Available: 5 April 2022
Available: 5 April 2022
Lily the Tiller is a nomadic gardener on the permanent lam from a bleak, abusive past. Scouring the lanes of South West England looking for temporary work, she pitches up at Motthoe, a now dilapidated, but once grand, country estate, where Dreamer Harry – Motthoe’s reluctant owner via recent inheritance – falls for her with only the slimmest hopes of reciprocation. In Lily’s care, a walled garden at Motthoe begins to blossom and the greening magic of this new life touches each of Motthoe’s cast of idiosyncratic inhabitants.
But, even in the midst of this community blossoming, dark hints and ill-omens suggest Lily’s grim history can be run from no longer.
Out 5 April 2022. Available for Pre-order
She watches a man, of medium height and mellow colouring, engaged in the making of something. Beside him on a long, low, stone wall there is a hammer, with a black rubber handle, and a scatter of nails. Also, a jar. It is the sort of jar that some people (who had lived differently from the way that Lily had lived) might have known in their childhoods, in their grannies’ houses, to have contained buttons, or sweets. This one contained more nails.
The man was dressed mostly for the country, in corduroy trousers and a thick navy sweater with holes in the elbows, but his pink striped shirt spoke of somewhere else. As did his hold on the hammer when he lifted it, having removed another nail from the jar. He held the nail, with the thumb and index finger of his left hand against the non-compliant corners of a pair of right-angled pine planks, swung the hammer and let fly a brief string of curses. He had his thumb in his mouth when he noticed Lily.
Lily had left her van on the main road, walked to the turn-off along the narrow lane and up the steep curve of the driveway, stopping twice to look back down through the rhododendrons at the view. She liked to approach a house on foot; it was quieter, gave her the observer’s advantage and offered the possibility of retreat in case her instincts had drawn her to the wrong one. Lily’s instincts, taut as violin strings, had yet to fail her completely, but she had in some cases made mild misjudgements and Motthoe was an altogether different house from the houses she had approached before.
Motthoe was a mansion. A stately upended shoe-box, facing south over its own woodland and fields. Lily would have liked to have lifted it and twisted it a quarter turn, toward the sea behind her – mirror bright today, quivering in a soft breeze. The building was pinkish-beige, like a Golden Leaf-Edge orchid, except for the exposed north-western corner – blackened by two hundred years of elements – and the ivory columns of the portico. The windows, larger on the lower floors, smaller as the levels rose, shone in the morning sun that hit them now. It was the glint that gave the building its grandeur. Sunshine, if bright enough, works like bleach.
In fact, most of Motthoe was not nearly as grand as its façade suggested and there were plenty of clues as to this state of affairs for the mildly keen observer. Lily was an extremely keen observer and took in straightaway a broken ceramic urn and an abandoned deck chair in a mass of crocuses –the chair’s once blue stripes now smoky with age, the white canvas yellowed and stained, one arm snapped into a crooked salute. The edges of the lawn were uneven and the centre was patchy with puddles and weeds – thriving, even in February, in the mild climate of south west England. More of them poked through the gravel at Lily’s feet.
‘A birdhouse,’ the man said, waving his uninjured hand behind him, indicating the abandoned planks; explaining himself, as if he were the interloper, rather than she.
‘Yes,’ said Lily, as if she had known this right away, because a woman who is reliant on strangers for work, an itinerant, learns quickly to fit with people.
‘For owls,’ the man said.
Seeing him now, fully, from the front; a Silver Birch – mop-haired and romantically unformed around the jawline – Lily thought: forty, or thereabouts. ‘Owls,’ she said. ‘Symbols of wisdom. And doom.’
‘Doom,’ he said. He lowered the thumb. ‘I thought building something on a minor scale might be within my capabilities. I was wrong.’
It is a soft delivery, but Lily who sees all, knows all, detects in it the faint, sour mix of humiliation and annoyance. ‘A seed-raised wisteria can take twenty years to bloom,’ she said, ‘Sometimes it takes time to find your gift.’
The words had their edges filed completely away by the dulcet burr of Lily’s accent – accent of thick cream and ripe apples and sunsets. And Harry, Lord Harry of Dreams, romantic as mist, fell in love with her for saying them at the exact same time as he dismissed them as piffle. This is Harry’s life – heart on one side, two hundred years of heritage on the other.
