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THE WINTER GARDEN

 

He was standing in the attitude she had noticed earlier, hands behind his back, and looking into the flames of the log fire. But, surprisingly, when a spark leaped out and threatened the rug he paid it no regard. He looks older, she thought. He‘s beginning to stoop. Suddenly, the thought that one day she must say goodbye to him, too, was all but unbearable.

She put down her drink and went to him, threading her way through the groups of family and friends in the quiet, suitable clothes and the black ties, until she could slip an arm through his.

‘Dad ?‘ She was about to add, ‘All alone ?‘ and saved herself just in time.

He turned towards her, but for a moment his eyes were again elsewhere, doubtless looking at some other year, some other place. Then they cleared and he gave her a brief, unsteady smile.

‘Celia ! Hello, love !‘

She squeezed his arm.

‘You haven‘t got a drink,‘ she said, and left him at once to go and pour a stiff Scotch. When she returned to his side, he had returned to his earlier contemplation of the fire.

"Here you are, Dad !‘ she said. ‘You look as if you need it !‘

He took the glass from her with an abstracted nod, but made no move to drink. She nudged his elbow.

‘Go on ! You look frozen !‘

Obediently, he took a sip, and his eyes remarked on the strength of the whisky.

‘Trying to get me under the table, are you ?‘

‘No, I just thought you looked as if you could do with it.‘

This time he took a longer drink before he replied,

‘Aye, they‘re not the warmest places at this time of year, are they ? Churchyards.‘

Desperately, she searched her mind for some topic a little less close to the bone, but in these surroundings, among the dark suits and the subdued conversation, it wasn‘t easy. At length she said,

‘I‘ve been thinking. That cruise – you will go, won‘t you ? It would do you good.‘

The lost look was back again.

‘Cruise ? Nay, love, I can‘t say I‘ve given it any thought. But without her ? Without your mother ?‘

‘But, Dad, all that money ! You‘ll lose it, won‘t you ?‘

He grimaced.

‘I shouldn‘t think so. In the circumstances. Besides, what‘s money ? No, we‘ve – I‘ve a week or two yet before the due date. I can still cancel. Might lose some of the deposit, but I hardly think they‘ll hold me to that !‘

‘Couldn‘t you go with somebody else ?‘ she said. One of your friends from the club ?‘

He appeared to give little regard to the suggestion.

‘Celia love, you should know by now what I think about stag parties. I never cared for ‘em in business, and I don‘t propose to go in for ‘em now I‘ve retired. It‘s very good of you, but stop worryin‘, will you ? I shall manage.‘

The set of his mouth forbade any further pursuit of that particular hare, and she decided on a new line.

‘All right, then. Why not take Mandy ? Now the kids are off her hands she could get away, I imagine.‘

His eyes went at once to his eldest daughter and dwelt for a moment, no doubt, on the fashionable hair-do and the even more fashionable coat. Celia was relieved to see a trace of the familiar twinkle returning to his eyes. He took a longer pull at the drink before he replied,

‘Aye, I‘ve no doubt she‘d like to come. And a pretty penny it would cost poor old Roger for her outfit. But I‘ve no desire for six months of coffee-party gossip and social climbing. To say nothing of sopping handkerchiefs and brave efforts to hide the tears. A few weeks of that, and you‘d be taking me to the churchyard.‘

‘Not fair, Dad ! I know Mandy‘s a bit - well, emotional. That doesn‘t mean she doesn‘t feel it.‘

He passed a hand across his eyes.

‘I know, I know ! I‘m just – just hitting out, I reckon. It‘s not easy to be – fair at a time like this. I‘d always counted on me being the first, you know.‘

And then there was a welcome interruption in the shape of Roger, coming to see that his father-in-law was being looked after in the matter of refreshment, and effectively changing the subject.

 

Family and guests had been gone scarcely an hour, and Celia was still clearing things away, when the telephone rang. Mandy‘s distant voice sounded breathless, as though she and Roger had only just returned to the pseudo-Georgian house with its barbered lawns and its abundance of wrought-iron décor.

