Doing what I had sworn never to do, I walked uphill to the William Bray, newly renovated, which I always associate with being stripped of character. Greeted by a sign that announced, ‘Only guide dogs allowed,’ I was about to turn away in silent protest when a barmaid dressed plainly in black sailed through the door. As she arrived on the patio area at the bottom of a small flight of concrete steps, Isambard took a healthy interest, sniffing her where no dog should sniff a young lady in polite company.
“Isambard, no!” I tugged at his lead and turned to her. “I must apologize -”
Laughing, she deposited her tower of plastic ashtrays on a round umbrellared table and stooped down to fuss over him. “He’s just being friendly, aren’t you, boy? He is a boy, isn’t he?”
“He most certainly is.”
“We used to have a German Shepherd just like him, down to the black snout.” Having located the drool-inducing spot behind his rust-coloured ears she had him under her spell.
“Don’t tell him that! He thinks he’s unique.”
As her close-fitting t-shirt rode up to reveal the small of her back, I liked her all the more for the absence of a Celtic tattoo at the base of her spine.
She glanced over her shoulder at me and grimaced. “He may be right. We had to have ours put down six months ago.”
I was torn between awkwardness and sympathy. “Ghastly business.”
“How old is he?”
“We’re not entirely sure. The animal sanctuary bullied me into taking him. Must be ten years we’ve been together now: a couple of old strays.”
She smiled apologetically. “Did you see the sign?”
“I have to say, I’m not keen on leaving him outside.”
“Tell you what, seeing as its quiet and the boss is out, you can bring him in just this once.” Making quick work of the steps, she held the door open and stood aside. Stealing past, Isambard clipped across the green-grey slate tile. The bar was airy and empty; not a juke box or slot machine in sight. As I perched on a leather barstool, a clatter of pans and shouts of laughter filtered through from the kitchen. “You’re Sir James, aren’t you? I heard you were a White Horse man.”
“Truth told, I’ve had a falling out with the barman. I shall have to apologize if I want to show my face in there again.”
“You never know.” She took her place behind the bar amidst a back-drop of bottles and pumps that avoided the impression of clutter. “You might prefer it here.”
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