Lily, head and heart for the moment aligned, smiled and said, ‘Lily the Tiller; gardens loved.’ By way of introduction.
‘Harry,’ said Harry. ‘Gardens neglected.’ He smiled, too, in this open territory. ‘As you see…’ he finished, with a big, awkward swish of an arm.
It is the awkwardness that makes him so unthreatening – Lily is permanently alert to Threatening. He walked toward her.
‘I do see,’ she replies.
And Harry, although he is not always the most intuitive of fellows, can tell, or believes he can, that there is no judgement in this. ‘Are you looking for work?’
Something in his tone, something beneath the apologetic politeness, firms up, suggesting to Lily that what he lacks in construction skills may be made up for by a certain amount of local clout based on nothing but birth. The Hopeless Son, she thinks. ‘I am,’ she says. She lowers her green, canvas backpack, sliding it from her shoulders with the grace of a flushed fawn clearing a brook, and smiles again – spring embodied. She is dressed in layers of coloured wool and floral cotton. Her tan boots are laced up to meet the swinging hem of her full skirt. Her hair, a plaited, chocolate rope, spills around her neck. She flips it away.
Minnehaha, Harry thinks, Poetical maid and legendary beauty. ‘All hands welcome,’ he says.
She held out her hands. They didn’t look to be gardeners’ hands, but she said that they were and Harry wanted to believe her. To believe in her – Lily the Tiller. If you bury a wish long enough, maybe it sprouts.
If he liked, she said, she could look at the grounds and get the measure of things. They could discuss what needed doing. What she could do. Harry thought this a fine idea, so they walked.
It was February, twenty-ninth – Leap Year, day of rare magic – and a splendid morning, with sprinkles of frost still crisping the hollows. Lily – her turn for authority now – talked to Harry, as they progressed along the tiered section of garden at the front of the house, about his bedding and borders (all woeful neglected) in a tone of loving authority that Harry had not heard since the voice of his grandmother had stilled – darkest of dark days, 26th of June, 1982. The wrenching pain of that loss – particularly cruel for a motherless child – had been later moderated, but it was recalled again now, briefly, by the musical tongue and unparalleled knowledge of Lily the Tiller. She could see underground. And into the past. Through the leaf muck and brambles, all the way to the lost hellebores.
‘They’re there,’ she said, ‘but suffering a dire lack of encouragement.’
‘Yes,’ said Harry. Harry could see how such a thing could happen. He asked Lily if she would be willing to be the pathfinder; the seeker and discoverer of the buried floral Shangri-La.
She said she would. And outlined her terms. None to speak of, but she advised him that Interference tended to cramp progress. (None Forthcoming, Harry promised) And some assistance would be required with the heavier labour. (Offered). Additionally, she, Lily, even on longer, thornier projects – such as Motthoe would likely be (Affirming Nods) – never slept in the houses she gardened: A Policy – no matter the number of rooms, any one hers for the choosing in this case.
Harry, whose Owl House had been the shiniest prospect for his day before Lily’s arrival, took in the possibility that she – divine interrupter of failure and aimlessness (Harry had plans, but they were often as hard to find as the ends of tangled wool) – might stay a while. It was a possibility that he was brimming to solidify. He looked down at Lily’s boots and asked if she was up to crossing a field. Lily did not answer, but smiled in a way that indicated that she was up to crossing the Sahara should the need arise.
They entered the field – which sloped steeply upwards, over and down again like a disturbed counterpane – by rounding the east side of the house, and followed the hedge line to the end where, on a corner plot, flanked on one side by a driveway (leading to Motthoe’s disused stable block and still-used garage) and on the other by a single-track country lane, there was a cottage. A sign on the cottage gate said ASHCOTT, but the lettering of the A and the S had worn off.
The cottage was furnished, low-ceilinged, mullion windowed, charming, and tangy with damp. It was currently home to a family of field mice, a lace web spider and a small bat. There was a house martin’s nest in the porch. Harry said that Lily could stay there if she wished. Lily said that she would. Harry, although he’d let himself hope, was astounded. Harry could dream, but he lacked vision.
