Here's a little story for you all this Valentines Day…
“What are you doing for Valentine’s Day, Grace?” my best friend Jean asked me, as I finished my third cup of Earl Grey from one of her best china cups. “On your own all evening, watching sad films again?”
She never pauses for breath, does Jean.
“Cos If you are,” she went on, “‘I’ve got a really good one you can borrow. Harrison Ford in the remake of that old Audrey Hepburn film. Oo, what’s it called again now?”
“Sabrina,” I replied, “and shut your beak, missus, going on and on about Valentine’s Day, or you’ll be one-down for the pub quiz this week!”
She smiled and dodged my gentle nudge.
“You wouldn’t let us down, Gracie. You know how close the Ancient Marines came to pipping us at the post last week – we can’t do without old Mensa brain!”
“Don’t worry, seeing the look on ‘im Next Door’s face when we beat them by just 2 points was priceless! I wouldn’t miss that for the world.”
My neighbour – or Him Next Door as Jean and I call him – was a stuffy old so and so, a stickler for rules – like, where to put this, and how to prune that, and never failed to tell me so. He was often the topic of conversation when I got together with my oldest friend. Beating his team of ex-military stuffed shirts at the local pub quiz was the highlight of my week. Well, that and my grandchildren visiting. And my little pet pooch having pups! As usual though, Jean was in full swing.
“Well he’d been giving you daggers anyway. Even before they announced we’d won – he’d been looking all night. If you didn’t opt to sit with your back to him, you’d have seen.”
“No thanks, I’d rather sit and watch your Nigel’s pained expression trying to think of European capitals, than look at ‘mister military’. And yes, you can dig out that DVD for me, just in case. But I do have plenty going on on Valentine’s weekend, so don’t worry about me”
“Oh, of course! Your grand-poodles are leaving the nest! Bit traumatic is it?”
“They’re Bichon Frise, not poodles!”
“Same difference. Won’t you miss them?”
“No, it’s time for them all to go to their new homes. They’re getting quite a handful. And poor Cindy’s getting quite worn out too. Actually, I’m quite looking forward to no more ‘conservatory full of wee wee’ and garden full of little piles of puppy p…”
“Eouww!! The thought of half an hour clearing up pup-poop each day makes me feel queasy!”
We laughed at Jean’s fussy nature and delicate disposition – her house is spotless – she’s never had pets, and probably never will. Apart from her Nigel!
“Ye-e-e-es Jean?” I asked – I knew that tone of voice. It usually involved my getting mixed up in one of her weird and wonderful schemes…
“Don’t you think it’s time – you know – don’t you think it’s been long enough and maybe you could start, well – start doing something more special?” I shrugged, but she continued.
“You know what I think?”
“Nope, but I’m sure you’re going to tell me!”
“It’s about time you were treated on Valentine’s – you know, nice meal, nice show, nice snuggle on the sofa afterwards…You know Albert down the working men’s club is always asking after you.”
“Like I said, I’ve got Cindy!” I grinned, and changed the subject. Jean smiled a little smile, and let me be – knowing I’m a lost cause where men are concerned. Nowadays anyway.
We finished our gossip – mainly about Nora in number 19, and her penchant for cheating at the quiz. Then we made a date for our next ‘coffee and chat’, or ‘gossip and gateaux’ as she calls it, before I walked briskly back up the road in the crisp afternoon sunshine.
I know why she’s so concerned though – this year it will be ten years since my Don died. Jean’s lucky – her Nigel is always very creative for Valentine’s Day. Weekends in Paris, riverboat cruises, a trip down the Nile – what I wouldn’t give for the occasional treat like that.
But not with Nigel. Sometimes, he’s more about the ‘originality’ and less about the ‘practicality’. Like the time he decided they should play Heathcliff and Cathy up on the moors in minus four degrees…. but that’s another story.
No, I’m OK – I’m used to contenting myself with my soppy movies and my fluffy pooch and, if I’m lucky, a grandchild or two to stop over. That and my Catch Up TV can see me through the darkest days. And longest nights. And there have been a few.
