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Leaf On A Breeze

 
h3=. Leaf on a Breeze

By Irene Davidson

 

Shakespir Edition, License Notes

Thank you for downloading this ebook. This book remains the copyrighted property of

the author, and may not be redistributed to others for commercial or non-commercial

purposes. If you enjoyed this book, please encourage your friends to download their own

copy from their favourite authorized retailer. Thank you for your support.

 

Copyright © 2017 by Adrienne Irene Oaks

 

This is a work of fiction. All characters, organisations and events portrayed in this novel are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.

 

To my readers:

 

Hello and thanks very much for reading my book. If you enjoy it, I am shamelessly trolling for good ratings and reviews so PLEASE leave a review (just rating stars or a one-line review comment will suffice if you’re not in the mood to write …and I would really appreciate you not including plot-spoilers).

 

Thanks again.

 

Irene Davidson

 

 

Table of Contents

Prologue – Jack in the Green

One – on the road again

Two – pub music

Three – piping the bride

Four – my cara mia

Five – riding a bike

Six – (not) a dinner date

Seven- early start

Eight – breakfast of champions

Nine – nursery tour

Ten – all in a day’s morning’s work

Eleven – babe in the woods

Twelve – may day merriment

Thirteen – bound together

Fourteen – strip the willow

Fifteen – burn the knotweed

Sixteen – aye aye Cap’n

Seventeen – the green man

Eighteen – wind-blown leaf

Nineteen – almost famous

Twenty – a heartless attack

Twenty-One – heart of the matter

Twenty-Two – on the run (again)

Twenty-Three – a pre-proposal

Twenty-four – the alt-Glastonbury

Twenty-five – your children all gone

Interim

Twenty-six – a snowball

Epilogue – a promise

About the Author

Other titles by Irene Davidson

Connect with Irene Davidson

Acknowledgements

A sample of Irene’s next title: A Good Read

 

Dedication

My Nanna, my Mum and my Dad,

…generations of gardeners who passed a love of plants to me.

 

Leaflets five,

Let them thrive!

Leaflets three,

Turn and flee!

Children’s rhyme, various

Prologue

Jack-in-the-Green

In the wee small hours of the morning, Jack was busy in the garden. He had no time for sleep. Sleep was for pansies and weaklings and he was neither.

He stopped at the entrance to the orchard and took a moment to glance down at his hands, marvelling at his rejuvenated appearance. Having grown accustomed to his changed state these past years, he found this new self so much better than his previous form. It was a convenient bonus that his body required little rest as he felt that he did his best work under cover of darkness and while others were abed.

Where once he had been flesh and blood, in outward looks if not innermost attitude much like all the other folk in the woods, since his reincarnation, he was more plant than man. Should he cut himself now, green sap would run from his veins and instead of skin, he was covered with a tightly woven thatch of vines and leaves.

He did not mind the constant wakefulness, believing that it set him apart as someone special, someone different from the others -particularly that useless sleeping sylph, Liana. She who had frittered away lifetime after lifetime, dozing when she should have been establishing her kingdom. Well, he was better than she was. Much better. More exalted and of greater importance than any of the beings that dwelt either in the woods or beyond its fringes. As an added advantage, while Liana and the woodland folk dreamed, he could get up to all sorts of mischief unnoticed.

This was precisely what he was doing.

He had been looking forward to an opportunity to show off his new skills -and tonight was his night to perform a little trick that he had been practicing and perfecting for weeks.

Laying a hand on a branch of one of the most venerable of the orchard’s roses, he concentrated all his energy on encouraging the growth of the vine, willing the poison ivy that made up much of his torso and limbs to creep along and around the barbed stalk of the old rose. The thorns did not bother him at all and as the tendrils twined round each successive twiglet, he could feel his grip on the rambler growing, slowly choking life out of the stem. He applied greater pressure, squeezing incrementally until the one shoot was all but severed from the rest of the bush.

He took a deep breath, enjoying the moment. It was an undeniably heady feeling, extinguishing life, even at this level. Not that this was the first time he had taken a life, but that had been many, many years ago when he’d had an altogether different form. Watching the healthy green leaves of the rosebush turn to sickly yellow he felt a spasm akin to something exquisitely orgasmic, the waves of unadulterated pleasure increasing in amplitude as the silky petals from the flowering blooms dropped lifelessly to the ground.

Jack was well pleased …while he reluctantly acknowledged that he could not yet kill the entire plant but his abilities were growing. Slower than he’d like but nevertheless improving with each passing day. The time was growing nearer, he was sure, when he could usurp control from Liana and take up the mantel as Master over the Garden.

Much like a certain serpent in Eden, he was intent on spreading his particular brand of evil and malice with whatever authority he could obtain, sure that once he held sway in the stead of Liana and her cohorts that he would be able to move beyond the garden’s boundaries to bloom to his full deadly potential.

His thirst to hurt and harm assuaged, Green Jack unconcernedly strode away from the sickly plant. He allowed himself the remainder of the night to indulge in his favourite activity of sneaking around and spying on others as they dozed. Then spent the day happily hidden in his lair –a huge old behemoth of an oak that grew on the western periphery of the garden’s borders, close by a field that had once been set aside for travelling folk. These days it was a spot seldom visited by humans or the woodland fey and since his reawakening, he had made it his own. That the once-healthy tree was dying by degrees from his constant ministrations was of little consequence to Jack. To him it was nothing more than a convenient place to perch and practice his sinister skills.

Venturing out the next evening, he was distraught when he returned to the moonlit orchard - intent on gloating over his small victory- to find to his extreme displeasure that Liana must have passed by during the daylight hours. It had to be her …she was the only being in the garden with the power to undo his work. It appeared that the interfering sylph had healed the ancient bush, putting to rights his hard-won display of prowess and the old rose now stood whole and healthy once more.

Aggravated, Jack kicked the thorny bush with his ivy-bound foot, doing little damage to either, before he turned and stalked off into the shadows of the trees that edged the orchard. Knowing that he had greater power towards the margins of the garden’s domain than here in the centre he thought that perhaps he would head to the nursery on the far fringes of the woods where he could do harm that might stand a chance of remaining beyond the morrow. The nursery was a later addition that had been cultivated within the confines of the garden’s old walls during the years he had been …indisposed. Aside from the church and White Briars cottage, it was the one place he could safely venture. He was still unable to cross beyond the old walls. His last attempt to scale the stone barrier that marked the garden’s boundary had ended with the usual embarrassing result of him being catapulted head-over-heels back into the garden.

He refused to think about that. He shrugged, causing the leaves across his shoulders to rustle. He liked the sound so much that he shook his head a few times, creating a rippling effect in the green mantle that made up his head and torso.

Instead, he decided, he would have some fun and continue practising out of Liana’s sight. No point wasting his precious efforts working here in the heart of the garden if there was the likelihood that she would stumble upon his little displays. He had thought her too encumbered with that little brat she had borne to the human to notice his handiwork but it appeared she was still maintaining a level of vigilance in the garden spaces closest to the cottage.

Smiling meanly, he decided that this small reversal was of little import, he had plenty with which to keep himself occupied.

Whistling impatiently for his lieutenants to follow, he disappeared into the shadows of the woods.

The pair of foxes that were his most constant companions slunk along, obediently if not entirely happily, in his wake.

One

on the road again

As she panted her way along the quiet lane, Sara was pleased to see the hawthorn was in full-flower and hear the rhythmic song of a yellowhammer trilling it’s familiar ‘a little bit of bread with no cheeeese’ call. The warm spring morning had brought out all manner of birds, butterflies and flying insects to flit among the hedgerow blooms. Turning her head in the direction of the bursts of sound, she spotted the bright feathers of the songster perched in the top branches of the bushes as she ambled by.

