Ruby pulled on her gloves and repositioned her woolly hat over her unruly curls. Spiralling tendrils escaped and dropped down over her face. After giving them an impatient blow out of the way, she tucked the wayward strands firmly back up into her hat. She'd always wanted to have straight hair right from being a small girl and for it to be the colour of chestnuts. It wasn't to be however, because it was the colour of freshly scraped carrots, a far cry from the warm brown of chestnut. Ruby felt that she was cursed.
Ruby looked at her reflection in the hall mirror and frowned. She was a twenty six year old successful career woman, but she looked more like a sixteen year old school girl. Freckles dotted her nose and cheeks giving her a youthful appearance. Some may think it a blessing, but not Ruby. For years she had to carry around ID which had proof of her age. Getting into clubs and pubs with her friends had been a nightmare.
"Cursed," she said, aloud and she stuck out her tongue at her image.
Smiling at her own silliness, she picked up Max's lead, an action that had him bounding out of the kitchen and knocking her down to a sitting position at the foot of the stairs.
"You clumsy oaf," she said, as her woolly hat dropped on to her lap. Max was nearly one hundred and thirty pounds worth of St Bernard and charged like a freight train. He had been a present from her father, Mike. Ruby remembered it like it was yesterday.
"Hello love. I thought I'd pop round and give you this," Mike said, as Ruby ushered him through the door.
"What is it? She asked, eyeing the large cardboard box suspiciously.
"This is something to keep you company in your new home," he said, smiling. "Call it a house warming gift."
Ruby knelt down as he placed the box carefully on the floor.
"This isn't one of your practical jokes is it dad?"
Her dad had always been a bit of joker, at fifty nine he still behaved like a teenager, much to her mother's chagrin.
"No, it isn't," he protested. "Would I do that to you after the year you've just had?"
That year had been tough for Ruby. She'd had a messy break up with Adrian, her boyfriend of ten months. She had loved him and she had thought the feelings were returned, but she had been a gullible fool. Ruby had put all that behind her and had got on with her life. She had found a small detached house for sale. It had a large garden that was bordered with a multitude of flowers that smelled heavenly in the summer months. At the top of the garden there was a gate that led onto open fields, with a park situated at the end. The house was perfect too. After moving in Ruby had one of the small rooms converted in to a studio. From there, she worked as a freelance children's book illustrator.
"Well, aren't you going to open it up then?" Dad asked, tapping the top of the box. Something shifted inside.
Ruby lifted the flap and jumped back, still not trusting her dad, but nothing happened. She peered inside and there almost filling the box was a gorgeous puppy.
Ruby picked up the squirming bundle of fur. "Oh dad he's lovely," she said, giggling as the puppy licked her face.
"I knew you wouldn't be able to resist," he laughed. "He's had all his injections, so he's ready for the road, so to speak."
Dad had stayed for lunch, and after Ruby had set out to buy the necessary things you needed for a puppy. She named him Max.
The first time out on the lead had been an ordeal for the both of them. Max had refused to walk and had to be carried, which was no picnic. Even as a puppy Max weighed a great deal, as St Bernard's tend to do. Once at the park Ruby had set him down on the floor and tried to ignore him whining and struggling behind her. She found a vacant bench and sat down. She looked at Max and tried to be stern with him.
"You will have to walk sometime. I can't carry you everywhere."
Max just looked up at her, with the saddest eyes, cocking his head from side to side as she spoke.
"You're a daft dog," she said, ruffling the hair between his ears.
Ruby sat back and watched a group of boys playing football, listening to the whoops and shouts of delight as one or the other scored, in goals marked out with coats. She closed her eyes and let the warm sunshine wash over her face. She relaxed, letting her mind wander back to Adrian. He was an actor and he moved around the country quite a lot with his troupe. Ruby sometimes only saw him three days in the week, sometimes she didn't see him at all. The days they spent together were wonderful and she didn't want to let him go when he had to return to work.
The last time that he had been home Ruby had devised a plan. She would surprise him by following him to London, where he was playing Othello in a West End theatre. After he had left, she drove down to London and booked a room in a hotel for the night. She had sat in the theatre and watched as Adrian performed on stage, feeling proud and excited. He didn't have a clue she was there and the anticipation was making her giddy.
After the final curtain Ruby rose from her seat and made her way backstage. It was very busy. Stagehands were moving sets to and fro, and the actors and actresses were congratulating each other on their performances. Ruby couldn't see Adrian anywhere. She walked further down the hallway dodging a man overloaded with costumes. A door opened to the left of her. It was Adrian. Ruby ducked behind a woodland scene ready to jump out on her unsuspecting victim. She heard a child's running footsteps and froze when she heard the voice.
"Daddy, I watched you. It was really exciting," he said breathlessly. "Mummy said we could meet you backstage."
"And where is your mummy?" Adrian asked, picking up his son.
"I'm here," said a woman, walking towards them.
Ruby closed her eyes as Adrian hugged the woman close, she could believe it, he was married. How could she not have known? She felt like her whole world had collapsed around her as she watched them leave arm in arm. She drove home feeling hurt and confused and above all betrayed. Two days later he arrived at her flat as usual and was shocked to find that she had discovered his little secret. After a lot of heated words he left. Ruby moved out of her flat and moved on. A new life, in a new town.
"Daddy, look at this puppy." A child's voice, from the side of her brought her out of her reverie. She turned and saw a little boy with blonde curls framing an angelic face, sitting on the floor beside Max. Max was on his back begging to be tickled.