Pushing open my little white gate, I noticed the first snowdrops peeping out from the soil in next door’s carefully manicured front garden, and felt a little spring in my step. I love flowers. Even ‘im Next Door’s! I was looking forward to the begonia Special Value from my favourite gardening expert, Richard Jackson, on shopping telly that night. I knew I had to order it because last year’s had been the star of my display, helping me win our road’s Best Basket Award. I quite fancied myself carrying off the trophy again this year. Anything to keep it from Nutty Nora. Or ‘im Next Door.
With a little bit of pizzazz, a dash of luck, and a sprinkling or two of Richard Jackson’s Magic Plant Food, maybe I could. That’d show Mr High and Mighty next door who’s Top of the Pots! Suddenly a voice made me jump.
“M-Morning, Mrs M-Morris.”
Talk of the devil! Scared the blooming life out of me, he did. Wonder if he caught me eyeing up his snowdrops? Hope not – wouldn’t want him to think I admire his garden. Where’d he spring from anyway? Still, I smiled, like the good neighbour I prefer to be.
“Good Morning, Mr Armstrong,” I said, fiddling with the key in the lock. He always makes me a bit jittery. “Cold again, isn’t it.”
“Yes, M-M-M-Mrs Morris, I c-concur, it is indeed. I’ve been meaning to…”
But I couldn’t stand around waiting for him to tell me something else I’d done wrong, so I slammed my door, blocking out the rest.
After hurrying indoors before he could ask me questions, I peeped from behind the curtain and saw him still standing there. Bold as brass, there he was, still looking over my fence! What on earth at? I shook my head in wonder at what he was up to. He’s a tall chap – proud, carries himself very upright. Silvery hair and a weathered face. Dark eyes, and still has quite dark eyebrows, bit like my Don had. He’s trim too – keeps himself in good shape. Cycles everywhere, even in winter.
Some women in our road would think he’s quite presentable…. in a certain light.
Women who can’t do things on their own. Who can’t do without a man to look after them. Women who wouldn’t mind having someone – anyone – rather than no one. And women who don’t keep catching THIS one nosing through their recycling. Cheeky blighter! He probably thinks it’s his job to check I’ve got the right thing in the right box. He is a strange one.
I stood there a while, pondering…. Maybe it was him that pinched my parcel from outside my door last Spring?
It was the weirdest thing – Jean said she’d seen a big package left on my step early one morning. Then later, as she was driving by she reckons she saw ‘im Next Door bending over the fence towards it. But by the time I got back from my morning shift in the little coffee shop, expecting to find my lovely Begonia Fragrant Fountain Mixed Corms, the parcel was nowhere to be seen. Couldn’t believe it! I didn’t want to mention it, as he makes me kind of nervous, but she made me.
When we tackled him the next morning, though, he blatantly lied that I’d even got a parcel, despite a thorough dressing down from Jean. Anyway, I was livid that my long-awaited parcel had disappeared. They were all sold out on the website, so I wouldn’t be able to get any more, and I’d planned a whole display around the peach colour as the centrepiece. I just go quiet when I’m angry, but Jean didn’t let him get a word in edgeways and he hasn’t spoken to her since.
Then, blow me down, the next afternoon when I came back from my coffee shop, lo and behold, it had reappeared. There was the parcel sitting on my step! So either he did take it, then felt guilty and put it back, or else there’s a plant thief out there who was so put off by seeing ugly corms instead of the usual pretty plug plants that he changed his mind and brought it back!
Anyway, he’s a man of few words, is my neighbour, and most of them come out a bit at a time, so when he saw me holding the parcel, he merely nodded, stood up even straighter than usual, and went straight back inside, with an ‘I-told-you-so’ kind of march. And even if Jean was adamant he whipped them, I couldn’t be sure, so I let the matter rest. She doesn’t have to live next door to him! ‘Polite and cold’ is better than not talking at all, especially if your neighbour’s the one who occasionally signs for parcels for you if you’re out, when the postie comes. My special deliveries mean a lot.
It’s one of my great passions, my garden, second only to the patter of tiny paws – and feet.
