Mia Mackenzie stared at the night sky in general, and at one star in particular. "Oh pops, I miss you. You were so funny – I wish had someone to make me laugh like you used to; any chance of a hand to find a friend to make me chuckle again?"
Only silence was the response to her quiet plea; not that she'd expected anything else. Only cartoon films had clouds forming into the shape of your lost loved one to offer advice and comfort.
She was, in a way, used to loss; a car crash had injured her when she was young and robbed her of her parents and grandmother in one fell swoop. They'd been on their way to the airport to send her Gams (as she called her grandmother) back to her husband in Ireland.
Her grandfather had come to England; swallowed his own loss of his son, wife and treasured daughter-in-law, and attempted to help his grief stricken seven year old granddaughter try and piece her life back together. He had bought the house by the park so she could remain near her friends and stay at the same school.
It had been the two of them against the world after that – he was a lovable old rogue and Mia adored him. His death last summer had been a terrible shock; one to which she was still adjusting.
The thing she missed the most though was the laughter; he always made her laugh so much.
The stroke that had struck her down only three months ago had been another shock; the doctors told her it was her body's way of telling her to take it easy.
But work had been her escape from the grief, that and walking her dog; however, she knew Pops would kill her (pardon the pun) if she died due to her own stupidity and so she gritted her teeth and did as the medics told her.
The next morning she grabbed Tealeaf, her border collie, and headed out into the park. There were a lot of dogs there today, it being a sunny Saturday afternoon and one of the first really dry days they'd had in weeks.
She didn't mind all the people though, she said hello if she wanted to and didn't if not. She loved the park; she'd always lived around here and this was the only really green space she'd had growing up, except for their annual fortnight away to Ireland to visit relatives.
She had never strayed far from the area herself and still remembered learning to ride her bike here. The first wobbly sortie without stabilizers, her first go on the big swings without someone to push her and the dizzying height of the old slide (before the council decided the old swing was too rusty and the slide too big for safety reasons); vague memories now admittedly, but ones where she could at least still pick out the hazy faces of her parents and grandmother.
No, this park was wonderful to her; no large flower beds that meant you couldn't walk there, no pristine lawns with 'keep off the grass' notices sprouting everywhere.
This park was there to be used – tiny flowerbeds just to add a bit of colour, huge trees to sit under on the rare hot days that Britain had; massive expanses of grass to lie on and watch the clouds drift past lazily overhead. Bark and gravel paths that had seen better days in places (much like the lawns), but were there to be walked on not to be looked at.
Most parks these days had delusions of grandeur; ideas that they were really winners of the Chelsea flower show, rather than public places to have fun. But this place had somehow escaped all that pseudo glory – it had managed to survive as nothing more than a place to play and walk; or to sit and watch the world pass by if you felt like it.
Mia's little terraced house was in what was locally known as 'no man's land'; on the edge of the park and in an area that divided the large expensive houses from the more sedate council properties, built back in the day when that sort of distinction mattered.
Mia didn't care; she had friends in both quarters and got on equally well with both sides, even if she did see more of her council house friends than her wealthier ones.
She didn't care about company though; she was nothing if not self sufficient. Her eccentric Irish grandfather had made sure his little 'Irish colleen' had been able to take care of herself.
Yes, Pops was the light of her life and her hero; even though he'd been the grand old age of ninety-nine when he'd passed (and a week shy of his hundredth birthday), she had still mourned him deeply.
Whereas they had unspokenly agreed that her parents' house would be sold and they'd live somewhere else, she had resolutely stayed in his house after he'd gone. Too many happy memories echoed round its walls, and she felt (perhaps foolishly) that she'd be turning her back on all of them, not just Pops, if she left.
So she stayed, she and Tealeaf - her sedate border collie (well as sedate as any border collie ever really gets) – oh and Ming. Ming was her grandmother's cat and had to be about a hundred and ten in cat years, possibly even human years; that being said, it had to be a given that he was going to be as crotchety as any old person might be at that great age.
