Hugh wasn’t going to argue with his forceful vet when she told him his dog needed more exercise. However, the vet’s instructions didn’t include meeting someone and falling in love
It was, on reflection, rather amusing that a visit to the local vet could lead to such a passionate affair. Not with the vet. Hugh had no desire to enfold the plain-faced, squat Clarissa in his arms. And not with his dog, either. Although he was fond of Todger, and, if pushed, would admit that he loved the dog as much as he loved his two children, but in an owner/pet kind of way.
No, Clarissa had prodded Todger’s amply-covered ribs and chided Hugh about letting young Golden Retrievers run to fat. “You’ll have horrible hip problems with him later. How often does he get a walk?”
“Um,” Hugh said, flailing. He was trying hard to remember the last time any of the family had taken Todger outside the garden. Probably six months ago, and he’d been so excited he’d pulled Claire off her feet and now she and her brother were afraid to walk him.
“Every day, Hugh. He needs a walk every day. For heavens sake, you live on the edge of the village, you’ve got the most wonderful woods and moorland just a hop away.” Clarissa glared at him through her thick glasses; obviously he was now on the list of Bad Pet Owners. “Cut his feed in half. No snacks, unless they’re carrot sticks. And walk him. Train him, take him to obedience lessons and keep his mind active too. Let him have FUN.”
At that Todger had happily slurped Clarissa’s face with a happy tongue, and the vet’s sour face broke into a smile. “Bring him back in six weeks, and we’ll see how he’s doing. And if you don’t bring him back, I’ll ring you.”
Huge and Todger left the surgery with Clarissa’s gimlet eyes fixed on their backs. “Oh well, old chap, it might do us both good.” Hugh patted his own stomach, which had grown somewhat since they moved to the village and he’d stopped his gym membership in town. The thought of marching out with Todger in all weathers wasn’t a pleasant one; it was still early spring, with all the capriciousness of a winter unwilling to give up its hold. Twice last week Hugh had scraped ice off the windscreen.
There was still an hour of daylight left. Hugh switched his shoes for wellies, left a note for Margie saying he and Todger were embarking on their new fitness routine, and let a joyful Todger drag him down the back lanes and into the reserve that inexplicably became moorland.
After walking the perimeter of the reserve once, Hugh was hot and aware of how unfit he was. Todger was still bouncing and delighted, and in a rash moment Hugh unclipped the lead and let the dog race in insane circles.
For the first few minutes it was fine; Todger revelled in his freedom, barking and yipping, tail flailing. But retrievers will be retrievers, and when he sighted a pheasant on the far side of the reserve, the part that stretched onto the miles of moorland, he was off.
Hugh swore as he watched the dog put on a derby-winning turn of speed. No way could he catch up, but he sprinted as fast as he could in his wellies, shouting Todger’s name, until he ran out of breath. Actually he shouted “Roger!” rather than “Todger!”, being too embarrassed to call out the name the children had christened the dog. Claire had wanted to call him Towser, and Crispin had wanted to call him Roger, and, little brats, when they found out what the word todger meant, the result was inevitable. In polite company he was Roger, to the family he was Todger. Ultimately it didn’t matter as he only responded to calls when he felt like it, no matter what preceded the ‘odger’.
Todger had galloped behind a stand of trees, and it was there Hugh found him, pheasant forgotten. He was standing in front of a Springer spaniel, barking and bouncing down on his forepaws, begging for a game.
The Springer would have none of it; when it moved away, Todger followed, dancing in circles around the other dog.
Gulping air, Hugh moved closer, hiding the lead behind his back. He crept behind Todger, ready to pounce onto the dog’s collar.
Hugh leapt, Todger adroitly jumped sideways, and Hugh skidded on the slippery leaves, finishing up face down in what could only be described as mulch in progress. Spitting and wiping his face, he watched Todger and the Springer belt off down the walking path to the next village. Hugh groaned and rolled onto his back – may as well be filthy on both sides now – and watched clouds scud across the lowering sky.
* * *
Gemma could list plenty of reasons why dogs were better than men. They were grateful for whatever grub you put in front of them and didn’t complain about the cooking. They gave unconditional love, and adored you even in your oldest clothes and your crankiest mood. They never made snide comments about you not wearing high heels often enough. They were always happy to see your friends. They’d watch whatever TV you did without grabbing the remote and changing channels at two second intervals. When you had your period and felt like a miserable fat cow, they’d lick your hand sympathetically and cuddle up happily on your bed instead of muttering something about no sex for a week. Oh, she could go on and on!
It had been six months since Gemma had had a man in her life. The last one had made her miserable to the point of Prozac. No physical violence…he stopped just short of that…but enough emotional scars to make her move from one end of the country to another. Her self-esteem had been at an all time low, but the brainwave that resulted in getting a dog had made her feel wanted and important and delightful again.
She’d driven past the rescue kennels several times when she’d been acquainting herself with her new village and nearby town. The yipping and barking she’d heard through the open car window had given her an idea. So many unwanted dogs, mistreated souls. What if she found one and they healed together? With a dog, she’d never be lonely; and heaven only knew moving to a new place could be horribly lonely at first.