It has to be said, I did go off gardening for a while after Don died.
Well you do when you’ve been with someone so long. He was my childhood sweetheart after all.
We had our wedding at 18, our three kids by age 24, and we’d grown thirty-six types of Daffodil by the time the grandchildren arrived on the scene! Together we spent many a warm summer night watering the plants, putting the world to rights and doing synchronised dead-heading.
I changed it all to turf when he went.
Didn’t have the urge to do it on my own.
Then a few years ago, my daughter Sarah bought me some lovely lilies off the telly, and bet me I couldn’t grow them as big as next door’s. So I did!
Well, his WERE getting on my nerves ‘cos they were blocking the light in my porch.
I tended them, fed them, kept them watered and weed free, and sure enough, up they came double sharpish! Mine were taller, stronger and much, much bigger! Sure, I know Richard Jackson’s ‘substances’ played a part, but ‘im Next Door didn’t have to know! After that, I was hooked again. Green-fingers Grace they call me now. Well, in between litters of Bichon Frise when they call me something else!
So nowadays there’s a bit of a competition in our street – most houses enter, but the main contenders are usually Jean, her neighbour Dawn, Nora at number 19, and ‘im Next Door. I didn’t let on at first about the plant food, but then I had to tell Jean, and she told Dawn. Mr Armstrong and Nora could only smile through gritted teeth as our flowers all got taller and taller despite all their best efforts to keep up! Hehe! I’m pretty sure he’s trained his scraggy cat to ‘go’ on my borders in revenge. Rotten moggy – it’s a vicious old thing, I swear it takes a swipe at my puppies if they get too near.
Anyway, another year, another trophy.
And… another year, another Valentine’s Day. Alone.
Some people would be bothered, in my situation, but I’ve learned to cope. Well, you do, don’t you. You know what I mean – no sense in feeling fed up about it – you just have to learn new skills. I see it as a challenge. And some are definitely more challenging than others!
Changing light bulbs, fixing fuses, mending holes in fences – I’ve got used to being more resourceful. Nothing daunts me much anymore, I’m glad to say – you get like that at my age and I’m still in quite good nick for being in my early sixties! Well that’s what I tell myself most of the time anyway – even if sometimes the mirror disagrees.
The other day, though, I was a bit surprised at something my little grandson said to me – it wasn’t what you expect to come out of a three year old’s mouth, I can tell you! We’d been talking about what I was wearing in a photo they were looking at, and all of a sudden, he said,
“You’re piti-ful grandma”
“Oh, OK Ryan,” is all I could manage. I was a bit hurt I must admit, thinking maybe he’d overheard his mother say something. But I put it down to her hormones – she’s expecting their second one, and I know what I was like when I was pregnant. You can be a bit ratty when you look and feel like a barrage balloon. Especially when your first-born’s been giving you a bit of a hard time over it all. Acting a bit babyish again and getting stroppy. Well maybe it’s the terrible two’s – although he’s just turned three now. Perhaps he just detects something’s changing.
I think he’ll soon come round, although his mum’s a bit worried. As she keeps telling me. She’s mostly lovely, my daughter-in-law Lisa, but lately she’s been almost as high maintenance as little Ryan is! Anyway, when I told her so, she joked about it and laughed it off, so I let the subject go. I did wonder what Ryan meant though, and I’ve found myself putting on a bit of extra makeup each day since!
My three kids all take turns to come see me, bless them, and as 14th February would be Anita and Darren’s Sunday to visit, I offered to baby-sit Ryan for them. That way the two of them could go somewhere romantic for the evening. I did have a fleeting moment when I wondered what it would be like to have a romantic encounter myself on Valentine’s Day. Or any day! But never mind.
At least I knew I’d have some company to cheer me up on Valentine’s Day. That, and seeing three of the last few cute little puppies off to their new carefully vetted families – nothing nicer than seeing the joy in little children’s faces when they’re handed their brand new bundle of fluff to love and care for!
The days ticked by. ‘Im Next Door was curt but polite, and so was I – we were like two old stuck records.
“M-morning, Mrs Morris. Cold today.”
