‘Have you noticed something odd about this place?’ said my gardener. ‘A shadow moves and you see it out of the corner of your eye. You look and there’s nothing there.’
I shook my head, but in truth, the same fleeting shadows had been puzzling me since I moved in: perhaps the sun, birds, cars going along the lane at the top of the garden. Or the floaters in my right eye ever since a kid in a special school back in the UK hit me on the head.
‘So, what are you seeing?’ I’d mostly seen the shadows inside the house. But Conor never came in for his tea. He drank from a thermos in his van, in between spraying backpacks of weedkiller.
‘Well, it’s not really seeing, in that kind of a way, I suppose.’ He wrinkled his face, the way little boys with freckles do, except that he was about my age. ‘See, you’re probably built on a fairy road, here.’
‘A fairy road, see, it’s where the fairies like to travel. Before you build a house in Ireland, you must stand a hazel rod at each corner of the foundations, and if any of them is moved, then it’s on a fairy road and you mustn’t build there. I suppose – no…’
‘You know who sold us the house.’
Bryan Roche, who had accepted a knock down price for the house, or rather the failed DIY project, had given scant attention to planning and electrical regulations, never mind fairy roads. Conor and I were still unearthing his rubbish wherever we tried to plant: car headlamps, old television sets, a lead-acid battery.
‘Perhaps the fairies drove him out.’ Conor smiled. ‘Sure, they’ll go more gently on you.’
‘Maybe if we can clean it all up, and make the garden, or field, rather, look nice, they’ll relent.’ I heaved a sigh of despair, looking around at my half-acre. It had proved to be a wilderness of rocky soil, brambles, and wild weather. Wind that could wither a plant, crisping its leaves in a day without even fading them. Snow up to my waist and then drought for three months on end. It was getting me down.
I thought of Brighton and the terraced house I had left behind, with its sheltered courtyard and its trellises of clematis and ivy. I missed the multicolored rendered streets that clustered the hillsides all the way down to the green lawns of the Steine, the white domes of the Pavilion and the bustle of the Lanes and the seafront: the shops, the restaurants, the shows. And Robert.
I must have looked sad, for Conor put his arm across my shoulders and gave me a hug.
‘It’ll be grand, so.’
‘Come in for a cup of tea before you go, Conor,’ I said.
I went back indoors and watched him from the kitchen window as he sprayed the emerging nettles. Then I got out a packet of biscuits, the best ones.
The shadows did not return. Perhaps it was the summer light, or perhaps the fairies had heard us talking about them and realised their secret existence had been rumbled. Our friendship of opposites developed slowly as we worked on the garden together. His style of gardening was agricultural: heavy work, machinery, chemicals. When I asked for some bags of mulch he delivered a ton of well-rotted compost that sat in a pile on the drive, and then spread it in wheelbarrow loads across the borders. My style was urban: worrying with a trowel at weeds, planting pot-grown flowers from garden centres and eventually discovering that alpine plants and heathers were all that would survive the harsh climate.
One evening we ended up at a bar, down in the town, my suggestion. We had been working in the garden all day and were both too tired to cook. The Crown seemed a pleasant, spacious venue at first, with a choice of empty tables. We settled down with beers and a bowl of fried nibbles and he told me about himself.
He had left school without completing secondary education: in those days it had been optional and to earn money he had started farm work. He had saved, and bought a farm with his wife but the legal work was done shoddily and the property had had large debts entailed upon it. They lost everything, and his wife, blaming him for the loss, had deserted him. Twenty years later he was still raw about it. His two children were grown up: one in America and one in Australia. A few years back he had bought a bungalow at auction, a repossession stripped of every fixture and fitting, and was making it habitable in his spare time.
Im my turn I said a little about myself. I supposed that every one in the area knew that I was a widow, a retired teacher moving from the UK, although I had no living relatives here. My children were also grown up, approaching their thirties: my daughter teaching in Sussex and my son doing something lucrative (I was never sure what) in the City of London.
And I told him that Brighton still tugged at my thoughts. Moving here had been mostly Robert’s idea. So I had kept an eye on the estate agents’ websites, looking for a small apartment.
‘I can’t imagine you living back there.’ He shook his head. ‘How would you occupy yourself without a garden?’
How had I once spent my time? It was hard to remmeber.
‘I still have friends there. I used to like going shopping, or I’d go up to London for the day. And my daughter lives near Eastbourne.’ The truth was that Yvonne did not enjoy my visits, interpreting any suggestion I made about her children as ‘interfering’. I didn’t even mention my son. Adam did his own thing and did not answer my phone calls.
