Authors: Catherine Aird
For Torrin Wojtunik Macmillan With love
‘I don’t believe it,’ spluttered Jack Haines, the colour in his face draining away. ‘All dead, you say?’
‘Every last one, boss,’ announced Russell Aqueel, his foreman. ‘Well, all of them in number one and number two houses – the two farthest ones – anyway.’
‘Good grief.’ Jack Haines leant forward in his office chair and sank his head between his hands on his desk. He was a burly man and the chair creaked under his weight.
‘The other greenhouses seem all right,’ offered Mandy Lamb, the firm’s secretary, automatically pushing a cup of coffee along the desk in front of him.
‘They are. I’ve had a good look at the rest to be quite sure,’ said Russell, a short, stocky man. He sniffed. ‘First thing I did. Naturally.’
‘But the young orchids and the special orders?’ his employer asked tightly, lifting his head to look at the man.
‘All dead,’ said Russ. ‘Every flaming one.’
‘A flame would have been a help,’ remarked Mandy Lamb detachedly, ‘seeing as how it was the cold that killed them.’
‘There was a frost last night …’ began Russ.
‘I do know that,’ snapped Haines, his facial colour rapidly changing from grey to a rising red. ‘You don’t have to tell me. I’ve got a thermometer alarm by my bed, remember.’ He stopped suddenly and said softly in quite a different tone of voice, ‘Except that it didn’t go off last night, did it?’
‘I wouldn’t know about that, would I?’ said the foreman truculently.
‘Go on, Russ,’ said Jack Haines evenly. ‘Tell me exactly what’s happened.’
‘When I came in this morning, first thing, both those greenhouse doors were wide open.’ The man scowled at his employer. ‘And before you ask, no, it wasn’t me.’
‘I didn’t think it would have been, Russ,’ said Jack Haines pacifically. ‘So calm down.’
‘But who on earth would do an awful thing like that?’ demanded Mandy Lamb.
‘Only someone malicious or careless, Russ,’ said Haines bleakly.
‘It could well ruin us, boss,’ said the foreman. ‘And where’s the gain in that?’
‘I wouldn’t begin to know,’ said Jack Haines tonelessly, although he thought he had a good idea.
Mandy Lamb shrugged her shoulders and said, ‘On the other hand, anyone could forget to shut a couple of doors.’
Both men stared at her.
‘Never,’ said the foreman robustly.
‘Not at a plant nursery,’ sighed Jack Haines. ‘It could kill the lot at this time of the year.’
‘It has killed the lot,’ pointed out the foreman soberly. ‘Well, everything in those two houses, anyway.’
‘What about all those plants Anthony Berra had in there for the admiral’s garden?’ put in Mandy Lamb suddenly. Waldo Catterick, an old sailor, was a favourite of hers.
‘They’re goners all right,’ said the foreman. ‘So is most of the stuff for Benedict Feakins, but not all of it though. He mostly wanted shrubs anyway, thank goodness, and they’re still alive, being hardy. And Miss Osgathorp’s special orchids were in the packing shed so they’re safe enough.’ He hesitated and then went on in more muted tones, ‘But not Anthony Berra’s other plants – the ones for the Lingards at the Grange. They’re all goners too.’
Jack Haines groaned aloud.
‘Dead as doornails, the lot,’ said Russ. ‘And there sure were plenty of them.’
‘Who locked up?’ demanded Haines suddenly.
‘I did,’ said Russ, adding with great emphasis, ‘and I really did, Jack. Honest. Everywhere. The main gate was locked as usual when I got here this morning.’
‘So someone got in somewhere else,’ concluded Jack Haines.
‘They sure did,’ said the foreman instantly.
‘Search me, boss, but I can tell you where. They came
through the fence that backs on to the field sure enough. You know, just where the compost heap backs up there. If you ask me …’
‘I am asking you, Russ,’ said Haines pointedly.
