This week’s post features a third tale from the archive- one that is based on a true story told to me by the Milo character!
Bella and Roly
It is inevitable that at the very moment she appears over the small hillock Milo is bending to attend to a small, neat pile of excrement, fumbling as he packs it into the plastic bag he has reversed over his wrist, tying the ends together and looking around for a waste bin. In the absence of this facility he clasps the bag in both hands behind his back, attempting to match Bella’s attentive exploration of a clump of grass by perusing the horizon. A miniature speed boat is making a dash towards Christchurch harbour, its droning hum and distant splash barely claiming his attention. When she draws nearer he is able to appreciate today’s outfit; Capri pants and a sleeveless, black, polo-necked top. ‘All very Audrey Hepburn’, he thinks. He has perfected the art of scrutinizing with one eye whilst pretending to look elsewhere with the other, or so he imagines.
She stops for a moment to call Roly, who emerges from the undergrowth like an attack vehicle, heedless of the prickly gorse and bounds along the path towards and past her, having perceived, doubtless by nose that Bella is nearby. The little westie realizes and makes for Milo, her protector, cowering behind his ankles so that he can just spot the black tip of her nose poking from between them. Roly, brazen in his interactions, lopes up to them both and attempts to thrust his course, brown nose through from the front, eliciting a laughing remonstration from his owner.
“Roly! That’s not very polite, is it?”
Milo manages a weak smile which he knows must look imbecilic. He is unable to fend off the giant, woolly poodle whilst hanging on to the plastic bag. Deciding it would look odd to bring one hand around to the front and leave the other behind his back, he stays in position to be buffeted and slobbered upon by the ignorant Roly. He makes an attempt to reconfigure his smile, succeeding only in achieving a leering grin as he senses a trickle of sweat running down the side of his face. By now Roly has begun to express interest in the bag, meaning that he will have to ‘come clean’ in more ways than one. She comes to his rescue.
“Roly, GET OFF! Oh, I’m so sorry. Let me help you.” She leans down, treating him to a view of her neck in all its slender vulnerability, strands of blond hair sliding across it like silk. He must speak now or be forever categorized in her head as a simpleton or mute. She has grasped the dog’s collar and is tugging him away.
“Ah go on, you’re alright. He’s only being friendly, aren’t you lad, eh?” Too late Milo reaches to touch the top of the poodle’s head, revealing the swinging bulge of plastic bag. She asks, “Can I get rid of that for you?” and before he realizes she has whisked the bag from his hand and dragged an unwilling Roly across to a waste bin on the other side of the path, which he has overlooked in his preoccupation.
“Thanks. I didn’t’t see it, the bin there, must be going blind,” he says and sifts through his mental reference of small talk for some gem of conversation to keep her on the path a little longer. She lets go of Roly’s collar and returns, bending down to Bella.
“Oh, she’s so sweet!” she coos. “How old is she?”
Milo feels more confident now, drawn on the subject of his little dog.
“Sure she’s only a year-just had her birthday, didn’t you Bella?”
A few days later Milo is driving to Alfred’s office to deliver some drawings. He whistles through his teeth in time to the bronchial rattle of windscreen wipers and glances in the mirror to check on Bella in her customary position on the parcel shelf. Milo reflects on the progress he has made since last week, checking off newly discovered facts. He now knows her name; Louise. He practises saying it. “Louise”, prompting Bella to shift her gaze, pricking her ears in curiosity. He knows where Louise lives; an immaculate cliff top ‘des res’ with stunning views of the bay. He knows that she has a son who is away at boarding school; that she is married. Why is it that on the very few occasions he has ever met desirable women they are always attached? Or is it that he is only attracted to attached women? No, this can’t be true, as he becomes attracted first, before he discovers the attachment, unless, of course married women exude some mysterious, chemical element that ensnares unwary single men.
He pulls in to Alfred’s yard, takes the document case from the back seat and calls to Bella, who hops out and follows him through the drizzle into the office. Draughtsman work has always provided him with an adequate income, although since his divorce from Diana he doesn’t enjoy the lifestyle he used to have. He feels no resentment about this state of affairs, having assumed the blame for it long ago, but he experiences a pang of inferiority when he thinks of Louise’s husband, Stewart, a banker who travels the worldfor his commodities trading, whatever that is.
During the next couple of weeks a routine develops in which Milo takes Bella out most afternoons and it is understood that they will meet Louise and Roly. He is not sure how this routine has evolved, but is thrilled that it has. The walks, he notices are becoming longer, making him later home, but now that the evenings are lighter he is able to work on his drawings until late, so he is unwilling to curtail them.
On one such afternoon he arrives with Bella at their usual meeting place, stomach churning in anticipation, and loiters on the path, leaning on a bench seat. There is a small, brass plaque in the middle of the backrest. ‘In memory of Connie Blakely’ it reads, ‘1910-1989. She loved this spot’. Absorbed as he is by the sunshine, the views and his thoughts, he fails for once, to notice Louise’s arrival, so that she is there, next to him like an unexpected apparition.
