It didn’t take long for Pluto to settle in and make himself a permanent member of the family. Something in his doggy psychology caused him to focus on Rachel as the most important part of his new life. Mrs Kneller fed him first thing in the morning when she came in, but it was Rachel that gave him his evening meal, and who snuggled up on the sofa with him in the evenings when Mark was away. The rule about ‘no animals on the furniture’ was quickly abandoned. One, two or all three of the girls would come up every day to take Pluto for walks; sometimes Rachel came too but on other days she would be busy writing at her laptop in order to supply Tony with new material for the Village series, which was growing rapidly in popularity.
It was one of those bright sunny days when Rachel, still using the stick for any lengthy walks, ventured into the Square with Sally, Sarah and Pluto. Jenny was at home studying for mocks, and Lou was in the tea shop happily garnering gossip for Rachel. On his way to afternoon surgery, Ben came over to make a fuss of Pluto initially, although he also took a sneaky peak at Rachel’s scratches and pronounced her his star patient before he patted Pluto’s head, gave Rachel a big kiss on the cheek, and disappeared into the medical centre. It was pleasant to be sitting on a bench in the Square, just watching the world go by. Rachel left Sally and Sarah with Pluto, and went into the tea shop to see Lou, and get some cupcakes and juice to fuel them up for the walk home. Lou threw in a nice lump of cheese for Pluto as well, so he wouldn’t feel left out. It was while Rachel was insisting on paying for their food, that they heard Pluto barking and cries coming from the girls. Rachel rushed outside and saw two blonde haired boys who bore a passing resemblance to Damaris, shouting, swearing, and teasing Pluto, who for once had seen humans that he didn’t like at all, and responded in the manner that he had been trained in at police dog school.
“Back off!” shouted Rachel, using her walking stick to form a barrier between the boys and Pluto.
“Why should we? This is our village, and when we’re home people have to do as we say. Who are you anyway?”
“I lived in this village long before you were even thought of. I can tell just by looking at you that you don’t live here because you spend most of your life tucked away at boarding school. This is my dog and these are my nieces, and I will not tolerate such behaviour, so BACK OFF!”
They looked at each other and sneered. “We’ve heard all about you from Mother and our sister. You broke up our sister’s engagement. We’re going to make life very uncomfortable for you.”
Rachel leaned over to Sally and whispered, “Cover your ears and try to cover Pluto’s too. This shouldn’t take long.”
Still holding the boys at bay with her stick, Rachel rummaged in her bag and brought out a small black object that looked like a torch. She pressed a button, and instantly an ear-splitting howl emitted from the rape alarm that she’d never needed to use before. She didn’t have to keep the button pressed for long; people rushed out of the houses and shops in the Square to see what the noise was. Seeing the dreadful D-H boys being prevented from wreaking havoc by Rachel and her alarm, a rousing cheer and applause broke out, and the boys ran off in the direction of the Quay.
“Is everyone okay?” said Rachel. “Sorry about the noise. The ringing in your ears wears off quite quickly or so I’m told.”
Lou stood in the door way of the shop. “Perhaps I should invest in rape alarms for all three of my girls?”
“I think that Pluto actually showed us some of his police dog training, Auntie Rachel,” said Sally looking rather forlorn. “Does that mean he’ll have to go back to the police kennels now?”
“Barking at bad people is the only part of the training that he actually passed. So, he is ours now – if we want to keep him?”
“When you say ‘ours’ who do you mean by that, Auntie Rachel?”
“Very sneaky Sarah. I have finished my three-month sabbatical, and as the articles are doing very well, it looks as if I can stay here for a while to write some more. By ‘ours’, I would say that Pluto belongs to all the people who love him, and want to look after him.”
Several of the people who had come out to investigate the sound of Rachel’s alarm were still in the Square, chatting to each other and making a particular fuss of Pluto. The affable atmosphere was disturbed by the sound of a police siren and blue flashing lights as the local beat police car screeched into the Square and stopped near the bench.
A policeman got out of the car, hurriedly pulled on his hat and drew his baton. “Is this the rabid dog!”
This was received with much laughter, which confused the policeman even more. “I got a 999 call saying that there was a rabid dog loose in the Square and that he’d already bitten two people.”
“I’ll lay even money that Daw Hooper as was, made that call,” said Mrs Kneller, who had joined the crowd. “The only thing that’s been rabid in this village today is Daw’s nasty little boys. Home from school for the holidays and hell bent on causing trouble. You should book her for wasting police time, Constable. This here is Pluto and he’s been doing police dog training but it’s been called off because he won’t bite people. He certainly gave those two boys a good barking at though.”
