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Blessed/Cursed Retirement

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Liam Buttersby was, in virtually every way, a very normal nine-year-old boy.

Living in a small village named Chesterton-Burnleigh, nestled amidst the rolling hills of the South Downs, he was quite a contented child. He liked model aeroplanes, which he occasionally built with his father when his father had time, which was not all that often, as Dr Buttersby was a GP, and was a very serious man with a lot of work to do. He liked painting, which he occasionally did with his mother when she had time, which was not at all often, as Mrs Buttersby painted for a living, and didn’t like having Liam inside her studio unless it was absolutely necessary. Mrs Buttersby was also, in fact, a doctor – she had a PhD in the History of Art and Architecture. She did not, however, use her title in the village, as it lead to potential confusion.

Liam liked to play outside, when the weather was good enough (or when it wasn’t), and he liked to walk back and forth in the garden. He liked butterflies, and birdwatching, and insects; he liked spiders and other arachnids; he would very much like to own a stick insect, although his mother kept saying no.

Today, he was bored.

He had read all of his books countless times, and although it was a very warm and sunny day, his friends – Lisa and Stephanie Turpin, Nick Bupley, and Nathaniel Redcastle – were, respectively, at the beach in Brighton, in London to see Cats with their Aunt Clothilde, and sick with the flu.

It was a Sunday: the library was closed.

He looked up from his bacon and toast, half-eaten. He wasn’t sure that he liked the idea of bacon, really. It was salty, and too chewy, and Nick Bupley’s older sister was a vegetarian, and she said she didn’t eat meat at all, and didn’t mind not eating bacon. Liam mused as to how happy he’d be, being a vegetarian. He’d have to eat vegetables, of course, but he’d never minded that – he liked vegetables better than meat, he thought. Much better.

Mr and Mrs Buttersby, as they had been for at least two weeks now, on and off, were talking about Mr Fell and Mr Crowley, who had recently moved into Eden House, the old cottage a little under a mile outside of the village[1]. Mr Fell and Mr Crowley had moved down here from London, and Liam had seen them. Mr Fell was a short, fat, bookish man that always wore two more jumpers than was really called for, and Liam had yet to see him without a stack of books in his arms; Mr Crowley was a tall, skinny, breezy man that wore tight suits and tighter jeans, and he always wore sunglasses.

When Mr Fell and Mr Crowley had moved in, Mr and Mrs Buttersby had tutted, and shook their heads in that way adults sometimes do, and commented that the world was really coming to something in the past few years, between these two and Elton John and what-not, and really, who did they think they were fooling?

When Mr Crowley, a few days later, had brought down his Bentley and the last of the things from London, Dr Buttersby had commented that he must have money. Mrs Buttersby had snidely commented yes, and that Mr Fell had probably earned it. Liam hadn’t understand exactly what this had meant.

After a week in Chesterton-Burnleigh, Mr Crowley had begun building a greenhouse. They had a fair bit of land connected to Eden House – at least an acre – and Mr Crowley had made quick work of the overgrown lawn and all of the bushes and ivy, although he left the tall hedges around the edges of the property. He had then begun to construct a greenhouse. All the people in the village were convinced he must have been a handy man, or something, because he had all the panes of glass delivered and just did it himself, and it was a gigantic greenhouse, almost as big as their actual house, with a wide roof.

Mrs Buttersby had said it was an eyesore.

“It was ridiculous, Fred,” Mrs Buttersby said, taking a long sip from her drink and shaking her head. Mrs Buttersby was standing in the kitchen, looking out of the window and scowling at a finch that Liam had been courting into making use of their bird bath, which Mrs Buttersby insisted was for ornamental reasons, and was not for birds to make a mess in[2]. She was currently talking about last night’s village hall meeting. Mr Crowley had shown up with an angel food cake, and without Mr Fell. “You should have heard him. He kept trying to talk about all these books, and the opera, as if he knew a thing about it!”

“Maybe he does,” Dr Buttersby said, not looking up from the paper. “They’re into that sort of thing, aren’t they? Theatre and what-not.”

“Not this one. He doesn’t look like he ever gets off his back! He’s obviously just repeating the boyfriend’s opinions, although he’s hardly a boy. So much older than the other one, he is, I mean, it’s just filthy[3]. And they’re so— They’re so brazen about it! You know, he seems like such a lovely man in other respects, and yet here he is, dragging around this young man that looks like a gigolo.”

“What’s a gigolo?” Liam asked, taking a bite of his toast.

“Look it up in the dictionary,” Dr Buttersby suggested, as Mrs Buttersby said, “That’s not for little boys to know!”

Mr and Mrs Buttersby exchanged a look.

“Er,” Dr Buttersby said. “Well, no. You probably oughtn’t look it up in the dictionary, Liam.”

“What is it?”