“Hi there!” she greets him. Her voice is almost breathless, seeming on the verge of laughter. Today she is wearing a pale yellow sundress, the thin, shoestring straps allowing tanned shoulders to be displayed. Milo knows something about fashion in all its descriptive detail, from having listened to the trivial banter of his two daughters.
He turns towards her, the stirring he always senses in her presence beginning uncomfortably early, and nods.
“Ah, you’ll have been taking advantage of this weather then? You’ve got the makings of a good tan there”. She smiles. Her eyes are hazel, and one has a small fleck in the corner which might be regarded by some as a flaw, but to Milo it only adds to her loveliness, contributing a kind of vulnerability, making him want to…..
The moment is shattered by a high pitched shrieking that splits the air in two and renders any conversation pointless. They turn round together, the sight that meets their eyes one of abject horror, one that will haunt Milo in his thoughts and in his sleep for weeks to come. Roly and Bella are locked together like a single, demented creature, the monstrous, woolly poodle almost entirely encasing the little terrier as he pumps away into her and snarls a drooling, lascivious grimace while beneath him the smaller dog is wailing and yapping. Louise gasps and dives towards the pair. She moves to grasp Roly by the collar but is repelled by his snapping. She shouts his name in a futile attempt to dislodge him. Milo, feeling sick now, moves behind the couple to try and pull the larger dog off, an action that proves hopeless. The two humans can only stand back and watch in silent revulsion, waiting until the awfulness is over, the shrieking subsides into a pitiful whimper and Roly has disengaged himself with a self-satisfied grunt, loping off into the undergrowth with a callous air of indifference.
Aghast, Milo lunges for Bella, who is still crying, though rooted to the spot, and picking her up, without any word or thought, runs with her back the way he has come, back to the main road and on, not drawing to a halt until he gains the sanctuary of his own shabby front garden. He rustles in his pocket for his house key, fumbling, hampered by the small dog tucked under his arm, manages to get the key into the lock and enter, slams the door with his foot and leans against it, as if under siege.
As his heavy breathing subsides he takes stock of the situation. Although Bella’s cries have settled to a whine she is trembling. He takes her through to the kitchen with a view to getting her some water but as soon as he lowers her to the floor she scuttles under the cupboard where she remains, continuing to complain in an almost accusatory fashion. He spends the greater part of an hour lying on the floor attempting to coax her out before giving up and deciding he needs a drink. He pours a generous slug of Irish whisky-a Christmas present from his daughter Siobhan, then wanders into his living room and sinks onto the settee, exhausted.
Seated with Bella in the vet’s waiting room, Milo peruses the various posters advertising vitamin supplements or advocating inoculations. There are only two other patients besides Bella. One is an elderly, depressed-looking cat with a strange, milky eye, the other unidentifiable due to occupying a small cage, but presumably a diminutive rodent. Normally Bella would be demonstrating her disgust at having to attend the surgery by growling and barking in a sharp, irritating way, but since what Milo terms in his mind ‘the assault’ of two days ago she has been quiet, even the whimpers having settled into silence. Now, in the waiting room she sits, mute on his lap and makes no effort to bully the grey cat or poke her nose into the hamster cage.
When Milo takes the little dog into the surgery she shrinks to the farthest edge of the table so that a protective hand is needed to prevent her from sliding off. The vet, apleasant woman in her forties, smiles encouragement.
“What can we do for you today?”
It only takes moments to relate the story, although Milo has had to rehearse it in his head on the way in order to find appropriate words for the vile act. The woman is used, however to embarrassed dog-owners and puts him at ease with her matter-of-fact response, questioning him and nodding whilst stroking the top of Bella’s head. She inspects the terrier and pronounces her generally in good health and no harm done.
“But what if she’s conceived?” Milo asks.
“Well” she begins, “She may be pregnant, but it’s too early to tell yet. The problem is she’s really too young to whelp, barely a puppy herself. We usually prefer bitches to be a little older before they have a litter. We’ll just have to wait and see what happens. She will recover from the upset of it all, of course. In the meantime just treat her as normal, offer her food, walk her and so on. If she is expecting you’ll need to have her looked at-and of course you’ll need all the help you can get!”
It is three weeks before Milo can summon up the courage to walk Bella on the cliff top path. She is almost her old self again in all respects bar one. She is expecting puppies. He has started out at the time he would have left if he’d been anticipating a meeting with Louise. He does this without any notion of what he will do if he sees her. Part of him dreads seeing her, part of him is desperate to, yet this anomaly is not to be resolved today, since he and Bella are almost alone on the cliff top, a situation that induces both relief and disappointment. Sitting on ‘Connie’s’ bench and looking out at Old Harry Rocks he speculates that she may be away on one of their frequent trips to St Lucia. This being the case, Roly would be incarcerated in the upmarket kennels she has mentioned, a fitting sentence for one guilty of such a violation, he decides. Walks have become as uneventful as they were before he first saw her, not unpleasant but without anticipatory excitement or post-walk, lingering lust. He misses her.
