She heard him coming well before he hit the bend.
On warm nights the sound carried all too easily – the squeal of tyres on tarmac, rising to a screech on bends so that Mary, jerked from a shallow sleep, would clench her eyes against the moment…
Against the moment when the screech would diminish to a squeal and then a whine as the machine continued on its way, the sound fading until it reached the wooded dip a mile along the road, where it would lose itself and fear could relax into mere vexation as she settled back to sleep….
Against the moment when, on this particular, early-summer night, the unseen rider of this unseen bike collided – with a bang that was more explosion than crash – with the vehicle whose approach from the opposite direction had been masked by the wooded dip…
A bang, followed by the scream of tyres skidding, unnaturally, sideways, another bang, the smashing of glass… and then, as Mary forced her head from the huddle of bedclothes into which she had thrust it without even realising, silence.
And she would have to go out there – to face whatever horrors had enacted themselves beyond her garden. Her neighbours were away and there was no-one else.
Peering out of her window, she saw nothing unusual. Her garden lay empty under the moonlight, the orange trumpets of the day lilies furled back into themselves, the pale yellow blooms of evening primroses flowering on, undeterred by night, the tall grasses of what she did not call a lawn motionless in the lack of wind.
Beyond the untamed hedgerow of beech and hawthorn the familiar fields rose towards Barras Hill with its topping of silent oaks. Horses stood, still and apparently sleeping, some distance beyond the road.
The road… Invisible beyond the hedgerow, from which the smell of burnt rubber and oil or petrol, or perhaps both, drifted across the garden and drowned the normal, night-time scents…
She did not remember dialling 999 but she must have done, since there was no-one else. Nor did she remember running in her night-dress down the pathway, although she must have done this too because there she was, dragging open the gate – the familiar wrench needed because of the long-damaged hinge – and there, as she peered, fearfully, to her left, was the back end of a small, bright yellow car embedded in the opposite hedge whose torn branches stood out, jagged and obscenely bare, against the once-jaunty metalwork.
As she started towards it, her legs seeming, as if in a nightmare, to pull her backwards, crossing the black tyre tracks, twisted in a bizarre pattern as if far more than two vehicles had been entangled, the rear door fractionally opened, a denim-clad leg appeared, the foot in its white trainer feeling tentatively for the ground and a young man with neatly-cropped blond hair, blood pouring from his nose and the ugly gash across its bridge, staggered onto the verge.
“Christ!” he said. “For fuck’s sake!”
And leaning against the car roof, vomited across the brightly-coloured paintwork.
Peering round him, Mary could see two figures in the front of the car.
The driver, nearest to her, moved slightly. The person in the passenger seat did not.
Memories of a long-ago, almost-forgotten first aid course took over as the driver shifted again and started to moan. The ones to worry about, she remembered, were those who didn’t make a noise and, leaving the first youth still retching, she clambered around to the far side of the car, brambles clawing at her night-dress, and, struggling against torn branches, tugged at the unfamiliar handle.
The boy was unconscious. His head lolled forwards across his seat belt and blood, she saw as she wrenched open the door, poured from below the hairline onto the once-whiteness of his shirt.
Pressure, her memory screamed. Pressure against the wound to stop the bleeding. Using a clean, uninfected pad of cloth. In an emergency the inner folds of a freshly-laundered tea-towel would do.
She didn’t have a freshly-laundered tea-towel but there was a sweater round the boy’s shoulders, where he must have slung it in some casual, probably not long-ago moment. Tugging at it, she pressed it against the side of his head and lay breathless, half in and half out of the car, cradling the blood-soaked hair against her nightdress, holding the sweater against what she hoped was the wound, desperately telling herself she mustn’t faint…
“You did brilliantly,” the woman police officer told her, offering hot, sugared tea as she arranged a blanket round Mary’s shaking shoulders. “He could have bled to death before the paramedics got here. You probably saved his life.”
Then she told her about the motor-cyclist, thrown from his bike by the impact with the car. Whose dead body they had found, curled in a broken foetal position against Mary’s hedge. Where she would have seen him, had she looked right instead of left as she came out of her gate; where the ground was soaked with several pints of the blood leaking from the wound in his chest.