Although the lane was edged with trees in full leaf, they were doing little to alleviate the heat reflecting off the black asphalt surface of the roadway. Feeling both the warmth and the effects of every single day that she had put off jogging for the past three weeks, Sara unzipped her long-sleeved jacket, pulled it off and tied it around her waist. Barely breaking stride, she puffed her way up the bends of the quiet lane that twisted its way out of the village up towards White Briars’ main entranceway. Having run this way countless times over the years the route was as familiar to her as her own back yard, but familiarity, she thought wryly, did nothing to alleviate the symptoms of weeks without regular exercise. She felt sure that some malign deity had visited the hill in her absence and made the gradient steeper. It certainly felt that way.

As she approached the final and steepest bend of the incline, she could feel her lungs burning and her energy levels sapping. Only fierce determination and iron willpower were keeping her from slowing to a walk.

Following her usual self-motivational routine she had started at the base of hill with “I know I can, I know I can.” This chant normally got her all the way up to the final bend but today, at no more than a third of the way, the words had changed into “…I think I can, I think I can,” altering around half-way to a breathless “…I hope I can, I hope I can,” which had taken her to the final third. Now the hopeful words of The Little Engine That Could became slower and more laboured with each passing footfall. She could barely get the short syllables out at all now, “I’m gonna die, I’m. Gonna. Die,” she uttered the words in rasping gasps as her breathing became increasingly ragged.

Head drooping tiredly, she spied the recognisable slight hump in the cracked asphalt that signified her torture was nearing an end. Heartened by the sight, she put on a last brave spurt to arrive triumphantly at the grassy knoll of the top of the rise, arms raised akimbo like a long-distance runner crossing the final tape. She collapsed in an untidy heap upon the fragrant primrose-strewn grass growing on the verge outside the gateway of what Thornden villagers had always referred to as the gypsy encampment. Growing up and living nearby most of her life, Sara had yet to see any gypsies ‘encamped’ in the space, but the field still retained the title as a remnant from some bygone era when she supposed people were less attached to their mortgages and roamed the countryside more freely. A nice romantic notion, she thought, but not for real people like her.

The light changed abruptly. The sun must have gone behind a cloud –without its heat, she felt instantly cooler. Breathing hard and semi-alert, Sara opened her eyes to narrow slits, wiping sweat away from her brow using the hem of her sleeveless sports top before shielding her eyes with the back of one hand. It was not a cloud that had blocked the sun; instead, long faded blue jeans-clad legs and sturdy boots that obviously belonged to the male of the species now obstructed her view.

Oh yay, she thought sourly, always good to have an audience at moments like this. Adding to her mortification, especially when she had just bared her stomach and her brightly coloured jogging bra to whoever was standing over her. “Oh please let that be Hamish or someone I know and not some total stranger,” she moaned quietly between gasps, her chest heaving in efforts to regain a tolerable level of oxygen.

“Sorry to disappoint.” The low, amused tones of the male voice that responded did not sound at all like that of her next-door-neighbour. “I heard you coming up the lane. Couldn’t help but, with the almighty din you were making.” The voice stopped -Sara wished he would have the decency to leave but moments later he continued, “So, what are you then? The little engine that ran out of steam?”

“Oh, verrry funny,” she said between gasps, thinking, trust me to find the joker in the pack in my wakened state. “No, I’m the infrequent jogger that’s dying here,” she wheezed. “So. Kindly. Go. Away. …and let me croak in peace.” She managed the last on one breath, before another deeply indrawn gulp of air. Her lungs were still not filling with sufficient oxygen to make any headway to normal breathing.

“That bad, aye? Well, it’s like this …sorry for the inconvenience but I was here first so if anyone’s leaving, it should be you.” He looked her over, liking what he saw. Her petite body was clad in little more than brief form-fitting shorts and a tiny tank. A light-weight, long-sleeved top she’d obviously jettisoned that was now tied low on her hips and a neon green sports bra -which she’d given him a good eyeful of when she had pulled up the thin-strapped cotton tank to mop her brow. The entire outfit, obviously intended for exercise, had the additional benefit, in his humble opinion, of leaving exposed lithe limbs lightly tanned from the unseasonal sun.

He completed his perusal as she opened her eyes. “You don’t look in that bad a shape to me but if you’re really dying, as you say you are, perhaps I should offer you your final rites before you go.” From the rattling sounds he’d heard coming up the rise, he’d been a smidgeon concerned that she might have suffered from asthma but it seemed his concern wasn’t warranted. She was merely, although quite badly, out of breath. He was considerably relieved.

“Gee thanks,” she responded dryly. Recovering a little, chest still heaving (he noted appreciatively) she sat up and leaned back on her outstretched arms. Even through half-closed lashes, she’d seen him brazenly checking her out and now openly returned the gesture.

Not too shabby, she thought. Bit over average height. Late twenties, early thirties tops. Built. Buff. That much was abundantly obvious even at first glance. He must have removed his shirt in the heat, as he was bare from the waist up. Now, faded jeans rode low on narrow hips exposing very respectable abs. He was holding what looked a lot like a horse brush in one hand. She briefly wondered why until, belatedly, she noticed a sturdy piebald-coloured horse tethered and cropping on the roadside grass behind him.

Her eyes travelled upwards, continuing her inspection. Untidy ash-blond hair that could stand trim, sunglasses pushed up over his brow, perched among his tousled locks. Despite the bright light haloing his head he didn’t look particularly ecclesiastical to her and she couldn’t make out his eyes or any other facial details that might have given her a feel for whether he might be a danger to her or not. Still, other than using the horse-brush as a potential weapon, he appeared harmless enough so she made an uncharacteristically spontaneous decision to play along with his offer. It certainly made for an interesting change in pick-up lines, assuming that’s what he’d intended.

“Might not be such a bad idea, the way I feel right now,” she replied, matching his lightly flippant tone and adopting a cringingly bad Irish accent. “Okay, here goes nuttin’ …Bless me Father, for I have sinned. It’s been way too many weeks since me last run and I’m terribly worried I’m about to expire right here, unpardoned for not exercising regularly.”

He couldn’t help but laugh, as he made the sign of the cross with his right hand. “I’m sure your sins are forgiven, my child. Go …and jog in peace.” Absolution complete, he stood there, contemplating her still-prone form, “There, that wasn’t so bad, was it? Now, are you heading towards the light?” he questioned drolly.

“No, but if you’d move out of my sunlight, I might improve my tan,” her tart reply was accompanied by a wave of her hand as she signalled for him to step aside. “And I’m fairly sure that the sign of the cross is not given with two fingers making the peace sign,” she added drolly.

He shrugged. “That’s what you get worshipping at the Church of the Winded Hippy.”

She groaned and fell back.

He laughed again.

It was a nice sound, she thought. Not that she was planning to tell him that anytime soon.

“How about I give you a hand up instead,” he held out the hand holding the brush, “oops, forgot I was grooming Cara when you came along doing your Puffing Billy impression,” he dropped the hand and proffered his other.

Taking affront, Sara ignored his offer and heaved herself to her feet. “I did not sound like Puffing Billy. …whoever he is,” she declared hotly.

“Alright then …perhaps it’s Panting Patty? Gasping Gertie? Winded Wilma?” he retorted, abruptly turning his back on her, as he picked up where he’d left off when she come huffing and puffing into view. “Take your pick. I don’t mind whichever you choose.” He unconcernedly continued brushing the horse’s back in long strokes from withers to tail. “When we heard you coming up the hill, Cara and me were thinking we’d have to throw you over her back and get you to the closest emergency room and an oxygen mask.”

From his comment, Sara assumed Cara must have been the mare’s name. She could see Cara’s soft black ears twitching back and forth, seemingly listening in on the conversation as she grazed contentedly.

