The Common

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Sprout

Sprout

While every seed is a tiny embryo, not all seeds will germinate. The seed needs favourable conditions to sprout to life. It needs the right environmental conditions and the perfect nutrients (including water, a food source, and sunshine) to break through the seed coating, grow, expand, and come to life.

If conditions are right, the sprout starts forming roots from the very beginning. It grows downward into the soil to anchor the sprout and begins looking for water and nutrients it will need to thrive. It also grows upward seeking sunlight. And if it finds the right combination, it will produce leaves, needles, or scales to further allow the tree to begin making its own food through photosynthesis.

© 2019 MR. TREE, INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Jim

“I don’t want it, take it back”.

“I can’t, and I wouldn’t anyway because it’ll be good for you. And it’s not an ‘it’, he is a he, and his name is Boo-Boo”.

“What sort of name is that? Who calls a dog Boo-Boo?”

“It’s from a cartoon apparently, Yoga Bear or something.”

“I think you will find that’s ‘Yogi’.”

Jim looked at Caroline’s face, then at the face of the dog. By the look on his daughter’s face he knew there was no negotiation. It was hard and straight and determined. The dog by contrast was friendly and bright and endearing. At that precise moment, he felt the dog seemed more pleased to see him than Caroline had done for months, if not years, if not ever.

“Anyway, I’ve got to get back, I promised Charlotte I would take her shopping after her ballet class”. Caroline started to collect her things.

“You can’t just leave him, I don’t know where he’s been. He could savage me. You hear of these old people who fall over and get eaten by their pets”.

“I’ll be back tomorrow in my lunch break, if you don’t love him by then, I’ll take him back.” She said, knowing she couldn’t possibly. As she left she looked at them both. Barbara had loved her father’s house and the area, what with the Common down the end of his street. And although she knew at the time, her father was over egging the connection to the dog, she was grateful he did that, seeing how it had reassured Barbara. With Barbara tearfully heading off to her corporate flat in Manchester this had to work, she would have to make it work.

“What day is it today?”

“Thursday”.

Once left alone with the dog, Jim found himself feeling a little uncomfortable. He didn’t know whether to talk out loud, or not and felt he couldn’t read what the dog was thinking. It looked a bit sad, or was that a calculating expression, and the dog was just waiting to strike. He wanted to use the toilet and found himself announcing that fact to the dog, like he had done to Ruth in her final days. The dog didn’t respond either.

Jim had never been a dog owner. The house where he grew up was too small and Ruth had been overwhelmed by having Gareth and Caroline to look after, let alone any more responsibility. After Gareth had died, Ruth struggled with taking care of Caroline for a while. He had always thought Ruth would become less anxious once Caroline could talk, or went to school, or was old enough to look after herself a bit, but it seemed Ruth worried about something different at every milestone Caroline reached and excelled at.

Jim looked at Boo-Boo looking at him, he smiled realizing this was the first male who he had been alone with for some time.

“It’s just us now, boy.” The dog, taking this as an invitation, approached Jim tail wagging. “What do you want? You’re not staying, so don’t get comfortable.” The dog sat down, face seeming to drop. Jim looked around, checked the clock and took in the old read newspaper on the table, he noticed the lead hanging over the banister in the hall. Boo-Boo stood up as if he sensed an opportunity and tried to influence Jim’s thoughts.

“What…now?” Jim exhaled slowly as he tried to think of a reason not to. Mid-afternoon, sun shining, could pick up the paper and some beans from the shop on the way home. Why not?

No one had ever seemed as enthusiastic to be leaving the house with him, and he felt quite excited to have a reason to get out, even though he complained to his neighbour, who just happened to be arriving home from another doctor’s appointment.

“Just back from the surgery,” Mrs Andersen said, as she hauled herself out of the taxi, “Who’s this then?”

Mrs. Andersen never looked in the least bit unwell, she appeared to exude health. She was overweight but not morbidly so, rosy cheeked, and nimble for her years, but as Jim tried never to get into any in-depth conversation with her, he never really knew why she needed to go to the doctor’s so regularly, for all he knew, she actually was a doctor, the thought occurred to him.

“Don’t worry Mrs. Anderson, he’s not much of a barker apparently, and he won’t be staying long. A colleague of my daughter is in the process of having him rehomed, she has been given a promotion at work and has had to leave the area. I’m thinking of myself as the ‘foster carer’ until someone else can be found.” The dog started to pull on his lead. This could actually work, he thought to himself, relieved at the briefness of the conversation.

Emma

“So, he was standing in the path ahead of me, and he didn’t appear to have a dog. And I am always a bit wary of men on the common who walk alone. So as he hadn’t turned around and I didn’t want to make him jump, I tried making a noise by stepping on twigs and rustling leaves with my feet as I approached him. Then he turned, all of a sudden, and sort of shouted ‘Boo?!’. It was kind of a question.” Emma tried to make her life sound more interesting than it was, by saving little stories to tell the children after school, she would build them up, adding as much detail as she could.

“Then what happened?” asked an interested Bertie.

“Well,” Emma paused for dramatic effect, knowing she had a captivated audience.

“He sounds like a weirdo to me; did you call up about the car?” Chris looked up from his computer.

“Yes, it’s supposed to go in on Friday.”

“Mum, what happened?” Bertie was waiting to hear more.

“Well… we looked at each other for a moment, like a split second, and then he explained Boo-Boo was his dog’s name, and he said it wasn’t really his dog, he was just looking after it and if I saw it, could I keep hold of it for him.”

“What sort of dog was it?” Bertie was quite the expert at identifying breeds.

“That’s what I asked, and he said it was ‘brown and small.’”

“You hear about people like that. Making up stories to draw people in. Lure them in to trusting them then…” Chris, standing behind the children, mimed strangling himself.

“What happened next?” Clara had had three more years of listening to these ‘episodes’ from mummy’s life and was more accustomed to the stories disappointing ends, “you didn’t find the dog and you came home. The End.”

“Well, something like that.” Emma had lost enthusiasm for her own story. She didn’t feel like explaining that she liked the man, he had kind eyes, and they had walked a little way together. Until they had come across another woman, holding the collar of a rather scrappy brown dog who looked as relieved to see the man, as he was to see it.

