Emily Deacon had to have things just so. She had become a creature of habit in her thirty-nine years. Everything in her house had its place and every time had its job. There was one random element in her life and that was Itchy.
Every morning the little ginger and white Jack Russell would come bounding into her bedroom. Itchy liked his routine too. He always knew when it was time for a walk, time for dinner or time to chase the neighborer’s new cat from its incursions into the garden. His tail wagged and his tongue licked as he jumped up onto the bed.
“Good morning, Itchy.”
She got out of bed and put the duvet back neatly. A few minutes later she stepped into the shower. As she checked the water’s temperature Itchy played around at her feet and lapped at the water.
“Silly dog,” she said, patting him. She shooed him away with a pat and shut the shower door. Her arm itched and she forcefully reminded herself that she couldn’t scratch it.
She emerged from the bathroom twenty minutes later and came down the stairs with Itchy running alongside her. She fed him and got herself some breakfast before leaving the house at seven thirty sharp with Itchy in tow.
The sun was shining brightly and the sky was blue as she walked through the park. Itchy ran ahead, foraged for a stick and brought it back to her. He panted expectantly.
“Here you go.” She threw the stick hard, and the little dog went bounding after it. This they repeated as they crossed the park. By the time he returned with the stick for the fourth time they had gone round the perimeter of the park. Knowing the routine, Itchy sat and waited while she attached his lead. They walked back down the long street with Emily at a relaxed pace and Itchy scurrying like a four-egged insect.
As they arrived back home Emily let Itchy into the back garden and kissed him good bye. She left the house again and headed off to work.
“Good morning Margo,” she smiled as she arrived at the nursery.
“Morning,” Margo beamed. “How are you?”
Emily only worked part time and left a little after one. She went home, got Itchy, returned to the park, released his lead and he bounded away.
“Where does he get his energy?” she mused.
Emily found a bench and took a flask from her bag. Holding it between her knees she removed the lid and poured herself a drink. Sipping, she saw that Itchy had met another Jack Russell, and the two of them were running round each other.
“Amazing energy,” a voice suddenly said. Emily turned to see a kind-faced man, with short black hair and leafy green eyes.
“You made me jump.”
“Sorry,” he said.
“Is that your dog?”
“Yeah. Her name’s Jill.”
“Mine’s Itchy – he’s my right arm. So what do you do?”
“I work up there,” he pointed away from the park to a tower block, “in the canteen. It’s rather dull but pays the bills.”
“Oh,” Emily said, with an awkward grimace.
“I have to keep reminding myself that I can’t scratch my arm.”
“That must be frustrating. I know that feeling. I go diving every year, in Tenby – or New Zealand – depending on the money. It always seems that my face starts to itch the moment I put on the mask.”
Itchy and Jill came towards them sniffing each other and then coming to sit before their respective owners.
“I think they’re hungry,” Jill’s owner said.
“Yes, “ Emily said, standing. “Time to go.” Itchy dutifully followed but then stopped and turned back towards the bench.
“Itchy!” Emily commanded, but realised that she had left her bag. Itchy came towards her carrying it by the strap.
“Thank you,” she said, attaching his lead and taking the bag.
“See you again,” the man called.
The next day Emily and Itchy again met Jill and her owner. The dogs played while the humans sat watching them.
“So what do you do?” the man asked.
“I work in a nursery, three days a week.”
“It can be. When the children arrive with their parents you see every emotion. Some seem to enjoy it more than home! They practically push their parents out the door. Others cry but almost all enjoy it. I love reading stories to them – its a good job.”
“Must be strange being called Miss all day.”
“They call me Emily,” Emily said.
“Oh. That makes it nicer. I’m Jack by the way.”
“Seriously? And you called your dog Jill!”
He smiled. “Seemed funny at the time.”
The meeting of Emily, Itchy, Jack and Jill became a regular occurrence. Every weekday for a fortnight the four of them met.
“Mine’s not a terribly thrilling job,” Jack said one day. “I’ve got used to the split shift arrangement now and can take Jill for a walk in between times. There is a nice view of the park from my building though.”
One cold Wednesday afternoon Emily headed home. As the wind whistled and the rain pelted down, the only thing in her mind was to get home, but Jack was still waiting by the oak tree. He wore a greatcoat and stood like a monolith.