Sara was in two minds whether to walk away, –she would have run, but her legs didn’t feel quite up to it yet and she didn’t need the added embarrassment of an incipient case of rubber-legs-, or accept the down-thrown gauntlet of this stranger’s insults. So much for thinking he might be a danger to her and she’d have to fight him off, she thought sourly, though somewhere among those self-same thoughts was the acknowledgement that he had a very nicely toned back to go with those ripped abs. Not that she was looking, much.

She strolled over and laid a hand on the horse’s neck, patting her smooth, warm coat before finger combing the long strands of mane. “It’s none of those. I’m short-of-breath Sara, if you must know. And you?” she tilted her head to one side, as if considering, “Belligerent Bertie? Grumpy Greg? Insulting Ivan?”

“Ha, ha. Good return. The way you lobbed that back at me, you should be on centre court at Wimbledon.” He stopped brushing and looked over the mare’s wide back at her, “You’re surprisingly close. Though I’d watch the adjectives if I were you. I’d much prefer Gypsy Greg to grumpy, if you don’t mind.” His tone altered to one of gentle remonstration, “And, for your information, if you must know, I wasn’t so much ‘grumpy’ as I was a tad worried you might have been having an asthma attack or something similar. I have a sister who almost died once when she left her inhaler at home and we were out in the middle of nowhere, trekking in the Kimberleys a few years ago. So the grumpy was more relief that you were merely out of breath and nothing worse.”

“Okay,” she nodded in understanding. If she was feeling a mite sorry she’d taken umbrage she wasn’t letting on. Instead, she picked up on his earlier statement. “Gypsy Greg?”

“Horse,” he spoke succinctly, indicating the solid mare he’d been brushing. “Caravan,” he twisted slightly and pointed across to far side of the field where a brightly painted barrel-topped wagon was nestled in the shade under a huge old oak abutting the woodland margin, “Me,” he tapped his chest, “equals gypsy. Well, for this summer at least. I’m sort of trying the lifestyle on for size to see how well it fits.”

Sara had turned in the direction of his outstretched hand, taking in the sight of the wagon. At long last there was a bona vide gypsy wagon in the gypsy camp.

“Wow,” she muttered. She wasn’t too sure whether she was impressed or not and could think of nothing better to say.

So he was ‘trying on’ the gypsy lifestyle. Nice work if you could get it, she supposed.

There had been a time in her life, years ago, when she would have liked nothing more than taking off from what she had thought of as her humdrum existence and living free, travelling the road and flitting wherever whimsy might take her. But that time was long gone and nothing more than a dim, distant memory. These days, she was a responsible mother and a successful businesswoman, with multiple demands on her time and a gypsy life was the stuff of daydreams. Still not entirely sure how to respond, she decided to steer the conversation into smoother waters, “You said something about the Kimberleys. That’s in Australia isn’t it? Way out west, so to speak? So are you from there? Australia? You don’t sound particularly Australian, if you don’t mind me saying so.”

“Don’t mind at all. I’ve spent a number of years in Asia and Europe so the accent has worn off some around the edges. But I can do ‘strine’ when I want to, mate.” He added a strongly nasal twang and a high rising terminal to the last words as if to prove his point.

She flinched, rubbing one ear. “Ouch. That’s okay. I believe you. You’re Australian.”

“Yep, Aussie through and through, mate, but thrilled to bits that a bonzer sheila like you believes me,” he laid it on thick, but his wide grin took the sting off the words.

“So what made you leave home and come half way round the world to ye olde southern England?” She was curious. It seemed these days that a substantial portion of the population of the British Isles was keen to fly in the opposite direction, drawn by the promise of long hot summers and intent on re-creating their version of Summer Bay or Ramsay Street.

His reply showed her that he was aware of the British penchant for Aussie soaps. “Well, it’s like this. I got turned down for lead roles in Neighbours and Home and Away and I was a mite tired of checking for Redbacks on the toilet seat.” At her taken-aback expression, he snorted with laughter, causing Cara to raise her head and flick her ears in response. He laid a hand on the mare’s neck to calm her and she went back to grazing. “Nah, not really. Can’t stand soapy dramas and I was brought up in suburban Perth where you’re more likely to be in danger from someone driving their big-ass SUV through your front garden than you are from the local wildlife.” He shrugged nonchalantly, “I guess I left home and ventured over here to earn my fame and fortune as a musician. Haven’t quite managed either yet, but I’m enjoying the journey and the scenery on my way.”

He did not add just how much he had enjoyed the scenery of her lounging on the grass at his front gate. Instead, he quit brushing to inspect a hoof, running his hand down the mare’s feathered leg and clicking his tongue to signal that he wanted Cara to pick up her foot. He tugged a hoof pick out of his back pocket and cleaned the underside with practised skill. Once done, he replaced the hoof on the ground to pick up and clean the next.

Sara admired the speed and ease with which he accomplished this. As someone with considerably more affinity with plants than animals, she had always admired those who had expertise with the animal kingdom. Generally, she drew the line at the pigeons she bred for sale at the nursery but having acquainted herself with Liana and Hamish’s greyhound, Doug these past two years, she and her son, Matthew had been discussing choosing a dog for themselves. So far, they’d not progressed beyond debating breed and gender. They were still undecided but had plans to visit the local rescue kennels in the coming fortnight to check out likely candidates.

Greg patted the horse’s wide rump. He pulled a metal tether peg from the ground and started making for the open field gate. “Don’t suppose you want to come over and see the place for yourself?” he asked, nodding in the direction of the wagon.

 

 

“Ahh,” Sara prevaricated, “rain check …perhaps another time,” she glanced at her watch, “I have to be back at work in half an hour and I’m barely going to make it as it is.” She knew she would have to forego a post-run shower until later in the evening and make do with a hurried wash if she wanted to be back behind the counter in time to let her newest staff member take a lunch break.

“Working for the man,” Greg commiserated.

Sara didn’t bother to enlighten him that being self-employed; the only ‘man’ she worked for was herself. However, in the words of the song, and leaning more towards Tina Turner than Roy Orbison, she acknowledged that she laboured every daylight hour that was available to her and often long into the night. This was the reason that she’d gone so many weeks without running. There just weren’t enough hours in a day for exercise when an infinite number of things were constantly vying for her finite time and attention.

She sighed, “Yeah, something like that.” Reluctantly, she turned back to the road.

“Perhaps I’ll see you around,” Greg said by way of farewell, his tone hopeful.

“Guess it depends how long you stay.” Gypsies, by nature, she thought did not remain in any one place for long. She was prepared to be unsurprised should the field be empty the next time she ran past its gate, whenever that might be.

“I’m not going anywhere. Not just yet, anyway.” He smiled, showing a nice set of deep dimples either side of his lips, as he slipped the sunglasses down over eyes, which she had noticed on closer inspection were a shade of what she had instantly christened ‘wolf grey’. The effect was emphasised even more by tiny flecks of gold glinting around the irises. His nose, she’d also noted looked as if it had been broken at some earlier time and set rather badly; it had a slight kink along the bridge that gave him a devil-may-care appearance. Not a bad thing on that face, she had decided. Excessive perfection got a bit stale after a while and he might have been too pretty without the added fault.

“I have some gigs nearby so might be hereabouts for a week or two, or more. Depends how things work out.”

He seemed unconcerned that his life was not planned any more than two weeks in advance. Sara couldn’t imagine how that might feel. Her planning calendar was packed full to the brim from now until mid-autumn, when things might, or might not quieten down a little before the Christmas rush.

“Oh well, it was nice to meet you, gypsy Greg. But I’ve really gotta go,” there seemed little point in continuing the conversation. It was unlikely their world’s would collide again unless she ran this way in the coming fortnight and the way things were at the nursery she doubted there would another hour free in that time to allow her to get away for exercise. She was also so late now that she would have to clamber over the wall at White Briars main gate and take the shorter woodland route back to work instead of the longer way around the lanes. She turned back to the road.