On the day that he had returned to Motthoe, not a year before – the day before his father’s funeral – Harry had, like Lily, left his car at the bottom of the hill and walked up the driveway. He, too, had wanted to arrive in silence. In his case to gain time, to absorb his own entrance. He had wanted the trees to soothe his first sight of masonry – the pilasters and the parapets that were now his. Every upward step of that walk, of that day, had felt harder to Harry, as if the air itself were becoming heavier. It was late August, late evening and hot. Hotter than Spain, hotter than Italy, hotter than France, the car radio had informed him. Harry had left France twelve hours earlier; taken the ferry, driven the featureless highways from the port. It had been one of those journeys on which nothing is noticed, but a great deal is remembered for ever.
Harry had got himself installed at Motthoe – in an oak-panelled suite with an inefficient bathroom and a westerly vista – and friends (of the sort that a person collects in the course of ten peripatetic years) had come, and their friends. They had eaten cobbled-together meals and slept on cobbled-together bed linen and made cobbled-together go-karts, and roared them around the lawns and the largest of the barren halls. Most had arrived empty-handed, and many without introduction, and several had left with trinket mementos – inkwells, glasses, paperweights, soap dishes, cruet sets and, once, a pair of ornate limestone finials.
But the weekends had grown quiet after cold’s first bite. Motthoe’s heating was, at best, unreliable and by October fifteenth, the pitiful plink of water hitting buckets echoed through the empty halls, and draughts whistled under every door. The effort of placing foot to freezing floor from bed or bath demanded pioneer grit, and the faintest exhalation of morning breath turned immediately to a pea soup pall. Rats, seeking winter quarters began to walk boldly along the deserted, rear passages.
Against this fade of the partying weekenders, a whey-visaged, strawberry-blonde (on the run from her thirties and the too-frequent weddings of her friends) had hung on, and kept Harry warm for a while. Her name was Tish. Tish, by way of making herself indispensable, had suggested Bed and Breakfast at Motthoe. There were masses of people, she assured Harry, in the market for History with their eggs and bacon. We could give them tours, Harry, she said… and alpacas. Tish had headed purposefully for the second floor, hauling a large bolt of toile de jouy and a glue gun.
Harry had gone along with Tish’s notions at first, ignoring the unpalatable prospect of a Gift Shoppe – full of hand-crafted tat and cheaply printed postcards – but by Christmas the enthusiasm wrought by Tish’s long thighs, and what had seemed at first like her companionable chatter, had waned. The thing dead-ended fairly quickly after that, with a Boxing Day farewell that was wounded on her part and relieved on his. Since then, there’d been nothing long-term for Harry in the feminine company line, unless you counted the infinite adoration of Loyal Irene. Harry didn’t.
When Irene caught rear sight of Lily – morning number one of Lily’s residence, March 1st – fixing a festoon of bunting across the hitherto gloom of the front porch of the back valley cottage, she felt the torment begin to churn in her. It was worse when Lily turned at the sound of the car engine cutting and her plait flipped across her cheek.
Good Lord, Irene thought, Minnehaha.
Irene had pulled over because she had spotted activity at Ashcott on her rounds. Irene did her rounds on her way to work in the mornings; drove off the link road, wound through a tiny village (twelve houses, an ancient church and a good pub), and then bumped her serviceable saloon along a narrow track that was only ever used otherwise by farm vehicles. She skimmed the outskirts of the estate, noting fallen trees, and dead badgers, and swollen streams, and straying sheep, until she came in eventually by the back entrance. She considered this one of her duties, though it had never been asked of her. Irene took her duties at Motthoe very seriously.
‘Hello?’ she said, at Ashcott’s gate, sounding querulous, half hoping that the mirage would dissolve.
‘Hello,’ said the mirage, real as an anvil, though marshmallow in texture. She was wearing a blouse, Irene noted, that was far too insubstantial for spring.
Irene, unfairly flustered on her own turf, tried to summon Command, though she had no natural bent for it. In the absence of a miracle that bestowed exquisite comeliness, however, she figured it her best shot. ‘You are…?’ she said.
Lily lowered her bunting and gazed at Irene and saw there: Unrequited Love, glaring as a dandelion in a rose patch. ‘I am Lily,’ she said. ‘Gardens.’
