“There is something not quite right at DunNuffin’,” the Major’s wife informed her husband over gin on the terrace that Friday evening.
The Major tried to bury his nose further into Nigella Lawson and her hot fudge sauce.
“Something wrong you say, dear,” he muttered absently, relishing the thought of all that abundant sweetness, preferring not to be drawn back to the real world of cholesterol, incipient diabetes and other peoples’ problems.
The Major’s wife plonked herself down beside him and sighed.
“With Monty and Ruby. Something is wrong.”
The Major’s brain fizzed.
“Now Gwen,” he warned, “Whatever is happening is their own business. You mustn’t go meddling.”
“Meddling? When have I been known to meddle? What a ridiculous thing to say.”
The Major sighed.
“They are friends of ours and friends support each other in difficult times. Mark my words, there is something very wrong there and I for one cannot stand by and watch everything fall apart.”
With an even deeper sigh, the Major book-marked Nigella and reluctantly laid her sweet promises on the garden table in front of them. Turning to his wife, he asked patiently why she thought something was so wrong with Monty and Ruby. While the sun set magnificently over the bay and the gin warmed his cockles, he listened to the signs and symptoms of impending doom.
It would seem that for the last few weeks Monty and Ruby had been going their separate ways, none too happily. Monty had a face ‘like a slapped bottom’.
The Major agreed to that, nodding solemnly. The usual cheery Monty Piers had been observed by a number of fellow residents to be less than his amiable self.
More upsetting, Gwen continued, was that Ruby was seen to be red-eyed and sunken-cheeked, too busy for coffee mornings, and worse … last week Angharad had seen her coming out of the Dobson & Daughter estate agent in town with a sheaf of house details.
“I really think they are on the verge of separating.” Gwen announced sadly.
The Major laid a gentle hand upon his wife’s arm,
“I know that would be very sad dear but it’s their business isn’t it. What can we do in this kind of situation?”
Too late, the Major realised that his wife had already decided what should be done and was only looking for the smallest hint that she could count on his cooperation. His question had been taken for willingness to ‘get involved’.
And so it was that the following morning, the Major was dispatched to DunNuffin’ with an invitation to Sunday lunch and instructions to accept no excuses.
The little chalet looked as it always did bathed in the late summer sunshine, the windows glinting their reflection of the sea in the distance. An overflowing garden of pots contained every possible item of fruit, vegetable or herb it was possible to cram into a small space and this was where Monty was to be found, sitting at a lime-green garden table shelling peas into a colander.
The small three-legged dog Monty had rescued lifted his head as the Major approached and let out a warning, “Woof!”
Everyone already knew that Tripod was a hopeless guard dog, unless covering visitors with wet slobbery kisses and dog hair was any deterrent, but he did at least have a bark that seemed to be too large to be contained by his small, wiry body.
Monty looked up from his task and nodded ‘hello.’ Gwen was right about the ‘slapped bottom ’look. The life seemed to have gone out of the man, so that his lined weather-beaten face seemed to have sagged and greyed since last they had met. It didn’t help that he was unshaven and his hair uncombed and when he fixed the major with a vacant stare, his eyes looked moist and dull.
The Major didn’t wait to be asked to sit down and when no tea was offered, he reached into his pocket and pulled out his hip flask and proffered it. Monty absently accepted, tipping some of the Majors best whisky into his open mouth before returning to the task in hand. Tripod’s greeting, by comparison, was wildly enthusiastic, involving every trick he knew from sitting to playing dead. Once the display had subsided, the Major turned his attention to his old friend.
“Well, how are you old chap? Haven’t seen you around for a while.”
Monty muttered something about being busy. The peas plopped into the colander.
“Well, I hope you have some time on Sunday.”
He thought back over the plan he and Gwen had discussed. If it looked as though Monty might refuse the lunch invitation, he was to invent a request for help.
“I was hoping you could come over and have a look at our generator.”
Monty was accustomed to such requests. His practical skills, born from a life time of making do and mending, were famed across the little community. He nodded dully. The little dog looked expectantly at one and then the other man, and realising that no more attention was to be had, laid his head upon his paws and went to sleep.