The policeman had the grace to blush in the face of Mrs Kneller’s protestations. Pluto was doing his best to look adorable and offered his paw, head tilted to one side. Obviously, a dog lover, the policeman took Pluto’s paw and crouched down in front of him. “Doesn’t look rabid to me. If he was, I’d imagine that you would all be back in your houses rather than out here. I do know who made the call, although I can’t disclose that information of course. There was some talk of someone being assaulted?”
Rachel stepped forward and held out her walking stick. “I used this to prevent the boys from getting too close to Pluto and the girls, but no one was hurt. I used a rape alarm to scare them off; it’s a horrible noise but it does seem to be quite effective.”
“I can only apologise then…”
“Don’t you apologise! Those boys of Daw’s are a liability. Instead of coming up here causing trouble and harassing people, they should have one of those ASBOs slapped on them. I’ll give a statement about their behaviour!” said Mrs Kneller, and the crowd behind her roared their approval.
“I’ll take some names then. I can’t promise an ASBO, but it will give me a little more evidence in the face of the false emergency call.”
He turned to Rachel first and held out his notebook. His face turned rather red when she gave her address and he realised who else lived there. “Erm. Say hello to Mark for me, will you?”
Rachel smiled and gave the smallest of winks to acknowledge that the secret was still safe. The excitement of the afternoon had taken its toll though, and home was the only place she wanted to be. Mrs Kneller, never one to miss such a sign, touched Rachel’s arm. “High time we got you and Pluto home, my dear. You look beat. You do realise Constable, that the older sister of those boys nearly killed our Rachel a couple of weeks ago. Drunk driving and not wearing her glasses, that Damaris nearly ran Rachel and Mark over. She’s the one you should be investigating. Mind you, we haven’t seen much of her since she had that Botox stuff in her lips.”
Sally and Sarah went back into the shop so that Lou could come out and say goodbye. “Mrs K is right Rachel. You do look a bit peaky now. Will you be okay walking back?”
“She’s got me and Pluto to mind her, Lou. She’ll be fine once we’re indoors and I’ve got the kettle on.”
Lou hugged Rachel and whispered in her ear. “Never mind a cup of tea or coffee. A glass of sherry would be better.”
The crowd dispersed after giving their details to the policeman; Rachel, Pluto and Mrs Kneller headed back up the main road towards Mark’s cottage. The sight of his car in the driveway gave Rachel an unexpected, but thrilling attack of the butterflies. Mark came out to greet them, and as Mrs Kneller’s tale unfolded, he took Pluto’s lead from Rachel, and very gently propelled her into the living room.
“Sherry, I think Mrs K, some water for Pluto and I’ll put the kettle on. Then you can tell me all about it, but slowly.”
“On one condition Mark?”
“I think I know what you are about to say and if you are going to tell me to promise me to do nothing then I promise, unconditionally.”
Over sherry, tea and some biscuits that Mark had brought on the way home, Rachel let Mrs K tell the tale with gusto, raising her eyebrows occasionally when the story grew a little with each repetition. Mark had taken Rachel’s hand protectively when he heard about her accosting Damaris’s brothers. She didn’t actually mind though, and even squeezed it back. Mrs K rapidly identified the need for some privacy and sped off next door.
“Are you okay Rachel?” he asked.
She nodded. “I just felt a bit wobbly when the policeman came roaring up with the blues and twos on. I thought he was going to take Pluto away, and the girls were really scared. He changed his attitude when Mrs K and all the neighbours told him that the call was fake. When I gave him our address, he got extreme apologetic and blushed.”
Mark looked down and tried to hide his smile. Rachel hadn’t let go of his hand either. Hope was definitely springing. It might have progressed further, but an officious knock at the front door interrupted the sweetness of the moment. Mark got up to answer the door, but having seen that it was Doris Davenport-Hooper, he went through the patio doors and emerged in the driveway. Doris jumped at his sudden appearance from behind, then gathered up every ounce of outrage she could muster. “I don’t want to speak to you. It’s that harlot that you’re shacked up with that I mean to talk to.”
“Be very careful Mrs Davenport-Hooper.” Mark’s voice was calm but authorative. “I could have pressed charges against your daughter for dangerous driving, speeding, and assault when she tried to run us down in her car. From what I have heard your sons have also been behaving in an antisocial manner, and the residents of the Square are all prepared to give evidence to that effect. As for my guest Rachel, she is a well-respected journalist from London, who would never behave in the same irresponsible manner that we are seeing in all three of your children. Our dog Pluto is not rabid; on the contrary he is very well behaved and was protecting my nieces from your sons. Apparently, you made a 999 call, and wasted police time by lying about an incident that you hadn’t even witnessed. Whatever you may think, none of your family is above the law. I’d like you to leave my property now, and if you or any of your relatives persist in harassing us, I believe that I already have sufficient grounds to take out a private injunction against you. Good bye.”