Over the next few days she received a lot of attention. Her doctor came to check the scrapes on her arms and make sure she hadn’t been too badly affected by what he called ‘this nasty incident’.
The police came for a statement.
A journalist from the local paper came for a story.
And the father of the boy whose life she had probably saved came with flowers and chocolates. He would like to offer a more tangible reward than flowers and chocolates, he said. Would she accept a holiday at his expense – for herself and a friend? Perhaps a couple of weeks in a hotel in Bournemouth? Or Cyprus? Or Spain?
Dominic was very precious to him; he was in his second year at Durham, studying Law, with a bright career ahead of him.
Mary thanked him and refused. Having no wish to go on holiday and no friend to go with.
“I just want to forget the whole thing,” she told him, showing him to the door as firmly as she had the journalist.
Forgetting was not, however, possible and the image of the dead boy’s body, which she had not seen, hung about her front garden and the area of crushed grass and broken weeds on the verge beyond her hedge.
“You must take care of yourself,” Dr Locke told her, making a second visit.
“You’ve had a nasty shock. Have a holiday,” he added, as though he might have been talking to the father of the boy who hadn’t died.
Sitting – ‘lolling’ her father would have called it – in one of the ancient deck-chairs from her shed, Mary took care of herself. Instead of tending her garden – although her neighbours with their landscaped grounds, their decking, their water-features and their containers stuffed with begonias would have been surprised to know that she considered herself to ‘tend’ it at all – she sat in the dappled shade of the silver birch.
Solomon, the old tabby cat, who was indeed beginning, with age, to acquire the appearance of wisdom, stretched out under the battered garden table, studiously ignoring the blackbird that hopped cheekily almost against his paws.
“I couldn’t help it, could I?” she asked him – although not aloud, since, being a cat, he would not have understood. “Even if I had looked that way and seen him, it might still have been too late. And if I’d gone to him, instead of the car, the other boy might have died.”
Solomon closed his eyes.
“After all,” she told him, “I could have stayed in bed and done nothing. Then I would have had something to feel guilty about.”
It was more than a week before she went into town. She had fruit and vegetables in the garden and the milkman delivered plenty of things besides milk so that it wasn’t until she was almost out of cat food that she caught the bus from the end of the road.
“You’re quite the celebrity, Miss Davis,” the grocer told her, gesturing towards the billboard for the local paper to whose journalist Mary had refused to speak and adding to her bag a bunch of grapes which she did not discover until she got home.
“Bitter fruit,” she told Solomon, who lay on her chair, shedding fur in his summer moult. “I let that boy die. I don’t deserve these.”
She ate them all the same, not being one for waste, but they didn’t taste.
Nor did the raspberries that flourished on their tangled canes at the end of the garden. Nor the black currants, hidden amongst the stinging nettles that she allowed to thrive in order to attract the butterflies. Nor the plump gooseberries next to them.
Her broad beans tasted of cotton wool, the onions tasted of sour earth, the lettuces tasted of caterpillar and her Jerusalem artichokes tasted of nothing at all.
“There’s no pleasure in any of it,” she told Solomon, as he howled for his food, “since I let that boy die.”
It might have helped, she supposed, if she had someone to talk to – a friend other than Solomon – but she had no friends now. Had not had any, now she thought about it, for years.
As a schoolgirl and a young woman she had always, she remembered, been at the centre of a jolly, laughing crowd but, gradually, the others had all paired off, become engaged, then married and then parents. While Mary, who seemed to be invited on dates only by men with acne or bad breath, who talked too much or not at all, who were too short or overweight or smelt of sweat, lost touch with her old friends in the new worlds they now inhabited, stayed on in the office, was promoted and, before she knew it, had become strict, stand-offish, unapproachable. Miss Davis, Departmental Head and official dragon, scourge of the junior staff and equally alone among the managers, who were all, as it happened, men.
When her mother died it had been a relief to come home to look after Father until he died too. Since when – almost ten years ago now – she rarely spoke to anyone.
