Archie and the Woman: A new short story by Louis de Bernieres

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'I'm digging the potatoes," I said to my mother, sighing as I cradled the mobile on my shoulder, and continued to turn over the heavy ochre clay. "What do you want now? Can't it wait 'til lunchtime?"

"I wanted to talk to you urgently," she replied, "whilst I remembered."

"Well, what is it?"

There was a long pause, and then she said: "Bless me, I've forgotten what it was."

"Tell me at lunch time, then, when you've remembered. What's for lunch?'

"Steak and kidney pie with mashed neeps with a fried egg on top. It'll be half an hour. I'll be ringing you when it's ready.

She rang off and I looked at the phone. "Damn mobiles," I said to myself. It had been a curse ever since my mother had given it to me for Christmas, because it meant that she could get to me wherever I was. Nowadays she did not even see fit to come the 50 yards to the vegetable patch, and I could clearly see her through the kitchen window, putting the phone back on to its cradle and wiping the steam from her spectacles. If I left the mobile in the house then she would roundly accuse me of ingratitude, and of not having respect for her poor old legs. Sometimes I just switched it off and pretended the batteries must have run out.

"What was it then?" I asked her, as I pierced the yolk of my egg and watched the thick yellow goo trickle down the sides of the pyramid I'd made with the mashed turnip.

She put down her knife and fork and looked into her notebook. It was a small black one, with ruled lines and a red spine, and in it she kept remarks and reminders that were to be addressed specifically to me. I used to call it Mother's Book of Complaints.

"O yes," she said, "I've decided it's about time you got married."

I was aghast. I was so stricken by aghastness, or aghastitude, or whatever the word is, that my mind went quite blank, as though it were a balloon that had suddenly popped on a briar. I paused with a forkful of mash in mid-delivery, my mouth agape. "What on earth for?" I demanded eventually., "I'm only 42."

"Even so," she said.

"Oh, come off it. What would I want with being married?"

"It's not you I'm thinking of," she replied. "It's me. I need some company about the place. You're always out and about. And I can't imagine you looking after me in my old age, so you'll have to get a wife.'

"You're only 75," I said. "It'll be donkeys' years before you'll be going gaga."

Naturally, I didn't take my mother seriously. In fact, when my dear father was dying in his bed, he had called me in to give me his final blessing and, as I knelt beside him with the palm of his hand on the crown of my head, he had said, "Now son, you've got to promise me one thing."

"Father, of course I will," I had said, my eyes brimming with tears, and he had closed his eyes, as if to marshal his final strength, and he had said, "Son, promise me faithfully that you'll never take your mother seriously. I never have.'

"I swear it," I spluttered (for the tears were making speech difficult) and with that his breathing stopped. There was a horrible rattling from his throat, and my mother, who had been standing there all the while, said fondly, "The poor old sod."

As the years have succeeded one another, I have increasingly appreciated my father's wisdom, because the fact is, Mother gets curious fancies that fly into her brain one day and fly out of it the next, such as the time when she started to make cabbage wine because she had conceived the notion that it was good for the pancreas. Of course, it was undrinkable, so she gave it away at Christmas as presents for folk in the village that she didn't think highly of.

But this idea that I should get married rankled in my mind like a burr at the rim of a woolly sock. I began to think that perhaps it really would be a fine idea to have someone to share a bed with. I hadn't had a decent pillow fight for nigh on 20 years at least. And apart from that, a man needs a female other than his mother to rub along with.

The problem was, of course, that I had to find some women to meet to get some sort of idea of what was available.

I gave this a lot of thought. I ruled out the idea of an advertisement in a lonely hearts column; I hated to tell lies, and an honest description of myself would have put off all but the desperate. I wasn't so desperate that I would have taken someone else who was.

I thought about how people got to meet in my village, and suddenly realised that yes, of course, it was by way of the dogs. Almost everyone had one, and most took their animals out every day, to stretch their legs and take a gander at what Mother Nature was doing to the woods. There was a regular ritual about all this, for if one met another dog, it was obligatory to pat it on the head, ruffle its ears, unclamp it from one's leg, and discuss it with its owner while the latter performed the same ritual with one's own dog. One would enquire as to the dog's breed, which was usually a matter of some dubiety, and one would hear anecdotes intended to illustrate its irresistible appealingness, its great intelligence, and its extraordinary powers of intuition. Then one would be informed of its health problems, and be told that garlic pearls in its food had been working miracles. Naturally, one could while away many hours in doggy conversations in the process of taking a long walk, and one could come back at dusk and say, "I'm sorry I took so long, I got caught by Mrs Tibble, and she just wouldn't stop going on about that bloody mutt of hers. I'll dig the new potatoes and bring in the coal tomorrow," and my mother would tut, and say something like, "It was that Mrs Tibble's dog that put Mr Scraper's dog in the family way."

Anyway, I think I might have told you about our dog. He was a great big fool of a hound, and we had bought him thinking that he was another kind of dog entirely. We called him Archibald Scott-Moncrieff, which soon got shortened to Archie, and he was a black retriever who took his vocation seriously. In fact he was such a determined retriever that he would retrieve things that had never been thrown, and find things that hadn't been lost, so that all the time the house was being filled up with objects that had nothing in common except that they all had nasty, slimy streaks of dog- drool all over them.