Well, Irene told herself – ever on the hunt for the workable feature – a Label would help. Something to hide her pride behind when folk pointed out, as folk were wont to do – down the local (skittles night, quiz night) round the Post Office cash register – that Squire Harry the Younger; idler, fantasiser, soft-haired, soft-handed, soft-headed, laid back, posh boy –had a new woman, a nymph, installed. ‘She’s there for the Gardens’, Irene would say, as if explaining all. And then she’d make her escape before the gossip and eye-rolling turned feverish.
‘Irene,’ said Irene. But nothing more, because what more was there?
Irene’s affection for Harry (the secret light of her days) was, naturally, unacknowledged, especially by her. She knew that she fitted, in his mind and his talk, into a flat, undistinguished spot; below the Labradors, and above his dentist, but this was a position that she could settle in snugly enough, as long as nothing unsettling – with legs all long, up and under a florally skirt – materialised unannounced. ‘I… help out… at Motthoe,’ she said.
‘Would you like some tea?’ asked Lily.
This invitation was issued with such sunny directness that Irene found herself accepting it almost without thinking. And with it, her inevitable future of a Shattered Heart.
The milkless tea was pink and Irene didn’t quite trust it, but it didn’t taste as bad as it might have done, and, at Ashcott’s kitchen table, she amused herself with the possibility – slight – that Harry might wonder why she was late. Lily did not sit with her, but continued in her blithe ebb and flow of organising and prettifying, though the room was already clean and congenial – the old coal range was lit and radiating low, even warmth. Irene felt a prick at the realisation that Harry had probably helped to bring the coal in – because that is the sort of effort that a prime set of breasts will elicit – but she was encouraged, nevertheless by the order that Lily had imposed in such a short time.
The table and floor were cleared of dust and scum respectively, and the cottage’s collection of mismatched china – slackly washed and poorly stacked by the last set of weekend guests – had been taken out from behind the sticking latched doors of the kitchen units and rinsed. They were draining at the sink’s edge.
Irene found Lily’s beauty less daunting now she’d seen it diluted by a practical streak. And she prayed that this practical streak was as wide as the Nile, because it was she who had borne the fallout of Tish’s Bed & Breakfast fiasco: a minor ceiling collapse on a couple from Calsford. There is only (she had explained painstakingly to Tish, who had dragged these unhappy customers to the house from the car park of The Green Man) so much that a glue gun can do. Harry at that point had been still wearing his Lust Goggles, so Irene’s words had gone mostly unheeded, but Tish had charted her own downfall soon enough, with her increasingly ambitious plans and her perpetually restless tongue. When, at last, Harry had come back to what wits he had where women were concerned and the bowed derrière of Tish’s dolly hatchback had swung off down the driveway for the last time, Irene had watched its huffy departure with a distant sensation of lightness.
Lily, hoisting herself up to sit on the counter next to the draining dishes, began to clean the windows above with a white cotton rag. The room filled with the sharp, enlivening aroma of vinegar. ‘He doesn’t live up there all alone, then?’ she said.
‘Oh, I don’t live there… at Motthoe,’ Irene answered, feeling for some reason, embarrassed by Lily’s assumption that she did.
‘No?’ Lily said, turning her liquid eyes to Irene for a moment.
‘No. Dan does.’
‘Dan?’ Lily said. The interrogative was again unmatched by her body language, which exuded benign unconcern; a stream, slipping through a summer meadow.
‘He’s a friend of Harry’s. Or, a friend of a friend of a friend of Harry’s…’ Irene put her cup down and watched the three-quarter angle of Lily’s face. She’s like a magazine cover, or a painting, Irene thought, made real. ‘I forget the exact acquaintance. He’s been living here since late last year. Not in the house exactly, in what used to be the driver’s quarters, above the garage… Spends most of his time there, or wandering. Alone. You wouldn’t call him sociable.’
Lily’s smile came over her face in a slow trickle, warming as syrup. She finished her polishing and got down from the counter top with a pixie-nimble hop onto her bare feet.
Irene didn’t want their chat to end. She was feeling listened to, which was novel. ‘And The Gigglers,’ she said.
Lily laughed at this, which was enormously encouraging.
