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Verity could hear television blaring in the back parlour and said she was sorry to interrupt. Mrs. Black, alluding to her brother as Mr. Gardener, said without conviction that she supposed it didn’t matter and she’d tell him he was wanted.

She left the room. Verity stood at the window and saw that the flower-beds had been recently dug over and wondered if it was Mr. Gardener’s doing.

He came in: a huge sandy man with a trim golden beard, wide mouth and blue eyes, set far apart, and slightly, not unattractively, strabismic. Altogether a personable figure. He contemplated Verity quizzically from aloft, his head thrown back and slightly to one side and his eyes half-closed.

“I didna just catch the name,” he said, “Ma-am.”

Verity told him her name and he said: Ou aye, and would she no’ tak’ a seat.

She said she wouldn’t keep him a moment and asked if he could give her one day’s gardening a week.

“That’ll be the residence a wee piece up the lane, I’m thinking. It’s a bonny garden you have there, ma-am. I’ve taken a keek at it through the entrance. It has what I call perrrsonality. Would it be all of an acre that you have there, now, and an orchard, foreby?”

“Yes. But most of it’s grass and that’s looked after by a contractor,” explained Verity and felt angrily that she was adopting an apologetic, almost a cringing, attitude.

“Ou aye,” said Mr. Gardener again. He beamed down upon her. “And I can see fine that it’s highly prized by its leddy-mistress.”

Verity mumbled self-consciously.

They got down to tin-tacks. Gardener’s baggage had arrived. He produced glowing references from, as Sybil had said, grand employers, and photographs of their quellingly superior grounds. He was accustomed, he said, to having at the verra least a young laddie working under him but realized that in coming to keep his sister company in her berrreavement, puir lassie, he would be obliged to dra’ in his horns a wee. Ou, aye.

They arrived at wages. No wonder, thought Verity, that Sybil had hurried over the topic: Mr. Gardener required almost twice the pay of Angus McBride. Verity told herself she ought to say she would let him know in the morning and was just about to do so when he mentioned that Friday was the only day he had left and in a panic she suddenly closed with him.

He said he would be glad to work for her. He said he sensed they would get along fine. The general impression was that he preferred to work at a derisive wage for somebody he fancied rather than for a pride of uncongenial millionaires and/or noblemen, however open-handed.

On that note they parted.

Verity walked up the lane through the scents and sounds of a spring evening. She told herself that she could afford Gardener, that clearly he was a highly experienced man and that she would have kicked herself all round her lovely garden if she’d funked employing him and fallen back on the grossly incompetent services of the only other jobbing gardener now available in the district.

But when she had gone in at her gate and walked between burgeoning lime trees up to her house, Verity, being an honest-minded creature, admitted to herself that she had taken a scunner on Mr. Gardener.

As soon as she opened her front door she heard the telephone ringing. It was Sybil, avid to know if Verity had secured his services. When she learnt that the deed had been done she adopted an irritatingly complacent air as if she herself had scored some kind of triumph.

Verity often wondered how it had come about that she and Sybil seemed to be such close friends. They had known each other all their lives, of course, and when they were small and had shared the same governess. But later on, when Verity was in London and Sybil, already a young widow, had married her well-heeled, short-lived stockbroker, they seldom met. It was after Sybil was again widowed, being left with Prunella and a highly unsatisfactory stepson from her first marriage, that they picked up the threads of their friendship. Really, they had little in common.

Their friendship, in fact, was a sort of hardy perennial, reappearing when it was least expected to do so.

The horticultural analogy occurred to Verity while Sybil gushed away about Gardener. He had started with her that very day, it transpired, and, my dear, the difference! And the imagination! And the work: the sheer hard work. She raved on. She really is a bit of an ass, is poor old Syb, Verity thought.

“And don’t you find his Scots rather beguiling?” Sybil was asking.

“Why doesn’t his sister do it?”

“Do what, dear?”

“Talk Scots?”

“Good Heavens, Verity, how should I know? Because she came south and married a man of Kent, I daresay. Black spoke broad Kentish.”

“So he did,” agreed Verity pacifically.

“I’ve got news for you.”

“Have you?”

“You’ll never guess. An invitation. From Mardling Manor, no less;” said Sybil in a put-on drawing-room-comedy voice.

“Really?”

“For dinner. Next Wednesday. He rang up this morning. Rather unconventional if one’s to stickle, I suppose, but that sort of tommy-rot’s as dead as the dodo in my book. And we have met. When he lent Mardling for that hospital fund-raising garden-party. Nobody went inside, of course. I’m told lashings of lolly have been poured out — redecorated, darling, from attic to cellar. You were there, weren’t you? At the garden-party?”

“Yes.”

“Yes. I was sure you were. Rather intriguing, I thought, didn’t you?”

“I hardly spoke to him,” said Verity inaccurately.

“I hoped you’d been asked,” said Sybil much more inaccurately.

“Not I. I expect you’ll have gorgeous grub.”

“I don’t know that it’s a party.”

“Just you?”

“My dear. Surely not! But no. Prue’s come home. She’s met the son somewhere and so she’s been asked: to balance him, I suppose. Well,” said Sybil on a dashing note, “we shall see what we shall see.”

“Have a lovely time. How’s the arthritis?”

“Oh, you know. Pretty ghastly, but I’m learning to live with it. Nothing else to be done, is there? If it’s not that it’s my migraine.”

“I thought Dr. Field-Innis had given you something for the migraine.”

“Hopeless, my dear. If you ask me Field-Innis is getting beyond it. And he’s become very off-hand, I don’t mind telling you.”

Verity half-listened to the so-familiar plaints. Over the years Sybil had consulted a procession of general practitioners and in each instance enthusiasm had dwindled into discontent. It was only because there were none handy, Verity sometimes thought, that Syb had escaped falling into the hands of some plausible quack.

“—and I had considered,” she was saying, “taking myself off to Greengages for a fortnight. It does quite buck me up, that place.”

“Yes: why don’t you?”

“I think I’d like to just be here, though, while Mr. Gardener gets the place into shape.”

“One calls him ‘Mr. Gardener,’ then?”

“Verity, he is very superior. Anyway, I hate those old snobby distinctions. You don’t evidently.”

“I’ll call him the Duke of Plaza-Toro if he’ll get rid of my weeds.”

“I really must go,” Sybil suddenly decided as if Verity had been preventing her from doing so. “I can’t make up my mind about Greengages.”

Greengages was an astronomically expensive establishment: a hotel with a resident doctor and a sort of valetudinarian sideline where weight was reduced by the exaction of a deadly diet while appetites were stimulated by compulsory walks over a rather dreary countryside. If Sybil decided to go there, Verity would be expected to drive through twenty miles of dense traffic to take a luncheon of inflationary soup and a concoction of liver and tomatoes garnished with mushrooms to which she was uproariously allergic.

     

 

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