He saw her through the iron gates. Gates elegant and red; her elegant, too, with great locks of mahogany hair taking his breath away.
The gates were keeping in a dog that did not like people looking. Big and brown, it barked as if unsure; hackles raised, teeth not bared but almost, hurling itself as if those iron-like claws might break the latch.
Larry was not fooled. A confident hand, a few treats, and it would be fine. Not something for today, though. All he had in his pocket was an invertebrate identification book; a thoughtful gift and not very good.
Of the many mornings he’d walked this route, only today was Larry sure of her attention. She was slender, with a head of hair that occasionally frizzed and sometimes spun heavy curls in the rain. He’d seen it all, because she was almost always there; there so often that he occasionally wondered if she was waiting for him. A hopeful notion.
‘Morning,’ he called, over the din of the dog.
Already looking at him, the adored beauty smiled. As always, her clothing was graceful and understated.
Larry felt he understood her, too. If a dog, she might also be snarling, her nervousness equally obvious. But perhaps she’d simply look, dark eyes levelling one of those unreadable dog stares, before turning and trotting away.
He walked on. Tomorrow she’d be there again, deadheading roses and weeding gravel. He listened as the bark changed from who are you? to and don’t come back! Then silence. She never made any attempt to quieten the animal, not a name called or reassuring word thrown its way. It was hard to tell if she liked it.
Larry liked it. He had long since appreciated the usefulness of the animal. It provided a relationship. Her inside. Larry outside. The ever-alert canine connecting them. A lone beast had become vital to Larry’s happiness. He wasn’t into spiritual things, but there was no denying her hold over him. On the rare occasion she wasn’t there his day couldn’t begin properly, his walk unsatisfactory, because she’d become the greater part of the experience.
A romantic, he fantasised that she was his lost sweetheart, or a spirit or ghost, and whoever and whatever, she loved him from afar. Larry didn’t share his ponderings. It seemed to him that amongst his friends, particularly his special friend Mary, women were permitted to be dreamily creative whilst men must be more serious in their musings. Fact over fiction. Identification book over poetry. Privately, he disagreed. No matter; secrecy infused the situation with a beautiful complexity.
She was younger than him, he could see, but not so much younger as to be beyond his reach. Nor was she out of his league. He was handsome, people said. But was she single? He thought not. A house of this scale was not what a single woman would choose, even with a snarling dog. And he’d seen a man here once, watching while he kissed her lips, before falling in love with this willowy fantasy himself.
She saw him looking. Most times she did, other times, she merely felt it. Showcasing life and death, all gardens form a stage, but for Portia this garden held a more singular focus: a hope that he might pass by.
The grounds were extensive and there was always a lot to do. Weather permitting, she would fiddle about within sight of the gate all morning, clipping, weeding, sorting, moving this plant here, that one there, watering; waiting. In the afternoons, she would fiddle somewhere else, perhaps the great pond where Yellow Flag irises were beginning to choke the edges. Pond. It was more like a small lake. Wide and deep, drop something in there and it might never be found.
Currently, Portia favoured a fuscia. It was so enchanting that she spent much of her time gazing at it. She didn’t know its specific name, only that full bloom was yet to come, since early autumn rather than summer brought out the very best in it. Small white flowers hung from long, thin, arcing branches, and at dusk it glowed; a bright spark of hope against the coming blackness.
She smiled to herself. He’d said good morning. She wanted to engage with him, to cultivate his affection. Portia didn’t know him, but her expert eye judged this man was no rambling rose or clambering clematis; instead, box hedging, slow and reliable.
Another morning, another walk. Was she crying? Larry thought she was, her lovely face buried in the dog, which was quiet for once. Dogs comprehended distress. He should ask her what was wrong, he knew, but didn’t want to intrude. Doing the wrong thing might spoil the little they shared. But she did seem very upset.
Larry decided to play it safe and keep walking, planning to change his route and come back this way. Then, if she was still crying, he could think again. But the idea of finally speaking with her properly was exciting. Suddenly, he couldn’t bear to wait any longer. Moments later, he was peering through the red bars and asking if she was okay.