“Hello,” he smiled.
“Hello,” she said, wanting to keep the conversation short.”
“I don’t particularly want to sit on a wet bench today, but I’ll miss our conversation. Would you like to meet up tomorrow… at The Fox and Hounds?”
To Emily’s surprise she responded with: “How about tonight?”
“Sure,” Jack said happily. “Seven?”
“See you then.”
As they walked away Itchy began pulling at the lead. She extended it so he could run a little and picked up her own pace. It seemed her arm was itching more than ever. A date… she never went out in the evenings – reading, or watching television; those were evening activities.
“Don’t be silly,” she told herself. “Break the routine!”
Soon she was opening the gate to her front garden. She unclipped the lead and Itchy, like a whirling sprinkler, shook the water out of his coat, splashing Emily.
At six o’clock Emily’s bed was covered in dresses, blouses, t-shirts, skirts and jeans. What to wear was always, she found, difficult. For work it was clear – one wanted to be reserved. This was most certainly a date. Excited and nervous – she wasn’t sure what sort of evening it would turn our to be.
“Make a decision,” she told herself.
She finally decided on a long black skirt and a simple red woolen top. She finished getting ready, came daintily down the stairs and sat to put her shoes on. Itchy suddenly arrived with his lead in his mouth – he must have heard the shoe drawer opening. She stroked him between putting on her shoes before standing and brushing down her skirt. Grabbing her coat and umbrella she unlocked the front door. Itchy sat there panting – she almost imagined he was smiling.
“Not this time.” She kissed him on the top of the head.
Stepping out, she locked the door behind her. Itchy lay down with his head on his paws and made a whimpering noise. As Emily walked she realised that aside from going to work it had been a long time since she had left the house without him.
The rain stayed away just long enough for her to get to The Fox and Hounds. She was just inside when the spitting rain became torrential. A quick look around the pub revealed Jack seated at a small table. He stood as she came over.
Emily sat and for a few moments there was silence between them before Jack said: “You look lovely.”
“Thank you,” she smiled. “You…” she looked at his blue shirt and neatly combed hair, “…look, well, whatever is the male equivalent of lovely!”
He smiled and they both laughed. “I was hoping for a good icebreaker.”
They spent a few moments studying the menu. When Jack came back from ordering, Emily said, “I realised today I’ve hardly been out of the house without Itchy – except for going to work.”
“Shame we can’t take them to work,” James said. He took a sip of beer, “But I’ve a good sized garden so Jill seems happy. How are things at the nursery?”
“Great,” she smiled. “The children seem mostly happy. Maybe it’s my imagination but I think there have been fewer tantrums recently.”
“Must be your calming influence.”
“Maybe,” Emily smiled, “how’s work?”
“Okay. Cooking for large groups isn’t as good as home cooking. I wish one could earn money by walking through a park.”
“That would be nice,” Emily smiled, sipping her drink.
As the water ran Emily felt the itch of her arm once more. She shook her hand as she turned to the hand dryer which activated, and scratched her forehead as a substitute. Returning to the table the food had been served.
“Bon appetit,” Jack said.
At ten o’clock they left the pub.
“Thank you for a wonderful evening,” Emily said. “Why don’t we go and get the dogs? Finish the evening in the park?” She smiled in spite of herself – it was getting on for ten thirty: bed time.
“Yes,” Jack said. “I don’t imagine there can be more rain.”
“Don’t jinx it.”
They first went to Emily’s house. Itchy was still sitting by the door. Emily made a clicking noise and Itchy’s ears perked up.
Jill was excited too when they got to Jack’s house and he called, “Walkies!” The four of them entered the park. Like parents with their children, the canines raced about and the humans walked at a leisurely pace. Jack and Emily stood by the wet bench that had become their usual spot. They didn’t want to sit.
“Thank you,” Emily said. “I had a great evening.”
Jack removed his coat and placed it on the bench. They sat on the warm coat and Jack put his arm around her.
“You didn’t look past me,” Emily suddenly said. “Most people don’t look at me, you know? They see… but you… you saw a person. But I’m sure you’re curious. You may ask.”
Jack looked thoughtful for a moment. “You’re right, I am curious. How did you lose your arm?”