If there was one thing Maggie Alcott liked it was bleach. And if there were two things, they were bleach followed by a good dousing of liquid cleanser, preferably the old hospital-smell kind and not the lemon-scented one.
Maggie walked up the road from the bus stop with a carrier bag in each hand, having been to the supermarket to stock up on cleaning products and also on oven-ready meals for one and crispbread and light bulbs. She was looking forward to having a good go, as she put it in her own mind, at the state of affairs in the kitchen. Dust on the top shelves, spots of grease on the hob, and so forth. She was therefore irritated to turn the corner and see a young man standing on her clean front step. His hand was still on the brass knocker, which would now be fingermarked.
‘Mrs Alcott?’ he inquired as she came through the gate.
‘That’s right. What do you want?’
‘I’m from the council. For your back garden’.
Maggie felt in her pocket for her purse, inside which was her door key. She saw now that the young man was wearing green overalls, and propped up beside him in her porch were a rake and a scythe and a twiggy broom of the kind, Maggie remembered, that would properly be called a besom. This horticultural outfit looked entirely incongruous in Morrison Road.
‘My back garden’s the size of a pocket handkerchief, and is no business of the council’s or yours’, Maggie said briskly.
‘But it’s National Pocket-Handkerchief Back Gardens Week. Didn’t you know? And this is a local authority initiative, been in the pipeline for months. It’s free’, he added.
Maggie thought about this. Free was different.
‘Let me see your ID’.
From the pocket of his overalls he produced it, a laminated rectangle bearing the Council logo and the Parks and Recreation department address and telephone number above the man’s signature and photograph. He looked a shade less handsome in the picture than in the flesh. Something to do with the printed colours having faded. In reality his eyes were, yes, the colour of forget-me-nots. His name, Maggie noted, was Anthony N. Gell.
‘Wait there a minute’.
She let herself into the house and shut the front door behind her. She checked carefully to make sure there were no valuables or money lying around within reach, and then went back to let him in with his scythe and the rest. She showed him straight through the hall and down the steps into the back garden.
‘There you are’.
He looked at the tiny circle of lawn, now more like a miniature field, and the roses grown leggy and soot-spotted and the sour cat-scraped earth beneath them.
‘Hmmm’, he murmured.
‘What are you going to do?’
He smiled down at her. Dazzlingly.
‘I’m going to get it all sorted for you. That OK?’
Maggie said, with a touch of reluctance, ‘Well, I’ve got plenty to do so I’ll leave you to it. You must be busy too, if you’ve got to get round everyone’s gardens’.
His smile widened.
‘Oh, we’re not doing everyone’s. Not by any means’.
Maggie didn’t start clearing the kitchen shelves as she had intended. Instead she drifted upstairs to the bathroom, with its familiar scent of soap and warm tiles. With her thumb and forefinger she inched apart the pale blue slats of the venetian blind and peeped down into the garden. She was surprised to see that the sun had come out, although on the way home from the supermarket it had been threatening to rain. Anthony Gell was swinging his scythe with long, easy strokes through the lush grass. And then as she watched he stopped work and turned his face up to drink in the warmth of the sun.
My God, Maggie thought, as if she had been hit over the head with the besom. He is gorgeous. He is the most beautiful creature I have ever seen in my entire life.
She let the slats spring back and to reassert herself she checked them with a fingertip for any trace of dust. None. Not even the faintest rime of talc.
Maggie went into her bedroom. She opened her jewellery box and took out a pair of earrings, silver and turquoise. She held them up to her ears, frowning at her reflection, and then fastened them in place. She rummaged in her discarded make-up purse and found a coral-red lipstick to outline her mouth.
He was calling up the stairs to her in a polite are-you-there voice. Maggie had no idea how long she had been gazing at her face in the mirror. She dropped the lipstick and hurried down.
“I’ll have to come back tomorrow’, he told her.
Looking past him through the open door Maggie saw that the lawn was now velvet-smooth and fetchingly starred with daisies. The whole garden looked brighter and bigger and perceptibly greener.
‘I’m sorry. It’s a big job. My husband used to look after it, called it his domain, and I saw to the house’.
‘Where is your husband?’
‘He left, actually’.
‘He was the one who liked the roses?’
‘That’s right. Pink ones and orange ones, and some that are pink and orange.’
‘What do you like?’
Maggie was startled. She knew he didn’t mean bleach. ‘Well, let’s see. Cottagey things. You know…lavender and delphiniums…love-in-a-mist. Yes, and forget-me-nots’.
‘I’ll have to see what I can do tomorrow’. He was smiling again.
‘What time? I…work in the mornings and evenings, you see. Surgery hours. I’m a doctor’s receptionist’.
‘Don’t worry. I’ll find you’.
He was at the door, with his rake and scythe and besom in his arms.
‘Thank you, Mr Gell’.
‘You can call me Tony’.
Was she blushing, Maggie wondered? Or had she forgotten how to?
That evening, Maggie’s friend Leila telephoned.
‘D’you want to come out for a drink? There’s a live band on at the Three Blind Mice’.
Usually Maggie would have said no, even though she appreciated Leila’s kindness. The Three Blind Mice was noisy and full of people she didn’t know. But tonight, unaccountably, she said instead,
‘Yes, why not?’