Rachel was watching from behind the blind in the kitchen, and had to hold her breath for fear of laughing too loudly. Out of the corner of her eye she glimpsed Mrs K leaning on the party wall, completely unabashed. Mrs Davenport-Hooper glared, first at Mark and then at Mrs K who was waving her fist in triumph, before getting into her car, roaring off the driveway, then swerving to avoid a car that was coming down on the other side of the road. That would have been bad enough, but the car happened to belong to the police constable who had been in the Square earlier.
Mark backed into the doorway so that the constable could turn his car around, and set off up the road in pursuit. Mrs K applauded. “Well done our Mark. That told her. Cocky old bat. Can he arrest her for dangerous driving?”
“Possibly. He has at least two witnesses, three if you count Rachel giggling behind the blind in the kitchen. I must check that we have a CCTV recording of that as well.”
Rachel chose that moment to open the front door and join in with Mrs K’s applause. Pluto barked, but it was his happy and excited bark.
“We’d better call Lou and warn her that the D-H family are on the warpath.” said Mark. “I installed CCTV outside the shop and the house, but I doubt if the terrible twins are likely to take notice of that.”
Taking the initiative, Rachel phoned Lou at the shop but found that she had already closed up for the day, so she called the home number instead, then handed the phone over to Mark, who explained what had happened.
“Can you actually take out an injunction against them Mark? The girls were really scared until Rachel stepped in with her stick and rape alarm. She was quite magnificent; people were still talking about her standing up to the Dim twins long after she and Mrs K had gone home. Is Rachel okay though? I haven’t seen her that angry since we were in the Gun together, and some drunken marine engineers made hateful comments about us because we ignored them.”
“What did she do?”
“Picked up a soda syphon and sprayed them with it. Then she picked up a second one from behind the bar and let loose with that one too. I had to hurry her out. We laughed all the way back to our house.”
“Boudicca of the bar eh!”
Realising what Lou and Mark were discussing, Rachel pulled a face and threw a cushion in Mark’s direction. Pluto sensed a play fight and began jumping and barking with excitement. Before things could go any further, Mark said a rapid goodbye, and crouched down to make a fuss of Pluto, keeping an eye on Rachel unless she launched another cushion, or worse. “I always wondered what it would be like to use a soda syphon on someone Rachel; I was never brave enough.”
“It wasn’t bravery. They were drunk and foul-mouthed, and I wasn’t prepared to put up with it. We were banned from the Gun for a week after that. It was meat draw night as well. Talking of which, what are we having for dinner tonight? I didn’t realise you’d be back today, or I’d have got something in.”
“Takeaway? Chinese, Indian, pizza or fish and chips?”
“I really fancy fish and chips. And cider. Have we got any cider?”
“I’ll pick some up while I’m out. I’ll leave you in Pluto’s care for now.”
“He may not have bitten them, but he certainly has an impressive bark. Don’t tell the police dog school, they might want him back.”
“No danger of that; they’re more than happy that he’s found a good home with us now.”
Us. There it was again. Rachel was becoming accustomed to hearing it. It was never a term that applied to her as a child or young woman until she met Lou, and had never been assumed with Sam. They usually did what he wanted to do. Takeaways were a hidden pleasure for Rachel whenever Sam was away; the thought of fish and chips would have caused him to turn up his very Roman nose.
She had been mulling over the further six-month sabbatical that Tony had offered her that morning. The London flat seemed a lifetime away; Tony had also suggested that she sublet it rather than leaving it empty any longer. That would mean a trip to London to clear out her clothes and the few personal belongings that were left there. Could she really turn her back on the life she had led with Sam so easily? Mark said that the happy times with Sorrel were fading, and she was beginning to understand that her memories of Sam weren’t really happy, but were largely about how he imposed his will upon her, and how she allowed him to.
Rachel phoned Lou again whilst Mark was out fetching dinner to check that it would be okay with her.
“The thought of having you here for another six months is bliss; the girls love you; Pluto loves you, and as for me, Mark and Mrs K…you belong here now Rachel. You have to stay.”
“Will you come up to London with me? I don’t think I can cope with going back into the flat on my own, and I need to bag up all my clothes.”
“Can I have first pick?”
“Of course. I need to talk to Mark about it first. If I let the flat, I’ll be able to pay him some rent.”
“He won’t take it. As far as he is concerned you are looking after his house while he’s away. Pluto adores you, and I’ve never seen Mrs K so happy.”
“Do you really need to ask? He respects your wishes about being friends and needing time to find yourself again, but when I see the two of you together. It just looks right. That’s not just me matchmaking either.”
“I’ll speak to him tonight.”
“Staying on for another six months.”
“See you tomorrow.”
“Love you, Rachel.”