He watched as she trotted off down the gently sloping asphalt, set between high hedgerows, half wishing he’d asked for her phone number. She had a smooth running style, he noted, with long strides for such a petite woman …and a very watchable backside in those tiny shorts, he thought appreciatively.

Well, Cara mia, what do you think? She wasn’t too ugly, girl, aye what? But no worries babe, you’re still my first love,” he chatted amiably to the horse, his arm looped comfortably over her neck as they ambled back in the direction of the van.

Two

pub music

The musician dipped his head in acknowledgement of the crowd’s applause before setting aside his mandolin and reaching to pick up the water glass that Seamus, the Thornden Arms’ portly publican had kindly placed beside him. He took a long drink, easing his parched throat. It was dry work, singing and playing for an hour and a half at a stretch and he was overdue a rest, but the crowd had been enthusiastic in their response to his music and he hadn’t liked to stop.

 

 

He sat the glass down on the tiny stage, “Last one before the break,” he announced, to a chorus of disappointed catcalls. Settling himself on a stool before a mid-sized harp, he fingered a few experimental glissandos as he added, “this is a number you may have heard played by Breton master-harper Alan Stivell, a renowned Celtic-harpist and a profound influence on my music.” There were nods from a few heads at the mention of the name. From this and the response he’d had to his playing, Greg had already surmised he had a knowledgeable audience. He continued the introduction, “It’s something of a musical journey across the Gaelic lands of Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man. Since I first heard it in a pub on the Isle of Skye, it seems entirely appropriate to play it here for you this evening in this auspicious establishment. He waved a hand to indicate the pub before positioning his hands either side of the harps’ strings, plucking the first notes. “I hope you’ll like it.”

More than a few of the pub’s patrons were obviously familiar with the music; -at the opening bars there was a considerable smattering of applause and the whoops and catcalls returned to an encouragingly enthusiastic level. Smiling briefly, Greg concentrated on his fingering, aware that the Celtic harp was a tricky beast to play and would require his undivided attention.

The piece was long and he was into the final bars when the inner door to the bar opened to admit a face he recognised. It was Sara, dressed this evening in considerably more items of clothing than on their first encounter two days before. Greg tried not to feel disappointed; jogging attire was hardly suitable for a night out at the local watering hole but a man couldn’t be chastised for wishing otherwise, he reasoned. Not that she had exactly glammed-up for a Friday night outing at the Thornden Arms pub. She was wearing black skinny jeans, a dark hoodie and bright pink Doc Martens. With her spikey blond, lime-green tipped hair she could have been easily mistaken for a teenager. The look suited her, he decided, as his eyes followed her lissom form.

Focused on finding her friends, Sara hadn’t turned her head in his direction and appeared not to have noticed who was providing the music, although she nodded her head in time with his playing as she walked. Mindful of the composition, he kept half an eye on her and half on his harping as she wended her way carefully and with studied concentration through the crowded room to a table in the far corner. There, a group of people who obviously knew her well, stood and greeted her with the close but casual familiarity of hugs and kisses before shuffling chairs this way and that to make room. She sat with her back half-turned away from him. It appeared as if she had been expected as a large glass of orange juice had already been placed on the table before her. After a moment she lifted the full glass to her lips.

The song ended just as she replaced her glass on the tabletop and was reaching to snag a chip from a basketful in the centre of the table. Claps, whoops and stomping feet erupted from the other patrons in appreciation. One hand steadying the harp, Greg stood and sketched a quick bow as Sara turned her head to see who all the fuss was about. He noted the moue of surprise on her elfin features as she recognised him and the widening of those bright lavender-blue eyes. Belatedly, she stuffed the chip into her mouth, put her hands together and clapped politely along with the rest of the audience. Greg shot her a smile, quirking an eyebrow at her underwhelming gesture and she responded with a guilty grin, raising her hands to clap louder, swallowing the chip and adding her whoops to the rest. He laughed and stretched out his hands to give another bow, before taking a step backwards and retreating towards the bar. To the chorus of disgruntled sounds, he called cheerily, “Have a heart! The muso needs a beer! I’ll be back in twenty minutes if you can stay around that long.” The crowd yahooed their approval and the din died to more normal level as they returned to their own drinks and conversations.

After a bit of back-slapping and polite conversation from an appreciative fan who insisted upon buying him a beer, Greg turned to survey the pub clientele. It had been a while since he’d played a pub but he liked doing these gigs- it kept the music real.

Inevitably, his gaze was drawn to the corner table. Sara was staring in his direction and as their eyes made contact she waved a hand to indicate that he should come on over.

Protecting his still-full glass from stray elbows with his free hand, Greg arrowed his way through the press of patrons closest to the bar then did a sort of slow slalom through the crowds of those seated at tables, arriving with most of his drink intact at the far corner.

“Hello again,” he greeted Sara.

“Hi,” she replied. “My friends would like to meet you.”

‘My friends’, he noticed, not ‘me’. He couldn’t help the tiny twinge of disappointment at the words -he’d thought he had made a little progress with her at their first meet but now was not so sure.

Greg glanced around the crowded table. A startlingly beautiful Titian-haired woman who was the goddess to Sara’s pixie sat on the banquette seat cuddling a pretty dark-haired infant on her lap. Beside her, with one arm stretched along the backrest in a manner that denoted both love and protection was a man who had to be the child’s father, the resemblance was so strong. Next to him sat a white-haired elderly gentleman. Greg noted gnarled old hands, blue veined and sun-spotted, with enlarged knuckles that suggested osteoarthritis resting on his knees. But the eyes that surveyed him from under shocking white brows were piercing and evaluating, giving him a studied once-over. Not sure why, Greg smiled pleasantly back before continuing his cursory perusal of the table’s occupants. Another couple with two children: a girl of nine or ten and a boy who might have been somewhere between five and seven, also snuggling on his mother’s lap, made up the remainder of the group.

Sara began introductions, “Greg, this is Liana and Betony McAllister.” The goddess spoke a greeting in a beautifully musical voice and little girl smiled shyly, gazing up at Greg with gorgeous lavender-blue eyes that were, he thought, interestingly, the exact shade as Sara’s. It was not difficult to foresee that when she grew up this child was going to be a looker like her mother, Greg predicted. “…and Liana’s husband Hamish; good friends of mine.” Hamish smiled and nodded hello, holding out a hand to shake. Greg leaned across to acknowledge the greeting. “And that’s my Dad next to Hamish,”

“Arffur Blaine,” the old man held out a gnarled paw, “pleased to meet ya.” Greg shook it, wincing slightly at the firm handshake. “Damn fine music you were playin’ there son.”

“Thank you Arthur. Glad you liked it.” Greg covertly massaged his hand, hoping his fingers would recover before he played the next set.

Sara cleared her throat and continued the introductions. “Oh and here’s couple of your fellow countrymen, countrywomen, oh, whatever. Meet Steve and Linda, and their children Alison and Jamie.

“Gidday mate,” Steve rose to shake Greg’s hand across the glass-strewn table while Linda remained sitting and gave a small wave.

“Uh, hi,” Greg replied. He was never quite comfortable meeting other Australians –people tended to act as if they should know one another, not comprehending just how expansive the country was.

“So, where’re you from?” Steve queried, frowning. “I can’t place ya but you look kind of familiar.”

“Nah, you won’t know me. I’m from Perth originally, but pretty much all over the place for the last ten years or so,” Greg replied noncommittally.

“Hmm, never been there …couldn’t see the point of going so far.” Steve turned to explain to the others, “Perth’s pretty much the most isolated city in the world. They act like they’re a separate country from the rest of us way over there,” he commented, smiling to take the sting from the words. Greg wanted to tell him that he could save himself the trouble of being polite as he was echoing his own thoughts on his home town. Instead, Greg smiled back, hopeful he wouldn’t have to go through the old ‘who do you know that I might know?’ routine.

“Linda and I are both Sydneyites but we live in London now,” Steve added.

