Take Alvin Steele to a good garden centre and he will leave feeling like he’s glimpsed nirvana. He loved the orderliness of them; the vast array of seeds, the gritty wooden benches brimming with terracotta planters, the lively scent of fence paint and compost.
The acquisition of the Windermere proved more of a headache than Alvin would care to admit, especially to his wife. Beleaguered and badgered for the entirety of their first three weeks, he eventually promised to get out from under her feet and go and visit the local garden centre. He was skeptical as to its quality, if the other local businesses were anything to go by. Mustn’t grumble, he told himself in the car. It’ll be nice to pick out something cheerful for the window boxes.
It was while he was browsing the begonias that he saw her. The fairest thing he’d ever laid eyes upon. The love of his life. He was rendered quite speechless there in that grotty little aisle, staring openly at this tender, fragile thing, as muted as a winter landscape. Oh, that was a good one. Poetic. He'd have to write that down.
‘Can I help you, sir?’
The creature’s voice carried no colour or inflection. It was bored and vaguely disapproving. Alvin swallowed thickly, then grinned his largest grin. ‘Yes, if you could, er… where are your topsoils?’
‘We are standing next to them, sir,’ she said, indicating the pile of sacks beside them without taking her eyes off him.
‘Oh! Oh, of course. How silly of me.’ His cheeks started to ache.
‘Is there any other way I can assist you?’ prompted the girl, impatience causing a deep crease to settle between her eyebrows.
‘Yes,’ replied Alvin, a little too quickly. His heart was pounding. ‘Yes, in fact. How old are you?’
The eyebrows crept up a centimetre or two.
‘I'm sorry,’ he blustered, just as she opened her mouth to speak. ‘Terribly forward of me, I know, but I'm a curious sort of fellow, I'm odd, really, I'm-’
Alvin fell silent. He smiled again, but weakly. Twenty-five. Heavens above. This is no good, he told himself, no good at all. What are you doing, chasing around young girls at your age? And while you're married, too! You're old enough to be her father!
When he spoke again, his mind was already made up.
‘Would you like to join me for a coffee?’
The girl turned out to be a Judith. Judith. All the beautiful sounds of the world in a single word. ‘That's a lovely name,’ gushed Alvin. His teeth tinked painfully against the rim of his cup. ‘Suits you.’
Judith looked at him narrowly from across the garden centre cafe picnic table. They were outside on some chilly patio behind a greenhouse, and they were alone. A cigarette jutted from between two of her chewed pink fingertips. ‘Mr Steele-’
‘Please, call me Alvin,’ he simpered.
‘Alvin,’ she repeated, her dark eyes studying him from behind her enormous glasses. ‘What are we doing out here?’
Wrong-footed once more, he looked unsurely between their two cups. ‘Having coffee.’
‘But why are we.’ Her voice dropped, though there was still no-one around. The faintest blush crept into the slightly grimy snow-white of her cheeks. ‘Why did you ask me?’
‘Because my wife is a sexual deviant and it's taken over our lives. I eat, sleep and breathe bondage. I can't move for strap-ons and lubricants. I don't want to watch Gardeners' World on the sex swing anymore. I just want a normal sofa. I want tranquility. I need an escape.’
Judith withstood his tirade with barely a flicker across her pale face. A clump of ash dropped unchecked from the tip of her cigarette into her lap. ‘My parents are dead,’ she replied breathlessly. Alvin blinked. ‘My parents are dead and I was raised by my grandmother. I still live with her now. There's a cross in every room. Twelve cats. My only sex dreams are about Monty Don and the cruciform Jesus above my bed.’
A tense silence emerged in the wake of these revelations. They stared at one another for several uncertain moments. Judith’s chest rose and fell dramatically, her lips softly parted. The late afternoon shadows lent her a dangerous look that thrilled Alvin to the tips of his toes.
‘Closing time’s in fifteen minutes,’ she declared, standing suddenly and flicking away the remains of her cigarette. ‘Wait for me by the greenhouse door.’
Alvin barely slept that night, because any moment spent asleep would have been a moment not recalling every wonderful last detail of his afternoon with Judith.
She reappeared promptly at five o’clock with a hefty bunch of keys in her hand. ‘This way,’ was all she said, and led him into the greenhouse.
He never wanted to forget the smell that filled his nostrils that day, that sharp, green smell of the leaves and the wet soil and the dripping glass all around them. Her hair smelled of it, too, and her skin. His hands shook so much she had to unbutton her blouse for him. She wasn’t wearing a bra. They spent a brief ten minutes locked in a frantic, sweaty embrace, her thin stockinged leg jutting absurdly over the crook of his elbow as he fumbled about under her skirt with one hand and groped clumsily at the underdeveloped peak of her breast with the other. They grappled until both of their glasses were too fogged to see out of.
When it was over Judith clambered down from the lip of the potting table and refastened her blouse over the glinting cross that dangled round her neck. ‘Thanks for that,’ she said at last, plucking her knickers off of a nearby branch.
‘When can I see you again?’ wheezed Alvin. He'd only gone and left his blasted inhaler at home.