Ten minutes later the Major gave up trying to make conversation and bid his old friend goodbye with a promise extracted from Monty to come to see him at 1 o’clock on Sunday.
As he made his way homeward he felt obliged to agree with his wife, something was very wrong at DunNuffin’.
Meanwhile, Gwen was out looking for Ruby. She had searched the usual Saturday morning haunts and was about to give up when she spotted her friend sitting alone on Old Tanker’s Bench (named for a one-time resident who had shuffled into the great unknown some time ago, but for whom this spot had been a favourite thinking place)
“Well, what a surprise,” Gwen called out, with a wave.
Ruby looked up, startled, immediately turning away to dab at her eyes. Gwen plonked herself heavily next to her friend and joined her in admiring the spectacular view. Ahead of them the hills rolled down on either side to cup the shimmering ocean as though in two huge hands. Where the waves came upon the rocks below, they did so with the subtlest of caresses leaving soft tendrils of white foam as reminders of their timeless relationship with each other.
Less subtle than her husband, Gwen laid a hand upon the hand of her friend where it lay in her lap. This tender expression of friendship was more than Ruby could bear and in an instant she had dissolved into helpless sobbing.
Gwen took her friend into her arms and held her. There was no need for questions. It was enough that Ruby was overflowing with more hurt than her heart could hold and the other had strength, like the rocks below, to let the flow run over her.
After a while, when the tears had subsided and they were once again sitting side by side, Gwen asked gently,
“Do you want to talk about it?”
Ruby shook her head. Her unruly hair fell over her face in sodden curls. She made no attempt to brush it away. After a while she let out a deep sigh and turning to her friend, said quietly,
“Thank you Gwen but I really want to be on my own. I have some serious thinking to do.”
The Major’s wife got to her feet.
“I’ll leave you in peace then,” she said gently, “but will you do me a big favour?”
“I would really like you to come to lunch with me on Sunday? Just for an hour?… Please?… 12:30 ? ”
Ruby shrugged again and then, under Gwen’s intense gaze, nodded her agreement.
“That’s a promise?”
Ruby nodded again and turned back to the view.
Sunday morning arrived drizzly and grey. A mist rolled over the horizon and built itself into a wall of fluff that made the sea invisible but for tantalising glimpses of soft focus.
Ruby woke late and listened to Monty as he spoke to Tripod with the kind of tenderness he had stopped using with her. In the night she had left her door slightly ajar in the hope that he might come to her, but she had fallen asleep near dawn and now felt foolish. When the little dog realised he could get in to her room, he threw himself on to her bed and rolled himself joyfully over her, licking away her tears and tangling himself in her bed sheets.
She heard Monty call his name and for a moment hoped he would come and find the dog for his walk but he simply opened the front door and rattled the lead. It was too much for Tripod to resist and after a final lick, he was bounding off after his master.
After a long while of soaking in her own misery, Ruby rose and showered. Remembering her promise to Gwen, she was wondering how she could get out of the arrangement when a knock at the door startled her. Wrapping herself in her dressing gown she opened the door.
The man was small and fair. The kind of fairness that is an enemy of sunshine, so the first thing Ruby noticed was the redness of his face and neck and the closeness of his little blue eyes. At his side was a child of about 8 or 9. From the look of her she could be nothing more or less than his daughter.
“You got my dog, missus!”
It was not a question and as a statement left no illusion that this was not to be a friendly exchange.
“I beg your pardon? Who are you?”
The little man made to push past her but she stood her ground.
“I come for the dog.”
The little man sneered,
“My dog. The one you stole.”
Suddenly, Ruby realised that this must be the real owner of Tripod.
“You mean the little three-legged dog? The Terrier? My….”
She was about to say partner but with a pang she realised that Monty was no longer that. Collecting herself, she nodded,
“… My friend. My friend found him on the beach. He was washed up in the storm.”
“That’s him. Stupid mutt got his-self washed overboard a few weeks back. Bloody nuisance he is but he belongs to Princess here and she wants him back.”
On queue, Princess snivelled, gracelessly, her cold eyes watching Ruby from under gingery ringlets.