She looked up and nodded. ‘Tough day.’
He smiled. She’d answered him. Her voice was charming. ‘Tough day? It’s only morning so it must have been terrible!’ Instantly, Larry felt stupid.
She smiled, weakly. ‘I mean the day ahead of me.’
She sighed and said nothing.
It was private, he decided, before nodding politely and not enquiring further. All he could say was that he hoped her day would improve. He was about to go when inspiration hit him; he could set things up. ‘See you tomorrow?’
But he wasn’t comfortable. It wasn’t right to simply leave this woman to her tears. Larry wanted to help, and whatever Mary thought about men and women and how they should be, soft or tough, dreamy or serious, he wanted to act. He needed this.
Larry took a breath. ‘Look. I can see something is wrong. You seem distressed. I want to help but you need to talk to me.’
She looked at him sharply; not unkindly, but fast.
He was feeling both soft and strong, qualities which were bedfellows, he now decided. He would not tell Mary this.
‘If I told you,’ she stopped speaking as she moved towards the gate.
He waited, clutching the bars.
Portia settled a hand on a different bar, near his. ‘If you could help me.’
She shook her head. ‘No.’ It was a whisper, sounding hopeless.
‘What is it?’ He looked worried.
‘I shouldn’t have said anything.’
‘You haven’t said anything. Tell me.’
‘It’s not that easy.’
He slipped a hand over hers. ‘It is. Just speak.’
‘Okay then. He’ll never let me be. He’s like that, you see. He owns things.’ Tears came. He stared at her, silently, his face the picture of confusion. The pause threatened to be too long. Portia continued. ‘Disappear. That’s the only thing I could do. If I was dead I suppose I would disappear into the ground.’ She glanced at the garden.
‘Don’t say that,’ he protested.
‘I know how it sounds. You don’t even know me. I’m so sorry. Please excuse me. It’s just very hard sometimes. And the garden. I love it here.’
‘I know you do. I’ve seen you nearly every day for months.’
‘Six.’ She smiled, a shy, comfortable smile, tears stalled. ‘I’d better go. I need to tidy up.’ She wondered if she had misjudged this man. In her imaginings he took her away, but he was not making any move to help.
‘Open the gates,’ he said, as if reading her thoughts. ‘Do it. If it’s that bad, then do it right now. Open them and leave.’ He tugged them.
‘Locked,’ she said.
‘So? Climb. Or get a ladder and go over the wall.’
‘I could. I have. But he owns every piece of me. If I left here, I would have to disappear. Never be seen. Live locked away like this but somewhere else.’ He was shocked, she noticed. Incarceration of this kind was unimaginable for him. He saw only the gates. ‘And if I’m to be confined,’ she continued, ‘I may as well stay here. I love this garden.’
‘There are different sorts of prisons,’ he said. ‘But you don’t have to be in this one.’
A comma butterfly flitted past and the dog followed its path with his nose, bouncing up and trying to snap it from the air. It fluttered over a tall shrub and was gone.
He would never forgive himself. How many times had he walked by and seen her there, seeming content when in fact she was immobilised with fear; someone’s possession. Watching the butterfly had set her off again, tears flowing once more.
The story spilled from her: he’d not been like it when they’d first met; kind, funny and passionate. Now, he was lifeless, allowing her little more than the garden and only that because it added value. ‘There is you, of course,’ she said, brightening. ‘Seeing you. Hoping. I can’t tell you what you’ve meant to me.’
Larry’s heart raced. From deep within, a bold statement was preparing to burst free. He swallowed. If it did, there was no going back. Mary said when words were uttered they couldn’t be sucked up as if they’d never existed. He’d accidentally mentioned love and she’d been clinging to it like a drug.
‘Live with me.’ The words were out. ‘I mean, live at my house. It’s quite like this one. Bigger, actually. Private. Too much for me. He doesn’t know me. He’d never find you there. All you have to do is walk away.’
