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?"
"Oh, he got very possessive, and doesn't like dogs, so in the end, I walked out. I found a flat which was okay. My friend got a job in America and couldn't take her dog, which is how I ended up with Nimmy. I'm not supposed to have a pet in the flat, really, and one of the other residents complained, so I've been given a month to find another home for her."
"Oh, that's tough," I said feelingly. "I wonder..."
"Well, I hadn't intended to have another dog, but, well, I wouldn't mind giving Nimue here a place for a few months at least. I've only got a small house — isn't it strange how people with small houses have large dogs? - But there's a bit of garden, and she seems well-behaved..." I trailed off, not adding something else ... that Nimue's owner would be equally welcome to share my little home.
She reached across the table and touched my hand. "I think," she said slowly, "you were about to say something else."
I blushed; something that hasn't happened for a good few years.
"Well," I said rather reluctantly, "don't be offended, but I was going to say I've got a spare bedroom, and Nimue's owner would be as welcome to share my home as she is. That would keep the two of you together."
She reached out and touched my hand again and a tingle ran up my arm.
"Why would I be offended? I'm not so good-looking I've ever had a problem with being propositioned! If anything, I'd take it as a compliment; but I'm pretty sure your offer is just being kind."
Opening my mouth before engaging my brain, I blurted, "don't be too confident of that, I think you look just fine."
She looked at me; for a moment her face just showed shock, but then she burst into peals of laughter. "Well!" she gasped after a moment, "I think that's the nicest thing anyone's said to me for years! Thank you! I only meant I didn't think you're the sort of person who'd take advantage of anyone, male or female, in any way!"
I must have looked a bit put out, because she sobered immediately, and touched my hand again; I decided I really liked that.
"I'm sorry," she said, "it sounds like a really good idea, and I'm pretty sure I'd like to take you up on the offer. What about coming with Nimmy and me — I'm going to walk further up the brook; maybe as far as Ringinglow? We can discuss arrangements further."
I gave Nimue my last bite of sandwich and swallowed the last of my coffee, which was barely warm by then. Frances stood, and so did I, and carried our cups and plates to the counter. We set off up the valley. Frances unclipped Nimue's lead as soon as we were clear of the café.
"I always keep her on the lead near cafés and playgrounds," she commented. "she's perfectly behaved, but some people get a bit frightened of her. She's big, and Shepherds have a bit of a reputation, of course."
We had a lovely walk up through the woods. I had almost forgotten the pleasure of a country walk with a healthy and fit dog, and I had forgotten, long forgotten, the pleasure of such a walk in the company of an attractive member of the opposite gender. Hearing the sound of the water in the brook bubbling and splashing over the stones, robins and blackbirds marking their territory with song. We saw some lambs in one of the fields, horses in several of the others; but mostly, for me, it was not being alone. I watched with pleasure as Nimue ranged around, sniffing, or occasionally having a 'mad spin' rushing around with no apparent purpose except just discharging an excess of energy.
At the head of the valley we turned and returned the same way, arriving back at the café in time for lunch; over which we discussed arrangements. We agreed that Frances would go back to her flat to collect Nimue's equipment and food (though, of course, I had all Bess's stuff at home) plus enough of her own things for a few days. She said she didn't have an enormous amount of her own, that it was a furnished flat and she'd left most things to her ex-partner. It was really just a couple of suitcases, books and cds, dvds and tapes, a laptop and a few trinkets that were special to her.
After the meal, we walked together down the valley to Wire Mills Dam, where her car was parked, a scruffy Focus estate. She opened the tail-gate and Nimue hopped in and sat regally looking out as the door was closed. I got in next to her, and we went back to my home so she could see what I was offering. I had to apologise about the junk in the spare room, and I promised to clear it by the evening; she just smiled;
"Don't worry — I know you weren't expecting visitors. Can I come this evening?"
"Absolutely! I'll have a bit of a spring-clean in the meantime. I've let things go recently."
"I know," she said, "and I understand. See you later?"
I just nodded; she smiled, and left; leaving me with a queer mixture of shock at what I'd done, and pleasurable anticipation.
