1 June 2018
‘He’s a complete stranger, Kay!’ Becky says as she checks the calendar for details of her next appointment. ‘There is no chance I’m going on a date with him.’
‘It’s just a party. There’ll be lots of people there,’ Kay counters, glasses resting on the end of her nose, her white blouse stained and creased after a day fussing over puppies.
‘If you’re suggesting he picks me up first and takes me for a drink,’ Becky says, ‘it is a date. Anyway, Summer is still recovering from surgery. I can’t leave her.’
‘You have David next door! It’ll have been a month by then, you know more than anyone she’ll be fully recovered.’ Kay’s face grows serious. ‘I know it’s just an excuse. But no matter how much I adore those mutts of yours, three dogs are no substitute for human company, especially for an attractive thirty-four-year-old woman like yourself.’
‘I politely disagree.’ Becky leans forward, putting her hand on her friend’s shoulder and smiling. ‘I appreciate your attempts to marry me off, but I’m quite happy as I am, thank you.’
Kay crosses her arms and gives her a cynical look just as the bell above the door rings.
‘Perfect timing,’ Becky says with a wink as a woman walks in carrying a plastic box, a girl of about eight beside her. Becky leans down and smiles at the girl. ‘You must be Jessica and this,’ she says, gesturing to the box, ‘must be Stanley.’ The girl nods shyly. ‘Come on through, we had a cancellation so we’re running bang on time for once!’
Becky leads them into her small consultation room. It’s a tiny practice, sitting in a red-brick building on the edge of a large field, just her, two job-sharing veterinary nurses, a part-time locum and Kay, receptionist and accountant extraordinaire. Plenty to serve the small village they live in.
The woman places the plastic box on Becky’s consulting table and opens it.
Becky peers in, smiling. ‘What a beauty,’ she exclaims.
The girl beams with pride as her mother carefully pulls the fish tank out of the box. Becky leans down and looks at the small goldfish inside, at its transparent orange skin, globe eyes and bubbling mouth. One of the vets she’d trained with had described goldfish as a waste of his time. If he could just see the way this little girl was staring at that waste of time right now, he might see this goldfish – that all animals – are worth so much more than that.
Or maybe not. He was a bit of a shallow idiot after all.
‘I’m pleased you brought him in,’ Becky says.
The girl crosses her arms, frowning. ‘It’s a her.’
Becky peers at the mother who gives a little shrug.
‘Ah. Her. Sorry,’ Becky says. ‘Well, I’ll tell you straight off, it’s not serious. You managed to bring her in just in time.’
‘What’s wrong with Stanley?’ the girl asks.
Becky points to the small white spots on Stanley’s fin. ‘Fin rot,’ she explains. The girl’s big blue eyes widen. ‘But no need to worry!’ Becky quickly adds. ‘Thanks to your vigilance, Stanley will be just fine.’
The girl smiles, lighting up her young face.
Her mother squeezes her shoulder. ‘See? What did I tell you?’
Becky watches them, unable to stop herself feeling a tinge of jealousy. ‘So,’ she says, clearing her throat. ‘Do you have some salt at home?’
The girl peers up at her mother, who nods.
‘Good. That’s how we’ll treat Stanley. A few teaspoons of salt in her tank each day and she’ll be as right as rain within the week.’ Becky turns away to tap some notes into her computer. ‘It’s just as well Stanley has such a loving owner. Fish are so important. You know they were here first, way before us, even way before dinosaurs? And yet look at them,’ she says, gesturing towards the tank. ‘They’re still here. Quite a feat.’
‘They’re the best pets in the world,’ the girl says stoically as her mother places the tank back in the box.
‘I’d agree,’ Becky replies. ‘But my three dogs might get a bit upset. I think that’s it for Stanley today. Just call if you have any problems.’
‘You’ve been brilliant, thank you,’ the girl’s mother says as they walk out to the reception area. ‘Say thank you, Jess.’
‘Thank you,’ the girl says in a shy voice.
When they leave, Becky returns to her consulting room and sinks down into her chair, yawning. She likes to do this at the end of the day, just close her eyes and relax for a few seconds. She’s done her best to make the consulting room as homely as possible. One wall crowded with cards from grateful patients, her small, tidy desk adorned with photos of her three skinny suki whippet crosses, Summer, Womble and Danny.
Above the desk is a shelf of books lined with the usual suspects: a wide range of medical reference books. But mixed in with them are romance novels, given to Becky by patients as gifts after Kay let slip to one that Becky is a secret fan of romantic fiction. It is a running joke now, with books gifted to her by regulars each Christmas, or when an owner wants to thank her. The truth is, Becky does love the novels, devouring them whenever she is lucky enough to have a break.
But that is just about the extent of the romance in her life. It has been ten years since she was dumped by the boyfriend she’d had since school, just before their tenth anniversary. There have been a succession of bad dates since, but recently, she’s begun to think a life with just her and the dogs would be perfect, despite what Kay thinks.
Becky’s eyes stray towards the photo at the end of the row of books. It’s her on the day she graduated from veterinary college five years ago. Her dad is standing stiffly beside her, a hint of pride on his face. She ought to feel pride herself when she looks at that photo but, instead, she often finds herself thinking of who wasn’t there that day: her mum.
Becky drives thoughts of her mum away, focusing instead on her dad. God, she misses him. Even their lunches, when they would both sit and eat in complete silence, comfortable with each other after years of being in each other’s company. At least he is happy now. That’s what’s important, even if he is many miles away in Wales with his second wife, Cynthia.
Becky smiles at her dad’s proud face in the photo then grabs her pale blue rucksack and slings it over her shoulder, walking out into the reception area.
‘Last patient of the day, thank God,’ Kay says, standing up and stretching. ‘Has seemed like a long week this week. Must be the heat. Any plans for the weekend?’
Becky shrugs. ‘The usual.’
‘Long walks. Dinners for one—’
‘Four,’ Becky says, interrupting her.
‘Ah yes, the dogs. Then, let me guess, some reading?’
Becky laughs. ‘You know me so well.’
‘You know you can pop by any time if you find yourself getting lonely.’
‘Thank you, but I honestly never feel lonely.’
Kay shoots her a cynical look. ‘Either way, remember to go shopping for a new dress for my party next month.’ Becky opens her mouth to say something but Kay puts her hand up. ‘I refuse to hear any excuses. I’ll be fifty. Fifty! If you really like me as much as you say, then you’ll come. Plus you’ll get the chance to meet the family I bitch about every day!’
Becky gives her a faint smile. She can’t think of anything worse than a huge family party, even if it is for her friend. ‘I’ll see how Summer gets on.’
‘That’s a yes then,’ Kay says with a wink.
They both laugh, going through their nightly routine of switching lights off and locking the place up. Then they step out into the searing evening heat, the field stretching out before them.
‘Have a good weekend!’ Becky calls out as Kay rushes off down the path, no doubt needing to get back to take one of her teenage kids to a football match or dance class.