“It’s an adult thing,” Mrs Buttersby said. She had a habit of saying some things were adult things. This was, she felt, a very good way to ensure that Liam didn’t keep asking after a certain subject: this was because Liam, defeated, would just make a mental note to look up whatever it was in the dictionary later on.

Liam sighed, and looked back to his plate.

“I’m sure he isn’t one, anyway,” Dr Buttersby said consolingly. “Just a… sugar… Thing.”

“Sugar baby, Fred,” Mrs Buttersby said. “Is that what you mean?”

“Is that like a sugar glider?” Liam asked, perking up.

No, dear,” Mrs Buttersby said. “It’s an—”

“—Adult thing,” Liam and Mrs Buttersby said together.

“I think so, Liz,” Dr Buttersby said.

“Yes, well,” Mrs Buttersby muttered. “I wish one of those young lads at the Maples would egg their house, instead of bothering poor Mrs Curtis. Always going about on their bikes… And I’m sure they do graffiti.”

“Probably,” Dr Buttersby agreed. His gaze had returned to his paper.

Liam thought about this for a moment.

Well.

He’d never egged a house before.

Liam wasn’t sure what sort of eggs were best for egging a house, but Nick Bupley’s older sister, Sarah, said that you should always buy free range eggs instead of the other kind, but Sheraz Hassan, who ran the local shop, said that he didn’t know if they were free range or not, but that they were from Mr Geddings’ farm three miles west, and that Mr Geddings was a very nice man, so he doubted he mistreated his chickens.

Liam bought a carton of six with some of his pocket money, and put them into his satchel to walk out to the house.

He could have cycled, he supposed, but he liked to walk. It was June, and as he made his way along the path toward Eden House, he could pick wild strawberries from the hedgerows.

Eden House had changed a lot since last he saw it, and he paused for a moment on the hill, looking out over it. It was a fairly big cottage, and it had been empty since old Mrs Wickerson’s heart had given out in ’84, according to Dr Buttersby, because her family had been arguing about whether to sell it or not, and if they had to do it up beforehand.

It had been done up now.

They had washed the outside of the walls, the brick bright and clean and newly white in the summer sunshine, and it seemed that Mr Crowley had redone the cobbles on the path, because it had been very rough and patchy when last Liam had seen it. He could see the greenhouse, too, which was in the shape of an octagon, and was two storeys. It looked like the sort of greenhouse Liam had only ever seen at the Botanical Gardens, and although he knew Mr Crowley had only built it last week, it looked like it had been there for a hundred years: there was natural wear on the white paint of the frame, and the plants around it had already bounced back to growing naturally against the glass.

The size of the greenhouse, of course, raised a question.

Was he supposed to egg the actual house, or the greenhouse?

Liam mused on this as he drew the egg carton out of his satchel, opening it up and looking at the brown shells of each of the eggs. Well. There were three. He could always egg the house three times, and the greenhouse three times, right?

Assuming he had time for that – he was expecting to have to run very fast. The lads who’d egged Mrs Curtis had run very fast, but she was right slow, because of her arthritic hip, and it was the hip, Dr Buttersby said, that made her so nasty. Mrs Buttersby had said if she had a face like Mrs Curtis, she’d be nasty too, and Dr Buttersby had laughed.

Mr Crowley was in the greenhouse down the way. Liam could see him with a watering can in his hands on the other side of the panes, although there was no sign of Mr Fell.

Liam set off down the path, and ducked under one of the old hedge archways, sneaking closer to the house and readying an—

“Eggs, huh?” asked a voice to his right. He turned his head, and then looked up at Mr Crowley, who had his hands in his pockets, his eyebrows raised. Liam could see his reflection in Mr Crowley’s sunglasses. He hadn’t been there a second ago, and Liam wondered how fast the man could move. “Thanks. Can I have one?”

“Uh,” Liam said. “Okay.” He held out the carton, and Mr Crowley took one in sun-browned fingers, bringing it up to his face.

What happened next, Liam wasn’t sure. He knew that it was a trick, but he couldn’t figure out how Mr Crowley had done it – he had practised trying to hide a card with sleight of hands, but he didn’t see how Mr Crowley could have done it with an egg. What he thought he saw – because of the illusion – was Mr Crowley bringing the egg to his mouth, opening it wide (much too wide for a normal man to open his mouth), pop it in, and swallow it. He saw the lump in Mr Crowley’s throat sink down his neck, like a snake.

Wow,” Liam said. “Can you teach me how to do that, Mr Crowley?”

Mr Crowley seemed to think about this for a moment. “No,” he decided. “I couldn’t possibly.”

“Oh.”

“You know, traditionally, egging a house is a night-time activity. In the day-time, we can see who you are.”

“Oh.”

“Of course, I don’t know who you are.”

“I’m Liam Buttersby, sir. I live at the Laurels, by the shop.”

