Here is the latest in the series of short stories written by members of the 390-strong Portsmouth Writers’ Hub
Silence cloaked the old, ivy-clad cottage that stood alone in the wooded lane – just the occasional haunting screech of a lone barn owl punctuated the night air.
A few scattered houses, along with an ancient farm and a pub, were its only companions in the tiny hamlet that nestled amongst the peaceful meadows of the South Downs on this fateful night.
Through the inky darkness an intruder crept stealthily towards the cottage, hugging the shelter of a rickety fence that meandered uneasily down one side of the garden, his outline hidden by dense banks of shrubbery.
He paused momentarily, his ears alerted to catch the faintest sounds before moving closer to the cottage. His heart beat faster now and his eyes scanned the murky shadows of the building in the darkness as if seeking out a weakness, a surge of excitement welling up inside him as he sensed he was close to his victim.
Upstairs, Ruth Stevens stirred uneasily in her sleep and then woke with a start in the large double bed where she lay, staring blankly at the ceiling for a moment trying to collect her thoughts.
As her senses slowly surfaced through the fog of sleep she listened intently in case one of the children had called out, but all was quiet.
For some reason she felt uneasy and switched on the bedside lamp and looked nervously around the bedroom, suddenly realising that her Alsatian, Carla, wasn’t in her usual place beside the bed.
She sat up and shivered slightly, wishing her husband George was at home but he was away for the week on business.
Ruth was used to the remoteness of the country. Being a farmer’s daughter, she was well versed in country ways and much preferred it to the hurly burly of city life.
But her unease was because of Carla. She had never left the bedroom without Ruth before, so something must be wrong.
Ruth got up quickly, slipped into her cosy pink bath robe and cautiously moved to the bedroom door, softly calling out Carla’s name as she went.
Getting no response, she gently tiptoed to the top of the stairs, calling out again, still in a hushed tone so as not to wake the children, but there was still no Carla.
Beginning to feel worried now, Ruth quickly ran downstairs, calling in a more agitated tone but again there was no sign of her.
Ruth’s instincts took charge now and her first thoughts were for her children. She ran back upstairs towards their bedroom thinking perhaps Carla had gone there for some reason, silently praying that would be the case.
She opened the door quietly and found her children– three-year-old twins James and Emma – sleeping peacefully, thank God. But no Carla.
Returning to the top of the stairs Ruth felt the first stomach-churning sensation of panic, and she fought back the tears in her eyes as a hollow feeling of vulnerability swept over her.
Then suddenly to her joy Carla appeared from nowhere, leaping her way up the stairs whimpering softly, before running downstairs again towards the back door, looking around continously at Ruth who followed her down.
Puzzled at this strange behaviour it occurred to Ruth there might be an intruder outside the cottage and Carla was aware of it.
She picked up a large poker from the fireplace and with shaking hand quietly opened the back door, anxiously waiting a few moments before sliding back the security chain and letting Carla out into the night.
Closing the door swiftly Ruth listened carefully for the sounds of Carla’s movements, her whole body trembling with apprehension. She heard her running around to the side of the cottage, barking loudly and then sounds of scuffling and yelping from farther down the garden. And then silence.
Ruth sat quietly for a few minutes wondering what to do. Here she was – a young woman on her own with two small children and she should really telephone for help. But what if she was worrying over nothing?
If she phoned her husband George, he would only tell her to call the police and then worry himself. Deciding that it was better to be safe than sorry she reached for the phone, but just at that instant she heard a scratching and whimpering at the back door and her heart leapt as she recognised the sound of Carla.
Cautiously opening the back door, the security chain firmly in place, she saw Carla’s nose thrusting through the gap wanting to come in.
Much relieved Ruth opened the door fully and Carla bounded in, nuzzling Ruth’s hand in gratitude before running to her water bowl and drinking thirstily from it.
Ruth followed and knelt beside her, fondling her gently while checking carefully for any sign of injury, but she seemed fine.
Still a little puzzled she got to her feet and turned to close the door but stepped back in shocked amazement at what she saw.
Standing in the doorway was a stranger – a large male Alsatian. Ruth sank back on the floor next to Carla, stroking her head lovingly.
Of course! Why hadn’t she realised it before. Carla was in season and the ‘intruder’ had literally got wind of it. She walked over to the dog, a smile playing around her lips as she firmly ushered him out.
He left with some reluctance, looking back occasionally before finally disappearing into the darkness.
Turning back to Carla, Ruth hugged her lovingly, wagging a finger at her in a mocked rebuke.
‘Carla, you naughty girl, how could you? But he was rather handsome wasn’t he?’
Mike Gaines is a retired Royal Navy artificer who lives at Fareham. He writes poems and short stories, and his interests include archaeology and metal detecting.
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