We're celebrating the launch of AJ Pearce's new book Yours Cheerfully and have an exclusive short story just for Sophie Allport to share with you. This heart-warming and charming story is sure to make you smile featuring our beloved furry friends.
Was there ever anything lovelier than a picnic in the country? It was a hot summer’s day in 1941, and my best friend Bunty and I were visiting my parents in the pretty Hampshire village where we had grown up. My brother Jack and his friend Nab had joined us on rare weekend’s leave from the RAF, and with the sun doing its bit to add to the occasion, the four of us headed to the local duck pond for some serious paddling.
It soon came into view, the sun bouncing off the water and the surrounding trees standing stoic and calm. An outdoor lunch would very much hit the mark, not least because we would have done exactly the same thing if we hadn’t been at war. These days normality was an aspiration, and with the boys out of uniform for once, we could pretend that all was well in the world.
‘Who’s hungry?’ asked Bunty as we set our things down and she opened the basket my mother had prepared. ‘Crikey, has rationing been called off?’
‘Mother’s been saving coupons,’ grinned Jack. ‘She said she wanted to pull out the stops. There’s even some ham. Potato scone, Nab?’
He threw one over to Nab, who thanked him, and settling himself in the shade of a large tree, bit into the scone.
‘This is the life,’ he said. ‘I could eat these for the rest of my days.’
‘I’ll give you the recipe,’ I teased. ‘You could learn to cook.’
Nab gave me a wide smile. ‘I’d be rubbish.’
‘That,’ I said, ‘is a terrible excuse.’
Nab nodded happily, as I handed him another scone. ‘Thanks, Em. I didn’t know you could bake. If you ever lose interest in Captain Mayhew, may I volunteer to be next?’
‘Neville Albert Barratt,’ I said. ‘Things are perfectly lovely with Charles, thank you.’
It was true, apart from the fact that thanks to Hitler, Charles was overseas with the army, and writing letters was as lovely as it could get.
‘Nab, you’ve got to get better at finding a girl,’ said Jack, cutting up an apple. ‘He says it’s because he’s got sticky out ears, but really it’s because he doesn’t make the effort.’
Nab wrinkled his nose. ‘I just don’t want to get too lovey dovey.’
For a moment a shadow crossed his face. Falling in love meant commitment, and commitment meant that one day, if his luck didn’t hold out when he were flying, he might let someone down.
‘Anyway,’ said Jack, ‘you’ll have to look elsewhere. You know the rule.’
‘NO SISTERS,’ laughed Bunty and I at the same time.
‘Or their best friends,’ added Jack, as Bunty nodded and gave him the thumbs up. Of all of us, she’d lost the most in the Blitz. She was still recovering from an awful time, and was certainly not in the running for romance.
The four of us happily chatted as we ate our way through the rare treat of generous lunch.
‘Who’s this?’ said Bunts. A chubby, and very waggy spaniel had trotted out from the trees and was making its way towards an uneaten sandwich near Nab. He picked it up, and unperturbed, the dog changed course to sit in front of him and wait.
‘She’s rather a porker,’ said Jack.
‘I think she’s rather close to becoming a mum,’ said Nab, feeding the dog a small piece of ham. ‘That’s it, all gone.’ He gave her a huge smile and began to rub her ears. ‘What’s your name, then, Mrs Dog?’
Mrs Dog didn’t let on, but plopped herself down in the shade, laying her face on his leg and staring up at him in the hope that there might now be a pudding.
Nab leaned back against the tree and closed his eyes, stroking her head as he did.
I suggested a paddle and the rest of us went to stand in the cool water until Bunty got told off by a swan, and Jack said he couldn’t feel his feet anymore.
Nab and Mrs Dog were now both fast asleep, the spaniel having decided his lap was a more comfortable option than the ground. Nab’s hand lay across her back.
‘Poor old man’s done in,’ said Jack. ‘Work’s been hard.’
‘I say?’ A voice interrupted. ‘You haven’t seen a dog, have you? Our Hettie’s gone missing. Oh, hello, all.’
A familiar face looked concerned.
‘Hello, Reverend Wiffle,’ I said. ‘Yes, we certainly have.’
‘Thank goodness,’ he said. ‘She should be resting.’
Nab had opened his eyes, and now carefully scooped up Hettie before scrambling to his feet.
‘Good afternoon, Vicar,’ he said. ‘Neville Barratt. How do you do? I’m afraid Hettie and I must have nodded off.’
With Hettie showing no sign of wanting to be removed, Reverend Wiffle gave Nab a broad smile.
‘You must have quite a way with dogs. She hasn’t let anyone near her for days.’
‘She’s a lovely girl, sir,’ said Nab, looking at her fondly.
‘I’m afraid,’ said Jack, ‘that our good friend, Flight Lieutenant Barratt has fallen rather heavily in love.’
‘I’m enormously grateful that you’ve made friends,’ said the vicar, ‘otherwise she might have hidden away.’ He paused. ‘You know, these pups will need extremely good homes. My nephew’s a pilot and if I know anything about you chaps, you do look after your dogs. His squadron have a Border Terrier that eats better than I do. It’s just a thought.’
We all looked at Nab.
‘That’s very kind, sir,’ he said, ‘but I would be worried about letting Hettie or the pup down.’
‘Nab,’ said Bunty, gently addressing his fears, ‘I bet Emmy’s parents would look after the puppy. You know, if you ever got posted somewhere tricky or something.’
‘Absolutely,’ I said.
Nab’s face lit up.
‘Well, if you’re entirely sure,’ he said. ‘Thank you, all. I would like that very much.’
‘Excellent,’ said Reverend Whiffle. ‘We can talk more when they’ve arrived. Now, I’d better get Hettie home, as my wife is pacing the floors.’
Promising to keep us posted, Referend Wiffle disappeared with his dog.
Jack celebrated things by pushing Nab in the pond, and then Bunty and I pushed Jack in before he could get to us. As the boys dragged themselves out, I turned to Bunty.
‘That pup’s going to be loved more than anything else in the world,’ I said, smiling.
‘I knew Nab had it in him,’ she said. ‘All he had to do was to find the right girl.’
Love this short story? Well we’ve teamed up with our friends at The Alexander Hotel Collection and Pan Macmillan to offer one lucky winner a two-night stay for two people at Barnett Hill, a luxury four-star hotel situated in the heart of the Surrey Hills. The lucky winner will also receive a £150 Sophie Allport voucher and a signed copy of Yours Cheerfully. Enter this fabulous competition here.