“Well, you shouldn’t have told me that,” Mr Crowley said. “Now I know who you are – now I know where you live! You can’t egg our house now, else I’ll come and complain to your parents.”

“Oh,” Liam said, frowning. “Yes. I suppose you’re right.”

Mr Crowley looked down at Liam for a long few moments. He wasn’t dressed like most people in Chesterton-Burnleigh dressed: he wore tight jeans tucked into black ankle boots, and a t-shirt emblazoned with four letters. A.C.A.B.

“What’s that mean?” Liam asked, pointing to his t-shirt.

Crowley looked down at his chest, then frowned.

“It’s an adult thing, isn’t it?” Liam asked.

“Well,” Mr Crowley said, musing. “You’re never too young for the truth, that’s what I say, but your parents might be annoyed with me if I tell you.”

“My parents are already annoyed with you,” Liam said.

Scrupulously honest, aren’t you, Liam Buttersby?”

“Scruples’re important, Mr Crowley. My dad says so.”

“Hard to argue with that,” Mr Crowley said, and began walking off in the direction of the greenhouse. Lacking anything better to do, Liam trailed after him. “It stands for All Coppers Are Bastards. Bastard is an old word, means someone whose parents weren’t married when they were born, but now it means, just… Someone we want to insult.”

“Copper like a policeman?”

“Yeah.”

“Bastard’s a bad word.”

“Yeah, that’s why we reserve it for policemen.”

“Aren’t policemen the good guys?” Liam asked.

“Depends on your idea of good,” Mr Crowley replied. Liam looked at the garden as they came down the path. It had used to have a big, wide lawn, but Crowley had split the lawn up into sections, with little picket lines creating rectangular sections of raised soil, and Liam could see little wooden signposts on each of them.

“What are you growing?” Liam asked.

“Oh, everything,” Mr Crowley said. “Let’s see… Carrots, swedes, parsnips, beetroot; courgette and marrows over there; that’s kohlrabi, that’s a kind of cabbage; a few varieties of squash… I’ll plant fruit trees about, in between the rows, but this is just the summer sow at the moment, so by the end of next year, I’ll have gotten rid of all this lawn.”

“You aren’t going to plant any flowers?” Liam asked. “They look nicer than vegetables.”

“You sound like my—” Mr Crowley hesitated, his eyebrows furrowing as he pressed his lips together in thought, and then he glanced at Liam. “Like Ezra. Anyway, yes, I am going to plant flowers. Planting the right flowers encourages the right insects, and the insects will take care of my plants.” Liam’s mind latched immediately onto the concept of entomology, but— Ezra? That was Mr Fell, he supposed.

“S’that your boyfriend?” he asked. “Mr Fell?”

“I wouldn’t call him that.”

“But you can’t marry him.”

“Nope,” Mr Crowley agreed.

“But you’re like boyfriend and girlfriend, but boyfriend and boyfriend.”

“… Sure.”

Mr Crowley walked into the open doors of the greenhouse, and Liam hesitated on the doorstep, looking inside and after him. The greenhouse didn’t have the dirt floor he’d expected, but boards of wood flooring, and there were lots of tables lined with pots and trays. There was a spiral staircase in the very centre of the room, and it led up to a metal walkway with more trays of plants, as well as hanging baskets that were already ripe with strawberries, some of them hanging down.

“Did you really build this yourself?” Liam asked.

“Yep,” Crowley said.

“How’d you learn how to do it?”

“Oh, it’s easier than it used to be,” Mr Crowley said absently, picking up his watering can and beginning to go around, watering small pots and trays. “Glass can’t rip, after all. The specularia used to, when it was too windy, or they’d catch on things and tear.”

“What’s a specularia?”

Crowley turned his head very slowly, and he frowned at Liam, looking at him very hard. Or, at least, Liam thought he must be looking at him very hard: it was difficult to tell with his sunglasses on. He didn’t answer the question.

“You can come in,” Crowley said.

Liam hesitated a moment, but then he stepped over the threshold of the greenhouse, walking inside. It was very warm, and it smelled funny, like he could smell the actual heat and humidity, as well all the green plants.

“There’s a bench,” Crowley said, and he gestured to wooden couch padded with thick, comfortable looking cushions, and Liam walked toward it. “Give me those,” Mr Crowley said, and he took the eggs, setting them down on one of the two clean side tables on either side of the couch, beside a stack of books. “You’ve never egged a house before?”

“No,” Liam said, feeling awkward. “But that’s why I thought I should.”

“Good logic,” Crowley said. “But don’t egg our house.”

“Because you know who I am.”

“Yes.”

“And do it at night-time.”

“Yes.”

“But I’m not allowed to go outside after dark.”

“Hard times,” Mr Crowley said. “Egging a house doesn’t do much, anyway. What gave you the idea?”

