At the beginning of 2019 my wife died. Tessa was only sixty-six. She had seemed fit but an underlying and undiagnosed heart condition took her off. You think life is running smoothly, you know what breakfast will be, and when the cleaners will come and the day the ironing is done. You have tickets for the next concert at the Music Society and in the kitchen there’s a paper pinned up to add things for the next Waitrose order. The grandchildren will be visiting from the north in two weeks’ time. There’s pruning to be done in the garden and drinks at the neighbours on Sunday. In the morning there are the murmurs of waking with your wife, you wash and shave, fold your pyjamas, look forward to a cup of tea, reading the newspaper. Then suddenly it stops, as if a book is shut in mid-sentence. The whole emotional structure underpinned by familiar routine dissolves.
My son and daughter-in-law live near Middlesbrough. I went there for Easter. They were kind but I was almost mute while I was there. I was so bound up with myself and my loss that I didn’t know what to talk about. It took me days to pack and I forgot the things I had previously subconsciously relied on Tessa to organise.
There was also, of course, Tessa’s dog, not mine. He’d been with us a couple of years. Actually, he was the dog of Tessa’s sister in Chalfont St Giles. She and her husband separated and the dog was, so to speak, a casualty and Tessa took him in. It was a sore point between us. I didn’t want him; I left him to Tessa as much as I could, insisted we hired a dog walker and that he never came on holiday with us. But he became part of our scenery nonetheless. And now I’ve had to notice him and take account of him, make allowances. And as I am on my own and fed up, he has begun to help me out of myself. I talk to him. He tilts his head as if concentrating on what I’m saying.
The dog is a smooth-haired Dachshund, mainly black. He’s about ten years old, greying round the muzzle. I’ve taken direct responsibility for him; feed him, walk him, be conscious of his habits. When he’s not asleep in one of his favourite places, like along the back of a settee, or curled into the seat of a particular armchair, he’s busy looking for me. When he walks he’s brisk, his short legs busy and in time, like four quick marching soldiers. His whipping, erect tail signals his moods. But he’s stubborn and goes rigid and stationary if he doesn’t want to walk. He doesn’t like rain or the cold. But if he decides to walk, he starts off for a few yards then halts, to sniff and look. If he senses we’re on the way home he goes at a tremendous lick. He won’t chase balls or retrieve sticks and has no traffic sense. He stops to defecate without warning and sometimes in inconvenient places. I keep small bags in the pockets of my coats to collect the product.
Back at home, if he can, he will burrow under bedclothes or cushions and go to sleep. He’s a vigorous sniffer and inclined to be fierce, with a deep growl and noisy bark that’s surprising for his size. He is a fearless but inconsistent and occasional attacker of other dogs, especially larger ones, with a vicious nip. He patrols the garden listening for sounds elsewhere to which he will respond with a sudden dash and bark. I have to be careful with visitors as they are invariably greeted with a torrent of noise and leaping. He’s especially difficult with my cleaner and the noise of the vacuum cleaner, and with any delivery person. I have to shut him in the front room where he leaps and throws himself against the door. At night I like him to sleep on his cushion bed in the kitchen but in practice he sleeps on the end of my bed where he eyes me until he drops off to sleep. I don’t know if I sleep better or worse for his company. If I go out, he watches me leave and when I return, I hear him barking and he is joyful to see me again, leaping and dashing round and licking my hand. He’s called Fred.
I think widowers are embarrassing to a lot of people. Widows get sympathy and the company of friends, but men can’t be understood. We don’t fit in; we’re cut adrift at my age. Women are capable, widowers don’t seem to manage well. We’re not attuned to running a house. The truth is we get dependent on our wives for domestic routine in spite of all the modern stuff about equality. Take Christmas cards. The first Christmas on my own I had to remember to buy them and write them and find Tessa’s list of people we send them to. She handled all of that. And the regular grocery order and the laundry. Our roles in the household just emerged over the years, doing the things we were each best at doing. And the dog was in her domain.
When Tessa died Fred looked for her for weeks, round her bedside, in her wardrobes when I opened them, smelling her shoes. I think he keeps his memory in his long nose and knows where he is from the differing scents he stores from the places he has been. It is now down to me to remember to feed him and, being a creature of habit, he knows around five in the afternoon that it is a meal time and he becomes agitated round me. I have to let him into the garden to relieve himself. He’ll wait patiently at the back door looking up at the handle; if he is urgent, he will whimper and bark. These small necessities helped me out of my grief. I couldn’t mope, I had a remnant of Tessa with me.
