The Good Neighbour

When her next door neighbour was killed in a coach crash, Jane wasn’t sure if she should carry on watering her plants or not.
‘It’s only for five days,’ Flo had said. ‘And only if it doesn’t rain. But I would be grateful. I’d hate to come back and find my impatiens dying.’
But now it was more than seven days. And it seemed that Flo wasn’t coming back.

In the end she went on with the watering. She had no real evidence, after all. Only the radio announcement thudding onto the supper table with her poached egg on toast, telling her that three people had been killed in a coach crash south of Wigan.
Flo, she knew, was touring Yorkshire. By coach. Which didn’t mean it was her coach that had crashed. Or, if it had been, that she was one of the dead.
It wasn’t the sort of thing one expected. Not of Flo.
But she did not come home as planned the following afternoon. Nor did she phone.
Instead two police officers arrived, asking if she knew the whereabouts of ‘any members of Mrs Heron’s family’.
‘I’m afraid so,’ the sergeant said, when Jane asked if Flo had been one of those killed. ‘Although, strictly speaking, I shouldn’t say anything until the next of kin have been informed.’
Flo’s next of kin was her son in Australia and Jane had no idea of his address. Flo had been out to see him three years before – she’d watered her plants for a month on that occasion – but she couldn’t remember where exactly she had gone. Sydney – or had that been the vicar? Melbourne? Or possibly Perth?
‘I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘These places all seem the same if you haven’t been to them.’
It didn’t matter, the sergeant said. She’d been very helpful. They’d get onto the Australian High Commission.
And Jane went on watering Flo’s plants.
In spite of the police officers it was hard to believe she wouldn’t be coming back and it would be irresponsible to allow her plants to die. There was, after all, no body. No coffin. No funeral. No Guide Me Oh Thou Great Redeemer. No earth to earth, ashes to ashes. No flowers. No contributions to a chosen charity. Nothing.

The impatiens continued to thrive – scarlet, white and a deep, gaudy pink that Flo, who had a flamboyant taste in flowers as in clothes, would have appreciated. Nasturtiums in gold and orange hoisted themselves up the hedge, stems tangled like the wiring of a demented electrician, and sweet peas, in the gentler pastel shades that were Jane’s preference, began to straggle about the adjoining border.
She worried about these as they trailed along the ground, swamping the carnations and dragging down Flo’s alliums with a stranglehold on their tall, thin stems. Such uncontrolled behaviour, in plants or people, was upsetting and eventually she took some of her own canes and tied the sweet peas into wigwams where they brought a sense of order to the burgeoning beds. She picked a bunch and put them in a vase on her dining room table.
Sweet peas flowered more if you kept picking them.