“Dunno,” Liam said, and then felt bad. “Well. I do know. But I don’t want to tell you.”

“Alright,” Crowley said affably. “Why’d you choose to egg us?”

“Uh,” Liam said, and he looked down on his knees. He hadn’t, in fact, thought all that much about it. “Well. Didn’t really think it’d matter. Like you said, it doesn’t do much.”

Mr Crowley shrugged his shoulders. “You haven’t got anything better to do?”

“No,” Liam said. “Library’s closed. And all my friends are busy. And my mum doesn’t like me to be in the house in the summer if I’m not being quiet, but I’ve read all my books, and there’s nothing to do. What do you do? For a job?”

“I’m retired,” Mr Crowley said. “I don’t have a job anymore.”

“Oh,” Liam said. He frowned at Mr Crowley. He was never sure how old adults were, but most people who retired had grey hair[4], and wrinkles[5], and dressed… like Mr Fell. They didn’t look like Mr Crowley, in his fashionable clothes. “Aren’t you too young to retire?”

Crowley grinned. “Nah,” he said. “I’m older than I look.”

“How much older is Mr Fell than you?”

“He’s not. We’re the same age.”

“Oh. My dad is seventeen years older than my mum.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. But my mum’s in charge.”

“Right,” Mr Crowley said.

“Is Mr Fell in charge of you?”

“I’m sure he’d like to think so,” Crowley said. His tone was wry, and Liam smiled a little bit.

“Are you angry?” Liam asked.

“Nope.”

“Would you have been? If I’d egged your house?”

“Maybe,” Crowley said. “Probably not.”

“Really? What would you have done if I had done it?”

Crowley blew out his cheeks, exhaling. “Dunno,” he decided. “How old are you, nine?”

“Yeah.”

“Then probably nothing. Jury’s out on whether you’re capable of truly moral decisions yet.”

Liam frowned. “What does that mean?”

“What does anything mean, Liam Buttersby?” Crowley replied breezily.

“You’re weird, Mr Crowley.”

“I’m not gonna argue,” Crowley replied.

“Do you like the opera?” Liam asked.

Mr Crowley leaned back on his boot heels, and then he turned to look at Liam, lowering his sunglasses and squinting at Liam. His eyes, Liam noticed, were a bright yellow he’d never seen a person’s eyes be before, and he had funny pupils, like a snake’s. Dr Buttersby had told him before that there were some people with conditions that made their eyes look funny, like David Bowie’s pupils being different, or like heterochromia, or coloboma. Mrs Buttersby had told him it wasn’t polite to comment on this sort of thing, although she often did herself, so he didn’t.

“Do you like the opera?” Mr Crowley asked.

“Dunno. Never been.”

“Then why are you asking?”

“My mum said you were talking about the opera last night.” Liam hesitated. Mrs Buttersby had told him before not to tell people if she talked about them, but Liam liked Mr Crowley, and he seemed like a nice man, and a smart one. “She said you didn’t have any of your own opinions, and that you were on your back a lot? I didn’t know what that meant. And she said you must just copy what Mr Fell says.”

Mr Crowley snorted derisively. “Mr Fell has terrible opinions on opera,” he said. “I wouldn’t repeat his opinions if you paid me.”

Liam said, “Oh.”

Liam sat for a little while in silence, watching Mr Crowley as he sprinkled water over some trays that were blooming with little green shoots. “Mr Crowley?” he asked.

“Yes?”

“I don’t think my mum likes you very much.”

“What’s your mum’s name?”

“Elizabeth.”

“Tall woman, about forty? Green eyes, red hair in a bun?” Liam nodded. “Yeah,” Mr Crowley said, with an amused little smirk. “I don’t think she likes me very much either.”

“Why not?”

“Well,” Mr Crowley said, setting his watering can down and turning around, his arms crossing over his chest, “there’s a few reasons. Some people are uncomfortable with men who’re gay. You know, like me, and Ezra. And some people are uncomfortable, too, because Ezra looks like he’s older than me, right? People… People assume that I must be spending his money. You know, flash car, nice clothes.”

“But if you’re married,” Liam said, “you share the money, right?”

“Yeah.”

“And you two aren’t married, but you’re… You know, like old people dating, like, forever.”

“I resent your phrasing, Liam Buttersby,” Mr Crowley said, “but I get your point. We do pretty much share our money. But some people, they get all het up if they think a couple is unequal and mixing up, you know? Different religions, different races, different social classes, or different amounts of money, you know. Some people are just judgemental.”

“S’funny, though,” Liam said. “That people want it all to be like, two people who’re the same, unless they’re both men or both women, and then they get all annoyed.”

Mr Crowley gave Liam a small grin. “You’re a very insightful boy, aren’t you?”

“Dunno,” Liam said. “Do you like bugs?”

“Bugs?” Crowley repeated. “Like… Like listening devices?”