‘Celia ?‘

‘Yes ? Oh, it‘s you.‘

‘Yes. Glad I caught you before you left. Is Dad about ?‘

‘No. Why ?‘

There was a brief pause, which seemed to suggest that Mandy might be gathering her small store of moral courage or her customary carefully-planned presumption.

‘I wanted to talk to you, but you never left Dad‘s side all afternoon.‘

Celia waited, sensing that a tide which had been gathering its strength for some time was about to break over her.

‘Yes ?‘

‘What‘s Dad going to do about that cruise ?‘

Ah, she thought. Right on cue.

‘Cruise ? Why ?‘

‘I just thought I‘d offer to go with him. For company, you know.‘

Celia allowed a lengthy pause before replying, to give her sister the impression that she had been carefully considering the suggestion. Then,

‘I rather think he‘s decided against going. Matter of fact, I made the same suggestion myself, since you‘re free now. But it looks as if his mind‘s made up. There‘s a good chance he won‘t lose the deposit, he says.‘

The silence at the other end was even longer than Celia‘s own deliberate pause.

‘Then what is he going to do ?‘ her sister asked at length. ‘Mooch about the house all day ?‘

‘Mandy, he‘s entitled to mooch, as you put it, if that‘s what he wants to do. He is retired now, you know. I‘m for leaving him to decide for himself. When he‘s got over – over this a little, I mean.‘

Will you listen to me ? she said to herself. When he‘s got over this ? Is he ever likely to ? But to judge by Mandy‘s next response it didn‘t seem to be a thought which was much exercising her mind.

‘What about the garden now Mother‘s not there ? He never lifted a finger in that direction, you know that. Mother did it all ! You know she did !‘

Why in the name of heaven, Celia thought, can‘t you call her Mum like the rest of us ? She rattled a couple of plates together, and said,

‘Look, I must go ! I‘ve still got the crockery to wash.‘

But the cool voice at the other end had not done.

‘You know, you‘re just like Mother. She wouldn‘t use the dish-washer that Father bought for her. No wonder they had rows about it.‘

‘Rows ? Mandy, my love, if you knew more about music you‘d understand.‘

‘Understand what ?‘

‘The notes of a chord sometimes move in opposite directions to produce harmony. Look, I‘ve got to go. I will talk to him, though. I‘ll be in touch !‘

 

It was over a week before her conscience pricked her. She supposed that she really would have to talk to him about his future plans, though all her instincts told her to leave him be. But she knew that Mandy was unlikely to give up and might even tackle him herself. At whatever cost, she must prevent that.

But when she telephoned him later that afternoon there was no response. She tried again later, with no better luck. When a further call was unsuccessful, she rang her sister.

‘Mandy, is Dad with you ?‘

‘No. Should he be ?‘

‘Well, it‘s just that I haven‘t been able to get him on the ‘phone all day !‘

Her sister pointed out that his ‘phone might be out of order. Had she checked ?

But that, too, proved fruitless. The only reason she was getting no reply was that there was no one there to give it. She tried all day on the Saturday with no greater success, and when Sunday proved no more rewarding, decided to drive over.

The house was securely locked, and every window closed. She let herself in with her key and saw at once that the place had that look of vacancy that goes with untenanted houses. A lack of flowers about the place and a certain absence of order reminded her with a sharp pang of her mother‘s enduring absence.

For some time she busied herself cutting some winter jasmine, and wondered as she did so what her mother‘s beloved garden, not at its best at this time of year, would be like without the touch of those green fingers when the time should come for it to bloom again. The thought impelled her to action and she went to the telephone.

‘Mandy ! Look, he‘s not here ! I can‘t begin to think where he‘s gone, but he‘s obviously been away for the whole weekend at least. The house is all closed up.‘

There was the reaction which she might have expected. Celia should do something. Ring people up. Find out where he‘d gone.

‘Mandy, do hush up ! He‘s perfectly at liberty to go away if he feels like it. That wasn‘t what I rang you about. No, it‘s the garden. It doesn‘t matter at this time of year, of course, but if nothing‘s done it‘ll soon be a wilderness.‘

‘What do you suggest ?‘

Celia took a deep breath. These things had to be handled delicately if Mandy was not to go off at half-cock.

