Doug wants his rescuer, Julie, to be happy. He is loyal and loves her unconditionally—two things that can’t be said about Julie’s married boss and lover, Luke. Yet Julie is reluctant to break up, afraid to end up like her eccentric cat-owning neighbor. It’s a prospect that horrifies Doug, too.
Newly divorced Tom, on the other hand, is perfect for Julie. Everyone can see it—except for Julie and Tom. Doug is confident that with his help they will get over their initial animosity toward each other.
As Doug humorously navigates the quirks of human relationships, he knows he can’t give up on Julie—after all, being a “rescue” works both ways.
According to Luke, he’s “about to leave the office.”
Despite what he just said to whoever is on the receiving end of the furtive cell phone call he’s making, Luke’s actually sitting in his car right outside the house I share with my best friend Julie. Which proves he’s lying. It wouldn’t be the first time.
Julie hasn’t heard his latest lie, of course. Her hearing isn’t as good as mine. She has heard the car pull up, waved to him, acknowledged his “on the phone” mime through the window, and left her front door ajar so she can return to the particularly gripping part of EastEnders we’ve been watching, where a mean-looking bald gentleman has just instructed the pasty-looking character he’s been threatening to beat up that he “ain’t worth it.” An appraisal that—if it referred to Luke—Julie and I would have wildly differing opinions about.
I take the opportunity to sneak out through the open door, trot along the path, and sit just the other side of the garden gate, where I can eavesdrop on what’s sure to be the latest twist in a saga way more complicated than the television shenanigans in Albert Square.
“Sure,” Luke says, after a moment, “Chinese or pizza?” which makes my mouth water, especially when he adds, “Chinese and pizza it is.” Then I’m brought sharply back to reality, because at his, “Love you, too, sweetie,” I realize he’s talking to his wife, and remember that not only is he a liar, but he’s a philanderer as well.
Luke finishes the call and checks his hair in that reflective device stuck to the car windscreen that Julie only ever uses to help her apply her makeup when she’s driving, smells his breath in his cupped hand and peers up and down the street as if looking for someone. Then he climbs out of his car, walks a pace or two away from the curb, and swivels around quickly to click the vehicle shut with the remote, as if he’s firing a gun in the opening credits of a James Bond film.
With a frown, he walks back up to the driver’s door and wipes a barely-visible smudge from the paintwork, then he takes a step backward and admires the vehicle—one of those sporty-looking coupes that, mechanically, is the same as the “family” model. Style over substance, as Julie’s dad would no doubt point out. Therefore pretty much the kind of car you’d expect Luke to drive.
With a last check of his cell phone, he switches it off, slips it into his pocket, and strides confidently toward Julie’s gate, hesitating when he spots me waiting for him in the garden.
“Doug,” he says.
It’s an observation rather than a greeting, so I give him a look, reluctantly step to one side so he can get past, then tail him back toward the house, nipping in through the front door before him, just in case he tries to shut me outside.
“Sweetie?” he shouts, as he regards me warily, and it occurs to me I rarely hear him call her “Julie”—a sensible tactic if you’re seeing multiple women, I imagine.
“In here,” replies Julie, from the living room, and Luke strides along the hall, peering around the house like a potential burglar, though if I know him, there’s only one thing he’s interested in getting his hands on.
I follow him into where Julie’s sitting expectantly on the sofa, taking up a defensive position at her feet as she switches off the TV. This is worrying: EastEnders isn’t over yet, and under normal circumstances, even if the house were falling down, she’d probably try and hang around, dodging falling masonry, until the end credits were rolling. Then again, as Luke’s all-too-regular off-hours presence here often reminds me, he and Julie aren’t exactly “normal” circumstances.
“This is a pleasant surprise!”
“Couldn’t stay away.” Luke collapse-sits onto the sofa next to her, then hoists his feet up onto the coffee table as if he owns the place. “You know me.”
I exhale loudly as I take up a guard position beneath his legs: If she really knew Luke, I doubt she’d let him in the house, let alone on the sofa. It took me long enough before I was allowed to sit there.
“Can I get you anything?”
“Just this,” says Luke, leaning across to plant a wet one (as Julie’s dad describes the way I do it whenever anyone raises me to face level) on Julie’s lips, and I have to look away. I don’t know why, but I find this “kissing” thing Luke and Julie insist on doing unsettling—possibly because of the weird hum of pleasure he makes every time. “I was just passing. Realized how much I missed you.”
“Passing?” says Julie, dejectedly, then she does a double take, and a look flashes across Luke’s face, and Julie’s expression mirrors it. Then I realize why he’s come round, and it shocks me so much it’s all I can do not to let out a disgusted bark. From what I can work out given his earlier phone call, he’s going to have a “quickie” with Julie, then calmly pick up takeout and bring it home to his wife.