I fussed round my little house. You might even have called what I was doing 'Spring Cleaning' The second bedroom had become a dumping ground and I cleared it as best I could, finding homes for the items that I needed or wanted to keep, and loaded the empty boxes, the old, faulty computer into the car to take to the dump ... I looked at a couple of cases of clothes my ex-wife had left behind, and sighed. I supposed, even after five years, I'd better not dump those ... but then, changed my mind. They went into the car to go to Oxfam.
By tea-time I felt I'd gone as far as I could. The spare room was now habitable, I'd vacuumed, washed up and put a load of washing in the machine. On impulse, I measured out strong flour, salt, fat and dried yeast and started a batch of bread, something I hadn't bothered with for months, made a cup of tea and sat down to drink it. Half-past six, and I divided the bread dough, kneaded it and put it to prove. I wondered where Frances had got to. Seven, And I slipped the loaves into the oven. The smell of baking bread, one of the best, homeliest smells in the world, started to fill the kitchen. The door bell rang; I went, and it was Frances and Nimue.
"Come in," I invited them.
"Sorry to be so late..." her voice trailed off, "YOU BAKE BREAD?!"
"Well, yes, sometimes, I..."
"Wow! What a gorgeous smell!" She just stood there, while Nimue sat patiently beside her. "I can't believe ... Stan ... you get me out of a hole by offering Nimmy a home, then make it even better by inviting me, and you're telling me you can cook, too?"
"Well, some things better than others ... and don't get too excited about the bread until you've tasted it," I smiled. "I thought for a minute you had a problem with bread."
"Oh, I have. I have a problem getting enough!"
"Well, a few minutes, and I'll get the rolls out, then the loaf will be another twenty minutes or so. Not much better, in my humble opinion, than a fresh bread roll, hot out of the oven, slathered with butter."
"You're not kidding there!"
"Mind you, I have to be careful with that, I don't want to end up barrel-shaped."
"I could wish I had that problem," she said. I thought I detected a degree of bitterness in her tone, but she brightened up, "well, I have to say that this is some welcome."
I showed her the room and the place under the stairs that Bess used to sleep in, with a freshly washed cushion in.
"Nimmy ... bed," she said, pointing. The dog walked over, stuck her nose in, the walked in, lay down and curled up.
"Never known a dog that obedient," I commented.
"Ah, actually intelligent. She wouldn't have gone in there if she hadn't been satisfied with it," she said. "She's decided that's her special place, and she'll go there unless she wants attention. She knows we need to move some stuff."
"Speaking of which, would you like a hand to move things?"
She smiled brilliantly. "Yes, please!"
It took the better part of an hour to shift the contents of her car into the house and, for the most part, into her room. We were hungry.
"Fresh bread rolls," I said, "butter or low-fat spread, cheese and pickle, onion, tomato, mango chutney, assorted other salad stuff or any combination."
Frances proved to be an ideal house-mate; our tastes were similar enough we didn't have to argue over the sort of food, or music, or what to watch on t/v. We fell into a pattern of sharing the housekeeping — one would cook, the other wash up; whoever filled the washing machine, the first person to it when it finished would empty it and hang the clothes up. She paired my socks! She really was very easy to live with. Increasingly, I was aware I found her easy on the eye, as well. We shared Nimue's care, too; she needed brushing ... a lot of brushing. That's a lot of dog, and a lot of hair. She, the dog that is, soon began to accept me almost as much as Frances. She would happily accept me as her companion for a walk if Frances was busy, she would sit and lean against my leg nearly as often as Frances'. I found I was more relaxed, altogether, with one exception. I think in media circles it's called 'unresolved sexual tension.' I don't think I need to explain the term, do I?
We muddled along. April became May, and May segued into June. I don't know how she found out my birthday, at that point I had no idea of hers. Mine fell on a Friday, that year, but I had some work as a support teacher for Thursday and Friday, so had to get up and get on. At breakfast I was greeted by, "happy birthday, Stan!" and a nice card; a 'doggie' one, of course.
"I'll treat you, tonight," she smiled. "Would you like me to cook, or would you prefer to go out?"