‘Two girls,’ Irene went on, ‘who’ve been tenants in the Nanny Flat since New Year. They work in the town, but they’ve shacked up out here for the peppercorn rent. They bring boyfriends back on Friday nights – a selection. There’s a fair bit of raucousness if you care to pay attention. Nobody does.’
Lily laughed again and Irene, all frothed up by this appreciating sound, accepted more of the pink tea. ‘And there’s a nice woman, Ruth, up here three weekday afternoons. She does her best to clean, but it’s too much for one person. Her daughters come with her sometimes, in the school holidays. To help…’
Irene’s face indicated her low rating of the Help offered by Ruth’s daughters. She patted her hair. It was brown hair, beginning to grey, of the kind that turns into a wayward halo of fuzz at the first hint of humidity. Irene, in a life spent wedged between moor and ocean, could count the days when her hair had behaved (and the world had been entirely free of disappointment) on one hand. She gave up on her hair and unzipped her brown, padded gilet. Beneath it she was a nicely shaped woman who had undergone some sagging – the sort of sagging that besets a person when she has no cause to think about, or look at, her own body. And nobody else to do it for her. Irene could have been any age between forty-eight and fifty-three. She was forty-four.
‘And the garden?’ Lily asked.
‘There’s only a boy to do the grass, since Tim died. Tim was gardener to Harry’s father – dreadful arthritis at the end. The grass boy comes weekly, mid-April to October. There’s no one now for the flower beds other than the odd casual worker. Well, and you…’
‘Lily the Tiller,’ Lily said.
The tea was finished. The cleaning things were stowed. Irene roused herself and stood with a slight, bustling scrape of her chair, and re-zipped her gilet. Lily walked with her out to her car. They stood together a moment at the gate. The sky was blue again. Above them a skylark sung.
‘Welcome, Lily. Welcome to Motthoe – though it’s not really my place to say it,’ Irene said, humble as her white cotton knickers.
Lily’s van had been advertised in the classifieds section of a small-town newspaper that had a photograph of the mayor and some children in animal costumes on the front page. She had bought it the way a person who is about to catch a train adds a packet of peppermints to their magazine at the station kiosk – without preamble. Lily bought all her vans this way, ditching one for scrap, taking on the new one, handing over cash in suburban driveways, or roadside lots. She had no attachment to her vehicles – she liked them to start, to go along, to be easy on petrol and to look anonymous. She kept her bedding in the van, and a warm coat and two hats – one straw, one felt. It transported compost, mulch, containers, and trees from time to time – tied to the roof or extending from the roped-open rear doors – but she kept her life in her backpack.
Lily finished emptying the backpack now in her cottage kitchen, laying the items on the table (once a card table, baize removed, requisitioned by a visiting flautist the previous summer and brought down from the main house on the shoulders of her lover), in a small ritual of stock-taking. She had already removed, the night before: her soap, her rosemary shampoo – she made it herself with jojoba oil – her toothbrush and a small tube of toothpaste. But there was left a skirt, twin to the one she was wearing (made for her by a woman in Loswithycombe, who had also made Lily two winter underskirts from recycled flannelette sheets), three sets of underwear, her spare long socks, a pair of flat sandals, two muslin blouses, a cable-knit cardigan – the colour of clay – two pairs of leather gloves, a tin of beeswax hand-cream, and two black ballpoints. And her notebook.
On the cover of the notebook was its number – #57. Lily was twenty-eight and she had been keeping notebooks since she was seventeen (feint-lined, soft covered). On the first line of the first page of the first notebook she had written: Primula Japonica, and she had filled an average of 5.3 notebooks every year since – this was not mathematics that Lily could have done for herself. As a child, Lily had been on the wrong side of the lemony tongues of the sorts of teachers who place great emphasis on subtraction, spelling and penmanship, but Lily’s notebooks and the scrawls and scribbles and sketches therein, the mass of collected facts and observations, were her best and most constant companions.
Lily read her notebooks to the exclusion of anything else, save the musty gardening books that she bought from market stalls from time to time, and sold the same way. Lily did not read newspapers. She did not know when there was a murder, or a fire, or an accident, or terrorist attack; she did not know that some poor family, distant and unknown, had lost a child, or a father. These were things that she did not want to know, did not want to bear. Lily knew the water requirements of astilbes, the effect of frost on oxalis, and the earliest and latest dates that cherry trees had blossomed in the northern hemisphere. She committed her own notes on these things to memory, learned them by heart in the writing and rereading. Often, she spoke portions of her notes out loud to herself – when she was setting out annuals, weeding, or spreading mulch – like mantras. Then, when she had filled a notebook and fully digested its contents, she chose its burial place – shredded its pages into appropriate compost, or burned it and put the ash on the soil of whatever garden she was working on. She left behind the dust of her studies for the worms.
