"HAVING A BALL WITH HENRY"
BY
LYDIA JONES

Let's get this straight: Henry's a sweet dog. I'm happy to have him. I don't even mind my dotty Aunt Emma dumping him on me at the last minute while she waltzes off to Italy for the weekend. Dumping him, I might add, without leaving any food.
Tonight is fine. However, I have huge plans for tomorrow and Henry can't be part of them.
My friend, Sally, has managed to wangle us rarer-than-gold-dust tickets for the university ball: five course dinner with champagne and smoked salmon sunrise breakfast. It makes me breathless just thinking about it. This is going to be the social highlight of my year. No, make that the social highlight of my life so far. Just imagine it: smoked salmon, champagne and a whole room full of cute students to choose from. No way am I going to let one little dog stand in the way of that.
"Just buy whatever you need," Aunt Emma said airily.
So here I am heaving dog meal towards the Pet Centre's till, when all at once I see him. Standing between displays of cat litter and worming powder, he's leaning casually on the till like he doesn't know I've just lost the ability to breathe.
This bloke is Mr Perfection and he definitely doesn't know it: floppy blonde hair, tanned skin, deep blue eyes and...Oh help! Is he talking to me?
"Hi."
"Err – hi."
"You all sorted then?"
Who me? Definitely not.
"Huh?"
"Did you find everything you needed?"
"Oh – err – yes. Thanks."
I'm blushing, damn it, as I drag the bag of dog food onto the counter.
"Good choice."
"What?" Get a grip, Cindy.
"The food – he'll love it."
"Is it? Will he?"
I look down at Henry, who is straining towards the door, where a Labrador sits waiting for its owner to load the car.
"He's cute."
So are you, sunshine. Trust me, so are you.
"Yes."
I fumble for my money. As I place it on the counter, Henry finally runs out of patience and makes a lunge for the Labrador. Almost toppling off my heels (who said sensible shoes were required for shopping?), I follow him out to the car park.
"Your change," shouts Mr Perfection, but I'm way too embarrassed to go back.
"Oooh!" Sally squeals, when I phone her later. "I bet he's one of our Physical Education students. Lots of them have jobs down on that retail park."
My friend, Sally, you understand, is something of an expert: her job in the faculty office having allowed her to work her way through quite a few physically educated specimens.
"Anyhow, I just thought I'd better phone to let you in on the dog situation. I already tried my sister, but apparently her nerdy boyfriend Clive is allergic to pet hair. But don't worry – I'll get it sorted"
Now I'm more determined than ever. If there's a chance Mr Perfection might be there, this is one Cinderella that will definitely be going to the ball.
When I try to leave him in the kitchen for the night, Henry howls. A lot.
"Listen, buster," I find myself shrieking at 4am. "That's your bed and there's mine through there. Don't confuse the two."
I slam the door for emphasis, but it silences him for what seems like only seconds.
Finally, in exhausted exasperation, I make myself hot chocolate and reach for the biscuit tin.
Henry hovers hopefully, head endearingly tilted.
"Oh, come on then," I sigh, patting my lap.
So with Henry cuddled on my knee, with hot chocolate and digestive biscuits, I watch the sky through my kitchen window turn from black to purple to the pink of a glorious sunrise. Not quite champagne and smoked salmon, but kind of cosy all the same.
At breakfast Henry brings me his lead, then settles with an air of resigned patience to watch each chew of cereal. I reward him by donning my most sensible shoes (O.K. they're not that sensible, but I don't usually do dog-walking, do I?) and we visit a practically empty park.
The funny thing is, it feels good to be out and active so early. I'm acutely aware of birdsong and the sigh of the breeze as it showers early turning leaves around me. Despite lack of sleep, I feel so energized I'm actually humming as we mount the stairs back.
"I'm glad somebody's happy."
My landlady, let me tell you, resembles no-one so much as Mrs Andy Cap from the cartoon. Clad in her dressing gown, she stands with arms folded on the landing in front of my flat.
"So this is the culprit then."
She sniffs disdainfully at Henry, who returns the compliment by inspecting her slipper clad feet.
"You know the rules, young lady: no pets." She draws herself up to the summit of her less than considerable height. "I'd be inclined to overlook it if he hadn't kept me up half the night."
"Sorry, Mrs Angelis."
"If I hear another peep out of that creature, there'll be trouble, understand?"
"Yes, Mrs Angelis."
"You –' I wag an accusing finger at Henry, as we re-enter the flat." – are in big trouble. In fact I'm ringing Mum right now to get you sorted."
Actually Mum is more of a cat-woman. I don't mean that in the Batman sense of slinky leather-clad curvaceous body, you understand; just that she has a pampered Persian called Frederica, on whom she dotes. Still, Henry often stays at her house when Aunt Emma visits.
There's no reply.
"Where is she?" I ask Henry.
The response from his basket is gentle snoring.
"Charming! Snooze away, why don't you? Don't mind all the grief you're giving me."
In determined mood I ring two friends, a work colleague and even a second cousin I haven't seen for years, but no-one can give Henry a home for the night. I head for the shower. After all: what's a stressed out girl to do, but go shopping? A tad of retail therapy is just what I need right now. While Henry the howler sleeps, I'll shop.
It's one of those days when lovely things just leap off the shelves, begging to be bought. I'm particularly pleased with a gorgeous pair of girly shoes: frilly leather flowers on a soft Perspex strap. Definitely a twenty-first century take on Cinderella's slippers.
