‘Julie? Little Juliet Somerville! I don’t believe it. Can it really be you?’
Julie had been busy dodging the lunchtime crowds but halted at the hearty exclamation and firm hand grasping her elbow. The force of this wheeled her bodily towards the voice. Impatient pedestrians, forced to stop in their tracks before sidestepping the pair, clucked their disapproval. She turned to her assailant, blinking as recognition dawned.
‘Robert! What a lovely surprise!’
Robert returned her smile and Julie scanned his face, searching for the inevitable changes etched by the passage of time.
‘What a blast from the past, as they say.’ He tilted his head to one side. ‘How many years has it been?’
She laughed. ‘I don’t know. ‘Five or six, I suppose. It’s so nice to see you, Robert. How are you?’
‘Five or six? Closer to eight I should say. We must celebrate...you’re not too busy, I hope?’
‘Not at all; just idling. I’d like that.’
He took her arm in a brotherly fashion and led her towards the nearby Crown Inn. ‘Now let me think,’ he began after procuring drinks and settling himself beside her on the claret-coloured banquette, new to the Crown since Julie’s last visit. ‘The last time I saw you would be when you went up to university. I haven’t seen Lizzie in almost as long, although I hear she’s doing okay for herself.’
‘Yes,’ Julie conceded, although he was wrong about the date. They’d met again the following year, at her father’s funeral, but perhaps Robert’s memory was being tactfully selective. ‘Liz has just been appointed as consultant at the hospital. Father would have been extremely proud of her.’
‘Yes, of course. And of you too no doubt - where are you working now?’
‘I’m not at the moment. I suppose I’m what actors fondly call ‘resting’. But never mind that...tell me about yourself,’ she urged, eager to change the subject.
‘Me? I’m doing very well, thanks. I have my own garden centre now, down on Longshore Road, and the business is doing pretty well.’ Robert would have been unable to conceal the note of pride from his voice even if he’d tried. ‘We’re doing more and more landscape gardening these days - I’ve got six full time staff and several part-timers. You must come and see the place, now that you’re back home.’
‘Of course I will,’ she assured him. ‘And are you married?’
He paused, replacing his drink on the table and eyeing it for a brief moment before replying. ‘I was, yes. I married Linda Henderson - I don’t think you knew her. But she died.’ He uttered this last statement with the brutal simplicity of someone who still found the subject acutely painful.
‘Oh how awful! I’m so sorry. Can you...I mean, would you rather not...?’
‘I don’t mind talking about it. It was quite a while back, you know - over four years now. A traffic accident...she was killed instantly...and she was...we were...’ he gave a little cough to clear the thickness in his throat and took a small sip of his beer. ‘She was pregnant at the time, so we lost the baby, too.’
Julie gasped and stared at him.
‘It was bad at first, of course. We’d only been married eighteen months. I suppose I fell apart a bit, but time and good friends have helped. And the work, of course; I couldn’t have managed without that.’
‘Poor Robert.’ She had known him for as long as she could remember. They had been neighbours and he and her older sister, Liz, were school friends. He always seemed to be present, somewhere in the backdrop of her childhood memories, always smiling, always cheerful. Good old Robert. Imagining him ‘falling apart’, in pain and suffering while she got on with her own life somewhere else in the world, was difficult. No stranger to the anguish of death, she might have done something useful for once in her little life if she’d known. A tear formed in the corner of her eye and spilled onto her cheek, but whether this was for Robert or herself, she made no attempt to analyse.
Robert, whose remaining speech had gone unheard by Julie, evidently saw the tear and jumped rapidly to his own conclusions.
‘Don’t cry, little Julie. As I said, I’ve made peace with it now. I’m over it. Scout’s honour!’ And like a good scout, he drew a clean white handkerchief from his pocket and dabbed at the tear, before handing the square of cloth to Julie. She looked at it and then at him.