Jim

It had not been a bad afternoon, despite losing his sole charge, temporarily. After months of only talking to himself, and avoiding all others, he had met and had conversations with two women. He patted Boo-Boo, perhaps this wasn’t going to be such a nightmare after all.

“Hey boy? We’re the two musketeers, you reel them in, and I seal the deal.” Jim winked at the dog. Then imagined, if Boo-Boo was a cartoon character, he could just see the dog shaking his head and rolling his eyes before wandering off to his basket, where he would lie, put his paws over his ears and shrug.

Later that evening where dog and man had given each other a wide birth, Jim was wanting to go to bed. How does this work? he asked himself. It had been a long time since the walk, and it would be a long time until Jim got around to give him another one …so… Jim opened the backdoor to his garden.

“Boo-Boo”. He called. At first the dog didn’t move; he was curled up in his basket happily. “Boo-Boo!” Jim called again, this time with a bit more authority. The dog looked up, and appearing to understand the situation, reluctantly slunk out. Jim felt pleased with himself, for the system was working. He then looked out to see whether the dog was doing any business. Only to find Boo-Boo was standing at the doorway heading back in.

“Hey, that was a bit quick, are you sure?” Jim then decided to go out in the garden with the dog and stand on the dark lawn. This time he whispered the dog’s name, partly because he didn’t want to wake anyone up, and partly because he still thought it was a ridiculous name. Boo-Boo watched him with interest from the open kitchen door. For a moment Jim thought of communicating what he wanted the dog to do by example, then realised what that meant and decided to give up and just see what happened, this first night.

“Well then, goodnight”, he said to the dog who soon settled back in his basket. It felt strange to Jim having an unknown living thing stay in his house. A Bit like inviting in a tramp or traveller. Jim didn’t know this creature, was he safe? After some thought he decided to close the kitchen door, not tight just touching its door frame. That way the dog should know it was supposed to stay where it was. Boo-Boo looked settled and he barely strayed from his bed during the day.

Jim headed upstairs to bed. It was so quiet every noise seemed amplified. The creaky bottom steps of the stairs, the squeaking door of the bathroom, the pipes as he switched on the tap to wet his toothbrush. All the time he was straining to keep quiet when it suddenly occurred to him, what for? There was no one here to disturb. He may as well shout and bang and play loud music, there’s no one here!

“There’s no one here.” He said out loud as he spat the last bit of tooth paste out and washed his face in the cold water. He stood up straight, coming eye to eye with his reflection in the mirror on the bathroom cabinet. “There’s no one here.” He said again, briefly taking in his face. He grabbed open the cabinet door, just so he didn’t have to look at himself anymore and reached for the mouthwash. Caroline had been thorough in getting rid of Ruth’s belongings, when he was ready for her to do so, but every so often there was something she’d missed. It would seem insignificant and insidious, something left that he might be able to use, but for Jim it would bring a sudden punch in the gut. An instant reminder that someone that had been there, was gone and wasn’t coming back. A sadness of all sadness’s, that couldn’t be described or explained. Tonight, it was a half used, transparent plastic bag of circular cotton wool pads that Ruth had used to take off makeup, what seemed years ago now. It had been hidden behind the mouthwash. The shock was so sudden he shook unsteadily on his feet, grasping the washbasin to stable himself, a montage of happier times scrolling through his head. He felt a longing in his heart, a pang, that physically hurt. ‘Oh Ruth, I can’t do this without you’.

“I can’t do this without you.” He said again and shut the mirrored door. If this had been a film, he thought, Ruth would be standing behind him offering words of support and love. But this wasn’t a film, and it was still quiet, and no one was there, and he was going to have to do this without her.

He stood there, studying his face. Who are you? He asked of his reflection. Jimmy, James, Jimbo, Jimney, Jim, names he had been called throughout his life but who was he now? He felt he didn’t fit any one of them, this man who he was looking at now. Late sixties, almost completely white hair, lines, but not so much wrinkly as just extra skin that he had seemed to have cultivated from nowhere. When had this happened? When had he got so old? Why couldn’t it have been me?

Emma

These mornings always seemed to come from nowhere. They were a happy couple, bringing up two seemingly well-adjusted kids, and then they weren’t. It seemed to happen overnight. Or sometimes over the course of a day. Chris would leave kissing her goodbye, ruffling the kid’s hair at the breakfast table, then storm home later, banging the door and shouting at everyone for ignoring him. When they knew, if he was in that mood, it was best to stay away. Emma couldn’t remember when this gulf started to shift, but children hadn’t helped. She thought she had done enough research when she had married a man who had agreed to having children. Looking back now, she wondered if he had known what children were, and that he wasn’t thinking about guinea pigs. Because children just really seemed to annoy him. He seemed irritated when they interrupted his conversation, and positively angry when asked to carry out a daily childcare task. Baths could be mundane, but if you weren’t there all day, they could be a chance to bond and play. But children sense when you would rather be somewhere else, and they withdraw, and that seemed to annoy him more. Where was his unconditional love? Even if he wasn’t able to show much to them, he expected it back in spades.

On this particular morning, she had got the children off to school, without him being disturbed. All she was doing was, stopping off at the house to drop off her bag, and pick up Paddy for his walk. It was the day Chris had a late start due to a meeting he had about a new position. Emma was surprised he hadn’t come down at breakfast but just assumed the meeting was later than she thought. When Paddy met her at the door in all his excitement to leave for his walk, she didn’t know Chris was up and dressed and ready to leave.

“Where is it… where’s my contract?!” He spat.

She could tell from the way his mouth shaped into a snarl, this wasn’t just about the lost document.

“I mean, Christ, don’t you ever clean this place?” Emma flailed around lifting objects in an attempt to look as though she was helping but this was just thinking time. For such a conscientious man, it was always a surprise when he lost or forgot things. Chris was beginning to look through her things now.