Sometimes, if Lily was tempted to keep a notebook, if she found herself hesitating over the licking flames of a brushwood pyre, with the smell of smoke biting at the back of her throat, she pictured herself surrounded by the weight that other women were dragging through life: ornaments, place mats, sugar bowls, picnic jugs, empty vases and still-tagged dresses – belongings that blocked their way, and stuck them in their spots sure as concrete blocks tied at their middles might. She had no desire to be one of them, to be anchored by ownership, to be closed off from the possibility of escape. The possibility of escape was oxygen to Lily.
She refolded her clothes now and returned them to the back-pack. Then she sat and wrote in notebook #57: Magnolia Campbelii. She had seen one, in Motthoe’s grounds the day before, in full flower, though it was still three weeks before the official start of spring.
Lily had as yet only toured the forward and eastern sides of Motthoe’s gardens. After Harry had shown her to Ashcott the day before and led her through it (kicking at skirting boards, opening windows, testing the swing on doors) and, as Irene had supposed, brought the coal in with a big, old Made Fire look on his dial. After that he had left Lily alone –withdrawing with three, long, backward strides – to ‘get herself settled.’ And she had.
She had driven in to the nearest town. It had taken her thirty-seven minutes. She had parked in the central carpark, found a store that sold everything she needed (lemons, baking soda, soft cloths, twine) bought them with cash and driven straight back. Lily wasn’t much for towns, even the small, innocuous country ones, with their pedestrianised high streets and striped awnings and hanging baskets and quaint homeware stores and proper greengrocers, reminded her of the underbellies of their unfriendly big sisters.
She had spent the rest of the day cleaning the cottage. But she had slept, as she always did, in her van, with the doors locked and the key in the ignition.
Now, Lily walked, via the back driveway that Irene had used an hour or so earlier, to Motthoe’s rear entrance. Irene, seeing her arrival from the ground floor room that served as Harry’s office – and was stilled lined with the metal filing cabinets that had lined it when his father had used it for the same purpose – put off a telephone call she had been intending to make to a plumber and went out to greet her.
As they made their way together, along the rear side, talking amiably, bonded in their morning’s friendship, Harry spotted them from an upstairs window, where a brocade curtain the weight of two horses hung perilously from its fixings off one side. The sight saddened him as heavily as the curtain did its pole – Lily was already hijacked, no longer his alone. He raced down to lag lonesome behind the women.
Dan, the garage dweller, easing out from his upstairs apartment – his sleep under the beams, two dogs for company –sipped coffee from a chipped mug and watched the threesome silently over it, from a shaded spot on the garage wall. Two dogs watched him. Lily sent him a look from the back of her head. He shook it off.
‘Where does this go?’ Lily asked.
A path, near the kitchen entrance, led to a wall with a blue painted door. They went through it. Separated from the house by a strip of lawn and three, wide curved steps was a garden; an acre and a half area, just over, walled on two sides by faded red brick, and on the third by a yew hedge that straggled and curved to the right, hiding a small greenhouse from view. At the base of the garden, separate pathways led off into enclaves, and one into the woods beyond. This had originally been a kitchen garden, then a formal garden, then a more relaxed mix of cutting plants had crept in. After that the ivy and the ground elder and the bindweed and the brambles had taken over. Nettles, too in great swathes at the woodland side. Of these, the bindweed, Lily knew, would be her greatest obstacle.
Twenty years, Lily guessed, the garden had slept there without any endeavour applied beyond scratchings. There were daffodils gone riotous, ivy on the rampage. Stone planters sat mossed; one its side, home to a toad. A totter of willow panels – evidence to more recent efforts – lay under a tarpaulin, in reasonable shape. Crampbark grew tall to wall height in the right-hand corner. Massed lavender had gone twiggy, with the rock roses. Euphorbia splattered its acid unchecked. Work to do, thought Lily, but, oh what fruits to bear.