“Jamie and me’re English, not Australian!” protested the girl.

“And you don’t sound very Australian,” quipped Jamie chirpily on the heels of her denial.

“James Patrick!” his mother reprimanded.

Greg thought it amusing that the little ‘Englishman’ and ‘Englishwoman’ pronounced ‘Australian’ as ‘Austrine’, proving their verbal roots were still firmly in the southern hemisphere.

“It’s okay, he’s not the first to have said that to me,” Greg smiled, staring down at Sara’s amused ‘told ya so’ expression. “Anyway, it’s nice to have made your acquaintance. I’ll leave to enjoy your drinks in peace.” He backed away and made to retreat his steps to the bar.

“Stay, don’t go.” This from Sara’s father. “Sit yerself down sonny an’ take a load off them feet.” A stool somehow materialised, passed overhand from patron to patron until it appeared next to him. Once again, everyone in the group shuffled chairs and tables to make a seat-sized space for the new addition. Bemused, Greg could do little more than sit where instructed, finding himself wedged thigh to thigh with Sara. If he’d looked up at that moment, he might have seen several self-satisfied smiles from faces among the assembly but he was busy keeping his drink from being jostled and unaware of the speculative glances.

Twenty minutes stretched into thirty as the group, in particular, Liana and Steve questioned him at length about his music. Steve, it transpired, had a rather catholic interest in diverse genres and was well-informed about Celtic, folk and world music but it was Liana who was truly conversant. It seemed to Greg that she had a deep understanding of the rhythms and history of folk music that few others he had ever met possessed. When he asked how she had acquired the knowledge, her husband suddenly joined in the conversation and adroitly changed the subject, something which Greg found a little odd since he had little to say up to that point.

“So how did you meet our Sara?” Hamish interjected in a lilting Scottish accent. Like the others, he had enjoyed the music but while curious about this stranger in their midst he had a healthy distrust of newcomers.

Greg both noted the ‘our’ and caught more than a hint of a ‘big brother’ vibe in the question. He answered, “I’m camping up by the woods and she came trotting past.” He paused as if thinking, “Well, maybe not so much trotting as gasping,” he turned his head to grin at Sara at the memory.

Responding, Sara returned his grin with a narrow-eyed stare. “It was at the top of the bendy bit of the lane and I haven’t run for ages. I was just a little out of breath,” she spoke defensively.

“If by ‘a little’ she means …argh …argh …argh,’ Greg wheezed a parody of someone desperate for oxygen that sounded a lot like Darth Vader.

“Ah, yes, our Sara loves to run,” Hamish chortled, “The first time I met her she was jogging as well. I don’t recall her being out of breath but it took weeks for the bruises resulting from that meeting to fade…”

“Intriguing,” Greg raised an eyebrow. “I sense a good story there?”

“Yes. And since it’s rather a long one, why don’t you come round for dinner tomorrow so we can tell you all about it,” only now it was Liana interrupting, “and Sara, you come too, in case we miss any salient details,” the invitation was accompanied by a beatific smile. “Bring Matthew, of course.”

Greg wondered who ‘Matthew’ might be but didn’t like to ask. Did Sara have a husband, partner, boyfriend who wasn’t here tonight? “I’d love to,” he replied, “but I’m sorry, I can’t do tomorrow. I’m playing an evening gig. How about the night after? Would that be alright?”

Sara shrugged, “Sunday, yeah, I can do Sunday, long as we’re not too late. It’s a school night.”

“No its not,” countered Liana with a hint of steel in her tone. “Monday is the May Day holiday. So no school. Remember?”

“Oh yeah, it is too,” Sara shrugged. “I’ve been too busy to think about it. Well, then dinner on Sunday will be okay.”

Greg wondered why this was an issue. Perhaps Sara really was as young as she looked? No, she’d said she had to get back to work that day they’d met, so she had to be older than school-age. It was just that it was so difficult to tell from her appearance. Her skin and eyes looked teenage-fresh and the short-cropped hairstyle wouldn’t have been out of place on a schoolgirl but he’d thought the slightly cynical world-worn attitude that she displayed suggested someone who’d lived more than a little. The way his thoughts had been leading him since their first meeting, he certainly hoped she was well out of her school years and had left her teens in the dust.

“Sunday then,” Liana directed a serene gaze towards Sara, “and Sara, perhaps you would be as kind as to collect Greg and bring him to the cottage?”

Sara had had two years to accustom herself to the diamond-hard will behind the softly-spoken voice and otherworldly countenance that Liana presented to the world at large. “He could walk through the woods, it’s not far,” she objected. “Or,” she turned wide eyes to Greg, “ride his horse.” She narrowed those eyes as she turned her head back to Liana, “he has a horse and a gypsy caravan, you know.”

“But he doesn’t know the way,” this from a complacently smiling Hamish, who had more than an inkling that his wife was playing match-maker to these two. The least he could do was assist her endeavours. For now anyway. He would make up his mind over dinner about this Greg character once he had more opportunity to check out his intentions towards their Sara.

“Oh, okay,” her reply expressing her reluctance, Sara had a strong sense she was being manipulated by these two and did not like it. To Greg, she sounded even more like a disgruntled teen agreeing to do something she didn’t want to under duress from her parents.

“Lovely. Sunday it is, then. We’ll see you at seven. There’s no need to bring anything.” Liana spoke brightly as she sat back, pleased with her efforts.

“Especially not flowers.” Sure that she was being manipulated, Sara couldn’t help but add the retort, her tone a little surly. This remark triggered several concerned glances from those around the table and pursed lips from her father, but no one commented further.

Greg wondered why flowers were unwelcome. But before he could say anything the publican tapped him on his shoulder. “You rested enough yet?” Seamus asked, “’cos we’re gonna have a riot here if you don’t play some more.” Greg turned around to see raised glasses and a roomful of expectant faces, shortly followed by the sound of feet thumping the floorboards.

He rose from the stool, bowing to the crowd. There were loud laughs and catcalls. “The natives are getting restless. No rest for the wicked. I’d better get back to work,” Greg grinned down at Sara’s slightly petulant child-like face. “Thanks ever so much for the offer to pick me up for our first date. I’ll see you Sunday evening then, if not before.” He had the satisfaction of seeing her shocked face before he followed Seamus’ wide back through the crowd, to his instruments. As he wended his way through the crowded room he imagined he could feel Sara’s pretty lavender eyes boring laser-precise holes in his back.

He played and sang the rest of his set with a lightness and sense of expectation in his heart that he recognised as the beginnings of a new personal adventure.

Three

piping the bride

“If we keep bumping into one another like this I’m going to think you’re following me.” Greg had timed the interruption to coincide with her date wandering away in the direction of the men’s loos.

“You’re in my village and I was here first, so technically, you’re the one following me,” Sara countered, replacing the dessert spoon she had picked up in readiness to eat her gooseberry and elderflower fool on the white linen tablecloth.

“Well, I’m not bothered if you’re not,” Greg smiled. Both the dessert and the woman looked good enough to eat, he thought. She had changed last night’s jeans and hoodie for a prettily feminine dress in a pale floral print. He particularly liked the way the dress played with the neckline, giving a tantalising peek at the pale mounds of her breasts. Showing off a little more flesh than the previous night’s attire was a definite improvement, he thought. There was a wrap lying over the chair back. Fortunately for him, in the warm evening air it was redundant. Dressed up, she looked less like a schoolgirl escaping from study prep and more like a woman but as he was still somewhat uncertain as to her age he did his best to keep his eyes from straying downwards. The task had not been made any easier by the sharply indrawn breath she had taken when he spoke.

Sara raised a glass of cool juice to her lips as she thought of a suitable reply -she had noted the quick flick of his eyes towards her chest and was feeling unaccountably flustered. Her fingers crept to the chair back to finger her wrap, thinking she might retrieve it but she stayed her hand. She was a grown woman, after all and could handle a little male attention. Still, nothing was coming to her conversation-wise so she drained the drink, stalling for time, all the while ransacking her mind for a safe topic.