On impulse, she pulled into the gate. Ten minutes later she’d found Saffy, the Springer spaniel, who’d been rescued from a man who’d thought it fine to leave the beautiful young dog locked in a garden shed for months on end, providing occasional food and more regular beatings when the hungry dog barked. The rescue people told her Saffy had been skin and bones six weeks ago. They’d had to cut off most of her matted fur, as it was beyond combing, and her backside had been covered in ulcers from having to share her small living space with her own urine and faeces. A court case was ensuing. Meanwhile, Saffy had recovered enough to now be offered a new home.
It was fate that Gemma had turned up on the first day Saffy was available for rehoming. Instantly she fell in love with the trusting brown eyes, and Saffy, despite all the misery humans had caused her, returned that love in spades, sitting delightedly in the front seat of Gemma’s car, occasionally licking Gemma’s hand on the gearstick and watching the world go by as she travelled to her new home.
That had been three months ago, and now Saffy had filled out to an ideal weight and her feathery Springer coat was coming into its summer growth nicely.
Gemma had mellowed, made acquaintances in the village, declined polite invitations to go to church on Sunday but accepted them for occasional nights in the pub with her neighbours, and felt that life couldn’t be better. She worked from home as an interior designer, and twelve weeks of mercilessly pulling out every contact she’d ever made in the industry and reminding them she’d moved and was available was finally paying off. Southerners had discovered the ragged beauty and clean air of North Yorkshire, and Gemma already had two commissions under her belt with Londoners moving north.
She usually rounded off the nine-to-five part of her job by taking Saffy out. Occasionally they’d follow the walking path to the next village, and lately she’d trusted the dog enough to let her off leash on the moors.
Today, though, Saffy was empowered with spring. She’d been desexed, but Gemma couldn’t blame her for being so ebullient and naughty, racing off with her tail waving in delight. If she’d had a tail herself she’d be wagging it furiously; there was such promise and perfume in the air, despite the clouds that were slowly eating up the cobalt sky.
Gemma bolted after her dog but slowed to a walk after a couple of hundred yards, panting. God, she was unfit! Even the daily walks didn’t substitute for a gym workout (one of the things that her new village life didn’t include). Gemma forced herself to jog down the path, breath rasping, until she was in the no-man’s-land between her village and the next.
Excited yelping told her Saffy had found a friend, and sure enough the Springer cantered back at her ragged call with an overweight Golden Retriever in tow, lumbering along like a supertanker next to a speedboat. The goldy seemed, incredibly, even more unfit than Gemma.
“Who belongs to you, then?” she said to the goldy as she adroitly clipped Saffy’s leash onto her collar. The dog grinned and wagged his tail.
Gemma got her answer soon after as a man in trousers and checked shirt both covered in dirt, brown hair disheveled, leash in hand, panted along the path towards her. She put her hand on the retriever’s collar and held him firmly.
“Thanks.” The man fumbled his leash and sighed with relief when it clicked into place. “First time he’s been offleash in ages and he bolts.”
Up close, he was probably in his late thirties, maybe early forties. The springtime in Gemma made her surreptitiously glance at his left hand, and she saw the wedding ring and felt a little tinge of regret that surprised her. Was she ready to start dating again? It seemed like it. And his kind smile, with slightly crooked front teeth, looked honest. Oh well.
His eyes met hers and Gemma almost blushed; could he tell what she was thinking? Nice eyes, too; an undefinable colour between green and brown. They held each other’s gaze for a fraction too long until Gemma said, inananely,
“Oh, they all bolt. Mine just did too. And I take her out most days and she’s fine.”
“Are you local? I haven’t seen you in the village – but then I haven’t lived here that long myself.” He fended off muddy paws as his dog happily stood on hind legs, placing huge wet feet on the man’s chest. “Down, To – Roger!”
“I’m in the next one. Upper Glumsby.” Good grief, was he flirting? Or just being friendly while he caught his breath and got the dog under control?
The retriever, still excited, sniffed Saffy briefly and then clumsily tried to mount her.
“Roger!” The man grabbed his collar and pulled him back.
Gemma blurted, “Is that a rebuke or an order?” before she could stop herself, and suddenly they were both laughing and Roger was looking at them with a bemused expression.
The man said: “I don’t suppose you know of any obedience classes around here?”
Gemma shook her head. “But I’ve been using a great dog training book I bought when I got Saffy.” She paused, then found herself saying, “I’ll lend it to you, if you like.” Now why did I say that? She wondered. But it was innocent, friendly stuff, the kind of thing that people in these villages always said to each other.
Again, that look, held just a bit too long. “Thanks, that’s a nice offer. He’s our first dog, and-“ shrug “- bringing him up has been harder than we thought.”
We. Of course there was a ‘we’. Gemma looked away and made much of Saffy, who was hiding a little timidly behind her knees. “Shall I bring it here tomorrow, much the same time?” She was cursing herself for offering but now she had to follow through.