The neighbours were friendly enough – the Lanburys on one side, the Marshalls on the other. In this strange little enclave – the three houses had once been tied cottages for the ‘big house’ some miles away, now reinvented as a conference centre – it would have been ridiculous to be otherwise. But the Marshalls and the Lanburys, with their cars and children, their extensions, their barbecues and their busy social lives, had nothing in common with Mary Davis, whose house remained as it always had been, except that the brickwork needed re-pointing, the paint was peeling from the woodwork and there were a number of tiles missing above the broken gutters. Whose garden was – perhaps mercifully – impossible to see into for overhanging trees and unclipped shrubs. Who had no husband, no children and no friends.
They waved – the Marshals and the Lanburys – as they drove in and out in their four-by-fours. When they went on holiday they asked her to ‘keep an eye’. At Christmas they included her in invitations to drinks parties, which she never, thank heavens, accepted. Rick Marshall and George Lanbury regularly offered to ‘run over’ her hedge with the electric trimmer and on summer evenings she would smell the meat grilling on their barbecues and listen from the safety of her thicket to the clink of glasses and shouts of laughter.
She didn’t mind. These things were too remote from her life with Solomon for her to envy them. She would certainly not have wanted to be friends with Selina Marshall, with her loud, gushing voice and designer clothes, or Candy Lanbury with her horses and her charity work.
She had nothing in common with them, or, it seemed, with anyone else.
It wasn’t until now that she realised she was lonely. Now, when she needed a friend with whom she could talk through that whole, horrible experience. Who would reassure her of what she knew perfectly well, that she had not been responsible for the poor biker’s death.
She didn’t see the first flowers until they were almost dead.
It was one of those sprays of mixed carnations, lilies and stephanotis that she’d seen on sale outside the grocers and the petals were brown and the cellophane wrapper wrinkled and shrunk from the summer rain. They lay like some sad piece of litter
on the verge, where the weeds that had been crushed by the biker’s body had already grown up again. Coming back into the house, Mary sat down at the kitchen table and, for the first time since the accident, wept amongst her unwashed dishes.
“Oh dear,” she told Solomon, who had been sleeping at the other end of the table, “I do feel strange. It’s right though, what they say. Crying does make you feel better.”
Solomon, hoping for food, jumped down and rubbed noisily against her chair.
Two days later she noticed that the dead flowers had been replaced by a bunch of red carnations. They too would die, she thought, but they would last longer in water and she hunted out an old earthenware jug to put them in. Then she hollowed out the ground so that it would be less likely to blow over.
A week later, coming back from shopping, she saw that the carnations had been replaced with white lilies. The vase was empty of water and she carried it indoors to refill it. On the way back she noticed that the self-sown buddleias which grew all round her garden were showing their tall, purple flowers. They would look nice, she thought, with the lilies and, fetching another jug, she filled that one as well.
“Quite a little shrine, Miss Davis.” Rick Marshall electronically lowered the window of his BMW as he drove out of his gate. “Nasty business,” he added. “Wish we’d been around to help.”
Funny old stick, he thought, jabbing his cigar into the lighter-socket, but harmless. Except that her cottage was such a bloody eyesore.
The idea of a shrine appealed to Mary and she went indoors to find her shears. By the time Candy Lanbury returned from the school run, she had clipped an area of verge into a neat square with the two vases placed in the centre.
“You could do with a few plants there.”
Candy hissed at her giggling children to shut up or she’d scalp them.
“I can let you have some Impatiens.”
“No thank you,” Mary said. “I’ve got my own.”
And only perennials, she thought, would do. The boy, after all, would be dead for ever.
Next day she dug out a proper flower bed and planted it with bulbs from her own garden – bluebells, snowdrops and daffodils. Then she transplanted some of the wild geraniums, larkspur and primroses that grew so prolifically in her flower beds, setting them around the jugs of cut flowers and watering them well in.
Later in the year, she thought, she would take cuttings from the fuchsias. She would sow seeds from her poppies and foxgloves. She could even divide her red hot pokers.
