It was early evening in late July, a pleasant end to what had been an enjoyable if unremarkable day. Living in Scotland, the light during the summer evenings lasts late into the night – all to do with the northern latitudes – and so, at 9pm, it was still light enough and warm enough for me to be sitting on my favourite bench in the local park, my pipe well packed with my favourite Balkan mix, and my attention being held by a pocket-sized edition of Milton's Paradise Lost.
It was a cliché I knew but as a sometime English tutor, lately taking the advantage of an early retirement, a 'golden goodbye', and some clever investments, I still believed Paradise Lost to be one of the greats of literature, and it was something I never tired of re-reading.
To my mind at least, it was a perfect evening. The temperature was warm enough to have encouraged me to forego my jacket, though never the tie. There was little or no breeze, so I could light my pipe without engaging in mortal combat with Aeolus or his elder brothers and uncles. And, other than for the incessant crying of the seagulls which plague Grangemouth, it was a peaceful evening, not at all spoilt by loud music coming from cars, boisterous children, or any of the other more tiresome intrusions upon my solitude.
The park itself was well maintained, with splashes of colour showing through the gaps in the ornamental hedging. Off in the distance I could see children playing on the swings, chasing footballs, even running after the odd, errant Frisbee, their delighted voices carrying on the breeze.
Indeed, I was so absorbed in Book IX that I gave a small start when, as it seemed out of nowhere, a small dog ran up to me, barking with enthusiasm but, as its wagging tail betrayed, no harmful intent.
"Eighty!" came the admonishing call from my left. Turning, I saw a middle aged woman and a teen-aged girl walking along beside her. Though still some distance away, it was clear that the woman took good care of herself, dressed well, and had not surrendered to early middle age spread. Her daughter was rather more interesting, at least to me, though I made sure not to betray myself.
"Eighty! Come here!" the woman ordered, and the dog dutifully turned around and trotted back to his mistress.
Setting down my book, I watched, still a little nervous of the over-eager dog, as the women drew up to where I was sitting.
Now that they were closer I could see that the woman, the mother I presumed, though plainly dressed in dark trousers and blouse such as would befit walking the dog, had accented these with a necklace of discreet charm, resting a little above where the shadow between her breasts would have begun, were her blouse open another button or two. Her hair was dark, undyed and free of grey, and flowing loosely over her shoulders. Sunglasses obscured her eyes, something which always makes me a little suspect of the wearer, even though the late sun necessitated them, were one not in the shade as I was.
Her daughter was another matter altogether.
She was maybe fourteen or a mature thirteen, not quite as tall as her mother, and slender where her mother was less so. Dressed in blue jeans and white trainers, she wore a t-shirt with a low cut, square neckline underneath an over-sized white blouse. I remember thinking at the time how unusual it was to see a t-shirt worn as the undergarment it began life as, even if expression of this was only half-way there. I also noted the young woman's hair was not as dark as her mother's, and her curls were looser; she too wore it loose and shoulder length. She was smiling pleasantly as they approached.
"Sorry about that," the woman apologised. "He does that to everyone; he's a very loyal dog," she added, I supposed as this explained his defence of his 'pack' by barking at all possible threats, myself included.
I nodded, dismissing the incident with a smile and asking, "Did I hear you call him 'Eighty'?"
The woman smiled sheepishly. "I'm afraid so. When he was a pup, Trudi named him that-"
"-because he was eighty percent poodle and twenty percent golden retriever," the young woman, evidently Trudi, explained, also explaining the dog's colouration and curly hair; a labroodle.
"Well, it's certainly unique," I said in my most complimentary tone.
The girl smiled. "You should have heard the other names I thought of," she giggled. "But mom wouldn't let me call him 'Poo'."
"Quite right," I chuckled before 'mother' had the chance to agree.
"Anyway, sorry he startled you," the mother said.
"That's all right. Just as long as he wasn't objecting to my pipe."
"Oh no, he wouldn't," gushed Trudi, surprising me. "It's kinda cool, in a Sherlock Holmes kinda way."