“So this is the ‘gig’ that you were talking about last night?” It was a bit lame, but it would have to do. When he’d said he had a ‘gig’ on Saturday night, she had not thought to ask where it was and had never imagined to see, or more correctly, hear him stridently and confidently piping the bride, - an old school friend of Sara’s- into the large airy tent where her wedding breakfast guests awaited. Once inside he’d thankfully put the noisy bagpipes aside and for the last hour had been playing softly in the background as guests ate and drank their way through a sumptuous four-course banquet.

“Yeah, I got conned into it at the last minute when the band Seamus had hired all came down with some nasty virus. At least the breaks are a tad more consistent than pub gigs. I’ve got few minutes now while they get ready for speeches and cutting the cake.” He eyed her empty glass. “Can I get you another drink?” He remembered that he had seen her drinking orange juice the previous night, “Do you drink anything other than fruit juice?” There were open bottles of champagne sitting in ice buckets as well as red and white wine on the table but he could see that the wine glass at her table setting was unused. The untouched glass did little for his confidence that she was of legal age to consume alcohol.

Sara noted the tall glass of sparkling water in his hand.

“Water’s fine,” she spoke shortly. She wasn’t sure what made her say the next words; it wasn’t something she generally shared with people who were little more than strangers. “I can’t touch alcohol. I’m a recovering alcoholic.” She watched with curiosity to see how he would respond to the news.

“How long?” he asked matter-of-factly, as if she’d just told him some minor factoid about herself.

She was surprised at his casual response. Generally, it was at this point that the majority of people she’d ever shared this information with took an involuntary step backwards, as if her condition might be contagious.

Sara didn’t even need to think to answer this one, “fourteen years, almost to the day.” She’d been five weeks pregnant with Matthew when she’d quit, cold-turkey. Between the awful morning sickness and the dry horrors, it had not been a fun start to her pregnancy.

“I’m not a big drinker myself these days. I drank more when I was young but I found it was messing with my music so I limit myself to one beer when I’m playing. Most of the time I stick to water,” he brandished the glass. “Suits my voice better -but lost a few friends when I changed my habits –they seemed to think it was very un-Australian of me.” While he was speaking, he was doing a fast re-evaluation of her age. He knew alcoholics could be as young as thirteen or even younger but fourteen years sober would surely put her in her mid-twenties at the very least. He breathed out a sigh of relief that he hadn’t been guilty of thinking somewhat carnal thoughts about a teen.

She laughed. “Yeah, well, there’s no ‘one beer’ limit for me. It tends to be all or nothing …so I stick with nothing.” She angled her gaze downwards; he’d sat in the empty chair next to her, vacated by a guest gone in search of the facilities. “I do like the tartan trousers. Though why not a kilt?”

“Well, technically, I’m not a Scot and I’d feel a bit of a dweeb wearing a skirt, even when I am playing the pipes. I figure this is close enough and trews have the added benefit that no one can look up my dress when I switch to playing the harp.”

She could see he was trying hard to maintain a serious face. “Huh, word to the wise,” she held up a single finger and shook it from side to side, “don’t ever let Hamish hear you call the kilt a skirt or a dress,” she admonished. “It’ll be Braveheart all over again.”

“I’ll take that under advisement,” he replied glibly, seemingly not too bothered by what the Scot might think of his opinions.

“I like these flowers,” he indicated the spray of white roses and pale blue hydrangeas in the centre of the table, “I’d swipe them to take for Liana tomorrow as a hostess gift, but you said last night she doesn’t like flowers.”

“You will not steal the flowers!” her voice rose indignantly. “I did them myself, and what’s more, I didn’t say that Liana dislikes flowers, just that she has no need of anyone to take her any.”

“But I thought all women needed flowers!” he retorted, picturing his mother, sister and previous girlfriends, “At least, all the ones I know do.”

“Not that one. She’s more than capable of providing her own,” if her tone was a little dry, she was not in the mood to apologise. Sara was still a trifle irritated at what she was fairly certain was Liana and Hamish’s manoeuvring of her at the pub. Belatedly, aware that she was saying more than she ought, she shut her mouth.

He appeared not to have noticed her slip-up, merely asking, “So you’re a florist then?” It was more of a question than a statement, “and Liana too, since she has access to more flowers than she needs?”

“No, not exactly. Well I am, among other things, but Liana’s more of an herbalist, I guess you’d say, though she’s more than that.” Just how much more was something that had, over the past two years been given out on a need-to-know basis; and he didn’t need to know. “She makes herbal remedies for my shop and does a bit of consulting work every now and then when the occasion arises.”

“Among other things? So what else do you do?”

So, he’d caught that. He was a quick study, she thought. She was relieved his questioning had moved away from Liana. Still, she could see that she’d have to watch what she said if she didn’t want to get caught out.

“Ah well, I grow those topiary plants to hire or buy,” she indicated several large pots of neatly clipped plants situated at the doors to the tent and at intervals along the tent walls, all decorated with twinkling fairy lights.

“They’re great,” his glance was admiring, “time-consuming though and a long wait for a profit. Those specimens can take years to mature.”

“Yes, depending on the species,” it appeared he knew something about topiary.

“Anything else … You said ‘other things’, plural?”

Yep, he didn’t miss much. “I run my own nursery, tearooms and garden retail outlet. Oh, and as if I don’t have enough to do already, I breed doves for sale as a side-line.” And that’s all she was going to let on for now. If he made it to dinner tomorrow he’d probably find out about the rest of her ‘interests’, especially Matthew, without her having to add anything more.

“Whoa, no wonder you never have time to get out and exercise, you’re running around like crazy already, doing all that!”

“That’s only the half of it,” she couldn’t help but bemoan. It was his fault, she decided, for getting her started. “Right now is the silly season and I’m flat out with customers wanting to refurbish their gardens after the winter. We’re open six days a week and doing online orders as well.” It seemed to her that the ‘silly season’ was getting longer every year, and whilst it was wonderful that business was booming, soon there would be no ‘off’ time for her at all. She was not sure how she would cope.

“Sounds like you need more help.” A nascent idea was starting to germinate.

“Yeah -much as I love having my business in the countryside, good help is hard to find round here. I have Liana occasionally and my Dad even less occasionally. Matthew helps out at weekends and I have a couple of part-timers but the schoolboy boy I did have helping in the yard has started university over in Bristol and is only available in his holidays now. We’re not exactly the big smoke when it comes to finding knowledgeable and qualified personnel.”

There was that ‘Matthew’ again, Hmmm. Greg hoped he was merely an employee but then why would he be invited to dinner if he weren’t something more? “You know, the nursery business used to be big around Perth. My parents ran one north of the city and I have some experience.” At Sara’s bemused expression, “I was raised in a place called Wanneroo – it was all dairy farms, market gardens and nurseries before the city expanded so fast that the suburbs started to take it over all the arable land. We grew mostly Australian natives and some exotics, but the principles are the same. You plant them, water them, feed them and pot them on as necessary.” He looked at Sara speculatively, “I’m not all that busy at the moment. I could give you a bit of a hand for a few weeks if you’d like. I’m a dab hand at grafting and pruning and I reckon I could trim topiary if I’d a mind to,” he made a snipping scissor-like gesture with his index and forefingers.

Whatever she had thought he might say that was the last thing Sara had expected to hear.

She opened and closed her mouth several times before any sound came out. “Wow. Gosh. Um.” She shook her head, flummoxed by his offer, wanting to say an immediate ‘Yes!’ but aware there could be complications. Complications were something she had no time for, particularly those of a romantic nature. She settled for, “can I think about it?”

