I skidded across the floor into the indoor-outdoor room to greet him. His nose snuffled on the other side of the door, and I breathed in his smell. I liked Aston’s smell, it reminded me of the rabbits and foxes that left their calling cards around the garden. Like me, he’d taken to rolling in it and the gooier the substance the better. Sooz didn’t think so, she’d pushed her nose up in disgust when she detected the perfume on our coats and predictably raced off to fetch a bucket of water to wash us. I couldn’t understand her reasoning because we’d head straight back out to find another smelly patch to roll in. I think she liked the game which was fine by us.
The door opened, and Simon walked in. ‘Hello, Paddington.’
‘Hi Si… hi Aston, want to play?’
‘Yes sure,’ Aston wagged his tail at me and then turned to leap on Sooz. He sluiced his wet tongue across her face.
‘Yuk,’ she grumbled.
I laughed. Yuk was one of Sooz’s favourite words, we knew she loved our kisses, and so we didn’t take offence.
Aston turned his attention back to me. ‘Have you still got the rope and ball that Sooz bought you? We could have a tug of war. I’ll win… I always win.’
‘No you don’t.’ I said indignantly.
‘Just jazzing you! Come on let's find it.’
I followed him into the garden. Most of my toys ended up scattered around it, and it was going to take a while to find the one in question.
We found the new toy and pounced on it simultaneously. His teeth clasped one end, and mine went around the other. We carried it back to the house shoulder to shoulder.
‘The gates open into the courtyard,’ yelled Aston. ‘I need to check the fish.’ He dropped the rope and darted down the steps.
I was starting to think Aston had developed an unhealthy paranoia for the fish. ‘Aston, leave the fish alone.’ I looked around for Sooz or Simon to come and fetch him away from them. I’d heard Sooz telling Pete she was worried about him spending hours staring at them. She’d started closing the gate to try to break his obsession – it didn’t look to be working. I personally thought Aston was crazy to give up a game with me to glare at the silly fish.
Something needed to be done, so I went in search of Simon. He was in the kitchen raiding the cookie jar. My mouth instantly salivated when I saw the chocolate biscuit in his hand. He popped it into his mouth without a second glance at me. Darn, if only I’d been a couple of seconds earlier, I might have managed to beg him for a piece. A spiral of drool hit the floor at the thought of chocolate melting in my mouth. I was so focused on food I almost forgot why I’d come looking for Simon.
‘Si, Aston’s with the fish again. Can you come and get him and close the gate?'
Simon looked at me, as though I was speaking a foreign language. What was it with my humans? ‘Si, don’t blame me if Aston ends up bewitched by those fish. I’ve heard stories from the dog down the road.’ I nudged his leg with my nose and he bent to pat me.
‘Where’s Aston, Paddington?’
‘Didn’t you hear one word I said? He’s with those fish. Come and get him.’
‘I think I saw him go into the courtyard,’ said Sooz.
‘Thank you, Sooz.’ At least someone was listening to me.
I followed Simon outside and down the steps into the courtyard. Aston was prowling the length of the pond.
‘Come on, Aston, you’ve been down here long enough.’ Simon pointed the way out of the courtyard, and Aston reluctantly walked away.
‘You’re a spoilt sport, Paddington,’ he grumbled. ‘I wasn’t doing any harm.’
‘I never said you were. But you know, Aston, you'll end up going crazy. Did I tell you what the dog next door said about the effect of watching fish?–’
‘I don’t care.’ He walked away from me and lay down on the trampoline.
‘Don’t you want to play?’
‘No,’ he snapped.
‘But we were having a tug of war.’
‘I’m not in the mood… now!’
‘Oh, I see. You’re being grumpy because I told on you. Well, I don’t care.’ I picked up the rope and dragged the ball to the deck. I was happy to play alone.
Ten minutes later he turned up. I tried to ignore him, but it was hard to ignore Aston. He pushed his nose into my face and then put a paw on the rope. Mostly, Aston was fun and he was trying to say he was sorry, so I forgave him.
‘Let’s play,’ he said.
‘Yeah!’ Aston was back.
An hour later, muscles screaming, sides heaving, we collapsed to rest.
Sooz walked out from the kitchen. ‘Would you two like a biscuit?’
What a silly question. ‘Yes, please Sooz, good timing, we’re starving.’
‘Here you go then.’
We munched the offering.
Aston, loved his food as much as I did, and we often found ourselves competing against each other to see who was the fastest eater. Aston beat me by a whisker. He looked up with a strange expression, it was hard to read.
‘Did it go down the wrong way?’ I asked concerned.
‘No! Paddington, can I ask a silly question?’
‘What happened to Lola?’
Whoa! Where did that question come from I wondered? Lola hadn’t been around for a while now, and he hadn’t asked where she was or anything. I hadn’t offered any information to him because I knew Lola and Aston hadn’t always seen eye to eye. Funny he should ask about her now.
