Since Ben died, I no longer deal with the public. It’s easy to avoid the small town banter, if I plan my day carefully. I’ve spent the last couple of years fine tuning my timetable, making sure I avoid clashing with the comings and goings of my next door neighbours, the Farrells at number 20. I save my chatting time for the online forum.
I could usually manage a half-hearted nod to the other dog walkers on the woodland trail. And if I was feeling really generous, I sometimes made a withdrawal from the bank of prepared phrases I had at the ready: ‘Braw night, eh?’, ‘That rain’s no stopped all day’, and ‘Aye, it’s dreich but the forecast says it should clear up for the weekend.’
Only for the regulars though; even weans know about stranger danger. I remembered the boy and his cat on the telly adverts from the 70s warning us not to speak to strangers. “Charley says never go anywhere with men or ladies you don't know.”
When I’d turned the corner and bumped into him, I didn’t have time to psyche myself up to speak to anyone, certainly not an unfamiliar face. His sudden appearance was followed by a streak of amber. The furry shape shot past me before disappearing into the thick undergrowth. I thought at first that it was a fox, but it was shorter and faster than any fox I’d ever seen and it was wearing a pink collar. The high-pitched squeals confirmed that it was only a Jack Russell on the hunt for rabbits. Without a second to restrain him, Jinky’s skinny frame bounded off to join the pursuit, leaving me face-to-face with a stranger.
I tested my dog’s recall. ‘Jinky!’ There was nothing but a rustle of bushes, no sign of him. ‘Jinky!’ It was times like these when I really grudged keeping Ben’s dog. I should’ve taken him back to the rescue centre after Ben died.
‘I’d save your breath. Roxy’s not a quitter so we could be in for a bit of a wait if your dog sticks with her. Sorry.’
He approached me and pointed at the blackened wooden bench a few steps along the gravel path.
‘We might as well take it easy while we pretend that we’re in charge of our dogs. By the way, my name’s Dan.’
His hand was as big as a shovel, and he scooped up mine into his powerful grasp. They were ideal strangler’s hands, complete with hairy tarantula fingers that could crawl across a neck to make a velvet choker necklace. Dan’s move was so sudden, that I had no option but to submit to his spontaneous gesture. But I quickly withdrew from his grip, as if the warmth of his skin had scalded me, through my fleecy glove.
It was a firm handshake, nothing more. My dad Roy would have been impressed by Dan’s strong grip. Roy claimed that a dead fish handshake was poofy. Dan was anything but limp-wristed. I peeled off my glove, to find a ragged cuticle to tug and tear with my teeth.
‘Don’t worry, I don’t bite.’ He took a step back and raised his hands in surrender. ‘Unless you want me to!’ To my surprise, his raised eyebrows and cheesy Colgate grin made me smile and I sat next to him on the bench.
‘You don’t think we should go after them?’ I asked, turning my head in the direction of the bushes.
‘Nah, I’m happy to wait here. Are you?’ asked Dan.
‘Eh, okay. Ah’ll give it a couple of minutes.’ I didn’t realise I was chewing on my chapped lips until I tasted blood.
‘So you’re a Celtic fan then?’ asked Dan. He seemed to be glowing like the boy in the Ready Brek advert.
‘Eh?’ I asked.
‘Jinky, wee Jimmy Johnstone, the Celtic legend?’
‘Ah see what you mean.’ I stuttered, sounding like an eedjit. ‘Actually, ah’m no keen on fitba, ma son picked the dug’s name.’
I was sitting out in the open, on a well-used path; there was no need to worry. Get a grip, I told myself. I looked behind me at the dense woodland. Maybe I was right to be cautious? Although the simple truth was, I knew nothing about this man. I considered the facts:
He said his name was Dan.
Dan was a complete stranger.
He was friendly.
Dan was a potential rapist.
He had made no attempt to move from the bench and lure me behind the screen of nearby trees. Calm down. And then Dan sprung to his feet. I felt my insides clench and my breathing quicken. Was this the point when I should run? Yell and tell, just like I’d taught Ben. Should I try and find Jinky first or leave him behind? Like sparks from a Catherine Wheel, my options flew into the air, but I didn’t get time to act on any of them. The two dogs raced back towards us, circling the bench together in frenzied laps.
‘Roxy! What the hell have you got this time? Drop it now!’ Dan bent down to wrestle a brown sphere of spikes from the terrier’s mouth. Prizing open her jaws, Dan eased the prickly ball out and laid it down gently on the grass. Dan clipped Roxy’s lead back on and clapped her head.
‘There’s no point in me getting mad at her. She’s a terrier; she can’t help herself. And look at that cheeky face, who could resist it?’ asked Dan.
Ben would’ve loved Roxy too.
‘Well it looks like the hedgehog will live tae tell the tale so there’s nae harm done,’ I said.
‘Yeah, look - he’s already wandered off.’
‘Hedgehogs are funny wee things.’ I blurted out, hoping it wasn’t a stupid comment.
‘You’re right. I’ve never figured them out. I mean hedge-hogs. Why can’t they just share the hedge?’ said Dan.
My laugh was what Elaine called a Tena Lady laugh, “If you dribble while you giggle, they’re the most absorbent pads”. My paranoia had been ridiculous. Thank God I hadn’t run off and made a fool of myself.
Dan was an animal lover.
Dan was funny.
Dan was a nice guy.
There was no need to remember what Charley says.
Helen MacKinven writes contemporary Scottish fiction and graduated with merit from Stirling University with an MLitt in Creative Writing in 2012. Her short stories have appeared in a number of anthologies and literary journals, such as Gutter magazine. Helen’s debut novel, Talk of the Toun, was published by ThunderPoint in 2015.
Helen blogs at helenmackinven.co.uk and you can find her on Twitter as @HelenMacKinven.
Buy Buy Baby was released by Cranachan Publishing in July and is available from Amazon and all good bookshops.