“Morning Mr Armstrong. Yes very crisp.”
“E-evening, Mrs Morris. Nice sunset.”
“Evening Mr. Armstrong. Yes very nice.”
Sometimes it looked like he opened his mouth to say something more, then thought better of it and closed it again. It got me wondering what on earth he wanted to say to me. Probably ‘you’ve put your plastic in the bottle basket’ or something equally finicky. Annoys me cos I’m very particular about recycling – got to be green, that’s what I say.
The puppies got bigger, louder and generally more boisterous so that occasionally, I’d leave them running round the back garden having some fun, so that Cindy and I could retreat into the lounge for little breaks. There we’d sit, wrapped up toasty warm, my pooch in front of my fire, and me in my Slanket, (a clever little contraption – a blanket with sleeves, if you ever did!) reading or watching TV by the light of my Tiffany lamps, with the fragrant smell of Midnight Jasmine and Honeysuckle Candles. Who says I watch too much QVC! Well they are my favourite shopping channel. It’s a bit of company and all that, even if it is through a glass screen. Nice having someone talking to you like a friend in your own lounge. Someone you can just switch off when they get on your nerves!
Occasionally, though, I’d sit in silence. And through the walls, I could hear what ‘im Next Door was up to. I’d expected him to be fully devoted to war films or the like. But it was music, mostly, and occasionally an old movie – you know the type where they talk in clipped tones and even the common ones sound like they’re putting on a posh voice. Not that I listen to what he’s up to ALL the time, I hasten to add. But once, I tried closing my eyes, and although it wasn’t quite the same, I could almost pretend there was someone else in the same house as me.
Then the peace would be shattered, and there would be all sorts of yelping and hissing, and I was jolted out of my private little world to attend to the latest battle between feline and canine, and quickly rush out the back garden in time to stop Devil Cat Next Door tearing into my loveable little puppies.
The week before Valentine’s Day, at the pub quiz, The Ancient Marines were a man down, and Nora from number 19 joined them. Apparently that was the first time Mr Armstrong didn’t keep glaring my way all night, Jean said.
Jean said he kept whispering away to Nora instead. Well that’s what Jean said. In fact, she said it even looked like she thought she could see them holding hands under the table at one point, if you ever did! He’s got such big hands too – don’t know how he keeps them so neat, given how often he’s out tending his plants. Not that I’ve been looking – I just happened to notice when he handed me some post one day. Anyway what’s worse is that his team beat us by one point that week! One point! Probably explains why I felt in such a bad mood that night. I went back and ordered four rose bushes and a new wind chime to cheer myself up.
Finally the 14th was here, and right on cue, my lunch and dinner date arrived.
In ran little Ryan, face aglow with excitement.
“Can I play with the puppies, please, please?”
“Course you can darling – they’re with their mummy out in the back garden. Get your wellies on first though, it’s a bit muddy!”
“Thanks so much, Grace,” said Lisa, as Ryan dumped his little rucksack at my feet and practically flew towards the back door.
“He’s been looking forward to this for days!”
“Has he said anything else about the new baby on the way?” I whispered, taking Lisa to one side as Ryan flew out the back, squealing and making puppy noises.
“No still the same – walks off when I try to talk about it.”
“He’ll come round I’m sure – he’s probably just had his nose put out of joint ‘cos he can’t jump all over you any more,”
“No he can’t, he…. ooh, there’s another kick! Feel!” S
he plonked my hand on her tum and I felt a tiny little flutter against my palm.
“Anyway, Darren says we’ll pop back for him around ten – is that OK? We’ll save you some profiteroles!”
A loud beep sounded from the people-carrier on the road – or rather a ‘beep da da beep beep,… BEEP BEEEEEEP’ to be precise. Darren inherited that from my Don – I find it quite endearing but it gets a bit annoying if he’s kept waiting too long. So I shooed Lisa out the door.
“Go on, you get off and have a lovely time!”
“We will don’t worry,” she shouted back over her shoulder
“Oh and I’d prefer a bit of New York Cheesecake if you get the chance!” I called, “And give that Italian waiter a wink for me!”