‘Why are you asking?’
‘What do you mean… no reason? You have to have a reason otherwise you wouldn’t be asking.’
He paused. I waited… and waited. He needed prompting. ‘Well what?’
‘You won’t laugh?”
‘Of course not.’
‘It was something the fish said.’
I couldn’t see my expression, but I knew when my mouth fell open and my eyes spread wide he would guess alarm bells were ringing. I choked, spluttered and looked around for Sooz. Aston needed help. ‘Aston, fish can’t talk.’
‘Yes, they can. I talk to them all the time.’
This was far worse than I thought. The fish must have used black magic on him. What to do? I was in a quandary. Sooz and Simon were nowhere to be seen. And in any case would they listen to me if I blabbed to them. I decided, for the moment, I would play along with him and find out what was going on. ‘Ok Aston, what did they say?’
‘They were telling me that Lola hadn’t recovered from her illness, and that she’d joined Gromit. They’d seen Lola and Gromit walking around the courtyard on some nights.’ He looked questioningly at me. ‘I didn’t know Lola was ill.’
‘She got sick before Christmas.’ I didn’t really want to talk about Lola. I’d missed her so much since she’d passed. We’d had our disagreements, some would say wars. But I loved Lola, even if she didn’t love me in the same way.
Aston was still talking and brought me back to the present. ‘Who’s Gromit?’
‘Why are you asking?’ The conversation with Aston was leaving me feeling odd. ‘You should have talked to Lola about Gromit when you had the chance. They were close.’
‘Not like you and her then?’
‘No. She didn’t like me much.’
‘She didn’t like anybody very much,’ moaned Aston.
‘She was a lady and from what she told me about Gromit, he was a gentleman. She told me I was feral. Not sure what she meant by that. Anyway, I heard Sooz say she was entitled to be treated with respect.’
‘She was darn right horrid to me,’ mumbled Aston. ‘She said I was an upstart, and she tried to bite me once.’
‘She bit me heaps of times.’
‘Well, you lived with her. I hated coming to visit. You never knew what was going to happen.’
‘Well, she’s not here anymore.’
‘Where did she go?’
‘Didn’t the fish tell you?’ I said sarcastically.
‘No. They just mentioned they saw her and Gromit wandering around.’
I was starting to wonder about the fish. Was it possible that Aston was talking to them? ‘They’ve never spoken to me.’
‘That’s because you don’t treat them with respect. They told me you sat in their pond. That’s not a very nice thing to do.’
My mouth dropped open. ‘Only when I needed to cool off… and anyway that was before Sooz bought me the paddling pool.’ I felt miffed.
‘You nearly sat on Mr Fish. Mrs Fish told me it was touch and go.’
‘You’re joking… I wouldn’t do it deliberately.’
‘I’m just saying what they said. You need to apologise.’
I made a mental note to pop by the pond later.
‘Where did Lola go?’
Aston was still obsessed about Lola. ‘I’m not sure,’ I replied. ‘After Sooz and Pete took her to the vet, I didn’t see her again. I was a bit of a mess myself that day. It was after that awful thunderstorm, and I was beside myself. Sometimes I don’t think Sooz, and Pete understand how scary it is. They weren’t here, and we were alone. I jumped the fence and went to visit the neighbours. I can’t stand being alone during a thunderstorm.’
‘I know how you feel.’ Aston yawned. ‘How can we find out where Lola went?’
Darn, he wasn’t going to drop it. ‘Why is it so important?’
‘Because what. You didn’t like her.’
‘I know, but I want to know what happened. Hey, I’ve got a good idea, why don’t we ask the fish to find out?'
I wasn’t sure I liked this conversation. One minute I was worried Aston was under a fish spell, and the next he had me doubting it. And on top of those fears, he’d gotten me lined up to apologise to them. I was extremely confused. Even so, there had to be something in what he said, because he’d confided things he couldn’t have known… unless the fish had told him. My head was reeling with all this speculation.
‘I think Lola’s in a spirit world.’ I said as confidently as I could. I understood Lola had passed but other than that I wasn’t sure what happened after the passing. Gromit was still around, I remembered meeting him. Did that mean that when you passed you stayed with your home and family? Yes, that had to be the answer. I just had to convince Aston so he would drop the topic.
‘We could stay out late tonight and lie in wait for them,’ Aston’s voice held a hint of adventure. ‘We need to get Sooz to leave the gate open. We could hide in the courtyard and jump out and surprise them.’
‘Now you’re being melodramatic,’ I said. ‘Do you really think Lola and Gromit wouldn’t know we were there?’ Sometimes Aston was so naive.
‘We could scare them into telling us what they are doing prowling around.’