“No,” Liam said. “Like insects, arachnids, and worms, like annelids, nematodes, platyhelminthes—”

“Big on the worms, aren’t you?”

“Yeah. I like worms. I think they’re cool. I like invertebrates in general, but I think it’s really cool when they don’t have a spine or an exoskeleton.”

“Do you like jellyfish?” Mr Crowley asked, his voice uncertain, as if he was struggling to find his footing in the conversation. Liam, well-accustomed to having to force entomology into conversations with unwilling parties, was undeterred.

“Sure, they’re fine. Do you know that platyhelminthes – flatworms – don’t have body cavities? So when they pass nutrients through their bodies, they do it with diffusion. That’s like, if you pour some food colouring into a glass of water, and you see how it really slowly expands out, like a cloud, until all the water is dyed? It’s like that.”

“I did not know that,” Mr Crowley said. “Thanks for letting me know.”

Liam was used to irony, and didn’t question it. “Do you like bugs?” he asked again.

“Well,” Mr Crowley said, crossing his arms over his chest and looking very thoughtful, “I don’t… dislike them, especially. Ezra used to keep bees. He was off on a thing about Sherlock Holmes at the time, don’t know what he was thinking. That’s how we found out his body’s allergic to bee sti— I mean, that he’s allergic to bee stings. He looked awfully funny with his face swollen up.”

“Did you laugh at him?”

“Oh, yes.”

“Wasn’t he upset?”

“Quite upset, yeah,” Crowley said, with some satisfaction.

“I’d love to keep bees,” Liam said eagerly. “But my mum says we don’t have the space. Are you going to keep them again?”

“Don’t think so,” Crowley said. “I’m gonna set up some, uh… Some insect houses, I think three or four, just around the property, you know. Encourage some pollinators – butterflies, bees, wasps… Ladybirds, I like ladybirds, they’re very good for a garden. Earwigs, they’re good – they eat plant lice. And, uh, of course, I’ll have a compost heap, and that’ll have worms in.”

“And anything isopoda?” Liam asked.

“Iso-whata?”

“Isopods! You know, like, woodlice.”

“Oh, right,” Crowley said. “Yeah, I, uh… I suppose. I hadn’t given it too much thought.”

“Do you like mice?”

“Oh, yes,” Mr Crowley said. “I like mice very much. But not in my garden. And they’ve learned already not to come into my garden.”

“You don’t put traps down for them, do you?”

“No, never,” Crowley said emphatically. “Takes all the fun out of it, using traps.”

“I don’t get it.”

“That’s alright,” Mr Crowley said. “Well. I’ve got work to do.”

“No, you don’t,” Liam said. “You’re retired.”

Crowley considered this for a moment. “Well. I suppose you’re right. But I’ve got gardening to do.”

“What sort of gardening?”

“Well, I’m setting up the automatic watering system, and building the trellis against that wall, and to hang down beside that walkway, for my cucumbers.”

“What’s a trellis?”

“It’s a wooden frame made of metal or wood, with lots of gaps in it. Vines find it easier to grow if they have a trellis, so they can grow upward.”

“Do cucumbers grow on vines?”

“Some do. Some grow from a bush. I have some of both.”

“What’s the difference?”

“Er, well,” Crowley said, “a cucumber bush, you can put it in a pot or a little corner of the garden, and it’ll stay there. A cucumber vine, that’ll spread all around. You see the ivy on a house, how quickly it grows up and outward? Cucumber vines will do that. There’s a lot more fruit on the plant, though, and the fruit will be all different sizes and shapes, whereas a cucumber bush is usually smaller and more consistent.”

“Are you a vegetarian?”

“No.”

“Then how come you’re growing all these fruits and vegetables?”

“I like plants.”

“Why?”

“Dunno,” Mr Crowley said. “Why do you like bugs?”

“I think they’re beautiful,” Liam said earnestly.

“Well,” said Mr Crowley. “That’s what I think about plants. Don't tell them, though. I like to keep them on their roots.”

“Can I help?” Liam asked.

“Uh,” Crowley said, reaching up and rubbing the back of his head. “Well… Not— You can’t help with the trellis, because that’s not safe. I’m going to be hanging from the walkways to hang it, and there’s tools and nails and that. But you can help me with the watering, I suppose. Can you use scissors?”

“Yeah,” Liam said. “I’m nine, Mr Crowley.”

“Right,” Crowley said. “Right. Well, alright. Fine. Fine.”

Liam smiled.

After a slow, uncertain pause, Mr Crowley smiled back.

Mr Crowley, Liam discovered that day, talked to his plants, and could bend all the way forward to touch his toes, and also all the way backward to touch his heels. He played a few instruments, and when they went inside, he put on Mr Fell’s cardigan, and told Liam to never tell anybody that he’d done so, because he looked ridiculous.