At one time Archie got delusions of grandeur and came back from walks with 15-ft branches of oak in his maw. Then he would get stuck at the gate.

All this retrieving gave me a notion, and so it was that one day at lunch I said to my mother, "Mother, do you think it would be a fine idea to train Archie to retrieve eligible spinsters?'

My mother looked up from slurping her soup, and eyed me. "Well," she said, "I have my doubts."

"Why's that, then?"

"Because a dog's 'eligible' might be a funny thing, and not to your satisfaction, I might believe."

"Nonetheless..." I said.

"No harm in having a try, then," she observed, " but don't hang any washing on it."

Of course the difficulty wasn't with the notion, but with how to put it into practice. How does one train a dog to retrieve women who are specifically good-looking, intelligent, amenable, amusing, playful but faithful, fond of housework, and prepared to put up with my mother? The only way to do this would have been to find such women myself, and work out a system of rewards for Archie whenever he got hold of one by the sleeve and dragged her in my direction. But obviously, if I had to find such women in order to train the dog, then I might as well just do all the finding myself and leave Archie out of it.

I decided to train him to find golf balls instead, and that's why I have five carrier bags of them in the cupboard under the stairs in case you were wondering. I took him to the local nine-holer, a rough-hewn business designed by a mad aristocrat who used to own the big house. The course was somewhat like a First World War battlefield, in that it was sloppy with mud, cratered with water-filled holes, with rabbit scrapes in the greens, and sheep browsing the rough. Lord Jointer had even constructed a par three so that you had to play your tee-shot over the roof of the great house; the windows had to have steel shutters over them on playing days. If you muffed your shot, it might ricochet back over your head and plop into the pond behind the tee, or you might have to go round the house with little chip-shots, avoiding the peacocks and the statues of naked girls with no arms. The best I ever did that hole was a birdie two, and the worst was 48, if you don't count the ball that got stuck in the gob of the gargoyle on the west wing.

Anyway, I soon found that no amount of training could get Archie to distinguish between a lost ball and one that was still in play. It was very embarrassing when he shot away on to another fairway and came back with someone's perfectly placed drive, or a ball that was just about to roll into the hole for an eagle. It got so bad that eventually I had to tie Archie to my golf- bag so I could catch up with him when he tried to hare away after another illegitimate target. Sometimes Archie would fly off into the woods on the trail of a wild shot and get lost altogether. I had to buy another mobile phone to tie to his collar so I could ring him up and locate his whereabouts by the ringing.

It so happened that one day, as I was hacking up the first and someone else was coming down the third, Archie slipped his leash and scampered away with his ears flapping behind him. Off he lolloped, and before I knew it, he was back with a nice Dunlop 65, all covered with slobber, that he deposited at my feet. "Good boy," I said; he was so pleased with himself, I didn't have the heart to tell him off. I picked up the ball, wiped the dribble off on to my trousers, and began to walk towards its owner who was striding towards me.

I was preparing my apologies when I noticed that the golfer was a woman, so I ran back and hid in a holly bush. Male golfers are usually quite jolly and placid, but female golfers can be terrifying in a variety of ways, and it is best to avoid them at all costs, just in case they turn out to be a terrorist or someone with a degree in Art.

I didn't escape, though, and before I knew it, she was poking at me through the prickly leaves with a four iron.

"I know you're there," she said firmly. "I can see your shoes." Her voice sounded quite pleasant, a little bit melodic, with a happy burbling in it rather like a brook running over pebbles.

"I'm sorry," I said from the depths of the bush, "but my dog can't help retrieving things. It's his hobby, and I can't stop him. I'll give you your ball back." And with that I tossed the ball through the branches in the hope that she would be satisfied and go away.

"You're being very silly," she said. "It's your dog I want to talk to you about. I've got a bitch just the same, and I've been meaning to breed from her. Your dog looks just right. A very fine specimen. I'll pay you a stud fee and pounds 20 per pup. How about that?'

"Archie'll be pleased," I said. I disentangled myself from the bushes and came face to face with a woman about 30 years old, with blue eyes, and a mouth that curled up at the corners, as though she was frequently smiling and her mouth had to be ready on the blocks. For a lady golfer, she seemed surprisingly on the level.

Anyway, that's how it all started with Evie and me. All the hooha and palaver about ovulation and being on heat, and making sure there was penetration and fertilisation, gave us something in common, a good excuse to meet up and get to know each other. I think that talking frequently about copulation must have got us all worked up subconsciously, and I can't imagine how many pots of tea we must have drunk while we eyed each other up across the kitchen table.

On the big day, Archie did his stuff pretty amateurishly I'd say. He started at the wrong end, Evie's bitch got muddled, and we had to rearrange them. All the same, Evie was thrilled, and later that afternoon we went to the shop and bought a little bottle of champagne. She made a shepherd's pie with caramel-flavoured Instant Whip to follow, and well, you know how it is, how one thing leads to another.

So there you are.

Louis de Bernieres is the author of 'Captain Corelli's Mandolin' and a South American trilogy which starts with 'The War of Don Emmanuel's Nether Parts'

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