“Yeah, mull it over and tell me what you’ve decided tomorrow at dinner. I don’t have any big gigs coming up –a few local festivals here and there but I’ve purposely kept the summer pretty free, so if you want me to give a hand, I could maybe keep the wagon here and borrow a car to drive to the gigs. I could stick around for a month or so if that would help?”

Sara found herself playing with her napkin, thinking furiously. She desperately needed help and finding someone so unexpectedly with hands-on nursery experience was a huge bonus. Her mind went into overdrive and she was already planning how she might make it work. If he would agree to move the horse and wagon next to the nursery, or, even better, relocate himself into the flat above the shop and live on-site it would be an enormous boon. She needed time to think this through more clearly. To cover her confusion she said, “How much longer are you here tonight? Are you playing for the dancing?” The wedding dance was following directly on the heels of the dinner but Sara planned to skip that part of the evening’s revelries.

“Nah, they’ve got a band coming in for that. I get to go home soon and see my horse. She misses me when I’m gone.” He made to get up. “Well, I suppose since you don’t need me to change that water into wine I’d better leave you before your date comes back from the loo or wherever he’s disappeared to.”

He’d had plenty of opportunity to watch the pair while he played and had been trying, with frustratingly little success, to gauge the relationship between them. They had seemed close enough, chatting freely, touching and laughing often, but there had been no hand-holding, kissing or anything that could be construed as canoodling and he was curious to know the relationship status. Perhaps this was the mysterious Matthew?

Sara waggled her glass as she shook her head in denial. “Thanks for the offer but there’s more than enough magic going on round this place without you contributing any alchemy …and FYI, he’s not my date, just an old friend filling in as a plus-one for the event,” she countered.

“Great,” he didn’t elaborate, “until tomorrow then. I look forward to being picked up and taken to dinner.” His smile was pure mischief.

“Hmmpf. Watch it mate. I could still give you directions and make you walk if you’re not careful.”

“I might get lost in the woods and then you’d feel bad.” He had gleaned from the conversation the night before that Hamish and Liana lived relatively nearby.

“Nah, not that bad,” she considered him for a brief moment, thinking about him living alone on the edge of the forest, “but I wouldn’t be wandering about in those woods on your own if I were you. Certainly not after dark,” she cautioned.

He guffawed. “I’ve seen those woods and they don’t look very scary compared to what I’m used to. What could possibly hurt me in there? Killer Teddy Bears? Big bad wolf?”

“Not quite, but there are a few surprises for the unwary and uninitiated.”

“Well, I’m not exactly Red Riding Hood and I’ve had some experience with things that bite. Still, if there are extra-scary things, perhaps you could go along with me for protection sometime? As my plus-one.” He grinned.

“Maybe, maybe not,” she would not commit to anything.

“Oh well, I’m sure you’ll change your mind once you get to know me better.”

She ignored that, looking over his shoulder. “Graham’s coming back. Bye now. Say hi to Cara from me and give her a pat. She’s such a sweetie.”

“She is that. I’ll be sure to pass on your love and slip her an extra carrot from you as well,” he smiled, getting to his feet. “See you when you come to collect me for our date tomorrow.”

“That’s the second time you’ve said date. It is not a date. Mate.” Sara shook her head, picked up her spoon and turned her back to eat her dessert.

Greg just smiled to himself as he walked away.

Four

my cara mia

Sara checked her side mirror, indicated and pulled into the gateway. Turning off the engine and pocketing her keys she strode to the gate. Thinking she would simply open it and walk through, she was a trifle surprised to see the five-bar gate was securely chained and padlocked. She climbed the bars instead, swinging a jeans-clad leg over the top to jump down into the meadow on the far side.

It was a short stroll across the wildflower-sprinkled grass to her destination. She sauntered in the soft evening light, listening to the twilight chorus of birdsong from the woods surrounding the pasture. A robin chirruped loudly nearby and she scanned through the half-dusk to see if she could spot the little songster. As insectivorous birds, robins were well adapted to foraging in dim light, able to continue to feed under artificial light well into the night, being one of the earliest birds to start the dawn chorus and the last to stop singing of an evening. Spying movement, Sara spotted the bright-eyed, red-breasted fellow pecking at the base of the massive oak that Greg had parked his caravan underneath. The bird took off with an earthworm in his beak and flew up to a nest set in the forks of a branch above her head. She could hear the insistent chirping of young in the nest and hoped the parent birds were up to the task of raising their noisy demanding brood.

Cara was stretched out comfortably on the ground near the fringes of the oak, flicking her tail to ward off the occasional fly. The horse raised her head just enough to check who was approaching, then satisfied there was nothing worth getting up for lay back on the soft meadow grasses.

As she wandered nearer the oak tree the brightly, you could even say, garishly, painted horse-drawn van under the boughs of the tree captured Sara’s attention. It was a fascinating thing that looked as if it belonged to a bygone age. Noting the four heavy wagon wheels and the general bulk of it, she could understand why Cara was built so solidly -the van looked as weighty as a small lorry.

She walked up between the parallel bars of the shafts and started to climb a short flight of steps that led up to the divided front door of the van, admiring the intricate paintwork all over and around the doors and end wall of the wagon as she called out a greeting.

“Hey there, it’s Sara come to collect the gypsy. Anyone home?”

“Come on up,” Greg’s voice emanated from inside before he popped his head out over the open top section of the door. This was split into two lace-curtained panels that had been folded outwards. “Watch the door when you open it or you’ll fall backwards off the steps,” he warned, adding sagely, “I know, because I have.”

Mindful of his advice, Sara pulled the lower half of the door towards her and stepped around and into the van. She supposed that the exterior decoration should have given her a clue as to what she might expect inside, but the interior of the wagon had her raising her eyebrows in open-mouthed amazement -the space she had entered into looked like a cross between a round-roofed Hobbit hole and a Victorian child’s doll’s house. All of the fittings and fixtures followed the curvature of the barrel roofline and every single surface that could have been painted, decorated, carved or gilded, was.

Furthest from the door, the entire end of the wagon was taken up with a large raised bed that could be closed off with heavy red velvet curtains. These were currently roped back with thick gold tasselled chords. The bright red curtaining was repeated on sash windows above the bed and to the side. No room for understatement here at all, she thought. She smiled at the sight of a leather-topped footstool on the floorboards in front of the bed. Obviously needed for anyone shorter to gain access to the sleeping platform, it reminded her of a Victorian painting of nightgown-robed gentlefolk climbing into their high beds.

Parquetry-decorated sliding panels underneath the bed concealed storage bays and a built-in plush velvet upholstered bench seat to one side had drawers underneath. But oddly enough, instead of more built-ins to the opposite side, there was an ornate walnut bureau that wouldn’t have been out of place in someone’s home. Goodness, she thought, there were ceramic plates and china ornaments on shelves taking up every nook and cranny of the available wall space. Whilst Sara had never thought of her own decorating tastes as minimalist, the effusiveness of the decoration in such a small space was a bit overwhelming and she wasn’t sure if it was something she could have lived with for any length of time. Still she thought it did seem perfect within the context of this tiny space.

“So you like what I’ve done with the place? I’ve just decorated. I was going for the minimalist-look.” Greg’s tone was jovial. When he saw Sara struggling to make a polite reply he added, “Nah, just kidding. It all came this way -standard issue I’m told. Not perhaps my preference either but its growing on me.”

Greg appeared to have been washing up while he waited for her arrival. He set down a tea towel he had been using to dry the dishes; placing plates and cups away in cupboards to the side of a built-in woodstove. The space was meticulously neat and tidy, something that Sara couldn’t help but comment on.

“Yeah, not my natural state any more than the decoration,” he replied candidly. “You either learn to be organised in one of these or drown in the mess. I discovered that the hard way my first week travelling. Don’t clean up and put stuff away and in five minutes, there’s no room to move. As if to emphasise his point, he wiped the tiny bench dry, neatly folded the towel in half and hung it in on a rail above the stove.