Ruby winced. The thought of Tripod returning to this pair made her shudder.
“He’s not here!…. I mean, he was here but he’s gone.”
In the next instant the child had dodged past her and was already inside the house, closely followed by the horrible little man muttering that if that were the case she wouldn’t mind if they took a look. The little girl ran from room to room. As she ran, she called at the top of her voice,
The man fixed Ruby with a withering stare,
“It’s the little bleeder’s name, innit.”
And, when he saw she didn’t understand, added,
“Because of the chocolate. She’s always giving him chocolate.”
“But chocolate is poisonous for dogs,” Ruby heard herself say in a shocked voice. If she had needed any further indication that these people were unfit dog owners, this was it.
The little man raised his eyebrows. If he had had hackles, they would have risen, too. “Well, it ain’t your problem is it. If my kid wants to give her own dog chocolate, it’s nuffin’ to do with you.”
The child was back now and whining.
“He’s not here Daddy. He’s not in this house.”
“Well, he was. I know cos one of your neighbours was talking about a three-legged dog that some bloke picked up off the beach. We know he was here and we want him back. So what have you done with him?”
As the man was talking he was moving closer and closer to Ruby. She stood her ground but he was clearly angry and seemed set upon a course of intimidation. Despite herself, Ruby felt a shiver of fear. How she wished Monty was here. And, as though by magic, suddenly, he was there, his hand upon the horrid little man’s collar wrenching him back and demanding to know what was going on.
Ruby had never seen Monty really angry. He seemed taller and his voice was clear and steady and could it be…? Had he actually lifted the intruder clear off the ground and was he now dangling at the end of Monty’s arm, his feet just trailing upon the carpet at the very tips of his toes?
The little girl was shrieking,
“Buttons! Buttons!” at Tripod who, letting out a howl, skidded behind the sofa, hotly pursued by the little girl. The dog fairly flew for the safety of Ruby’s comforting bosom. Obviously Tripod, or Buttons was not as pleased to see his owners as a dog ought to be.
Ruby staggered backward, about to fall, but Monty made a grab for her. In doing so, he let the intruder fall to the floor with a thump.
“That’s my dog. That’s my bloody dog.”The man wailed, “Give me my bloody dog!”
“Are you alright sweetheart? Did he hurt you?”
Ruby shook her head but now that Monty had his arms about her, her knees seemed to buckle. It didn’t help that Tripod seemed determined to smother both of them with hot wet kisses.
The little girl, dancing and shrieking, made to grab at one of the little dog’s legs and tugging hard, caused him to howl in pain. Monty reached down and taking her hand firmly in his spoke sharply and with authority.
“Take your hand away child and go over there and sit down.” The child hesitated.
“Now!”Monty roared and she scuttled onto the chair he had indicated. Turning his attention to the man, Monty gestured that he should sit next to her, then tenderly he turned back to Ruby and the panting Tripod and led them to the sofa.
“Are you sure you are alright, my love?”
Ruby nodded clutching the dog to her chest with trembling hands. How masterful he looked to her. How soft and in need of his strength and protection she seemed to him. For a moment there was a bubble of peace surrounding them, broken only by the sound of the dog’s frightened panting, then the shouting began again.
“My dog! …Thief! …You will be sorry! …”
The wails and recriminations went on but Monty raised his hand. In a determined voice he silenced the pandemonium and set about the story of finding Tripod and nursing him back to health, adding that he would not tolerate the kind of behaviour he had just witnessed and that no-one… but no-one … threatened his good lady.
“Just give us the dog.” The intruder insisted, obviously less comfortable bullying Monty than he had been about intimidating his good lady.
“No!”It was Ruby.
“He is clearly terrified of you. I won’t let him go to people who have been unkind to him.”
The child set up her wailing again, but Monty was looking at Ruby. Her eyes were huge and dark and he wanted to etch the way she looked at him in this moment onto his memory for ever.
“We can’t let him go to them Monty. Look at him.”
If Tripod could have melted more firmly into Ruby he clearly would have done. His body was pressed tightly against hers, his stubby little tail curled under him and his head wedged under her chin and across her shoulder.