"Thank you," I said, inclining my head in appreciation. It's the oddest thing, but even people who vehemently object to cigarettes generally have no such issue with pipes. It seems everyone had a grandfather who smoked one, and so I benefit from all those associated feelings of nostalgia.
"Well, sorry again. Trudi, Eighty, come on, we need to get back," the mother said, leading her troupe off along the path out of the park.
I nodded my farewell, and picked up my book once more as the trio headed off, following the path to my left. Much to my surprise I saw, out of the corner of my eye, just as they rounded the corner, Trudi held back, smiled, and waved her hand to me before dashing to catch up with her mother and Eighty.
For a moment I took my pipe and theatrically sniffed at it to ensure my tobacconist hadn't slipped something herbal into my mix.
What was all that about?
The next few days of smoking my pipe in the evenings on the park bench as I read Milton passed peacefully enough. There were the usual salutations from joggers and the elderly, as well as the indifferent silence from the youths.
It was the following Sunday afternoon and I was in my accustomed place, enjoying the warm sunshine and reading the last Book of Paraside Lost, when I heard a familiar barking from my right. Sure enough, I looked up and saw Eighty bounding towards me, this time on an extending lead in the hands of Trudi. For the moment, her mother was nowhere I sight. Seeing me, she waved as she approached; I restrained the urge to wave back.
"Hello Eighty," I said, laying Milton's opus aside once more as Eighty barked his greeting to me, traitorous tail wagging all the time as it gave the lie to his ferocity.
"Hi," said Trudi as she caught up with her canine charge. "Are you always here?"
"I am during the summer," I said, pausing a moment to admire Trudi. She was dressed in a short skirt with stockings underneath – this summer's fashion – with low-heel sandals and yet another low-cut t-shirt which fell forward as she ruffled Eighty's hair, giving me a momentary glimpse of her breasts, still growing but already pleasingly full. Recovering my concentration and looking up to make sure we made eye-contact, I added, "But it's no place to be in the winter."
Trudi smiled as she shook her head. "Tell me about it. Mom and me, we always fight over who's not to take Eighty out then."
I smiled good-naturedly, but said nothing.
Without any kind of warning or preamble, Trudi promptly sat down beside me. "Do you mind?" she asked, not guessing that I didn't mind in the least. "What're you reading?"
"Paradise Lost by the great blind poet, John Milton."
For a moment Trudi looked suitably nonplussed before asking the only question she could in those circumstances. "What's it about?"
I sighed dramatically. "You've not heard of it?" I asked. I knew well enough that such classics are not taught at school nowadays, but I suppose I was hoping that its fame at least endured.
Trudi shook her head.
Alas poor Milton.
I took a moment as I gathered my thoughts, trying to somehow summarise one of the foundational texts of English literature, of world literature, even. "It's a poetic vision of the fall of man, based on the details in the Biblical book of Genesis. Milton wrote of man's expulsion from the Garden of Eden, caused by man's innocent naiveté and Eve's fatefully placed trust. It was also, and this was truly shocking when it was written in the late 1700s, it was the first time that the main protagonist of a work of literature had been an anti-hero. What almost cost Milton his life, truly, was his selection of none other than Satan as his protagonist."
"Sounds ... heavy," Trudi commented, clearly a little embarrassed that her response was as weak as it was.
"Heavy? Yes, I suppose it is, but most of that is because Milton uses linguistic constructions that we've moved away from, and he relies on your knowing what would now be considered a lot of background, not the least of which being, of course, the Book of Genesis. But," I continued, seeing Trudi paling at all of this, "but it's very rewarding too, it has a grandeur that contemporary writers can only dream of, if they dream at all."
Trudi fiddled with Eighty's lead a moment or two, long enough to make me worry I had made her uncomfortable with my erudition. It was a fault of mine but I didn't think it a bad fault in that it kept the less educated, or the less determined, away, and I had no time for either. Thankfully Trudi broke her silence, asking, "You sound like you've read it before."
I nodded. "I have, many times, and taught it too."
"I am an early retiree-"
.... There is more of this story ...