As the evening went on, the bar started to fill up and then we were yelling to be heard above the chatter of the crowd. At ten o’clock a band started to play and we had to abandon the conversation. It was a crunch moment: dance, or go home. I made an excuse and he walked with me back to the car park. We said good night and I gave him a peck on the cheek while he hugged me awkwardly.
The problem with living in a rural community is that everyone knows everyone else, and they know everyone else’s business. They know what you’re having for tea before you’ve even eaten it. Two days afterwards I got a call from a neighbour.
‘We’re having some people round for a barbecue on Saturday, Wendy. Perhaps you and Conor could come?’
I almost choked.
‘We’re not a couple,’ I said. ‘He’s my gardener.’
‘G’way! I heard you were kissing each other in the car park behind the Crown.’
‘Suzanne, it’s not like that,’ I said.
‘Sure, so, I’ll ring him myself and ask him over anyway. And I hope you’re coming over?’
I accepted, still grateful to Suzanne for her ready friendship.
Everyone sat in the yard under a huge gazebo – actually a polytunnel with some of the side panels missing – and a constant stream of ribs, burgers, chicken and so forth arrived from the BBQ to the table. Conor and I – aware of being under surveillance – studiously sat at opposite ends of the group, but every now and again our eyes met ruefully. Eventually, Suzanne’s daughter, who was sitting next to me, excused herself, and Conor stood up and brought his plate round to occupy her empty chair.
‘Whatever you do, don’t kiss me,’ I said, feeling awkward. ‘The gossip will go crazy.’
‘Ah, don’t mind them.’ He helped himself to a chicken drumstick. ‘They mean no harm by it.’
I glanced at his profile as he bit into the meat. His black hair, neatly brushed back, was streaked with grey. He too had sad lines on his face; we were both pining for other people.
He finished his chicken, wiped his mouth on a napkin, and leaned back in the chair.
‘Suzanne’s done well with the garden, anyway,’ he commented.
The yard was sheltered north and south by stone walls that ran up to the farmhouse and the eastern side was a long hedge of hardy fuchsia, covered in scarlet flowers, forming a backdrop for a flower border. Afternoon sun lit up orange rudbeckias, purple hebe and pink rugosa roses. Clumps of white lilies freshened up the hot colours.
I launched into a conversation about plant varieties and their suitability for various locations in my own garden – in our garden. But something in his eyes stopped me in mid-identification. His expression softer, half smiling.
‘What is it?’ I had not yet learnt to read him.
‘Don’t fret yourself. ’ He patted my hand where it rested on the plastic arm of my chair. ‘I’m listening, tell me about the garden.’
Suzanne, holding a plate for her husband at the barbecue as he loaded ribs on it with a pair of tongs, had glanced over at us and caught Mick’s hand on mine. I pulled away too late. She winked at me before turning away with a smile.
‘I’m sorry.’ Conor frowned, puzzled. ‘I never meant…’
‘Did you not see Suzanne, looking?’ I said. ‘It’ll be all round the neighbours now that we were holding hands.’
‘And what if we were?’ He offered his hand again, and after a moment I nested my fingers there, touching the mound of muscle at the base of his thumb.
‘Your hands are terrible. Look at the state of them.’ His fingers were dry and cracked and the nails were chipped and ingrained with dirt.
‘It’s you and your garden that’s done that,’ he said. ‘I’m a broken man, sure.’
‘And what about all the other gardens? You only come to me one day a week.’
’Now, I can make it more often. If you want me.’ That look in his eyes again. I withdrew my hand, less abruptly than before.
‘I’ll think about it,’ I said.
But I also thought a lot about Brighton. I might return and meet up with my friends again. Their promises to visit had not materialised. I felt like an exile, far from home. I missed my old life.
It had been Robert’s desire to move here. Retirement to a quiet corner of rural Ireland, where no one would trouble us, all the hectic madness of London and the south-east left far behind: the traffic queues, the pollution, the sprawling retail parks that had sprung up around the bypasses. Here life would be simpler, our teachers’ pensions would go further, and instead of a terraced two-up-two-down we would have the house and the garden we had always wanted. I would have a conservatory, a greenhouse if I wanted one. He would have a study with shelves for the book collection that was kept in boxes in the attic.
But when the old house had been sold, the contracts signed, and the removal date set, he fell ill. Pancreatic cancer. It was incurable. All they could offer him was an operation that would enable him to keep eating for another few weeks. He refused it. We were beyond the point of no return with the house sales. I put our furniture into storage and rented an apartment in Kemp Town, near the Royal Sussex County Hospital. It was still home, as long as he was there. The palliative care team set up syringe drivers and I fed him Fortisips, a teaspoonful at a time, and lay beside him on the bed, watching him shrivel up day by day. He died in my arms. As I waited for our GP to visit and certify his death I wondered how I would face life without him. He would never set foot inside the new house, whose keys were lodged with the house agents waiting for me to move in.
