can keep the house clean.’
She pulled herself from his arms and grinned. ‘Deal.’
He chuckled. ‘Good. Do you want a bath before supper?’
‘Oh, do I smell? I’m sorry.’
‘No, of course not, ‘ he lied, ‘but I’m sure you’d enjoy a long soak in the bath.’
She jumped up and laughed. ‘Yes, I would, but I’m starving, so it’ll have to be a quick one.’
That first evening, they talked over dinner, with more talk over a couple of beers. It was late when she snuggled under the duvet and whispered, ‘Thank you so much, Robert. Good night.’
She was asleep in an instant. He looked down at his young guest and smiled. ‘Good night, Valerie.’
They settled into an easy routine. Each morning when he woke, she’d gone to her cleaning jobs and was back around 6.00 for dinner. She was fifteen, too young to apply for full time work, but he recommended her to the guy who had bought his business when he retired a few years before. She’d stop going to school when she left her mother, so had no qualifications, but Robert’s acquaintance took a chance and employed her. She had a natural talent and soon proved her value to the company.
The two house mates talked about many things, both surprised they enjoyed the other’s company, despite a fifty year plus age gap. They were relaxed in their conversation, but she didn’t reveal anything about her family and Robert didn’t ask.
Val buttoned up the pajama top Robert had given her, a pair of pjs left by his daughter from her night stay overs when she was a teenager. It was obvious he missed her by the expression on his face whenever he spoke of her. Skyping was his main contact with her since she moved to New York with her husband.
.... There is more of this story ...