The community policeman dropped in.
They had traced Mrs Heron’s son in Canberra, he said, and he would fly home at some stage to deal with her affairs. Meanwhile he had instructed Mrs Heron’s cousin in Doncaster, to arrange her funeral and she had been cremated.
It was rather upsetting. She hadn’t even known there was a cousin in Doncaster.
Not that she and Flo had been friends exactly. They had little enough in common and Flo’s behaviour could be rather… ‘embarrassing’ was the word that came to mind, with her sudden, uncontrolled outbursts of laughter in the village shop or mobile library and her tendency to make loud, derogatory comments about people she didn’t like. On the whole Jane had not approved of her.
Did she have a key to Mrs Heron’s house, Constable Drage wanted to know. ( He called himself ‘Tim’ in the chatty newsletter he sent round the village but Jane could never think of him in this way.)
No, she said. She didn’t. And then she remembered…
‘I’m such a scatterbrain,’ Flo had said, soon after she moved in. ‘I’m always locking myself out. You take my spare key and I’ll have yours.’
And Jane had agreed, although she was not a scatterbrain and Flo generally forgot to lock her door at all.
She took the key from the drawer where it had remained undisturbed for ten years and gave it to Constable Drage.
‘Perhaps you wouldn’t mind coming with me,’ he said. ‘ Apparently Mrs Heron’s cousin isn’t in the best of health and the son won’t be over for a couple of months. He asked me to check through her mail. In case there’s anything of importance. All her financial papers are with her solicitor, so there’s nothing else to worry about.’
‘Unless there’s food in the frig,’ Jane suggested. ‘It would be unfortunate if it went off.’
Constable Drage looked uncertain.
Surely, he said, Mrs Heron would have cleared it before she went away?
Jane doubted it. Flo hadn’t been the most organised person and, in any case, had only intended to be away five days.
And in the event she was right.
While Constable Drage sorted through the pile of post on the hall floor, she checked the refrigerator and found not only a tub of margarine with a fine growth of fur on the surface but an opened jar of mouldy olives and a pot of yoghurt so out of date she didn’t bother opening it to check. In the vegetable rack several potatoes had grown long white tubers, mushrooms had gone sticky and almost a pound of slimy carrots had sprouted thin, whiskery tendrils.
‘I’ll leave you to deal with that,’ said Constable Drage, whose radio had started to emit odd noises. ‘I’ll give this lot to her solicitor.’
And he loped off up the pathway to his car, carrying envelopes. Left to herself, Jane cleared the offending pots and cleaned the inside of the frig with soda crystals. Then she tipped the vegetables onto the compost heap and hosed down the rack.
Then, back aching from her exertions, she went into Flo’s lounge and sat down.
She had never felt entirely comfortable in this room with its crimson, floor-length curtains, the emerald green ‘throw’ that half-covered what, left to itself, would have been quite an acceptable couch and the bare floorboards with their treacherous, ‘ethnic’ rugs from Oxfam. Not to mention what Flo called her ‘art work’ – three paintings, far too large for a room of this size, depicting God knows what in scarlet, orange and yellow swathes and swirls – the work of some artist whom Flo insisted was an undiscovered genius.
The couch was, however, more comfortable than Jane’s chintz-upholstered, oak-armed sofa next door and she was glad to let herself sink into its deep cushions, even if the ‘throw’ did get up to its usual antics and try to drape itself round her shoulders.
She stared across the room at the largest painting. ‘Expression’ it was called and represented, Flo had said, the artist’s view of contemporary life. How anyone could see life as a series of yellow swirls was beyond Jane’s imagination but there was a patch of green in the bottom right-hand corner that was quite restful to look at.
On the little bamboo table next to the couch were several bottles and some green-tinged glasses set out on a piece of gold silk. One bottle contained sweet sherry and
Flo, who was the sort of person who always insisted on inviting one in, had bought it, Jane remembered, especially for her, since she wasn’t really a drinker. There was also gin, which was Flo’s preferred tipple, as she put it, whisky and some cloudy stuff she had bought back from a trip to France.
‘Go on! Be a devil!’ Flo used to say, and Jane would sip a small sherry while Flo poured herself a generous gin, topping up the glass with tonic from one of the little bottles with a yellow label that stood on the floor below the golden cloth.
Flo’s enthusiasm for her ‘g and t’s was another reason she and Jane had never really become friends.
‘Go on! Be a devil!’ she could have been saying now and it occurred to Jane that there was nothing – or rather, no-one – to prevent her.
Constable Drage had gone off to whatever emergency the disembodied voice on his radio had summoned him and there was no-one else. These two cottages – at the far end of the village and separated from the nearest house by several hundred yards – were on no-one’s route to anywhere. No-one was going to pass and, if they did, were unlikely to peer in at the window.

Next morning the vicar called – ‘Malcolm’, as he liked to be known, although not by Jane. He talked about a memorial service for Flo – ‘As none of us were able to attend her funeral.’
‘None of us,’ Jane pointed out, ‘were invited.’
‘Well, no. But then, the circumstances were… difficult,’ the Reverend Shilton murmured. ‘So,’ he added more brightly, ‘I thought, perhaps a service of thanksgiving. For her life…’
‘Flo never came to church did she?’ Jane commented and he agreed than she hadn’t.
‘But she was a vibrant and lively contributor to village life,’ he added, ‘and several people have asked.’
‘It’s entirely up to you Vicar,’ Jane told him.
Flo, she remembered, had had a noisy dispute with the Reverend Shilton back in the spring. Something about the church’s hypocritical attitude to money when he applied for a lottery grant to refurbish the toilets in the church hall.
‘Jesus threw the usurers and money-lenders out of the temple,’ she had bellowed – in the middle of a Hunger Lunch for the Third World. ‘And you welcome them in with open, bloody arms!’
Which made quite a stir, not least because Flo was so very red in the face and seemed to have a little difficulty keeping her balance.