She laughed as she waddled through the gate. Darren gave me a wave and an extra long BEEEEP and they disappeared off down the road. I watched them go, waving till they were out of sight, feeling proud that my eldest was building himself a happy little family. Then I turned to go in and join in the fun, chasing after six bundles of muddy fluff, all gambolling and tumbling after a giggling three year old, round and round the back garden. But just before the door closed behind me, there was a knock which made me jump.
“S-sorry, b-but I…”
A red-faced Mr Armstrong stood there, stumbling over his words – as usual.
“I just…just wanted to say, Mrs Morris, that I heard your son b-beeping, and …”
I sighed irritably – I wasn’t in the mood for ‘im Next Door’s complaints.
“…don’t tell me, let me guess – it disturbed you? He’s very loud, yes I know. Mr Armstrong, I’m very sorry my son was excited and couldn’t wait to take his wife for a romantic day out. Perhaps that makes some single people resentful on a day like this. But never fear, I promise I’ll ask him not to make it such a symphony next time. Now if you don’t mind, my grandson’s with me and I can’t stand here talking.”
Then heart pounding, I closed the door abruptly before he could speak again. I’m sure it was the confrontation making me all a jitter. I calmed myself, then went back in and prepared a lovely lunch for me and my little man.
Two of the families came together and collected their puppies whilst Ryan was finishing his food, and he was a bit perplexed about the missing ones when he came and joined me again. I explained that they’d gone on an exciting journey to their new homes, so that other children could be as happy as he was to play with their new pet.
“But I like the puppies,” he told me, “I like them all. I want the little one. Can I keep him?”
“’Her’ – the tiniest one over there is a girl-doggy, darling. I’m afraid she’s been promised to a new family too – another little boy is coming to pick her up tomorrow so he can take her home and give her some love. She’ll be happy with them. But till then she can play with you and all her brothers.”
“What about that uvva one? Wiv the pink bits onniz feet?”
“The little boy with pink spots on his paws? Well he’s going to be collected later on today actually.”
His little face fell, and for a moment I wondered if having him here today was such a good idea.
“Don’t worry about him, darling, he’ll have lots of fun! He’ll be just as happy in his new home as he is here – once he’s settled in. All the puppies are excited about meeting their new owners!…..”
He didn’t look convinced.
“…And just think – They’ll have much more room. No fighting for enough food.”
“Won’t they be lonely?”
“Well I do make sure that in every family I send them to, there’s a little girl, or boy like you, to play lots of games with them and give them lots of attention. That’s what puppies do – they go to new homes.”
Ryan’s little brow furrowed, and he seemed deep in thought. I hoped there wasn’t going to be a scene, and suddenly a thought occurred to me.
“Not like you. You’ll have a new baby that doesn’t have to leave.. I know you like the puppies but soon you’ll have a little sister or brother – someone who’s at home with you all the time. And when they’re a little bit bigger, they’ll be there for you to play with and keep you company?”
I looked hopeful, and a long pause was followed by a gently nod. It seemed like a little light bulb had gone off inside Ryan’s head, and he looked at me with his big brown eyes and said,
“Will the tiniest puppy have her own bed in the little boy’s home?”
“Yes, and a nice bowl and new collar!” “Will she play in a garden?”
“I think so darling,” I replied.
For a few moments, Ryan seemed deep in thought, looking over at the sleeping pups.
“Will I be able to watch Ben10 later,”
“Oh! Yes of course you can,” and I ruffled his hair, glad he’d forgotten all about not being able to see the puppies for much longer.
Or so I thought.
Jean popped by in the afternoon while Ryan was having his nap and couldn’t wait to tell me all about this year’s Valentine’s surprise she’d been given by Nigel. Over our usual Earl Grey, I told her all about the little drama with ‘im Next Door at lunchtime.
“So he just stood there, bold as brass, having a pop about your Darren’s beeping? Who does he think he is – the noise police? What a liberty!”
We laughed, knowing she’d just done a Catherine Tate impression! She’s just like that ‘Nan’ character, is Jean.