“Er…okay. I’m Hugh, by the way.” He wiped his hand on his trousers and held it out.
“Gemma.” She shook it; firm handshake, if slightly gritty from the woods. “I must get back. See you, Hugh.”
“Till tomorrow then, Gemma.”
The clouds were covering almost all the blue now. Gemma and Saffy headed home at a slow jog, leaving Hugh watching them; she was aware of his eyes on her back until the path turned irrevocably.
* * *
Hugh let out a massive sigh. Gemma. Gemma. He rolled her name around his mouth and said it out loud.
What had just happened there? When he turned the corner, chasing Todger, and seen her, it was as if his body had taken a massive electric shock.
Those clear grey eyes, the straight, shoulder length hair the colour of beeches in autumn, the freckles on her straight nose that were just perceptible from where he stood to talk to her. Her generous mouth and slim body that shook when she laughed.
He loved Margie, of course he did. And Gemma had an echo of Margie about her; beauty, intelligence and practicality, all of which he perceived in the bare minute that they spoke. But with an indefinable something else that set her apart from any woman he’d met in the last ten years.
He cursed himself for being covered in mud and leaves, and having nothing to say that wouldn’t leave her with the impression of an oaf. A married oaf, at that.
Hugh caught himself up. Here he was, with a wonderful wife and two children, standing on a pathway with his unfit, randy dog, feeling more than a little in lust with a woman he’d recklessly agreed to see again tomorrow. He could, of course, just not turn up. Take Todger for a walk in a different direction and feel like a heel when she’d been so nice about offering to lend him the book.
On the other hand, the book might be helpful, he told himself as he reluctantly walked back to the village.
But, he wondered as he let Todger drag him through the lanes, was it just an excuse to make a start on counting the freckles on her nose?
* * *
In the end, he went. Todger was astonished and delighted to discover he was going on another walk and Margie, who was home briefly in between ferrying the children to and from tennis lessons and herself to art classes, was fairly astonished.
“Well, you might both get fit, which wouldn’t be a bad thing. You’ve been piling it on a bit, darling. Maybe you should go back to the gym.”
“Means even more time commuting,” said Hugh with a snort. Village life, nice as it was, meant an extra hour travelling each day. “And the gym won’t get Todger fit. That Clarissa was quite tough on me.”
Margie gave that wicked smile that had so entranced Hugh when they first met. “First walks on the moors – it’ll be bloody allotments next!”
“Ayup. When I coom home wi’ bindin’ twine round t’trouser legs, you’ll knaw I’ve finally fitted into t’village.”
“God, what a vision! I was hoping you’d say you’d have me in the potting shed on a sack of fertiliser.”
“Sex on a bed of bullshit. Sounds like marriage in a nutshell.” He grinned and let Todger drag him out before Margie could come up with a riposte.
He wondered, briefly, what it would be like to have Gemma on a bed of bullshit – or any bed, come to that. Whether she had freckles all over; people with her colouring did if they’d spent any time sunbathing.
For God’s sake, he cursed himself, she’s only lending you a book. And she was probably only being polite and didn’t mean it and won’t be there.
But she was. She looked every bit as ethereal as the day before, with eyes that met his and saw straight through into his soul. Scary, Hugh said inwardly, and “Hi, Gemma,” outwardly with a cheery, matey smile. “Hi…” he dredged for it, “Saffy.”
The Springer smiled doggily at Hugh, her tail waving. Todger and Saffy sniffed politely and this time Hugh kept Todger on a tight leash.
“Hi, Hugh. And Roger. Not covered in mud this time?” Oh shit, she could arch one eyebrow in such a way that something inside Hugh turned to jelly. Not just scary; dangerous.
“No, I’ve not been daft enough this time to let him go. Yesterday I was trying to catch him, took a flying leap at him and he moved.”
She roared. “I’m not surprised. If you were trying to leap on me I’d move, too, if I were a dog.”
And since you’re not a dog? Hugh wondered.
There was a slightly awkward silence. Hugh wasn’t to know it, but Gemma was thinking along the same lines. And that she wouldn’t mind being leaped on.
“Oh, the book!” Breaking the sudden peculiar, pregnant quiet, Gemma patted the pocket of her coat. “Here.”
Hugh looked at the cover of Down, Boy! 101 Practical Training Lessons for Humans and Their Dogs. On it, a goldy not unlike Todger, but obviously the recipient of the 101 Lessons, sat grinning on a loose leash with a red ball beside him, the picture of canine perfection. There was an inset photo of the same dog flying happily over what looked to be cut down show jumps.
“I’d settle for the loose leash,” Hugh said. “The show jumps look too energetic for both of us at the moment.” Todger obligingly gave a massive tug on his leash; he wanted to play with Saffy, who was dancing around him, and Hugh almost lost his balance.
“It’s a very effective book,” Gemma assured him. “Watch. Saffy! Come! Sit! Drop!”
