Today’s post is a little different. Instead of an interview or a factual piece, this week’s guest has submitted a short story, A Change of Heart. Nikki Cole, who writes as Linda Shepherd, is passionate about animals and, in her other life, she works as a dog groomer. Between doggy “haircuts”, she loves to grab her notebook and write. She is a member of a creative writing group, whose members have recently self published an anthology, “Kith and Kin,” a book of short stories in various genres on the subject of families. She has also written a novella: It Always Starts on the Dog Walk (Stories from the Dog Community).
A Change of Heart is taken from Kith and Kin. Enjoy!
A Change of Heart
Every regular customer can be so different, so individual, but at this time of the year it is always the same questions with each of them. Helen didn’t know how many more times she could grimace at every cheesy grin each (happy) customer had plastered to their face as they were leaving. They all said it, or something to those words. “At home for Christmas?”
“Got all your family coming for Christmas?”
“Going off to see your family for Christmas?”
“Given yourself any break at all for Christmas?”
It was much easier to just fix her own cheesy grin on through clenched teeth and mumble something about ‘a quiet one this year.’ No need to elaborate too much. Anyway, once she asked them what they were doing that they completely got them off her case as they went into elaborate stories about their kids who had recently given birth. Always a typical, magical, sociable Christmas it seemed for everyone. Just not her.
She wasn’t jealous one jot, on the contrary she had decided a long time ago that she wasn’t maternal. Not when it came to humans anyway. For over twenty years she had dedicated her life to saving the lives of as many of the village’s furry, feathered and sometimes scaly residents. She may have sprouted a few early grey hairs from the physical and mental demands of the veterinary life, but she wouldn’t be doing anything else. The animals may not be able to talk but they certainly knew how to love and certainly didn’t know how to hold a grudge. She would much rather be in their company!
Her lips twitched into a slight smile as she saw who her last client was. Millie the Lhasa Apso was never any trouble. Her mum, Mrs Mardle, was a lovely lady but couldn’t half talk! Seeing her out was like trying to place a cat’s four paws on the ground outside in the middle of a rain-storm! No wonder she was the last one!
“Don’t tell me you’re working right through again!” she blurted out, after her the first of many stories she told to extreme lengths. Sometimes it was lucky she spoke so much as it meant she could keep going enough for both of them! She finally left, with final words of “You have a nice break, Helen. Be with your family!”
Helen snorted. The last time she had popped in for a visit, let alone spent Christmas with her family, videos were still popular.
They’d hated Rick, the lazy drop-out parasite of a boyfriend: she’d foolishly worshipped the ground he walked on for so long. For a while, Helen’s studies took a back seat, as, drunk on love, (and a bit of alcohol too), they became inseparable. That was it for Helen and her family. They wanted nothing to do with Rick, which meant nothing to do with Helen either. Suited Helen fine, until the cracks started to form, and their relationship disintegrated, slowly, like a sinking ship. Helen struggled to keep up with the work load, soon realising her dreams of becoming a vet would vanish if she didn’t start to focus on something other than the slime ball she was so obsessed with. Said slime ball, who was doing nothing, soon got fed up of waiting for her. Helen finally left her university room after pulling an all-nighter with her revision, to surprise him. It was poor Helen who got the surprise as a bleary-eyed, barely dressed beauty answered his door. Helen realised he’d been having different kinds of all-nighters of his own. Her devastation was doubled as she realised, she now had no one. She longed for her mum’s calm soothing presence, her tight hugs, her blunt words about people who deserved it. She craved home comfort, but she had no intention of crawling back to her parents, ignoring her mother’s attempts to get in touch. She had always known deep down they were right to be concerned about her chosen boyfriend, but she couldn’t stand the I told you so’s.