The fact that the elderly Siamese had always had an evil temper, which had only worsened with his passing years, was usually ignored by the family – even as they nursed scratched and bitten hands and ankles.
Those, increasingly frequent, occasions when his temper got the better of him and he decided that someone had to suffer. All they ensured was that their tetanus injections were always up to date.
Mia had decided long ago, after her grandmother had died and they had lost the only person able to even approach the dreadful creature, that he was old and so she only had to wait for him to go to that big cat pen in the sky. After all, how long could one cat live? Very long apparently; it seemed that Ming was bound and determined to outlive her as he had all the rest of the family.
He rarely got sick and so rarely had to go to the vet's – a fact that all humans concerned were grateful for. Towels, thick leather gauntlets and plenty of cursing (the latter from the cat) were too stressful to endure too often.
But today she didn't have to think about the cat bullying her border collie – surprising by any cat standards, except Ming's. Indeed the postman was more frightened of the cat than he'd ever been of the dog. Today was only for enjoying the fresh air, the smell of grass and trees and all the good things that made life bearable.
So here she was in the middle of the park walking along with Tealeaf, when she felt something heavy hit her back and found herself face down in the grass while something wet and unpleasant slobbered over her ear.
Tealeaf was growling enthusiastically and she recognized the threat as "get off my owner before I kill you!"
She struggled to right herself, but was in the sure and certain knowledge that there was a small elephant on her back; or possibly a hippo…... Something heavy and slobbery and not the least bit intimidated by her collie.
Just as she began to feel that maybe she was there either for the afternoon or at least until Tealeaf went for the throat, she heard someone yelling "ERIK! Get off her, you insane mutt!"
Apparently Erik took as much notice of the voice as Tealeaf took of her (except when they were in the agility ring, but Mia figured Tea only obeyed then because she was having a good time and always got a treat at the end). The 'insane mutt' continued to slobber on her ear and she now felt a stick beating her legs….or perhaps that was the mountain's tail.
Finally after what seemed like hours, but was probably only a minute or two, she felt the two ton weight being lifted off her and given a good telling off. As the stick was still beating her legs, albeit from a different angle, she knew he wasn't that bothered. Judging by the exasperated sigh his owner knew it too.
As she inhaled much needed lungfuls of air, he helped her to her feet with much apologizing; however, having grown up around insane mongrels and even more insane pedigrees (probably due to the inbreeding) she wasn't that bothered.
She was brushing off her jeans along with his apologies as she righted herself "it's alright really; I've had dogs as mad as him; trust me, no harm no foul…" she never got any further as Erik, realizing she wasn't annoyed like the others he usually tried to make friends with, once again knocked her to the ground – this time on her back.
As he slobbered all over her face she saw herself staring at the drooling features of a Great Dane – albeit one who resembled a mutant Dalmatian.
"ERIK! For the love of God!" his owner yelled again as he, once more, dragged his hound off her.
Mia climbed gingerly to her feet, this time a little more warily – any sudden movements seemed to be interpreted by Erik as a need to play – and looked around for Tealeaf.
She was stood to one side hackles raised, teeth bared and growling. She looked every inch the killer and, Mia knew, if Erik pushed it once more Tealeaf would stop pretending.
"S'alright Tealeaf – look he just wants to be friends…..see?" Erik took that as his cue and made ready to leap for the third time – but Mia's collie had had enough and positioned herself in front of her with a "just you try it mate" stance.
For all his size, Erik was really just a friendly dog who'd never got over the puppy period of his life (like most men), and so was a bit nonplussed at Tealeaf's rather aggressive stance.
"Once again I am so sorry" the Great Dane's owner apologized "he's really friendly, and just gets a bit carried away." He braced himself for the tirade that usually accompanied his dog's antics, especially after a double assault like this.
Mia grinned "like I said no harm, no foul. But I better go before Tea decides to make a point." She snapped a lead on her dog, which immediately reverted to her normal bouncy nature as she assumed if leads were involved the threat was past.
"Thanks for being so understanding." Erik's owner returned her grin.