The little man was back on his feet, “I’ll have the law on you, you dog-nappers. He’s my dog. You ain’t keeping him.”
Monty and Ruby gazed solemnly at each other. Tripod whimpered.
Ruby found her voice,
“Then sell him to us. Name your price.”
The man was stepping forward, a sneer in his voice.
“You couldn’t afford him.”
“Is that so?”
Monty spoke with authority. He would have done anything in that moment for Ruby to admire and respect him.
“Why not try us?”
The man stopped short and, obviously seeing a buck to be made, began to extol the virtues of the cringing animal. Apparently he was a pedigree. Best stock in the county. Marvellous with children and at the same time a great guard dog. He was a valuable dog, he was, and in his prime. Wouldn’t find another beast like him in three counties. He was about to go on, despite the grizzling of the child, when Ruby stopped him
“How much?” she demanded, snuggling the dog tightly in what she hoped was a reassuring embrace.
“He’s worth a thousand pounds if he’s worth a penny,” the man said.
Ruby bristled but she nodded,
Monty looked at her and raised his eyebrows. Under his breath he muttered that he was sure they had been, but Ruby’s determined face said all that was now needed. Handing the valuable creature into Monty’s capable arms, she made for the bureau.
“No Daddy. No. He’s my dog. Buttons is my dog!” The child wailed.
Her father didn’t falter,
“Never mind Princess, Daddy will get you a kitty. You’d like a kitty wouldn’t you. Better than a smelly three-legged dog, eh?”
Ruby looked up from the bill of sale she was writing and met Monty’s eyes again. In a moment she had presented the man with the paper to sign and a cheque for £1000.
As they left, the horrid man, dragging his little princess behind him, gave a parting warning that the cheque had better be good or else they would be hearing from his solicitor. The last they heard was him promising the child an ice cream.
Tripod, having recovered his courage, leapt to the floor and barked furiously at the intruders retreating backs for a moment before bounding onto the sofa and laying down as though nothing had happened
“Oh Ruby, my girl, you have the biggest heart of anyone I know,” said Monty, softly.
“Do I Monty? Do I really?” she asked and then began to cry. In the next moment they had their arms about each other.
After a while Ruby asked from beneath Monty’s comforting arm,
“Do I really have to leave Monty?”
Monty shifted slightly and looked down into her upturned face.
“I thought you were fed up with me. I thought you wanted your independence.”
Ruby bit her lip.
“I thought YOU were fed up with ME. I thought YOU wanted YOUR independence.”
Monty pushed her gently from him and bit his lip.
“I love you, Ruby. If the truth be told, I have always loved you. I can’t imagine a time when I won’t love you. The thought of you not being here was …well…well…” His voice tailed off.
“What?… What ?… Tell me Monty.”
Monty blushed to the roots of his hair. He couldn’t not look at her. His voice was small and cracked and when he spoke, a single tear rolled down his cheek and plopped onto her face.
“Well, he said, well the thought of you not being here was like my heart being ripped out of me. I saw the days ahead…”
She finished his sentence, “Filled with loneliness and regret. Oh Monty, me too. How can we have been so foolish?” And she kissed him and they clung together for a while, relieved and content and in Ruby’s case one thousand pounds lighter.
She sighed happily. It was worth every penny. She even felt some gratitude to that horrible man for having brought about this reconciliation.
It was an hour or two later when they both remembered that they had lunch appointments and realised that they had been set up by their friends.
They arrived at the Major’s chalet, together, arm in arm. They laughed and chatted throughout the delicious meal and the couple of bottles of Monty’s home-made Elderflower Champagne.
When they had said their goodbyes and Gwen had seen them to the door and waved them off along the path to DunNuffin’, the Major shrugged his shoulders and raised a quizzical eyebrow,
“I thought they were having problems?”
“It seems you were right old girl. All they needed was some of your excellent cooking and a bit of time with friends. You are a miracle worker.”
Gwen looked closely at her husband and caught the twinkle in his eye.
“Time for a gin?” he asked, and they laughed happily.