Next year the verge would be a blaze of colour and she went indoors, aching but strangely cheerful, to make her supper – an omelette with broad beans from the garden, which seemed, she noticed, to have regained some of their flavour.
Next morning, before she had finished breakfast, there was a knock at the front door. Selina Marshall occasionally called about that time to ask if she needed anything from the supermarket and she almost didn’t answer.
“Did you make the garden?” asked the woman who stood in the porch. “I just wondered.”
She was tall, middle-aged to elderly, with short grey hair and wore dark trousers and a light jacket. An unmemorable-looking woman except, Mary realised, for the sadness in her dark blue eyes.
She was carrying a bunch of white irises.
“I’m Carol Hawkins,” she said, as Mary said nothing. “Gary was my son.”
So he was called Gary, she thought. Trying the name in her head.
“It must have been terrible for you,” the woman said. “I’m so sorry.”
“You’re sorry!” At last Mary managed to speak. “But you lost your son.”
The woman nodded, the whites of her eyes reddened and gleaming tears started to run down her pale cheeks.
“I still can’t believe it,” she said, taking a breath. “I keep expecting him to turn up at the door. I miss him so much – not that he ever really had anything to say. He was a bit of an odd boy – when he was younger he was always going off on his own. For days sometimes. The police got fed up with looking for him. When he died I think people thought it didn’t matter much; what with him being so strange.
“No-one seemed to care really. And then, when I saw your flowers, I realised there was someone.”
For a few moments, confused by so many words, Mary just stared.
Beyond the woman’s bowed head, she could see the garden path down which she must have run on the night when she had saved one boy’s life while another died. It was a glorious morning and from the hedge a blackbird sang ecstatically into the sunlit silence.
“Come in.” She reached out to take the woman’s arm. “I’ll make some tea.”
It was the first time for as long as she could remember that she had, voluntarily, let another person into her home.
“It’s nice here,” the woman said, her cup of tea in the space Mary had hastily cleared on her cluttered table. “And you’ve got a cat,” she said, noticing Solomon, who remained, tightly furled in a nest of junk mail at the far end.
Solomon, sensing interest, sat up, licked his white stomach and picked his way across the litter of bills, special offers, unwashed dishes and the bean pods from last night’s supper. Purring noisily, he stepped down into Carol Hawkins’ lap and went back to sleep.
“Well!” she giggled. “I seem to have made a friend.”
Gary liked cats, she told Mary.
“More than people really.” She smoothed Solomon’s tabby head. “He was a bit of a loner.”
Later Mary took her out into the garden. The lavender and oregano were in full bloom and the bees were clambering over the mauve and pink flowers, causing the stems to bend as they investigated for pollen.
Together they picked a bunch for Gary’s shrine.
“Did he like flowers?” she asked and Carol said she really wasn’t sure.
“He’d bring me some on Mother’s Day – if he remembered. But he wasn’t good at things like that. The only thing he really cared about was his motor bike. He loved that. Spent hours working on it. I said he should join one of those bikers’ clubs. So he’d meet people, you know. But he wasn’t interested. He just liked riding round on his own.”
So perhaps, Mary thought but did not say, he died happy. Doing something he loved.
“It does help to talk about him,” Carol said with a sudden openness that made Mary feel quite nervous. “I’m so grateful to you.”
“It’s nothing,” she heard herself say abruptly. And then, remembering the confidences she had, all those years ago, shared with friends, “I’m really glad to have met you. I felt so upset about… him. Gary. Your son. I do hope you’ll come again. And so does Solomon,” she added as he appeared from under the silver birch and rubbed himself loudly against Carol’s legs.
Later she walked with her to the bus. As she stood waving she felt happier, she realised, than she had for a long time.
She spent the afternoon weeding Gary’s shrine, transplanting into it the deep mauve penstemon she had found among the nettles at the bottom of the garden and that night her supper – artichoke soup and stewed blackcurrants – tasted delicious.
“Goodnight Gary,” she called, one loner to another across the quiet night air, as she passed the open window on her way to bed. “Sleep tight.”
Rick Marshall, smoking a last cigar out on his decking, heard and shook his head.
Completely nuts, he thought. Poor old dear.