My window is wound down with ‘Light my fire’ blasting out, I’m uncaring how these toffee-nosed nouveau riche might react. A killed cigarette is tossed out while the Nissan roars into instantaneous life.
If they don’t want my business, then it’s up to them. What a bitch. I know Caitlan has her moments, but she scarcely screams like a demented virago. All greeny/brown eyes. black hair almost loosened from its pins with her consternation.
So why is it that when I exit Bracken Manor, despite my failure to secure the landscaping contract, I am unable to erase the memory of those wild gypsy eyes? She obviously has a temper to match. Why had she over-reacted the way she did when I gave my name? Our paths have never crossed. Surely I would have remembered her.
Deeply immersed in my own preoccupation, I fail to see – and almost collide with – the cream sports car that spins around the bend. The car tosses gravel in its wake, crunching with the impact. The headlamps are blinding. The sports job brakes first, although I almost scrape its side. A window rolls down and a blond head slides out. He admonishes, “Can’t you look where you’re going? And turn that music down, for fuck’s sake. Are you a friend of Sandy’s?” His features are polished and shaven to the point of excess.
Turning the music down, I offer my name.
“The landscape gardener? Paul Harrington.” His expression alters, he smiles, blue eyes crinkle. “You leaving already? I’m sorry I kept you waiting. You get talking and time passes. Then I remembered I’d asked you to come to the house. That’s why I was in such a hurry. Guess you got tired of waiting.”
“I didn’t exactly get tired of waiting. The decision was taken out of my hands.”
Have I imagined it, or does a semblance of darkness cross that smoothly shaven countenance?
“I’m sorry, I don’t understand.”
I relate the incident when I had almost been on the receiving end of a pool cue shoved where the sun doesn’t shine. “Do you still want me to price up the garden for a possible contract then?”
“Of course I do. That’s why I asked you here. You’ve obviously met Sarah and Charlie. Charlie’s barks worse than his bite. Can’t say the same for Sarah though.” He grins.
“So why don’t you come back to the house? Oh, don’t look so worried. She is house-trained. My wife that is. You wouldn’t think that she holds down the kind of job she does. She’s a psychotherapist.”
In my opinion I’m convinced there is more of the psycho about her than the therapist.
“So the music you were listening to. Hardcore is it? Or at least that’s what my son calls it.”
“Hardly. It’s rock. The Doors. My brother sort of got me into it when I was a kid.”
“I’m more of a classics man myself. Although I’m partial to a spot of jazz. You know old Count Basie?”
I have to admit to drawing a blank there.
“Have you met my son?”. He changes the subject.
“Yeah. I think there’s a girl. Someone shouted down the stairs rather impatiently.”
“I’m afraid Sandy’s love life is something of a fashion parade.” He tuts and shakes his head despondently. “There’s been eight or nine girls already this year and it’s only February.”
He grins, although the smile is swift to fade. “Nice motor,” he adds, when I swing the Nissan about in order to follow him back to the house.
I wonder if the virago will deign to grace us with her presence. Or we’ll stumble upon Sandy making out on the sofa with his latest squeeze.
Instead he suggests that we conduct our business in the conservatory. “My private domain, Mr McRaney. It has a lock on the door, so we won’t be disturbed.”
Is our business so secretive then that he should desire both a lock on the door and a reason not to be disturbed? I’m still coming to terms with his wife’s reaction when I gave my name. Surely all this cannot be attributed to my less than exemplary past can it?
“Oh, I met some guy called Mellors or something,” I say with the realisation that wasn’t his name at all.
“You mean Greggors?” He smiles, slipping a key from his pocket and inserting it into the paint flaked door. “My security man. The house is thoroughly alarmed of course. We were burgled once, when my first wife and I were away. Greggors is the kind of man I would trust both with my wife and my life.”
I dwell on the fact that he could have left him with anyone’s wife, even mine.
There is more than an intimation of Victoriana surrounding the conservatory. The place is filled with the powerful aroma of various, indecipherable scents. From the exterior it is difficult to tell, but the roof is high domed. So many plants, ivies and fronds descend, reminiscent of clutching fingers brushing your face. As a gardener I have learned much since employing myself in this trade. How to recognise the various hybrids, the wondrous collection, over which the lily is both dominant and a transient reminder of funeral parlours. Plants overlap too, trailing the red brick floor, now barely discernible beneath my feet. More fronds and ivies tangle in a veritable jungle. The scents so overpowering, indistinguishable.
Some of the plants hang so low that I am compelled to lower my head, or risk being half attacked.
“A gardener’s paradise, hey?” He motions me to a battered wrought iron seat, on which rests a number of striped cushions. Adjacent to the seat is an oak sideboard of mottled wood.
“None of your common or garden conservatory here. I had this one specially made. It’s identical to what the Victorians called Garden Rooms. In fact I’m quite partial to a little Victoriana. Everything was so elegant, so drawing room then.” Another key unlocks the cabinet to reveal a surprising assortment of wines and spirits. “I often see your vans around the vicinity. A.J. McRaney. That you is it?”
“Yeah, it’s Aidan. ”
“I only have Teachers. Or do you Irish prefer Jamesons or Bushmills?”
“Neither I’m afraid. I’m driving. New motor.”
“A GT-R no less. You must be coming up in the world.”
“Not really. As my family are forever telling me, I spend far too much money. I guess seventy six thou is a wee bit extravagant.”
“Not if you like nice things as I do. My old man had nothing. We grew up in a Peckham high rise in the late Sixties. Pop was a greengrocer with a market stall. I was the youngest of four kids, and determined to make something of my life. I have, believe me. I love beautiful expensive motors, equally beautiful women. You met Sarah. She’s an oil painting isn’t she? Plus she’s twenty years younger than me. In fact I had her portrait painted. It hangs above the fireplace in our drawing room. ”
He pours from the bottle of Teachers into cut crystal. I can practically savour the taste of the whisky, but there’s no way that I’ll risk it.
“You a married man, Aidan?” His question surprises me.
I tell him that I am. Two years to Caitlan. “My oldest Patrick is eleven, with my first wife.”
“First wife. An eleven year old son!” he exclaims. “Good Heavens! Then you must be older than you look.” He pauses to regard me above his glass. The glint of moonlight courtesy of the dome, reflects the glass, the liquid inside, with a kind of scintillation.
“I’m thirty one. Look, Mr Harrington…”
“We’ve skirted around this long enough. I don’t want to appear rude, but I do need to get home to my wife and daughter. I came straight from work and Caitlan will have probably burnt the tea by now. It’s getting a wee bit dark to see the grounds right now. If you’re still interested in giving me the job, then I can come back in daylight.”
“We have floodlights.”
Of course you do.
“You really think I asked you here to discuss the fuckin’ garden?”
Barely has he drained the crystal than he is swift to pour himself another whiskey.