“They’ve got what?” Susan uttered the words mid sip. She was in the staff room with Beth enjoying a well-earned restorative cup of herbal tea. It had been a busy morning in Canterbury library. Eight toddlers for ‘baby rhythm time’; she was all for encouraging reading but in this modern world of open plan it was a deafening twenty minutes. Susan took another sip of her Camomile tea. “Tell me again.”
“It was all the talk down the allotment last night. Dad and Uncle Bert were chatting to one of their mates who does the garden for the Gaskins – very particular he says they are, especially about their lawns. He says, they’ve installed a sprinkler system on a timer. It comes on every night whether it’s needed or not. That’s how they got it looking so green when everyone else’s is like the outback?” Beth took a large bite out of her Mars bar.
“How could they? There’s the rest of us being told to conserve water.” Susan put down her mug, got up from her chair and began to pace around the small room. “It’s a wicked waste. Just on a garden. I ask you.”
“Dad calls them something much worse, Uncle Bert was more circumspect. Doesn’t like to pre-judge anyone.” Beth giggled through a mouthful of chocolate.
The next morning the library was quiet. Susan decided to use the time to do some paperwork in the office. Malcolm could ring if there was a sudden rush. Most of the ‘paperwork’ these days was done on the computer – the term paperwork a throwback to a past era. The concept of a paperless office had never quite materialised, neat piles of paper still covered at least half the desk. There was something soothing and methodical about sitting in the office away from the public, but by lunchtime Susan decided she’d had enough solitude, turned off the computer and made her way to the main desk.
“A quiet morning?” Susan asked.
“Bert came in, he’s worried about this year’s charity band concert and fete.” Malcolm said.
Malcolm played tenor horn in the Canterbury Concert Band. He left every Friday on the dot of five thirty. In all her time at the library she didn’t think he’d missed a rehearsal.
“We usually have it in the Dane John Gardens but Bert’s just found out they’re having works done and there’re big diggers and holes and mess everywhere. Who wants to come and listen to a band in the middle of a building site? That’s not going to be a fun afternoon out for people. The stall holders won’t want to come. And the council will say it’s a health and safety hazard.” Malcolm said.
“So you’ve got to find somewhere else?”
“But it’s such short notice. How can we? We’re going to have to cancel. It will be the first year in our history we’ve cancelled.” Malcolm said.
“There must be somewhere, surely.” Susan was dismayed at Malcolm’s defeatist attitude. Where was the British bulldog spirit?
“I don’t think so, Bert tried the council and they’re being no help. So much for the ‘Big Society’.”
“What about the Cathedral grounds?” Susan asked.
“Oh they don’t mind the band playing but don’t like the idea of all the stalls. Bert’s at his wit’s end. We’ll have to cancel.” Malcolm’s sigh was audible across the library and several regulars looked up. Suddenly he flicked her arm with his finger and thumb and raised his eyebrows in warning. She spun round on her heels a hundred and eighty degrees to face Mrs Gaskin on the other side of the counter. The Gaskins had not lived in Canterbury long but in that short time controversy had swirled around them. They’d bought a house on the outskirts of the city. And despite all the protestation from the doyens of the Canterbury elite they had been allowed to rip it down and build an ultra-modern house. To add to the insult it was a German Huf House. Susan’s mother, who’d lived through the bombing of Canterbury during the Second World War, had made the comment – ‘well there goes one of the few houses the Luftwaffe didn’t flatten’. Rumours abounded – croquet lawns, terraces, ponds and even a swimming pool. But few concrete facts were known.
“Good morning, can I help you?” Susan asked trying not to stare at the silk scarf casually draped around Mrs Gaskin’s neck. Was it a Dior or Chanel? She couldn’t quite decide. And surely those weren’t diamond studs. This was Canterbury not Bond Street.
“Have you any books on gardening?” Mrs Gaskin asked, her eyes flickering between Malcolm and Susan.