She stared at him, and he believed he could see her running through the options; filing pros and cons. ‘I have nothing,’ she said. ‘When I say nothing, I mean nothing.’
‘I have everything. Total financial security and no one to share it with. Surely being stuck with me is better than being stuck with him?’ Guessing this sounded wrong, Larry corrected himself. ‘I mean to say, you wouldn’t be stuck with me if you didn’t want to be. But you would be safe.’
‘Should I just come?’ she asked, voice edged with excitement.
‘Yes. Just come.’ It was madness, but Larry felt magnificent. ‘Bring the dog.’
‘Latro? No. He’ll have to stay. He’s his, not mine. And he barks all the time. I’d never be able to hide him.’ Latro was sniffing around her feet.
‘A puppy, perhaps, when you feel up to it. But you’re coming?’ He could not believe it was happening. This beautiful woman, admired from afar for so long, was finally his.
He saw her through the fence. It was a tall structure, fixed to the top of a wall and made from a loose wicker weave. Behind her, a lovely looking young dog was playing in the garden, which wrapped around the great house. She was always in this one section fiddling about with plants. Tod wondered how much fiddling any one plant could tolerate.
He passed by most afternoons but this was his first full view of her. She wasn’t crouching, or half obscured by a bush, but standing tall and doing something to a sapling. She was gorgeous, like some goddess with snakes of red-brown hair glowing beneath the summer sun. Sometimes, he imagined she was waiting for him, she was there so often. Maybe she was.
‘Morning,’ he called, ignoring the intrusion of shouting at someone in a private space. ‘I was admiring your dog.’
If she were a dog, he thought, she might be an Afghan hound, slim with long shimmering hair, though hers fell in silken twists.
‘You’re busy. Sorry to interrupt,’ he said, out of courtesy, ‘I just wondered what breed it is?’
‘Really? It looks it. Well, anyway, he’s lovely.’
Tod walked on. Tomorrow she would be there again and he could ask her what the mix was. It would be a good excuse to talk. She intrigued him and he could not help but think she felt the same way. It was her body language. And what a body. There were days when he could barely keep walking, desperate as he was to climb over and plant a kiss on her lips; press himself to her breasts. Those days tended to be when she was wearing barely a thing, perhaps kneeling in shorts and a thin white vest, always braless. It took his breath and filled his dreams. The rare occasion she wasn’t there his afternoon felt empty.
He fancied her and that was a fact. His sex-life, on hold for so long, was now crying for attention. Once upon a time, he’d have gone for it and asked her for a drink. But he was out of practice. He wasn’t afraid, as such, and she wasn’t out his league; firstly, because they were both good-looking people, and secondly, he had pots of cash which was a leveller in the league table. Tod resolved to talk each time he passed until she came over to the fence and engaged with him properly. Hopefully, mothballs shaken off, his reviving charm would do its thing.
He’d not only looked but openly ogled her and finally asked about the dog. Progress. For the last month, he’d walked by each day without a word, pretending not to notice those parts of her a little more on show than the last time.
It took a certain sort of man to capture Portia’s attention, to draw her from the undergrowth and break the silence. Larry had been one, this man was another. It wasn’t the air of reserve singling them out, but other things. Daytime walking, for a start. Only a certain type of man took a regular daily walk: fit, self-motivated, not working. Quality clothing and a self-assured bearing revealed this lack of employment as a choice. And there was loneliness, invariably exposed through a lustful gaze.
He’s getting braver, she thought, watching him walk away. Until today, he’d only been a peering face, a handsome crown to the deep pink clematis reaching up from beneath. She’d offered no tears to tempt this man, only flashes of flesh topped with a morsel of intrigue. Portia hoped he would talk again. Tomorrow, if it was hot, she might throw on a bikini; in great shape for her age, she may as well make the most of it.
Portia considered her chores. Should she move the white fuscia, which was in the wrong spot, or fix the beds the dog had dug up? The dog was a pain. And there were the new marginal grasses for the lake, a vast watery expanse making her old one seem tiny. Drop something there and it really would never be found. What did the old pond look like now, a year on, she wondered?
