“Cup of tea, Sheila?” David asked, lifting his body from the small office chair and grimacing as he straightened his back. “I can hardly keep my eyes open here!”
“Yes please,” she said gratefully. “I never say no to a cuppa!”
As he disappeared along the corridor, she turned her attention again to the small screens in front of her. Cars sped along grey roads; grey people milled on a station platform; two young women walked along the street, their clothes unseasonably flimsy.
She yawned. The night-shift was always the worst.
You were either confronted with the worst of humanity – grainy pictures of drunk men and women stumbling out of pubs; a handbag being snatched; youths throwing lager cans or spraying graffiti – or you watched darkened, empty streets hour after hour, almost willing something to happen.
At least when the night was uneventful, you felt that the CCTV was worthwhile – a good deterrent. But she couldn’t deny that the hours dragged and if it wasn’t for David, she was sure she’d drop off completely.
He placed a steaming cup on her desk and she looked up briefly, smiling.
“Thanks, Dave – you’re a lifesaver.”
She glanced at her watch: ten o’clock. Kevin was probably getting ready for bed. She missed spending the evenings with him when she was on lates.
Curling up on the sofa, watching something mindless on TV; doing the crossword or a quick drink at The King’s Head – simple things that had become part of their routine.
Two years ago when she’d been made redundant from her job as a legal secretary, just weeks after Steve had left her, it had felt like the end of the world. She’d accepted the job in the security firm simply to tide her over, and to get her out of the house.
She’d meant it to be a stopgap, but somehow it had stuck – the job wasn’t bad, but now that Kevin was on the scene, she wanted to give up night work.
Something inside was stopping her, though; did she really want to change her life for a man? They’d been together for a year now, but something still held her back.
She’d trusted Steve – relied on him completely – and he’d let her down.
What made her think Kevin was really going to be any different?
She thought back to the day they’d met – in the park, of all places. His dog, Johnnie, had run up to her dog, Maisie; Kevin had introduced himself and they’d begun chatting.
She’d always liked that: the socialising that came with walking the dog. Before she’d owned Maisie, no one had given her a second glance when she’d gone for her walks – let alone spoken to her.
Once she’d bought her golden retriever, everything changed. It was rare that she’d step out without conversing with someone.
And the fact that Maisie had been partly responsible for bringing Kevin into her life made her all the more special.
She yawned again and took a large swig of her tea. It was strong and sweet; at home, she never took sugar, but at work it was one of the things she needed to keep herself focused.
On one of the screens, a man was kicking a can along the road. She watched him for a while until he disappeared from view.
Another screen showed happy revellers walking arm in arm – a little worse for wear perhaps, but nothing criminal.
One of the girls was carrying a bunch of balloons emblazoned with the word Congratulations. Sheila wondered what she was being congratulated on – a new job, perhaps? A wedding? Getting better after an illness?
Maisie had been a little off-colour for the past two days, and Kevin had offered to stay at Sheila’s house that night and call the vet if she got any worse.
It was probably just a virus – she’d been off her food and a bit lethargic.
Hopefully she would pick up soon. Sheila always felt a little embarrassed at how much she worried about Maisie – she had her sisters, Sarah and Grace, and little Bobbie, her nephew. But Maisie was her baby and her constant companion.
“Doughnut?” asked David, passing a box of colourful loops towards her.
“I really shouldn’t,” she replied, before noticing the vanilla cream – her favourite.
“Oh, but I will,” she continued, picking up the calorie-laden treat, her mouth already watering.
“Trouble outside Fifth Avenue,” remarked David, nodding at the screen in front of him where two sets of youths were squaring up for a fight outside the nightclub.
His hand hovered over the telephone, but the police appeared on the scene before he could make a call.
They settled into silence again.
Driving home in the early hours, Sheila saw the light bleed red across the clouds as the golden sun rose behind the fields.
She opened the window and let the cool morning air pervade the car, breathing in deeply. It was one of the perks of working nights, driving home as the sun rose and witnessing the beauty of a new day.
