tagRomanceDurante The Dog

Durante The Dog



Copyright Oggbashan January 2017

The author asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work.

This is a work of fiction. The events described here are imaginary; the settings and characters are fictitious and are not intended to represent specific places or living persons.

This story is set in a mythical area of coastal England during 1956 and 1957.

Although this is a Valentine's Day Contest entry the mention of Valentine's Day is only incidental. It is a Romance.


It was pointless to call the dog back. He was a hundred yards away on the tidal flats bounding along with an effortless stride chasing seagulls he knew he'd never catch.

He rushed along the wet sand towards a group of seagulls who lazily lifted into the strong wind before landing again as soon as he had passed. I didn't mind. Durante is a large dog who needs plenty of exercise, and this Saturday exercising him was a pleasure. Eventually he would turn and look at me, pleadingly. He'd come back if I signalled to him but he hoped I wouldn't, not yet. There were hundreds more seagulls to play with.

Durante, full name Jimmy Durante, is a massive mongrel weighing about 200 pounds. He had been intended to be a guard dog but he failed because he is slightly deaf. He is also too soft hearted. He'd rather slobber all over an intruder instead of biting them. His owner, Mr Jefferies, thought that Durante had a mix of St Bernard and Irish Wolfhound in his ancestry. Durante was large enough, but his other most distinctive feature was his large nose -- hence his name.

Durante hadn't noticed another dog sitting on the hard on the other side of the estuary. If he had, he would have rushed across the sandbar, swimming if necessary, to greet that dog. Most other dogs find Durante's greetings a trial because he is the largest dog for miles around.

The other dog was watching someone working on a small boat pulled up by the work shed. I thought I knew who it was but at this distance I couldn't be sure. That hard is the only local place where a boat can land at any state of the tide.

I pulled my fob watch out of my pocket. It was inscribed for the 1951 Festival of Britain and had been a present from my grandfather for my 18th birthday that year.

I didn't need to look at it. Durante knows that means the end of his seagull-chasing. He chased one last group of seagulls and came bounding back, splashing through the wet channels in the sand. I'd have to hose him down before letting him into Mr Jefferies' kitchen where Durante would curl up in front of the Aga cooker to wait for his master's return.

Durante stopped a few yards short and shook himself violently before coming to my side. We set off together to walk back to the house, turning away from the estuary on a short cut that would be impossible later in the year. The marshland would be flooded by October.

We had just reached the edge on my father's third best orchard when I heard Emma shouting. She seemed to be shouting at Don. That was a mistake. Don is slow. Shouting at him makes him more confused. I broke into a run and Durante kept up with me easily.

Just inside the orchard Don was facing Emma Simkin. She had calmed down a little, perhaps because she heard us approaching. She was telling Don to put a knife away. He was standing about six feet from her with a small penknife open in his right hand.

Durante rushed up to Emma, his tail wagging furiously. She stroked him, trying to keep her full skirt away from his wet fur. Durante walked across to Don and sat down in front of him. Don closed the knife, put it in his pocket, and kneeled down to give Durante a hug. Durante's tail and rear end were wagging so fiercely that both of them nearly fell over. I would have watched more but Emma was giving me a bear hug.

"Thank you for coming, John," she said. "Don was upset. I don't know why. Something about I shouldn't have seen him and that was bad. He was waving the knife around. I didn't know that he was trusted with knives and I was worried he might hurt himself."

"But not you?"

"Don? Don't be ridiculous. Don wouldn't hurt anyone. You know that."

"I do. But does Don?"

"Yes. Look at him with Durante. They trust each other..."

Emma seemed to be about to add more but had stopped, looking intently at my face.

"...as much as I trust you, Emma?" I said cautiously.

"No. As much as I trust you, John."

Emma's hand stroked my cheek.

"Let's sort this out," I said, disentangling myself from Emma's hug.

"Don?" I asked. "What was the knife for?"

"To try an apple. Me Mam said to cut a piece and eat it. If it was not sweet, that's the sort she wanted. No one was to see me. But Emma did. That worried me."

"Emma's a friend, Don. That doesn't count. She's not no one. Nor am I. What your Mum wanted was cooking apples. We'll get some for you to take to your Mum. OK?"

Don was looking relieved. If friends didn't count, he hadn't disobeyed his Mum.