After a month or two Fred evidently transferred his affection and needs to me. He likes to check the rooms in the house to see where I am. He has favourite places where he can be near to me. He sometimes sits on my lap, or close alongside me. If my legs are bare, as they often were in that summer, he licks them. I’m not sure if that’s love or simply that he likes the salt on my skin. I remember that Tessa once said he was untrainable, or at least he had never been trained when a puppy. He will not sit to order. He understands his name, and ‘No’ and ‘Wait’ and he understands routine once it has been well-established.
As the months went by and I slowly cleared away most of Tessa’s things, I learned to live with Fred and he apparently with me. From being indifferent to the animal and irritated by the demands he made on Tessa and therefore indirectly on me, I began to like him and even understand him. On my walks with him and in conversations with other dog walkers, I was proud of him, possessive even, especially if other dogs took too much aggressive interest in him. His barking and suspicion of callers to the house was his way of protecting me. It was the other side of the coin of his affection. Taking care of him began to displace my self-pitying.
Then I met Thelma.
I was invited to a New Year’s Eve party at a neighbour’s house. He urged me to go along and join in. I wasn’t much in the mood; I’m not very good at small talk and was even less so at that point. Christmas had been difficult enough with too many memories of Tess and feeling like a spare part. But I went to the party, a bit late. It was noisy, the people were mostly from our street, there was music and a bit of a squash round the drinks table. I got a glass of punch. The hostess saw me and took me by the arm.
“Come on, John, it’s another year soon. There’s someone I want you to meet.” She guided me between couples and groups talking, laughing, the music louder.
She stopped in front of a woman in a colourful dress. The hostess had to raise her voice. “This is Thelma. Here’s John. Don’t eat him up.”
Thelma smiled. “You’re the widower.” The hostess drifted away.
“I admit it.”
“They told me to look out for you.”
“Well, here I am. Shall we go somewhere where I don’t have to shout.”
“The hall probably. I’ll get a drink on the way.”
We sat on the stairs. I wasn’t sure what to say
Thelma said, “I’m on my own too. My second divorce. I collect alimony.”
“Then, I’m warned.”
She was laughing. “I’m teasing. I am divorced, but a while ago. Only once. I have my own money, and two daughters, one in Australia, the other in France. I run an interior design firm in Fulham. What do you do?”
“I’m retired. I was in marketing with Unilever. The soaps. They weren’t glamorous.”
Someone came by with a jug of the punch and topped up our glasses. She drank hers quickly. I noticed her a bit more. She had thick blonde hair, bright lipstick and lots of rings on her fingers, a good figure, painted nails, but I was wary. It had been a long time since I had had any intimacy, or sex for that matter. The death had anaesthetised me. Making love with another woman would be a kind of betrayal; I couldn’t let go of Tessa completely. It would be strange to be with another woman’s body not knowing if after all this time my parts would function properly. So, all that went through my head, and it made a normal conversation rather difficult, especially as we had been, sort of, set up.
Thelma smiled at me warmly. “You don’t know how to flirt, do you?” She poked me playfully.
It was agreeable enough sitting there, with the punch beginning to have a soothing effect, relaxing me.
I said, “Do you want me to flirt?”
“Of course, I do. It does wonders for my self-esteem. I confess I’m in my sixties and I haven’t given up. A flirtation might lead somewhere. Even in Putney.”
“Yes, I suppose it might, but I was married for such a long time that I lost the art. Anyway, I think people are more direct nowadays, aren’t they?”
“Oh, they are in Fulham. Are you on or aren’t you? That sort of thing.” She laughed.
The hostess appeared with a tray of canapes. “How are you two getting on?”
I didn’t reply, but Thelma said, “He might thaw out. I’m wondering whether to work on it.”
I said, “I can see I’m hard work. I can’t help it. I’ve been evicted from a long episode in my life and I don’t know what to do next. I shall get really old of course, that’s next. I want to find some sort of normality and not be alone.”
“We should have some conversations in safe places. I like small restaurants with good food. I don’t think I’m a demanding woman; I have a certain tastes but you could be a friend. I like reliable friends.”
Tessa kept our address book and managed our friendships. I would have to start again and have my own arrangements. Thelma looked in her handbag and took out a pen. “Have you some paper?”
I had an old shopping list in my pocket. She wrote a phone number on it.