The Springer did as she was told, lying panting on the ground with her eager eyes on Gemma’s face. “Saffyyyy….Okay!” With that Saffy leaped up and barked joyfully, then nosed Gemma’s hand for a treat.
Gemma and Saffy came together in mutual admiration, Saffy putting her muddy paws on Gemma’s knees and Gemma burying her nose in Saffy’s speckly coat, carolling “Good dog! Good girl!”. Hugh watched with a pang. He’d love to bury his nose in Gemma’s mane of hair, to see if it smelled as sweet as it looked.
That way lay danger. He turned his attention to Todger. “Todger….sit.” Todger grinned at him and wagged his plumy tail, dancing around Hugh’s feet. “Sit!”
“You need to use a treat, Hugh. Put it in front of his nose and…hang on, I thought his name was Roger.”
Hugh explained about his children, which made Gemma giggle. “You’re the only person outside the family who knows he’s really Todger. I try and call him Roger all the time just in case but occasionally it slips out.”
“Your secret’s safe with me,” Gemma grinned, still giggling. “Todger. Well, at the moment he IS behaving like a bit of a dick.”
“Cris wanted to call him Roger because he used to bonk anything that moved,” Hugh admitted. “Thankfully he’s grown out of that.” Even if I haven’t, he thought. Oh, those little creases around her eyes when she laughs!
“Do you know it’s not just a sexual thing, when dogs try and bonk you? It’s the dog trying to show his authority. Or even her authority. Even female dogs will mount people or other dogs as a way of saying ‘I’m the boss’.” Fascinated by her canine companion, Gemma had bought a couple of books on dog psychology in the last few weeks.
“And here’s me thinking that if a female dog tries to have my leg she just wants her wicked way with me.”
“It’s not a sexual thing ALL the time.” Gemma gave Hugh a grin that was just a little bit wicked. She couldn’t help herself. He was nice, easy to talk to, a little bumbling here and there but someone she felt comfortable with. Even if he did have a wife and kids. After all, they were only walking their dogs and he was someone like her, someone who’d recently moved in and didn’t know a lot of locals yet. Something in common. A friend. So she told herself firmly as she fed Saffy another treat, aware of Hugh’s eyes on her.
“Have some treats,” she offered, showing Hugh a handful of dried chopped pork liver.
“Yum. I think I’ll wait for dinner.”
“For the DOG!”
“I just thought you had some really peculiar tastes in food.” Hugh let Gemma trickle the dark morsels into his hand, and Todger gave a wistful whine.
“No more peculiar than Thai, which is almost impossible to get without driving for miles.”
“It’s the one thing I miss about the big cities,” Hugh agreed. “Lots of different restaurants and cuisines.”
They found themselves ambling on, talking food and restaurant experiences, good and awful. Ten minutes later Hugh was aware of Todger walking delicately at his side, the leash loose, behaving perfectly. “Good grief.”
“He can smell the treats. Give him one and praise him.”
Hugh did. Five minutes later Todger was sitting on command and getting a treat each time. “These things are magic! I’ll have to get some.”
“And here endeth the first lesson. I’ll have to be getting back home, I’ve got a client phoning me from Australia.”
“Big country, southern hemisphere…”
Hugh gave her a friendly thump on the arm, as he’d do to Margie or the kids.
“Actually a friend of a friend who’s moving over here and wants her house done up for her before she gets here. Buckets of money. Tonight I’ll find out if she’s got buckets of style ideas to match.”
“And if her taste runs to flock wallpaper or ‘just paint it all magnolia’?”
Gemma pulled a face. “I draw the line at some things! No, she wouldn’t have contacted me if she was like that. She’s buying a barn conversion and the initial contact with her said she wanted to have a lot of fun with the interior concept.”
“Big black and white plastic cow in the living room. That sounds fun. After all, it’s a barn.”
“And that,” said Gemma serenely, “Is why I’m an interior designer and you’re a – a?”
“Manager. Engineering firm.”
Did she think he sounded boring? Mention engineering to some people and their eyes glazed over or they surreptitiously looked to see if you were wearing a pocket protector in your shirt pocket (Hugh wasn’t). “Before you ask, we make high tensile plastics.”
“No wonder you thought of a plastic cow.” She shook her head, smiling. “What would one do with a plastic cow?”
Hugh didn’t tell her his firm had that very same item standing in its foyer, a life-sized Guernsey called Dolly which startled the hell out of new clients. It had been a sample made for a contract which fell through, and the firm’s senior partner put a pair of fun reindeer horns on its head each Christmas, and a (plastic) blob of cow dung under its tail every April Fool’s Day.
Before Hugh could think of a smart remark, such as, Well, you wouldn’t milk it for starters, Gemma glanced at her watch.
“Must go. Look, I’ll give you my moby number. I’m out walking most days unless the weather is really vile and then both Saffy and I refuse to go out of the house. But if you’d like some help training Todger, it’d be good for all of us. Dogs have to learn to train with other dogs and concentrate when there are other dogs around. It’d help Saffy, too.”
Two minutes later Hugh had given her his mobile phone number, and had hers plugged into his phone (under Dog Tnr in case Margie found it – but then it was just an innocent friendship….wasn’t it?).
