- Published: 3 August 2021
- ISBN: 9781760899417
- Imprint: Michael Joseph
- Format: Trade Paperback
- Pages: 336
- RRP: $32.99
The Garden of Hopes and Dreams
She is coming, my dove, my dear;
She is coming, my life, my fate;
‘Come into the Garden, Maud’ by Alfred, Lord Tennyson
Kent, England, 1969
The ominous question came out of the blue.
‘So, no one’s told you about the farm?’
Vera frowned as she turned from the oval mirror where she’d been checking her wedding gown before adding a final touch of lipstick. ‘Told me what?’
Now Pandora, the youngest and prettiest of Vera’s five bridesmaids, looked worried, as if she realised that she might have made a huge gaffe.
‘What are you talking about?’ Vera demanded, unnerved and more than a little annoyed. She’d only invited the fifteen-year-old to be her bridesmaid after everyone insisted it was de rigueur to include the bridegroom’s young sister in the wedding party.
‘Oh . . .’ Pandora gave an awkward shrug accompanied by a flap of her hands and an embarrassed giggle. ‘It’s nothing. Silly slip. Sorry.’
Vera wanted to insist that the girl answer. If there was a problem with Felix’s farm, she needed to know, but her mother rushed in at that moment, her mushroom pink satin gown rustling as she leaned forward to drop an air kiss in the vicinity of Vera’s cheek.
‘I’m heading off to the church now, darling. Michael’s coming with me, of course, and your father is ready and waiting with Benson and the Rolls.’ Straightening, Vera’s mother gave a brief nod to Pandora. ‘Hello, dear, you look lovely. I assume all the bridesmaids are ready?’
‘Oh, yes, Lady Glenbrook. I just popped in to let Vera know we’re all ready and waiting.’
‘Wonderful. Everything’s in order then. Now, Vera, let me look at you.’ Taking a step back, Vera’s mother narrowed her gaze as she ran a practised eye over the dress, the train, the heirloom diamond and pearl necklace. At last, she smiled. ‘Claude has done very well with your hair, hasn’t he? How’s that tiara sitting with your veil? Are you quite comfortable?’
‘Yes, thanks, Mother.’
‘You look beautiful, darling.’
‘You do too.’
‘Nonsense. I look old and matronly. Thank heavens I can wear these long gloves to cover my arms.’
Like Vera, who had preferred to manage this day without the assistance of a maid, Lady Glenbrook cherished an independent streak and loved to spend hours in her extensive gardens, getting herself sunburned and dirty and scratched, despite having an army of groundsmen. Now, she gently touched a gloved hand to Vera’s cheek. ‘I’m enormously proud of you today.’
Vera smiled. She did feel quite beautiful, which was a relief, given how important it was for a bride to look her best on her big day. And it helped to know how pleased and relieved her parents were that she’d found herself a suitable husband.
Felix Challinor might have been the second son of an earl, rather than the heir, but at least he wasn’t a starving artist or an actor like
Vera’s previous boyfriends. Felix was tall and handsome, was indisputably charming and he actually had a chin, which, in aristocratic circles, was always a bonus. He was perhaps a little too fond of betting at the racetrack, but he could afford this indulgence, and at least he didn’t drink too much or take drugs.
Vera’s father seemed happy enough with Felix’s prospects. Her parents had certainly gone to no end of effort and expense when it came to the lavish wedding banquet to be held right here at Glenbrook House.
Vera’s smile wavered now, however, when she realised that Pandora had slipped out of the room, which meant she wouldn’t be able to quiz the girl further about her cryptic question.
So, no one’s told you about the farm?
Surely, a bride’s wedding day was the very worst time to suddenly pose a disturbing question about the bridegroom’s property?
Trying not to worry, Vera frantically backtracked through her seemingly innocuous conversation with Pandora. They’d agreed that this day was lovely: warm and sunny and simply perfect for a spring wedding. Pandora had offered polite compliments about the beautiful gardens and grounds of Glenbrook House, and Vera had agreed that she’d never seen her family estate looking prettier, with the lawns so smooth and green and the huge urns on the terraces overflowing with colour, the roses on the arches in full bloom, and the clematis and honeysuckle flowering over the ancient walls.