This was fair enough, Liam thought, because he did.

“Did you eat lunch at a friend’s?” Mrs Buttersby asked.

“Yeah,” Liam said.

“What did you have?”

“Uh,” Liam said, thinking about Mr Crowley in his kitchen, with an apron on and his sleeves rolled up to his elbows. Mr Fell had been very surprised to see Liam, but had fussed over him quite a bit, and made sure he had orange squash to drink, and had given him some biscuits Crowley had made as dessert. Unlike Mr Crowley, who didn’t treat Liam like a child, Mr Fell had, which Liam did not care for. With that said, though, he was a nice man. Liam did not believe for a second that he and Mr Crowley were the same age, no matter what Mr Crowley said. “Rata…”

“Ratatouille?” Mrs Buttersby asked.

“Yeah.”

“It’s that Ned Bupley’s family again, isn’t it?” Mrs Buttersby asked. “Vegetarian.

“No,” Liam said. “It was—”

“You know, she’s nearly nineteen now,” Mrs Buttersby said, shaking her head. “That Sarah. I don’t think she’s ever had a boyfriend. All this vegetarianism and dyeing her hair and that – she’ll never get a boy with that attitude.”

“I don’t think she likes boys,” Liam said. “She likes oceanography.”

Well,” said Mrs Buttersby. “I’m sure there are boys in that field. Right, Fred?”

“Undoubtedly,” said Dr Buttersby. He didn’t look up from the medical journal he was reading.

Liam sighed, and looked down at his plate.

“Yeah, that’s it,” Mr Crowley said. “Hold it by the petals, there, careful not to catch the thorns. And we just tie the stems against the arch like this, right? Just with a bit of string.”

“Why’s it called that? Rambling rose?”

“Well,” Crowley said, “if it rambles, that means it wanders, you see? So this rose will climb the trellis on the arch, and it’ll sort of spread around. Like the cucumber vines.”

“You didn’t say about this, yesterday.”

“Yes, well,” Crowley said, ruefully. “I’m afraid Mr Fell saw an advertisement when we went to the garden centre yesterday, and found the concept of a rose-covered arch to be very romantic. He’s very prone to romanticism. He’s not wrong, anyway – it’ll look very nice, and it’s not quite as insidious as bougainvillea, which is what he initially wanted.”

“What’s that?” Liam asked. “Bergon…?”

“Bou-gain-villea. It’s a very fast-growing vining plant. It’s awful stuff – all the flowers come away and dry out, and you end up with big carpets of pink and purple flowers, rotting in the grass. It doesn’t grow too well here in England usually, anyway – the climate’s too cold, and the winter frost tends to kill everything.”

“Everything?” Liam asked. “What about all your garden?”

“Oh,” Crowley said, “no, no. My garden will be fine.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means I’ve got a few tricks up my sleeve.”

“Your shirt is sleeveless.” It was, too. Crowley was wearing a vest with the sleeves cut off, and it was printed with the logo of a band that Crowley had said – and he had said that he was certain of this, albeit apologetically – that Liam was too young to listen to.

Crowley considered this. “You have me there,” he admitted. “It is that.”

The next morning, Lisa and Stephanie Turpin were back from Brighton, and Nick Bupley was back from London.

“Mr Crowley?” Nick repeated as they walked up the path and out of Chesterton-Burnleigh proper. Nick was the sort of boy that read a lot of adventure novels, but tended to consider them best left in the realm of fantasy. He was, for a boy of ten, uncomfortably prone to realism. “But— But he’s old.”

“He’s cool,” Liam said.

“Is he?” Lisa asked, sceptically. Lisa was nine, and prided herself on being especially sensible.

“If he just does stuff in a greenhouse all day, that isn’t all that cool,” agreed Stephanie, Lisa’s older sister, who was ten. She did not pride herself on being especially sensible, and in fact felt that being sensible was the natural antithesis of having fun. Lisa and Stephanie saw eye to eye on this fact, but not on whether it was a positive or a negative.

“What else does he do?” asked Nick.

“He has a really old car, and it’s nearly a hundred years old, and he plays the accordion, and he can swallow eggs,” Liam said. “And he’s an anarchist.”

“Cool,” said Nick.

“What’s that?” Lisa asked. The disapproval in her voice was palpable.

“It’s someone who thinks that we shouldn’t have a state.”

“What’s a state?”

“Like, the government,” Liam said, although his knowledge on the subject was beginning to fail him. “Like, you know, the police, and the— the Prime Minister, and the Queen. He said Margaret Thatcher is evil.”

“Well,” muttered Nick. “That’s just common sense.”

Yeah,” Liam said. “And he’s gay.”

“Is it cool to be gay?” Stephanie asked, raising her eyebrows.

“Yeah,” Liam said. “I think so.”

“Alright,” Stephanie said.