Todger gave a sad whine as Saffy and her owner disappeared from view. “Yeah,” said Hugh. “I think so too.” He rattled the treats in his pocket. “Todger, sit!”
Todger sat, then they walked slowly back home, the dog not pulling on his leash but unwilling to let his nose get too far from the delicious livery bits Hugh had in his pocket, the bits that smelt of food and Saffy and Gemma, if only Hugh could smell that delicate smell.
* * *
“Liver bits? Darling, what’s this?” Margie squinted at the shopping list.
“Oh. Dog treats. For Todger. I borrowed this dog training book from – someone at work. Apparently the dried pork liver thingies work a treat. Dogs do anything for them.” Hugh felt guilty at the lie, but he was too rushed to explain that he’d met someone from the next village walking the dog. And too rushed to explain that he hadn’t mentioned it before because…because… he wanted to keep it to himself.
He gulped the last of his coffee and headed for the door. “Bye darling.” A quick kiss on Margie’s soft lips – she tasted of Cooper’s Oxford Marmalade – and he was belting the BMW down the back roads towards the motorway. He passed the turnoff to Upper Glumsby and spared a second to wonder just where Gemma lived, before howling past an ancient Allegro.
“Dried pork liver,” muttered Margie. “There’s no accounting for taste.”
Todger paced the kitchen, nosing the table in case he found scraps. “Todger! Sit!”
To her astonishment, the dog sat. And waited for praise, which she gave him. He nosed her hand and she gave him the last corner of toast. “Looks like Daddy might make a good dog of you after all. Which is more than the kids will. I should have known they’d lose interest after you grew up. Claire! Crispin! Breakfast!”
Todger’s good behaviour didn’t last past Margie’s cup of tea. She turned her back on him to call her children again – lazy little beasts! – and the dog scoffed both bowls of cereal from the table. Margie banished him to the garden, where he threw his energy into digging up her crocuses and laying them, one by one, on the doormat.
Hugh came home to find the crocuses replanted and looking decidedly sick, and Todger tethered to the hosepipe tap.
“You’d better get him trained, Buster, or he’s going,” Margie chuntered as Hugh made “Poor Todger!” noises. “Here’s your bloody pork liver treats. He doesn’t deserve them!”
“He’s probably bored,” Hugh suggested. “We should buy him some toys.”
Margie hit the roof and the kids fled, Claire crying loudly at the thought of Todger being rehomed. Several sentences from Margie’s tirade stuck in Hugh’s mind as he retrieved the dog, including: With what? We’re only on your salary at the moment. We bought him toys and he chewed them up. He’s wrecked half the kids’ toys. He’s a dog, not a bloody child. What’s happened to make you so dog mad all of a sudden?
It was the last one that got him thinking. He’d like to say it was Clarissa, the vet, and her pugnacious, scary face. But he knew it was Gemma and her beautiful eyes. “Clarissa. The vet,” he found himself saying. “She said if we put more work into him he’d be a better dog.”
“I hope she gave a guarantee,” Margie spat. At moments like these she could almost look ugly, Hugh realised.
He grabbed his dog book, his treats and Todger, and headed for the moors and the relative sanity and sanctity of Gemma, leaving behind him Claire’s wail of “Mummy, you can’t get rid of Todger!” and Cris’ “You SAID we could have a dog!” and Margie’s growling but indecipherable reply.
Hugh spent a wonderful half hour with his dog – and Gemma and her’s. Gemma helped him teach Todger “Down!” when the retriever insisted on standing with his huge, dirty dinnerplate paws on Hugh’s chest.
“That sounds positively rude,” Gemma giggled.
They howled with laughter, thinking up awful single entendres on the dog’s name.
“Margie had to tie my Todger up today as he was getting into mischief,” Hugh gasped finally.
“Seriously, the silly bugger had dug up half the garden, so she tied him up to the hosepipe.”
“Oh, your poor Todger!” She sat on a clump of heather, tears running down her face.
Hugh sat beside her, his sides aching. “So you wouldn’t punish my Todger if he was bad then?”
“Depends on the punishment,” Gemma gasped between giggles.
Then they were both aware that their faces were barely inches from each other’s. Hugh had made a preliminary count of Gemma’s freckles – somewhere in the vicinity of 75 – before their lips touched tentatively.
Who started it? He thought dazedly, as his lips pressed a little more firmly on Gemma’s and hers responded, opening like a soft bud.
Was this my idea? Gemma wondered, feeling her body start to tingle with an urge she hadn’t had in months. She shouldn’t be kissing him, he was married, he had a family for God’s sake! – but she was, and enjoying it, savouring his lips and the taste of him.
Dogs forgotten, time stood still as they edged closer, arms twining like vines around each other.
She smelt as good – no, better! – as he thought she would, sweet, floral, light. When their tongues touched it was all he could do not to groan with delight. He pulled her closer and felt her warmth radiate out, enveloping him, and they stayed like that for at least a decade, liplocked.