Just thinking about the home that she’d loved and was about to leave, Vera had felt a little nostalgic and she had cheered herself by remarking that she was very much looking forward to the lovely garden at Felix’s farm in Devon. At which point, Pandora had stared back at her in blank dismay.
So, no one’s told you about the farm?
‘All right then.’ Vera’s mother was back at the doorway now, and she flashed another smile as she prepared to leave. ‘I’ll let your father know that he can come and collect you, shall I?’
Vera almost called, No, wait for a moment, please.
She was desperate to know if her mother had heard any news about Felix’s property, but how could she voice such an awkward question at the eleventh hour? Already, the wedding guests would be filing into the church, the organist would be playing ‘Sheep May Safely Graze’, and Vera’s grandmother, having been escorted to the front pew, would be sitting stiff-backed, gazing stoically at the rose window above the altar, and no doubt remembering all the funerals she’d attended in that very same church.
And Felix would be waiting.
Perplexing as Pandora’s question had been, it couldn’t be anything serious, surely? Felix would have told Vera if it was. Most likely, it was a simple case of Pandora enjoying a small tease. The girl had giggled, after all.
Perhaps Pandora had simply meant that the garden was a bit of a mess, but that wouldn’t bother Vera. With a little advice from her mother she would enjoy knocking it into shape.
Telling herself she was overreacting, she bit back the questions tingling on her tongue, and she nodded instead. ‘Yes,’ she told her mother. ‘I’m ready.’
She would have to trust Felix. As brides had done throughout history, she had to have faith that all would be well.
Really, what choice did she have?
New feet within my garden go –
New fingers stir the sod –
‘New Feet Within My Garden Go’ by Emily Dickinson
Just five minutes before Maddie learned that her boyfriend was two-timing her, she bought a pot plant. It had been sitting in a shop window, rather like the dog in the famous song, but instead of a waggly tail, the plant had eye-catching, healthy green leaves splashed with showy bright splotches of pink.
Maddie had been wandering through an arcade during her lunch break and when she passed the florist, she knew immediately that this plant in its trendy grey stone pot would be perfect for her apartment, lending a touch of glamour to the rather quiet decor. She was always on the lookout for ways to enhance her living space. Mainly to impress Simon, of course.
Mind you, most of Simon’s visits happened late at night, after they’d been to a party or to dinner somewhere, and by then the lights in Maddie’s apartment were mostly out and Simon’s attention was focused entirely between the sheets. Not that she was ever going to mind about that.
‘Set this philodendron near a window if you can,’ the florist told Maddie. ‘Some place where it will get natural light.’Maddie suggested that the big window in her living room should be fine.
The woman frowned as she considered this. ‘Morning or afternoon sun?’
‘Sounds perfect then.’ Now she offered Maddie a beaming smile that gave her a pleasing boost of confidence. ‘And with our premium potting mix you should only need to water this once a week.’
That sounded pretty foolproof. Maddie had little firsthand experience with plants, even though her parents were keen gardeners. Actually, slightly obsessed gardeners would be a more accurate label for her mum and dad, but to Maddie, gardening was a hobby for oldies. She’d been trying to make her own mark since she’d moved away from the family cane farm to the city.
But indoor plants were clearly trendy, and maybe a few of those green-thumb genes had passed down to her. As Maddie headed back to the office, with the show-off plant in her arms, she was feeling rather upbeat. Until she passed a café and saw a sight that almost felled her.
Later, she couldn’t quite remember how the couple sitting in the farthest corner had caught her attention. After all, the café was crowded and they were quite a distance away, but Simon’s hair was a very particular shade of gold and when it came to her boyfriend, Maddie’s internal radar was very finely tuned.
At work, she always seemed to know when Simon had entered the office, even before she actually saw him or heard his voice. She supposed that tingle of awareness was a natural extension of being deeply in love. Simon was the most devastatingly handsome man Maddie had ever met, and he was a partner in the same law firm where she was a humble paralegal. Becoming his girlfriend had caused something of a scandal in the office, especially as he was quite a bit older than Maddie, but for her, it had been living proof that Cinderella fairytales could happen in real life.