"Emma? Can you go to Mr Jefferies' stables? There are some cardboard boxes in the first loose box. I think we need one about this size."

I held my hands about a foot apart.

"OK, Alan. Back soon."

Durante was still trying to knock Don over, an impossible feat even for a dog that large. Don is a giant, a friendly amiable giant, but a man mountain. He works at our local coal merchant, loading and unloading sacks of coal. He earns his living and gets more money doing heavy work around the village. As long as the task was simple, preferably repetitive, and needed a good strong lad, Don was ideal.

Durante and Don were rolling around on the grass in a mock fight. Only someone as strong as Don would do that. They were enjoying each other.

As I waited for Emma I looked around the orchard. My grandfather had intended to grub out all these old overgrown trees and plant new ones. He had thought that 1940 would be a good year to do it, but the war, and particularly Dunkirk, had wrecked his planning. After Dunkirk the orchard was full of Army tents for the soldiers retrieved from the beaches. The Army hadn't finally handed back the land until three years ago, 1953, a year after my grandfather had died.

Sorting out grandfather's will and renovations elsewhere on the more productive areas of our farm had taken the next couple of years and too much money. Maybe next year we could replace the trees? But would we? The market for apples wasn't great and this orchard wasn't best placed to grow good quality apples. It flooded once or twice a decade, and apple trees don't like that.

Mrs Simkin's bungalow was a hundred yards away behind the wharf built during the First World War. It had been the Harbour Master's base when this area had been a 'Secret Port' for supplying the Western Front. We owned the land behind that bungalow but it was littered with abandoned railway tracks, foundations for Army huts and cracked roadways. It would take a substantial amount of money and time to clear that land to make it productive again. Like this orchard, it had never been prime farmland. It had been summer pasture for cattle.

The wharf extended along our frontage to the estuary but was useless there. The estuary had required constant dredging during the First World War. Now our part of the wharf had a depth of no more than two or three feet of water at high tide.

The wharf by Emma's house was scoured by every ebbing tide and was still usable for small coastal ships. None came because other nearby ports had better facilities. During the last few months a large motor yacht had used the wharf several times. The villagers had been curious about it. Mrs Simkin said the owners were considering whether it was possible to develop a yacht station.

All the local seafarers were dubious about such a development. Yacht owners wanted facilities and what did we have? The village Post Office with its small store and the local spit and sawdust Public House, The Wildfowler, were our only businesses. Neither would be attractive to yacht owners. The nearest railway station was five miles away.

Navigating from the sea into the estuary was tricky. Sand banks moved after every storm. Only locals knew the safe channels since the dredging had stopped in 1920, resumed for a few short weeks during 1940 during the Dunkirk evacuation.

Emma returned with a small cardboard box.

"This do, John?" she asked.

"Ideal," I replied. "We'll just fill it with cooking apples for Don's Mum..."

I hesitated.

"Could you take Durante to Mr Jefferies? And hose him down? I could go to Don's Mum. She'll be worried about him."

"I'm not dressed for hosing muddy dogs, John."

Emma twirled around, splaying her cotton skirt wide.

"You've washed Durante before. He likes it and he is very careful. He stands still while you do it, and then waits until you are some way from him before he has a good shake. Please?"

"OK, John. But if this skirt gets wet you'll be sorry."

I could tell she didn't mean it.

"Can you let yourself into the kitchen and put the kettle on? I'll be there shortly."

I held out the house keys.

"Keys?" Emma was surprised. "He keeps the back door locked? No one else does."

"Nor did he, until about a month ago he found that someone had been into the kitchen and searched it. He doesn't think they had taken anything. They couldn't get further into the house because he kept the door from the kitchen locked otherwise Durante sleeps on his bed. But the intrusion worried Mr Jefferies. He is away often, so he has kept the back door locked."

"OK, John. I'll put the kettle on. I want to talk to you. That's why I was here."

"Thanks, Emma. I'll be with you soon."

I walked over to Durante, holding out the lead so he could see it. He stood still while I attached it. I turned him to face Emma, and held out the lead to her so Durante could see it. She took the lead. Durante walked sedately beside her as they went towards Mr Jefferies' house. Emma had walked Durante many times and he behaves beautifully with her.