After Rick, there were few offers and zero chemistry with any other man. It was easier not to bother, anyway. Less drama. Now in her forties, did having no husband nor any contact with her parents bother her? Well, she insisted it didn’t to anyone who asked. As she wasn’t going to be working Christmas Day, despite her pleas, she would spend it at the only other place that was closest to her heart: Happy Paws Rescue had been her second home the minute she was of volunteer age, a place where she was always welcome, so there was no question of where she was going on the one day where being with your loved ones was expected of you.
“Merry Christmas, love.” Trev had pulled out all the stops with that ridiculous Santa suit. Helen couldn’t help bursting out laughing, as if a bunch of rescue dogs would know the difference! He even had a massive sack filled to the brim with treats, squeaky bones and rope toys. She watched him affectionately as he went around to each kennel, delivering to each occupant, taking the time to talk to each of them. She had always had a soft spot for Trev. If she hadn’t cut herself off from everyone all these years, she often wondered what might have been. If only she’d been a bit more open. Looking at him now, putting so much effort in for the dogs and for Christmas, her mind wandered back to her first day as a volunteer, a young little mouse of a girl. The other young volunteers at that time were all best of friends and felt no need to bother with her, but Trev had time for everyone. She looked back fondly, as if it were yesterday. These were the very same kennels that he had walked her through that first day, introducing Sammy, his personal favourite, who ended up being a permanent fixture in Trev’s life. Then there was Tiny, someone’s idea of a joke clearly as Helen’s arm nearly got pulled off every time she tried to walk him. And, of course, she would never forget Jasper who gave her the slip during her first kennel poo pick up, and Trev saved the day, managing to catch him!
She distanced herself from him slightly after her heartbreak, becoming a closer friend to Emma, another volunteer, which was a foolish decision, as she was too scared of getting hurt again.
Helen and Trev had stayed friends all this time, of course, and sometimes they would discuss and laugh about all these memories, now a lot older and wiser, but not as old as Doris and Jean. Doris and Jean couldn’t do too much of the kennel work these days but kept all the humans supplied with a lot of tea, and on this special day, to Helen’s amazement, an absolute cracker of a Christmas dinner for everyone!
Helen smiled lovingly at all the caring members of the group around the table. This was her family, there was no doubt about it. This rescue centre and Helen went back years. This place, the dogs, Trev, Doris, Jean and many of the other volunteers that had come and gone had all been there for her, from when she was a shy, sad student to now. After that first group had all left, everyone else who followed had been lovely. They had helped her through being bullied, puberty and her relationship break-downs. Even with her busy career, she tried to give them as much time as she could. The award for number one volunteer could go to any one gathered around the table that Christmas Day. They had all been there, donating their time, for so long.
But where was Emma, her best friend and fellow volunteer? She thought back to when they had last spoken.
“I’ll be glad when it’s all over.” Emma rolled her eyes.
“You and me both.”
“You’re lucky. You haven’t got to be at the beck and call of bloody family. The problem with Mum is that she just expects me to do all the ferrying about, she just doesn’t understand that I do have lots of commitments. She doesn’t appreciate me, that’s for sure. My sister on the other hand, she gets off scot-free!”
Helen had breathed a sigh of relief at how easy, no, how peaceful her life was in comparison to that. She wondered if Emma’s mother had interfered with Emma’s plans to come and help out today.
“Emma got bogged down with family duties today, then? Her mum sounds like hard work!” Helen rolled her eyes.
Jean shook her head sadly. “Be careful what you wish for. Emma had to pick up her mum from her holiday home early and rush her to hospital. As soon as she took one look at her she thought she was going to lose her.” Jean hesitated, then spoke quietly. “Emma’s mum has a tumour in her brain. Emma broke down in tears on the phone to me, she could barely get any words out. She sees a lot of her mum; they are very close. To find out she’s terminally ill, and just before Christmas…well she’s in bits, as you can imagine. Poor, poor Emma.”
