Lives Plagued By War

The Frog Princess is a book that concerns itself with lives wounded in many ways by war. There is the generation that went away in 1939 to fight and the damage done to some of them. Then there was the generation that came after, the sons of the damaged. But also there were the bystanders, the men and women who got in the way when nightmares exploded in savaged minds.

It is 2004 and Malcolm Dangerfield is a divorced man content to continue living for the remainder of his life on his own until he sees, whilst out walking his dog, a lovely lady with two very attractive legs. At least, that's how he looks on them.

I've classified this as a romance, but it isn't a cosy book. It's a love story, yes, but a lot more too. It begins with a prelude that makes difficult reading for the tender hearted because the condition of a shell-shocked broken soldier will always be difficult and shouldn't be brushed, so to speak, under the carpet. So be warned!

Here follows the first chapter just to tempt you. But it isn't the true opening to the book: there's an uncomfortable prelude before it during which our hero's father returns from the second world war in his demob suit as a broken and mentally scarred man, and a passing stranger gets killed in an entirely preventable accident.




There is a path I know, scrubby all the year round, nothing special in summer and downright dowdy in winter, where folks like me walk their dogs morning, noon or night. I’ve walked down there with good old Frisky for more years than I care to remember, ever since the kids brought him home as a present for me because they wanted him and he was a keen-eyed puppy intent on no more than chasing his own tail. The kids have grown up and left home, of course, but the dog stays.

He might be showing signs of getting old now, and lame when the rains fall, but he still whines his delight when I produce the lead, and jumps arthritically, and snorts as if to say Mister Malcolm, Master of mine, let’s race along forever! And I smile at the Christian-name terms I choose for him to use when I translate his eager barking in my head, and tell him forever’s too long a time to be talking about, but let’s go out right now for a ten minute romp, that’ll be enough, his old bones will see.

He wags next to me as we make our way towards that path, him on his lead down the road and under the bridge, nose here and there, stopping stubbornly still for a moment before pulling ever onwards, impatient like all dogs are. Then released, free as an angel, he races up the slope that rises untidily to the field, past the old allotments on the left, dancing sometimes with the old brown canine Guardian of the scrapyard (an untidy collection of old corrugated buildings and piles of wrecked cars which edges onto the field like an old callus on the opposite side to the allotments) like the old friends that they are.

Through the long years they’ve danced across that field together, a few minutes now and again, and parted before their friendship gets close enough to hurt. Theirs is the best of times, complicated by nothing more esoteric than the smells of the wild, and never once did a bitch come between them. Not yet, any way, and Frisky’s not as young as he was: his dreams, though, have hardly aged at all if the glint in his eyes is anything to judge by.

They wag their tails goodbye when we reach the gateway that opens onto the path. Our path. The dog walk, as I call it, where we’ve exercised our years, man and dog, friends better than most. Frisky often walks these days where once he always raced, legs growing more feeble with his canine old-age and his fading senses, knowing every step of the way along that path as if it was the thread which had always run through his life, and in a way I suppose it is, paths can be like that.

No matter how the seasons turn we’ve been there: winter and spring, summer and autumn alike, tasting those very seasons on the winds like the fragrances of dreams. And sometimes, when the winds have bitten cold into us we’ve gone the short way whilst in the summers under blue skies we’ve trudged for miles, but short or long it was always along tributaries of the same path.

It’s hard to tell the beginnings of things because life isn’t made of too many beginnings. Instead, there are crossroads and who’s to say that if you take the right hand track you won’t eventually meet up again with those who took the left? And you find, as the years pass, that something dead and buried, a frozen nothing from a less than nothing yesterday, might suddenly pop up in an unexpected future place and suddenly prove frozen nothings can grow unexpectedly into huge and monumental somethings.

So it’s hard to say for sure that the story I’m trespassing on started during such and such a stroll along the Dog Walk because, truth to tell, it might have started then or it may well have had its roots buried in the long ago of time. The influences on a person’s life can be like that, one thing leading to another, maybe the final outcome starting before a soul was born, perhaps even centuries ago with traits and tendencies dripping down the years like genetic glue and passing their glory or afflictions onto generation after generation.

