Frances Hartwell’s roses had won awards and featured in the pages of at least three glossy gardening magazines. Her speciality was antique roses; her garden a temple to their scented petals and pale pink blooms. In winter she would prune the roses back with a pair of secateurs, nipping and clipping with small deft movements until her garden was a forest of spiky, lifeless stems. In spring a resurrection would occur with small leaves, like cherubs’ wings, sprouting at the site where the stems had been severed. By summer the roses would be back in full bloom, their heads bobbing over the top of the wooden fence that divided our two gardens, perfuming the light nights with their cloying floral tang.
‘The Rose Queen’s out,’ I’d say to David if I spotted movement over the top of the fence. At least on the face of things, I’d say it to David. In reality – with his head buried in a history book, or else decoding The Times crossword – I’d say it to myself.
‘In that saucy gingham apron of hers. Flashing her pruners to the world.’
‘I expect she’s tidying up her beds for spring.’
‘I expect she is.’
‘Cup of tea?’
‘Not just yet.’
And so it went, our marriage, with its daily excursions to the heartland of Trivial via the outposts of Mundane.
Lately, I had taken to communing with my mother in the hallway mirror. Its position next to a window where the morning sun streamed in made it an ideal spot for grooming, for pulling out the wild greys that twined like Bellbind through my hairline.
‘This is where twenty years of wedlock takes you, Corinne,’ she’d say to me – my mother – from behind the mirrored glass. ‘This is where downshifting to some rural haven drops you off and leaves you stranded.’ Then she’d disappear again, leaving me to clench my teeth in an effort to stop my eyes from watering and rubbing at my scalp where the hair-tugs stung the most.
I didn’t tell David any of this. I didn’t tell David much. We lived in a cottage, the second in a south-facing row of four, sandwiched between Frances and her roses in the end house, with Mr Watkins, a widower, at the other side. The fourth house in the row was a holiday cottage, a rental. Over summer someone different would be in there every week, usually from London or Bristol or some other urban, fume-filled sprawl. They’d arrive on Friday nights, pulling up in hire cars with their windows wound down. Radio blaring, doors slamming, shouting over the noise.
That’s how David and I arrived here, impervious to silence, almost four years to the day. We’d driven from our cosy pocket of north east London; our last summer there marked by the riots and arson attacks that turned up the temperature on the city’s sweltering streets. The police had shot and killed a black man, it said on the news. The papers were full of photos showing burnt out buildings. The fires, made from petrol bombs and ignited by fury, seemed to rage for days.
We lived too far from the riot areas to be touched by them, but were close enough to be kept awake by sirens wailing through the night. When we took the dogs out for a walk, we’d sit on a park bench watching the city smoulder from the high ground of Alexandra Palace, smoke pouring out of Tottenham and filling the sky like some genie of doom.
But that seemed like a lifetime ago: David was still working then, my mother was alive. At Ally Pally we drank coffee out of paper cups and the dogs, off their leads, bounded freely in the open air. ‘London’s burning,’ I said to David as the genie unfurled east towards Hackney and south into Brixton, pushing down into Croydon, taking pit stops between.
Nobody ever rioted in Somerset, the place we lived now. Nobody ever rioted because nobody ever needed to.
If they did, the village always had my neighbour, Mr Watkins, to rely on. He’d been an army man in the 50s, served a spell out in Korea. Still slept with an old service pistol beneath his bed, he told me. Spent his days manning an observation post that he’d set up in his spare room that overlooked the garden of the rental.
‘Cannabis users, this week,’ he’d hiss over the top of the fence if he saw me in the garden. ‘Can smell the stuff at sixty paces.’ Or else: ‘Drinkers. Counted three bottles of the hard stuff in the recycling box this morning.’
His surveillance extended beyond the neighbouring garden, through the bricks of the adjoining wall. Visiting couples were frequently ‘having an affair’ or else ‘headed for the divorce court’, depending what he heard on the other side, and unless they were men, in which case his pursed lips spoke volumes.
