Panicking, I began to call him – quietly at first, in case he’d just crawled into a hidey-hole and dozed off again – then louder and louder. Hang next door’s request for peace and quiet on a Sunday afternoon! This was far more important.
I retraced my steps and visited each of his favourite hiding places, even shouting for him in the back garden. Nothing! I was just getting my car keys and thinking who to call for help, when the doorbell rang. Mr Armstrong stood there with his arms behind his back, looking all official and a bit perturbed.
“If you’ve come to complain about the noise, Mr Armstrong I’m afraid you’ve picked the wrong time. My grandson’s gone missing and I can’t find him anywhere.”
Without a word he produced a little muddy bundle from behind his back. A little white paw identified which puppy he’d found, and I stood there speechless. I hadn’t even looked at the puppies! I took the squirming little fluff ball back to his mum and as I placed him down amongst the others, I counted – one, two, three…
“The little one – she’s gone too!”
“Well that one was sniffing about in my k-kitchen,”
“If you’re after an apology,” I snapped, “it’s really not the time to…”
“No, not at all. I knew there must be something wrong and came straight away – I was c-concerned – truly.”
One look in his eyes – deep brown, I noticed – and I could see he was being sincere. I let out a breath I hadn’t even realised I’d been holding.
“There must be a hole…” Mr Armstrong had followed me into the back garden.
“No I mended it before Christmas!”
“Well the pup got out somehow” he said, filled with concern and a warmth I hadn’t noticed before.
But then I hadn’t been up this close before. It was a bit unnerving actually … and a bit worrying – noticing him in the middle of a crisis! Pull yourself together Gracie for goodness sake! And then I did something which just a few hours before would have been unthinkable – I asked my ratty, stuck up next-door neighbour for a favour.
“Would you please help me look?” I found myself saying, urgent need overtaking the events of the past.
He must have seen the desperation in my face, and it was like a barrier suddenly lifted. As if someone had suddenly kicked him into action, he transformed before my eyes and took charge. Galvanised, he rolled up his sleeves and took command!
“I’ll go check my garden, you double-check your house. We’re looking for the other missing puppy as well, are we? He couldn’t have gone over the back wall and he couldn’t have opened the front door. Are any of the windows open?” I shook my head.
“Well he can’t have gone far.”
My eyes welled up at this sudden kindness. Friends nearby are one thing, but it’s completely different having a resourceful man at your disposal in times of need. Especially one you thought didn’t like you very much.
“And don’t worry – we’ll find him.” with a sharp, military turn, he swiftly disappeared out the door again.
I blinked and followed his lead, making myself become a woman determined to find her grandson, rather than a wobbly heap who kept thinking the worst.
“OK, Gracie my girl,” I said to myself, “If I was a three year old, making a dash for freedom with a little puppy or two under my arm, where would I go…?” And I proceeded to retrace my steps round the house, in every nook and cranny of my back garden, through the allotment, under the shrubs, behind the trees, and in the shed.
I felt the tight band around my chest again. This couldn’t be happening. Taking a deep breath, I bent down to pick up Ryan’s ball, when suddenly I noticed that some of the mud had been disturbed right underneath one of the bushes next to the fence between the two gardens. Bending down and lifting a branch, I saw where my make-shift fence repair had been pushed apart, and a Ryan-sized hole now appeared.
“Oh,” I gasped, knowing exactly where to look next and I ran to ‘im next door.
Just as I ran up his hallway, Mr Armstrong was coming back out. He made a ‘shush’ gesture, and beckoned me to the back of his house. I could only dare hope as we approached the open door of his utility room, just off the kitchen. As we got closer, he smiled; it was the first time I’d ever seen him smile. Well my heart skipped a little beat – but then I had been rushing, I told myself!
He pointed towards the corner of the room, and sure enough, there beneath a bundle of sheets, lay a small muddy boy with a small muddy puppy tucked under his arm. Both were fast asleep. I almost cried with relief, and stepped back outside to compose myself before tackling the difficult task of what to say to Ryan when I woke him.
A long slow breath came out and the tightness in my chest went away – it was quite overwhelming. I gathered my thoughts and became very self-conscious that I was standing in the middle of ’im next door’s neatly kept utility room, and that my missing grandson, the puppy thief, had covered a pile of clean washing in mud! If I didn’t know better I’d have sworn it was Northern Nights bedding too.
“Thank you – thank you so much. I’m really so sorry to have put you through this and disturbed your Sunday afternoon, and ruined your washing, Mr Armstrong.”
“Don’t worry yourself. These things happen,” he said. ”It was a pleasure to help.”
We looked at each other awkwardly – and smiled at each other even more awkwardly – suddenly I felt like a kid again.
“Can I – can I tempt you with a cup of tea, before you go back next door? It’s only Earl Gray I’m afraid, Mrs Morris, but if that’s ok….”
“That’d be just perfect. And do call me Grace,”
“Well, do call me Nathaniel.”
“Nathaniel?” I smiled.
“Nathan to my friends – and to neighbours with missing grandchildren.”
“And I’m Gracie to my friends – and to kind neighbours who help me find them, and who don’t mind a bit of mess on their sheets…Oh!.” I laughed, then he laughed, then from relief I found myself crying, and a crisp white hanky suddenly materialised before my eyes.
I gratefully accepted the kind gesture from this man I’d never really bothered to get to know before. I turned and felt a firm, friendly hand in the small of my back, gently guiding me back to his warm kitchen. Suddenly he didn’t feel like a stranger at all and I was dying to find out more about him.