“What is all this shit!” She had to admit it looked bad, it had come to the point where even Emma thought she should tidy up, she had just been waiting for the right moment. If only she had known he was going to lose his contract today, and she would have had a cull, paid the bills and thrown away the flyers. Feeling it was her fault Emma didn’t speak, she knew from experience it would not end well. It would come out wrong and be used against her. “For Fucks sake, now I am late…I’ve got to go, ring me if you find it.” And he flew out the door. She stood, stock still and listened for the car starting and driving off. She realised she was holding her breath. When she was sure he had gone, she exhaled and breathed deeply, her gaze fell to the floor and that’s when she noticed the corner of an envelope peeping out from under the sofa.

Emma saw Boo-Boo quite frequently now, he and Paddy got on. She would often speak with his owner in passing. It was a strange kind of relationship, Emma knew he had a daughter and he talked about his wife in the past tense, and he knew Emma’s children were at school and that she had a husband who worked in London. But Emma had no idea of his name. They would stand beside each other commenting on the dog’s behaviour and the weather and the autumnal changes of the woods. Then quite suddenly the conversation would be over and they would walk their separate ways.

Today though, Emma had found two crisp ten-pound notes lying on the ground, they must have only just been dropped because they lay on top of the fallen leaves, and in moments could have been covered from view. She had been walking with her head down, replaying the argument she had had with Chris, and there the money was, so perfect, they look like they had just been printed. She looked up to see if there was anyone nearby who could have dropped them, holding them aloft as if to illustrate she had no intention of keeping the notes. No one was around, so she continued to hold them out in her hand ready to offer them to any passerby.

People are wary of others, in the woods, if they are more ready to communicate than offer a stifled, ‘Morning’ or ‘Lovely day,’ as they approached. Eventually Emma came across a fellow walker and headed to her with meaning, the woman recoiled a bit, doubtless in case Emma was wielding a knife.

“Excuse me, have you dropped this? I found them on the path just over there.” Emma held out the notes. The woman looked relieved.

“No.” She said, before she had time to process that she could easily have got away with twenty pounds, if she had thought about her answer more carefully.

“Well, if you see anyone looking for something…” Emma’s sentence trailed off, she didn’t know what else to say. ’…tell them another woman, you don’t know, has found some money, but check they have lost twenty pounds…’ The woman smiled, and continued on her walk. Emma decided she should have rehearsed the conversation and was in the process of doing so when a dog she recognised came into view.

“Hello Boo-Boo”. On looking up she saw his owner was walking her way, “you haven’t lost twenty pounds, have you? Only, I found it on the path round there and there was no one around”.

“I’d keep it, consider it payment for dog walking duties.” Emma didn’t know what to say, “seriously finders’ keepers.” Emma looked down at the notes in her hand.

“It’s just that, it’s quite a lot”, looking up, Emma now realized from the man’s face he was joking.

“There’s a group of people congregating on the field, I would head down there”. He said.

“Just to say, I wasn’t really thinking of keeping it”.

“I know,” he said as he continued walking by, “you have an honest face.”

*****

“…and there was a lady on the field who had dropped it out of her pocket getting a tissue out to wipe her nose. She was very grateful”

“But how did you know it was really hers?” Clara asked.

“Because she said it was”, Bertie answered simply, as if Clara couldn’t have been following the story.

“Yeah, well, she could have been lying.” Clara seemed cynical beyond her eight years.

“Clara, most people are essentially good, besides she was too quick to have made it up. She had a back story and everything.”

“What was that then?” Chris added “’I went to the cashpoint on my way to the common, incase there was somewhere to spend it… on a patch of land made up of woods and scrub’”.

“It was something about her daughter’s riding lesson and not owing as much as she thought she had.” Saying it out loud now, did sound less convincing than at the time. Emma was just glad she had got rid of it, she wasn’t sure what else she could have done, put up a sign? ‘Found. Sum of money. Call this number and quote the amount’. It would have required phone calls and meetings with strangers. She let her mind wander to a good-looking stranger who might ask her to coffee on the High Street and…

“Did you wash my blue shirt, because I need it for tomorrow…My interview…?” She looked at her husband and just for a second envied him intensely. The feeling softened when she remembered she was going out that night, with the ‘girls’, as she referred to them in her head. Her two mum friends from school, calling them ‘the girls’ made it sound so much more than it possibly was.

“So how long do you think you’ll be?” He shouted from the sofa.

“Well, you know, not too late. We all have dependents, who need to be in school early, so I doubt we are going to be dancing until dawn!” She called out from the bathroom knowing he would only have caught half of what she had said. She was putting on make-up and getting dressed up for herself, this never seemed to happen anymore. Chris went out after work on Fridays almost every week, but for her it felt like Christmas. This was her chance to wear something clean, although she hadn’t managed a shower. Chris’ train had been delayed and what with the children’s reading and their spellings, her preparation time had ebbed away. Okay it was only the local Harvester, okay it was just her and ‘the girls’. The only two other mum’s who actually talked to her. Okay, so it was only a Tuesday evening ‘but I can pretend’ she thought. She couldn’t remember the last time she had been out independently, at that moment she couldn’t remember any time since she’d been married, definitely since children. There must have been some times, she stopped then, to actually think when it was…

“Who’s going to put us to bed?” Clara asked anxiously, standing at the doorway.

“Daddy of course.”

“But he doesn’t know how to do it.” Clara complained.

“Well, you’ll just have to tell him, but don’t read Harry Potter, we’ll read that together tomorrow night, okay?”

“Daddy never reads to us anyway. He says I should be old enough to read to myself and tells Bertie it’s a big sister’s job to read to him”. Clara gave one of her greatest hard done by looks and Emma, feeling guilty for abandoning her daughter to an inferior bedtime routine added,

“We’ll read two chapters tomorrow night, alright?” That seemed to work.

“Alright”, she repeated, and as Clara turned for the door “Goodnight,” and Emma could hear her as she disappeared up the stairs. I obviously gave into that too easily, she thought to herself.

After the long goodbye, where Bertie had had his turn to guilt trip her by hanging onto her clothes and looking up at her, with his clear blue eyes and saying simply,

“Do you have to go Mummy?”, she found herself looking round a huge but largely empty pub. Now, she felt over dressed and made up, she realised her dog walking jeans and stained t-shirt would have done just as well, but she was reassured when she rounded the corner to find Anita and Leah in a booth, with a half empty bottle of prosecco and two large glasses filled to the brim.

