An email chimed into my inbox – an invitation to a charity garden party in aid of abandoned dogs.
‘Teas, cakes, mystery guest and raffle. RSVP,’ the email read.
The invitation came from an old friend, Neil, who I’d known since before I was married. We met once or twice a year for an after-work dinner. I replied saying I’d be pleased to attend, although not sure why. Charity garden parties weren’t my natural habitat. I’d been writing short stories with a modicum of success, submitting them to competitions, but like all writers, sometimes struggled for inspiration. I suppose I thought there’d be some garden party ‘material’.
I was dating an Italian divorcee, Ana, on and off. Morning coffees, pub lunches. Ana had joked how awkwardly the English kissed, or hugged, or didn’t, on greeting. I thought she’d find a charity garden party amusing, witnessing the English middle-classes and their canine preoccupations. I texted her to ask if she’d care to join me.
‘Sorry, no can do. Ciao!’ Ana texted back. I was disappointed. Weekends alone depressed me.
Neil was an accountant. His second wife, April, who I’d never met, was a college lecturer. Neil’s daughter, from his first marriage, had recently wed in a same sex ceremony. I knew Neil doted on his previously abandoned, mongrel dog.
Neil met me at his front door. Behind him, April offered me a single cheek to kiss, but I embarrassed myself by kissing both. Ana would have relished the moment.
‘You’re the writer, aren’t you?’ April said. ‘Neil showed me your little story about the island.’
My story wasn’t about an island, it was about the search for love, but I let it go.
Neil led me through a crowded kitchen into the near-deserted rear garden and introduced me to the only other single male, Mike. A tall, bald-headed man, Mike was holding Neil’s dog on a straining lead. To break the ice, Neil told us the story of how his dog had slipped his lead at some motorway services and swum in the ornamental pond. Mike and I laughed in the right places. Neil left us and went to mingle.
Mike told me he’d been a lawyer who’d taken early retirement.
‘I suffered a nervous breakdown,’ he said, ‘I’m better with dogs.’ He excused himself to walk the dog.
I went indoors to where the cakes were laid out in rows on a table. Lemon drizzle, carrot and walnut, cherry bakewell, banana loaf and brownies. I chose a slab of battenburg. The mystery guest was a local parliamentary candidate. We discussed NHS funding until he excused himself when I mentioned I didn’t live in the constituency.
From a sideboard, I picked up a photograph of Neil’s daughter’s wedding. Two beaming girls, both in white. I realised it was them at the sink doing the washing-up, pouring the teas and coffees. The daughter was a pretty girl, although a little overweight like her father.
‘I knew you as a toddler,’ I said. ‘Please give my regards to your mother.’ The truth was, I’d coveted her mother. I’d even wondered, when Neil divorced her, whether I might have a chance.
‘I can’t remember you exactly,’ the daughter smiled, ‘but Mum did mention your name once.’ She resumed the washing-up.
I returned outside and sat with two women, one of them with thick curly hair, bright eyes and an open, welcoming face. The other, small and wiry-haired.
‘Do you work for the Home for Abandoned Dogs?’ I asked.
‘No, with April, at the college,’ one said, ‘in Hairdressing and Beauty.’
‘How many different cakes have you tried?’ I asked, hoping to start a light-hearted conversation on the subject of temptation.
‘I ate half a slice of fruitcake and gave the other half to a dog,’ one said.
‘I’m gluten-free,’ the other said.
‘I’m on number four, only eight to go,’ I said.
They laughed politely and resumed their sotto voce chat.
I moved to the centre of the newly mown lawn and joined a woman with a large Alsatian dog sat at her feet. Her grey fringe hung down, partially covering her eyes.
‘He’s a lovely looking lad,’ I said, ‘so placid in view of everything.’ By then the house and garden were well populated with dogs of every size and shape.
‘It’s a she,’ the woman said. ‘Shepherds are naturally calm, properly trained.’
A bouncy, excited woman selling raffle tickets interrupted us.
‘Any donation secures five tickets,’ she yapped, ‘and everyone’s a winner.’
I pulled a ten pound note from my wallet and dropped it into her bucket. The woman I’d been talking to excused herself.
‘I’m going in search of cake,’ she said. The shepherd followed her.
A sad-eyed couple wandered into the space where the shepherd had been. I introduced myself.
‘How do you know Neil?’ I asked, ‘do you work for the Home for Abandoned Dogs?’
‘No, I’m a boring dentist,’ said the man, ‘I was at university with Neil.’
‘And I’m a boring dentist’s wife,’ said the woman.
‘I hear there’s good money to be earned in canine dentistry,’ I said.
‘I’m the old dog who won’t be learning any new tricks,’ the dentist said.
They told me about their son who’d graduated in English.
‘He’s considering re-training as a sports teacher,’ they said, ‘he loves running after a ball.’
They excused themselves for the raffle draw. It turned out that not everyone was a winner after all. My number wasn’t called.
Neil sent me an email that evening thanking me for my support.
‘We must do lunch,’ he said.
‘Priceless morning. Lots of great material. When can I see you?’ I texted Ana.
‘Not sure I’m ready for a relationship,’ She texted back.
Steven John’s writing has appeared in Burningword, Bending Genres, Spelk, Fictive Dream, EllipsisZine, Storgy and Best Microfiction 2019 and 2020, amongst others. He’s won Bath Ad Hoc Fiction a record seven times. Steven lives in The Cotswolds, England, and is Fiction & Special Features Editor at New Flash Fiction Review. Twitter: @StevenJohnWrite | Website: stevenjohnwriter.co.uk.