“Well, it was quite loud – p’raps he couldn’t hear his Sunday lunchtime concerto on the radio?”
I don’t know why, but I found myself sticking up for Mr Armstrong. Maybe it was because Jean was angry enough for both of us.
“I’d have given him a piece of my mind!”
“He’s still smarting from the last piece you gave him, Jean!” She looked at me strangely.
“Don’t get me wrong, sometimes I’d like to tell him to poke his nose out, too. But it’d be too much trouble – having to clear the air again afterwards. I just wish I could go back to having a proper relationship with a next door neighbour.”
“A ‘proper’ relationship, eh? Maybe deep down you’ve got a secret crush on our Mr Armstrong! Perhaps you’d like his arms to be strong around you!”
I shook my head and made a face at another of her awful jokes. But I’d felt a weird little tingle inside my tummy. I shook myself.
“We’ve got absolutely nothing in common,”
“…. Yes but he’s not interested in my ‘bulbs’, Jean, believe me!” I winked.
“He’s always so stand-offish!” Jean just raised an eyebrow.
“Maybe he’s just playing hard to get!”
“And he’s not my type.”
“Why not? You like them fussy about recycling….”
“ And I like nice fluffy dogs and he likes vicious wild cats. So, keep trying, Cilla!”
“Well, stranger things have happened. You never know, maybe the new man of your dreams has been right under your nose and you never knew it!”
“Oh My God! Remind me to avoid you this time next year – Valentine’s Day obviously does weird things to your brain! Anyway tell me – I know you’ve been dying to. What’s this year’s big surprise?”
“You’ll never guess – Nigel’s going to be King Arthur and I’m Queen Guinevere at a Medieval Banquet tonight in St Catherine’s Dock!”
“Oh no – free-flowing mead in a half pint jug. By the end of the night you’ll be wishing you could go trade him in for Lancelot!”
We laughed and chatted for a bit longer till Jean was collected by Nigel of the Round Table. She takes the mick, but she loves it all really. Good for her.
Then it was time for me to check in on my little knight in shining armour – all that fresh air and running around must have worn him out, he’d been asleep for an awfully long time.
But when I looked in on him, he was nowhere to be seen.
A cold feeling of foreboding washed over me. How long had I been chatting? There hadn’t been a sound. Even the puppies had been silent – there’s been no noise from their box in the kitchen. Surely Ryan hadn’t gone out? I scolded myself for not picking up on it sooner. I quickly scoured the house – the back garden, the obvious places. Nothing. Nothing!
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 need for peace and quiet on a Sunday afternoon! This was far more important. But no matter where I looked, or how loud I called, he was nowhere to be seen.
I swiftly retraced my steps all over again. Then double checked each of his favourite hiding places, shouting louder and louder as I went. No reply. I was trying to think straight, standing with my car keys and working out who to call for help, when the doorbell rang. I flung it open expectantly. Mr Armstrong stood there with his arms behind his back, looking all official and a bit perturbed.
“There’s a lot of sh-shouting….” he began.
“If you’ve come to complain about the noise, Mr Armstrong I’m afraid now’s not the time. My grandson’s gone missing and I can’t find him anywhere.”
“I’m wondering if this might be a c-clue….” and with that, he produced a little muddy bundle from behind his back.
A little pink paw identified which puppy he’d found, and I stood there speechless. I hadn’t even thought to look at the puppies! I took the squirming little fluffball back to his mum and as I placed him down amongst the others, I counted – one, two, three…
“I found him sniffing about in my k-kitchen. Tiddles was trying to c-claw his eyes out…”
“Are you after an apology..?” I snapped, incredulously.
“N-no – not at all. Not at all, Mrs Morris!” he sounded offended.
“I heard you calling Ryan’s name…. then f-found the little pup… I knew there must be something wrong and came straight away…I was c-concerned. Truly.”
I looked at him and saw something in his eyes I’d never seen before.
But then I’d never really looked before.
