WRITTEN BY COLETTE DARTFORD
I need your help. My boyfriend and I have been together for three years but I’ve just found out that he cheated on me with an ex. He says he’s sorry and he’ll never do it again, but can I trust him? Please, Freya – tell me what to do.
PS I really love him.
Freya groaned and closed her laptop. Sometimes being an agony aunt was just that: agony. Her inbox was testament to the myth of happy-ever-after.
Freya wrapped her advice in gentle words of comfort, but wondered if giving hope to the hopeless was doing them a disservice. Wasn’t a hard slap with the brutal truth better in the long run?
She wished someone – anyone – had told her about Freddie and the traitorous Alice.
Her best friend and her boyfriend – and trusting, clueless Freya hadn’t suspected a thing.
She shook her head and stood up. No, she refused to disappear into that pit of despair again.
“Walkies,” she said in the faux-posh voice she fancied Bunny found amusing. She snapped on his leash and when he looked at her quizzically, head cocked to one side, she added, “Yes, I know it’s early – but I need some fresh air.”
As she crossed the street to the park, Freya breathed in the sweet scent of cut grass and the sound of children’s laughter. Mothers with buggies congregated outside the café, sipping their cappuccinos and soy lattés.
Freya might have been a mother herself by now if she hadn’t wasted her twenties on Freddie.
The thought was interrupted when a skateboarder roared by and sent Bunny into a fit of barking.
Freya kept hold of his leash until the skateboarder was out of sight, then unclipped him with a soothing pat.
An indignant Bunny lifted his leg against the first available tree before trotting off to play with the large penny- coloured dog heading in their direction.
Freya’s attention was grabbed by the dog’s owner – six foot two at least, and sporting an electric blue pork-pie hat paired with a zingy lemon T-shirt.
She shielded her eyes, as much from the onslaught of colour as from the spring sunshine.
The dogs engaged in a cursory sniff of each other’s rear ends before getting on with the serious business of chasing a ball. Pork-Pie Man threw it overarm with such force that it whipped through the air like a missile.
Bunny’s stubby legs couldn’t match the majestic lope of his new companion but as the ball bounced high, Bunny leaped and snatched it from under the other dog’s nose.
“He’s a feisty little fella,” said Pork-Pie Man, now at Freya’s side.
She smiled, proud of her funny-looking mutt with his tufty black coat and fierce determination.
The dogs sprinted back, Bunny with the tennis ball clamped firmly in his mouth.
“What breed is yours?” asked Freya.
“Originally, but somehow they became the national dog of Malta. They were used to hunt rabbits.”
Both of them had been looking ahead at the dogs, but now Freya looked at Pork-Pie Man. His profile was appealing: long straight nose, generous mouth, strong jaw.
“They have a rabbit connection, then,” she said brightly. “My dog’s called Bunny.”
Right on cue, Bunny dropped the ball at Freya’s feet and she rewarded him with a biscuit.
The Pharaoh hound sat to attention, looking up at her with cool amber eyes.
“Can he have one?” asked Freya, producing another from her pocket.
“Sure,” said Pork-Pie man. “He’s Snoop, by the way. I’m Guy.”
Guy turned to her and doffed his hat, a gesture so charmingly old-fashioned that she responded with a girlish giggle.
Freya couldn’t remember the last time she had giggled.
In the movies this was called “a moment” – eye contact, full-frontal smiles, everything around them in shimmering freeze-frame.
It was perfect until Bunny grew impatient, barking and pushing the ball around with his muzzle.
Guy obliged, sending the ball spinning into the distance, dogs following in hot pursuit.
He and Freya looked on like indulgent parents before Guy said, “Well, they’ve hit it off. Snoop can be a bit aloof with dogs he doesn’t know. Don’t think we’ve seen you before.”
“We normally come later but I needed a break from work.”
“What do you do?”
A question she dreaded. The answer prompted people to either ask what qualified her to give advice on affairs of the heart, or to promptly recount their own sob stories – often along the same lines as poor, deceived Sally.
“Online sage to the broken-hearted,” she said, hoping her tone was as light as she intended.
Guy pulled his chin into his neck.
“Really. How about you?”
“Something inexplicable involving software. Best bit is working from home, which means Snoop and I get to escape to the park.”
“I know,” said Freya. “It’s such a solitary existence, I have to remind myself sometimes that there are other people in the world.”
The words just spilled out. Usually she said such things in her head rather than out loud to a complete stranger. Alluding to the crushing loneliness of the past few years was like admitting to the worst kind of failure.
Freya Banks couldn’t possibly be lonely, not with thousands of followers and virtual friends. Except she was.
She’d lost all her real-life friends when she lost Freddie.
How could she be sure they hadn’t known what was going on and kept it from her? Who could she trust?
At the office she had imagined co-workers gossiping behind her back. She couldn’t face the pity of her book club or the forced jolliness of her personal trainer, hired to get her in shape for her wedding day. Was it any wonder she had succumbed to depression?