“Yay, you made it!” said Leah, wearing a top slung so low your eyes were drawn to her incredible heaving chest, something Emma had never noticed before.

“Cheers” followed Anita, pouring out a fresh, third glass, so the liquid bulged precariously over the rim.

“Tell her what you told me, it’s hilarious”. Leah swigged from her glass thirstily.

“Did you hear about the ‘talking tent’?” Anita began.

“Talking Tent? What’s that?” Emma asked, confused.

“Well, apparently it’s an area of the classroom where the children can go and… ‘free play’”, explained Leah.

“Or conceal stolen goods.” Anita and Leah burst out in reams of laughter.

“What are you talking about?” Emma took a gulp of the prosecco, not her drink of choice, but she decided that if she was going to enjoy herself it was going to have to start here.

“Well, you know I told you about Ray’s ‘transitioning’ issues, well it only happened again, only this time, ten times worse.” Said Anita, preparing herself like a storyteller.

“Anita asked Ray to hand over the mobile phone, she suspected he had the next night, and there wasn’t just the one.” Leah chipped in.

“No, he just kept pulling them out of his shorts pockets, magician style, he had managed to secrete four of them in total.” Emma was confused for a minute.

“And what has this got to do with the talking tent?” she asked.

“Well, that’s the thing,” Anita could hardly get the words out between laughter. “I wasn’t going to put Ray through that humiliation again, but I was in possession of these four, albeit broken, mobile phones, property of Miss Bounds and St Hubert’s School.”

“What did you do.” Emma used the words as if she was more familiar with Anita than she was, the way she would use them with an old friend known to be wacky and way out.

“Well, you know at parents evening when you are allowed to go into the class after your meeting and look at the children’s work. Well, I had them in my bag, I had to get rid of them somewhere. There was no one in the classroom, so…”

All three were, by now and with the help of the prosecco, finding the absurdity of the situation beyond funny. Tears ran from Leah’s eyes.

“She only went and put them back in the talking tent, under the cushions.”

“But that’s not the worst of it,” she looked around and lowered her voice, “You know Laurence’s mum?” Emma didn’t, “You know, class Rep, knows everything…”

“‘Listen Mum’s’” Leah clapped her hands together mimicking “’we need volunteers to help run the second-hand uniform sale, it raises much need funds for the PTA’”.

“Very good”, congratulated Anita before continuing, “She came up to me yesterday and said, ‘Have you heard about the Talking Tent?’ Well I nearly shat myself, but apparently she had to see Miss Bounds because there was a hole in the talking tent and Laurence had been found holding the scissors.”

“So, nothing to do with the mobile phones”.

“No, looks like I got away with that one.”

“Yeah, but I asked Noah about that, ‘what happened with Laurence and the talking tent?’, and he looked a bit uncomfortable and then he said, ‘I didn’t tell him to do it!’ like someone else did”

“Well, I am not going to ask Ray anything, it’s all between Miss Bounds and Mrs. Class Rep, I’m not inviting trouble”

The waitress came over and they ordered food and Leah, sharing out the remains of the bottle of prosecco ordered another one without asking anyone if they wanted more and neither her, or Anita complained. Emma realised it was going to be one of those evenings.

It wasn’t long before the evening turned messy. It was good to have a proper chat, without interruptions or the time constraints of picking up, going to work or after school activities, that usually got in the way. As the evening progressed, she learnt that Leah was a single parent whose partner had abandoned her, and Noah, when he was one. How difficult it was to navigate finding love on the internet as a 30-year-old single mum these days. Anita, who was nearer in age to Emma, was divorced and had teenage twin girls and Ray had been a fix it baby, that hadn’t fixed anything. With these facts out in the open it was Emma’s turn to contribute, but she was finding it hard. Emma was the only one who seemed to have a conventional family situation. A providing husband, house, one boy and one girl, dog, garden. She had nothing to complain about, and that’s what she said, although she knew she wanted to say more. It was building up inside her with every sip of prosecco, some things she hadn’t shared with anyone else but in the haze of new, female friendship and alcohol she could feel herself starting to loosen the lid.

Leah and Anita were quiet, they both took sips of their drinks and looked from one another, back to Emma expectantly. In the enforced gap in conversation, Emma let out a heavy, loaded breath of air speaking,

“It’s just that I thought it would be more fun.” They laughed hysterically. “Well, you know what I mean, I had no idea what kind of father he’d make, and as it turns out, he’s not a very fun one. I mean, I know bringing up children is a serious business but that’s why you have to have a laugh, right? There’s just no spontaneity, there’s no ‘ahh I know let’s get a take-away and watch a movie’, ‘Let’s all go to dinner at the pub’. It’s all a bit, ‘have they done their homework?’ And ‘why have you let them watch that crap on the telly?’ I just feel so …”

“Bored?” Anita suggested.

“Dissatisfied?” added Leah.

“Unfulfilled?”

“Well no, not exactly, as a mother I think I am doing alright but in our relationship, I mean mine with Chris, it’s less of a partnership, more of …”, Emma thought for a moment, “ …a sponsorship deal.”

“A what!?” blurted Leah spitting some of her mouthful across the table.

“It’s like the kids want a trampoline, I would love them to have a trampoline, they could be outside, expelling energy and frustration.” Emma began.

“And you could use it to expel. ‘energy and frustration’”. Anita winked. Causing more laughter.

“Well there is that, but Chris doesn’t want to get one, something about the kids who had trampolines when he was growing up were all ‘idiots’, or something random like that. And it’s like ‘a word from our sponsor: it’s a no to trampolines!’. I am like a live-in domestic…”

“Goddess?” Suggested Anita.

“More like… servant. But unpaid. And I can’t help thinking how nice it would be to get up, by yourself, go to work, by yourself, do a job, be appraised, get paid and then come home, to a meal, finding clean clothes, clean children and a cleanish house, but then say to any request, ‘but I’ve been working all day’”. Emma sat back, feeling strangely relieved.