She was smiling when she drew up outside her small terrace. She could see from the open curtains at the bedroom window that Kevin was already up.
Glancing at her watch, she saw it was only just past five o’clock.
It wasn’t like him to be up early; she quite liked snuggling in next to him in bed and stealing warmth from his sleepy body. Still, at least he’d have probably made some coffee.
As she turned the key in the lock, she had a sudden feeling of dread – as if sensing something was wrong. The hallway was silent and, in front of her, the kitchen door was closed – although she could smell the comforting aroma of fresh coffee and hear the mumble of the radio turned down low.
“Kevin?” she called out. “Kev?”
“In here, love.” His voice sounded different – weary.
She walked in and saw him crouched over Maisie’s basket, still in the clothes he had worn yesterday evening, stroking the dog’s fur gently with his large, calloused hand.
“What’s up?” She felt her heart quicken with worry.
“She took a turn for the worse around midnight,” came the reply. “I called the vet and he reckons it’s a virus. He said to keep an eye on her, so I stayed up all night.
“Johnnie’s in the other room,” he added. “He kept whining – I think he could sense something was wrong.”
Sheila knelt down beside Kevin and draped her arm around his shoulder.
“You sat up all night with her?” she asked, incredulous.
“Of course,” he said, his eyes twinkling slightly through the tiredness. “I knew you would kill me if I didn’t!”
Something about the unexpected, selfless nature of his actions made her well up.
“Thank you,” she said softly. “I mean, really – thank you! I can’t think of anyone else who would have done what you did.”
“Don’t be silly,” he replied, squeezing her hand. “It was nothing.”
But it wasn’t nothing – not really. Not to her. His actions meant more to her than a thousand bunches of roses or romantic dinners. What he’d done, knowing how much it would mean to her.
That was real love, she realised. He was nothing like Steve.
She kissed the top of his head.
“Well, thank you anyway.”
She looked at her watch – it was nearly quarter to six – he would have to start work in three hours!
“You’d better get yourself off to bed! Do you want me to wake you when it’s time to go?”
“Thanks.” He groaned as he rose to his feet and, stretching his arms up, his T-shirt lifting to show a flash of stomach; a movement that made him seem more like a little boy than a man in his thirties. “Just call me if you need me, though.”
When he had disappeared upstairs, she sat stroking Maisie, who opened her eyes briefly in acknowledgement of her presence, but closed them soon afterwards, drifting into a restless sleep.
She poured herself a coffee and got out Johnnie’s lead – she’d take him for his morning walk, it was the least she could do in the circumstances.
On the weeks when she did the night shift, she’d usually stay up until after lunch, then go to bed for a few hours before getting ready to go to work at nine in the evening.
She always felt a strange surge of energy in the mornings.
It was almost as if she had gone beyond tiredness, and she enjoyed walking along the fields near the railway lines and letting her dog off the lead.
Today, Johnnie was eager to go out. He jumped at her affectionately as she entered the living room, licking her face with enthusiasm.
“OK, boy, OK,” she said, clipping the lead to his collar. “Come on then, Jon.”
Taking one last peek at the sleeping Maisie, she crept out of the house, closing the door silently behind her.
She walked along the pavement until she reached the track that led to the public footpath.
Once there, she unclipped Johnnie’s lead and let him race ahead as she picked her way over the lumps and puddles left in the sticky mud.
Half an hour later, they were back at the house – Johnnie desperately in need of a bath. She let him into the cloakroom at the back of the house and put his basket and bowl in there. She’d bathe him when Kevin went to work.
In the kitchen, Maisie hadn’t moved. There was something about her stillness that made anxiety course through her veins.
She hurried to the dog’s side, and put her hand on her soft stomach, feeling relief flood through her as she felt it rise and fall beneath her touch.
“Maisie,” she whispered. “Come on, girl.” But there was no response.
“I don’t know what to do,” she said to Kevin half an hour later when he stood before her straightening his work tie. “Should I call the vet again?”