It is to be three more weeks before he sees her again. June is living up to its flaming reputation, the sun producing a shimmering haze on the horizon, beads of sweat on his back and a lumbering waddle from swelling, tubby Bella. Spotting Roly first, his heart leaps in exhilaration before lurching into the depths as he remembers that his sartorial standards have slipped during her absence and he has pulled on his most disreputable shorts, a stained vest and a pair of worn loafers. Then she is there, an apparition in blond and gold, adorned in a stripy, halter-necked top and matching shorts, her laughing grin and enthusiastic wave causing him to forget all that has passed. He has stopped on the path and Bella has taken the opportunity to lie down, panting hard, tongue lolling out. Roly gives her no more than a passing sniff as he lopes past. ‘Will she notice Bella’s condition?’ wonders Milo, ‘Or will I tell her?’
Milo will always say, when recalling the night that Bella’s puppies arrived, that no event in his life has been so exhausting or so stressful, even including the nights he spent years ago rocking his new born children. After all, one small baby cannot possibly demand as much attention as seven blind, mewling, squirming pups. It is difficult to say who was more traumatised by the experience, he or Bella but by the time the last tiny creature has emerged, wet fur plastered to its slippery, little form, both man and dog are spent. During the next few hours the vet’s warnings are proved to be justified in that Bella wants nothing to do with the tiny, squeaking things and takes herself to the furthest corner of the makeshift run he has constructed in her attempt to be free of them. Milo, left with the task of hand rearing the puppies, lacks the time or energy to daydream about Louise and has no opportunity to either work or sleep. Help is subsequently forthcoming from Siobhan, who drops in one evening to find her father slumped on the floor asleep with a recently fed, somnolent pup on his lap and offers to take a turn with the two-hourly feeds.
After three weeks, when Milo and Siobhan have begun to feel that they have never executed anything else except this ceaseless round of feeding, cleaning up and mothering the squalling litter of puppies, Bella’s progeny have begun to explore their immediate environment, tumbling on top of each other in interactive play. They are balls of caramel coloured fluff, impossible to tell apart; four males and three females. Now that they can be left for short periods Milo can resume his drawing work and take Bella out walking, an activity that she is happy to return to since it removes her from the seven small beings she loathes and resents the most.
Seated at his drawing board ready to begin work one afternoon, he takes a pencil from the tray, feels the sharpness of the point and begins to apply some shading to the curved side of a pipe joint. The doorbell rings; an irritation. He is scowling as he hops off the stool to answer the door, a blurred shape like a distorted photo in the glass.
“Am I disturbing you?”
He flounders as he grapples with a mixture of disbelief, pleasure and embarrassment, eventually finding his voice.
“Not at all. Come in, why don’t you? Did you want to see the pups then?”
The puppies’ enclosure dominates the kitchen so that it is necessary to sidestep around it to gain access to the cooker, sink and worktops. Louise climbs into the pen, exclaiming in delight and scoops up a yapping, fluffy ball.
“Will you have some tea?” Milo has made it to the kettle.
“Please,” she nods without turning round, the puppy nestled against her. Her dress is one of those garments that starts pale at the top and darkens towards the hem, sky blue turning to azure.
“What are you going to do with them?” she asks, “I’d love to take one, when they’re ready of course. And I feel awful about the trouble you’ve had. It must have affected your work and everything. We wanted to try to make up for it, if we can. I had an idea.”
It is late summer. Milo leans on the balcony rail outside his new studio and watches the afternoon ferry as it inches away across the channel. Behind him Bella and her son, Fergus doze together in a basket, companionable now that Fergus has ceased the demands of puppyhood and Bella is protected from further mishap by the ministrations of the vet. Milo thinks he will go down and make tea soon, although he is still overcoming the awkwardness he feels whenever he uses their designer kitchen. In only a week she will be back, presenting him with the now customary dilemma of proximity and longing. But for now the ferry, pinkish with late afternoon sun vanishes over the horizon as he stretches and yawns with something that almost resembles contentment.
Grace is the alter ego of novelist and short story writer, Jane Deans. To date I have two published novels to my name: The Conways at Earthsend [https://www.amazon.co.uk/Conways-at-Earthsend-Jane-Deans-ebook/dp/B08VNQT5YC/ref=sr_1_1?crid=2ZHXO7687MYXE&keywords=the+conways+at+earthsend&qid=1673350649&sprefix=the+conways+at+earthsend%2Caps%2C79&sr=8-1 and The Year of Familiar Strangers [https://www.amazon.co.uk/Year-Familiar-Strangers-Jane-Deans-ebook/dp/B00EWNXIFA/ref=sr_1_1?crid=2EQHJGCF8DSSL&keywords=The+year+of+familiar+strangers&qid=1673350789&sprefix=the+year+of+familiar+strangers%2Caps%2C82&sr=8-1 Visit my writer Facebook page [https://www.facebook.com/search/top?q=jane%20deans%2C%20novellist%2C%20short%20fiction%20and%20blog or my website: https://www.janedeans.com/