“You really need to get a trampoline”. Leah chuckled, then remembering “Hey, what does he mean ‘idiot’? I had a trampoline when I was growing up!”

“But you get regular sex. I miss sex.” Said Anita.

“I do alright in that department, only it’s not exactly regular.” Added Leah. They turned to Emma, “you do get sex, right?”

“That’s exactly right. Yes, I get sex. Regularly. As regularly as clockwork but…” she struggled to find the words, “it’s not affectionate, sensual or passionate anymore, it just feels…functional”.

“Oh my God, you two are really putting me off marriage, my dalliances are all about the passion. It’s like - my mum’s got Noah, it’s now or never, just go with it.”

“Don’t you play games? Role play, ‘you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours’ kind of thing? Lukas and I did a lot of that towards the end, in fact that’s where Ray came from.”

“Anita!” Leah chided.

“What? Too much information?”

“Chris asks me about that, ‘what really turns you on?’ he says, meaning vibraters or handcuffs, he’s even bought a dildo, but you know what really turns me on? What really turns me on is, kindness.” The three woman, stopped and thought about this for a moment.

“I mean if he came home and said, ‘what sort of day have you had? That couldn’t have been easy, here have this glass of wine, I’ll put the kids to bed. Let’s get a take-away and watch that movie you have been talking about’, well, it’s that easy, I would be putty in his hands.”

“You just need some validation, someone to say, ‘I know what you do is hard, and I wouldn’t want to do it’ and ‘I admire you for doing it as well as you do’.” Anita had been through it all before.

“Yeah, some recognition”, put in Emma.

“Well, that’s never going to happen, if he’s anything like Lukas.”

“Some mornings I feel like I deserve a medal for getting two reluctant, bickering children to school, and on time,” Emma said through a mouthful of drink.

“Oh Guys, you are living the dream”, laughed Leah.

“Don’t get me wrong, I wouldn’t describe myself as a great wife. I’m sure Chris would have his list of, ‘improvements’. I just don’t think we have that much in common anymore. I think it’s because our relationship was largely based on drinking and sex, and neither of those activities seem to interest me much anymore.” They all looked at the remnants of the bottles of prosecco strewn about the table and laughed, “Well, not with him anyway.” More laughter.

“Now you are talking my language”, added Anita and the group all huddled around for another story telling, something Anita had a talent for.

Jim

This would be the time that Jim would have left for table tennis, but it was the first time he had had to leave Boo-Boo in the house alone, so he felt a little uneasy. Boo-Boo wasn’t a barker, it turned out to be true, and although he seemed aloof at times, Jim sensed a kind of loyalty. They had an understanding, Jim and the dog, neither of them had the woman they wanted but, they realised, all they did have was each other. A kind of Odd Couple arrangement.

Table tennis on Tuesday’s had started to punctuate Jim’s week, it had become routine, as had walking the dog first thing in the morning. That routine was more of a necessity than a choice. At around six o’clock in the morning, Boo-Boo would sit at Jim’s bedside and watch him sleep. The first time he did it, on morning three, Jim became conscious of a warm, odious breath against his face and nearly died with shock to see the dog’s black, expressionless eyes fixed on his, as he came around. Boo-Boo had followed him like a shadow, to the toilet, had waited outside the bathroom door as he’d showered and as he pottered around getting his breakfast, so much so that Jim nearly fell over him twice. Eventually, Jim had worked out that Boo-Boo would do this until he had been taken out for a walk and had his own doggy breakfast. After that, he slept in his basket or followed the sun patches around the house for the rest of the day, and they had very little to do with each other, which Jim grew to like. Jim usually left it as long as he could stand it, but he was nearly always out of the house by 8.30am. They had had a pleasant walk this morning. The dog walkers were becoming familiar to him, there was one young woman in particular, she was about his daughter’s age but unlike his daughter, always had an air of chaos about her.

“Right, I’ll be off now, but I won’t be long.” Jim, took his table tennis bat out of the carrier bag on the back of the cupboard under the stairs and smiled at himself. He was always amused when he waited for an answer from the dog, which he did every time. Boo-Boo cocked his head to one side and looked like he pretended he understood but didn’t care. Jim closed the front door, wondering what kind of state the house would be in when he got home.

At table tennis he went through the usual system but was happiest talking to Peter. He had explained about his daughter instigating a rescue deal in the form of a dog, and Peter empathized having experienced grown up children worry about him, the aging parent. His sons had set him up on several dates with younger women, no doubt to avoid the burden of having to look after him themselves in the not too distant, dark and dismal future. Tonight, Jim felt the confidence to ask Peter to accompany him to the pub across the road for a drink just as they were finishing up. He had managed to avoid asking David as he was his usual self, telling everyone loudly he had to go early and that he wouldn’t be there for the next couple of weeks because he and his wife were touring the country in a vintage VW Beetle campervan called VanNessa.

Just as they crossed the road and headed for the pub entrance, a group of women noisily came out through the pub doors. Jim hadn’t really noticed them except for them being a bit loud and giggly.

“It’s you!” One of them accused with an unsteady finger pointing in his direction. “You’re Boo-Boo…” There was a pause in which the women burst out laughing all seeming a little worse for wear. Jim looked apologetically at Peter…”’s foster carer’…”

“Yes, and you’re Paddy’s owner, I recognise you, I’m Jim” He held out his hand.

“I’m Emma and we’re going home…it’s school tomorrow,” she hiccupped.

“I can’t believe I am this drunk on a school night”, another of the women said.

“My mum is going to kill me” said another, “I said I’d be back by 9.00pm…She’s babysitting” the third woman added by way of explanation. To Jim she didn’t look old enough to have left school herself. The group moved off waving their arms at any passing car, expecting to hail a taxi and fortunately for them, Jim thought, he saw a car with a Taxi light drawing up to them. He watched the group, feeling unreasonably responsible for Paddy’s owner, so much so that when he turned to join Peter at the bar he asked,

“How do you know them, you dark horse?”

“Oh, I don’t, not really. I mean I know one of them, she walks her dog on the Common.”

“Hmm,” Peter looked after the women, “remind me to get a dog”.