He was so transparent. Her tears probably touched his simple vanity. Robert always believed her to be too soft and vulnerable for the tough world of medicine and had told her as much years ago. He’d also said it saddened him to see her succumbing to the wishes of her father and sister. Of course she’d been young and naive enough to believe that just wanting something sufficiently was enough to guarantee success and set the whole world to rights.
‘Come on, now, this is supposed to be a celebration. Tell me about your life. Has some lucky, handsome doctor snapped you up, yet?’
Julie dabbed at her face with the soft handkerchief. What percentage of men still carried handkerchiefs? Was it the last sign of a true gentleman or merely a sign that Robert was never destined to make the transition into the twenty first century? She grimaced inwardly at her frivolous thoughts and shook her head; so Robert might be forgiven for reading this gesture as a response in the negative to his question.
‘Of course not...too busy forging a name for yourself in medical history, just like Lizzie, eh?’ He said.
Julie smiled. How typical of him to assume that she should follow in her sister’s successful footsteps. Elizabeth had never professed any interest in marriage being, in a sense, married to her busy career. But Julie was in no mood to discuss the complexities of her failed marriage and aborted career and accepted his easy dismissal of the subject gratefully and without contradiction.
This was a behavioural trait of Julie’s that was in danger of becoming a habit. She experienced a sense of helpless insight into her situation. Psychologists or behaviourists might label it a weakness. It mimicked an early form of denial, this taking refuge behind the mistaken assumptions of others rather than setting things to right by exposing the truth. Julie preferred to view it as the easiest way out of a tricky confrontation. But she felt a nagging guilt nevertheless. Characteristic or weakness, she had to acknowledge that old friends always deserved the truth.
‘I really am very sorry about your wife. I wish I’d known. But then Liz never tells me anything. She’s so cut off from the world by her work and research, and now this new clinic - she might as well be on another planet!’
‘That’s understandable. Liz is a very selfless woman, she always was.’
Robert was understanding to a degree that he actually sounded pompous! His curious choice of adjective bemused her. Selfless? What did that mean? The opposite of selfish? Hardly, not Liz! Yet it was a curiously apt word to describe her older sister who, at thirty-five and a strikingly attractive woman, had probably never paused longer than three seconds in front of a mirror to look at herself. Julie always thought that if anyone asked Elizabeth to describe herself physically, she would probably not even know the colour of her own eyes intimately. She was far too preoccupied with her career to gaze at her own reflection. She was the Mother Theresa of medicine - cardiology, to be more precise. Mother Elizabeth...Saint Elizabeth...
‘..So you must come to dinner and meet her.’ Robert implored, gazing earnestly into Julie’s face as she returned to the present with a guilty jolt. So engrossed in her musings about her sister, she’d caught nothing but the tail-end of his speech.
‘Yes of course.’ She agreed then worried about her eagerness. ‘I mean thanks! I should like that very much.’
‘Excellent. I know you and Sonya will like each other. Shall we say Thursday, then? About eight?’
‘Yes, that’s fine.’ Who might Sonya be and what else had Robert said? She could hardly ask him to repeat himself.
‘You’re staying with Liz, I presume? Are you home for good? You’ve barely told me anything about yourself,’ he reproached, perhaps just a little sheepishly, in the way that people who monopolised conversations often did.
‘I have no definite plans at the moment. Yes, I’m at home with Liz for now. I’ve been living and working in London, but I spent the last year in Saudi Arabia.’
‘Saudi? Good grief!’ He raised his eyebrows in surprise. ‘Working?’
‘Well, yes...but I was pretty miserable there. I’m just relieved to be home again,’ she added quickly, hoping that he wouldn’t pursue the subject further.
He didn’t and they conversed on subjects of a far more general nature for a further ten or fifteen minutes until the throaty hum of his phone, vibrating in one of his pockets, reminded him of his afternoon meeting and they took their leave of each other.
‘Until Thursday, then,’ he handed her a small business card. ‘Addresses, phone numbers, everything you need is on here; unless you find time to call in at the nursery before then?’
‘Oh I certainly intend to do that,’ she assured him, before their final parting. And she meant it.
