My wife decided she preferred life with a Royal Marine to life with a schoolteacher. She left me the house and most of our assets, and the dog ... so I didn't feel too hard done by. Bess, the dog, was a soppy, affectionate, Labrador cross bitch. She was company and, sometimes, comfort when I got low. She enforced order on my life.
I'd get up, eat my healthy muesli and drink my unhealthy coffee, pick up some poop-bags and clip the lead on, and we'd be off, within a few minutes of the same time every day. It had to be; I was teaching at a primary school only half a mile away, but breakfast had to be eaten and dog had to be walked before turning up at school for eight-thirty.
The thing about walking a dog is you're no longer anonymous. Nearly everyone would at least look at the dog rather than walking past with eyes fixed rigidly at some point other than near anyone else's face. Some would even cluck at her and get her to sniff their hand before scratching her behind the ears. She loved attention and really played up to it. I was fascinated by the different people I saw — usually the same ones every day at about the same time and usually in much the same place.
I'm a guy, I'm hetero, whatever my wife might have said. Maybe my libido had faded a bit, but I liked to size up the girls ... of any age; not that I had any intention of doing anything about it.
There was one woman ... that really got my attention, though I'm not sure why. She was quite tall; maybe five foot nine or ten, with short, dark, curly hair. She was slim — being unkind, one could say, thin, and it was hard to say if she had any figure at all. Her face ... it's a bit difficult to describe without being grossly unfair, because her features fitted together quite well. Let's try; thin lips, thin nose, thin, oval ... no, too angular to be oval ... face; eyes, large and dark. Small, neat ears, tucked in well against her head.
I looked out for her each day. She was regular as clockwork; if there was any variation in where we met, it was because I was a little earlier or later than usual. Then one day, her eyes met mine. I can't say it was like an electric shock, because it wasn't, but ... maybe a quiet click.
The next day, it happened again; this time, she smiled and, reflexively, I smiled back. I don't know about you, but I can't resist a genuine, friendly smile. Of course there are smiles that are easy to resist ... you know, the predatory ones? So for several weeks, we smiled at each other as we met and passed, and somehow, it brightened the day.
Then, one day, greatly daring, I ventured, "good morning".
After a momentary pause, she responded with a smile, "good morning."
And that is where we stuck for maybe a couple of months. Do you want me to talk about transactional analysis? Thought not, so I won't. If you really want to know, email me.
I don't work every day at the primary school, just three days a week; it's enough money and enough work, but I do some support work when I'm needed, and invigilation as well, sometimes, so I have business cards. I find they're as useful on a personal level, or more so, than professionally.
So, one morning, more intrigued by that woman than ever, I stopped her, handed her a card, and said, "I know it's cheeky, but if ever you're at a loose end and fancy a chat over a cup of coffee, give me a call. No obligation, no strings. I won't keep you as I'm sure you're in a hurry."
She smiled, took the card, and carried on.
The next day she was early, just a minute or so, but usually you could set your watch by her. She stopped when we met.
"Thank you for the invitation, but I have a partner who probably wouldn't approve. I'll keep the card, though ... in case I need a friend one day."
We continued to smile and wish each other 'good morning'.
Dogs don't live as long as humans. Bess slowed down. Her spinal cord began to deteriorate; I'm told it's a common problem for large dogs. It meant she became less and less able to jump up — into the car, or onto a chair. Our walks got shorter, her back end started swaying as she walked and she gave the impression that her back legs were only reluctantly following the rest of her.
I still didn't know the woman's name. We met nearer and nearer my home until the day came when I was opening the gate as she passed.
She smiled as usual, but then said, "Oh! Do you live there? I've always admired that little house!"
"Good morning," I replied. "Yes, I've lived here nearly thirty years."
She smiled, and walked on.
I decided I would have to get up earlier and start walking Bess earlier, she was so slow.