“Yeah.” Luke licks his lips, an action which makes me shudder. “I’m not interrupting any plans, am I?” he asks, though I’m pretty sure he already knows the answer to that question. Julie rarely has any plans. Mainly because—given Luke’s situation—she can’t make any.
“No, just…” Julie nods at the TV. “Priya’s going to be here in a bit. Game of Thrones is on.”
“Oh yes. The Dragon Lady.” He rolls his eyes, and I’m not sure whether he’s referring to a character from the program or Priya. Luke’s not her biggest fan. And the feeling is definitely mutual.
“I can call her,” says Julie, already reaching for her phone. “Tell her to come later. We can watch it on DVR.”
“Don’t worry. I can’t stay.”
“Oh.” The disappointment in Julie’s voice is so obvious, Luke can’t help but give a little victory smile.
“For long,” he adds, looking pointedly at his watch.
“Oh,” says Julie, again, followed by another, but this time, an I-get-it one, which makes me suspect she’s “up for it,” as I’m sure Luke would probably describe her. It’s at that moment I decide I can’t just stand idly by and let him get away with this. So as Julie shimmies across the sofa to straddle him, and Luke reaches up and starts unbuttoning her blouse, I squeeze myself out from underneath his still-outstretched legs, leap up onto the sofa, and force my way between the two of them.
“Doug!” Julie gives me a stern look. “Down!”
I’m wishing I could say the same thing to Luke, but before I can decide what my next move’s going to be, he picks me up—rather ungently, it has to be said—and sets me back on the floor.
“Yes Doug, down!” Luke sniffs his fingers, makes a face, then surreptitiously wipes his hands on a cushion, which irks me even more, particularly since I’ve already had my bath this month. “Now, where were we?” he says, reaching for Julie’s buttons a second time.
As he busies himself with the contents of her blouse, he simultaneously blocks my route back up onto the sofa with his legs, and I fear I might be stymied, until I remember a tactic that Eddie, the Jack Russell star of the reruns of Frasier Julie and I love watching, often uses. I dart under the coffee table, leap up onto the armchair opposite the sofa, position myself in Luke’s direct eye line, and fix him with my most disapproving stare. After a moment my strategy works, because he opens his eyes midkiss (which is even creepier than the noises he makes), catches sight of me over Julie’s shoulder, and breaks away from her.
“Something the matter?” asks Julie.
Luke glares back at me. “It’s Doug.”
“What about him?”
“He’s staring at me.”
“What?” Julie turns to look at me, so I hurriedly put on my best, most irresistible pug eyes, wrinkle my forehead to the maximum, then angle my head for good measure.
“He’s not staring. He’s a pug. That’s just how it appears.”
“Well, just shut your eyes.”
Julie leans down to kiss him again, and Luke does as instructed. But sure enough, a few seconds later, he half opens one of them, to find I’ve resumed my visual assault.
“He’s doing it again.”
Luke wriggles out from underneath her, sits upright, and places a cushion in his lap. “I’m sorry. I just can’t. Not with him…”
Julie sighs, then she gets up from the sofa, picks me up and carries me through to the kitchen.
“Sorry, Doug,” she says, depositing me on the floor by my bowl, before tipping some food into it, hurrying back into the living room, and shutting the door behind her.
“Now, where were we?” I hear her say, perhaps a little impatiently, then everything goes quiet, so I pad over toward the door. It’s one of those opaque-paneled ones, so all I can see is the outline of the two of them cavorting.
I sit down and fix my gaze on my best guess of where Luke’s face is, and stare as hard as I can at him through the frosted glass. And it seems to work, as it’s only around thirty seconds before Julie says, “What now?”
“He’s still doing it.”
“Doug. Staring at me. Through the kitchen door.”
“What, with his X-ray vision?”
“You know what I mean.”
Julie sighs in a way that demonstrates that it’s evident she doesn’t. “What do you want me to do. Put him outside?”
I whimper at the prospect so plaintively that it’s only a matter of seconds before Julie opens the kitchen door, picks me up, and carries me over to the armchair. Though my victory is fleeting, as she heads straight back to the sofa, and resumes her straddling of a somewhat disgruntled-looking Luke.
“Tell you what.” Julie walks her fingertips suggestively along the arm of the sofa. “Why don’t we take this into the bedroom?”
Luke frowns, perhaps wondering whether Julie’s suggesting some light furniture removal, then the penny evidently drops. “Good idea,” he says.