“It’s not a bad idea. I have only been doing it a few weeks really and you start to recognise people. Say ‘Hello’, talk about the weather or dog names, breeds or behaviour. It’s an odd kind of relationship, you may talk about lots of things, but you never know anyone’s name.”

“Although you do now, Emma’s Paddy’s owner.”

“Oh yes, Emma.” Jim repeated thoughtfully.

When Jim got home after the pub, he opened the door timidly, not knowing what to expect. Would all the furniture have been torn and stuffing strewn about the place? Excrement and puddles everywhere? From the hallway everything looked just like he’d left it. He heard a tip tapping of claws on the kitchen floor as Boo-Boo had got up from his basket and had come to welcome him home. He was wagging his tail more energetically than he had done so far, and Jim took that as a sign that he was pleased to see him. Jim made a cup of tea and settled down on the sofa to catch up on some news before he went to bed. Boo-Boo looked up at him, first putting up a paw, then, when there was no response, his other front paw. By the time Jim had reached for his tea on the other side to him, Boo-Boo had squeezed himself up onto the sofa and curled himself into the tightest ball he could. His warm body was pressing up against Jim’s thigh. Jim didn’t want to encourage the dog onto the furniture, but nor could he discourage it since the feeling of connection he felt to another living thing, was the first he’d felt in a while.

Emma

Emma lent against her favourite tree, an oak. It had long been her favourite. It’s monumental trunk and wide-reaching branches had always instilled a sense of calm and wellbeing in Emma, there couldn’t have been much this tree hadn’t witnessed across its history. She imagined it had listened to hearts being broken, plots of rebellion and declarations of love. She had even invented a story about it to the children to amuse herself on the long slow walks with them.

Today though she was using it as more of a prop. She had managed to get out of bed and fool the children into thinking it was just like any other ordinary day, when really her head throbbed, and her vision was slightly blurred. Dark glasses and bowed head during the school run meant she had avoided any uncomfortable conversation, which would require her to exhale her stale alcoholic breath in anyone’s direction. Then with the two of them safely deposited in school she had taken Paddy on his walk, attempting to stick to her usual routine and it was all going well, until a wave of nausea had caused her to make for her favourite tree and lie her back against the sloping base of its roots. She swung her arms behind her to grip onto the bark. With its deep, rough grooves it was the perfect texture for her fingers to cling on to. She lent there for some time just grounding herself, stopping the world from spinning, sensations flooding every fibre of her being. As a breeze picked up strands of her hair, she imagined the tree trunk was really the back of a dragon and she was lying horizontally being transported across the sky.

That’s when she felt something wet against her hand, she opened her eyes carefully in case she felt dizzy all over again, and tilted her head at as small an angle as she could, to identify the source of her damp hand. There stood Boo-Boo, looking at her quizzically and in the background, Paddy had actually settled down to chew a stick. In her head she processed, that if Boo-boo were here, his owner couldn’t be far away and was it too late to jump out of this position and pretend to be doing something else. Her dark glasses enabled a bit of cover, so she gently moved to unhook herself, she scanned the clearing and not seeing anyone, composed herself.

“Big night?” He asked as he approached from a path the opposite way to the one she was expecting. Emma quickly wondered how much he had seen and whether to make up an explanation or just own up. Her head hurt with the thinking.

“Nothing a strong cappuccino couldn’t sort out”. She smiled and lifted up her sunglasses as she always did when talking to one other person, as she herself hated not seeing the other person’s eyes. Boo-Boo’s owner visibly reacted to seeing her full face and she realized it must be worse than she thought. She replaced the sunglasses and he changed the subject subtly.

“There’s that new café on the High Street, have you tried it?” Jim asked.

“Not yet, have you?”

“Yes, I have been a few times, either on my way here or on the way home, it depends on the weather, if it’s nice I buy a coffee and bring it along here and sit on a bench, or if it’s wet or cold I take it home. Sometimes I go and sit inside if the day is particularly miserable, although Boo doesn’t like that much as he has to wait outside.” This was the most Emma had heard him speak in one go, and although she wanted to contribute, she couldn’t think of anything to say. As if sensing this he continued. “They do have tables outside, but smokers tend to use them first thing in the morning, sometimes when I ‘drink in,’ it’s as exciting as my day gets…” He trailed off, then added almost to himself “…those are the bad days”. Emma remembered the ‘past tense’ wife.

“Well, maybe we’ll bump into each other in there then one day, and it was quite a big night, well huge, especially for a Tuesday”. She made a move to walk in the direction he’d just come, and she tried to walk nonchalantly away in case he was watching. “See you”, she called behind her.

“Okay, Emma” He called back, and Emma froze, a memory returned to her involving Leah, Anita, a cab and a blurred figure of a man.

Jim

Caroline had come around for longer today. Jim felt as though this visit had been officially recorded in the diary. ‘Dad’s 10.30am – 11.30am’. Today, Caroline didn’t seem to have an agenda, it was a curtersey visit. Well, either that or she was checking up on whether he’d been savaged by the dog.

“Hmm?! Posh biscuits, you are spoiling me.” Jim had bought them ready for the occasion, he’d picked them up at the shop, as he’d passed it on the way home from the Common that morning, along with some fresh bread and ingredients to make up a soup. “Vegetables? What do you want those for?” Caroline was surprised.

“I’m making soup for lunch; would you like to stay?”

“Would love to but I can’t, I’ve got errands to run. Day off. Well, I say ‘day off’ but I actually have more bits to do than at work. How are you getting on?”

“Fine, I am continuing to get to table tennis and Peter and I went for a drink.”

“Good, and the dog?” They both looked a Boo-Boo who was lying sprawled across and hanging off his basket.

“Well, I am out every morning, nearly took a tumble in the woods yesterday, he’s costing me a fortune, but he’s alright.”

“I am looking dad, I have asked just about everyone I know. I have had Paul ask at his work, I’ve asked at Charlotte’s school, nothing so far. If I have had no interest in a couple of weeks…”

“A couple of weeks? It’s already been nearly a month. You said this was a temporary arrangement.”