‘It was a bolt croppers’ job on the fence. That or wire cutters. Something like that anyway.’
Jack Haines pushed his coffee mug away and snapped into action. ‘That makes it a matter for the police. Right, Russ, you go over to the Berebury Garden Centre, pronto, and then on to the Leanaig boys’ place and see what you can pick up in the way of replacements before word of this gets out and their prices go up. So watch what you say to them all – especially Bob Steele at the garden centre. Oh, and call in at Staple St James Nurseries too. They may have something.’
‘I’m on my way,’ nodded the foreman.
‘Sling me that phone, Mandy,’ ordered Haines, ‘and I’ll get on to the police this minute. Well, what is it?’ he said to Russ, who had paused at the office door, his hand on the handle. ‘What are you waiting for?’
‘Shall I call in at Capstan Purlieu Plants while I’m about it,’ asked the man, ‘and collect some replacement orchids?’
‘Certainly not,’ snapped Haines, his colour starting to rise again. ‘Just get going. Now.’
Benedict Feakins was sitting with his wife at their
table, lingering over a late breakfast that had included a couple of pain-killing tablets. He was going through his post whilst Mary Feakins was toying with a piece of dry toast. She had been doing this for some time.
After a few moments Benedict lifted his head from opening yet another bill to survey the garden through the window. While anyone else who was looking at it would only see a large patch of nondescript ground, loosely dug over and edged by some dispirited rhododendrons, what he saw in his mind’s eye were banks of well-established flowering shrubs with an under-planting of hardy perennials, dotted about with something spectacular in the way of palms.
‘I’ll need a really good mulch to give everything a proper start,’ he said.
‘Benedict,’ exploded Mary Feakins, ‘how could you talk about mulch when I feel so sick!’
Benedict Feakins, who was unaware that he had spoken aloud, was instantly apologetic. ‘Dearest, I’m so sorry.’
‘And what I said – had you been listening – was that we need some more fuel for the boiler. It drinks oil.’
‘So soon?’ He brought his mind back to reality with an effort.
‘Hot water doesn’t grow on trees,’ she said.
The pair hadn’t been married long enough for him to find this remark anything but charmingly original. ‘Very true.’
‘It was all very well in your father’s day,’ she said, ‘but we don’t seem to have as much money as he had to run the place.’
‘We haven’t,’ he said simply. ‘Is it urgent? I mean, could it wait a few days until I’ve sorted things out a bit?’ He waved at the little pile of post on the table. ‘There are a couple of big bills in this lot.’
‘Do you want your son to freeze to death?’
Benedict Feakins winced. The son in question had yet to be born but his welfare was already a priority in the household. He was all apologies. ‘I’ll get on to the bank,’ he promised, ‘and ask them what they can do about beefing up our overdraft. Don’t forget we’ve got to go into Berebury today anyway to sign some papers for Simon Puckle.’
Simon Puckle was a partner in the firm of Puckle, Puckle and Nunnery, Solicitors and Commissioners for Oaths.
Mary Feakins, her morning sickness temporarily forgotten, gave a luxurious stretch and said, ‘And then everything out here at Pelling will be really and truly ours?’
‘It will, although,’ he added conscientiously, ‘naturally I didn’t want Dad to die just so that we could inherit the place.’
‘Of course not,’ she responded swiftly, ‘but he was ill and unhappy. He was never the same after your mother died, you know.’
‘I don’t suppose I would be if you were to die before me,’ said Benedict fondly.
‘Nonsense,’ said Mary Feakins, her eyes sparkling mischievously. ‘If I did, I bet you’d be married again within the year.’
‘What,’ he started up again, grimaced with pain and fell back in his chair, ‘and let someone else look after young Benedict? Never!’ He gripped the arms of the chair and this time moved with extreme caution as he tried to rise. ‘I’m sorry but you’ll have to do the driving into Berebury today. My back’s still too painful.’
