Mitzi (springer spaniel) and I (human) were out for a walk when I observed a tall and attractive man putting up a notice outside the parish centre. Intrigued, I went over for a closer look.
“Our family friend Stella is running obedience classes for dogs,” the man told me. “They’re starting next Monday.”
“Brilliant! Mitzi, here, is far from well-trained! I think I’ll enrol.”
Ignoring Mitzi’s shocked and reproachful expression at this news, I glanced at him to see his reaction.
“Great!” he said enthusiastically, with a heart-crunching smile. And then spoiled it by adding, “Stella’ll be delighted.” He smiled again and turned and walked away.
I twisted to surreptitiously look at him. Broad shoulders - check. Narrow waist - check. Long lean legs topped by perfect bottom - check. Not to mention three checks for his handsome angular face, fabulous blue eyes and thick dark-brown hair. I sighed a little and turned back to the notice to take down Stella’s number.
Accordingly Mitzi and I turned up the following Monday. I had explained to her what was going to happen, and she wasn’t one bit impressed. She liked the status quo, in which coming when called was an optional extra.
The woman I assumed was Stella was at the top of the hall, talking to somebody. She was tall, and thin, with greying hair in a severe pony-tail, and a weather-beaten face which was making no attempt to hide her age. She had an air of authority and command about her, and I thought that, never mind the dog, I'd come if she called me. And sit too, probably.
To my delight and surprise that handsome man was there too, with a placid-looking glossy black Labrador-cross. He gave a big smile of recognition and came over to me.
“Hi,” he said, and held out his hand, “Brian Fox. And Cassidy." He gestured towards his dog.
“Joy Flynn, and Mitzi.” We shook hands, or sniffed noses, according to the custom of our respective species.
“Right, ladies and gentlemen,” called the redoubtable Stella briskly, “please line up over there with your dogs.”
We all hurriedly complied.
Brian and I ended up standing side by side, and I was feeling no pain at that.
“Okay,” Stella boomed, “I’m going to call each dog in turn and see if it will come to me, so I can get an idea of what we’re dealing with.”
Most of the dogs were over-excited at being in this new location, and at being with so many other strange dogs, so there was a lot of leaping and yapping at first.
However eventually most of them did go to Stella when she called them. The doggy-treats she was wielding probably had something to do with that.
When it came to Cassidy’s turn, he behaved perfectly. He ran straight up to Stella and sat in front of her, his tail wagging proudly.
Swot, I thought sourly, there’s always one.
Mitzi and I were next. This is it, I thought, my heart beating nervously. I so wanted Mitzi to do well. I unclipped her lead and Stella authoritatively called her. And Mitzi stayed exactly where she was. In fact, she began leaning against my leg.
“Mitzi!” called Stella again, “come here girl.”
In response Mitzi cowered even more against me.
“Right,” said Stella briskly, “I can see we’re going to have our work cut out here. Next.”
As my neighbour’s dog ran enthusiastically towards Stella, I cringed inside. Not having children I’ve never had to endure the trauma of reading the school report, but I imagine it feels as I felt then: a mixture of humiliation at Mitzi’s behaviour, annoyance because she was letting me down, shame at myself for caring so much, frustration at the bad report, love regardless, and a determination to do better.
Mitzi, it appeared, didn’t really care. She and Cassidy were getting to know each other better by sniffing each other in places not usually recommended in polite society.
However, as the class progressed Mitzi began to get the hang of what was required, and there was a small, but definite, improvement by the time we finished.
After the class Brian and I happened to leave together. I use the word happened in its sense of I contrived it to be so, of course.
“Well,” he said cheerfully, “see you next week.”
“See you. Not that you need to be here, I think. Cassidy’s so well-behaved.”
“Ah well,” he said, looking uncomfortable at what I said, “there’s always room for improvement.”
Over the next few weeks I found I was looking forward to Monday evenings. Which was surprising seeing as Mitzi obviously thought better of the improvement she showed on the first day, and remained mostly impervious to Stella’s training techniques. I was getting more and more embarrassed and Stella was getting more and more fraught. So what was to look forward to?
Ah, seeing Brian of course. We automatically stood together now, chatted about the past week’s events, compared notes about the progress of the dogs. Not surprisingly Brian had a lot more to say on that subject than I did.
Each week we left together and parted company with a cheerful goodbye and a “See you next week!”
If only he’d ask me out, I thought despairingly. More despairingly with each passing week. This was only a six-week class! If he didn’t do it soon, he’d miss his chance.
I couldn’t understand why he didn’t ask me out. Not that I'm so arrogant to think that every man must automatically fancy me. But Brian always sought out my company and seemed to enjoy being with me. Maybe I’d have to bite the bullet and ask him out. Only as a last resort, mind.
At least Mitzi’s behaviour was improving. Depending on how I defined the word, ‘improving’.
However, at the end of the sixth-and-last week, just as I was about to totally despair, it happened!
We were saying goodbye as usual when he said, “Unfortunately I can’t suggest that we go for a coffee or a drink to celebrate the end of the classes. Not with this pair in tow.” He grimaced and indicated our two canine companions.
“No, they’d never be let in the pub,” I agreed, and then we said together, “they’re both underage!” and creased up laughing.
“Maybe, however,” he then said casually, “you might like to go out without them some time.”
“Yeah, sure, why not?” I asked equally casually.
“Wednesday?” he suggested.
“Sounds good,” I agreed lightly.