The dogs had enjoyed their moment of freedom as their owners kissed. They chased each other, scared a few birds, ran a rabbit to ground and barked senselessly at the hole it had vanished into.
Saffy had more of a conscience than Todger; she didn’t leave Gemma’s side for long and trotted back to see what her mistress was doing. Todger, knowing that both humans had pockets full of treats, followed eagerly and launched himself at Gemma, whose coat pockets bulged with the delicious liver.
Gemma jumped as if stung. “Down, Todger!”
Hugh, head reeling, was aware of an enormous erection threatening to break free of his jeans. “Oh God, Gemma, sorry, I got carried away…”
“Not you, you fool, your dog!”
They stared at each other.
“Really?” said Hugh.
“But we’re going to…aren’t we?”
Slowly Gemma nodded. She was aching for it, aching for Hugh, aware she was slippery and eager. She stood up and reached for his hand.
The dogs followed tamely as Hugh found out just where in Upper Glumsby Gemma lived. They played in the garden as their owners played in Gemma’s crimson bedroom.
It was over quickly, as first times between people gagging for it often are. Hugh fumbled on a condom from a supply in Gemma’s bathroom (brand new pack, sealed; had she bought them knowing this day would come?) before she drew him inside her and he came in several quick thrusts. She ground herself against his thigh bone, seeking and finding the exquisite plateau that turned her to shuddering jelly.
Ten minutes later, ten passionate, sucking, stroking, arousing minutes later, they did it again, but slower, more satisfyingly, punctuated with tender advice as to what felt good and what felt fantastic.
After, Hugh drew her into his arms, kissing any part of her he could reach without dislocating something.
“What have we done?” she said softly, caressing his hair.
“Oh, that’s pretty clear. The question is what are we GOING to do,” Hugh mumbled from the base of her neck.
“We shouldn’t do anything,” Gemma said unsteadily, hating the sound of it. “You’ve got a wife and family.”
“Oh, this is madness,” Hugh agreed. “But wonderful madness. We can forget it happened, if you like.”
They met each other’s eyes. “No,” they said simultaneously.
“It happened, and it was unforgettable.” Gemma traced down Hugh’s chest; not too hairy. She liked that. Hairy chests were a turnoff for her. “It probably shouldn’t happen again, though.” She tried to hide any despair or sadness at the thought, but couldn’t quite manage it.
So with that, they both knew it would.
Outside, the afternoon glow had changed to a late afternoon glow. Long shadows swept across the polished floorboards and rich red rugs of Gemma’s bedroom as Hugh and Gemma lay twined like a Celtic knot, each wondering the politics, insanity and joy of doing this again.
“Oh Christ,” said Hugh with a jump. “What time is it?”
Hugh almost fell out of Gemma’s high antique brass bed. “I have to get back.” He didn’t, he noticed, say ‘home’.
Gemma pulled her bathrobe around her, watching, amused, as Hugh dragged his clothes on as if setting a world record.
“Buttons are crooked.” She unbuttoned his shirt, kissed his chest – down, Todger! – and buttoned them up correctly.
“Will you be walking Saffy tomorrow?” He was almost afraid of the answer. Afraid she’d say no, and equally afraid she’d say yes.
“Weather permitting,” Gemma said. And that was that.
Hugh and Todger rushed home to find a note from Margie saying she’d taken the kids to tennis, herself to yoga and she’d be back around 8. Dinner, a casserole, was in the oven if he could get it out for when they all got back.
Hugh heaved a sigh of relief, fed Todger, had a quick shower and changed his underwear, hoping the smell of Gemma – he sniffed; God, he was getting as bad as Todger! – wasn’t too obvious.
By the time his family returned he’d poured himself a lager, Margie a glass of wine and it was, too all intents and purposes, just another night. Todger, exhausted from playing with Saffy and running home with an oddly sprinting master, lay in his basket, perfectly behaved.
In the next village, Gemma watched telly with unseeing eyes, caressing Saffy’s silky coat and feeling Hugh’s hands on her body still. “Silly girl,” she said aloud, and Saffy gave her an enquiring look. “Not you, Saff. Me.”
She poured herself a glass of pinot grigio and took it upstairs to her bedroom, where the sheets reeked of sex. “Silly girl,” she said again, but gently.
* * *
It was an astonishing spring. Astonishing not only for its climate, which was unusually warm and sunny to the point of hosepipe bans, but astonishing for Hugh and Gemma, whose lives seemed to be charmed.
Hugh worked on autopilot, only coming alive in the afternoons when he took a rapidly slimming Todger out for training. Or so he told the family.
It was partly true. Todger’s behaviour had improved in leaps and bounds; he was a young, smart dog and learned quickly. Typically he and Gemma would let their dogs play on the moors while they snogged in the heather or behind the bushes, as out of sight as possible. They’d practice basic commands for a bit, then walk to Gemma’s house and leave the dogs outside.
It was as if they’d built their own world, the real world, and the rest of their lives were only half-lived.