‘I'm here every day except Wednesdays and Sundays. Those are my days off.’
‘May I see you Wednesday?’
‘I'm afraid I can't. That's the day I take granny shopping. Then we dust the bibles.’
Judith squinted up at him. She was polishing her lenses. ‘Church.’
‘You are our valued customer, Mr Steele,’ she interrupted, and posted her glasses sharply back onto the bridge of her nose. Her features rearranged themselves into their usual mask of detachment, the only anomaly being the faintest vixenish twist lingering at the corner of her mouth. ‘Do come again.’
Alvin groaned inwardly. Dash it all. He'd gladly trade in these silk sheets and phallic table lamps for a pretty cottage in a quaint village somewhere in Kent. Judith could sit on the lawn and read books and drink lemonade. He could just picture her there, grey and smiling amongst a dazzling riot of sweetpeas and dahlias. Emotion pricked the corners of his eyes. ‘I love you,’ he whispered, his heart heavy with longing. His wife let out a rasping, explosive snore beside him.
So be it. He'd drink awful coffee until his bladder exploded. He’d live with twigs in his hair and soil in his nails if it meant being with Judith. He couldn't move at home for hoes and hanging baskets, which his wife complained about loudly and often, but he no longer cared. Judith took his overtures in her stride, handling it all with the same detached, faintly annoyed air that she used for everything else; that was, until closing time.
He asked her to run away with him after a particularly steamy tryst one afternoon. He said it as he quietly admired her handprints smeared through the algae on the greenhouse glass. Judith was examining a rip in the back of her skirt. ‘I hate this place,’ he said. ‘I don't know why I agreed to come here.’
‘Leave?’ said Judith suddenly in a small voice, staring at him wide-eyed over her shoulder. ‘But I was born here.’
‘But you can't like it, surely? A girl like you, so full of passion.’
Judith seemed pleased by this evaluation, but it quickly faded. ‘I can't abandon granny,’ she said reproachfully.
Oh, hang granny, thought Alvin bitterly, then hastily admonished himself. ‘I know,’ he replied glumly.
He started amassing holiday brochures. First for picturesque English villages, then for the South of France, then for adventurous excursions in Borneo and Brazil. One of these places must appeal to her, he thought desperately. If she doesn’t want tea with the vicar she can have jungles. We’ll collect rare cuttings and keep journals on exotic fauna. We won’t even need clothes.
Thus armed, he set about discreetly packing a suitcase. Sunny remained oblivious; she had a gimp suit convention coming up, after all.
That Saturday he raced to the garden centre, his heart in his throat. He was already wearing his sun hat and shorts, trailing brochure clippings as he rushed through the water features and peered over geraniums, looking for Judith. Where was she? He stopped a young male assistant after a period of frantic searching. ‘Where’s Miss Buckle? The girl that works here?’
‘She didn’t come in today, sir,’ he answered slowly, visibly alarmed by his urgency.
Alvin let go of him. ‘Impossible,’ he hissed. ‘She’s always here.’
The man shrugged apologetically and went back to sweeping.
Sunday was hell, pure hell. He didn’t even stop to give his wife an excuse when he bolted out the door on Monday morning and floored it through the town.
Judith was there, stood with her back to him as she rearranged a display of ferns in a shadowy corner of the greenhouse.
‘Excuse me, miss,’ he said smoothly, though he was barely able to contain his excitement. ‘My carrot has a case of soft-rot. What would you suggest?’
Judith didn’t answer. She didn’t even turn around.
Alvin approached her slowly, pushing aside trailing vines and enormous, waxy leaves. ‘Would you say that my soil needs to be… oxygenated?’
She looked at him, then, facing him blankly through the lank brown curtain of her hair. He stopped, unnerved by her deep, ashen silence. After a time, she spoke.
Alvin’s stomach plummeted to the floor. ‘Oh,’ he murmured. ‘Judith… Judith, I’m so sorry.’
She entered his arms without protest, even though she disliked overt displays of affection this side of working hours. He stroked her hair, a muddied, trampled page from Your Guide to Taming the Amazon clutched against her back. He tried to arrange an appropriate speech in his mind. Darling, the flight is at noon. No, come as you are. You'll look devastating in a grass skirt.
‘She’s all I had,’ Judith said with a sigh. Her eyes were dry. ‘But it’s a comfort to know I won’t ever leave this place. It's the only home I’ve ever known.’
Alvin’s speech fell apart. She looked up at him. ‘You’ll stay with me, won’t you? Promise you’ll be with me always.’
The suitcase was still in the boot of the car. He’d have to go back to the dungeon in the wine-cellar. The lingering stink of latex. ‘But our children will love the monkeys,’ he said, his composure wilting faster than he had anticipated. Tears ran into his neck brace.
Judith’s nose wrinkled. ‘What?’
‘I mean, ah-’ - he began wiping his eyes with the corner of the brochure page. ‘O-of course. When is the funeral?’
Her smile emerged tentatively, like pale sunlight through snowclouds. ‘I do love you, Alvin Steele.’