“We have a small section, let me show you.” Susan led the way, Mrs Gaskin following behind, the clop of her sandals echoing on the polished wood floor. “Are you looking for anything in particular?” Susan asked.
They’d stopped at a short row of books. “There aren’t many, are there?”
“No, not as many as there used to be. What exactly are you looking for?”
“I would like to have some herbs. I was hoping to get some ideas. I’ve had a look through some magazines.”
“I have the RHS Herb Book, it covers everything, it might be out of print though. Are you a member of the RHS?” Susan tilted her head slightly to the left and looked at Mrs Gaskin.
“No, no, no…” she ran a manicured finger along the line of books. “I can’t see anything here; it’s all garden design, vegetables and laying patios. Nothing on herbs. What was the name of the book mentioned?”
“The RHS Herb Book.” And with a flash of inspiration Susan added “Would you like to borrow my copy? I could bring it round, say, this evening?”
“That’s kind. Six o’clock, would that be alright?”
“Fine.” Susan thought fast, I’ll have to leave a bit early, dash home feed Charles Dickens and if I pedal fast I should be OK. Oh God, I’ve not calculated changing or eating. I can go without eating but I can’t go to the Gaskins’ dressed in my work clothes. “On second thoughts could we say six thirty, I have to go home first and feed my cat, Charles Dickens.”
“See you at six thirty then, do you know the address?” Susan nodded.
Back at the main desk Susan rearranged some books in a nonchalant manner before saying “I won’t be stopping for lunch I want to go early.”
Beth eyed Susan suspiciously.
“I have to deliver a book to someone, that’s all.”
“All rather sudden. The someone wouldn’t be Mrs Gaskin by any chance?” Beth asked.
Susan screwed up her face and did a sort of up and down jerk of her head.
“Um, you just want a nose round.” Beth gave Susan a knowing nod.
“So why do you need to leave early?” Beth asked.
“You saw her, I have to make myself look presentable.” There was another knowing nod from Beth.
Susan pedalled steadily. Full 1950s skirts were not ideal on a tricycle but if she was careful tucking the waves of material under her it could be done. In the wicker basket on the front was a pair of high heels; however experienced a cyclist she was, heels were beyond her. She would slip them on when she arrived. She pressed the buzzer by the gates, and they swung back revealing a long gravel drive, a tricyclist’s nightmare, she had no choice but to dismount and push. At the end rising up, pane upon pane was the house. A house whose walls were made of glass. For one brief moment Susan wondered how you cleaned all these windows. But she soon dismissed this petty domestic thought as she gazed up in admiration of the sophistication of the building. It was a building more than house. Its dimensions, three storeys high, maybe even more. How did you tell which floor was which?
“Is my tricycle OK left here?” she asked.
Mrs Gaskin looked at the tricycle then at Susan. The two women were about the same age, same height and build but that was where the similarities ended. Susan’s penchant for vintage and colour contrasted to the designer labels and muted colours of Mrs Gaskin.
“Yes – would you mind taking off your shoes? Donald wouldn’t like the floor to be marked.”
Self-consciously Susan padded across the high gloss polished wood floor. Aware that her sweaty bare feet stuck slightly with every step, wondering whether this was even allowed.
“Donald’s on the terrace.” Mrs Gaskin slid back one of the plate glass walls with an ease that defied its size and weight. From the terrace were steps down to a lawn the like of which Susan had only seen in pictures. Green, flat and stripes. Parallel to perfection. They were mesmerising, they strobed as you looked at them.
“How do you manage to get them so straight?” Susan couldn’t help asking.
“Oh, practice, I think, our gardener is very experienced. I am Donald Gaskin.” A tall man with grey eyes that looked at Susan intently held out his hand. “It is most kind of you to loan Harriet your book. I hope she hasn’t put you to any trouble.” There he was again looking at her with those grey eyes.
“Always happy to help a fellow …” Susan wasn’t sure whether she was helping a fellow gardener or woman?
“I just wanted a few pots, nothing too much, over there.” Harriet Gaskin pointed to the far edge of the terrace.