‘Good girl. You’re only young once, aren’t you?’
When they were sitting with their drinks in the corner furthest away from the country and western trio, Maggie asked Leila,
‘Have you had the boy from the council round yet about your garden?’
Leila took her eyes off the singer who was crooning ‘Only the Lonely’ with his eyes shut and jingling his spurs.
Maggie told her about the Gardens Week and Tony Gell, and Leila gazed pointedly at Maggie’s first glass of white wine, still half full, and then laughed.
‘Go for it, kid’, she said.
The next day’s was a long surgery. Maggie took the view that patients were a complication in the lives of her doctors and this morning there had been an unusually large number of them lining up and coughing at her counter. She was late coming home but when she turned the corner Tony was sitting on her side wall, swinging his legs and reading a seed catalogue.
‘Hi’, he said, jumping down.
The sun broke through the clouds over Morrison Road.
Today Maggie did not retreat upstairs nor did she attack the grease spots that were waiting for her in the kitchen. She took off her cardigan and sat on the garden step to lap up the sun’s blessed warmth. Tony set to work with his rake, whistling softly.
After a little while she felt sleepy and her head fell back against the splintery wood of the door frame. The soporific buzz of honey bees and the scent of verbena overpowered her.
When Maggie opened her eyes again the garden was washed with light. It looked like a garden in a magazine picture. There were soft hummocks of lavender bordering the path, and grey felty spikes of lamb’s ears, tall spikes of delphinium blue and pinky-white carpets of candytuft.
In the corner grew a rose, but a rose she had never seen before. Not stiff and pink or orange, but a cascade of white blooms pouring over the rickety arbour her husband had wanted to pull down, and at the foot of it lay a wide sea of forget-me-nots.
Tony was standing in the middle of them, leaning on his rake. He had taken off his overalls and his shirt, and his smooth back and shoulders were tanned as toffee-gold as a beach boy’s.
‘Do you like it?’ he asked.
‘What is that rose? It looks like a bride on the way to her wedding’.
‘She’s called Climbing Iceberg. Like some women, she manages to be generous and pure both at the same time’.
Maggie laughed at the nonsense. But now she knew she was blushing. She went to Tony intending to thank him and offer him a cup of tea, but she kissed him instead. He smelt of roses, the old fashioned kind quartered with fat crimson petals. Kissing him was like being poured full of honey, or sunshine itself, and when it was over she felt wonderful. As if she had been on holiday.
‘I’ll have to come back tomorrow to put the finishing touches to it’, he said.
‘I’ll look forward to that’, Maggie answered boldly.
The next day there was an even longer queue of boils and catarrhs at the surgery. Maggie dashed home as soon as she could, hardly able to bear the thought that he might not have waited. But there he was, sitting on the wall, with his tools beside him and the seed catalogue open on his lap.
‘Come on in’, she smiled.
He went into the garden and Maggie hurried upstairs to put on her lipstick and her bright blue gypsy skirt. As she was changing she heard the first spattering of rain against the window.
He was working in his overalls, and the lurid pre-storm light made his hair look greenish instead of golden. There was a deafening clap of thunder as he straightened up and stood with his hands on his hips.
‘There. All finished’.
Maggie looked wildly around her. The garden was held for an instant at the peak of its perfection, a single white rose petal lying on the grass. Then the lightning flashed and after the thunder’s roll the rain came down like a steel curtain between them.
‘Don’t go’, Maggie whispered.
‘I must. There are lots of other gardens. Don’t worry, I’ll let myself out’. That smile again. ‘Good luck, Maggie’.
He went up the steps and in through the back door. Already the rain had made his boots muddy. Although she followed him with her eyes until he disappeared, Maggie didn’t try to go after him.
When she was alone again she looked up into the rain. It was warm and sweet and it pounded on her face. There were cleansers and bleach waiting for her in the house but she turned her back on them. Maggie heard a tune singing in her blood and she realised it was a song she shouldn’t have forgotten.
She took off her cardigan and blouse and the blue skirt, and her sandals and tights and underclothes, and she danced naked in the thick rain to the remembered tune. The rain soaked her hair and ran down her back and she laughed out loud, and went on dancing until her teeth began to chatter with cold and her feet and ankles were mired with earth. The garden was beautiful.
Later, when she was dry and dressed again, she saw that there was a line of muddy boot prints leading from the back door to the front. She didn’t reach for the mop. Instead she knelt down and traced the outline of one of them with her fingertip, smiling to herself. How long would they last, she wondered, if she left them there? For ever?
In the kitchen, sitting down with a cup of tea and a scone, Maggie kept catching sight of herself in the spotless polished chrome of the kettle and the toaster.
‘Why me?’ she wondered. ‘Why me?’
And then, seeing her smiling reflection again, wide-mouthed and pink-cheeked, with the silver and turquoise earrings catching the light, she thought ‘Why not me?’
That evening, Leila telephoned again.
‘Listen, Mags’, she said in her cigarette voice. ‘I’ve been thinking about a holiday. I’ve got all the brochures here. Positano looks nice. Do you fancy it?’
Maggie thought for a moment. Out in the garden raindrops shone like diamonds on the forget-me-nots and the bridal rose.
‘Why not?’ she answered. ‘After all, you’re only young once’.