Old Stan MacClay was not easily diverted from his path. As he liked to say, a man who had been in that damned war and seen terrible things doesn't just scarper at the first sign of danger.
Not that he had anything to fear any more.now Nowadays, life was much quieter. Every day, Stan would walk through his garden, pull out some weeds, listen to the news, and complain about the stupidity of politicians, his wife Josie nodding her agreement.
And Stan went out with his dog every morning at exactly eight o'clock and every evening at half five. Precisely. They always walked the same path.
If they weren't home exactly three-quarters of an hour later, Josie knew something was wrong. The first time this had happened was seven years ago when Stan had fallen over picking up a stick for his Sammy. After sitting beside him for a while, howling, Sammy had run home to alert Stan's wife. She had already been anxious because the two were ten minutes late.
Although Stan had sprained his ankle, Josie had not been able to keep him in the house the next morning. ("Bah, I had worse injuries in the war. Can't keep a Jock down.") With a limp, a determined expression, and a walking cane in his hand, Stan had set off at eight o'clock the next morning, Sammy trotting beside him.
He kept the walking cane as his hair went from grey to white, but he never shortened his walk. Nor did he stop when his knees started to hurt badly, from arthritis probably - but he would never know, because he refused to see a doctor.
The second time he was late was a memorable day for him, his dog, his wife, and his neighbours who had to listen to the story for a long time to come.
That day, Stan and Sammy walked along, side by side, on their daily routine. They stopped for a minute by the church so that Stan could chat with a friend, went to the corner shop to buy the evening paper, and on their way home passed through the fields that had been in the family for several generations where Sammy enjoyed an evening run.
"Come on, Sammy," Stan called after a few minutes, and Sammy came running, her tongue hanging out, panting happily. A few metres in front of him, the dog suddenly stopped. She looked off into the clearing and whimpered.
"What is it, lass?" Stan said impatiently. Sammy had never been disobedient before. "Come!" He extended his hand as if he was offering her food. "Come here, we're going home."
When she still wouldn't budge, he gave a snort of frustration and turned.
He took a step back and rubbed his eyes.
When he opened them, it was still there. Barely fifty feet away stood what seemed to be a potato-headed gorilla. A giant-sized, badly shaped child.
Stan took another few steps back and accidentally trod on Sammy's tail. She yelped, but seemed to be too stunned to move.
He wondered whether he'd lost ability to estimate distances or if his eyesight had gone awry. But that couldn't be it. The thing was definitely big. It had torn down the old apple tree that Stan had played in as a boy. Now, it was ripping off the branches as if they were mere leaves and flung them on the field, watching gleefully as the apples dropped.
Stan stared as the monster picked up a handful of them and stuffed them in his mouth like a bunch of berries. When the giant burped, the ground gave a little tremor.
"'Ere, Grawpy!" a loud voice called and shook Stan from his stupor. Another figure appeared from behind the hill and moved towards the first. It was a large man with a shaggy beard and highly unusual clothes.
"Having fun, eh?" the man shouted. He might've been tall - even from a distance he looked twice as tall as shrunken old Stan - but he only reached the thing at just about its navel.
He reached for - was it Grawpy's? - hand and pulled it by two fingers. The tower of flesh looked down, apparently surprised.
"Come on, Grawp," the smaller figure crooned, which sounded distinctly odd, since he had a deep and resonant voice. "We'll play later."
He pulled again and slowly moved his companion forward. In Stan's direction. The old man stood rooted to the ground. Sammy, whose tail was still stuck under her master's foot, gave a start and edged backward, her animal instinct clearly reacting better than Stan's obstinate human mind. Stan's foot, however, prevented her from bolting.
The two figures were just thirty feet away now.
"We should be gettin' back to the forest, Grawpy," the bearded one said. "We have ter get away from this Muggle area." - Stan wasn't sure if his eyes and his ears were betraying him - "I'm jus' sorry we can' Apparate."
Maybe it was neither. Maybe it was his mind that was playing tricks on him.
"Hagger!" Godzilla bellowed, pointing. "Wizzurd."
Hagger looked and saw Stan.
"No, a Muggle, Grawp. Muggle. They're people like yeh or me" - pointed at himself and at the monster - "only they can' -" he stopped his lecture. "Uh-oh."
"Uh-oooh," the big one repeated and the ground shook.
There they were, each staring at the other.
On one side, old Stan with his patched Barbour jacket and a very scared little dog.
On the other side, a large, bearded man in a moth-eaten cloak accompanied by a grunting monster.
After a minute of relative silence (that was disturbed by the monster's loud puffing), Stan raised his walking cane in the air and pointed it at the other two like a weapon. Remember the war. Remember the war.
"You-you're not passing through my fields!" he said hoarsely.
"Wha'?" the bearded man held his hand to his ear and moved closer. "Didn' catch tha'"
"Stay away!" Stan croaked.
The man stopped in his tracks. "Yeh are a Muggle, righ'?"
"I am the proprietor of this field," Stan said proudly. "I think you're the one in a muddle."
"Righ'," Hagger said. "Er, look here, mister, I didn' mean ter disturb you. I'll jus’ leave, all righ'? No 'arm done?"
Hastily, the man pulled his big friend along with him past Stan, muttering something about "shouldn'a left them enchantments..."
"Good dog yeh've got there," he said aloud, turning one last time to Stan. "Mine's too afraid of Grawp here." He chuckled. "Even though the boy wouldn' hurt a fly. Eh?"
The man slapped the thing's hand. It looked down at him and slapped him back. He nearly doubled over.
"See," he said. "Nice chap."
Stan nodded silently. He watched as they left and Hagger turned to give him a cheery wave before disappearing in the woods with Grawpy. He shook himself. Cautiously, he moved towards the apple tree. It was totally ripped apart. So it hadn't been an illusion. Stan bent down to pick up an apple. Knees aching, he sat down on the ground (Josie would scold him for ruining a perfectly fine pair of trousers) and stared at the tree. Better not tell Josie about that.
That was a day Josie wouldn't forget in a hurry. Not only had her husband been late by twenty minutes, the evening paper he had brought home was so crumpled that she could hardly decipher the recipe her neighbour had recommended, and their dog wouldn't leave the house for the next week.
Worst of all, Stan clearly had been drinking. Josie didn't mind a good glass of sherry herself, but Stan had never been one for alcohol. He had even tried to take away her sherry a few years ago. Luckily for him, he had seen his mistake and never tried that again. Still, he liked to grumble at her habit and had told her she was drunk the day she had seen someone fly over their house on a broom.
Now she knew why: alcohol didn't agree with him. At all. If she had to hear that story about the two giants just one more time, she'd pack her bags and move in with her sister. Susie had been right all along when she had told her years ago that Stan MacClay was a "queer one"
And what was she supposed to do with the load of apples he had brought home?
The next morning, undeterred from his daily routine, Stan left the house at eight o'clock sharp. This time, he took a different path.