"Don, let's get some apples for your Mum."

We filled that box in a few seconds. Why not? There were tons of apples on the ground and more on the trees waiting for the pickers who would never come.

Don and I walked to the village and to the back door of his mother's house. She was peeling potatoes at the sink.

"Hello John," she said. "Why..."

"You wanted some cooking apples. Don got worried..."

"Emma saw me," Don interrupted. "You said no one must see."

"But Emma and I are Don's friends. We don't count."

I hoped Don's mother would take the hint. She did.

"That's all right, Don. They don't count. Could you fill the coal buckets for me, please?"

Don went out of the kitchen. His mother sat down on a stool, looking worried. She and I knew that filling the coal buckets was unnecessary at this time of year.

"Mrs Jones," I said. "If you want any apples from that orchard, you can have them. It doesn't have to be a secret. Don's not good at secrets, is he?"

"No. He's a good lad but..."

"But he's a friend. You have my permission to take as many apples as you want for your own use, whenever you want. I'll tell my father. He won't object. Why should he? We don't harvest those apples."

"Thank you, John. Thank Mr Oliver for me. I didn't want to send Don scrumping, but the shop had no cooking apples today."

"And I know why. What's the point of stocking cooking apples when there are tons of them lying on the ground a few hundred yards away? Don's not the only one who takes a few. We don't mind villagers doing that as long as they're not selling them."

"Thank you, John. That's a relief."

Mrs Jones smiled. She kissed me on the cheek.

"I know Don has friends. Sometimes I forget that he has them."

"And why not? Don will do almost anything for anyone who asks him nicely. He's an asset to all of us. The women mother him, the men know who to call for a heavy job, and the girls..."

"Leave him alone," Mrs Jones finished.

"They love him too, in a way. Don is safe from them; they're safe from him. Emma was worried about him earlier because Don had a knife."

"That knife? It was his Dad's. It's blunt. Don couldn't hurt himself with it. It would cut a slice from an apple but not cut string. Don's proud of having it."

"OK. I'll tell Emma. She's waiting for me."

"I know she is, John. The whole village knows she is. She doesn't look at anyone else. Nor do you. So when?"

"It's not me, nor really Emma. Emma's worried about her mother and what will happen if she gets married and leaves home."

"Mrs Simkin does very well, considering."

Emma's mother and mine had been ATS drivers during the war. My mother had died and Mrs Simkin's legs were smashed when the truck she was driving was thrown off the road by a near miss from a German bomb. Although Mrs Simkin could get around at home with two sticks, and had a hand-propelled invalid carriage to get to and from the village, we all knew that her condition wouldn't improve.

Emma's grandmother had looked after Emma and I while our mothers were doing war work. Grandmother Simkin, and now Mrs Simkin, had been the village dressmakers and seamstresses. My father and the village blacksmith had converted the Simkins' treadle sewing machine by adding a belt connected electric motor.

"Eventually..." Mrs Jones said.

"I know. We'll have to come to a decision. Meanwhile Emma is my defence against all the other women. I had noticed that I was very popular with mothers of daughters and widows."

Mrs Jones laughed.

"The widows have given up. Some of them hoped to be your step-mother, but your Dad loved your Mum too much to think of replacing her."

"I know, but the mothers of daughters are still a threat."

"And why not? You're heir to the largest farm around. With the money your grandfather left you..."

"Which I can't touch until I'm twenty-five in two years time, or married..."

"That doesn't matter. The money is there. But as you say, Emma is your defence. You're hers. She might need that from those motor boat people."

"Them? Why from them?"

"Emma has told you? One of the men has been chasing her."

"No. She hasn't said anything, but I know she wants to talk to me, now. I'd better get back to her. Don't worry about the apples."

"I won't, John. Thank you."

Mrs Jones kissed me on the cheek again before I left.

I was at Mr Jefferies' house in minutes. The kettle was just beginning to boil. A clean Durante was sleeping on his blanket in front of the Aga. Emma was sitting in one of the three armchairs. One was reserved for Durante even though he was really too large for it. I made a pot of tea for us because reaching over Durante needs long arms. I took some milk from Mr Jefferies' refrigerator, one of the only two in the village. My father's kitchen had the other one.

I handed a mug of tea to Emma, made exactly how she likes it.