"No problem, I could tell you stories about some of the dogs in my family that would make your hair curl. He's no worse than a lot of them; and then there's Ming…." The man could swear the collie shuddered almost as much as her owner.
"Ming? As in Ming the Merciless?" She'd started walking so he fell into step beside her briefly.
"Well, he's a Siamese, so I think that's why Gam's named him Ming - but to be honest I think your version sounds like a good reason. I sort of…inherited him I suppose. He's….um….very unfriendly. So don't worry – if I can survive the merciless one I think I'll survive Erik."
He glanced at the collie "why Tealeaf? Don't tell me" he grinned "she's a great tea drinker?"
Returning the grin Mia shook her head "no, she's actually a pretty sneaky thief – hence tealeaf."
He laughed at that and she couldn't help but join in, his mirth infectious.
With that they parted company, and he was left wondering why more people couldn't be as understanding of his dopey dog as she was. He also hoped he'd see her again, she'd certainly brightened his day.
It was a wish that was granted quickly, but not in the way Tom had hoped.
He'd taken Erik back to the park, much against his better judgment, but the dog was large and needed a lot of exercise. He was shut in enough during the week whilst Tom was at work, so to keep him on a lead and walk the streets at weekends as well seemed too cruel.
The park was really the only place locally with enough greenery to let a Great Dane run loose, the only other option being to drive into the countryside, not something Tom liked doing alone; so, by default, he had to take his dog to the park.
Now of course there was also the hope of meeting the young woman from yesterday. However, today was the worst so far even by his standards – he'd lost Erik this time!
For his part Tom wasn't sure how you could lose such a big dog, but he had and now he had no choice but to go hunting.
Mia for her part was ambling along with Tealeaf and enjoying the rare sunshine and warmth for such a spring day – two days on the trot was as rare as hen's teeth this time of year. H,owever her peace was shattered as she heard Mrs Montgomery from No.42 hollering fit to bust at something.
Mia hurried around the bend in the path to find the old lady brandishing her walking frame at a frighteningly familiar Great Dane. "Get away from me you…you devil!" the elderly woman cried vehemently.
Erik for his part merely looked hurt and confused; he wanted to be friends and play and yet this human seemed very angry. Still, he was never one to give up and so started to playfully bound at her and then dance away.
Mia sighed and could swear that even Tealeaf rolled her eyes; but what to do? She couldn't very well leave the hound here as his owner had apparently evaporated (probably self combusted with embarrassment judging by yesterday), and yet she really didn't want the responsibility of the dog either.
After a moment's hesitation her conscience got the better of her and she strode over as authoritatively as she could "ERIK!" she barked at the dog "behave! SIT!"
Erik, startled at hearing someone truly boss him and mean it, immediately backed up and sat.
"Oh thank you dear!" gasped Mrs Montgomery; then, eyeing Mia suspiciously she added "is he yours?"
"What? No!" Mia hastily denied "but I had a run in with him yesterday. He doesn't mean any harm really." She resisted the urge to pat the downcast looking dog, only hazarding a guess where that would lead. No doubt with her pinned to the ground and grass stains on today's t-shirt too.
"He's such a big dog though!" Mrs Montgomery sighed irritatedly as Mia helped her to a bench to sit down "here I was out for a little air and that…that monster comes bearing down on me! But do you think he'd go away? No! No matter how much I shooed him and waved my frame!"
"He probably thought you wanted to play Mrs Monty" Mia placated, then added with a grin "like most men, he probably doesn't like taking no for an answer either."
Mrs Montgomery smiled then "yes, well, you're probably right – but I'm not as safe on my old pins as I used to be so I get a bit frightened. What about you, are you doing better now?"
Mia nodded "yes, I'm much better now - just a bit doddery down the right side and a bit stuttery; Pops probably would've just said a bit more ditzy than usual, God rest him."
"Ah your granddad; he was lovely." Mrs Montgomery smiled at the memory of the large white haired Irishman, with his moustache and large cheeky grin.
"That he was, I miss him." Mia nodded again "big man like that, so full of life – well, he leaves a big hole to fill."