On the pavement outside the Crown Inn, Julie watched Robert’s departing back until the purposeful lunchtime crowds swallowed him up. In her current state of lonely wretchedness, she felt his departure acutely. He represented an umbilical link with the ‘triple s’ of her childhood: safety, security and simplicity. He was a link with her mother and the uncomplicated bliss of childhood; with ponies and poetry and fun and flowers. And on top of those treasures, he had absolutely no connection with the more recent past and the confined, suffocating world of medicine that had dominated her life for almost a decade.
After her brief bout of self-indulgent wallowing, Julie continued on her own purposeless way, treading time, trying to get a step ahead of the decisions that were threatening to engulf her yet again.
Conversation with Elizabeth on anything other than medicine had always been a trial. Cardiology was her pet subject and with the clinical aspects of the heart, she was in her element, but the emotional vagaries of that organ were beyond her understanding. Liz had always taken an interest in Julie’s career, ensuring that she should not deviate from the central road of medicine onto the rockier path of surgery.
When Julie met and soon afterwards married Simon Gardiner, during her final year of medical school, Liz worried that he might lure Julie into the surgical network. But if Simon had tried, he would have failed spectacularly. Without his tireless help during her six months of surgery, she would certainly have failed to complete her pre-registration year altogether. So fundamentally convinced was she that she had chosen the wrong profession, she would have abandoned her career then and there. Since taking a break from both career and husband, those feelings returned more forcefully than ever.
Liz reproached Simon in his absence for his benightedness in marrying Julie too soon and in taking her off to Saudi Arabia so early in her medical career. Liz had never seen eye to eye with Simon, doubting his motives and resenting his intrusion from the outset. After all, she was in a far better position to help her sister in her career than some surgeon from the south of England.
‘At least your year in Saudi Arabia must have allowed you plenty of time to study for the exam,’ Liz observed. She was referring to the all-important Membership examination for the Royal College of Physicians.
Julie steeled herself to reply. ‘Actually, Liz, I don’t think I shall bother with it.’
‘Not bother?’ What on earth do you mean?’
‘I’m thinking of throwing it in.’
‘Throwing what in?’ Liz demanded, as if they no longer shared the same language.
Julie sighed. ‘Medicine, Liz. The more I think about it, the more I feel I’ve made a terrible mistake. I just don’t want to be a doctor.’
‘Nonsense! You are a doctor. Unless you mean that you’re back on that silly flirtation with surgery? He’s not persuaded you to take up surgery, I hope?’
‘No, of course not. I mean altogether. Give up medicine completely. I don’t want to be a doctor, Liz! ’
Possibly for the first time in her life, Julie’s sister had no reply. She stared, as though seeing Julie for the first time; as though she might be some alien being. Blinking, she recovered herself enough to articulate her thoughts. ‘You must be insane! Very well...so your marriage fails...these things happen...but, Julie, for goodness sake...’
‘Perhaps we could discuss it another time?’ Julie said to avoid, yet again, the detour down the path of failed marriages.
‘Nonsense. We must discuss it here and now. What would my poor father say?’
‘He was my father too,’ Julie knew that must sound sulky and childish. ‘And I think if he were alive now I’d be able to make him understand.’ There has to be someone, somewhere who can understand that I just want out, she thought wretchedly.
‘Understand? But he’s not here to understand anything, which is why we have a duty to respect his wishes. How could you consider abandoning medicine when that was his dearest wish for you?’
‘Was it?’ Julie’s voice broke. ‘Are you quite sure it was his wish, Liz? Only sometimes I wonder why any father would want to put his daughter through such torment. Yes, you heard. I hate medicine. I always have. I hate dealing with human misery, with sickness, pain and fear. And I know I’ll never be a good doctor.’
Liz surveyed her sister at length before replying. ‘Look, Julie, I do believe this business with Simon has upset you far more than you led me to understand. You’re right; we should postpone this discussion for a week or two. You’ll feel differently after you’ve had a good rest.’