"Tom, don't bother the lady," said a man coming towards them. His hair was a darker shade than the little boys, but there was no mistaking that they were father and son.
"No really, it's no bother," Ruby said smiling up at him. His eyes held hers as he smiled back. Slightly embarrassed, she looked away and turned her attention to the little boy. Max was ecstatic; he jumped on to Tom's lap and licked him vigorously, making the boy laugh out loud.
"We have to go now, Tom. Your gran will have the dinner on the table," said the man.
"But daddy, I want to play with him," protested Tom.
"Maybe some other time, Tom. Come on, go and get the ball from over by those trees," he said, pointing in the direction of some Willow trees. "You know what gran will say if we are late again?"
"Okay daddy," Tom said, running to retrieve his ball and tucked it under his arm. He ran back to give Max one more tickle and was rewarded with a sloppy lick up his cheek.
"Well goodbye. Maybe we will see you again," the man said, taking hold of Tom's hand.
Before she could stop herself, Ruby looked in to his eyes, eyes that were the deepest shade of blue and replied. "I would like that very much."
He smiled at her and led Tom away. She watched them leave the park and she got up from the bench. She dragged Max halfway down the path and gave up, bent down, scooped him up and carried him home.
Once home Ruby tried to get back to work, but the encounter at the park wouldn't leave her. She couldn't forget how good looking the man was and how his eyes sparkled when he smiled. What a lucky woman his wife wasbut wait, he had said gran, not mother. Could that mean there is no wife? Maybe he's divorced. She stared at the blank paper in front of her, thoughts and questions invading her mind. She decided that she wanted to find out the answers. How to do that, she wasn't sure.
For four weeks Ruby took walks in the park in the hope of seeing him again. He was there and she watched from a distance as he played with his son and she wished that she could be part of it. After a time he began to noticed her there and he would wave and beckon her over. Feeling like some crazed stalker, courage would leave her and she would hurry away. If she looked over her shoulder, she saw him standing there, watching her and this made her feel worse. She had the feeling that he thought her quite mad. So much for wanting to get to know him, but somehow she was afraid, afraid she'd find out he had a wife at home, and afraid of getting hurt again.
So here she was again ready to go to the park. She pushed Max off her knee, and got up off the stairs. Max had grown considerably in the last four weeks. She looked in the mirror and attempted to put the woolly hat on again, but she gave up and left it hung on the newel post and headed for the door
"Come on Max," she said, as he jumped all over her eager to get out of the door. Things had changed in the last few weeks, as now it was Ruby that was dragged along. The park was quite deserted when they got there; the weather had turned quite cool and had likely put people off. She walked the length of the path, past the bandstand that had seen better days and was no longer in use, as a bandstand that is. Now it was a haven for the local teenagers, the once white walls were now covered in graffiti. Ruby turned to start back when she heard Tom's familiar voice, behind the hedge that bordered the children's play area.
"Push me higher daddy," Tom said, as Ruby rounded the hedge. He saw her and pointed. "Look daddy, there's that lady again with the puppy."
The man turned and looked at her, then he began to walk over. Ruby started to panic. She had to get away fast. Maybe he was angry at her for practically stalking them the last few weeks and she wasn't staying to find out. She turned to walk away, but Max had seen him approach and pulled forward, spinning her round as he did so. She tried to pull him back, but her feet slipped on the gravel path and she crashed to the floor, banging her head in the process. Everything went black.
Ruby didn't know how long she was out, but she remembered being lifted and carried for a short while. As she opened her eyes the first thing she saw was those blue eyes, looking at her with concern.
"Are you alright?" he asked, his voice deep and soft, sending a shiver up her spine.
"Yes I," she stopped and looked around her. "Where's Max?"
"He's alright. He's over there with Tom, and I think they are becoming firm friends."
Ruby sat up trying to compose herself.
"Ouch! My head."
"You will probably have a lump there. You fell pretty hard," he said, feeling the back of her head. "By the way I'm Joe."
"Nice to meet you Joe," she said, feeling better. "I'm Ruby. Thank you for looking after me."
"My pleasure. I think I should help you home."
"No really, I'll be fine." She looked up at his handsome face and he smiled down at her.
"I won't take no for an answer and besides I wanted to know why you keep disappearing on me."
"Pardon?" She asked, feeling the heat rise up her cheeks.
"Well, I've seen you here every week since the first time we met and every time I've been about to approach you, you run the other way."
"I'm sorry," she said, then plucked up the courage to ask the question she desperately needed to know the answer to. "Won't your wife be expecting you back?"
"My wife? I haven't seen my wife in three years, not since she left in a taxi for the airport. The last I heard she was living in the South of France with some artist fellow." He took hold of Ruby's hand and helped her to her feet. "You know I haven't been able to get you out of my mind since the day I first saw you. You even invade my dreams at night. I can't explain it. Do you know you have the most beautiful hair I have ever seen? You won't disappear on me again, will you?"
Ruby couldn't believe what she had just heard. "No, I won't disappear again, I promise," she said.
He took her arm and slid it through his.
"How about dinner tonight? Then we can get to know each other better," he asked hopefully.
She knew she should have said no to the invitation, as she didn't know anything about him, but she wanted to find out. Maybe there isn't a curse after all.
"That's an excellent idea," she said, smiling to herself.
Together they left the park, with Tom in front holding Max's lead and Max walking obediently by his side.
Mandy Gray 2006