Was she crying? He thought she was, her lovely face buried in the dog. If she was crying he would wait until tomorrow to ask his question. No. She was laughing. The dog was being silly. It had something of hers in its mouth; a length of cloth, a sarong. A bikini. His breath caught. She looked incredible. ‘Hey there!’
She turned, covering herself with the sarong the dog had been forced to give up. ‘Hi.’
‘Sorry to intrude again. Your dog. I wondered what the mix is? He’s so lovely.’
With the sarong now wrapped about her hips, she wandered over, lazily. She smiled at him, teeth bright white, dark eyes shining, skin clear and evenly tanned. He sighed inwardly. A bronzed idol. He loved that. And she understood. She knew how she looked and what he thought. He leaned his forehead against the wicker and she gazed through at him, as if searching for something.
‘Shouldn’t you be at work?’ she said, after a moment.
‘I don’t work.’
‘Job centre then.’ Her expression was playful.
He laughed. ‘Early retirement.’
‘Sold up. Man of leisure.’ He gestured to the dog, ‘And I love walking. But it’s not the same; it’s time to get a little mate to come with me.’
‘A little mate, eh?’
He had to stop himself from grinning. She was flirty.
‘What sort do you want?’ she asked.
‘Dog? Well, that’s the problem. I like all dogs but I want the right one. Good temperament, nice looking. You know? My wife would’ve researched something like that. Yours is great. Shame it’s not a breed; a one off, that one.’
‘Late. I’m a widower.’
She gave a sympathetic look. ‘I’m sorry. It’s hard losing someone.’
‘It is. It’s been a while. I should have got a dog sooner. Everyone said I should. But then everyone has an opinion, don’t they? They said I shouldn’t sell the business because I’d be lonely. But I’m not. I think they thought work was all I had.’
‘No.’ He was thrilled to be having a conversation. She was even nicer than expected. ‘These walks are what I really appreciate. You see the world differently. A slower pace, I guess.’ He decided to take a chance, ‘And there’s a certain house I enjoy walking past. A certain lady.’ If it was too much then he didn’t care. Life was too short for hints.
She was silent, studying him, but he didn’t think he’d offended her. It was something else. ‘Are you okay?’ he asked.
She let out a breath, and nodded, smiling again. ‘I’m fine. Tough time lately, that’s all.’
He beamed back. ‘Need an ear? I’m happy to come in?’
She pulled a face as if to say, you’re a cheeky one.
‘Actually,’ she replied, ‘I’d like that. I haven’t had many visitors since I lost Larry.’
She didn’t think he was sorry but thanked him anyway. Following the fence so she could let him in, Portia said, ‘I found him.’
‘How awful.’ On the other side, he was walking with her. ‘May I ask how?’
‘Drowned. The lake.’ She waved in the direction of it. ‘We were only just married. I wanted to wait but he wanted to get on and do it. Larry was older than me. You know how people are. And there was Mary. No one was less keen than Mary. Gold digger, she said. But he went ahead, regardless. That was my Larry for you.’
She smiled wistfully, opening the side-gate. ‘Very much so. See that tree? Loved it. He’s buried there. I feel responsible. He was only on the lake because of me. Champagne breakfast after the wedding, still drunk. Sorry. I shouldn’t be saying all this. We don’t even know one another.’
‘It’s fine. I feel like I know you. And even if I didn’t, it would still be fine. It’s a lot to go through on your own.’
He thought the place was amazing and said so. The dog started leaping up at him. She did nothing to control it.
‘Thank you. It’s too much really. Despite appearances, I haven’t a penny and it costs a fortune to run. I love it here; I don’t want to sell, but it’ll take a miracle. Poor Larry left quite a debt.’
Tod followed her, walking to the lounger she’d obviously been using; gardening gloves neatly folded next to an identification book. Tod picked it up. It fell open on a page about jumping spiders.