Like all who bare their lives to scrutiny I’d best let the scrutineers be the judge as to whether it was there and then or a thousand years ago that the events of one particular day had their origin. But have an origin they did, one time or other, maybe at my conception before I’d ever heard of the Dog Walk or even suspected there was such a thing as the light of day, or maybe a great deal later, after I’d learnt to savour the bitter tastes we all encounter on the paths of our lives.

It had been a summer’s day and mere weeks ago, but Frisky still tried to behave as though he was little more than a puppy, black and white with touches of brown, long-haired, scruffy, with randy brown eyes and a heart which beat for bitches everywhere, when I first saw the lady.

(A moment’s thought, fleeting, a haunting half-memory, ghost or spirit from ages earlier, made my mind itch, and I paused. Once, too long ago, painfully long ago, I don’t like to push my mind that far back so often, I had known another Frisky, scruffy, and he was young too, until the day he died when he shouldn’t have done anything of the sort: but like I said that’s buried in a past I somehow don’t want to know, not now, not ever, a shadow on a different time I’ve always struggled to completely forget but never quite succeeded. My life so far as my recollection of it is concerned started late because, well, there have been bad years, nightmare bad, even now I sometimes wake in the night bathed in a cold sweat, and shaking … but then I mustn’t bathe in the waters of self-pity, everyone has bad years sometimes…)

But back to the lady before poisonous thoughts intrude into Heaven and soil it with the shadows of an old reality like they are often wont to do.

It was early summer like it always should be and I was dressed in a tee-shirt and shorts, enjoying the warm air on legs enclosed for too many winter months in jeans or trousers, and bowling a stone for Frisky to chase, off-break like a man does when nobody’s likely to see such foolishness, watching it turn as it bounced even though it was only any old stone, deceiving his racing head and excited barking as it fell into the long turves and molehills which bordered the allotments.

“Fetch that, then, old chap!” I called, and then paused as I noticed her, cursing myself for the folly of behaving like a schoolboy who’s just learned the rudiments of cricket.

She had a Labrador, golden and almost glowing like the corn a few fields off, young and clean in the way Frisky pretended to be, eyes bright, ears alert. We’d reached the gateway that marked the end of the field and Frisky saw his bitch at the same time as I first let my eyes fall on the angel who has haunted my dreams and fantasies ever since that moment.

Walking towards us from one of the tributaries which led off the dog walk path, the long one Frisky and I sometimes took if I had the time and he the inclination, she lazily pulled a thin summer jumper off and tied its sleeves around her waist so that the body of it fluttered behind her.

I couldn’t help looking at her for much the same reason as Frisky couldn’t help gazing with adoration at the bitch.

She was clearly younger than me, maybe as much as twenty years younger though I couldn’t be certain, I’m no judge of the ages of women especially when they’re too far away for my old eyes to focus on properly, but that’s what I thought when I glanced at her and if my judgement was right it would have put her somewhere in her early forties.

I couldn’t miss the easily defined sensuality that she exuded, one that combined the lithe ease of tanned limbs with a sudden teasing smile, and I found myself pausing and, grotesquely for a man of my advanced years, staring. Rudely, maybe, but I was half-hidden from her by the flowering elder which marked the end of the allotment side of the field.

I don’t think she even knew I was there. At least I hope she didn’t, for staring at a woman is almost always rude and never acceptable behaviour unless you know her really well and she’s just asked you an impossible question, like does my bottom look big in this?

I have long theorised that what a woman chooses to dress in says a great deal about the kind of person she is. But then, all I’ve done in recent years is theorise when it comes to the opposite sex, poor sad me. A middle-aged woman, my theory went on to suggest, can choose between youth and age when it comes to her wardrobe, and this woman had obviously chosen youth, and it suited her.

She was dressed in denim shorts, not common blue but a darkish pink, complemented by a tee-shirt and, of course, that jumper hanging from her waist. Her hair, long like feminine hair should be, touched her shoulders with fairy blonde fingers, dancing as the breeze taunted it, and even though I couldn’t tell, not there by the elderflowers with their overpowering scent, I knew it spread its fragrance around her like a cloud blowing across the pastures of Heaven. A fanciful thought, that, but I am prone to such fancies, and in all truth they harm no one and enrich the imagined events and consequently elevate my own very ordinary life above the mundane.

“Penny!” she called because the bitch was being sniffed by Frisky who’d raced ahead, and I emerged from my elderflower and frowned, wishing it was in the human repertoire of greetings to sniff at bottoms.

