Must Love Dogs

Men sucked. Being one didn’t stop me from thinking that.

I stared at my reflection in the train window, wondering for the billionth time what I was doing. What was wrong with me? Why did my relationships never last? I was reasonably good-looking. I went to a gym every other morning, grunting and sweating with the other early morning punters. I had defined biceps, maybe even a six-pack, or at least the shadow of a six-pack, possibly a two-pack.

I sighed, and my breath painted a small cloud on the window.

I was brooding again, something that my last long-term boyfriend had commented on endlessly. Jerry said I was ‘moody’, ‘no fun’, and most damning of all, ‘boring’. But I couldn’t party every night because I worked shifts as a carer and was a tired a lot. Twelve pounds an hour had just about paid for our shitty flat in Balham. Jerry had been a tubby, nerdy student with acne when we’d met, but also sweet and loveable. Now, he worked in a tech start-up, earning squillions selling non-fungible art to bitcoin billionaires and wore Paul Smith. The tubbiness had vanished along with his love.

For two months, I licked my wounds, then one day I was idly scanning job ads and dreaming of being Shawn Mendes’ personal assistant, preferably in the Bahamas, when this ad caught my eye:

Live-in Carer for Life-Loving Senior Citizen, Devon

Must love Elton John and Dogs.

How bizarre was that? I swiped the screen on my phone, but something made me go back. Maybe leaving London and trying a fresh start was just what I needed. Ten years in the capital had made me wonder if I really was a city boy after all. I’d been brought up in a small, rural community … and I’d run like hell the first chance I’d had. It was no fun being the only gay in the village (and, thanks to the TV show Little Britain, another stereotype). But I was older now, pushing 30, and tired of the endlessly competitive gay scene.

So, I’d applied for the job, and was now on my way to an interview in the sleepy Devon town of Budleigh Salterton, ‘one of Devon’s most un-spoilt and charming towns, a tranquil and historic retreat from the stress of everyday living’.

A fresh start, or retreating from life?

I scrubbed my hands over my face, frowning as my forefinger hit a patch of stubble that I’d missed when I shaved this morning. That wouldn’t make a good impression. Maybe she’d be short-sighted.

Following the instructions in the handwritten letter (pink paper, scented), I caught the bus from Exeter, arriving 50 minutes later and 50 years back in time.

The small town of terracotta bricks and whitewashed villas looked quaint and slightly shabby in the pale winter sunshine, perched above a broad swathe of sand and shingle beaches.

My destination was a large, Victorian house set in a quiet cul-de-sac. Several of the other properties had been redeveloped into flats, but this house was still intact and very private, circled by tall trees on the edge of a park, and beyond the park was the sea.

I liked the idea of waking up to this view every day—it would make a change from the blunt backs of terraces in Balham.

I rang the bell and waited. And waited and waited, until finally an elderly woman wearing a tweed suit and pearls opened the door. She looked like Miss Marple.

“You must be Mr. Maynard. I’m Lady Annabel Moncreiffe. How nice to meet you. Do come in.”

She was tiny, barely up to my shoulder, thin, and slightly stooped, but her manner was brisk.

I followed her at a snail’s pace as she led me into a cosy sitting room, lined with books, where a moth-eaten Pomeranian snoozed in front of the fire.

“Dante doesn’t like the cold,” she said, pointing her walking stick at the elderly dog.

I let the dog sniff my hand, then gave it a tentative stroke. He let out a long sigh, then stretched out so I could rub his belly.

“Oh, he likes you! We’re off to a jolly good start. Now, I shall call you Tom and you may call me Annabel. I can offer you tea or instant coffee, but you’ll have to make it yourself as I’m too decrepit to carry hot drinks, or so my nephew tells me. The kitchen is through there. I’ll have a milky tea, no sugar. And do bring some biscuits.”

I found a stained porcelain teapot, two cups and saucers, milk jug, tray, dessert plates, and an unopened packet of Custard Creams, then carried everything into the sitting room.

“Marvellous!” she smiled. “Dante adores Custard Creams, don’t you, boy?”

I blinked, then placed a biscuit next to the little dog who licked it without enthusiasm.

“Do help yourself,” Annabel said with a wave. “Now then, what can I tell you about the job? As I’m getting rather forgetful with increasing levels of decrepitude, I need a little more help than I did. There’ll be some light cleaning duties, although I have Emma who comes in to hoover and rearrange the dust once a week. Some personal care, with help bathing, and how are you on cooking?”

“I’m not a great cook—I can do scrambled eggs, that sort of thing.”

“Never mind, we’ll work on that. Now, tell me all about you, Tom.”

I started to list my experience and qualifications, but she waved her hand dismissively. I’ve already checked your references, dear boy, I want to know about you. Any significant other that you’d be leaving behind in London?”