‘I thought we could get someone in to do it. Just a few hours a week.‘

‘Are you joking ?‘ Mandy said. ‘Can‘t you just see Father‘s reaction to that idea ? Do you think money grows on trees ? That sort of thing.‘

She knew there was justice in her sister‘s words. It wouldn‘t be easy, especially if it was badly handled and he dug his heels in.

‘I thought we might do it between us – ‘

‘Are you serious ? That enormous garden ? D‘you realise how much we have to do here already ?‘

Celia rushed to correct the false impression.

‘No, I didn‘t mean do the garden, stupid ! I meant get him some help, and share the cost.‘

‘He‘d never agree !‘

‘Couldn‘t we persuade him it was a sort of present ? From both of us ?‘

‘Well, try it by all means, if it turns you on. But you know him !‘

 

When he returned later that afternoon, to surprise her in her domestic task of returning the house to some sort of order, she broached the subject as delicately as she knew how. It availed her nothing. He hadn‘t the slightest intention of getting anyone in. He would manage, he said, with masculine imperturbability. Nor, for that matter, did he broach any information on the subject of his absence at the weekend, despite all her careful efforts, and she knew him too well to try the direct approach.

The mystery deepened when the next weekend found him absent once more, and again he would not be drawn on the reason for his absence.

‘D‘you think he‘s found another woman ?‘ said Mandy.

‘Don‘t be ridiculous ! There‘s got to be a better reason than that !‘

Again she went over to the house, and again it provided no clue, except that this time the place looked less neglected, and there was no need for the vacuum cleaner and the duster of the earlier occasion.

It was as she was leaving the house that she became at once aware of a more significant change. The garden, despite the early time of the year, was looking cared for. Dead plants had been removed to the compost heap. Even the compost heap itself looked tidier, and the vegetable plot had been turned over to await the destructive frosts. It was clear that he had taken the hint, and had got someone in. On the telephone that evening Mandy expressed satisfaction, and the view that clearly he had at last seen sense.

Celia was less easily satisfied. There was still the mystery of those weekends, a mystery which was entirely out of character where her father was concerned. He was noted for stubbornness, but never for being secretive.

Her next visit proved more rewarding. Again the house was unoccupied, and again it was spick and span, needing no touch of her hands. But this time he was at home, standing with his back to the house and contemplating the garden - a garden which was a model of what a garden should be in early Spring.

He wheeled round at the sound of her footsteps on the gravel, and looked unusually confused, even sheepish.

‘‘Lo. love !‘

‘Hello, Dad ! You did get someone in to do the garden after all.‘

The sheepish look was now even more evident, and no reply was immediately forthcoming.

‘Well ?‘ she said, and, gruffly, the answer came at last.

‘Did it myself !‘

She looked at him open-mouthed.

‘Dad ! You did what ? You don‘t know a Dutch hoe from a Spanish onion !‘

‘I can learn, can‘t I ? I‘m not such an old dog that I can‘t learn a new trick or two.‘

She could scarcely believe her ears and was about to say so, when she realised that there was more to come.

‘You know, love, I never did hold with that French woman who used to sing about no regrets. I‘ve had little else since your mother – left me. All the hours she spent here on her own that I could have spent with her. Yes, I do have regrets. But at the time you never think.‘

He stopped for a moment to clear his throat and to reach for his handkerchief. Then,

‘I heard about these weekend courses. That young gardener chap on the telly, you know. And I thought, why not ? One way of making up for lost time.‘

Again he paused, and when he went on his voice was stronger.

‘Oh yes, I got someone in. A woman from the village. To look after the house, you know.‘

‘A good idea, Dad !‘

‘Aye, I never was much of a hand at housework. But it wasn‘t that.‘

‘No ?‘

‘No. You know, love, I‘ve heard folk say that when you lose someone you often have a – a sense of their presence. And I thought if it was going to happen for me it might perhaps be in the house or at church.

But it didn‘t happen there. It didn‘t happen at all until today. Not till now. Here, in her garden. Yes, love, it was a good idea !‘