Short Fiction by Andrew Dicker
She saunters pensively by the lake in the park, her eyes downcast, arms folded, her right arm flexed at the elbow, a finger twisting the end of her dark hair. Her clothes are elegant and colourful; a loose silk top under a pink pashmina, a calf-length skirt and soft, leather ankle-boots. Perhaps she has taken time off from something important to meditate by the lake. She is not there to exercise; she is preoccupied, reflective, calmed by the stillness of the water; nothing to interrupt her solitary rumination. Her thoughts are about a man. Their relationship is not going well. She is not in love. He wants her to sleep with him because he believes sex will bring them closer. If she refuses, it will end the relationship; if she agrees she is sure she will regret it.
She feels sorry for him and knows her personality is more assertive than his. It is time to tell him it is over which troubles her; she will not be upset but it will wound him, make him miserable. He is ten years older and more devoted to her than she is to him. The more she reflects the more certain she is that she cannot sleep with him. Her pace quickens; she has decided. She will tell him this evening when they meet after work in a bar. Now she needs to get back to her office and put him out of her mind until she walks to the bar to meet him. She will not plan her words; it will sound too formal. Spontaneity is more likely to be honest.
At half past six they meet in the bar where they have been many times. They chat over a bottle of wine; at ease, they laugh and appear to please each other with anecdotes of the day’s events. When the bottle is empty, she says she must not be late; there are things she needs to do at home.
‘Did you think any more about the weekend? Will you come and stay?’ He is asking if she has decided whether she will sleep with him. She looks at her glass, then at him.
‘No. I don’t think so. I’m sorry but I don’t think I want to.’ She is honest, unrehearsed. He is crestfallen. His expression saddens her; she rests her hand on his arm. ‘I hate to upset you but that’s how it is. It’s pointless to pretend. I’m sorry.’ His disappointment is palpable.
‘I understand.’ He is resigned. There is a pause. ‘Can we meet tomorrow?’
‘If you like,’ she smiles, ‘here, same time?’
‘I’ll look forward to it.’ He is hopeful, perseverant.
She drains her glass, stands up, smiles again.
‘See you tomorrow.’ She weaves her way through the after-work drinkers. His eyes follow her wistfully; she does not look back.
Men become infatuated with her too often and tell her they are in love; their naivete discomfits her. Sometimes they make her laugh, entertain her, but she never falls in love.
She wants to love someone, give herself determinedly to someone she knows loves her. It is an unfulfilled part of her. She longs for intimacy; it does not show, but it makes her incomplete. Her beauty is effortless and spontaneous; desirability is a part of who she is. She covers up her physical perfection with elegant, expensive clothes and becomes impervious. One day someone she is able to love will enter her life. Until then she accepts that she will be alone.
The next day she texts the man who wants her to sleep with him and tells him she cannot meet him in the evening. She does not give a reason but apologises. His company is insufficient reason for her to indulge him; their relationship no longer has anywhere to go. If loving someone is something she needs to do, she must find her paragon, cultivate him and seduce him into loving her. Single women provoke curiosity; she knows coincidence and opportunism will lead her to her elusive man.
She lives in a Victorian house with a garden which she neglects until the neighbours complain. Gardening is not among her accomplishments. She advertises for a gardener. The man she employs comes with no qualifications, apart from an assurance he can do the job. He is medium height and broad-shouldered. His face is weather-beaten with merry wrinkles at the corners of his blue eyes. He has short silver hair. His eyes twinkle whenever he looks at her. She cannot decide if he is amused or derisive. The garden is his interest, not her. He listens to her instructions and ignores them. Twice a week he clears sections of the garden, piling up dead winter vegetation ready to be taken away. When the garden is a muddy rectangle, with a strip of grass down the middle, he tells her she needs to buy plants and offers to help plan the new garden.
They sit close together gazing at a colourful gardening website. From time to time the gardener names a plant in Latin and expects her to search for the species. Then he specifies the colour and how many of each plant. From time to time she looks at him. He does not return her scrutiny. The focus of his attention is on the screen and the plan for her garden in his head. When his list is exhausted he says:
‘Let me know when it all arrives. They must be planted quickly but I can show you where they should go.’ He looks at her with his twinkling eyes for the first time, grinning. She is sure he is mocking her.
Five days later the plants arrive. She summons the gardener who comes early the following morning. She has half an hour to spare before going to her office. He conducts her round the muddy beds placing plants in rows and clumps.
‘D’you want me to do the planting for you?’ He smiles condescendingly. She tries to think of something to say to show she is in charge but finds his twinkling gaze disarms her.
‘Yes. Please carry on.’ She capitulates meekly and sets off to her office. He has a perplexing effect on her. Later she returns to the lakeside to untangle her perplexity.
He is knowledgeable, quietly confident and not quite respectful. His twinkling observation of her feels impertinent. She is sure he is laughing at her helplessness. But when she returns his gaze, there is a frisson of something else. Does he undress her in his imagination? She realises that is what she wants. It is an intriguing notion; she resolves to find out more about her gardener and his intentions. She decides to entertain him in her house when the planting is done.
The gardener arrives daily at eight in the morning, works steadily until six in the evening and disappears. When she is at home, she watches him from the windows at the back of the house. He moves deliberately, everything he does is methodical and considered. Mostly on his knees, he soothes the young plants tenderly into their earthy homes with his hands; she realises the creation of her garden is a sensuous art. When there is nothing left to plant he stays late to show her the result of his labours. He explains why he has planted shade-loving and climbing plants against the wall, others where they will be in full sun, how reds, purples, yellows and greens will create patterns as the garden matures. His planning is meticulous, as is the invoice he hands her. She asks tentatively if he will join her for dinner on Saturday. For the first time in their acquaintance he beams, his twinkling eyes looking steadily at hers; he is pleased by the invitation.