“Ring me or text. There’s a place I like in Chiswick. Neutral enough, don’t you think? Give me a ring when you’re ready.” We stood up
She moved closer to me. I could smell her perfume. She kissed me on the cheek near my mouth and again on the other cheek, a bit French. She was close enough to fold me into an embrace, but I know I was stiff and rigid, not inviting. She didn’t seem to mind, and then walked off into the thick of the party. I didn’t follow her and I didn’t stay until midnight. I’d left Fred asleep and he would have to be let into the garden.
When I got back to the house and turned the key in the lock there was immediate barking inside. I opened the door and Fred was leaping up at me barking and sniffing my trousers and then he ran down the hall and into the kitchen and back again and circled me. It was unrestrained joy at my return. Getting him ready for the night entirely overtook any feelings which lingered from the party.
A week or so later the hostess of the party rang me to thank me for going, but really to tell me that Thelma had liked me.
“You know, John, she doesn’t look her age and a lot of men she meets, most men in fact, try to touch her, say crude or suggestive things. Even in Putney, especially in Putney. But you were cool, didn’t try anything, were serious and she liked that about you. Ring her. She’s very warm and kind. You deserve to have a woman friend now.”
“She wouldn’t want you to be miserable for the rest of your life. She’d free you and then you’ll be able to see her clearly and all the past and move on. Just ring Thelma and take your time.”
“I’m completely out of practice.”
“It’s like riding a bike, John. Once you’ve done it, you’ll get your balance back. Ring her.”
Thelma didn’t want to meet me at my house. She said it was my wife’s house and that she would feel awkward in it. I understood that. So, we had a couple of meals in restaurants. We talked about our children, holidays we had had, places we liked, her divorce.
“I married too young and so did he. It seemed the right thing to do to get wed. But we went on growing up and gradually we realised that we didn’t really share much and didn’t really like each other. That was that.”
What I noticed about her was her good temperament; she was calm and sensible about things. She liked fashion more than Tessa ever did, and she preferred Spain to France, but that wasn’t something serious. All in all, I began to feel easy with her. I’m not fixated on my phone like young people seem to be. But Thelma started to send me texts and I got in the habit as well. I began to look out for them.
After a few restaurant meals she said, “I’m getting to know you. I’d like to cook for you at my house. It’s time, don’t you think?” She held me quite close when we parted that evening, comfortable, nice to feel. I might wake up and let go. That’s how it seemed. And when I got home she had sent me a text, ‘Goodnight, sleep well and thank you.’
When I went to her house - in a neat Edwardian terrace off the Fulham Palace Road - she greeted me at the door with a kiss on the mouth and, holding me by the hand, led me to her living room and beyond into a small conservatory. On a long table at one end were glasses and a bottle of champagne in a cooler, some cold meats and dry biscuits. The other end of the table was laid for a meal. It was February and dark outside. Little of the garden could be seen.
She poured me a glass, I took some Parma ham from a dish - it was a good start, the kind of evening I had missed for a long time. And it was the first time I had been alone with a woman since Tess died. It felt almost normal, that I didn’t have to worry about what Tess might think. I wondered if later we would go to bed together. It felt as if we might and I wasn’t sure if I was ready and how I would handle it. We weren’t teenagers.
Then I remembered Fred at home. He was used to being on his own for periods and would sleep. But it wasn’t fair to leave him alone too long. He would need to be let outside. I’d not arranged the minder. I couldn’t stay the night even if it was on offer. I’d never mentioned Fred to Thelma - it hadn’t come up; I’d been more concerned with managing myself with her.
The food was good, scallops, a duck breast, some cheese, profiteroles. She asked me to open the wine. It was a Merlot from Chile. It tasted all right, pretty nice in fact. I don’t know a lot about wine. She was attentive, close, she touched me a lot; you know, brushed my shoulder, ran her hand across my back, put her hand on mine across the table. I didn’t mind, even if I was a bit careful. We went back into the sitting room for coffee and she fetched some brandy as well. We sat together on a settee. Before she poured the coffee, she pulled my head towards her and kissed me properly. It was sweet and desirable. I touched her breast and she put her hand on mine to endorse it.
“It’s been a long time,” I said. “It still seems naughty, as if Tess will be cross when I get home.”
“We have lots of time,” Thelma said. “I think you should stay the night, don’t you? We can see what our bodies do. It’s not a test. We can have tea in bed in the morning. I’m frightened of the morning, what you’ll see of me in the daylight.”
“I’ll be in the loo probably. But I’m sorry, I can’t stay tonight. I have to get back.”
She looked surprised. “Oh dear.”
“You have a dog?”
“I do. I can’t leave him. If I’d thought about it, I would have sent him to the dog minder. She takes him if I go away, which isn’t often.”