Flo’s lawn, she thought, looking across the low hedge that divided their properties, was getting very long, compared to her own neatly-trimmed square and she spent most of the afternoon cutting it with Flo’s motor mower, trimming the edges with her own, long-handled shears. The dahlias, she noticed, were doing well and she spent some time staking them.
The weather was still fine and she watered the garden again, picked some more sweet peas and fed and watered the hanging baskets. Then she let herself into Flo’s house and sat down gratefully onto her comfy couch with a glass of sherry.
Once again she examined the paintings. The artist must have been mad, she thought – although not as mad as Flo, who had paid out good money. The green patch, however, was taking on some sort of character. Viewed in a certain light, it looked almost like a cat. Curled in on itself with just its ears sticking up. A green cat, but a cat nevertheless.

‘We wondered if you’d like to come for supper.’ Mary Robertson stopped Jane in the shop next morning. ‘You must be feeling a bit down. Without Flo,’ she added when Jane looked surprised.
‘We weren’t friends.’ Jane was annoyed at the implication. ‘Only neighbours.’
The invitation wasn’t repeated.
Flo’s herbaceous border, she realised when she got home, had got very out-of-hand with thick clumps of coarse grass, not to mention docks and nettles, flourishing amongst the flowers. That was the trouble with such wide borders. Jane’s own borders were narrow, neatly set out with geraniums and aubretia and easy to hoe. In late summer she would bring in the geraniums and hang them in the cool darkness of the garden shed, replacing them with chrysanthemums, also preserved from last year.
It was the way Father had always done it and she could see no reason to change.
Flo, on the other hand, had a less organised attitude to gardening – and a more careless attitude towards money. Her husbands – she had been widowed twice – had left her well provided for but that was no excuse, in Jane’s view, for her spendthrift ways. Every year, for example, she spent thirty-odd pounds on new season’s dahlias and then left them out to get blackened by the first frost.

It was lucky her own garden needed so little attention as she spent most of the next day working on Flo’s borders which, when she had finished, looked sensational. The nasturtiums covered the low hedge with their splendid trumpets. The dahlias – scarlet, orange, striped pink and white and bright yellow – glowed in the sunshine as they pumped their acrid scent into the air. The lobelias towered, deep red and deepest burgundy, surrounded by orange flames of monbretia and vulgar yellow coreopsis. The carnations and impatiens, interspersed with purple aliums and the sweet peas in their wigwams, bloomed cheerfully on, attracting bees and butterflies, unaware that their owner was dead..
‘It’s a positive riot of colour,’ Flo had said this time last year. Which was all very well but Jane didn’t like riots and certainly not in her garden. Now, head aching from too much sun and colour, she fetched Flo’s broad-brimmed sun hat and sat on her old wicker garden chair on the terrace she had had built at the back of the house.
The view from there was glorious. Over the dahlias and lobelias she could see across the fields to the distant woodlands and the old farm buildings whose red brick walls and orange roof-tiles glowed in the late afternoon sunlight as a line of black and white cows processed towards their milking parlour.
None of which she could see from her own house because of the tall yew hedge Father had planted.
‘Have it cut down,’ Flo had told her, in the decisive manner that could be so irritating. The yews had always been there and Jane – and perhaps the garden – would feel exposed without them.
And it seemed wrong to get rid of something Father had loved.
‘That’s foolish,’ Flo told her. ‘You can’t live your life for other people. Do what makes you happy.’
But she hadn’t been sure that it would make her happy. Father had been a very strong character and perhaps even death might not prevent recriminations.
Now, however, on Flo’s terrace, looking westwards into a sky where golden threads of sunset turned the azure blue towards varying shades of green, she began to wonder.
She would have her sherry out here this evening, she decided.

‘I thought you might like to offer a reading.’
The Reverend Shilton – ‘Malcolm’ – sat earnestly forwards in his chair, which was so low that the knees of his long legs stuck up in front of him giving him the look of a stork, or perhaps a heron, in an awkward nest.
‘As you were such friends,’ he added a little uncertainly.
Jane was getting rather tired of this.
‘We were only neighbours,’ she said firmly. ‘We didn’t have much in common.’
Reverend Shilton stared across his knees and smiled doubtfully. Probably he was comparing her with his memories of Flo, with her striped hair – ‘highlighting’ she called it – scarlet lips and fingernails – and toe nails, come to think of it – her long fringed blouses and flowing, brightly coloured skirts.
Looking down at her own fawn-coloured, pleated skirt, tan tights and safe sandals, Jane could appreciate his difficulty.
‘But you were good neighbours,’ he said at last, ‘and a good neighbour is as valuable as any friend,’ he ended, looking slightly embarrassed. As well he might, Jane thought. Spouting such rubbish.
‘I’ll think about it,’ she said.

