Short story: 1863 words
IT WAS that time of year. Neighbours left plants, weedy in pots, on his doorstep. Kindly meant, of course, but plants needed planting; they could not simply disappear as did their bags of tomatoes and courgettes (priapic singletons), some eaten, some dropped discreetly into the dustbin. Meanwhile there was cricket on telly.
More burdensome, the plants were gifts from wives rather than husbands since wives tended towards horticultural management: planning the flowering sequence, rearranging the terracotta pots and distributing the surplus. The doorstep donations acting as prelude to legitimate if interrogatory chat.
“The euphorbia was a wee bit forward,” said Tessa. “I realised you’d need to dig deeper and that can be hard work on this estate. All that builder’s rubble just below the surface.”
“I’ve found a narrower spade answers,” Frank said, proud he’d chosen the spade and could talk the talk, depressed at having to appear enthusiastic.
“Oooh, stainless steel! That must have been pricey. I hope it wasn’t from Outlands. They’re sky high.”
It was from Outlands but the right response was to hand: “It was on offer.”
The euphorbia was now embedded and conversation was dying. “You did remember the two inches of potting compost, Frank?”
Tessa stood on one foot and then the other. “No other news... I suppose?”
“I’m not expecting any really. Under the circumstances.”
Under the circumstances. Because the dinette was visible through the side window he laid out teapot and milk jug on the table then stood back and poured Scotch into an opaque Melamine tumbler. The test match had paused for lunch; he slumped on the couch and picked up a 600-page tome, The Role of the Imams. Not his fodder but when life became fictional non-fiction was a comfort.
NOW he could rise as early as he liked. Even shower. Drink two strong cups of instant coffee without becoming an obstacle in the kitchen.
On the driveway condensation masked the car windows turning the sporty V6 into a conveyance for dead bodies. Normally he borrowed humdrum models to show solidarity with the majority of customers but these days routine didn’t appeal; the V6 had been a leap in the dark but it roared uninhibitedly, probably disturbing the neighbours. He’d swap it for the standard 1.6 litre some time this week.
It was still early in the showroom and browsers didn’t start to trickle in until ten. Debbie stared out of the picture window her hands linked behind her, above her nicely shaped bum. Frank beckoned her into his office.
“What’s one week taught you?” he asked.
“Most customers are tentative.”
A rare word at this dealership. But then Debbie was fresh out of uni and had been taken on experimentally, the first ever woman saleswoman at Clancy’s.
“How do you handle that?”
Frank changed tack. Posed questions about fuel economy, leasing and extended warranties to test her more severely. But she was fluent in everything.
“Any suggestions?” he asked.
“The lobelias are starting to wither. Or someone’s not watering them.”
Until then he’d been relaxed, roving her expertly made-up face, wondering idly if a woman as attractive as this (albeit older) would ever figure in his life. But lobelias caught him at the back of his throat. Drove the puff out of him.
“You know about lobelias, then?” Speaking so suggestively that Debbie stared, confused.
“The leaves go brown; it’s a sign they’re drying up. Common sense.”
“You’re not... addicted to lobelias?”
“Some women are.”
“And at Clancy’s that’s bad karma?”
Abruptly Frank switched his attention back to the real world: his office, the Salesman of the Year certificates, Glass’s Guide, pendant ball bearings to calm his troubles; with Debbie’s troubled face on the far side of his desk. He coughed, “My mind was wandering. I’ve always been weird about flowers.” Debbie’s face slackened a little. “They’ve never been my thing; cars have left me narrow-minded.” Now she smiled faintly.
The incident haunted him throughout the day. Back home he filled the Melamine tumbler with Scotch and sat down on a patio chair, still in his working suit, sipping regularly and staring at the garden. Ticking off the jobs, knowing they would be followed by other jobs, then others, a cycle that never ended. That he had inherited.
The tumbler was still half full when he set it aside on the patio table, went indoors and emerged in paint-stained overalls and Berghaus Explorers, bought for a Brecon Beacons walking holiday that never moved out of a Builth Wells pub. As he cut back the elder bush every third snip accidentally engaged the lock on his secateurs, forcing him to thumb it back so the blades would re-open. A defect that had irritated him for four years; but he’d examined other secateurs and found they were not only expensive but all had a similar blade-lock. Later the severed elder branches proved to be too long for the garden waste bag and had to be cut in two. More thumbing.
But now he could resume the patio chair and finish the Scotch, trying not to sip too quickly.
Falling asleep that evening, two more large Scotches to the bad, he remembered he’d run out of plastic blades for the hover mower.
The following morning Debbie beckoned him out of the showroom and on to the forecourt. “Sorry about the le Carré stuff,” she said, “but your ex waylaid me outside my flat. Accused me of having an affair with you.”