“Right. I’ll just nip into the bathroom, and you…” Julie nods in the general direction of the bedroom.
I sit there innocently as she jumps up from the sofa and heads off along the hall. But the moment she shuts the bathroom door behind her, I leap down from the chair, sprint out of the living room, and—almost losing it on the sharp corner thanks to the combination of my short legs and Julie’s polished wooden laminate flooring—get to the bedroom ahead of him. And I’m already sitting defiantly on Julie’s bed by the time Luke appears in the doorway.
He narrows his eyes at me, then glances at his watch again, perhaps working out just how late he can get away with arriving home by blaming it on the length of the wait for the takeout. Then—and admittedly it’s the one flaw in my plan—he raises both eyebrows in a gotcha way, and shuts the bedroom door, trapping me inside.
Hurriedly, I jump back down from the bed, run to the door, and place an ear against it. From what I can work out, Julie’s finished in the bathroom, and I hear Luke tell her that, actually, the sofa’s just fine with him. There’s a giggle (Julie), then the sound of a belt being undone, then silence, followed by some sounds that I’d rather not report. Aware that I’ve run out of options—and I’m not proud of myself—I begin to whine. And whine. Then I start to bark insistently, upping the volume every third-or-so bark, until finally there’s a frustrated-sounding “For crying out loud!” from Luke, quickly followed by footsteps, and a slightly-flushed-looking Julie opening the door.
“What’s the matter, Doug?” she says, as she picks me up and carries me back into the living room. “How did you get yourself shut in there?”
I glance pointedly over to where Luke is sitting on the sofa, adjusting his clothes while giving me what I believe is known as “the evil eye,” but Julie misses the inference.
Luke sighs resignedly, in the manner of someone who’s realized he’s not going to get what he wants. “Right. Well…” He glances at his watch a third time, then hauls himself reluctantly up from the sofa. “I ought to…”
“Don’t go.” Julie sets me gently back down on the floor, then takes a pace toward him. “We haven’t even…”
“Yes. Well. Whose fault is that?” huffs Luke.
He’s meant that it’s mine, but judging by the look on her face, Julie appears to have taken his last comment personally. “Sorry. No. You’re right,” she says, sulkily. “You get off home to your wife like a good boy!”
As Luke swallows loudly, I snort as incredulously as I can. There’s only one good boy here, and (spoiler alert) it’s me.
“Sweetie, don’t be like…”
Julie shrugs off his attempt at a hug, and I brace myself for the inevitable. They’ve had this conversation—or rather, argument—several times before, and each time Luke tells Julie he just can’t leave his wife yet, I sense a little something die inside her.
True to form, she’s got tears in her eyes, and though I’d like to rush over and comfort her, I stop myself. She needs to feel bad about Luke, and sometimes you have to be cruel to be kind.
“Don’t ‘sweetie’ me!” she snaps. “You promised!”
“And I will.” Luke perches on the arm of the sofa. “I told you, now’s not the right time. I just need to get all my ducks in a row, and…” He fires off finger pistols in rapid succession, and I can’t help but snort again. “But I understand,” he continues. “If you can’t wait, then perhaps we ought to…”
“No, I didn’t mean…” Hurriedly, Julie takes his hand, as if she’s the one who should be apologizing. “I get that this is hard for you. Really, I do. But you can’t blame me for wanting us to be together?”
She smiles down at him, a pleading expression on her face, and Luke kisses the back of her hand, as if bestowing some kind of papal blessing. Then he stands up and sighs dramatically as he takes her in his arms. “It’s what I want too,” he says. “But try and look at things from my point of view. I just want to do right by everyone, you know? You, me, and Sarah…”
At the sound of Luke’s wife’s name, Julie winces, then she nods, though if you ask me, the only person Luke has ever intended to do right by is himself.
“Okay,” she says, reluctantly. “So I’ll see you on Monday?”
Luke looks shocked for a moment, as if there’s some important date he’s forgotten, then he lets out a short laugh. “You mean at work?”
Julie nods again, and Luke grins like someone who knows he’s still in the driving seat—and not just of the showy coupe parked outside. “Right,” he says, patting his pockets to locate his car keys, his mind probably already on which pizza topping he’s going to choose. “Well, say hi to Priya for me.”
“Sure,” says Julie, though all three of us know she won’t, unless she wants a lecture.
“I’ll see myself out,” Luke says, and even though that’s probably directed at me, I still make sure to escort him off the premises. I wouldn’t want him to take anything. Especially advantage of Julie.
Though my fear is, that’s exactly what he’s doing.
Excerpt from Pug Actually by Matt Dunn. Copyright © 2021 by Matt Dunn. Reproduced with permission. All rights reserved.