"Yes dear, a very big hole. But you'll be fine – he's with you, just not where you can see him."
Mia smiled and swallowed the tears that pricked her eyes; he'd been gone almost a year so it was silly to get upset about it now. "Are you alright getting back? Do you want me come with you?"
The old lady patted her hand "no lovey, you stay and walk your dog; maybe go and find that brute's owner as well and recommend a good trainer for the animal!" she got up and, with a wave, hobbled off – giving Erik a wide berth as she did so.
Just then a disheveled Tom burst out of the undergrowth "there you are, you ugly great brute – I've been looking everywhere for you, you rotten beast!" he gasped as he clipped the lead on Erik.
"You know if everyone keeps calling him brute, monster and beast I can see the poor dog developing a complex. Good heavens he might even get depressed!" Mia chided gently as she smiled at Tom's sudden appearance "my uncle's greyhound does you know."
"Oh good God, he's not attacked you again has he?" Tom couldn't bear it if he had; he liked her, he wasn't sure why. Maybe it was the way he felt that everything she said was thought about before she uttered it, or maybe it was just her easy-going nature.
"No, not me; I am, thankfully, remarkably unscathed. It was my neighbour, Mrs Montgomery from No.42 that he collared this time." She indicated the elderly woman in the distance, plodding along with her frame.
"Oh Lord, he knocked a pensioner over?!" Tom was beginning to think he was in some sort of waking nightmare.
"No, he wanted to play but she shooed him and waved her frame at him - well as much as a seventy-eight year old with bad legs can brandish a large metal frame with wheels at anything – he decided that meant she wanted to play some more. He danced about and she panicked; I came running when I heard her yelling." Mia smiled again to show there was no harm done.
Tom rubbed a hand over his face and sat heavily on the nearby bench "I don't know what to do with him – and it's worse than that; she's my next door neighbour!" he looked again at the old lady's retreating back "will she call the police, do you think?"
"If she's your neighbour then I must live near you too; dependent on what side she resides on to you. No, she won't do that – they'd do nothing anyway; he's hardly dangerous and I don't think you can be prosecuted for owning a mad dog; in the loony sense, rather than the foaming at the mouth kind of course. I can help, if you like?"
"Can you? That would be brilliant – what kind of help are we talking, a lobotomy? Because I seriously think that would just make him dopier than he already is, and that's assuming there's even a brain inside that thick skull of his. As to where she lives, she's on my right."
He put his head in his hands as he flopped down next to her on the bench "the police probably would arrest me for attacking an officer, after Erik here knocked them to the ground and sat on them like he does everyone else. I don't know about foaming at the mouth part; but I doubt they'd appreciate the dog slobber kisses he hands out with happy abandon."
Mia chuckled out loud "then we are almost neighbours, I'm next to Mrs Monty – she's in the middle of us. I can recommend a good dog trainer; my friend Louise. She's brilliant with bouncy dogs like Erik here; and very kind too. Doesn't believe in harsh training methods; prefers the 'positive reinforcement' kind." She nodded at Tom "and I don't think you need worry, Mrs Monty's got a good heart and I know she won't report you."
"I should introduce myself as you're putting yourself out so much." He extended his hand "I'm Tom; Tom Watkins and this is…"
"Erik, I think I've heard you hollering it enough not to forget" she grinned "I assume he's so called because he's a Great Dane – hence Erik the Viking?"
Tom grinned "do you know you're the first person to make the connection to his name? Most people just look at me like I'm odd and ask why I didn't call him Spot or something."
"Ah well, I'm studying Viking history and mythology in my spare time – though I'm on a little break right now. I'm Mia Mackenzie" she took his hand and he noticed that her right hand didn't seem to grip too well.
She saw him looking "I had a stroke a few months back, well on the road to recovery now but some of me is still on a bit of a 'go slow'. On the plus side they've at least proved I've got a brain, otherwise there'd nothing there to be damaged."
"You're a bit…."
"Young? Yes, and you're not the first person to notice – I'm only thirty five you see. But then babies can have them, and I'm definitely a bit older than that." She grinned.