There was hardly any sherry left when she went in to Flo’s that evening, which surprised her as the bottle had been almost full when Flo went away. She remembered her bringing it out from what she called her ‘wine cellar’ under the stairs.
She wondered about the gin. There was plenty of that left and if Roger wasn’t coming for a couple of months it might evaporate, or even go off. If gin did go off…
It tasted strong and very bitter – medicinal rather than something you might drink for pleasure – and then she remembered the little tonic bottles.
That was a great deal better. The drink had a fizz to it now, and a subtle, herbal taste. It was nicer, if anything, than the rather sickly sherry.
And she was beginning to get used to this room. The throw was quite manageable, if you treated it cautiously and it was nice to have so many cushions.
Slipping off her sandals, she put her feet up as she remembered Flo doing, adjusted a couple of cushions behind her head and sipped her gin.
Even the picture was growing on her. The little green cat was really quite cute, once you could see what it was…

‘No I really don’t think I can,’ she told Reverend Shilton next morning when he phoned to ask again about a reading. ‘I’m sorry.’
She wasn’t feeling well in any case. Her head ached, her stomach felt queasy and the back of her throat was very dry, as if she might be coming down with flu.
‘No,’ she said firmly as his bleating voice started to suggest other things she might do. Perhaps she might like to just say a few words about her neighbour?
‘Be assertive for once,’ she could hear Flo’s voice telling her in her quick, decisive tone – it was when she was still working at the library and they’d asked her to help out at another branch. ‘Tell them you’re not driving that far. You just let yourself get put upon.’
‘It’s not really…’
‘Don’t make excuses!’ That was another thing Flo used to say. ‘Just say what you mean.’
‘I don’t want to,’ she said and put down the phone.
Her hands were shaking and she could feel a hot flush spreading up her neck. For a moment she wondered if she might slip next door for a small g and t.

After lunch she worked on Flo’s garden. The dahlias needed dead-heading, the lobelias needed staking and the carnations were getting ‘leggy’ and needed dividing. Then she watered the hanging baskets, which were overflowing now with petunias and trailing lobelia, and swept up the fallen petals that littered the terrace.
That evening she had her g and t outside with some of Flo’s cushions to soften the wicker chair. The sunset behind the distant wood was spectacular, the brilliant ball of the sun descending fast towards the horizon to leave behind it a sky full of dramatic purples, oranges and golds. And Flo, she remembered, had a skirt in similar shades, bought last year from a market stall.
‘Isn’t it wonderful?’ She’d pirouetted foolishly about her lawn in the long, fringed Indian cotton garment with tiny silver bells hanging from twisted tassels at the waist. ‘It’s so crazy I couldn’t resist it!’
And she gave one of her sudden barks of laughter, startling Jane, who smiled politely and went on with her weeding.
Pouring more gin into her glass, she went upstairs to Flo’s bedroom.
She’d never been upstairs in this house before and it took her by surprise. Compared to her own bedroom, still furnished with her parents’ heavy, dark-wood furniture, it was so light and spacious. Her room was too crowded, of course, with two wardrobes, one of which was empty because it had been Father’s, the dressing table, chest of drawers and high, old-fashioned double bed crowding in on each other.
Flo’s storage space was all contained in one whitewood unit around her low divan bed with the scarlet and green duvet cover that matched, almost, the red of the curtains. And there were so many mirrors – two set into the cupboard doors, one on the vanity unit and one huge free-standing one near the window.
Jane’s reflection followed her round the room and down diminishing corridors of glass. A shortish, stoutish, middle-aged woman with a dull, round face, neatly-cropped grey hair, wearing a pale blue blouse, box-pleated tweed skirt and sensible sandals.
This also took her by surprise. When, she wondered, had she started to appear so… nondescript?
But when, she thought then, had she last looked at herself properly? Her dressing table mirror showed only her head and shoulders and, being set in front of the window, gave only a dim reflection and the only other mirror was inside the wardrobe door.
Taking a further sip of gin and tonic, she put down the glass and opened one of Flo’s cupboards.
It was strange to see her clothes without Flo’s energetic body inside them. The cerise, long-skirted dress, the mauve and blue palazzo pants she’d brought back from a trip to Italy, the charity-shop black satin skirt she’d worn at her Christmas morning drinks party, topped with an emerald shirt… They hung, lifeless and abandoned, on their hangers, a confusion of dainty sandals and crazily high-heeled shoes on the floor below them.
And where was the Indian cotton skirt, with the fringed hemline and the little silver bells? Flo might, of course, have taken it with her but as she pushed clothes along the rail she found it, crushed between two dresses – fringes, tassels and little bells intact.
Jane eyed the confusion of colours and materials before her, saw at the same moment her own drab image in the mirror beside them and reached out a tentative hand…
‘You’re so cautious,’ Flo used to tell her, laughing. ‘Live dangerously for once. Take a risk!’
Outside the sun set in orange and green and gold. House martins swooped aerobatically with joyful squeaks above the garden and a billion tiny insects caught the last rays of light above the blazing colours of Flo’s herbaceous border.
Inside the bedroom, and conscious of Flo’s unreflected presence at her side, Jane started nervously to unzip her box-pleated skirt.