Frank sighed, felt his shoulders sag. “I suppose it’s a sort of compliment. I’m Speedy Gonzales and you’ve been here only seven working days. I’m sorry, truly sorry. But she is – as you pointed out – my ex and I’m not sure I’m still responsible.”
“I was quite flattered, I always fancied being thought louche. And she’s a real looker.”
“Oh, she’s that all right. Were there any other oddities?”
“Veiled references to a dibber. I didn’t understand.” Debbie said, frowning.
“So what’s a dibber?”
“God, I must seem like an old idiot. Would you do me a favour, Debbie? Would you look it up on Google? I’m too embarrassed to explain.”
Max, the dealership proprietor, a satyr renowned over three counties, came in and asked for the keys of the V6. “I’m taking the new girl – Hattie, is it? – to lunch. Time she got used to our little ways here at Clancy’s.”
Frank handed over the keys. “The car’s a bit noisy.”
“So am I,” said Max wolfishly.
Escorted out of the showroom by Max, Debbie whispered, broke away and hurried over to Frank’s office. “I looked up dibber; I guess it explains your weirdness with flowers. But you mustn’t worry, Frank, I’m not offended. I’m a big girl now and I went to Leicester not Oxbridge.”
Frank nodded, spoke awkwardly. “You’re having lunch with Max. I should warn you...”
“That he’s an old goat?” Debbie laughed. “I know that. Don’t forget he interviewed me for this so-called job. I’ll keep my legs crossed.”
A so-called job; Frank checked an invoice, ticked the box labelled Sales Manager, picked up another invoice.
With Max away Frank held the fort during lunchtime. An eighteen-year-old in jeans slouched in, shuffled round the shimmering cars on display and asked Frank which model was claimed to be the tart-trap. Frank grinned complicitly as he imagined a teenager might grin: “Not the word I’d use on the premises, sir, but you probably have the V6 in mind.”
“None o’ these, I’d say.”
“Our only V6 is out for the moment.
“Road tested or tart tested?”
How hard it was to hold back from standing on the young oaf’s foot. Gave him a brochure instead.
The tart-trap arrived late afternoon and Max went straight upstairs without comment to the executive suite. Debbie resumed her sales patrol, but out on the forecourt. As if they were both observing a sort of etiquette, Frank thought. From now on he would limit conversations with Debbie; that way he’d stop himself day-dreaming. And in any case she didn’t need his help.
SUNDAY was easily the worst day of the week. For years he’d spent the morning with The Sunday Times, toast and marmalade, and cups of coffee. Now his pyjamas came off and on went the paint-spattered overalls. The Explorers were waiting for him in the back porch, brushed clean of mud.
Rain had flowed under one of the patio paving slabs and had washed away part of the bed of sand. The discrepancy in the paved surface was hardly noticeable but he couldn’t afford to let it be. The slab weighed twelve kilos and tore at his finger nails as he lifted it up and replaced it, over and over, adding more sand then taking sand away, trying to get it level. As the pain in his abraded finger-tips increased he put on garden gloves but they made his hands clumsier.
Inevitably she arrived just as he finished and there was nothing to see. He attempted to explain but she shrugged. “Men can always find some fool work to keep them away from what matters. Never mind this nonsense, the acer out front is clearly pot-bound. You face a decision: a larger pot or replanting in the bed. And I’d say you’ve only got two weeks left.”
She began to tour the back garden; he, as acolyte, two steps behind. Suddenly she turned, her lovely face furious. “What’s this wretched euphorbia doing here? You know how I hate them. As usual you haven’t thought it through. As they get older they become orange. How will that sit among the cosmos stems?”
Knowing he was on a hiding to nothing he explained – haltingly – about neighbourly gifts. Her voice rose, “Simply chuck it on the compost.”
“But I live here. With these people.”
Now her voice fell to low menace. “You’ve also got obligations.”
There was more of this as they inspected the front garden, made worse by the presence of a large BMW parked two houses away, his replacement lolling at the wheel reading a newspaper. Probably The Sunday Times.
Finally she was into her final phase, more in sorrow than in anger. “Look Frank do you want the garden to go to rack and ruin? It was you who took it on.”
He nodded, he’d heard this many times.
“All right, I left you,” she said. “That’s agreed. I was prepared to disappear, right out of your life. It was you who suggested this arrangement, that I come by and offer advice.” She smiled as only she could smile. “That tickled my fancy. I am something of a garden enthusiast.”
More like an obsessional.
“But if you’re not prepared to put in the work...”
Ah, that elegant frown, those full lips. “I’ll do better, Phil.”
Frank hesitated. “But you were a bit rough on Debbie. And none of it true.”
“For your own sake, Frank. I passed by the showroom and knew she’d be a distraction. Taking you from all this.”
This was Phil at her worst, the mistress of false concern. But as he buried himself – imaginatively – in her deep copper hair, looked into those piercing blue eyes, he realised... what? How ordinary Debbie looked. And a saleswoman.