Several weeks passed quietly for Julie, as Liz made no attempt to resume the discussion. New text books appeared on her desk at regular intervals, which she idly perused but her mind absorbed little information. Julie felt woolly-headed and detached from the world of medicine now that it was no longer part of her daily routine. However, it surrounded her and engulfed her. She admitted, though only to herself, that before she could ever put it behind her, she must first confront it.
Eventually Liz brought up the subject again. ‘I presume you have entered for the May exam...I’ll quiz you tonight, if you like?’
Julie had not entered her name for the May examination, nor did she feel equal to a night of ‘quizzing’ from her sister. ‘Liz, I’m sorry! I haven’t been studying. I just can’t manage to organise my thoughts properly at the moment. But I promise I’ll enter for the November exam. And I’ll study.’ Even as she said the words, she regretted them. She had merely said what she knew Liz wanted to hear, to buy a little peace for herself for just a few extra weeks.
Mollified, Liz smiled. ‘Of course you can do it if you put your mind to it. Now I think we ought to start thinking about a job for you. Dr Richardson’s rotation is coming up shortly. Of course he’d prefer someone with at least a passing interesting in endocrinology, but I think I might manage to...’
‘No job! Please! I don’t want to work just yet. Don’t worry about me. Just leave me alone and I’ll sort things out for myself. I don’t want to be organised any more. Let me do things my own way.’
But left to her own devices, she failed to sort out anything. She managed to devote an hour or two of each day to studying but was in a constant state of agitation; a fever to be out of the house, driving or rambling through the countryside on long solitary treks or wandering the town gazing absently into shop windows. It was on one of these excursions that she’d encountered Robert Ashley.
The Thursday of her dinner engagement with Robert and the mysterious Sonya, found Julie driving along Longshore Road.
Nursery & Landscape Gardening
Marquee Hire and Container Planting
The sign in buttercup yellow letters on a green background caught Julie’s attention and she pressed on her brake and swung between the tall gates into the broad, semicircular drive which afforded ample space for cars. At the centre of the arc squatted a wide, low, glass-fronted building with an abundance of greenery in the windows. To the right of this was a low, rambling building, boasting on a blue and white sign: ‘INSIDE-OUTSIDE MARQUEES’ with a second door displaying the word ‘CORNUCOPIA’ in multi-coloured letters. To the left of the main building was a newer construction, smaller still and in the final stages of completion, but this had no sign to explain its function. A vast array of terracotta in all shapes and sizes lined the driveway, glowing warmly in the pale sunlight and lending a faintly continental feel to the place. Fronting the smaller building, a motley assortment of statues, ponds, trellises, fountains and a huge quantity of garden ornaments continued for some distance behind it.
As Julie drew closer to the main building, gazebos, pagodas and other such incongruous dwellings appeared in the vast stretches of land to the rear. She peered through the jungle of greenery in the central building but could detect no sign of life. Entering the cool and dim interior she allowed her eyes to adjust slowly in the bosky gloom.
A man emerged from an open doorway, wiping his hands on a square of cloth. Dressed in denim, his jeans tightly fitting, shirt open at the neck, with rolled up sleeves, very workmanlike, he surveyed her, tilting his head slightly to one side. He was perfect. In spite of her natural reserve, she stared at him openly, unable to draw her eyes away from the sight in case it faded back into the greeny ether. His eyes, keen and clear, met and returned her gaze coolly. And still her eyes refused to drag themselves away.
‘Can I help you?’ He asked at last, the flicker of a smile playing about his lips.
It was then Julie remembered to close her mouth and start breathing again. She gave herself a mental shake, a kind of pulling herself together exercise, and a strange, though not at all unpleasant tingle rippled across her skin. The exercise worked. She even managed a fairly normal-feeling smile. ‘I was looking for Robert. Robert Ashley. Could you tell me where I might find him?’
A frown creased his forehead and she resisted the urge to reach out and gently smooth it away, restoring the face to its former perfection.
‘He’s not here, I’m afraid. He’s over at Nettlesby this afternoon. Have you tried his mobile? We don’t normally open on Thursdays.’ He explained.