Helen was absolutely horrified. She suddenly pictured herself in Emma’s shoes. Emma certainly didn’t deserve this, she had been a million times a better daughter than she, Helen. Apart from a bit of a moan, she was the perfect daughter. It just wasn’t fair. Helen thought how she would feel, if suddenly after all these years of not speaking, the choice of whether to patch things up was suddenly, aggressively taken away from her. Helen felt about as small and worthy as one of the many fleas she had dealt with in her career, as she imagined if it were her mother, terminally ill, leaving this life not knowing where her daughter was or if she loved her.
She barely said another word for the rest of the day, taking herself off for puppy cuddles. The puppies had been brought in by a kind member of the public, all of them orphans. How forgiving they were, climbing all over Helen, treating every bit of flesh on show to puppy kisses. So full of love, despite their difficult start.
She had still barely spoken to anyone else as she pulled up her bike in a daze, ready to go home.
“Helen!” There was Trev, that lovely, warm, welcoming face, always full of kindness. “Please let me drive you home.” She thought to herself how much she liked him. Again, she wondered why she had cut herself off from everyone. Not today. For the first time, she hauled her bike onto the back of his truck and climbed gratefully into the seat beside him.
“Other end of Barnes Way, aren’t you?”
“No. Not today. Rhode Road, if that’s not too far. You know, that road with the tacky Christmas lights display.”
Trev chortled. “You say tacky, I say wonderful! No problem at all, it’s a treat for me, passing it! I really do think it’s a fantastic thing, everyone in the road making an effort. I always make sure to put some money in the charity box or buy a hot drink at the caravan. That wasn’t there last year, just goes to show it’s getting bigger and bigger. The public agrees with me! Always worth making the trip every year for those marvellous lights!”
When they pulled up near the road, the display was in full force. Over the years, they had really upped the display. It suddenly struck Helen that for so long, she’d deprived herself of any kind of social fun. Was it the sudden realisation of how short life is? How you need to be careful of what you say, what you wish for? Or simply the sudden realisation of appreciating what you have? Or was Helen simply caught up in the spirit of the season, by that wonderful, old tacky display that every family with youngsters flocked to every year and those without youngsters too? Or was it that she was in the most beautiful surroundings with the nicest man, second only to Santa Claus himself?
“Let’s have a hot chocolate. Please let me treat you.”
Trev couldn’t have looked more shocked if one of the lit-up dancing penguins had offered to treat him to a fish supper. Suddenly he looked so happy, for the first time, Helen was ashamed to find the emotions getting to her, she felt the tiniest of happy tears stinging her eyes at how she had offered an act of kindness and made his day.
“Hot chocolate sounds perfect! It’s on me though, please.”
Helen was too sneaky for him, swiftly handing her change over to the jolly old man in that little caravan. Not unlike Trev himself; same winning smile.
“Oh, you naughty girl! I’ll just have to take you out for another drink, so I can return the favour!”
Helen hesitated for a moment. Was she really going to stop being so hard on herself, was she really going to allow herself some fun, allow her heart to open again after so long?
“That sounds lovely.” They exchanged genuine, joyful smiles. Helen was shocked at how festive she was suddenly feeling.
Hot chocolate drunk, decorations gawped at, Helen suddenly found herself telling Trev to take her to Barnes Way after all. She was irritated to find that her legs wouldn’t stop shaking, even though the cold wasn’t that extreme. She had already got back in the game, by agreeing to go for a drink with Trev. Maybe that was enough challenges for one day.
But it was now or never. She waved Trev off and lightly touched the door-bell. She was still wondering whether to just jump on her bike and ride away as quickly as possible when the door opened. There, dimly lit by the porch light, was an old woman, her face very lined, her hair very grey, but the lines turned to laughter lines, that face lit up like the whole of the road, on seeing her unexpected guest.
Helen wondered why on earth she had let herself miss out on that sweet, faint smile for so long. No longer needing to worry that she would not be welcome, Helen gave her own shy, smile, inherited from this woman. “Merry Christmas, Mum.”
Thank you for sharing that story with us, Linda. I’ve got my fingers tightly crossed that Helen works it out with her mum! (And Trev …)