“I have a lot of herbs in my garden, I use them in cooking, they’re easy to grow from seed, you can start them off on a windowsill.” Harriet Gaskin only slightly raised her eyebrows and just the merest hint of a smile crept fractionally across her face before she replied.
“We don’t have any windowsills in our Huf house.” Susan looked at Harriet Gaskin and in that instant realised that she might have a beautiful glass house but she didn’t have a home.
“Let me show you my garden.” Without waiting for a reply Donald Gaskin led the way down the steps onto the lawn. Susan felt as if she was trespassing as she took each step. Aware her heels might leave little puncture marks and fearful she was going to be asked to take her shoes off again Susan walked on tiptoe across the lawn. “I like simplicity, clean lines” Donald Gaskin explained. They reached a wrought iron bridge on the other side, another larger lawn, surrounded by trees providing shade and a backdrop to a sculpture collection. There was a leaping copper hare, an amorphous stone with a hole in the middle, a collection of stainless steel poles that swayed in the breeze, a figure with a pointy head standing in a boat.
“Are you interested in sculpture?” Donald Gaskin asked. “I so admire a craftsman who works with his hands to produce such beauty.” Every time they stopped by one of the sculptures Susan noticed Donald Gaskin’s grey eyes looking at her. And every time they began walking again he had moved a little closer. To the point where the folds of her skirt were brushing his trousers. Susan’s ankles and calves were hurting, the continued tiptoeing was taking its toll and so were those grey eyes. She was relieved when they had completed their circuit of the garden which her mother would have called ‘nothing more than a glorified lawn’.
“You have an elegant garden.” Susan couldn’t think of anything else to say.
“I planned it to complement the house. I think it’s worthy of being listed in the Best Canterbury Gardens List.” Donald Gaskin looked at Susan giving her the full measure of his grey eyes. They were back at the steps to the terrace.
“Ah, Harriet has brought some wine.” Susan wondered how soon she could make her excuses to leave. She was finding Donald Gaskin’s attentions intrusive.
“You’ve agreed to what?” Malcolm’s voice carried across the whole of the main library area. It was first thing the next morning before any of the public had arrived.
“I didn’t agree anything, Donald offered the garden.” Susan said.
“It’s Donald now is it?” Beth butted in and gave Susan a nudge.
“I just mentioned the band needed somewhere for their charity concert and they offered.” Susan replied.
“You mean Donald offered.” Beth retorted.
“Yes, it was Donald who made the offer, though I am surprised. I did explain he and Harriet could expect several hundred people.”
“Oh, you’re on first name terms with the Gaskins, oh la de da.” Beth did a little mock curtsey.
“Oh stop it and to silence you gossips there is no swimming pool.”
“Oh, and you don’t gossip.” Beth said.
“I take an interest in my fellow citizens of Canterbury.”
“You can call it what you like, it’s still gossip.” Said Beth.
“Ladies, ladies, can we get back to the charity band concert?” Malcolm said.
“Talk to Bert, it’s an offer, it’s a possible solution. They have the room. Donald is keen to show off his garden – even if he doesn’t understand the consequences for his precious lawn.”
“It can’t do any harm, Malcolm. Uncle Bert always likes a garden.” Beth said.
“Here’s their number and email address, it’s up to Bert. Now it’s two minutes past and we should have opened up by now, so chop chop.” Clapping her hands Susan waved Beth and Malcolm off in mock conductor fashion.