Gemma, feeling like a courtesan – but one of the better quality ones – stocked her larder with food she knew Hugh liked, and his favourite beers and wines. They didn’t make love every day, but often sat and talked and ate and drank each other in with their eyes.
She tried hard not to fall in love with him. That he wouldn’t leave his family was obvious, but never stated. This was an affair, she could feel that. Affairs were supposed to be enjoyed while they lasted, and to finish without regret or hatred, and leave wonderful memories. In theory. She worried about Hugh and his family, should Margie ever find out.
Time and again she steeled herself to tell him they mustn’t, that it was wrong, but she still saw him, five days a week.
At the weekend Hugh was bound to spend time with his family. He loved them all, despite his growing feelings for Gemma, and taught the children how to train the dog too. By tacit agreement Gemma didn’t walk Saffy over that part of the moors at the weekend – she often drove far away for the day with her dog, not daring herself to be anywhere where she could glimpse Hugh with his wife or family, not putting herself at the risk of feeling a knife through her heart and having to admit it was love after all.
Claire and Crispin played ‘fetch’ with Todger for hours, until the dog, still enjoying himself, was too tired to skither over the moors one last time and walked docilely with them back home.
“I’m impressed at that book,” Margie said, watching them one Saturday, not realising she was sitting on the very clump of heather on which Hugh and Gemma had kissed the evening before. “He’s like a different dog.”
Even Clarissa the vet was delighted with the difference. “See, Hugh, he’s a normal weight now. And so well-mannered. Keep it up.” She gave him a sideways glance. “Looks like all that walking’s done you some good too.”
And to his horror she gave him a lascivious wink.
He grinned weakly. Either she’d seen him and Gemma or she was coming onto him. Terrifying, either way.
How long could he and Gemma keep going? He wondered as he put the dog back into the car and drove away, feeling Clarissa’s eyes on him into the distance. How long before Margie found out – if she didn’t know already. Wives always knew, he’d been told. But she’d said nothing, hadn’t changed her manner towards him. And as for the village – it was only a matter of time before someone said something to Margie, even if they still didn’t know that many people in the village.
He was going to Germany for a week soon, for business. Maybe it was best to make the break then. To tell her before he left that he would be away and that might be the best time to move on. He’d find somewhere else to walk the dog, so they wouldn’t have to bump into each other. It would be all for the best. They would stop before they both got too hurt and hurt other people into the bargain.
But as the days wore on, the sun shining longer on each one, he found he couldn’t do it. He’d look into her eyes, study her face, note new freckles, and he’d be gone. He’d take her in his arms and kiss those soft, beestung lips and want this to go on forever. They’d lie in the bliss of her bedroom with its crimson organza curtains, frantic for each other; or sit downstairs on her sofa, cuddling and caressing, while life went on and the kids had tennis lessons or other sport, and Margie had her yoga and life drawing art classes and pottery, all of which filled up the weekday evenings.
“I’m going to Germany for a week tomorrow.” He squinted into the sun, watching Todger run, barking joyfully, after birds he had no chance of catching.
“Short notice.” Gemma threw a ball for Saffy.
“I’ve known for a while. I – I was going to suggest that we don’t see each other when I come back.”
Gemma felt herself turn cold. She’d heard of people doing that but hadn’t experienced it before. She couldn’t move. Finally: “Is that what you really want, Hugh?”
“No, sweetheart. Not at all. That’s why I funked it. I couldn’t tell you.” He took the ball from Saffy, because Gemma seemed to have turned to stone. “I can’t imagine going back to life without you.”
“Nor can I.”
Uncaring of who saw them on such a sunny afternoon, when the moor was full of dogs and dog owners, and pug-faced vets walking their pug-faced dogs, Hugh and Gemma kissed passionately.
A lean middle-aged man with thick, salt and pepper hair and a fearsome Jack Russell cross – all teeth, noise and long, wiry hair – snorted as he walked past them. Todger left the birds, bounded up to say hello, the man barked “Down!” and the terrier barked and snarled, snapping at Todger’s heels until the retriever backed away.
“I’d better pack,” Hugh said finally, when he’d got Todger back sitting at his feet. “I’ll e-mail you from Germany, Gem.” He planted one last kiss on her peony-pink lips. “I love you,” he said for the first time, and bent down to put Todger back on the leash.
“I love you too, Hugh,” Gemma said, her voice cracking in delight.
“See you in a week, then.” His grin, stretching wider than she’d ever seen it, was all the proof she needed that somehow they could go on.
Gemma turned away feeling light as a feather. It was out in the open, said, admitted.
The middle-aged man watched her walk jauntily away, Saffy at her heels, a woman head over heels in love. He watched Hugh, too; adultery in motion, if he wasn’t mistaken. Each to his own, as he said to the terrier, who pulled and barked and yipped. The man wondered idly how the two lovers managed to have such well-trained dogs.
* * *
Todger was miserable when Hugh left for Germany. He waited anxiously every day for the BMW to pull up in the drive, his leash in his mouth.