“N-no,” I stammered, caught off-guard.

“Shame, a nice looking boy like you. And you think you’ll enjoy the quieter life that Devon has to offer?”

“Yes, I’m looking for a change.”

“Wonderful, so am I. Now, do you like music?”

I remembered what she’d written in the ad. “I like Elton John,” I said gamely.

“Really?” she asked, raising a thin, pencilled eyebrow.

“Uh well, some of his songs.”

She frowned, then gave me a sly smile as she flashed her false teeth. “I’m not an Elton John fan at all.”

“But the ad said…”

“Well, dear, I wasn’t allowed to advertise for a gay man, so I thought if I put Elton John, a smart boy like you would crack the code—and here you are, so it worked beautifully.”

My mouth fell open.

“You are gay, aren’t you? Oh, I know I’m not supposed to ask questions like that. But I thought it would be too obvious if I said I was a Judy Garland fan. I met her once, you know, very sad. There isn’t much of a ‘scene’ down here, as you young people say, but the Exeter Pride march is always popular, or so I’m told.”

I stared at her, cut adrift from reality.

“The pay is £15 an hour and you’ll live in, of course—you’ll have your own suite on the top floor. All meals are included, although you’ll have to cook them. I have a Waitrose delivery every Tuesday.”

Calculating quickly, I realised that would be a significant pay rise and I wouldn’t have to find rent either. It couldn’t be that easy, could it?

“Do you have any questions for me, Tom?”

“Um, I was wondering why you specifically wanted a gay carer?” I blurted out.

“Yes, that’s a good question. Well done for having the guts to ask me. Some of my dearest friends were gay at a time when it was illegal. Their lives were tinged with fear, and even after 1967, things didn’t improve right away.” She gave me a piercing look. “As I’m sure you’re aware.” Then she smiled again. “It’s probably one of those awful stereotypes, but I’m hoping we can go shopping together and talking about handsome young men. What do you say?”

“Are you offering me the job?”

“You used a teapot and Dante likes you. I think we’ll do very well together. But let’s say a three month trial period. When can you start?”

I made a decision.

“I have to give a month’s notice, but yes, I think that sounds great.”

She clapped her hands. “Oh, wonderful! You’ll be here for Christmas. How exciting. I always collect a few strays for Christmas lunch and we have such fun. One never knows who is going to turn up.”

With some difficulty, she stood and shook my hand.

“Do call and let me know when exactly you’ll be able to start.”

“I will. Thank you, Lady Moncreiffe.”

“Annabel,” she said firmly. “Now then, Jethro has been working in the vegetable garden, but he says he’ll be happy to give you a lift into Exeter. You’ll find him by the potting shed. Goodbye, Tom. Until the next time.”

Still smiling, I wandered through the kitchen into the back garden.

A faded summerhouse sat on one side of the carefully striped lawn, and further down, I saw a small greenhouse with a tiny shed next to it. And then my breath caught in my chest.

“Bloody hell,” I mumbled, staring at the gorgeous guy bent over a row of cabbages.

When she’d mentioned ‘Jethro’ was her gardener, I’d imagined an elderly man in a cloth cap, but I was very, very wrong.

He was my age, or younger, tanned, with a shaggy mane of dark, curly hair that was at least two weeks past needing a cut. He was wearing a long-sleeved t-shirt with the arms rolled up showing strong forearms; a pair khaki shorts revealing thick, muscular thighs; and, bizarrely, a pair of yellow Wellington boots.

When he realised he wasn’t alone, he looked up, then smiled at me and strode across with his hand stretched out. I wanted to throw myself into those strong arms, then grovel at his feet and beg to lick his Wellingtons.

“Hi, I’m Jethro. I guess she offered you the job then?”

“Er, yes,” I said weakly. “How did you know?”

“Because Annabel said that if she liked you, I was to give you a lift to the station.”

“And if she didn’t like me?”

“You’d be walking, mate.”

I laughed and shook my head. “She’s quite a character.”

His face became serious. “Annabel’s amazing. She’s done more for me than my own family.”

I could tell that there was a story there, and perhaps when I knew him better, I’d ask.

“Do you work for her full time?”

“No, I’m on the boats out of Dawlish.” He paused, realising I didn’t know what he was talking about. “Fishing. I go out once a week on a trawler for four or five days, depending on how the catch goes. I work for Annabel on my days off.”

A fisherman! It explained the yellow Wellies. A manual worker with real muscles and rough hands that I could…

I realised I was getting carried away again. It would be hell being around someone as gorgeous as Jethro. Unless…

“Do you like Elton John?” I asked. “Or Judy Garland?”

Jethro threw his head back, laughing long and loudly.

“Both,” he grinned, then threw me a flirty wink. “And I love dogs, too.”

My heart sang, and I felt happier than I had in months.

Things were definitely looking up.



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