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Borrowing a dog for a day, even just for an evening, isn’t actually as easy as it sounds. It’s just not something I usually try out. I had no idea how hard it is. After a couple of ‘phone calls and still no luck, I realise I have a real challenge on my hands. Never mind rogue partners and business men covering their fraudulent tracks. These petted pooches are a breed hard to pin down.
‘Hi, Jen, it’s me.’ This is my first ‘phone call of the day: to my best friend.
‘Me? Me? Look, I’m not up for guessing games this morning. What are you selling?’
Hm. Great start.
‘Harriet. It’s me, Harriet,’ I repeat hopefully.
‘Harriet? Well, what on earth are you doing ‘phoning me during work hours?’ She snaps. ‘The day-time “me”s are usually restricted to mum, or auntie Brenda, or at a push, gran.’
Actually it’s sort of work-related. It can’t wait till tonight. I need a dog.’
‘Oh...right.’ Nothing much silences Jen but with this enquiry, I think I’ve finally cracked it.
‘I need to borrow your dog. Just for the evening.’
Er, hang on, let me get this straight.’ I can just see her raising her free palm into the air and shaking out her hair in preparation for outrage. ‘You want to borrow Pyklet for the evening? Where are you proposing to take him? Theatre? Cinema? Or have you got a 2 for 1 deal somewhere on cocktails?’
I suspected I might get this reaction. I sigh to myself. I should have used my A1 detection skills and called my other options first. From my two meetings with him, I should have deduced that Pyklet is strictly a not-for-hire kind of dog.
Ok, forget it,’ I say, bored now with the white noise of silence. And this is my ‘phone bill, after all. ‘Call you later,’ I say, and hear signs of her repentance as I go to hang up.
It’s the same old story with dad, though considerably less confrontational. Maggie the beagle has, apparently, a very full and varied social life. This evening, she is otherwise engaged.
‘Tomorrow any good?’ Dad offers. ‘We can always cancel with Kath and Bouncer.’
‘Keep it on the back-burner, dad. I’ve got one more call to make, so fingers crossed...’
With my fingers crossed, I make my third-time-lucky call to my other best friend Charles.
'Ms. Bond! What can I do for you?’
‘Please tell me your Barney is free tonight and not at his dog yoga or offal cookery class.’
Charles laughs. ‘No, I don’t believe either of those is on tonight. But let me just check his Blackberry...’
‘Fabulous! Then he’s got a date tonight: with me, a tennis ball, a poo bag and maybe some choc drops, if he’s lucky... See you at six.’
After rounding off a couple of calls to clients I go home to get changed. I decide on green spotty wellingtons and a brown parka which makes me look a little like an Ewok. I decide to finish off the ensemble with a nice hat from Liberty’s. Oh, and some carrier bags stashed in my pocket, in case Barney needs to pay a call.
I head off to meet my lady. Mrs. Stirling. Actually, she informed me yesterday that she has recently changed it to ‘Ms’ in a bid to be a bit more (and I quote) ‘metropolitan.’
I follow the Sat-Nav (which we actually call ‘spy-nav’ in the office) to the letter and pull up right beside number 48, Andover Drive just after 5.15.
‘Oh, it’s you,’ she says under her breath, the door only slightly ajar, with just her curled fingers visible around the edge of the door. ‘Get in, love. Get in.’
She ushers me in with her left arm, waving it wildly as though in some tribal dance. I don’t have long to assess her as she moves surprisingly fast for a woman at her time of life. She is lively as a gazelle. I assume this is owing to nerves rather than excitement.
The reception room is just as I expected. Indeed, she is just as I expected.
It is the sort of room you would call a parlour, as opposed to ‘lounge’ or ‘living room.’ Doilies on the low coffee table (glass-topped, of course), ash trays heaving with cigarette ends, all stained with pearl-pink lipstick, which means she is the smoker and not her husband. The sofa is tapestry and has a Georgian scene woven into its fibre, of a milk-maid and a young fop courting. The rugs clash with the sofa, which in turn clashes with the cushions and curtains. It is a living soft-furnishing hell.
My head spins with contradictory patterns. I have to sit down.
‘Oh, please...’ she says, gesturing me to sit down once I already have.
On my descent into the chair, I take a quick sweep of the mantle. A couple of 1970s photographs in gawdy frames. The wedding, the children, the dogs of Christmases past. Just as I set my eyes on a hazy photograph of a golden retriever, a blazing ball of fur rushes into the room and leaps up next to me, licking my face. I hold my breath as if under water.
‘I take it this is Flo,’ I say, when I manage to free myself.
‘Oh yes, this is our girl,’ Ms. Stirling beams. ‘If only she could talk, eh?’ she muses.
Yes, I think: if only dogs and lamp posts and car seats and hotel rooms could talk: I’d be out of a job.
I now assess Ms. Stirling herself. She is 70-ish, remarkably tall despite her back being slightly curved with age. She dyes her hair a matt black and it is as dry as tinder. One rogue spark from her cigarette and the whole job lot would be up in flames. Her skin is pasty, with deep lines engraved through years of nicotine addiction. Around her lips, the wrinkles fan out, like the spokes of a wheel.
‘So,’ I say, taking out my note-pad. ‘I’ll need a recent photograph of your husband, first of all, though of course now I’ll recognise Flo. I just hope she doesn’t recognise me in the park, and start licking my face, or our cover will be blown!’
Ms. Stirling laughs and slaps her thighs. ‘Oh yes!’ Then she adopts a more serious tone. ‘No, no, I think we are fine on that score. Flo is actually deeply aggressive whenever she’s out on walks.’
I put on a false smile. ‘Well, that’s a relief!
‘My back story,’ I continue, ‘if your husband approaches me and talks, is that I am new to the area.’
‘Oh yes, good idea,’ Ms. Stirling agrees.
‘Is there anything you want to ask me? Anything you want to talk about now? I always forewarn my clients that the outcome isn’t always what they are expecting it to be. That even if you are expecting a shock, you can’t ever fully prepare yourself for when it actually becomes a solid reality.’
‘Yes, yes, I appreciate you saying that. Really, I just want a good clear photograph of the blighter up to something, come what may. Then I can twist his....’ There is a long pause while she considers. ‘......arm.’
‘I’m all ready then!’ I say, standing up. ‘I’ve got your first payment processed, I’ve got the photo, and now I’m going to collect my surrogate dog...’
‘Oh yes,’ she says, looking frantically at her watch. ‘Herb’ll be back any time now. He’ll have his cup of tea and then get Flo out at about 6.15. That’s one thing about my Herb. He’s as regular as clock-work with his habits. He’s a private investigator’s dream!’ She laughs and waves me off. ‘Good luck!’ she shouts.
As I leave, I look over my shoulder at Flo. I think I’m going to need it...