Jerry Evans, having walked his dogs, parked his estate car at the Trout and let his two Labrador bitches out of the back. The road past was busy but that did not worry him. The Labradors fell in at heel and walked into the pub with him. He greeted Jed and Liz who were established at the bar. The Labradors acknowledged their collie which was lying at their feet and copied it at Jerry's.
"Hello, Jerry," said Chris, the landlady. She took down a tankard from above the bar and pointed at one of the two bitters that were on sale.
"Good guess!" smiled Jerry.
Chris grinned and went away to the still-room. Unless they were pushed the Trout always did this; beer straight from the barrel rather than through pipes. Jerry did notice the difference and so did the other beer-drinking customers.
"Baguette?" asked Chris when she came back.
"Bacon, Stilton and mushroom? No trimmings?"
Chris wrote it down and handed the order in to the kitchen.
The front door clattered open and a woman came in.
"Sorry," she said. "You really ought to free those doors, Chris."
"Draught in the winter."
The woman snorted and Chris giggled.
"Anyway," the woman went on, "Village Lunch on Wednesday?"
Chris nodded. "We're a bit down on numbers though," she said.
Chris smiled slightly crookedly. "People go into hibernation between Christmas and Easter.
The woman turned to Jed and Liz. "You're coming." It was not a question.
"Good! What about you?" she asked turning to Jerry.
"Where do you live?"
"That's only five minutes away. Do you use the Donton Hotel?"
"Well then. Come on Wednesday."
"I'll think about it."
"Sorry," she smiled. "I'm being bossy but I love this pub, largely because of Chris and Peter, and I love this village."
"Yes," replied Jerry. "The Donton Hotel has always been a misnomer for a pretty dreary guest-house. This place before these two arrived used to be so awful that I used to go to the Queen's Arms at Netherbourne."
"I'm not surprised. It's a nice pub but this is our pub in our village and we ought to support it."
Jerry smiled with an eyebrow raised. "Even with outsiders?"
"Yes. Particularly when they haven't got a decent pub of their own."
"OK. I'll think about it."
"Put him down for Wednesday."
She smiled at them both and left.
"Ball of fire, that woman," said Jed over his shoulder.
"But she's nice," added Liz.
Chris, being the good landlady she was, smiled but said nothing.
"Who is she?" asked Jerry. "I haven't seen her before."
"Emma Roberts. She really only comes in for the monthly Village Lunches. She's got a daughter at university and is struggling to do it on a naval widow's pension."
"I'll bet," replied Jerry feelingly. "What happened to her husband?"
"Afghanistan about a year ago."
"Oh Lord! Poor them."
Peter brought in Jerry's baguette and greeted him warmly.
"It was good day for the final shoot of the season last Friday, wasn't it?"
"Very. I'm one of the most popular people at Donton at the moment. I gave a bird each to the Grays, the Robertsons and Whittles."
"Keeping one for yourself, of course."
"You bet. Hanging in the garage. That reminds me, I must pluck it this weekend."
Peter went back to the kitchen.
More people began to come in and Jerry, followed by his dogs, picked up the newspaper off the bar and moved to a small table by a window. He opened the paper but hardly read it.
'That poor woman, ' he thought. 'It's bad enough losing her husband but it must be a hell of a struggle to keep her daughter at university even if she's taken out a student loan. I wonder how much longer she's due to be there. On the other hand, what's-her-name, Emma, doesn't look washed out and anxious. In fact, she looked pretty good with her blonde hair and blue eyes. Good figure too. I wonder where she lives. She's probably got quite a nice house bought while her husband was alive. Unless she's been forced to sell it to see the daughter through university. Oh well, nothing to do with me.'
His mind turned to his own situation. It was three years since his wife had died of cancer. He had wanted to take early retirement to look after her but she had forbidden it.
"It's sweet of you and typical to think of doing that, Jerry, but they've given me six months max. You need to keep earning and you need a full pension. Just take a month's leave when I really start to go downhill. Please, darling."
It was typical of Bridie too, he had thought at the time, brave and selfless. They had been letting the house at Donton and living in an Army quarter to be near his work at the Ministry of Defence. Exceptionally he had been allowed to keep it after she died as he only had two years still to serve. He had decided to keep the house, much too big for him though it was, so that his sons could visit with their families. Rory had two children and when he and Sally came to stay the house was full. Devlin had no children, yet. Jerry thought again how sad it was that Bridie had not lived to see him married but at least he had been engaged to Meg before she died.
He finished his baguette and took his plate and tankard up to the bar.
"See you this evening," he said to Chris. "You know we'll be three with Devlin and Meg down for the weekend. Same again for Sunday lunch."
"Sure. I look forward to seeing them. Don't worry about paying now. It'll have earned some interest by this evening"
"Foul girl," Jerry smiled at her.
The weekend was fun, nothing particularly exciting, but Jerry thoroughly enjoyed it. Meg was a sweet, gentle girl but with a great sense of humour. There was no doubt in Jerry's mind that the two of them were a couple. Their terrier, Chloe, a totally unapt name, kept his two girls on the qui-vive.