It was Julie’s turn to frown. She felt in her pocket and drew out Robert’s information-packed card, scrutinising it closely. There it was, in small print Early closing: Thursday. She tapped her fingertips against her forehead. ‘How stupid of me; I’m sorry.’
‘It’s not a problem. But as I’m here, maybe I can help?’
Julie shook her head. ‘Oh no. But thank you. Robert suggested I might call in when I was passing and have a look around. I should have checked his card. Silly of me. I’ll come back another day.’
His attractive face broke into a smile and Julie couldn’t help smiling too. It was involuntary, like the thrill she had felt as a child when the Christmas lights were switched on for the first time. His smile was every bit as delightful. ‘Well, as I’m here, why not let me show you around?’
And of course she protested and a polite verbal fencing match began but each objection was swiftly and skilfully parried until she gave in with gratitude and good grace and allowed herself to be conducted through cavernous greenhouses and long rows of hothouses sheltering exotic architectural plants, through shrubberies, orchards and tiny model gardens, while her good-looking guide answered her questions and drew her attention to anything worthy of more than a passing glance, like the external root system of some exotic palm.
His exquisite hands mesmerised her as he pointed things out. She had always thought Simon had attractive hands - typical surgeon’s hands, she used to call them - but she loved the way the gardener lovingly caressed the plants with his long, sensuous fingers as he spoke about them. She felt a tiny tingle of pleasure and half expected to see golden fingerprints or new life blossom into being wherever he touched. ‘Green fingered’ didn’t nearly do justice as a description.
‘You seem to get great satisfaction from all this,’ she remarked as they made their way back to the main building via ‘Cornucopia’ which turned out to be an area devoted to hanging baskets and decorative container planting.
‘Yes I do. I find it very therapeutic working with plants. I only wish I could spend more time here.’
‘Oh? Then you don’t work here full-time?’ She’d already determined from his mannerisms and speech that he was unlike any gardener she had ever come across. He must be one of those part-timers Robert mentioned. She wondered what else he did. Too old for a student, surely?
He laughed at her question. ‘Oh no. I wish I did. I’m just a casual helper.’
A casual helper, working the half holiday for a little extra overtime perhaps? He might lose even this tenuous position if Robert returned and found him wasting time with her instead of working. She wanted to help and a thought struck her suddenly. ‘My sister’s always complaining about the state of our garden. I wonder if you could use some extra work - in your free time?’
He frowned, looking more baffled than annoyed. ‘Gardening?’ He sounded hesitant.
‘Or landscaping’ she added quickly. ‘I mean whatever you think necessary. I’m sure there’s a huge scope for improvement. We have someone come in a couple of times a month but it’s all he can do just to keep it tidy. And you could fit in the hours to suit yourself so that you don’t lose time here.’ The words tumbled out and she realised she must sound far too eager. She was throwing herself at him in the most blatant and uncharacteristic way. Damn, it Julie, get a grip!
His frown was replaced by a smile of such evident amusement that it threatened to turn to laughter. ‘Well I’m not sure that I could take on such a big job personally, but I’d be happy to take a look at it and offer some suggestions. A low-maintenance garden;’ he considered it for a moment. ‘That could be good practice for me.’
Not take it on personally? But it was a gift! What did he do when he wasn’t working for Robert? ‘Oh yes, and then you could give us your quote.’ How lame, but she wanted to make it clear she meant paid work, not a favour. He probably thought she was too pushy. Her cheeks burned at what must seem like her eagerness to provide him with work. ‘Not, of course, that I can foresee any problems in that respect.’ Oh help. Dig, dig, dig. What is this hole I’m digging for myself? She drew one of Elizabeth’s cards from her bag and handed it to him.
‘Dr Elizabeth Somerville...’ he read aloud.
‘That’s my sister,’ she explained. ‘I’m Juliet, though everyone calls me Julie.’