When they arrived at Mr Crowley’s greenhouse, Liam reached up, and knocked on the window pane, before he pushed back the sliding door and entered.

Mr Fell was lying on the sofa, and he didn’t stop reading aloud from the book in his hands as Liam and the other children walked in. “… corner of his mouth curved quite a quarter of an inch, and for a moment his eye ceased to look like a meditative fish’s.

From up on the walkways, Liam heard Crowley’s laugh echo against the ceiling panes.

“Hello, Liam,” Mr Fell said. “Oh, and you’ve brought some friends.”

“Hello, Mr Fell,” said Liam, and he watched Mr Crowley as he slithered backward from one of the walkways, hanging down by his ankles before he dropped down onto the floor. He landed on his feet, and Liam heard Nick and Stephanie let out twin, “Wow!”s. Lisa coughed politely.

“Hello,” Mr Crowley said. “Who’s this?”

“This is Lisa and Stephanie Turpin,” Liam said, “and this is Nick Bupley. And Nate Redcastle will come, too, but he’s sick.”

“Right,” Mr Crowley said. “Er, well. I’m… Anthony Crowley. And this is Ezra Fell.”

“Hello, children,” said Mr Fell.

“I’ve— Angel, I’ve told you, they don’t like it when you call them that.” Mr Fell frowned, and put a bookmark in the book that he’d been reading from, setting it down on the pile.

“We don’t,” Liam agreed.

“I’ll get you some cordial and perhaps some cake,” Mr Fell said. “Lovely to meet you. So glad that Anthony’s making friends his own age.”

“I’m going to burn all of your tweed.”

“Yes, dear, I’m sure,” said Mr Fell over his shoulder, and Crowley sighed, putting his hands on his hips, and then, reluctantly, he leaned forward and put out his hand.

“Stephanie Turpin?”

“Yes, Mr Crowley.”

“Right. Lisa Turpin?”

“Yes, Mr Crowley.”

“And Nick Bupley?”

“Yessir,” Nick said, not taking Crowley’s hand. “Liam says you’re an anarchist.”

“Yeah.”

“Right on,” Nick said, and put up his own palm for a high five.

Crowley beamed.

Two months after Mr Crowley and Mr Fell had moved to Chesterton-Burnleigh, Liam Buttersby returned home with a basket, which he put on the kitchen table. Mrs Buttersby frowned, and drew the cloth back.

Inside, there was a mix of things. There were three lemons, a tupperware container full of strawberries, six of Mr Crowley’s small cucumbers from one of the bush plants, and some yellow and red tomatoes.

“What… What’s this?”

“It’s from Mr Crowley’s greenhouse,” Liam said, yawning as he sat down at the kitchen table. He was reading a book about insects, but he was mostly admiring the plates, which had been delicately painted. Mr Fell had made him a copy of a book he already had, and let him have it. “He said I should bring some stuff home.”

“Mr Crowley?” Mrs Buttersby repeated. “When did you talk to him?”

“We were there today,” Liam said. “He was teaching us about how to plant coriander, and parsley. And you grow them in seed trays, and you keep them under the glass through the winter, because the frost kills the plants.”

Fred!” Mrs Buttersby said.

“Mm?” Dr Buttersby asked.

“Liam and his friends have been playing at Mr Crowley’s!”

“Oh, that’s nice,” Dr Buttersby said.

“No, it isn’t!”

Liam looked up from his book.

“Oh,” Dr Buttersby said. “Isn’t it?”

No. Get angry, Fred!”

Dr Buttersby sighed. “I’m sure there’s nothing untoward in it, Liz, it’s—”

Fred.”

Dr Buttersby closed his book. Liam closed his, too.

Dr Buttersby brought Liam and Mrs Buttersby with him, out to the Crowley-Fells’[6], and Liam stood on their patio with Mrs Buttersby’s hands on his shoulders as Dr Buttersby walked up to their door, and reluctantly knocked on their door.  

The door opened.

Mr Crowley stood in the doorway in a pair of boxers and a silk robe, without his sunglasses on, and when he saw the three of them, he immediately moved to tie his robe up, hiding the hard planes of his chest and the thick muscle on his thighs[7].

Hello?” he demanded.

“Is this how you dress when he’s here?” Dr Buttersby demanded, pointing back at Liam. Liam rolled his eyes.

“Is this how I dress to garden?” Crowley asked. “No, Dr Buttersby, it is not. This is how I dress to go to bed.”

“It’s five in the afternoon,” Dr Buttersby said.

“I wasn’t sleeping,” Mr Crowley said.

“What’s that me—”

“Adult things,” Mrs Buttersby and Mr Crowley said together.

Liam felt Mrs Buttersby stand up a bit straighter. Mrs Buttersby was looking at Mr Crowley with a little bit of new respect.