After the funeral I stayed in the apartment for a few months. There was the headstone to arrange, a pile of probate forms to complete. I spent the evenings alone on the sofa, drinking wine and reading novels to distract myself from my grief. When the 6 months’ lease ended I packed up. Early one morning I landed in Ireland, drove to the auctioneer’s office and picked up the keys.
I remember driving up to the house, stopping the car at the gate and looking across the windswept field, thinking I should go straight back to the auctioneer. This had been Robert’s dream more than mine. I should put it back on the market, sell up and settle back into Brighton. But the air smelled fresh and the wind sighed in the conifer branches behind me. I decided I would try.
It had been awful from the moment the removal men piled through the door with crate after crate from storage. I barely knew the house and had no idea where the furniture was to be positioned. I was immobilised for weeks by boxes. I had no Robert any more to help unpack, to put up curtains, to arrange items in the kitchen cupboards. And what was I to do with all his things: his ties, his shoes, the hundreds of books? In the end I stacked it all in the master bedroom and chose one of the smaller rooms as mine, the one that Robert had thought of as a potential study. Every night for months and months I curled up in a single bed with one of his old sweaters bunched up into a ball and cried myself to sleep.
The garden depressed me the most, a steep and rocky slope where it seemed nothing would survive other than weeds. It needed drainage, brambles and dock plants to be dug up and the grass to be taken up and turfed over. So that was where Conor had come in.
I thought about the barbecue and his hand in mine. He was not style-conscious. In the garden he wore the same muddy things week after week: fleece, jeans, wellies, t-shirt. In company he wore clean things: fleece, jeans, trainers, a cheap shirt from a chainstore. He would have chafed at anything approaching formal attire. He was long-limbed, stoop-shouldered in the way tall people often are, and with dark hair in unruly curls. Certainly not ugly, but he would have looked odd in the restaurants I had liked, or at Glyndebourne. In fact he hated opera. What would my friends have thought?
I stood back from myself for a moment and thought: stop. As you said to Suzanne, you are not a couple. He’s your gardener. Your loneliness, your bereavement, are making you latch on to him. If you’re not careful you’ll end up tied to him and to this barren landscape, marooned here for life, far away from everything familiar and homely.
I consulted the auctioneers. I’d get a reasonable price for the house.
‘I’m going across to Brighton,’ I eventually told Conor. We were tidying up the dead leaves of the montbretia that grew wild everywhere. It was a misty autumn day and water droplets spilled from the foliage on to our clothes.
‘I thought you might,’ he said. He was frowning down at a bundle of dry, brown strands, twisting them away from the roots so they didn’t need to be cut. He dropped them into the wheelbarrow.
‘Just to look,’ I said. ‘I’m unsure. I need to consider my options. You see, I don’t know if I could manage this place forever.’
‘You must do what suits you best. I know you’re not content.’ He stooped down towards the montbretias again, his expression hidden.
So I went back to Brighton, checking in at the Travelodge on the seafront and trawling the estate agents. A one- bedroomed retirement apartment in a modern block in Preston Park would be affordable. I’d sell my furniture. Robert’s belongings would have to be given to the charity shops. If I fancied a day in London I could just walk to the station and get the train; Gatwick Airport was half an hour away if I took a holiday. It would be easy to get into Brighton for the shops and the theatre, and Glyndebourne was a short and beautiful drive through the Sussex countryside. There would be lease payments and service charges, of course, but then I wouldn’t be spending hundreds on maintaining an acre of garden, and a few containers on the balcony would be the limit of my gardening responsibilities.
Hung over after a night out with the girls, I viewed the flat with the estate agent: it was tiny, a bit dark. But it was unoccupied, freshly re-decorated, ready for someone to move in: me, perhaps.
‘If you’re over 60 we can arrange a lifetime lease-purchase for you. A big discount on the sale price, you live the rest of your life here, rent and mortgage-free. When you die, the asset passes to the finance company.’
Yvonne and Adam had no need of an inheritance, and that arrangement would leave me with enough money for a good lifestyle for the rest of my life: shops, restaurants, bars, the theatre, trips to London. Could I live here permanently? I went out on the balcony and looked across Preston Park, hearing the hum of the traffic on the London Road. The last owner had left behind two containers planted with pink pelargoniums. Below me were the neat paved paths and green lawns of the communal garden.
In the periphery of my vision a shadow flashed past. Was it a bird perhaps, or a falling leaf? It reminded me of Conor and the fairy roads. Then I thought of the clean fresh air at my Irish house, the rural silence, the space.
That night I rang Conor.
‘I’m coming home,’ I said.