After lunch on Sunday, which Devlin insisted on paying for, Chris asked Jerry whether he really was on for Wednesday and the Village Lunch.
He smiled. "Orders is orders," he said, "and Princess Emma has commanded."
"Thanks, Jerry, and I know she'll be delighted. Twelve-thirty."
He walked the dogs earlier than usual on Wednesday and left them at home. He did not bother to dress up. He could not believe anyone else would but he was clean and tidy.
He was right. There were about eighteen people at the pub when he arrived and he knew most of them. They were no more than acquaintances but were welcoming and friendly.
Emma was there wearing a jumper and slacks. Neither was tight fitting but her figure was evident.
"Good boy," she said to him with a grin.
Jerry smiled back. "It doesn't mean I'll be back next month though."
"Understood. Good thing you didn't bring your dogs. There's an unwritten rule otherwise we'd probably have more dogs than humans."
"And one of them would get grumpy."
"One of the terriers more than likely."
"Have you got any?"
"One. A springer bitch. My husband used to take her shooting. I think she misses it."
"I'm sure she does but I'm not going to offer. I only take one of mine at a time and that causes misery. Three would really be a non-starter.
"Of course it would. I suppose I could always take her beating."
"You bet. Just turn up at half past ten on a Friday wherever we're meeting. Ask Peter. He normally turns out. You'll have to wait until next September now though."
People were already beginning to sit down so Jerry and Emma just drifted to the table together. Liz was sitting on his left with Jed beyond her. Jerry was grateful. She was not much of a conversationalist but Jed fancied himself as a humourist and Jerry found him tiresome except in small doses. In fact the chatter ranged from one end of the table to the other covering the usual village mundanities: dog messes in the children's play ground, the state of the road that ran past it, speeding traffic on the main road despite the forty mile an hour limit. Jerry mischievously thought it a pity that a member of the parish council was not a required attendee to pick up on what really mattered to the villagers. He said so quietly to Emma who chuckled.
"Want to volunteer?"
Jerry grinned. "Wrong village."
"I could put in a word for you at Donton."
"Don't you dare."
"Where do you live?" he asked.
"Oh, I know." He smiled again. "Rather larger than most lodges."
"Yes, it's had a number of extensions over the years. We bought it when Will was at Wallop. Well, we both loved it here and when he was killed ... You know about that."
"Yes. I'm sorry."
"Anyway, I didn't want to give it up. It has so many happy memories."
"I think that's very brave. So many people would get all maudlin about those memories."
She shrugged and gave him a half smile.
"Where do you walk your dog?" he went on.
"I'm a bit idle. Mostly I just go across the ford and up to the Packway and back. At the weekend I go rather further and do a circuit through Netherbourne."
"That must be a good five miles."
"I reckon it's more actually because I go through the woods on the far side of the village and come back over the hill and through the Belt."
"You're right. That must make it six to seven. Do you ever go up on the Plain?
"Not very often. Petrol. You?"
"About once a week usually on the hill behind the rifle ranges. The dogs love it. There are bags of rabbits not that they ever catch any. They stay too close to their burrows."
Emma laughed. Jerry liked the sound of it.
The meal was a set menu and coffee was not included. Most people left after the pudding. Jerry persuaded Emma to let him treat her to coffee though.
"You're on your own too, I gather," she said.
"Yes. It's three years now."
"Are you in your same house too?"
"Yes but under slightly different circumstances to you. We only lived in it for three years while I was stationed at Wilton. We were in a quarter in London when Bridie died and I stayed on there until I retired last year."
Emma nodded. "Bridie," she said. "Was she Irish?"
"Was she ever! Even the boys had to have Irish names, Rory and Devlin."
"No, I'm an English-Scottish mongrel."
"Same here. Have you retired retired or have you found yourself a job?"
"Volunteer work. Citizens' Advice Bureau one morning a week. With both boys flown the nest I reckoned I could live on my pension. What about you?"
"I'm a psychiatrist and do three mornings a week at the hospital. It ekes out my tiddly widow's pension and once Zoë, that's my younger daughter, finishes at university and finds herself a job I shall be quite comfortably off."
"When will that be?"
"This summer. That's when she graduates. Heaven knows how long it will take her to find a job in the current economic climate."
"Hmm! What's she reading?"
"Has she any idea what she wants to do?"
"Teaching but in the private sector and then she doesn't have to do formal teacher training but can do SCITT or SCATT or something like that, on the job training."
"And there's an older daughter?"
"Yes, Joanna. She's PA to some up and coming whizz-kid in Whitehall. Got a flat with an old school friend at Putney."
They had finished their coffee but neither was in a rush to leave.
"Going back to dog-walking, I thought I'd take my girls up on the Plain on Friday morning. Are you interested?"
"You bet. What sort of time?"
"Half past ten or so? We might let them have a run in your garden for a few minutes to let them get to know each other before putting them together in the back of my car."
"Sounds good. Thanks, Jerry. It should be fun."
They both went home shortly after that.