They were a deep brown, I noticed, and full of sincerity. I let out a breath I hadn’t even realised I’d been holding. Realising the smallest pup was nowhere in sight either, I backed away towards the garden, after tucking the muddy little fluff-ball back into his basket with his mum.
“You didn’t see another puppy did you? The tiniest one is missing. Where on earth can they be?”
“There m-must be another hole…” Mr Armstrong had followed me into the back garden.
“No you know I mended it before Christmas!”
The hole in my old fence had got worse in the bad weather but I was sure I’d covered up the gap. Anyone can hammer in a few nails, can’t they?
“Well the p-pup got through to me somehow – we just need to find where” he said, his voice filled with concern and a warmth that made me feel safer, somehow.
And then I did something which just a few hours before would have been unthinkable – I asked my ratty, stand-offish, cat-loving, officious next door neighbour – for a favour.
“Would you mind… will 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. It was just what I needed.
“Oh, absolutely! Yes, of course, ok then, well – I’ll go check my side, if you double check yours. We’re looking for the other missing puppy as well as your grandson, are we? Well they couldn’t have scaled 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.” He patted my arm, and with a little smile, and a sharp, military turn, he swiftly disappeared out the door again. I stood for a second touching my arm where he’d patted it, feeling my heart beating double time. Then I blinked the tears away, 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 garden, in every nook and cranny of my back garden – through the allotment, under the shrubs, behind the trees, and in the shed. Still nothing. I felt the tight band around my chest again. This couldn’t be happening. Maybe Mr Armstrong was having more luck. But he’d have called me by now, wouldn’t he?
Taking a deep breath, I bent down to pick up a muddy dog toy in case squeaking it brought the puppy running. Under a bush, I noticed a bit of loose panelling on the ground, right beneath the bottom branch, next to the fence. Lifting it up, I saw where an older make-shift fence repair had been pushed apart, and a Ryan-sized hole now appeared. I turned and practically ran to Him Next Door, grabbing my keys and slamming my door behind me.
Just as I ran through his front door, Mr Armstrong was coming back up his hallway. He made a ‘shush’ gesture, and beckoned me to the back of his house. I swear my heart was beating out of my chest, and I could only dare hope, as we approached the open door of his utility room just off the kitchen. As I moved closer, he smiled. It was the first time I’d ever seen him smile. Well my heart skipped even faster – 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, barely visible apart from the top of their heads, lay a small muddy boy and a tiny muddy puppy. 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 of relief loosened the tightness in my chest – it was quite overwhelming. Meekly, I smiled up at Mr Armstrong, and he nodded and smiled back at me. Then reality kicked in. I realised I was standing in the middle of a neatly kept utility room, and that my missing grandson, the puppy thief, had covered a pile of my neighbour’s nice clean washing in mud.
“He’s safe and sound, and so’s the little pup. But are you ok, Mrs Morris?”
“Yes, I – I think so. 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 – and suddenly I felt like a kid again. I looked at my feet, wondering which question to ask first, there were so many.
“Would it be in order for us to share a cup of tea, before you go back next door? It’s only Earl Grey I’m afraid, Mrs Morris, but if that’s ok….”
“That’d be just perfect. Please. Thank you. Thank you so much. Perfect.”
He was still looking at me, smiling. “But how about I have a whole cup, rather than share one?” I added. He laughed, and I felt better knowing he got my humour. “And do call me Grace,”
“Well, Grace, do call me Nathaniel.”
“Nathaniel?” I smiled. I knew it HAD to be something like Nathaniel.
“Actually, it’s Nathan,” he added quickly, “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.” More smiling. Grinning. Couldn’t stop my face going back. Quite strange really.
“But what about your cat – won’t he be unhappy with the intruders in his house?”
“He’s already been banished outside for swiping at an adorable little puppy! And if he’s not careful he’ll be looking for a new home, the swine,” Curiouser and curiouser. So he’s not the cat person I took him for, I thought to myself.
“Your sheets – they’re such a mess,” I said, guiltily,
“Looks like you’d just ironed them and everything.”
“Actually don’t tell anyone, but I don’t have to – they’re Wrinkle-Free.”
Just like mine.