“What do you— What do you do? With the children?” Mrs Buttersby asked.

“Nothing,” Mr Crowley said. “Your son and his friends have been coming over and observing me at work on the garden or my car. Very inquiring minds. Ezra feeds them, if they hang about for long enough. I’ve told him it’s like feeding seagulls, and that they'll only come back, but there’s no point in it.”

“But Mr Fell only brings squash and snacks,” Liam said. “You always cook for us and—”

Shhh,” Mr Crowley said. “And like I said, nothing. They just hang around and ask questions. They listen to our records if we have them playing in the greenhouse. They borrow books from Ezra. That’s… about it. They just showed up. I didn’t go out looking for your children.”

“It’s educational, I suppose,” Dr Buttersby said.

“I guess,” Mr Crowley said, without enthusiasm.

“Keeps the children out of trouble,” Mrs Buttersby agreed.

“Right,” Mr Crowley said. “So… Are you two going to leave, or…?”

Dearest,” came Mr Fell’s voice from up the stairs, “come back to bed!”

Dr Buttersby turned very red in the face. Liam had never seen him blush before. Liam looked up at Mrs Buttersby, who had placed her hand over her mouth. This, he suspected, was more of these adult things.

“Anyway,” Mr Crowley said, slowly stepping back. “Bye…”

“Wait—” Mrs Buttersby said, and Mr Crowley stopped, looking at her suspiciously. “Er, there’s a village hall meeting. On Thursday. Hope you can make it, Anthony.”

“Right,” Mr Crowley said, but his lip twitched slightly. “Elizabeth. On Thursday. I’ll bring a cake. I’m going back to bed now.”

“Have fun,” said Dr Buttersby. Mr Crowley gave him a funny look, and then closed the door.

“You know,” said Mrs Buttersby, “he’s actually very nice. What’s that with his eyes?”

“Coloboma, looks like,” said Dr Buttersby. “Well, let’s go home!”

“So, my mum likes you, now,” Liam said.

“You’re saying it like it’s an accusation,” Mr Crowley said. “I don’t care for that.”

“She keeps asking me questions about you.”

“So?”

“I don’t know any of the answers.”

“So? Nor do I.”

“You don’t know the answers to questions about yourself?”

“I don’t know, Liam Buttersby: I don’t know the questions.”

Liam frowned.

“She said you were Mr Fell’s sugar glider.”

“Did she say sugar baby, in fact?”

“… Yeah.”

“I am not.”

“Okay. What is it?”

“Did you look it up in the dictionary?”

“It isn’t in the dictionary.”

“Oh, good. Go ask Ezra.”

“Will he know what it means?”

“That’s what I’m curious to find out.”

They turned to look at Mr Fell, who was sitting outside and speaking softly to a local cat, who was perched on his knees. Sitting around the patio, playing a board game that Mr Fell had pulled out of storage, were Liam’s friends. Nathaniel was, Liam suspected, winning.

Mr Crowley scowled at the cat. The expression was one that Liam had learned to interpret as jealousy.

“Okay,” Liam said.

“Good lad,” Mr Crowley said, and Liam went outside.

For just a moment, Mr Crowley looked after him, watching the way Mr Fell smiled at Liam as he came to sit down, watching the way the children laughed as Nathaniel won another round of the quiz game Aziraphale had dragged out.

He felt, in his chest, a sense of vague—

Warmth.

Not that he’d ever wanted to have children wander around his garden, asking questions or demanding information, or pointing at things and criticising them. But… In a way, it was nice. They were nice kids. Good kids.

Mr Crowley smiled to himself, leaned in, and whispered a dark threat to a lemon tree, before continuing about his work.

 

 

[1] Mr Crowley, when he and Mr Fell had arrived for the house viewing, had stood on the doorstep, laughed for about four minutes straight, and turned to ask their real estate agent, in order: how many acres is there for the garden? Did you say planning permission was included for an extension? When can we give you an offer?

[2] Liam had ignored this, and filled the birdbath with water anyway.

[3] Mr Crowley looked to be about twenty years younger than Mr Fell. One might note, with some sardonic dryness, that Mrs Buttersby was seventeen years younger than Dr Buttersby, but Mrs Buttersby would not grasp the relevance of this.

[4] Mr Fell’s hair was not grey, per se, but continuously made threats in that direction.

[5] Mr Fell had quite a lot of wrinkles, especially around his mouth and his eyes, the sort of thing that Dr Buttersby called laughter lines. He also had a big furrow in his forehead, from frowning.

[6] Mr Fell had gasped the first time Stephanie had proffered this double-barrelled version of their names, but Mr Crowley had laughed for five minutes straight and then given her another slice of angel food cake.

[7] Mr Fell had said that Mr Crowley was a gymnast, although Mr Crowley had demurred on this fact and then grabbed Mr Fell as he’d laughed.