We met on Wednesday evening and it was absolutely magical. I swear I could hear a whole orchestra in the background playing romantic music as we laughed and chatted and smooched our way through our first date.
Same thing during our second date on Friday two days later.
And our third date on Saturday, the day after that.
On Sunday afternoon we met up for a walk in the Phoenix Park. The dogs were running ahead of us, enjoying the exotic smells, the space and the freedom.
“So what did you think of the obedience classes?” he asked me. “It seems as if they worked for Mitzi - I’ve been watching her progress.”
“Well …” I prevaricated.
“What?” he asked, intrigued.
“Don’t tell Stella, promise?”
“I promise,” he said, “Hand on heart.”
“Okay. Well, it’s true that Mitzi’s behaviour in the classes has improved. But I think she’s decided that she only has to obey when she’s in the parish centre in Stella’s presence. She behaves perfectly there. But once we’re anywhere else, she’s as she ever was. She still has her laissez-faire attitude towards coming when she’s called, or walking beside me. That hasn’t changed. However,” I said, laughing, “whenever she does deign to come, she does it in style. She doesn’t just arrive in my general direction as she used to do. Oh no, she comes right in front of me and sits! Likewise if she does condescend to walk with me, she heels perfectly.”
Brian put back his head and laughed uproariously, and even though I laughed too, I still managed to admire his strong jaw-line and muscular neck as he did so.
“But what about your Cassidy?” I asked then. “Honestly, he’s really the star of the show. He was pretty obedient to begin with, and now he’s good enough to win competitions!”
Brian shifted a little, looking extremely uncomfortable, his laughter totally gone.
“Joy, will we sit down here?” he asked sombrely, pointing to a bench. “I’ve something I need to tell you.”
“Okay,” I said, my heart sinking. People never speak in that grave tone of voice when they’re about to propose marriage or offer you a share of a Lotto win. Not that either of those situations has happened to me, but I just know that the tone would be more cheerful were it to happen.
We sat down, and the dogs, seeing this, flopped at our feet.
“It’s like this,” he said, “I’ve a big confession to make.”
A thousand possibilities went through my head in that instant. He had just realised, after fighting it for years, that he was gay. He was actually married. He had an unsavoury predilection for young girls. He was wanted by the police of seven countries for fraud, or worse, for not paying his TV licence. He was about to begin a six-month trip to Antartica. He had accepted a job on an oil rig. He was off to become a Trappist Monk. He had a terminal illness.
“What … what is it?”
He wouldn’t meet my eye, just sat with his head bowed. He took a deep juddering breath, “I’ve been operating under false pretences,” he said. “That’s why it took me so long to ask you out. I felt dreadful about deceiving you. The truth is that I don’t even own a dog. Cassidy belongs to my sister. And you’re right - he is already very well trained. Stella had already whipped him into shape. Not literally, of course,” he hastened to add.
Cassidy, contentedly and industriously chewing a stick in front of us, didn’t look like a dog which had ever been whipped, to be fair.
“I don’t understand,” I said, “why on earth would you bring Cassidy to the obedience classes in that case - oh!” I put my hand up to cover my mouth as the realisation hit me. Or at least, what I hoped was the correct reason.
He turned to look at me then, and there was a mixture of emotions in his expression: fear, and hope and anxiety.
“Yes,” he said, “it was to meet you. I liked you from the first moment I met you outside the parish centre. And it seemed the only way to get to know you was to enrol in the classes. I borrowed Cassidy, and Stella agreed to let us join. So,” he took a deep breath, “that’s it. That’s my guilty secret.”
“So you’re not gay, or married, or ill, or a fugitive from justice?”
“No. Honest, no,” he said laughing. “So, do you forgive me?”
“Nothing to forgive,” I told him happily, “it’s quite romantic really,” whereupon his face lit up in a huge smile and he bent and kissed me. Passionately and thoroughly, and with - if I’m not being over-fanciful - more than a hint of promise about it.
When we came up for air I said, “I’d better confess my secret, so.”
“You have a secret too?” he put his hand to his heart, mock-horrified.
“Yes. When I saw you putting up the notice I was intrigued, but I was intrigued by you way more than by any obedience classes. I only enrolled in the hopes of getting enough information about you from Stella - since you had said she was a friend - to be able to somehow bump into you along the way. I couldn’t believe my luck when you actually turned up at the classes! But now I know why!”
“So you didn’t need obedience classes for Mitzi?”
“Well, it wasn’t a priority. She probably could do with being more disciplined, but we manage. No, she was my excuse to get in contact with you.”
I bent to give her a rub of gratitude. But she was nowhere to be seen. Cassidy had all-but shredded his stick, and Mitzi was gone.“Oh no! She’s wandered off!”
I stood and shouted, “Mitzi! Mitzi! Come here!”
She didn’t respond, and after a moment Brian stood too. “Mitzi!” he roared, his strong baritone resonating across the field and bushes and trees. For all the good it did.
About five minutes later, when she was good and ready, she came trotting up, delighted with herself, unperturbed to note that we were both red-faced from continued shouting, and sat elegantly at my feet.
“So was it worth your while joining the obedience classes, then?” asked Brian ironically.
I looked at the totally unabashed dog, sitting there with her tongue flopping out and a grin on her long snout, and then at him - tall and broad and infinitely handsome, kind and humourous and decent, and said, “Oh yes. Well worth it!”
Copyright Tracy Culleton 2007