“Dog?” she repeated. “Why didn’t you tell me you’ve got a dog?”
“It didn’t seem important. You’ve not been to my house.”
Her mood changed. “I don’t like dogs. They don’t like me. I’m actually frightened of them. I get anxious, asthmatic sometimes.”
I didn’t know how to respond. The atmosphere between us had changed completely, in a moment.
I felt I had to defend Fred. “He’s very affectionate.” Though I knew he’d give her a barking when he first met her. But I said, “You must give him a try. Get to know him. When he’s used to you, he’ll be quite accepting and he’ll defend you against anyone.”
She was shaking her head. “You don’t understand. I have a phobia. It’s almost an illness.”
I said, somewhat feebly, “You don’t have to see him. We can go away together, somewhere nice, Cornwall, abroad even.”
She wasn’t much softened. She sighed. “Just my luck to meet a decent man and find he comes with one arm tied behind his back. A dog, just a dog, and dreams dissolve.”
“He was Tess’s dog at first and now he’s mine. I feel responsible for him. He’s got character, a personality. His response to me is unconditional. I’ve grown almost to love him.”
“I’ll have to think about it.”
But she didn’t give up on me. And I was realising that her company mattered, that I liked her attention. I sent her a photo of Fred on my phone.
I asked her over to my house. I wanted her to give Fred a chance. He, predictably, barked at her when she arrived and rang the bell, and though I shut him in the front room, he whined and growled noisily at the foot of the door.
In the hall she greeted me with a peck on the cheek. She was obviously nervous, hearing Fred’s noise.
I said, “I’ll let him out and hold him. He’s smaller than he sounds. Try not to back away; hold your ground, and bend down and pat his head.”
I opened the door and held his collar; he barked and wriggled urgently. Thelma looked alarmed and backed off. With one hand I held hers and with the other struggled with Fred.
“Pat him,” I said.
She was hesitant.
“It’s all right, Fred,” I said, trying to reassure him. “This is my friend, Thelma.”
He was keen to sniff her, snap at her.
We went into the sitting room while I was still trying to tug him along behind her. Thelma was hunched up and fearful.
She sat down on the settee, and I picked Fred up and put him on an armchair, one of his favourite places. I perched on the arm to keep him there. He calmed down a bit. But although she was some distance away, he was still eyeing her, and growling with a soft, ‘woof’. I cajoled him and stroked him. He eventually lay down, his head down over the edge of the seat. I hoped he would nod off as he often did.
I offered Thelma a drink. She wasn’t very settled. I went out to the kitchen to make some tea and find a chilled Prosecco. I wasn’t there for long when I heard renewed barking and a scream. I hurried back to find Fred over at the settee barking up at Thelma who had climbed on to it, and was stepping along perilously, trying to keep her balance while Fred leaped up and down, patrolling in front of it, his tail erect like a car wiper sweeping rapidly side to side with pleasure. He was having a game.
The sight was comical and I’m afraid I laughed. “He’s a hunting dog and he’s got you cornered. He’s playing with you and he thinks you’re playing too.”
“It’s not funny, John. Take him away.”
I knelt down to him and put my arm round him to pick him up. “It’s all right, Fred. Now be quiet.” I took him into the front room. I fetched him a savoury treat, a piece of dried duck sausage designed for dogs. It was probably not right to reward him, but it kept him quiet. I shut the door on him.
Thelma was recovering slowly. “I can’t cope with Fred. He doesn’t like me. He scares me, John. I’m sorry.”
“We’ll take him for a walk later. On a lead. He’s got to get used to you.”
“I’ll never get used to him.”
Although it was nearly March and still wintery, we agreed to go away together. I organised a country house hotel near Bath. Fred was lodged with the minder. I booked a room with twin beds. I was nervous. Over the years I had developed settled bedroom routines at night and, it turned out, so did she, We were very careful with each other.
I undressed in the bathroom with the door closed. The hotel provided dressing gowns. I emerged wearing one while she took her turn and was in there for much longer.
When she came out, we sat on the edge of a bed side by side.
“I’m nervous, Thelma. I have to admit it to you. I remember what to do but I’m out of practice.”
“That’s daft, John. We’re in our sixties. We’re not young anymore. I like you. I want to lie beside you. We can do that as many times as you like and it will be like Horlicks before we sleep.”
I laughed, and we both laughed and I put my arm round her and she laid her head on my shoulder, and we were comfortable.