Coming home, carrier bags colliding companionably around my legs, I freeze in horror at the foot of the stairs. From above I hear the now horribly familiar sound of desolate howling.
Needless to say, Mrs Andy Cap is waiting, wafting an ominous looking envelope.
"Written warning," she hisses. "And get that animal out of my property."
As I open the door Henry launches himself like a missile, scattering carrier bags in frantic attempts to lick any available patch of skin. In the face of such effusive welcome, all chastisements curdle in my throat.
A phone call to Aunt Emma confirms I have most definitely been had.
"Didn't I mention it?" she trills from her sightseeing coach in Verona. "Poor darling Henry – he does suffer terribly from separation anxiety."
As usual with my aunt I struggle to make much of a contribution to the rest of the conversation and certainly don't gain any tips on how to handle Henry.
So sitting amongst my precious carrier bags, I make one last ditch attempt to save the social highlight of my life. It's a pretty safe bet. I mean, a girl's best friend is her Mum, right?
"I couldn't possibly," Mum says. "Darling Frederica ran away for two days last time. Poor thing must have been starving."
Yeah, right. Knowing Mum's canny cat, it's more likely she was cadging off the neighbours.
"Anyway, your Dad and I have the bowls club annual dinner-dance. You know Dad's on the committee and we're giving the Wilkinsons a lift and –"
"S'O.K. Mum," I manage, seeing my five course dinner with champagne and smoked salmon sunrise breakfast evaporating into the ether.
"Maybe if I'd had more notice."
Yeah: you and me both, mother.
After calling Sally to give her the bad news, I crawl onto the sofa to wallow in self pitying tears. In a nanosecond Henry is beside me, licking my cheeks, chocolate brown eyes crunched in concern.
"Don't you dare be nice to me," I wail. "Not when I'm all set to hate your hairy guts."
The next thing I know he's thrusting his lead at me and I'm about to tell him to dream on, when I remember how great it was in the park this morning. Maybe a walk is just what I need.
Wind buffets me. My hair dances in defiance of super-hold hairspray, as I look up to watch clouds scudding across an early evening sky. Henry noses happily in an autumnal carpet. Up ahead a little golden spaniel runs in circles, snapping at the swirling leaves. In spite of everything I feel a strange kind of contentment.
I should see it coming, but when Henry practically jerks my arm from its socket, I am unprepared.
Heels sinking into damp turf, I try to keep up. A foot leaves my shoe. I feel a rush of cold air to my sole and suddenly I'm looking at turf and trees from a horribly horizontal angle.
"Henry!"
Chill mud oozes into my coat. Henry is already cavorting with the spaniel, lead flying behind like ticker-tape.
"Are you O.K?"
Deep blue eyes regard me with a trace of what could be concealed amusement.
The tingle in my chest is immediately replaced with a desire to dig a hole in the mud and disappear. What must I look like?
"Here – let me help you. I'm Chris, by the way."
I grasp his firm hand and wobble to a vertical position.
"Cindy."
Dear God, I'm covered in the stuff.
"You came into the Pet Centre yesterday, didn't you?"
"You remembered?"
"You forgot your change."
I love the way his eyes crinkle at the corners when he smiles.
"Err – yes. Stupid."
His gaze holds mine for a moment. He looks like he's trying to make up his mind.
"The dogs are getting on well. Shall we walk together?"
"You didn't go to the ball then?" I say after a few seconds of silence.
"Not really my thing. How did you know I was a student?"
"Lucky guess. Not Physical Education, by any chance?"
He frowns. "No. Biology. Why?"
I shrug. Something to do with the toned forearms, obvious even through his fleece, but I can't tell him that, can I?
"Your dog's cute," I say instead.
"Poppy belongs to my landlady. Walking her is kind of like part of the rent."
I nod, wishing this tingle inside would stop tying up my tongue.
"Look –"
He turns suddenly and if I didn't know better, I'd swear he was blushing.
"I don't suppose you'd let me take you to dinner, would you? Sort of to make up for what happened. I mean – it was partly Poppy's fault."
I laugh. "What – like this?"
"No, no. Of course. Stupid idea."
His gaze flits from tree to tree then finally rests on me.
"It's just – I know this probably sounds perverted or something, but ever since you came into the store yesterday, I haven't been able to get you out of my mind. And I thought – I thought you looked like someone I'd really like to know better."
O.K. maybe I hit my head in the mud. I'm definitely dreaming here.
"Of course you've probably got a fifteen stone rugby-playing boyfriend with pots of money somewhere, so you'd never want to go out with a bloke like me anyway, especially since I'm raving like some sad weirdo. But I just thought – I'd ask."
He's gazing at me so hopefully, looking so much like a blonde Hugh Grant, it breaks my heart to say what I must.
"I'd love to, but I can't."
"No, no. Of course. I understand."
"No – you don't."
I touch his forearm and feel excitement ripple.
When I explain about my landlady and Henry the howler, Chris roars with relieved laughter.
"Not a problem. I know the perfect place. Fish and chip shop with a swanky heated terrace at the back. Dogs welcome."
Nightfall finds me sitting at a picnic table with Chris, swapping all those delicious first date details, whilst eating fish and chips out of paper.
At our feet Henry's mournful gaze follows each movement from plate to mouth. I set aside a few little pieces of fish. After all, if it weren't for him I wouldn't be here.
I may not have got a five course dinner with champagne and smoked salmon sunrise breakfast, but I've a feeling that tonight, I may have found something much better.

- ends -