He made a lovely little tea tray, complete with homemade scones – of all things, and took me into the lounge. There in the fireplace, instead of the wood burning stove that I had in mine, were some elegant candles.
“Is that a Tiffany?” I asked, pointing at the colourful stained glass lamp with flowers and dragonflies which stood in the corner of the room.
“Yes – an original. My wife was quite a collector, God rest her. Do you like them? They’re not everyone’s cup of tea I know,”
“No I like them a lot!” I said. Then, on the back of the sofa I noticed a neatly folded up blanket, which looked like it had sleeves.
“You don’t…you don’t watch QVC too by any chance, do you?”
“Only a few shows,” he said, “But don’t say I told you or my military mates will rib me something chronic!”
“I thought I was the only addict in this street!”
“Well it was you who first got me interested, I must admit – all those empty boxes in your recycling – but when I began watching it I realised why you ordered so much!”
“Well presents mainly. Not all for me, you understand,” I said, realising I was blushing just a little bit.
He laughed – and it was a rich, deep sound which seemed to fill the room with a vibrant energy. I wondered how I could have missed so much over the last five years.
“And I like to buy the plants…”
“Ah yes, the plants,” he said, raising his eyebrows a little. Oops – the parcel incident. I looked at him awkwardly.
“Well it was a bit strange, my begonias disappearing like that – only to reappear the very next day.”
“But I’d ordered some too,” he said. “They were my very first purchase as a matter of fact. If your friend Jean had let me get a word in I could have told you that your ones must have come the next day. I only realised it afterwards, once I’d thought it all through. The postman must have automatically assumed the parcel was yours, and not looked at the label, so when I saw my name on it, I just retrieved it. I was going to tell you that evening but…”
“But Jean got to you first, didn’t she?”
“Yes – frightened the life out of me if the truth be known! And I have a bit of a problem with attractive women – I get all tongue tied.”
“Like that Nora from number 19?” I asked mischievously.
“Well actually no not Nora. Especially not since the week we won the pub quiz – she was cheating! Being really pushy! Trying to use her mobile under the table to get the answers. She wouldn’t be told. Good job Harry put her straight in the end.”
“Oh, right,” I smiled, another one of Jean’s theories gone out the window.
“Anyway, the lads don’t want her back on our team again! Now you, on the other hand, well if you ever wanted to defect please feel free! No-one’s impressed me with their knowledge of ancient Egypt so much, not since my trip down the Nile a few years ago”
“The Nile,” I said, feeling a dreamy feeling start to come over me.
“You been there?”
“No but it’s on my wish list.”
A broad smile spread across his face and he began to chuckle.
“I don’t believe it! Wish I’d known! Especially since I’ve been trying to work out for ages how to start a proper conversation with you.” He beamed at me and this time it was a full-on blush that came to my cheeks.
“One of the reasons I tried QVC in the first place, I suppose. So I’d have something to discuss, rather than falling all over my words every time you passed by,”
“I really thought you didn’t like me.”
“And I thought that I’d have no chance after that parcel affair. I just left well alone. I’m a great believer in fate. ‘Que sera, sera’. and all that.”
“Doris Day, 1956”
“Ah yes, the legendary pub quiz Mensa brain!”
We laughed, and over the next half hour, and several more cups of Earl Grey, we straightened out all the remaining misunderstandings – including that he wasn’t complaining about Darren’s beeping earlier that day, just popping over to ask if Ryan would like his old tennis ball to play with. We soon discovered just how much we had in common – and it wasn’t just shopping telly. Not long afterwards we heard a noise and went out to where Ryan was just beginning to wake up, and a snuffling puppy loosened itself from his grip and came wagging towards me.
“Hello Grandma,” Ryan said, smiling sleepily and rubbing his eyes, so cute, I didn’t have the heart to chastise him.
“This is Mr Armstrong, Ryan,”
“Nathaniel,” he corrected, and endearingly reached out to play-shake the little man’s hand, “That’s a lovely little puppy you’ve got there, young man.”
“Yes, she’s piti-ful”
“Pitiful, darling?” I asked – there it was again!
“Yes, she’s lovely and cute and all fluffy”
“I think he’s trying to say pretty and beautiful, and it’s coming out all muddled,” whispered Mr Armstrong – Nathaniel – Nat – and he winked at me.
“Yes, pretty-ful, like you Grandma! But you can take her now, cos I want to watch the telly and puppies aren’t like fuman beings, they don’t like the telly do they,”
“No, darling, but your new little sister will be able to watch it with you when she’s older!” I felt my heart fill with happiness, and for two very different reasons I couldn’t stop beaming for the rest of the day.
That night, when Ryan’s mum and dad came to pick him up, sleepy-eyed and dreamy, I had a little surprise for them. Ryan picked up the card he and I had made, and gave it to them. It said ‘thank you for making me a big brother.’ Anita teared up.
“I don’t know how you’ve managed it, but I’m glad you did!”
“And we can repay you in cheesecake!” Darren said, taking his sleeping son from me and kissing me on the cheek. Anita handed me a takeaway box.
“By the way, that waiter wants to know when you’ll be coming back again,” Anita smiled,
“Maybe sooner than I expected,” I beamed, and as they closed the door I realised that this might be the last time I’d be settling down with Harrison Ford on DVD as my Valentine’s treat. Jean would say I was being a bit ‘previous’. But I had a good feeling that this next decade was going to be a whole lot better than the last! That night at midnight, the new Today’s Special Value was a Tiffany Lamp in the shape of a cup of tea – and I knew just who to buy it for as a belated thank you gift, for one of the most memorable Valentine’s I’d had in years.