Of course, Maddie was aware that Simon sometimes lunched with clients, so she wouldn’t have come to a lurching halt if he’d been dining with a woman who needed his professional help. Reflecting on the situation later, Maddie liked to think she would have remained admirably calm if Simon had been reaching across the table and clasping the hand of an anonymous client.
The source of Simon’s obvious enchantment, however, was Ruby Reid, the ridiculously pretty lawyer who had joined their firm just a month ago. Ruby had long auburn hair and the kind of fine boned and lissom delicacy that made any normal girl feel enormous. And now, as Ruby and Simon shared soppy smiles, the glow on their faces was blinding.
It was the worst moment for Maddie to remember the lame excuse Simon had texted last night to cancel their plans to see a movie. Now, flinching at that memory, Maddie made a catastrophic situation ten times worse by dropping the pot plant!
Stupid of her, but the sight of Simon flashing Ruby the adoring smile that was supposed to be hers alone had, quite literally, made her lose her grip. Her hands simply let go and her knees almost gave way as well.
The lovely pot made a loud cracking sound as it hit the arcade’s floor, spilling premium potting mix all over the classic terrazzo, and leaving shoppers to glare sulkily at Maddie, or send her pitying smiles as they skirted around the mess she’d made.
So embarrassing. A disaster.
‘Sorry,’ she said to no one in particular. ‘I’m so sorry.’ But she had no idea how she was going to clean the mess up. There were no dustpans and brooms in sight. Would she have to kneel down and use her bare hands?
Unfortunately, she was also painfully aware, out of the corner of her eye, that customers inside the café were looking her way. Including Simon.
She didn’t imagine it. She knew Simon had seen her, although he instantly snatched his gaze away and paid her absolutely no attention whatsoever. Which made it painfully clear that he didn’t want to acknowledge her presence and he certainly had no plans to leap into hero mode and rush to her aid.
More shattered than she could have believed possible, Maddie stared again at her mess. Should she ask at the shoe shop on the other side of the arcade for an empty box? And a broom? She was wondering if she could somehow piece together the broken pot when she heard a warm voice coming from behind her.
‘Don’t worry too much, love.’
It was a woman with a pop-up stall selling incense candles, patchwork tablecloths and cushion covers made from Indian saris. She had a round smiling face topped by a mop of silvery curls and was wearing a colourful embroidered kaftan that stood out among the rather conservative clothes of the city shoppers. ‘The cleaners will see to that,’ the woman told Maddie as she waved a dismissive hand towards the spilled soil. ‘Here’s a plastic bag for your poor pot plant.’
‘Thank you.’ Maddie accepted the bag gratefully. ‘This is lovely of you,’ she remembered to add as she stooped to rescue the broken pot and the battered, drooping plant. ‘But are you sure about the mess?’ She’d scooped as much dirt as she could manage into the bag, but there was still quite a lot on the floor. ‘Won’t we need to put a sign there or something?’ Working in a legal office, Maddie was well aware of the danger of leaving such a hazard unmarked.
‘Actually,’ the woman said, as she registered Maddie’s worried expression, ‘if you could mind my stall for a tick, I’ll fetch Reggie, the cleaner, and make sure he gets straight onto it. Don’t panic, I’ll be quick. You won’t have to sell anything, just make sure none of my stuff walks.’
‘Oh, that would be wonderful. Thank you.’
Maddie didn’t like to mention that she was due back at work in five minutes. As the woman hurried away, she tried to keep simultaneous watch on both the stall and the dirt-strewn floor. It was quite a responsibility to make sure that no incense sticks or cushion covers were stolen, while also checking that no shoppers came to mishap. But this task also meant that Maddie had no chance to check out what was happening inside the café.
She was shocked to discover, on the stallholder’s return, that Simon and Ruby had vanished, that they’d somehow managed to slip past her. The implications of this were gut-wrenchingly obvious. Simon couldn’t care two hoots about her. Her boyfriend didn’t even want to admit he knew her.
She was past tense. They were over.