“Yes, I did, but look at you? You look better than I have seen you in months. You’re buying posh biscuits and vegetables…to make soup. I am not going to apologise, Dad, when I think the dog is making a real difference to you.” Caroline looked closely at her father’s expression, “Look, in a couple of weeks I will start putting up notices on Facebook and things like that, if you still really want me to.”

“Of course, I do”, Jim found himself lowering his voice so not to hurt the dog’s feelings, “it’s a big commitment, what if I want to go away?”

“Go away? Where?”

“Ahh, you know what I mean… I have only just got rid of my responsibilities…” As soon as Jim said it, he knew he’d shouldn’t have. He didn’t actually mind having the dog, what he minded was that Caroline had made the decision for him, and was probably congratulating herself in having been right. He had felt he had been treated a bit like a child who had been given a dog to get over a particularly bad parental divorce. He hated the feeling of lack of control, an elderly parent being the subject of a wider plan to cheer him up and keep him going when he was quite capable of doing that himself, if he had wanted to.

Caroline seemed visibly hurt. He wanted to apologise and give her a hug, explain that he hadn’t meant to snap at her, that he realised she was just trying to help, but that wasn’t the kind of relationship they had. They drank tea in stilted conversation after that, pretending they weren’t thinking about Ruth, but they were. Caroline left without asking him what the day, week, month or time was. He must have really upset her.

Emma

The phone rang at 7.52am. It had to be her mother, or a disaster, no one calls at that time, on a landline, unless it’s a relative or bad news. She was in the process of trying to brush Bertie’s teeth while simultaneously searching for hairbands for Clara’s hair. She was dragging Bertie by the mouth, while he was hooked on to a toothbrush, around the bathroom, reaching on to shelves and under tissue boxes and toilet rolls.

Well, where did you take them off last night”, she shouted. “Hello?”

“Alright Darling, I know you must be in a rush, so I won’t keep you.”

“Yes, it’s prime time, all system are ‘go’ here right now.”

“Is Chris there?”

“No, you know he leaves before this time in the morning, he went especially early today as he’s going for a second interview for a new job”.

Ow”, Emma had dug the toothbrush too hard into Bertie’s gums, while she tried to balance the phone under her chin.

Sorry. Look mum can this wait? I am seeing you after school today.”

“Well that’s why I am calling, dear, I can’t make it.”

“Oh, is everything ok?” Emma stopped the assault on Bertie and found some scrunched up elastics which she handed to Clara, and mimed brushing her hair. Emma sat on the side of the bath.

“Oh yes, I’m fine. I’ve just been invited out to lunch that’s all. Chris is getting a new job, is he? And you’re okay with that?”

“Yes. Why wouldn’t I be?” Emma looked at her watch, she had a feeling this was going to take a while.

“You are okay with his career going from strength to strength while you…”

“Hang on a minute mum… Get your shoes on and get in the car…No, I told you we were going in the car today because I’ve got an early shift at work…sorry what were you saying mum?”

“Chris’ career is taking off and you…”

I don’t know, Clara, where your homework is, it’ll be where you left it”

“…and you spend your time racing around searching for missing homework.”

Really Mother? This isn’t the time to be talking about this, I have told you: I didn’t have children to have them looked after by someone else.”

“But it seems Chris did.” There was a silence and this statement hung in the air. “I just want you to be happy.”

“I am happy!” Emma shouted down the phone, before cutting off her mum. But a salary would be nice, she thought.

Whilst driving to school, Emma allowed herself to imagine a world where motherhood was a paid occupation, you could be given performance related pay, and bonuses every time your child reached a milestone and some kind of promotional structure for years of service. It would be nice to get some recognition, some ‘Birthday Honours’. The only problem being, no one truly knows if you have done a good job until your child doesn’t grow up to be a master criminal or mass murderer, any negative outcomes and a mother somewhere always seemed to get the blame. Maybe it could be the child that gave you ratings like an Uber driver or Airbnb flat, for customer satisfaction.

“How many stars out of five, would you give me for being a mum?” she asked the children suddenly.

“5 out of five”, shouted Bertie from the back seat.

“Clara?” Clara rolled her eyes.

“What are you on about now?”

“If you were to rate me on being a mum, how many stars would you give me out of 5?” Clara thought for a moment.

“Three and a half.”

After drop-off, as she walked back to the car she thought about her children. Were they getting a fair and balanced view of the world, spending such a disproportionate amount of time with her? She often found herself talking aloud the thoughts in her head about the world’s injustices in front of her children. Or commenting on the news stories on the radio, when she knew her husband could have wildly different views. Would that impact negatively or positively on their futures?

“Don’t worry”, said the familiar voice of Anita as a figure dashed passed, “I forgot the bloody Harvest Festival gift today too.”

“Oh Shit!” Emma lifted her hand in greeting but was still pondering whether she should keep her thoughts to herself in future.

Jim

Jim woke up feeling as if something was unfinished or unresolved. He had a feeling in his stomach he couldn’t or wouldn’t identify. The more conscious he became the stronger the feelings, as he opened his eyes to meet Boo-Boo’s it was a feeling he recognised as regret. Something he had to face and resolve, but not now. Now, he just needed to get Boo-Boo out.

As he made his way to the common, he felt an overwhelming urge to do something for someone, to alleviate some of the remorse he was feeling. It was a beautiful morning, he stopped off at the coffee shop, and leaving Boo-Boo outside, ordered a take-away coffee. On a sudden impulse, he ordered his usual Americano and a then quite unexpectedly a Cappuccino. He was surprised to find his intention was to give it to Emma, should he see her. Immediately after he put in his order he felt stupid and reckless, and realised it was quite an intimate act, the act of buying coffee for someone else, especially when they had only briefly mentioned their preferences in a different context. He had said yes to chocolate but no to sugar, he didn’t want to seem too keen.

He took his usual route into the woods but hadn’t met anyone before he reached his bench in the sun. As he was standing there deciding whether to sit down and wait for her, or keep walking, he noticed the familiar shape of the hairy whippet along the path ahead, Paddy. But he couldn’t see Emma yet, so he sat on the bench, composing himself. At the last minute he decided to stand up because he felt too staged sitting down. Sitting down implied he was expecting her to stop and chat, but she may be in a hurry today.