"I can see your skirt didn't get wet," I said.

"No. Durante was great, as usual, the great hairy lump."

"But he's a friendly lump and knows you. So, what did you want to talk about, Emma?"

"My Mum. And the motor boat people."

"OK, Emma. What about your Mum?"

"She's thinking of selling the house to them."

"Them being the motor boat people?"

"Yes. I'm worried about it."

"I'm not surprised. Where would you live? Your house was adapted for your Mum. The village did it. You have wider doors so a wheelchair can get around, a ramp to the front door, and because it's a bungalow her bedroom and bathroom are on the ground floor. I don't know of any other house in the village that would be as suitable."

"Nor do I, John. She thinks she can live with us."

"With us? But..."

"I know. We're not married. We're not even engaged even if the village thinks we should be."

"And I haven't got a house. I live with Dad."

"She thinks WE could live with your Dad, and she could come too."

"In the farmhouse? That would never work. It's a medieval building with several levels on the ground floor. We couldn't make it suitable for her without tearing it down and rebuilding from scratch. Is she mad?"

"I'm beginning to think she might be. The boat people... No. I'll call them by their names. There are two brothers, Fred and George Smith, and their two cousins Bert and Archie, also Smith. Whether Smith IS their name? I don't know. Fred has been a nuisance. He has been suggesting that if Mum doesn't want to sell, and they have offered a lot of money, he could be her son-in-law. But I don't think he's the type to marry. He wants the house and I might be the way to it. He's a slimy..."

Emma doesn't swear but she came very close to it.

"What does your mother want you to do?"

"You know I have a power of attorney for her?"

"Yes. That's because she can't get to the bank. So what?"

"Fred has suggested that I go to their solicitors in London and hear what they are offering. Mum wants me to go. I don't want to go on my own. I want a friend with me -- you."

"Of course I'll come with you, if that's what you want. But why should you go to London? That sounds odd."

"It does. And they want me to take the power of attorney with me so that I can sign documents on Mum's behalf..."

"No!" I exclaimed.

"I don't want to, John. It smells fishy."

"I agree. I think you need legal advice. Have you got a solicitor?"

"No. Your Dad arranged the power of attorney for us."

"I think we need to talk to my Dad, and then our solicitors. They're near your work. Could you get an hour off during a day?"

"I think so. No. I'm sure I could. They owe me some overtime."

Emma works as a senior clerk in the department store in the nearby town. She commutes on her Raleigh moped. It is reliable enough to go the five miles and back every day down our country lanes. The bus service only runs on Market days.

"Access!" I said suddenly. "Have they or your mother talked about access?"

"I don't think so, John. Why?"

"How do you get to your house?"

"You know how. Along the top of the sea wall. I ride my moped along it. Mum propels herself along it. You and your Dad made it an even surface for her."

"And that's a public footpath, Emma. If PC Arkwright wanted to, he could make you walk with your moped, not ride. He won't but that's not the point. You couldn't drive a car or truck along it."

"Of course not. It's not wide enough."

"And when your Mum had a new bed delivered, how did it come?"

"Oh. Across your land. They had to open several gates."

"Which are usually locked. I had unlocked them in advance. The point is, Emma, that you and your Mum have a permissive right of access, granted by my grandfather. Your Dad signed a legal agreement which stated that the access was only by our family's consent, and each time that access was needed it had to be agreed between your father and my grandfather.

If grandfather had said 'No', or 'not today', your father had to accept that. We didn't bother to change it after your Dad was killed in Burma. But after grandfather's death, my Dad had the agreement rewritten. It now names your Mum and you, and only you two have permissive access, and again you have to ask us in advance -- 'us' being my Dad and me. If your Mum sells the bungalow, that access permission ends. The new owners could not bring a car or truck, or have furniture delivered, without seeking a new agreement with Dad and me. And why should we grant it?"

"And they want to build a yacht station, John. They couldn't, not without access."

"And land. Your bungalow has a large garden but it isn't large enough even for a car park, if cars could get there. Your only unlimited access is by water. No. I've just remembered. Water access is controlled by the Harbour Master. You live in the old Harbour Master's house, but your Mum isn't the Harbour Master. My Dad is. Grandfather bought the rights for navigation when the Army left in the 1920s."

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