Lily sat – in the manner of a silk thread dropping from a sewing table – on the second of the curved steps. Above them, to one side, was a paved area designed for a table and chairs, though it would have presented a major challenge to a spirit level. Harry and Irene, pleasantly afloat in Lily’s wake sat down, too – Harry taking the top step and planting his feet casually and with unintended intimacy just to the left of Irene’s bottom.
Harry and Irene listened and Lily spoke: she would take on One Garden. This one. One raggedy patch that she could bring back to something pretty and heart-lifting. Not perfection – that was a five-year task and longer. But she, Lily, would pass on all she could regarding its future development and care, before she left.
Harry, shutting from his mind any icy thought, that second clement morning, of Lily’s departure, got a look on his face that was the kind of look that Tish’s face had often borne – a pushing-through kind of look that denies all warning.
Lily, though, smiled. She had been honest and had promised nothing that she could not deliver – she never did. Her toes, bare still – Harry was delighted to note – stretched and arched towards the edge of the step below her. Alyssum, she was thinking, frilling along the rise, like sea-foam.
‘You’ll need Money?’ Irene said. Because who else would it fall to, to confront the nitty-gritty?
Lily nodded, pulling her eyes back, treacle slow, from imagination.
And therein lies the problem, Irene’s eyebrows signalled.
Harry was just about to bust forth with a blustery, over-promising, lacking-in-common-sense reply at which Irene would have bitten her lips, when Lily interrupted him. (Balm, she was, Lily.)
‘We could raise some,’ Lily said.
Harry and Irene were all ears.
‘Terracotta seedling pots,’ said Lily. ‘They’re popular for window ledges in false gardeners’ kitchens. There’s two hundred or more in the leant-to behind the stables. A few half-barrels, too – they’d do nicely for herb planters. And then, in the next few weeks you’ll have daffs. We can sell those in bunches – at the weekend market in Falston. That should make enough for the immediate costs.’
Irene grinned at Lily and brushed brusquely at something non-existent on her beige gabardine trousers – pleated at the front and no favours behind – getting herself into the activity of it all, aligning herself with a fellow Doer.
Harry stared. Beauty and brains; Lily was too much for him.
‘Saturday, then,’ said Lily. And she rose. Morning over. Nuts and bolts in place.
Behind the wall, but within earshot, one of the Labradors, bored of nuzzling Dan’s knees, yipped. Dan threw a stick and the dog lolloped off with its mate – older, beginning to whiten at the snout, but less distracted and straighter to the target. They tussled for it under an oak. Above them a squirrel startled and darted.
Harry looked up – the eye of his childhood and some of its instincts not so removed – and noted that the creature, scampering along an oak branch that brushed the garden wall, was grey. His father would have shot it – over his son’s head if need be. Grey squirrels; vermin who had seen off their red cousins and diseased the trees. Boom. Sometimes, Harry, boy untended, home briefly from school, would find the carcasses – no eating in them, left to putrescence. When he buried them, he recited whatever lines came first to mind over the disturbed soil – ‘In that rich earth a richer dust concealed’– with respectful solemnity. He left the graves unmarked. Only he knew the boneyards that peppered Motthoe’s reaches.
Now, reluctantly wrested by mention of the plumber, and apparently dismissed by Lily, Harry got up and walked with Irene back to the house – leaving the goddess behind in her new dominion.
Dan, waiting, motioning for the stick to be dropped at his feet from the tenacious jaw in which it was clamped, decided that he didn’t like much any of it. But that was Dan for you. Not a Liker.
Very late, after midnight, first quarter moon, Lily bent and undid the laces of her boots and removed them, and peeled her socks from her feet and set those aside, too. She walked two strides into the centre of a messy sprawl of wild geraniums and burrowed her toes underneath the new growth. Twisting her feet left to right she bored down under, where the damp lived soft, and down more into the earth, forcing one foot, then the other, into the ground, deep as she could. Her legs set slightly apart, her arms V-crossed over her slender middle parts, she tipped her head back, eyes closed, and felt the powerful heart-pound of herself fall into time, into tune, with the ground beneath her, with the night, in her newest garden. She stood there, a sapling, willing herself to take root.