‘What did you expect if you will dig up ground like
you did …’ Mary Feakins’ own attitude to pain in other people had started to change as her pregnancy advanced. ‘You’re not used to that sort of work and Anthony Berra seems to be.’
‘We can’t afford a professional garden designer. You know that’s why I had to cancel his coming here to give the garden a proper grounding. But I really need to get those shrubs in soon,’ he said earnestly, ‘and I didn’t know that digging was going to do my back in, did I?’
‘You might have guessed.’ She reached for another piece of dry toast. ‘So how do you suppose with your bad back that you’re going to be able to put these precious shrubs in the ground when you do get them?’
‘I’ll manage somehow,’ he said through gritted teeth as another spasm of pain shot through his frame.
‘You could always cancel that plant order for the front garden just like you put Anthony Berra off,’ she suggested, not meeting his eye. ‘They’re going to cost an absolute bomb.’
‘Then we’d miss a whole season of growth,’ he said, waving a hand towards the window.
‘I would have thought you could put a packet of seeds in instead. Some annuals there would look pretty.’
He shook his head. ‘That would be no good in the long run. You’d only have to look at all this desolation for another winter.’ He added another letter to the little pile on the table. ‘We can’t have that. Besides,’ he smiled, ‘you’ll want somewhere nice outside to sit with young Benedict in his pram.’
‘It was a pity your father was so keen on his cacti and nothing else in the garden,’ she responded obliquely, ‘and
then you wouldn’t have had to do all that work in the first place.’
‘It’ll look lovely this year as well next, I promise,’ he said, blowing her a kiss.
‘At least you don’t take after him,’ said his wife.
Benedict Feakins’ head shot up. ‘What do you mean?’ he demanded hotly.
‘In specialising in cacti like he did, that’s all.’ She shuddered. ‘Nasty-looking things.’
‘Prickly too,’ said Benedict ambiguously. ‘Mother didn’t like them either but they gave Dad something to do and kept him happy enough after she died and that’s what mattered.’
‘He didn’t really like gardening, did he?’ she said, scanning the untended ground outside the window. ‘Proper gardening, I mean, like you do. He liked fiddling around with little bits of things that looked as if they should have stayed in the desert where they belong.’
Benedict Feakins gave this some thought. ‘I suppose not. Dad wasn’t keen on the garden even before his hip got bad, but afterwards, of course, when he couldn’t get about so easily the cacti were ideal. He must have spent hours in the greenhouse with them.’
Mary Feakins shivered. ‘They give me the willies. Can we get rid of them before … before …’
‘Before Benedict the Third arrives …’ he finished the sentence for her, smiling. ‘Of course we can. I might even get Jack Haines to take them in part-exchange.’
‘That would be good.’
‘I know what,’ he said, ‘we’ll call in at the nursery on our way into Berebury and ask him.’
Mary Feakins changed tack suddenly. ‘I suppose,’ she admitted, ‘you do need to be getting on with planting those shrubs anyway now. If you can manage it. But do be careful. You don’t want the office saying you’ve got a self-inflicted injury like they do with sunburn.’
‘The shrubs can’t wait beyond the end of March,’ he said. ‘Ideally some of them should have gone in the ground last October …’
‘But we weren’t here in October, were we?’ She looked round with pleasure at their dining room. ‘We were making out in a grotty basement flat in Luston.’
Benedict Feakins acknowledged this with a quick jerk of his head. ‘You were making out, Mary. I’m not sure that I was.’ He looked out at the garden again in wonder. ‘And now we’ve got all this.’
‘You weren’t expecting your father to die quite so soon, that’s all.’ She waved a hand in a gesture that took in the neat double-fronted Edwardian house. ‘All this would have come to you one day anyway. You know that.’
‘True, but you must admit that it couldn’t have come at a better time.’
‘For all three of us,’ she said with manifest satisfaction. She got up from the table. ‘Now, we really should be getting going …’