‘Oh right… like that’s a good idea.’ Aston was getting carried away. Perhaps a run-in with Lola and Gromit was what he needed to pull his head into gear.
‘Just joking. But wouldn’t you like to speak to Lola and see how she is?’
‘Yes, I would.’
‘Okay then… shall we do it?’
I reluctantly nodded.
Later, that night, on the pretence of needing a wee, Aston and I ventured into the courtyard. The gate was open, not sure how it got that way as I’d forgotten to ask Sooz to open it.
‘Come on,’ whispered Aston. ‘Let’s hide on the other side of the table.’
I followed him, and we sat side by side. I crept closer to him at the same time he crept closer to me. We were shoulder to shoulder.
Splash… bang… splash… ‘What was that?’ Aston’s hackles rose.
‘It’s the fish, silly. They’re getting frisky. It's the time of the year.'
‘Oh!’ Aston went quiet for a moment. ‘What do you mean frisky?’
‘I’ll tell you later. Shush.’ I’d heard Sooz talk about the fish being frisky, but I wasn’t going to tell Aston I didn’t know what she meant by it.
Ribit… ribit… ribit… ‘What’s that?’
‘It’s a frog, silly. They live in the pond.’ I was starting to wonder how much the fish had confided in Aston. Obviously, they never talked about the frog population.
A breath of wind ruffled my coat, and an eerie feeling rippled across my skin. ‘I think someone’s here.’ I whispered.
‘Beautiful night for a walk,’ said Lola.
‘Indeed,’ replied Gromit. ‘I do so love this time of the year.'
‘Yes, me too. Evening Mr Fish… how're the wife and children?’
Lola was talking to the fish. I could hardly believe my ears.
‘Good to hear. You don’t say… he did what? Leave it with me I will talk to them. Paddington! Aston! Come out now.’
I shivered and felt Aston quiver by my side. We looked at each other before pocking our heads from around the corner of the table.
‘Come on out.’
We crept from safety into the open courtyard.
‘What’s the meaning of this?’
‘Lola, it’s like this…’
‘Paddington, I’ve been biding my time before catching up with you. You’ve taken me by surprise tonight. Aston, stop shaking.’
‘Yes Lola,’ we both said in unison.
‘What’s going on? Why are you out at this time of the night?'
‘We…,’ I gazed at Aston for support and then back to Lola, ‘…wanted to see you. I’ve been worried about you.’
Lola didn’t look impressed. She had that don’t mess with me look on her face. Obviously, things hadn’t changed where our relationship was concerned.
‘You knew I was sick.’
‘Yes, but I’ve missed you.’
Her face softened, and she smiled. ‘I’ve missed you too, Paddington.’
‘She missed me… I couldn’t believe her words. I was overcome and hit her with a flood of words. ‘Aston’s been talking to the fish, and they told him stuff and I didn’t believe it and then he wanted to know what happened to you, and we thought we’d try to see for ourselves that you were okay and he wanted to know about Gromit and–’
‘Calm down, Paddington. It’s okay, we knew Aston was talking to the fish. What a fine family they are.’
‘They never talk to me.’
‘You have to start believing, and they will. It might be a good idea not to take a bath in their water.’ Lola chuckled. ‘I heard you nearly squashed Mr Fish.’
Gromit laughed. ‘Not a good way to make friends, Paddington.’
‘No, Gromit.’ I replied meekly.
‘What do you think we should do with these scallywags, Gromit? Staying out late at night when they should be in bed?’
‘Don’t be too hard on them, Lola. Remember when you were a girl?’ he chuckled loudly. ‘They’re curious about what happened to you. Understandable under the circumstance… don’t you think?’
‘Yes, you’re right.’
I saw the loving smile Lola gave Gromit. Blimey, she hardly ever smiled when she lived with me and now she was smiling all the time. Passing must have brought the best out of her.
‘Paddington.’ At the mention of my name I stood to attention. ‘I’ll be watching over you. You must look after Sooz and Pete, they need you. Put one foot wrong and you’ll feel my wrath.’
I nodded. My voice wasn’t working.
‘Aston, you have a young family to look after. You will be moving into a nice new home soon. I expect you to take care of Simon and Kat. It’s your duty to guard and protect.’
‘Yes, Lola. Thank you Lola.’
‘Boys, we’re here if you need us. Paddington, you need to trust in your instincts. Doubting Aston in that way… tut! tut! tut! And Aston you need to grow up. Oh one more thing, stop being such gluttons at the dinner table. You’re not showing good manners. If a little one comes into the home later in the year, you need to set an example.’
My ears pricked. ‘Little one, what do you mean, a little one?’
‘Wait and see,’ replied Gromit smiling. ‘It’ll be nice to hear the pitter-patter of little feet when we walk the property at night. Goodnight boys.’
Pitter-patter of little feet. What did that mean, Sooz?