“I wish I was,” I laughed, then he laughed, and suddenly – from relief and something I couldn’t quite work out – 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. But with Ryan and puppy safe and sound, maybe now was the time to fix that.
Now where was that cup of tea? Never needed one more!
I turned and felt a firm, friendly hand in the small of my back, gently guiding me back to the cosy kitchen. Suddenly he didn’t feel like a stranger at all – amazing what sharing a crisis can do.
He made a lovely little tea tray, complete with scones – homemade ones, of all things – and we went into the lounge. There in the fireplace, instead of the wood-burning stove that I had in mine, were some elegant candles in large jars. The room was stylish but not the regimented clinical abode I’d imagined. It was actually quite homely.
“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,”
“It’s my ambition to own an original, when I’m a grown up!” I said. He laughed again, an easy, vibrant laugh and his eyes twinkled. I felt a warm glow beginning to spread from my stomach.
“Do make yourself at home. Are you cold?” he said, picking up a neatly folded blanket, which looked like it had sleeves…surely not.
“You don’t…you don’t watch QVC too by any chance, do you?” He raised an eyebrow and looked guilty.
“Only a certain shows,” he said. “But don’t say I told you so, 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 – I was intrigued – sometimes I could make out what you’d bought by the labelling on the outside of the cardboard. Then when I began watching it I realised why you buy so much!”
“Well yes, but it’s not all for me, you understand,” I said, realising I was blushing just a little bit.
“Except the plants…“
“Ahh yes, the plants,” I said. He raised his eyebrows a little. Oops – the begonia parcel incident. I looked at him awkwardly.
“Well it was a bit strange, my plug plants 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, mischieviously.
“Well actually no not like Nora at all, actually. Specially 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 Albert put her straight in the end.”
“Oh, right,” The penny dropped. 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 as much as you did last week, with their knowledge of ancient Egypt. Not since my trip down the Nile a few years ago”
“The Nile,” I said, feeling a dreamy feeling start to come over me.
“Have you ever been there, Grace?”
“No.. Nathan.. 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! Incredible! ‘Specially since, to be frank, Grace…” and he came over all bashful and endearing.
“..I- I’ve been trying to work out for ages how to start a p-proper conversation with you.” Then he unleashed a full beam 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.” He went on. “I even jotted down the item numbers off a couple of the boxes, and ordered the same things. 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 too – thought I’d have no chance – not 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!”
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 thinking he could break the ice by 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, leaving little spots of dried mud on the way.
“Hello Grandma,” Ryan said, smiling sleepily and rubbing his eyes. He was so cute, I didn’t have the heart to chastise him.
“This is Mr Armstrong, Ryan,”
“Nathan,” 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”
I asked. There it was again!
“Yes, she’s lovely and cute and all fluffy – priti-ful.”
“I think he’s trying to say pretty and beautiful, and it’s coming out all muddled,” whispered Mr Armstrong – Nathaniel – Nathan – and he winked at me.
“Yes, pretty-ful, like you Grandma!”
“Pretty-ful indeed,” said Nathan.
“But you can take her now, ‘cos she’s scratched me a bit. Look. Right here on my arm. And she wants her brothers doesn’t she. And 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 up their little lad, all sleepy eyed and dreamy, I had a little surprise for them. Ryan handed over a hand-made card he and I had created. It said ‘thank you for making me a big brother.’ Lisa got all teary eyed straight away, and Darren gave me the biggest son-hug ever.
“I don’t know how you’ve managed it, but I’m glad you did!” he said, kissing me on the cheek and taking his sleeping son from my arms, much to my relief.
“And we can repay you in cheesecake!” Lisa said, handing over a takeaway box.
“By the way, that waiter wants to know when you’ll be coming back again,” she smiled,
“Maybe sooner than I expected,” I said, remembering Nathan’s parting comment earlier that evening. 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 on QVC was Richard Jackson’s new book – Container Gardening. How to Grow Wonderful Pots, Hanging Baskets and Window Boxes – and I knew just who to buy it for as a belated thank you gift, for giving me one of the most memorable Valentine’s Days I’d had in years.