It would have seemed quite a natural thing to do, to sniff her bottom there and then.

“What do you think you’re doing, Frisky?” I said, my voice raised so that he knew I meant the question. ++++ He withdrew his nose and looked up at me, his tail wagging with uncharacteristic violence as if to say you leave me alone, Master Malcolm, this is a bitch and it’s about time I did something about it!

“Come here!” my voice insisted, and to his credit and my astonishment he came, reluctantly like only dogs can, slinking to my side and snarling incomprehensible insults from the corner of his eyes.

“I’m sorry,” I smiled at the angel with the Labrador.

“She’s only six months old, just a puppy really,” she said.

“He’s getting on in years but he thinks he’s a puppy still and only wants to play,” I assured her.

“I know. They’re like that, dogs.”

“It’s … it’s that kind of day,” I muttered, too awkward to make sense. Now I was closer I could see that this woman was beautiful, and it wasn’t so much her physical self but the way she looked at me, the way she smiled, that was beautiful.

She smiled. “I was thinking the same thing,” she murmured.

“With the sun and that,” I added, lamely.

She smiled again and nodded like strangers nod when the sun’s shining and the world’s a magic place.

“It’s a good thing we don’t go around sniffing each other’s bottoms like that,” I carried on, suddenly desperate for words long enough to keep her there another moment, minute, hour maybe, and reaching back into my empty head and grasping a recent thought.

She smiled brightly, beautifully. “Chance would be a fine thing, don’t you think?” she murmured, tongue in cheek. Or was it?

Whatever the intention, that sentence left me speechless. Chance would, indeed, be a fine thing, but was she inviting me to push my nose against her summer shorts and sniff her?

She smiled, maybe at my discomfort, and half-turned to go.

“Dogs have got it all worked out,” she said, reinforcing the mad thought that had entered my head.

“That’s what I often say,” I acknowledged awkwardly.

“Much as I’d like to….” she began, leaving the sentence hanging in the air, meaning everything and nothing. I nodded, not knowing why. Much as she’d like to what? Let me sniff her arse? Stay and have a conversation? Get to know me better? Or invite me to get to know her better? Whatever it was, she left it hanging in the air until the light summer breeze took it away like summer breezes do.

Then she walked off, slowly, going down the dog walk path where I’d planned to go too, past a row of elders and blackberries all tangled together, her back to me so I couldn’t see her face, whether it smiled or frowned, and her hair flicking her shoulders just so. And when she walked her shorts prescribed a pattern I couldn’t help staring at, one that brought a lump into my throat and took me back to my testosterone years of a long time ago.

It would have been so easy to follow her. After all, I had meant to go that way. I could have called out something like “We’ll join you if you like. I was going that way anyway.” But I didn’t because I was afraid of the refusal.

“We’ll go back, Frisky old thing, the way we came,” I muttered, loud, hoping that she’d hear, maybe even hoping that she’d interpret the cadence which suggested she might be going our way and I was changing my plans because of it out of some kind of misplaced consideration.

But if she heard she didn’t respond, didn’t turn and maybe call for us to join them. So I started back the way we’d come, Frisky behind me, his huge eyes glancing towards his Penny bitch like regretting orbs before trotting off in front of me waiting for a ball-sized stone or clump of sun-hardened mud to bounce on the path in front of him and lurch off-break into the waving grasses.

Once or twice I glanced towards the side of the field that bordered the dog walk behind me, between the allotments, now on my right and the scrapyard on my left. It rose above us on buttresses of sandstone dressed in brambles and hawthorn, but there were gaps where a keen eye could catch the briefest glimpse of the dog walk path together with shattered fragments of the legs of whoever might chance to pass along it.

And I saw her! Flickering like a fragment from an old film, almost not seen, dappled by sunlight and shadows, my lady passed along, and I heard her voice calling to Penny to come here or do this or maybe that.

And I fancied, though I couldn’t have possibly seen, that she glanced my way a time or two, and smiled.

But it was only a fancy, and my heart knew it as it repeated chance would be a fine thing time after time after shadowed time deep in the depths of me, where fancies grow and dreams always come true.

There you have it. The whole of the first chapter as a gift from me to you. Enjoy! And if you do, then you know where you'll find the rest.

Take a peek right here

And if the whole notion of paper being carted by the tonne round the globe sticks in your environmental throat, then clicking here might provide you with an idea.