Then the day came when her back end wouldn't work at all. She still tried to come to me; she licked my hand and pressed her head against me, but I knew the end was here. The vet was very kind; I stroked Bess as she drifted off to sleep, thanked and paid the vet and showed her out before breaking down. Some people just don't understand how a dog can get under your skin and become a part of your life, as much, maybe more than a husband or wife. It was Thursday, so I didn't have to work. I buried Bess in the garden, the tears streaming down my face, and spent the rest of the day mourning the passing of my friend.
Friday was looking like more of the same, but I made myself get up and on impulse left the house after breakfast and went on the same walk I would have taken when Bess was young. The woman didn't recognise me immediately without Bess beside me. Instead of a smile, she frowned slightly.
Instead of "good morning" she said gently "how are you?"
The sympathy in her voice caused the tears to well up again and I had some difficulty getting a reply past the lump in my throat, but I met her eyes and managed...
"Not too great, but thank you."
Pausing, she touched my arm lightly for a moment, before walking on.
That evening, when the phone rang I almost didn't answer it, expecting it to be more cold-calling tele-sales, but did so and heard a sort-of-familiar voice.
"Hullo? My name's Frances Baxter. The name won't mean anything to you, but we meet each morning as I'm on my way to work at the hospital. Several years ago you asked if I'd like to meet you for a coffee some time. Is it too late to take you up on your offer?"
To say I was surprised would be a considerable understatement, so a lengthy pause ensued.
"Hullo?" the voice said again.
"I'm sorry," I said, "I was just a little surprised. Yes, the offer is still open; I'd be delighted to meet you. When and where would suit you?"
"How about the Forge Dam café at about ten-thirty tomorrow?"
"Sounds fine to me; I'll see you then. And, thank you."
"You're very welcome." I could hear the smile in her voice.
It was April; the trees were still that fresh light green. The day was bright and it was pleasantly cool; ideal for a brisk three-to-four mile walk up through the park to Forge Dam. I must have been even more excited than I knew, because I was there by ten-fifteen. I took the opportunity to order a sausage sandwich and some real coffee, and sat at a table outside. My order took a little while to arrive, and I had just taken my first bite when I saw her. Actually, the first thing that caught my eye was the dog. She was an absolutely gorgeous, long coated German Shepherd with the most beautiful markings, strutting proudly beside her owner. It took a few moments for me to realise that her owner was in fact my 'date'. I stood as she came up to me.
"I'm sorry, am I late?" She asked, frowning slightly.
"Not at all, I was very early," I replied, "can I get you something?"
"Thanks, but if you'll sit with Nimmy, here, I'll go and see what's on offer." She turned her attention to the dog. "Nimmy, stay with the gentleman. Sit, there."
The dog sat, looking up at me. I held my hand in front of her and she sniffed me delicately, licked me once and twitched her ears. He owner turned and went into the café. I sat, broke off a piece of sausage and offered it to the dog, which just looked at me patiently and didn't touch it. Her owner returned and I told her about it. She smiled.
"She's trained to only eat when given permission by me. Offer it again."
When I did, she said, "Eat, Nimmy." and the dog delicately took the morsel from my fingers and swallowed it.
"Nimmy?" I queried.
"Ah!" A favourite story of mine is about a German Shepherd called Merlin, very clever and well trained, so, when I got Nimmy, I called her 'Nimue'. I suppose calling her Nimmy is lese majeste, but she doesn't seem to mind!"
We sat for a while and I stroked the silky head of the lovely dog sitting by me. I took a bite of my sandwich and offered 'Nimmy' another piece of sausage, which she accepted as neatly and politely as before. Frances' order arrived.
"And your dog?" she asked me, sipping her coffee.
"Bess ... was over sixteen years old. Her spinal cord was deteriorating and in the end I had to call the vet to put her to sleep." My eyes prickled, but I managed to swallow my emotion.
"Yes," she said thoughtfully, sympathetically, "it's hard, but it's best, really."
We sat in companionable silence, eating our snacks — I shared some more sausage, and some of the bread with the Alsation.
"How about you? What about your partner?"
.... There is more of this story ...