Maddie knew it as clearly as if Simon had actually said the words. The fact that the guy was obviously a total prick was of no consolation whatsoever. Her heart was too busy breaking. She needed to run away and hide, to cry her eyes out. To stay away for a week if necessary.
What an idiot she was. She’d been obsessed with Simon Marten. And no, he wasn’t her first boyfriend or anything lame like that. Of course, there had been other guys – her first teenage crush at high school and a range of different blokes at uni, some of them dreadful, others really quite nice. But when it came to looks, not one of them could have held a candle to Simon.
For five months he had been Maddie’s. Five glorious months. And now she had to go back to work to face total humiliation.
Arrgh. Gossip ran like wildfire through the office, especially after a few drinks on Friday afternoons. Maddie was remembering the glee several staff members had taken in sharing every gory detail when Melissa on the third floor was dumped by her fiancé. Clients were treated with the utmost discretion, but it was a different matter for the staff.
Through tear-blurred eyes, she looked down at the pot plant she was nursing, saw the pink and green leaves poking from the bag and recalled how naïvely happy she’d been just a short time earlier when she’d bought it. Now she was tempted to dump the bloody thing in the nearest rubbish bin.
Why hadn’t she known this would happen? How could she have hoped, even believed – foolishly, obviously – that the magic with Simon would last, that his flattery was genuine?
And why in hell’s name had she blabbed to her parents about Simon when she’d gone home last Christmas? Her mum and dad had been quietly excited and although they were too careful to say as much, Maddie knew they’d been hugging the secret hope that they’d score a successful lawyer as their son-in-law. Now she couldn’t bear to think of them struggling to cover their disappointment or sending her messages of caring sympathy when she confessed this news.
‘Are you okay, love?’ The stallholder had returned and was looking at her with genuine concern. ‘Don’t feel too bad. I’m sure you’ll be able to save that lovely plant.’
Maddie blinked. ‘Yes, of course. I’m okay, thanks. I’m fine.’ She forced a smile, which felt very shaky, but she found herself saying, ‘And before I go, I’d like to buy a couple of your lovely cushion covers.’ At least, buying the covers provided a momentary distraction and was better than bawling. Maddie pointed to the brightest fabrics she could see with lovely beaded embroidery in coral and turquoise and mauve.
‘Great choice,’ the woman said, smiling broadly as Maddie tapped her card to the EFTPOS machine and her purchase was approved. ‘I’m sure these will look perfect with your pretty plant.’
Maddie didn’t really care how her apartment looked now that Simon wouldn’t be there to see it, but she gave a small nod. ‘Thanks again for your help.’
‘No worries,’ the woman said.
Offering her a scant wave, Maddie hurried away. She was going to be late back to work, but although she was normally conscientious, she couldn’t bring herself to care. She hadn’t known it was possible to feel so gutted. She would have liked to head straight for home, to the anonymity of an apartment block where conversation between residents was limited to the weather, or a grumble about the slow speed of the lift.
When she spied a rubbish bin, she lifted the bag to its gaping mouth, but then, at the last moment, she couldn’t quite bring herself to throw the plant away. It was a living thing, after all, not quite at the level of a kitten or a puppy, but still . . .
Problem was, she had been planning to take it back to the office and let it grace her desk for the rest of the afternoon, but that was out of the question now. Apart from the inevitable questions and awkward explanations, the very thought of Simon or Ruby seeing it in its sad current state was just too embarrassing to bear.
As she hurried back to work, aware that she was late and would draw even more attention, she decided to stash the plant and her cushion covers with one of the mailroom guys. They were always friendly and not nearly as gossipy as the rest of the staff.
It wasn’t the happiest of beginnings. Tilly tried to pretend it would be okay . . .
The day was a stinker. The sun overhead was blazing and sweat trickled beneath the bridegroom’s collar.
My fifteenth birthday is stinging with a blistering heatwave. Balloons and streamers are dangling off the clothesline, motionless.
There aren’t many rules of singlehood, but I have made a few for myself in the two (if anyone asks, but really it’s four) years in which I’ve been single.
The October wind twirled coffee-coloured willy-willies south across the Queensland border.