Grumble took his time. The sun was setting, taking the last of the day’s warmth with it. I was still in a t-shirt and jeans, from having been in the garden all afternoon. Grumble had sat at the front door and barked until I had grabbed the lead and the plastic bags I used to clear up after him.
The sky had turned into a canvas of burnt orange and royal purple as Grumble sniffed along the pavement, eager to be off the leash once we got to the park.
I tugged at his lead and he panted, his pink tongue flapping free between his teeth.
I called him to heel and unclipped the lead from his collar. He scampered around, revelling in his freedom. We both took pleasure from the time in different ways. Grumble and the house were all I had after Sam left. The latter held too many memories for me to stay in too often, but Grumble loved me with clumsy ferocity, enough to chase away the fears and doubts. My intuition was running on fumes and being on my own had only allowed me time to torment myself with what might have been. I grieved, and little else. Grumble’s needs allowed me to avoid attending to my own.
Grumble yipped and drew my attention back to the present. He was on his haunches, growling at a large, muscular bull terrier who remained sat at his owner’s heel. I hurried over to retrieve him and looked at the man stood next to his dog. He had on a black leather jacket over a brown t-shirt and blue jeans with boots. His jet black hair hung to his shoulders in glossy waves and a scrub of stubble glittered on his cheeks and chin as he grinned at me. His clear blue eyes peered at me from underneath his thick dark eyebrows.
‘Tough little dude, you’ve got there.’ he said.
I hissed at Grumble and he returned. The man chuckled and scratched his dog behind its ears, told it what a good girl she was. His voice was firm, not effusive but effective.
‘I’m sorry, he wouldn’t have bit your dog.’
He chuckled and nodded.
‘It’s all right. These things happen. Enjoy your evening.’ he said.
Grumble barked and the man walked away. I watched him leave, enjoyed how his jeans clung to his backside and legs as he strode away, the bull terrier matching his pace and staying close to his heels. I wrestled Grumble’s lead back onto his collar and carried on with the dog, annoyed and embarrassed to the point of giving up and going home. My cheeks burned and I fought the urge to keep being angry with myself.
The shout came from my right. Three men, in their teens and swaddled in oversized coats and caps over jeans that hung from their skinny legs. My stomach turned with distaste and I gritted my teeth. The fear that came, added fuel to the fire of my shame and upset. It all grew too much, too and I turned to stare at them, pissed off and past caring.
‘Piss off, you twat.’ I said.
One of them lurched forwards. Grumble leapt towards him and nipped at his left ankle. He jolted backwards, crying out and staring at me.
‘Ah, you fucking bitch.’ he said.
His friends chuckled with a bleak amusement. They helped him to his feet and looked at me, smiling as though my actions had given them warrant to act on their mischievous impulses. Their hands clenched into fists and they moved towards me.
The growling from our right made us all turn and look.
She was on her paws, growling and her thick shoulders rolling forwards. Her bark was low and percussive which made the three men flinch with discomfort.
‘Now I’ve got your attention.’ he said.
He stood there with his arms down by his side, the leather jacket shining like armour.
‘That little nip you got stung but if you keep on at this woman -‘
On cue, the dog barked, explosive sounds broken up by low, sensual growls of threat.
The three lads looked at each other, trying to scrounge up courage but finding themselves unable to do it without fear of reprisal.
They scampered away, unable to look at either of us.
He walked around to my side, gave a slow whistle which made his dog sit down with its paws in front, restored to a state of contented calm.
‘I didn’t get your name.’ I said.
John. He offered to walk me home.
He did not overwhelm me with questions and when my relief abated into tears, he put his arm around me, and I nestled against his shoulder until I finished. His dog walked close to his heel and Grumble stayed on the lead, chastened by our adventure. Within his quiet, there was calm and he gave it with no ulterior motive beyond kindness.
We stood at my gate. He gave me a confident, careful stare.
‘You will be all right.’ he said.
I wiped my eyes and chuckled, thanking him for everything.
I looked deep into his eyes, fighting the impulse to run into the house. His look was deep, ancient and despite his silence, his actions had made me feel protected.
Leaning forward, I pressed my lips against his.
They tasted of safety.