If David and I ever argued, I might have had cause to worry about our being overheard. As it was, we barely conversed. We were silent in most other matters too. In that respect, I imagined we made the perfect neighbours. Certainly Mr Watkins never had any cause for complaint and, of late, he and I had struck up something of a friendship. There were other things we had in common. Neither of us had children – they were a mutual absence in both our lives – and so, once a week, I’d do a little light shopping for him down in the village. If the weather was bad at the weekends, I’d pop round to his for a cup of tea to make sure he had company.
I’d made other friends since moving here. There was Maud, who I knew from the book shop, and Nisha who took yoga classes at the church hall. There were other friends, too. Ones whose names I didn’t know but I’d bump into them often enough, usually while out walking the dogs, our animals sniffing each other intimately while their humans looked to the sky and discussed the likelihood of rain.
It was hardly assimilation and it didn’t come close to matching the ease with which David had settled in. Not surprising really, seeing as he’d grown up less than thirty miles from where we lived now, in a place that might have been a clone of this one. From its cuckoo mornings to its starry, pitch dark nights, David belonged in village life. He strolled the narrow lanes and footpaths as if the world had brought him home.
Frances Hartwell was another native. Barring the occasional week away, her entire existence had run its course in a half mile radius of the village green. And not just her life either, but those lives within her blood cells and bone marrow that could be traced back to the Battle of Langport. David had bumped into her, he told me in a rare conversation, at one of the historical re-enactments he attended.
‘Her ancestor was a General, one of Cromwell’s men. Quite a formidable force, by all accounts.’
‘Is that right?’ I said, poking a stick through the drain cover. It was autumn and the build-up of leaves had caused a blockage.
‘Very interesting man, John Hartwell. After Langport, he travelled on with Fairfax to take Bristol from the Royalists. He was quite the local legend. Frances is lobbying the council to get a plaque for him on the village hall...’
There was a loud snap as the lower half of the stick disappeared through the drain cover. ‘Now look what you’ve done,’ I said, throwing the rest of the stick to the floor.
‘Whatever’s the matter?’ said David, following me into the kitchen, the drain abandoned, left to choke alone on the season’s rotting leaves.
I have never been too fond of flowers. In the early days of our relationship, David bought them for me on our first few dates and, once or twice, after a row. He had something to prove back then, the older man, ostensibly still married. It was something he would have been happy to continue with, mindlessly observing the same floral ritual he’d established with his first wife, if I hadn’t faked a pollen allergy and told him he should stop.
Frances’ roses were another matter entirely. With their exposed frills and velvet-soft folds, they reminded me of can-can girls. Scheming, sultry, seductive. Their prettiness, a facade for a more complex truth that lay in their claw-like thorns and fibrous woody stems.
The cottages we lived in each had a small strip of land in front of the property, with a larger garden at the back. Ours was the least remarkable in the row. Its overriding feature was a long rectangular stretch of lawn, with some dwarf conifers we’d inherited from the previous owner lending the patio some interest. Towards the back of the garden was an overhanging oak tree rooted in the farmer’s field beyond. What our garden lacked in ambition, it made up for in simplicity. It was a dog owner’s garden, I told myself. Somewhere Coco and Pepper could roll around in all day, mauling their chew toys and barking at the wind.
Every so often, usually when the lawn became overrun with dandelion heads, I’d get the mower out and give the grass a crew cut. David’s back, a column of crumbling bone and cartilage, prevented him from doing any of the grunt work around the house. It fell to me to keep the place in check.
At night, alone in the conservatory, I could spend whole evenings staring out across the lawn, my gaze fixed on the wide green sweep of field beyond the oak tree. Those were the evenings when David would be out with friends, down at the village pub, or else re-imagining past lives at some fusty local history gathering. If he wasn’t out, he’d be in bed for nine: the pain killers he took throughout the day accumulating in some knockout punch come sundown.