What a transformation, the imposing electronic gates were wide open, union jack bunting fluttered between poles that had been pushed in along the gravel drive. In the sky above, white cotton wool cumulus clouds hovered randomly. A slight breeze cooled the air. A perfect summer’s day. Susan had decided to take the bus rather than cycle. She closed her eyes, took hold of the folds of her skirt and began the walk down the drive, this time relishing the sound and feel of the gravel underfoot, swinging her skirt with every step. As she approached the house, sun glinted off the panes momentarily blinding her. There was a table selling tickets and the obligatory raffle. She was sure she’d seen some of the prizes on previous occasions. And hoped, as she bought a strip of tickets for £2, she wouldn’t win any of them. A sign led the way around the side of the house past the terrace, and down a grassy slope. On one side of the lawn were stalls selling homemade jam, jewellery, cakes, cards and garish knitted items. Susan wondered who it was actually bought these. The bridge between the two lawns had been adorned with more bunting and on the lawn beyond, the band was set up under the strict baton of their conductor. For as long as Susan could remember he’d worn a red jacket to conduct. He was a large man and bounced up and down so it was like watching a beach ball. She must ask Malcolm what it was like on the other side.
Walking towards her were those piercing grey eyes. Quickening her stride Susan moved down the length of the stalls at such speed her skirt brushed passed knocking off some cards. She came to a halt at a stall selling dried flower arrangements in old tea cups. And without thinking she bought two, rationalising the purchase as presents for her mother and sister. In the background she could hear the band coming to its crescendo, clapping, cheers and shouts of bravo. Groups of band members in their red waistcoats and audience came across the bridge and Susan saw the grey eyes being caught by a group of congratulatory thanks for the use of the garden. She tried to relax and enjoy the afternoon but couldn’t settle, ever conscious of those grey eyes searching for her.
“There you are Susan. I wanted to thank you again for arranging this venue for our charity concert and fete.” It was Bert, the band conductor, even rounder than usual swelled with pride. The buttons on his red jacket were at bursting point. “Our Beth says it was all down to you.”
“It was nothing…” she began but there they were again, those grey eyes.
“Oh don’t be so modest Susan.” Donald Gaskin placed a hand on her arm, what to the casual observer seemed a light and friendly gesture but to the receiver was firm and quite deliberate. “You are an extremely persuasive woman, you know.” He placed his other hand on her arm and she felt his fingers tighten their grip. At the same time he took a step forward so his body was touching hers. She could feel the firmness of his thighs and smell his aftershave. Bile began to rise in her throat, she swallowed hard.
“I need a cup of tea.” She said.
“Good idea.” Donald Gaskin said as he slid his arm around her waist and let his fingers play in the small of her back. Susan looked at Bert, who raised his eyebrows.
“I can see my niece calling you, Susan.” Bert said and took her arm, steering her gently towards Beth and Molly Cooke who were chatting by the cake stall.
“What’s the matter?” Asked Molly, as a mother of seven, her maternal radar was astute.
“That man.” Susan turned back, the grey eyes were still watching her, she shuddered.
“He spent a good half hour bending my ear about his garden as we were setting up the band. Wants to be included in the Best Canterbury Garden List.” Bert said.
“You’re head judge aren’t you, Bert?” Molly said. “It’s not a typical Canterbury garden, all this grass and ..well what else is there?”
“Some weird sculpture, some odd bits of green things.” Beth said
“Topiary and clipped specialist shrubs, I try to teach her what’s what but it’s no use.” Bert said.
“Don’t forget the wobbly bridge.” Beth added.
“There’s no colour, unless you count green. So where would they stand as regards this garden, Bert?” Molly asked.
“Couldn’t say, couldn’t say. But I will say this. The committee of the Best Canterbury Garden List don’t approve of using artificial watering methods when we have all been asked to conserve water as much as possible. I’ll say no more.”
“But that’s all at odds with the philosophy of a Huf House isn’t it? They’re all about conservation and recycling. I can’t believe they collect enough water even from a roof that size to keep these lawns this green. What do you think Susan?”
Molly turned to Susan who was still glancing around checking on the whereabouts of the grey eyes.
“You look all done in, fancy coming back with us for supper?”
“No, thanks for the offer, I think I am going to go home to Charles Dickens, a cup of herbal tea and a relax in my own garden.”
“Have you ever thought of entering your own garden into the Best Canterbury Gardens List, Susan?” Bert asked.
Susan shook her head.
“I’ll leave that thought with you.” Bert turned and with Beth on his arm walked across the Gaskins now not so perfect lawn.