After three days Margie took pity on him. The kids were out at friends’ houses and she herself would be going out soon, but the poor thing deserved a walk.
She filled her pockets with treats, as Hugh did, and set out for the reserve and the moors.
It was the first time she’d been out with Todger by herself during the week; this was Hugh’s domain. He told her it cleared his mind after a day at work and she could see why. The fresh air, the birdsong, the sunshine, the other dogs running and barking. It was like a scene from a picture book of village life.
She let Todger loose and he raced into the pack of other dogs, golden coat rippling, tail flailing. A pretty liver-coloured Springer spaniel yipped with joy and ran to sniff him, and Margie grinned as they played chasing. Then both dogs raced over to a slim girl with reddish hair, standing about 50 yards away, and jumped up at her.
She hugged the Springer, and Margie clearly heard her cry, “Down, Todger!” in the clear spring air. Todger obligingly sat at the girl’s feet and waited for a treat. The girl fondled his ears and said something to him to make the big feathery tail wave a dust storm on the ground.
Interesting. Margie walked towards her, and Todger’s head turned from one woman to the other.
“Hello,” Margie said conversationally. “I see you know our dog.”
“Yes,” the girl said; was she blushing? “I’ve met your husband walking him.”
“His name’s Roger,” Margie continued.
Gemma froze. Oh, hell. “Is it?” she stammered. “I thought I heard your husband call him Todger.”
“He’s not supposed to. It’s a bit embarrassing. A long story.”
Gemma didn’t say she knew it. She was aware of Margie’s eyes assessing her coolly. I think she knows, Gemma thought wildly. She knows, and now it will all be over. No more Hugh. This is the end. He’s in Germany, he loves me, and this is the end.
Todger barked delightedly and nosed Gemma’s pockets and then her crotch. Like dog, like master, she thought wildly, and pushed the dog away. “Must be going,” she managed. “Nice to meet you. Come on, Saffy.”
Todger followed them half the way home, with Margie calling him back, before submitting to the leash – no treats! – and dragging him away.
* * *
Margie didn’t go straight home. Thoughtfully, she wandered through the village. Todger, picking up on her mood, was decidedly nervous.
She knocked on a dark blue door at the front of a large, golden stone house, and heard the insane bark of something small and hairy.
The door opened, the Jack Russell cross flew at Todger’s legs and Todger firstly yelped then snapped back. Over the sounds of dogs fighting, the middle-aged man with salt-and-pepper hair said,
“Margaret! Darling, come in!”
Five minutes later the terrier sat glarily on the sofa and Todger was exploring the small front garden and deciding which plants needed uprooting. Their owners sat on the sofa, either side of the grumbly terrier.
“He’s seeing someone, Charles.”
“So are you, darling. Me. Otherwise known as yoga, painting, pottery or whatever. I hope Hugh never asks you to bring one of your pots home.”
“Darling, he wouldn’t notice if I did or didn’t. He’s always been vague. I never thought he’d have the balls to have an affair.”
“The girl with the spaniel?”
“Yes. She’s very pretty.”
“So are you. What are you going to do? Tell him you know?”
Margie smiled into her chardonnay. “Not at the moment. If I tell him I know, he’ll stop seeing her – or at least stop seeing her at the same times I see you – and that’ll really throw a spanner in OUR works. After all, I persuaded him to move up here so we could go on together.”
Charles caressed her shoulder and the terrier’s rumble increased to the hum of angry bees. “If you tell him, you might be able to come to an amicable separation. He has his spaniel lass, you have me. Darling, you know I’d look after you and the children. I know we agreed to wait until they were older but just think…”
“Let me think about it while he’s in Germany,” she said. Despite the terrier’s protests, she leaned over and kissed Charles slowly and sexily on the mouth.
* * *
Gemma had decided to knock on Margie’s door and come clean. She’d tell Margie it would be over between Hugh and herself, and apologise profusely, and take the blame for leading Hugh on. Anything so he didn’t lose his children!
With a heavy heart she and Saffy got into the car to drive to the next village – she didn’t think her legs would carry her there on their own at the moment. She knew their address; Hugh had taken her there once when the family was out, and the interior designer in her had longed to make something of it and add colour and life to the magnolia walls.
As she drove slowly down the high street, she saw a familiar face – or rather backside – digging purposefully in a front garden that definitely wasn’t Hugh’s. What was Todger doing here? Locked in?
She stopped the car outside the house, noting its elegant façade and tall windows, knowing how big and graceful it would be inside. Peering in, even through the dirty car windows, she could clearly make out Margie and a vaguely familiar man in a clinch, arms around each other. The head of an angry small dog popped up from time to time between their knees as they kissed, its frantic bark just discernable. Occasionally the man swatted it down to the floor, but it leapt up again, little feet scrabbling.
“Well,” said Gemma. “Well.” She grinned and turned the car around, her heart lighter. Hugh would be back in two days. She would suggest to him that he loan the dog training book to Margie, as she was sure Margie knew someone who needed it.
© 2005 Caroline Sully.
Reproduction without the author’s permission strictly prohibited