Evenings had become my favourite part of the day: the near-silence of a creaking house, the solitary contemplation of the long green view ahead. I’d sit cross legged on the rattan sofa, back-to-back smoking my daily quota of cigarettes. The dogs asleep in their baskets, the sky deepening to a darker shade of blue.
And that’s when I’d notice them. The roses.
When spring brought the first blooms over the fence, it felt like an imposition: pink, heady distractions that stole the gaze from the horizon, yanking it over to one side. All summer long the breezes would come, scattering confetti petals, the lawn resembling the aftermath of some riotous wedding party. The aerial bombardment would continue into autumn, with petals getting tangled up in the conifer branches or else dancing on the air like a plague of pastel-coloured moths.
The first day we moved in, David had stood in the conservatory surveying the garden, sizing up the tall wooden structures that bordered both sides of the lawn. ‘Good fences make good neighbours,’ he said, ‘as the wise poet wrote.’
And it was true, by anyone’s standards the fences were good ones: sturdy and new, of top quality timber. It was hard to find fault with them; there were no gaps between the panels and, at five and a half feet tall, they offered privacy and protection. If Mr Watkins was out in the garden, I had to stand on tiptoes just to meet his eyes, while Frances – apart from the dance of her hands as she stretched for dead petals – was largely kept from view. That was when we first moved in. But as the months passed and the rose petals blew, as David and I drifted further away from each other on a prevailing current of boredom and indifference, I had come to the conclusion that, as far as Frances Hartwell was concerned, no fence existed that would ever be good enough.
It was hard to pinpoint what it was about her I disliked so much. In the absence of a specific reason, or one irrefutable negative fact, I had come to the conclusion that it was because of her ubiquity. Barely a week passed without the local paper testifying to her gardening prowess in some way. Her face simpered out of its centre pages with annoying regularity while, over the summer months at least, her roses practically had their own column.
She was quite the village celebrity, judging jam-making competitions for the WI and handing out egg and spoon medals to excitable under-fives. She had other irritating traits, minor ones, less forceful in impact – but only if you regarded them in the singular, which I never did. Like the fact that she played golf and wore pearls and turned her shirt collars up to frame her still-tight jawline. If it was chilly she’d drape a cardigan around her shoulders and wear it like a cape. She had a permanent, sun-kissed sheen from all the hours spent gardening and a head of golden highlights that worked to honey out the grey. I imagined she was the type who always wore matching underwear, whatever the occasion, and slept in a satin negligee if such a thing could still be bought.
I dreaded bumping into her on shopping expeditions, or worse, outside the front door. She had a habit of looking through me, of staring without speaking. I never knew whether it was best to keep quiet or just talk through the awkwardness.
It was a different matter if David was with me when we met. ‘Planning a few rounds on the green today, Frances?’ he called out to her the last time. ‘I hope you’ve packed your sunscreen. This afternoon’s set to be a scorcher.’
‘The golf will have to wait I’m afraid, David. The Rotary Club ladies are planning their next fundraiser over lunch and yours truly has been appointed this year’s Chair of the organising committee.’
‘The Chair? Well, how marvellous. Isn’t that marvellous, Corinne?’ He said, turning to me, leaving a pause in the pathway, a space in the conversation where I was supposed to agree.
‘Well, must dash,’ said Frances, when the space went unfilled. ‘Can’t keep those Club ladies waiting, can we? They’re like a wolf pack when they’re hungry.’
David waved. ‘Have a wonderful afternoon,’ he said in a tone that was as genuine as it was generous – too generous – leaving me shuffling in the path, biting the inside of my cheek until I could taste blood.
I told David of my suspicions. ‘You’re imagining things,’ he said, but I wasn’t convinced. Men, rendered blind by bewitchery, can’t even see what’s in front of their own faces at times.