She forgot all about the memorial service.
Several people had phoned to remind her, two of them offering lifts – which was ridiculous when the church was only half a mile away.
‘See you tomorrow then,’ they all said. ‘Three o’clock’.
She was clipping Flo’s hedge when she remembered. She hadn’t intended doing it but, sitting on the terrace after lunch, she noticed how straggly it looked and before she knew it she had fetched out the shears…
It was already quarter past three and there was no time to change. She would just have to go as she was and they could think what they liked.
She would take some flowers with her though. Flowers and funerals went together – even if this wasn’t exactly a funeral – and they were, after all, Flo’s flowers.
Hastily she used the shears to cut some lobelias, a quantity of orange monbretia and some of the finest dahlias – the big cactus variety and the smaller pom-poms – and, securing the unwieldy bundle with green gardening twine, hurried down the road to the village.
It was a hot afternoon and she was glad of Flo’s broad-brimmed hat, although it would have been sensible to have changed her gardening boots for sandals. By the time she reached the church her face and arms were wet with sweat and she was sorry she’d brought so many flowers as they threatened to slip from their twine binding and broken leaves and petals kept catching in the lace of her blouse.
The church porch was at least cool and she paused outside the solid, closed door, the ancient nails standing out from the oak panels, to catch her breath before she pushed it open and stepped inside.

The service was all but finished. It had been, people said afterwards, most suitable. One of those warm, friendly occasions – not too religious, in view of Flo’s slightly off-beat beliefs, but, in its way, comforting.
Carol Shilton, the vicar’s wife, had excelled herself with the flowers – exotic and vibrantly coloured cannas – since Flo had, as they all remembered, been such a one for colour.
It was for this reason that the congregation had been instructed not to wear black.
They had sung The Lord of the Dance and a woman who had been to creative writing classes with Flo read two poems that no-one really understood but that Flo, they all agreed, nodding at one another, would have appreciated.
‘We will end,’ Malcolm Shilton announced, smiling his long-toothed smile,
‘in a rather more conventional manner with Hymn Number Three Hundred and Five. For All The Saints, Who From Their Labours Rest…’  The organist, who had had little enough to do this afternoon, threw himself with some vigour into the introductory phrases, the congregation took a deep breath in unison and the heavy west door swung suddenly and noisily open to admit a late-comer.

Only the Reverend Malcolm Shilton was facing down the aisle but as he gasped, dropped his copy of Hymns Ancient and Modern and appeared to be about to follow it onto the stone flags of the altar steps, the rest of the congregation, confused and startled, turned their heads…
For some seconds the organist continued his solo as they gaped in collective astonishment at the untidy figure who advanced a little unsteadily down the aisle, face obscured by a familiar broad-brimmed sun hat and an unwieldy cluster of brightly-coloured flowers. A broken-stemmed lobelia fell to be trampled by a heavy, dust-covered gardening boot. Orange and scarlet petals fluttered to the grey flagstones and the little bells that hung from the tassels of the fringed and vibrantly coloured skirt gave out a thin metallic clatter that, nevertheless, made itself heard above the now faltering boom of the organ.
And, seeing their expressions of appalled amazement, the woman let go of the remaining flowers, flung back her head to reveal a crimson, sweat-covered face and started – suddenly, raucously and with no restraint whatsoever – to shriek with hysterical laughter.

3 comments on “The Good Neighbour

  1. Stephanie says:

    A really sad story about a lonely rather than a mad woman is how I saw this!!

    Like

  2. kathi Mall says:

    Not sad – Not mad. Discovery – she had found herself – no longer under the shadow of her father she bloomed.- like the flowers in the garden.
    Never too late!!
    I loved it! Beautifully written.
    Vicky, you inspire me — to read more!!

    Like

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