His smile broadened. ‘And I’m Nicholas...Masserman,’ he offered her one of his exquisite hands to shake. She took it, savouring the thrill of touching those beautiful, long, sensitive fingers with her own. Perhaps he was a writer or an artist who merely tended gardens for pleasure or to supplement his income? She still held his hand and he gazed at it with that same quizzical amusement that threatened to erupt into laughter. She released it quickly.
‘Would Saturday afternoon suit you, Miss Somerville?’
‘To look over the garden?’
‘Oh yes, of course! That would be perfect. And it’s Julie, remember?’ He placed the card in the back pocket of his jeans and she felt a twinge of guilt at her deliberate deception. Perhaps she should have said Julie Gardiner, not Somerville; Dr Somerville, maybe, but Mrs Gardiner, in the eyes of the law. She had removed her wedding ring many weeks ago.
Like many married professionals, she’d retained her maiden name after marrying Simon. As they both worked in the same hospital, it avoided confusion. But that was in the medical world. To tradesmen she was Mrs Gardiner.
‘Julie.’ He repeated, as if trying it out for size. ‘And would you like to leave a message for Bob? I’ll be seeing him around six.’
‘Oh no. I’ll be seeing him tonight myself. I’m invited to dinner to meet his, um....’ She faltered at the realisation that she had forgotten the name of Robert’s mysterious friend.
‘Sonya.’ He volunteered.
‘Oh yes, of course. Sonya. Maybe I should take some flowers,’ she glanced around at the cut flowers crammed into so many pots and vases.
‘For Bob or Sonya?’
She looked back, unsure how to reply.
‘I really shouldn’t bother’ he assured her. ‘She always has a house full.’
Julie frowned. That suggested that Sonya lived with Robert. Not that that mattered of course, but if she didn’t, then offering flowers might seem a bit presumptuous. As well as stupid! The man owned the nursery – why would she bring flowers from his business to his house? And why hadn’t she listened properly to Robert the other day?
‘Perhaps flowers aren’t the right thing...a bit...inappropriate?’ She murmured unhappily.
‘Not inappropriate,’ he corrected, ‘just unnecessary. And as I’m staying at Bob’s house myself, I’ll be seeing you again tonight as well.’
‘You are?’ She blinked, unable to think of any suitable reply because of the multitude of feelings rampaging through her senses. Things were certainly looking up, but she felt suddenly exhausted, as if she was taking part in a play for which she’d received the wrong script. She turned towards the display of house plants. Good breeding has well-established roots. She ought to buy something. Randomly she selected an interesting-looking indoor palm.
‘My sister adores these,’ she lied, doubting that Elizabeth had any affection at all for house plants. He took the plant from her and proceeded, unskilfully to wrap paper around its terracotta pot. ‘How long have you been lodging with Robert?
He wrestled, all fingers and thumbs, with the sticky-tape dispenser. ‘A few years. Since Linda died. I trust you know about that?’
‘Yes, he told me.’ She handed him a twenty pound note. Did she dare tell him to keep the change? No, better not. He might be offended. He had to turn a key and tap a code into the cash register but evidently kept getting it wrong as the machine beeped in complaint. Julie had to look away to hide her amusement. She remembered Robert’s words about time and good friends helping him over his bereavement and felt irrationally pleased to think that this Nicholas with the sensitive hands was one of those ‘good friends’.
‘Thank you again for the tour,’ she said.
He reached around her to open the door for her just as her hand touched the handle. For the briefest moment his hand covered hers and he smiled at her. He’d insisted on carrying the plant to the car and she unlocked the back door.
‘My pleasure.’ He wedged it on the floor at the rear and tested it to ensure it was secure. ‘I look forward to seeing you again later.’
She smiled and nodded. And that, I can assure you, is entirely mutual.
Leaving the garden centre, she continued along Longshore Road for a mile or so before turning right towards the town centre, stopping to buy chocolates and wine for the evening. She hoped that Sonya would not also have a house full of chocolates or be one of those permanent dieters. And then, on a sudden impulse, Julie stepped inside an elegant and very expensive-looking dress shop.