According to Mr Watkins, Frances had once been married to a dentist. He’d been a partner in the village practice and had died some time before we moved here: a brain aneurysm, sudden and devastating. It felled him in the middle of Chloe Miller’s annual check-up, his dead weight pinning the girl in the dental chair until her screams were heard by the receptionist returning from lunch.
‘She took it very badly,’ said Mr Watkins, referring to young Chloe, I assumed, until he gestured with his head in the direction of the roses, forcing my face into a quick recalibration so as not to betray its inward disbelief.
It was hard to think of Frances as the grieving widow, though at the time it happened, I supposed she must have been, to some degree.
Out of nowhere the tears began to roll. I was in Mr Watkins’ kitchen. He patted my hand then stood up to fill the kettle. ‘How long has it been now since your mother?’
Mr Watkins was like a father figure, yet something stopped me from opening up completely and telling him it’s the ones that never lived who cause you the most pain.
Before the riots, before the genie spread skywards, I had never seriously considered leaving London. It had been home for almost all my life. I still had hopes for a family then. The failed rounds of IVF only hardened my resolve. But when my mother’s death coincided with David’s retirement and then another failed implant, the events seemed to demand a life change equal in significance to the sum of them combined. The decision to move, to uproot ourselves, seemed to almost make itself.
‘I need to see a counsellor. I think I’m cracking up,’ I told Maud after our last yoga class. We had gone ahead to the cafe while Nisha packed up at the church hall.
Maud frowned. ‘Grief has its own timetable. It must be allowed to run its course.’
‘It’s getting worse not better. I’m all over the place just lately. I’ve even started talking to mum in the hallway mirror.’
‘It’s just your age, dear. The hormones. It comes to us all eventually. But then it goes again. It passes.’
‘It’s not hormonal. It’s David. It’s coming here. It feels like life is over. Finished.’
The waitress brought our teas on a tray. Maud waited until she’d unloaded the cups before leaning across.
‘You’re quite wrong, Corinne dear. Life is far from over. Only the other day I was reading that the secret services, the spooks, they’re hiring middle aged women like us in droves, Corinne. In droves. No-one notices us you see. We turn invisible at fifty. We walk the world unseen. What better advantage for a spy than that? We’re at the height of our powers; we remain hidden in plain sight.’
I was still some way off fifty, but decided to let it slide.
‘Every situation has its advantages, its compensations,’ she said, blowing on her tea.
‘I doubt there’s too much call for spies in Somerset,’ I said.
‘Oh, you say that but you never know. None of us know. Radical insurgents,’ she said, lowering her voice to a whisper. ‘Militant jihadists. It could be happening here, right under our noses. In the middle of the village green. And besides, who said our assignments would be here. We might get sent out into the field – imagine that – the Middle East, Somalia.’
‘We?’ I said. ‘We would hardly be invisible in Somalia, Maud.’
‘True, true. But what about Egypt? What about Turkey? Just think, the little Western tourist lady dressed casually in loose linens, puffing and panting in the midday heat. She gets separated from her coach party somewhere near the Syrian border and – oh gosh – she drops her guidebook with a fake passport hidden inside its hollowed out middle. She drops it into a litter bin, to be collected later by an undercover bin man, another operative in the field.’
I looked out of the window, willing Nisha to emerge from the church hall opposite. Its wooden doorway, half open, indicated that she was still inside – probably ambushed on the way out by Father Kelly, an inveterate talker.
Maud was on a roll. ‘No-one would suspect us. No-one would even notice we were there.’
‘David would notice,’ I said, glancing across the road again for Nisha. ‘He’s useless on his own. Left to fend for himself he’d be vaulting over next door’s fence in no time, trousers round his ankles...’
I stopped myself, but not soon enough.
Maud’s eyebrows, when I looked, were half way up her forehead. She took a cautious sip of tea. ‘I assume we’re not talking here about dear old Mr Watkins’ fence?’