He nodded, suddenly concerned "I remember an ambulance now, I was coming home from an evening out and was feeling a bit sorry for myself, my girlfriend had just dumped me….."
He slapped his head "I should've asked how you were or something. Didn't you live with an old man?" It all came flooding back to him now.
His elderly aunt who used to own the house he now lived in, would always talk fondly of her elderly neighbour and his delightful granddaughter – but for some reason he'd always pictured a little girl of about five with pigtails, not the quietly friendly young woman before him, and so had never bothered to go beyond the "oh that's nice."
He quickly took her in – wavy red hair, green eyes (obviously down to her Irish heritage) and a curvy figure. Nicely encased in jeans, t-shirt and a lightweight jacket; to him she was very pretty – but the clincher was her eyes; velvety green and friendly, with a spark of humour in them.
He knew now why his aunt had loved her and spoke so often of her – he'd thought a five year old was bit precocious with some of things she was supposed to have said; of course now he knew she was a lot older than five, the same age as him in fact.
"I wouldn't have known you to be honest even if we'd been best friends since birth" Mia was saying "Took me a couple of days to remember little things like oh my name, where I lived – you know, not any of the big stuff! Mrs Monty took in Tea here, good job as I'd probably have forgotten I owned her otherwise!" she smiled, but then it slipped slightly "yes, I used to live with my granddad, God rest him. Sadly, he died last summer."
"I lost my aunt in July" Tom nodded "I lost her and gained the house – frankly I'd rather have aunt Em back any day; she was a real livewire and was a Godsend to me. Very eccentric, but Lord she was fun!" He smiled in sad remembrance of the lady who'd almost brought him up whilst his parents traveled the globe on various business trips.
"I lost Pops in August, three days before my thirty fifth birthday." She sighed "I got the house but, like you, I'd hand it back with a glad heart if he suddenly wandered up now and said it was all a mistake. Like your aunt, who I remember well, he was a total eccentric too; I think that's why they got on so well. But he made my sun come out every day."
Tom shook his head "I can't believe we've lived almost next door to each other for so long and not known it."
"Small world they say and we prove it." she stood up, ready to go "well, I'd better be getting back, things to do and a dog to feed. " she hesitated "look if you want to come round for tea later on, just knock. I'm not going out or anything and I can give you a few pointers with Erik, just to get you started."
"I'll take you up on that" he smiled "Lord knows I need all the help I can get."
As he went his own way Mia watched him go. Taller than her, with gorgeous blue eyes, a cheeky grin and short brown wavy hair; muscular build and lean with it – encased in jeans, jean jacket and t-shirt; but she decided she liked his eyes the best. They were friendly and mischievous and made her want to giggle….Pops would've loved him.
She made her way home with a spring in her step – perhaps things were looking up at last; she certainly felt she'd made a new friend.
Six months later, as she watched Tom trying to get a somewhat resistant Erik to obey the commands he had to practice from Louise's dog school, she looked up at Pops' star "thanks pops" she murmured with a smile "he's brilliant; he makes me laugh almost as much as you."
Tom caught her eye and gave her his trademark cheeky grin that she loved so much; and that he'd quickly realised could persuade her to do just about anything – even go with him to the cinema, the local restaurant and, his favourite by far, picnics in the country (miles away from anyone, except each other of course, and where both Tealeaf and Erik could go bonkers at will).
He was hoping that the same grin was going to get her to say yes to the most important question of his life. He thought she probably would, her gentle kisses convinced him that there was more to their friendship on her part too.
Above Mia, just above the clouds, her grandfather looked down and smiled – knowing that Thomas Watkins was going to be a wonderful husband for his beloved granddaughter.
Finn and Emily had made sure their dearest relatives had finally met; something they'd wanted them to do whilst they were still alive but had never managed.
Still better late than never, as he was fond of saying. He took Emily's hand and tucked it through his arm as they wandered back through the golden light of the star, knowing their loved ones would be happy now…..and sparing a wink for the very far from 'dopey' Erik.