P.fimbriata. Considered the most intelligent spider; hunts and feeds on other spiders; capable of learning.
‘Seems extra tough on you,’ he said, putting the book down. ‘Only just married and everything.’
‘I’d rather the money was all gone than let that lot have it. They made his life miserable because of me. In the end, he cut them off.’ She sighed, ‘Two people meet and fall in love. They couldn’t bear the simplicity; I must be a schemer, sort of thing. Can you imagine a story any more mundane than man catches woman’s eye and says good morning?’
‘Yes. My wife and I met at work over the photocopier.’
‘Sit down. There, in the middle so it doesn’t tip. I’ll get us some drinks. Hot or cold?’
‘Coffee would be great. Thanks.’
She talked as she walked away, ‘He’d hate for me to lose this place. Wanted to take care of me. Larry was my miracle. You only get one.’
Tod didn’t know about miracles, but knights in platinum armour were another matter.
‘Great coffee,’ he said.
‘Thanks. Kopi Luwak.’
‘Yes,’ she laughed, impressed. ‘So, you don’t mind a partially digested bean?’ Portia considered her own coffee, grimacing jokily, gently nudging him, thinking he might like this. ‘It pays not to think about it. Now I’m imagining something half rotted.’
‘Are rotted and digested the same thing?’ He smiled, then his nose wrinkled. ‘Speaking of rotten, did you hear about the remains? Not the sort of thing anyone would expect to find round here.’
She said she had not, which was true. Portia did not keep up with the news.
‘New owner was having his pond sorted. A recluse, by all accounts; the dead guy, I mean. No one knew him. Lived alone. Virtually kept his money under the floorboards. You know the type.’
‘I do, yes.’
‘Oh?’ Portia raised an eyebrow, questioningly.
He clarified. ‘Not much left. Fish food. Most likely drowned, they said. What a way to go.’
‘I’m not sure there is a good way,’ she said, sipping her drink while watching him sip his, ‘apart from quick.’
He felt awful. She’d trusted him enough to reveal her guilt and now he’d taken leave of his senses and gone on about someone dying the same way as her husband. Fish food. What the hell was wrong with him. ‘I’m so sorry. I wasn’t thinking.’
She smiled, softly. ‘Enjoy your coffee.’
Dectus lay at Tod’s feet. ‘He’s cute. I really like him.’
‘He likes you, too.’
They were quiet for a few moments. Tod felt awkward. He hoped things weren’t ruined before they’d even started.
‘I’m sorry I don’t know what he is,’ she said, eventually. ‘Larry got him from the dogs’ home. They have lots. All strays and rejects needing somewhere to settle.’
Tod couldn’t stop himself. He was about to mention the body again. ‘There was a dog.’ Dogs gave him something to talk about. ‘It was dead. Starved.’ He could’ve punched himself square in the face. Fish food and now dead dogs. What was going on? Her. That’s what.
‘Man dies, dog starves,’ she said, flatly.
Relieved she wasn’t upset, Tod shrugged. ‘They reckon someone was feeding it. The guy had been dead a lot longer than the dog. Fed through the gate, maybe? I dunno. No one’s come forward.’
He agreed that it was. ‘Why feed it? Why not just report it and get it rescued? It’s not hard. They do it on TV all the time. Mind you, if it’s the dog I’m thinking of then it was an evil bastard.’ Tod thought she looked upset. Again, he had said the wrong thing. Seeing her this way tugged at him, as if the first steely threads of love were wrapping his heart. He apologised.
‘It’s fine. Ignore me,’ she said. ‘It was probably guarding what it loved. We all need that from time to time; someone to make us special.’
The look she gave was unmistakable. Putting down his coffee Tod reached out. ‘I like you very much.’
‘That’s rather direct,’ she whispered, before taking his hand. ‘I like a man who knows what he wants.’
‘Good. I can’t see the point of messing around getting tangled in doubt.’
She tightened her grip a little. Tod watched, mesmerised, as Portia’s dark, round, intelligent eyes sparkled.