Of course, the state of David’s back would prevent his actual vaulting over any fence. It had been a complete disaster area all the time I’d known him. Osteoarthritis had worn away several of his vertebrae. At full height, he stood an inch shorter than when we first met. Compressed nerve endings, bones grinding up against bones. Surgery was too risky, the doctors said, and so every few months I’d drive him to the pain clinic in Taunton to get his spine shot with steroids, adding the role of taxi driver to my domestic repertoire, where it joined that of cook, cleaner, occasional gardener, companion, PA, drudge.
‘Do you find her attractive?’ I asked him once, casually, like the thought had just popped into my head. Like the answer hardly mattered.
We were at the harvest festival at the time. Frances Hartwell was judging marrows with the mayor.
‘In what way?’ said David, his eyes locked on Frances who was handling swollen gourds.
‘Physically,’ I hesitated. ‘Sexually.’
David had rolled himself forward onto the balls of his feet. ‘She’s a handsome woman,’ he said. ‘She has a certain… mystique.’
Alone in the conservatory that night I decided that Maud’s thinking was flawed. Frances Hartwell was hardly invisible. And neither, for that matter, was Maud. Somewhere past sixty, Maud had gone the garish route, choosing oversized jewellery and bright hippy prints in an effort to be seen. Her short cropped hair, more salt than pepper, sported a streak of colour at the front – mostly purple, sometimes pink – and on summer days in her own back garden, she’d often sunbathe in the nude.
I had no plans to toy with Mr Watkins’ angina by doing the same in mine. Nor did I plan for a relentless schedule of hair appointments and hormone patches. The IVF had taught me that at least. There was honour in surrender; let nature take me where it will.
Half way through my third cigarette, I heard my mobile beep from somewhere in the kitchen. David was out with friends, and the dogs, asleep, were twitching in their baskets, dreaming of rabbits or playing throw-stick on the Blackdown Hills.
The text was from Maud: Kings Arms general knowledge quiz. David here with X. Same team. Very cosy. Awaiting instructions. Over…
I shut my phone away in the cutlery drawer then went back to the conservatory and lit another cigarette. I looked out of the window. The fence that divided our property from Frances Hartwell’s had started to look a little weather-worn at the panels nearest to the house. They would need to be painted before summer was through. Maybe I could look to do something with the garden at the same time. Nothing drastic: a rockery perhaps. A window box with herbs.
From inside the cutlery drawer, my phone beeped again. More muted this time, with a faint, metallic echo. I thought about putting the phone in the freezer or, better still, the bin. I went out into the garden to get away from its noise and there, as clear as if she was standing next to me in the flesh, I heard my mother whisper to me. I heard her say: ‘Mystique’.
Inside our garden shed, home to the neglected lawn mower, some ancient plant pots and elaborate spiders’ webs, I found a pair of rusty shears.
Stiff at first, reluctant to do their worst, the shears put up some resistance until the rivet at their centre eased itself free from the stronghold of the rusty tack. These were edging shears, long handled, ideal for lending reach, for chopping down tree branches or overhanging flower heads that were scented with betrayal.
I’d only just begun when the dogs came out to join me. Something woke them up – the silent scream of roses, maybe, as their pink heads flew.
The foot stool from the conservatory gave me extra height. I stood on tiptoes, bending over the fence top, angling the shears towards the ground to decapitate the low-down roses, the smaller ones, where the unborn flowers were still curled up in their buds.
I severed deep, until my shoulders ached and my arms bled and the midges, smelling carnage, came to feed from the scratches.
I chopped until there were no more heads to chop. Then I sat down in the middle of the lawn and lit another cigarette. There were rose petals everywhere. The dogs rolled on their backs. From inside the house I thought I heard my mother’s laughter, high and girlish, coming from the hallway. She is back in the mirror now, I thought. And then, high up at Mr Watkins’ window, I saw the corner of his curtains twitch.
VICTORIA BRIGGS’ short stories have been published in UK and US literary journals, websites and anthologies, including Litro, Short Fiction, Unthology, Struco and Prole. She previously won the Asham Award for women writers and lives in London.