“I don’t think there’s much he can do,” he said. “Just keep an eye on her and hope for the best, he said.”
“You mean, he thought she might die?”
She had never considered this possibility – although of course she’d known, deep down, that Maisie was very ill.
Kevin wrapped his arms around her.
“He sounded quite positive,” he said. “But I think it is a possibility, yes.”
Sheila felt tears well in her eyes.
“Oh God,” she whispered softly. “Oh, please, not Maisie.”
“Do you want me to stay at home?”
“No, no you mustn’t. I’ll be OK.”
She ushered him out of the door and tried to smile as he drove off.
In the end, she called the vet again, who reassured her that Maisie’s heart rate was normal, that she was a strong, young dog and that she should pull through.
“Just keep her hydrated,” he said.
Sheila slept a little, later that afternoon – but on the sofa and only fitfully. Her eyes would snap open at the slightest sound, and she couldn’t relax enough to switch off properly.
When Kevin arrived home at seven, she felt exhausted and wired from anxiety.
“I’m sure she’s worse,” she told him. “She hasn’t eaten a thing all day and she’s hardly moved!”
“Hey, hey,” he said, shushing her like a child. “She’ll be OK. Come on, she’s made of strong stuff – like her mummy.”
She nearly called in sick, but knew she couldn’t let Dave take the shift on his own. And she was sure her boss wouldn’t understand her taking time off over a dog.
No one understood how important the animal was to her.
No one, she realised, except Kevin.
Sitting once more in front of the repetitive screens, she resisted the urge to call him. He might be getting some sleep, and she knew he’d call if anything happened – she’d made him promise.
“Come on, Maisie,” she whispered. “Fight it, please.”
Dave, sitting at her side, leaned back on his chair.
“Horrible when a pet is sick,” he said, sympathetically. “I remember when our cat got run over – the missus was devastated. And our dog, Poppy, she went completely unexpectedly.
“I mean, she was old, but one minute she was there, the next she was laying in her basket and – well – that was it.”
“How awful,” she said, wanting to block her ears to his stories of doom.
She couldn’t face the fact that her Maisie might die; that the creature who’d helped her out of her darkest days might be taken from her.
She gazed at the TV screens in front of her, trying to block out his ramblings. She knew he thought he was helping, but somehow he was just making things worse.
Her eye was drawn to one of the screens in the far corner where a man was walking past the off-licence. Something about the way he moved attracted her attention.
He kept glancing furtively at the CCTV camera. A dog trotted at his side.
The image was grainy and hard to make out; she wondered if he was homeless – his long, dark coat made it difficult to see how he was dressed, and he wore a cap pulled low over his eyes.
She moved the angle of the camera slightly and focused in on him.
Clearly aware of the security camera, he turned and lifted his fingers as if in a greeting.
“Oh, the cheek!” she remarked to Dave. “Think this one might be a little worse for –”
Then she stopped. Because suddenly the man removed his hat and looked directly at the camera. It was Kevin.
She gasped and looked more closely at the dog at his side.
It was Maisie! He had walked into the town to show her that her dog was better.
She almost laughed aloud. He could have just rung her, but this was somehow more romantic, she thought.
Knowing that she would see him; getting her attention with that awful hat.
Her phone beeped suddenly with a text message and she glanced at the small screen.
Are you watching? it said.
Yes, she replied. You daft thing.
On the TV, the tiny, black-and-white version of her boyfriend gave her the thumbs-up.
He slipped the lead onto his wrist and pulled a piece of card from under the coat.
Written on the card were the words Marry Me.
She gasped, causing Dave to look over in surprise, then amusement, seeing the smile break out over her face.
As she shouted “Yes!” at the screen – knowing Kevin couldn’t hear her, but unable to restrain herself – it occurred to her that the last twenty-four hours had changed her life.
She’d feared she was going to lose her friend; she’d worried she would be alone.
Now, as a happy future started to take shape in her mind, she realised she would never need to worry about loneliness again.
We’re publishing another lovely dog-themed story from our archives on our website every Monday and Thursday during September