Our coupling, when it came, was slow and full of teasing and laughter. It was a long conversation with our bodies. We didn’t bang the headboard against the wall. When we went to breakfast the next morning, it was if we had been together for a lifetime.
Back in London we wanted to spend more time with each other; texting wasn’t enough. In the world outside our self-centred affair, however, there was alarming news about a virus, a possible pandemic, the spread of a new plague. There were rumours of desperate remedies to be imposed, a lockdown perhaps. The news from China and Italy was frightening. If we wanted to be together, we would have to make a decision quickly about living as a household in one or other of our houses. But then there was Fred.
Each time I returned home and was reunited with the dog he leapt to greet me, licked my hands, barked and raced round the hall and rooms with excitement. His affection was innocent and wonderful. But I couldn’t have his loyalty on the one hand and the comfort of Thelma on the other. She would not live with us both. They were incompatible. I put off making a choice between them. In fact, I couldn’t do it.
Thelma put it differently. She said she would be content with a semi-separate existence, in our two houses and regular visits and excursions together. She would get the hang of Fred if she could.
That would have been fine if it weren’t for the Covid thing. If a lockdown came, we wouldn’t be able to stay from time to time with each other. We would have to be a couple living together in one household. People were catching the virus in numbers. It was surreal. Why was it happening at all? Suddenly decisions had to be made. And, to compound the issue for Thelma and me, Fred became ill.
I noticed that he was becoming reluctant to jump up onto his favourite armchair; I had to lift him. He stopped running up and downstairs but proceeded step by step as if old and arthritic. He was of course quite old, grey round the muzzle, even his eyebrows.
One morning as he was walking quite slowly towards the top of the stairs he stumbled. His front leg seemed to give way. I went to him at once. He looked at me with a sorrowful gaze, sad eyes. I carried him downstairs to let him out into the garden and as he stood by the door his leg gave way again, and he couldn’t run or even walk very well.
I had no idea what was the matter but it was clearly serious. I took him to our local vet. The diagnosis was dire. Dachshunds have weak backs because of their relatively long bodies and short legs. He was suffering the equivalent of a slipped disc in his neck which trapped the nerves. If it was not treated, he would quite quickly deteriorate.
“Can anything be done?” I asked.
“There’s an operation which is usually successful. It involves a cut down his front into the chest, and from there the spine can be approached and the disc material can be moved and freed. There’s a famous veterinary hospital near Potters Bar, the best probably.”
“And if I don’t have it done?”
“He’ll get worse quite rapidly. The kindest thing then would be to have him put down. I’m sorry to be blunt.”
“How much will the op cost?”
“He has to be examined of course, but if he’s fit enough and so forth, about five thousand pounds.”
“But I expect you have insurance.”
“No, no I don’t.”
“Well, if you want to go ahead, I’ll refer you and you should have it done quickly. Let me know what you decide.”
I rang Thelma. I could sense that she wasn’t very sympathetic.
“You’re going to find five thousand pounds for a dog when we’re facing all this other stuff?”
“I can’t bear to see him like this. I can give him his normal life back. I’ve got the money. I don’t think I have a choice.”
“Of course, you do. It’s ridiculous. You can care for him and then have him put down. People do it all the time with old and sick pets.”
“I can’t take Fred’s life away like that when I could save it, Thelma.”
“What about you and me? We could live together properly without the dog and not worry about the lockdown when it comes. John, I really want that, I want you, steady decent you. To grow old near you, next to you.”
I knew she was making a declaration. I wanted her myself, to be companionable and be partners.
“You want me to choose, really, between you and Fred. One or the other but not both.”
“If we matter, you and I, then yes. We’re people, John, with a life to lead, not pets. You have to make up your mind.” She rang off.
While I have been on the phone, Fred has been lying next to me, his head on my thigh, half-asleep. I have had to carry him, to help him manage feeding, peeing, moving round the house and into his bed. His boisterous self has gone, and only his bark remains of his old personality. He is miserable, hang dog.
I know that I cannot take this trusting animal to the vet, in my arms, to be received into a clinical treatment room. I cannot lay him on the prepared surgical table and see his apprehension and melancholy eyes following me. I cannot hold his head, put my hand on his body and say comforting words as the fatal injection is pricked into him, see his sudden brief shock, and then sense the end of his breathing.
Fred is a living creature; he is a friend, devoted, part of Tessa and now part of me. And I have his life in my hands.
Thelma is becoming my lover and companion, and could be my future.
It is unbearable.
I must pick up the phone and ring the vet.
Author Notes: © Roger Jefferies Jan 2021