“Is that for me?” It made him jump and any chance of being nonchalant disappeared.

“…As a matter of fact, it is.” Emma looked embarrassed and, for a split second, a flush of colour crossed her cheeks.

“Oh…well, thank you.” Emma hesitated and there was an awkward moment when Jim handed her the cup, only for her to try and grasp it with a used poo bag in her hand, he offered to take the object, then realizing what it was recoiled. Emma smiled as she swapped hands and finally took the coffee cup.

“It’s a cappuccino, chocolate, no sugar, I guessed that bit.”

“Perfect. In fact, any coffee at this time in the morning is perfect, especially this morning, I’ve bought the car because I have an early shift and wouldn’t have time to walk the dog otherwise, let alone pick up a coffee”. Emma noticed Jim waiting for a cue as to what to do next, “I can’t stop though, but we can walk back this way to the carpark, if you like”.

“Great.” They walked off and then Jim couldn’t think of anything to say. He hadn’t thought this scenario over at all. The two of them had seen each other many times in the last few weeks but had only ever spoken a handful of sentences. Eventually Emma spoke.

“How are you getting on with the dog? No more absconding I hope.”

“No, that was day one. He knows now where he’s best off, thankfully. He’s not really my dog.”

“No, you said that the day you lost him.”

“It was my daughter’s idea, to cut a long story short, she thinks it will get me out more. She thinks I don’t get out enough since my wife, her mother, died.”

“Oh, I’m sorry.”

“It’s Okay, well it’s getting better, it’s nearly a year ago now and it wasn’t sudden, as such. She’d been very ill. Anyway,” he added trying to change the subject, he didn’t want Emma to think he was just after sympathy, “I hate to admit it, but she was right. My daughter, I think, despite his silly name Boo-Boo, has done me good, I’m just finding it difficult to tell her that.”

“Oh, I see. Parent-child dynamic only gets more difficult, especially when everyone’s grown up. No one wants to be told what’s good for them, either way.” There was a pause as they both contemplated this. Now it was Emma’s turn to change the subject. “I think I may owe you an apology,” Emma began, “the other night.” Again, her cheeks coloured. “I never even drink prosecco, let alone 5 bottles between three of us. It was just that I think I’ve found my school gate tribe”.

“Your what?”

“School gate tribe. Yeah, school gates are as tribal as the school playground was all those years ago. You have your glamourous over-achievers, the popular crowd, the ones who know everything, the gossipy ones and those who are just trying to get along.”

“And which category are you in?”

“The ‘Just trying to get along’ crowd. Just like at school, head down, nose clean.”

“Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil. “

“Exactly…Sad, but true. I’m actually jealous of all the glamourous mums, with their important looking, bloody lanyards. Sweeping into school and going off in their high-heeled shoes to match their high-powered jobs. Having done the homework and knowing that they needed to bring in a gift for harvest festival. Never been one of them, never will be.” Jim was immediately reminded of his daughter and the feelings of regret from earlier in the morning returned.

“Well, I am glad you have found your, ‘tribe’”.

They rounded a corner and reached the carpark. Emma looked at her watch.

“I’ve got a few minutes, we can sit here for a while, it isn’t quite as nice as the other bench but…”

“Great.” They were distracted by their two dogs, who, after a playful chasing game had sat down on the grass, blinking in the sun. The car park was large but only had about six cars in it, they were all spread out with none of them parked next to each other. They watched a dog walker loading an over-weight Labrador into the back of an estate car and drive off, and then a car arrived and parked, but the single occupant didn’t get out.

“I often wonder why people sit in their cars, in these carparks. I think it would be a good place for a drug deal, or surveillance or an affair”. Emma was looking at another of the parked cars in-particular. This one had a man and a woman sitting in the front seat, staring straight ahead, with their backs to her and Jim. Jim scanned all the other parked cars and saw how the single man was now speaking on a mobile phone.

“They are breaking up,” Emma said, nodding towards the couple, “and he’s the private investigator who has been hired by the mans’ wife,” she speculated. “But,” she thought allowed, “the P.I. is also blackmailing the husband to finish with the other woman, because he is secretly in love with the wife, and loves her so much, he can’t bear to see her hurt.”

“Okay,” Jim continued, “…the husband has to finish it now. Today. Or the P.I. will tell his wife and destroy their marriage.” Jim saw Emma’s face light up when she realised he was playing along with her game.

“Look, is that a camera?” The single man was using a mobile phone. But when Jim looked more closely, he appeared to be lost and studying a map. “Only joking, I think he’s lost.” Giggled Emma.

“Perhaps he’s in the wrong car park.” Jim laughed,

“Not much of a private investigator then.” Jim couldn’t remember the last time he laughed with anyone else.

“Have you been to the Wildlife Trusts parklands on Norbury Lane?” Emma said, changing the subject. “They’ve got a café and I’ve spent a few wet hours looking out over their carpark when the children were little. Waiting for the rain to stop. They have a tiny child play area., the coffee’s good too. You should go there some time, it’s a drive away but it’s somewhere different for Boo-Boo.”

“I think I’ve been there, long time ago now. Maybe I’ll check it out.” Jim was thinking of the car journey. His car sat on his driveway untouched and untaxed since his wife’s funeral.

“I used to go quite regularly but I got fed up of the right turn out the carpark, it’s a death trap, the times I got beeped at, turning out of there. The children called it ‘Beep- Beep Corner’. I haven’t been for a while.” She looked again at her watch. “I better go. Look I have more time on Thursdays, I will bring the coffee next time, see you Boo- Boo, bye”

Emma deposited the poo bag, that she had placed at her feet while sitting on the bench, carefully in the specially designated bin, as Paddy dutifully followed her and got in the back seat when the door was opened for him. She waved as she got into her car, still juggling the take-away coffee cup and her keys and the lead. Jim was aware he was watching her go, so as not to distract her, he put the lead on Boo-Boo and followed the path to the road. He felt elated to have had such a communication, especially one that was essentially a gamble, he was congratulating his boldness when the feeling of remorse returned. He needed to settle things with Caroline.

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