‘That’s kind. I should like that. I’ll look forward to getting to know for whom I’ve been working.’ The formality of the moment takes her by surprise.
‘And I’ll look forward to discovering about the man who’s created my garden.’ She hopes that equality might help to cultivate a relationship; mutual ignorance of each other is a good starting place. The gardener becomes her quarry. She designs menus to delight his senses of taste, smell and sight; seasoned, spiced, aromatic and colourful, and fantasises about postprandial sex.
When he arrives, he announces that he does not drink alcohol or eat red meat. He lives on fish, fowl and vegetables, mainly the latter. He drinks only tea and water. Anticipating this she has cooked an exotic, spicy chicken dish. She asks politely:
‘I hope you won’t mind if I have a glass of wine? I’m afraid I’m not very good at making tea but I’ll boil the kettle and maybe you can make it how you like it.’ She finds a packet of tea leaves which has been in the cupboard for many months.
‘Lapsang souchong,’ he sniffs the contents of the packet appreciatively. ‘Camellia sinensis. Tea leaves dried in smoke from pinewood fires.’ He pours hot water from the kettle to warm the tea pot. She raises her glass to him.
‘Your very good health,’ she says, ‘thank you for your hard work.’ She offers him a bowl of delicately salted almonds to go with the smoked tea. Almonds, she believes, are an aphrodisiac.
She observes him as he savours the tea. He has changed from his gardener’s garments into a crisp white shirt open at the collar, red corduroy trousers and shiny brogues. She guesses he might be sixty. His hands are spotless. He is closely shaved; his eyes still twinkle merrily. There is no trace of the garden about him. He pre-empts her question:
‘No, I’m not a proper gardener but I know about plants and I like designing gardens for people. It’s a retirement project.’ He smiles at her surprise. ‘I do people’s gardens and write obscure papers about fossilised plants. I used to be a professor of palaeontology,’ he adds, as if that explains everything. She is fascinated. He tells her he has been an academic for the whole of his adult life, an environmentalist and left-wing activist.
‘My dad dissolved himself in drink but my mum was clever—endowed me with brains. I was an only child. We were dirt poor but I got into the local grammar school, then a scholarship to Oxford forty years ago. Strange place—full of public school boys with a misplaced sense of entitlement. Not a nice place for working-class kids. I became a communist, a good way to alienate the establishment.’ There is an implicit challenge in his eyes.
‘I also went to Oxford.’ She smiles. ‘I’m afraid I was one of the public school girls. Middle-class, entitled and complacent; a decade or two after you, possibly. I spent three frivolous years there, but I got a first class degree and now I’m a company director—a dedicated capitalist.’
‘A lady of the establishment. And single?’
‘Waiting to be discovered. And you?’
‘Divorced ten years ago. Two grown up boys, both working for NGOs in Africa. They’re good lads although their mother did most of the hard work. Talking of which, who’s going to look after the garden? It’ll need nurturing and I suspect that’s not among your capitalist skills.’
‘You’re right. I think I’d rather watch it grow. Having worked so hard to create it maybe you’d like to look after it?’
‘Not sure I have the time. I’ll have to let you know.’ He watches her moving about her modern kitchen, delicately seasoning her creations, stirring the fragrant contents of saucepans, laying the table, folding linen napkins. She is smart in tight coral jeans and a blue cashmere jumper with a deep V-neck, casual and expensive; perhaps twenty years younger than himself. His eyes follow her but when she looks at him she sees contempt in his gaze. They have nothing in common other than intellect. She uses hers to enlarge the profits of the organisation she works for; he uses his in research, discovery, disseminating knowledge, and political campaigning. But there is another dimension to their contemplation of each other. He sees that she is perfectly desirable; he cannot decide what she makes of him. There is a physical sturdiness about him which she finds attractive, even erotic. Their desire is mutual and as yet unspoken.
They eat at the kitchen table. His appreciation of what she has prepared is sincere. He identifies every flavour, every herb and seasoning ingredient. Even if they are ideologically polarised, food brings them together and they share their stories. There is enough common ground for her to seduce him. When the meal is over she sits close to him; he cannot avoid her alluring presence. She lays a hand on his arm, the other she runs through his short, silver hair. Their eyes meet, inches apart.
‘Sleep with me,’ she murmurs to him.
It is spring time. The plants are waking. Once a week he spends the afternoon in the garden. She cooks him complicated meals. Afterwards they copulate methodically and unromantically. He is physically powerful and strong for his age. There is no exchange of love; he expends his tenderness on the garden. He does not stay the night; she thinks of him as her gigolo. Once, she denies him and has to explain that she is bleeding. For a moment his mocking gaze becomes insolent, and she realises he regards her as his right, a chattel, but she knows she is in control despite his contempt for her.
All through the summer he works in the garden every Wednesday afternoon. The garden flourishes. She cooks in the early evening and they eat together. When the meal is over they indulge in perfunctory sex and he goes home. Their intimacy is mechanical but satisfying. She finds it makes her more complete and eclipses her need to love someone. Autumn fades into winter and mutes the colours in the garden, the plants recede. There is no longer anything for the gardener to do. He is quiet during the delectable meal and looks dejected; his eyes have lost their twinkle. They go to bed but his usual virility fails him. Without a word he gets out of bed and dresses. She pulls on her gown and hurries after him to the front door, confused and concerned. He hesitates on the door step.
‘Perhaps I’ll see you next spring,’ he says without looking at her, and disappears into the winter night.