Unable to work, unable to function. Online searches for “cheating boyfriend” revealed a rich seam of opinion and counsel, much of it no help at all.
When Freya posted her own comments they were well received – lots of likes and replies, agreeing with whatever personal insight she’d shared.
It made her feel marginally less worthless to know a) she wasn’t alone and b) she could help others. Her new career began with people soliciting Freya’s advice; the website grew from that.
“Umm,” said Guy, gesturing towards Bunny, who was doing his business over by the copse.
Freya fished a bag from her pocket and jogged over. The sun was high and hot for spring, neatly tended flowerbeds already a riot of colour. Beautiful though they were, Freya preferred the natural scattering of wild flowers – bluebells, primroses, wood anemones – that clustered around the copse.
An unfamiliar sensation bubbled up inside of her. Happiness? Joy?
“Must be off,” said Guy. “Maybe see you tomorrow?”
“Maybe.” Freya gave a radiant smile.
Renewed by the burst of new life all around her, Freya dared to feel hopeful again.
While the dogs played together in the park, she and Guy would talk.
He was thirty, single, a lapsed vegetarian who preferred obscure ales to wine and attributed his flamboyant fashion sense to his mother – a catalogue model who dragged him to photo shoots when he was young.
Freya thought about him incessantly and wondered if he thought about her too.
She seized the opportunity to find out when her website suddenly crashed and she asked Guy to look at it that evening, if it wasn’t too much trouble.
“No trouble at all,” he said. “Just text me your address.”
Freya straightened her hair, wore pink lipstick and a new floral, floaty dress. Her heart felt too big for her chest as she waited and when the doorbell finally rang, she had to force a few deep breaths before answering it.
She saw Guy nearly every day – silly to feel so nervous.
She was encouraged to see he had changed out of the crossword-patterned T-shirt he’d worn that afternoon, suggesting he had made an effort as well.
He brought a bunch of wildflowers tied with string – “you said they were your favourite” – and Snoop, which delighted Bunny.
The website was sorted in no time. By way of thanks, Freya invited him to stay for dinner. Spag bol – nothing fancy.
“I hate fancy,” he said, melting her with a dimpled smile.
Freya had fantasised about this; dinner, drinks, hands accidentally touching, a moment of hesitation before they kissed.
“Actually, there’s something I need to ask you,” said Guy.
Had he read her mind? Freya flicked her hair off her face and pulled her shoulders back in expectation.
“I’ve been offered a job with a tech company in Singapore and wondered if you would have Snoop? I know it’s an imposition but he loves you and Bunny and if the job works out I’ll send for him.” He drew breath, as if relieved to have said his piece. “What do you think?”
A mute Freya could only stare. Her fantasy was a new life with Guy, but his new life had no place for her.
He saw her as a dog-sitter, not a girlfriend.
A cold, dense sensation dragged through her body and she had to blink away the threat of tears.
She couldn’t look at Guy so looked instead at the dogs, curled up together in Bunny’s bed, peaceful and oblivious. Well, at least they could have their happy ending.
Freya swallowed hard.
“Of course I’ll have him,” she said.
The sun-kissed promise of early spring was short-lived, as April showers became relentless downpours.
Each day Bunny and Snoop returned from the park splattered with mud, which Freya hosed off before letting them into the flat.
The whole place smelled of wet dog, however much air freshener she used.
For the first few weeks Guy would Skype but it upset Snoop to hear his master’s voice, see his face, and yet he wasn’t there.
Freya knew how he felt. She began sending photos, and updates that didn’t mention how Snoop lay whimpering by the front door.
It happened on their afternoon walk, dry for a change, the sun playing peek-a-boo between billows of sugar-white clouds.
Without warning Snoop bolted, oblivious to Freya’s calls.
She ran after him, Bunny at her heels, Snoop getting further away with every stride.
Freya, aware of people staring, shouted until she had no breath left and sank to her knees in despair.
Freddie, Guy, now Snoop. What was wrong with her – why did they all leave?
Bunny licked her salty tears until she struggled to her feet again, jeans damp and dirty.
She wiped her eyes, blew her nose and told herself to get a grip.
Again she scanned the expanse of emerald grass. There, in the far distance, she spotted a coppery-coated dog with a familiar long-legged lope.
Squinting against sunlight, hand on her forehead, she watched the dog get closer, willing it to be Snoop.
Bunny started to bark, his tail wagging as if it was swatting flies.
Freya was so focused on the approaching dog that at first she didn’t notice the tall man with the pork-pie hat.
It was Bunny who ran to him, greeting him with unbridled affection.
A surge of emotion rooted Freya to the spot and all she could do was wait.
When he got to her he doffed his hat, just like the first time they had met.
“You’re back,” said Freya.
“I’m back,” said Guy.
His soft, warm kisses were just as she had imagined, but an inconvenient question forced her to pull away.
“What about Singapore?” she said.
He cupped her face in his hands.
“My heart wasn’t in it,” he said. “I left that here with you and Snoop.”
This time she didn’t pull away.