“It’s time to come inside,” Becky tells me. “I’d be amazed if you can still see past the end of your nose.”
“I just want to get these dahlias in.”
“Oh Ruth,” she says, “you’ll stop at nothing when it comes to that garden. You’re garden mad, you are!”
I’m expecting great things this year – narcissi and tulips first, and now lupins, aquilegia and crowning it all, my glorious white irises. I’ve worked so hard, turning the soil, digging in bone-meal and compost. Jam-jar lids full of sweet beer keep the slugs at bay. Some people squash them, or use those little toxic pellets, but somehow I can never quite bring myself to dispatch the little pests to the great herbaceous border in the sky. “You’re too soft-hearted,” says Becky, “that’s your trouble.”
It’s peaceful here in my garden but not silent. A robin’s singing its little heart out over in the apple tree, and every so often, the breeze lifts the leaves of the ash tree behind the back gate, making them tremble and shiver. The distant traffic on the motorway provides an unceasing low background rumble.
I lean on my fork and let the sweet smell of choisya and damp earth fill my nostrils. Even though it’s almost dark, I can barely tear myself away. My own little square of paradise.
Inside, Becky grumbles about muddy boots and newly mopped floors as she pours me a glass of red wine. “The police were round again,” she says.
“Really? I didn’t hear the doorbell.”
“They still haven’t found him.”
Jason Polley is who she means. He’s been missing for weeks now. No great loss, if you ask me. In fact, if you want my honest opinion, our little community is very much improved by the absence of Jason Polley. Not that I said so to the young sergeant who came knocking a few weeks back. I told him I wouldn’t be surprised if Jason had legged it, how Jason was always on about what an effing backwater this place is, how he couldn’t wait to kick the dust off his designer trainers and be on his way.
“Knew him well, did you?”
After that, I shut up. I knew Jason Polley as well as anyone could ever want to. He’d been a thorn in our sides right from the day he and his family moved in.
What you have to understand is we’re a bit old-fashioned here in Ferndale Close, a bit old-school. We look out for each other, you see. Ted at number five, the Whittingdales across at number two and us down at the end here at number nine. Whatever they may have thought about Becky and me, none of them ever said a word. They were too decent for that. Instead, they took us at face value: two genteel, middle-aged ladies who’d chosen to share a house.
After old Mrs Ince passed away, number six stood empty for months. Becky said it had gone to her nephew, but we never ever saw him. Then one day, the Polleys were moving in. Local Authority, the Whittingdales said.
You could tell at once they weren’t our kind of people. Aggressive, noisy, foul-mouthed. Ted asked them a dozen times to turn down their racket, but all he got for his trouble was an earful of abuse. Soon the garden was overgrown and filling up with rubbish – a rotting mattress, wheel-less bikes, an ancient, rusting washing machine. The place was beginning to stick out like a sore thumb.
I never worked out exactly how many kids they had, but Jason was the eldest. He was a big lad, puffy and pale and unhealthy-looking. Small black eyes always sliding this way and that. “On the look-out for trouble, that one,” Becky said.
It started with a ball kicked over the fence slap bang into the middle of my rose bed. Next thing we know, Jason’s trampling all over the garden, plonking his great clumsy feet here, there and everywhere without so much as a thought for the flowers and shrubs I’d spent years propagating and tending so lovingly. “Is this what you’re looking for?” says Becky, the ball in her hands.
“Gimme it here,” he says, snatching it back.
“Just be careful of the plants!” I throw in with stupid, unthinking optimism.
“Screw the effing plants.” And as an afterthought, “Stuck up bitches.”
After that, there was no peace. Every day something foul came over the fence, every sort of filth you can imagine. And that wasn’t all. He peed in the pond. He smeared dog dirt all over the patio. He set fire to the shed.
Becky said we should go to the police.
“They won’t lift a finger,” I reply. “In fact, they’ll only make things worse.”
Then one day, we come home to find him knocking the heads off all my beautiful irises. Paralyzed, I stand in the window, wracked with useless sobs as he wreaks his havoc. Becky, God bless her, she doesn’t hesitate. Out she goes to give him what for, but he just laughs and calls her names.
Then suddenly, he’s telling her all she needs is a good, proper seeing to. And the next thing I know, he’s grabbing her by the arm and dragging her down. Kicking her and pulling at her blouse. Opening his fly and pushing his hands up her skirt.
At that moment, something inside me snaps. A minute later, I don’t know how, I find myself standing over him, the garden spade clenched in my trembling hands as blood fountains out of his skull. I watch in horror as his eyes cloud over and grow dull. With his last breaths gurgling in his throat he mutters, “fucking dykes…”
Slowly, Becky sits up. “Have you…?”
“I think so.”
That night, after we finish in the garden, we both sit up a long time. Becky pours big tumblers full of whiskey. “Drink it,” she says and kisses my cheeks and eyes. “It’ll be all right.”
“Yes,” I say, swallowing the whiskey in a single gulp, “everything’s OK now.”