It seemed obvious that he’d learnt that lesson well. Sara wondered if a spell of living in a caravan would encourage her teenage son to pick up after himself. She was fairly sure it would not.

“Ready to go?” she asked.

“After you madam,” Greg picked up a bottle of red wine off the miniscule counter top. “I figured if flowers weren’t an appropriate gift, I’d bring a nice burgundy instead. Um, I wanted to check first …long as that’s okay with you. It won’t bother you, will it?”

Sara shook her head. “Just ‘cos I can’t drink, doesn’t mean the rest of world can’t have the occasional glass or two.”

“You sure?” At her brief nod he shoved the bottle into a small backpack that he placed over one shoulder.

“I’m sure that Liana and Hamish will enjoy a glass,” Sara shrugged, “wine was never really my poison of choice anyway.” She twisted to scramble back down the steps.

Following, Greg closed the panelled doors and locked up. He walked across to check on Cara with Sara close in his wake. At their approach, Cara had clambered to her feet and was standing in the shade of the huge old tree. Pulling a carrot from his back jeans pocket, Greg asked Sara, “You want to give it to her? I promise you’ll be her friend for life if you do.”

“Okay,” she replied uncertainly. Sara grasped the carrot and gingerly held it out to the horse, feeling even less certain when she saw the size of the mare’s teeth. Whilst Cara seemed friendly enough, she had never had much to do with horses and was unsure how to proceed.

“No, not like that. Not unless you want to lose fingers,” Greg gently grabbed her wrist and removed the carrot from her fingers, “Stretch your hand out like this,” he demonstrated, putting his hand out, palm up and flattened.” When she followed suit, “Yeah, that’s right,” breaking the carrot in two, he placed one piece on her open palm. Cara took the morsel with enthusiastic but gentle nips, chewing and swallowing the first with relish before coming back to find the second. Sara could see that this was something the mare had done many times as she seemed adept at removing the treats without harming the giver.

“There,” he said, “now she’s your Cara mia for all time.” They had begun walking towards the gate, the mare ambling alongside, hopeful of more hand-outs.

“Cara mia?”

“My beloved. In Italian; though this Cara isn’t Italian. She’s an Irish cob. But her name still means friend or beloved in Irish.”

“She’s huge, but she’s so calm and gentle,” Sara remarked, patting the mare’s neck. “I love her big feathery feet.”

“Yes, She’s bred as a Vanner so she’s ideal for pulling the Cara-Van,” he grinned.

“Oh, really? I hope that’s not your best pun.” Her look was disparaging.

“Don’t blame me, I didn’t name her. She came with the wagon; it was a package deal. They do say that an ideal cob should have the head of a lady and the backside of a cook.” He reached back and patted Cara’s ample rump, “I’d say Cara qualifies in both respects.”

“Don’t you listen to a word he’s saying girl. You have a beautiful backside,” Sara ran her fingers through Cara’s long mane, whispering to her, “Just because it’s more Kim Kardashian than Gwyneth Paltrow doesn’t make any difference … there’s nothing wrong with having a bit of ‘junk in the trunk’ and everyone whose anyone knows plus sizes models are all the rage these days.”

Cara seemed to approve of the sentiment because she chose that moment to turn and push her head at Sara, whether looking for more pats or extra treats Sara was later unsure. Caught off-guard, Sara was sent tumbling. She had a moment of thinking she was about to make contact with the grass before she was caught by muscular arms from behind. “Whoa there girl,” Sara felt herself lifted under her armpits and set back on her feet but not before she had been dangled for a moment in the air like some wayward child.

“You’re so light,” he spoke wonderingly. “Certainly not Kardashian or Paltrow. You’re more of a Tinkerbell. You must weigh nothing, -what are you, less than a hundred pounds?”

In less time than it had taken for him to say the words, Sara saw red. Unbeknown to Greg, he had poured salt on a never-healed wound. As if it wasn’t bad enough that she wasn’t thrilled with comments about her slight frame, she absolutely abhorred fairy references. She’d heard them all her life, Tinkerbell, Thumbelina, cute little pixie, elf. Annoyed and determined to prove a point, she turned; narrowing her eyes to slits as in a single fast movement she grabbed the backpack off his shoulder and pushed at his chest with little more than one finger, sending him sprawling on the ground. She then stood staring down at his recumbent form, a belligerent expression on her elfin face.

“So could Tinkerbell do that, do you reckon?”

Greg looked up from where he had fallen. She had set the pack down and was standing, legs set in wide fighting stance and hands fisted on hips, looking for all the world like some modern-day feminist rendition of Peter Pan. Wisely, he decided that this was a thought he would keep to himself.

“Man, you’re strong for your size,” his expression took on a new look of admiration as he struggled to his feet, brushing grass off his jeans backside, “From that little hissy fit, I figure we take umbrage at the use of fairy names then?”

“How would you feel, if every time you turned around, some Wally compared you to a tiddly widdly dinkums fairy?”

He looked at her speculatively before collecting the pack and placing over his shoulder once more. “You got my respect.”

“Huh.”

“Hey, I know a fairy reference you should approve of. Holly Short. Fits you to a tee.”

“Holly who?” He could see from her expression that she was getting ready to have another go at him and in the interests of self-preservation, took a step backwards then put the horse between them before he spoke again.

He talked fast across the mare’s back. “Mean, green, kick-arse fairy who shoots first and asks questions later. Totally you. See? Are you telling me that you’ve never read any Artemis Fowl books? There’s a whole series.” The look he gave her was pitying. “Where’s your inner tween, girl?”

“Working every hour that God grants me.”

“Ah yes, the workaholic thing.” Her eyes narrowed at his ‘aholic reference but he shrugged it off, continuing, “So, have you decided if you want Cara and me to mooch on over and give you a hand yet?”

“I wasn’t aware that Cara was part of the package,” the belligerent look left her face, melting as she laid a hand on Cara’s neck. “Well now, that makes your offer a lot more tantalising.”

“You’re joking. Right?”

“Maybe. Maybe not,” she deadpanned.

“You want help or not? You know, it’s not good business to antagonise the hired help before they’ve even signed on, don’t you? Especially not right on the heels of your Holly Short impersonation.”

“You’re lucky the ground’s soft, mate.” She eyed him again, “I might have to check out this Holly Short character though. Unfortunate choice of surname but I kinda like the idea of a butt-kicking fairy. It’s about time someone gave them a bit of attitude. Far too many pink tutus and piffly diamante-covered wands for my tastes.”

“You’re forgetting the sexy teenage ones, like Winx Club.”

She gave him a look, “How do you know this stuff? You got a weird fairy-fixation or something odd like that that I should know about.”

“Sister’s kids,” he wasn’t going to tell her that he wasn’t completely adverse to the odd sexy fairy himself. Not after she’d dissed them anyway. “There’s one called Bloom -that could be your type, or maybe you’re more Flora, the nature-girl.”

“You want to end up back on your arse?” She all but ground her teeth in anticipation.

He held up hands in a peaceable gesture. “Just saying. No need to get your knickers in a bunch, Holly S.”

“Do not be calling me Holly anything,” she pulled a face. “And just ‘cos you shortened the ‘Short’ doesn’t mean I don’t know what it stands for.”

“I dunno, it kind of suits you,” she was certainly prickly enough to warrant the name, he thought, and the red tee-shirt she wore under a scarred leather jacket was exactly the colour of ripe holly berries.

“Well, anything would be better than Sara,” she conceded. “It was so common when I started school that my teacher would call it out and five of us would answer. They took to adding our last initial to try and differentiate -so I ended up as Sara B. I didn’t mind it when I was younger but when it kept going at High School I was less than impressed. Every teenager’s dream of individuality. Not.”

“Holly S it is then.”

“Just remember, if I get tired of it I can ‘huh’ and ‘hiyah’ you anytime I want,” she warned.

“So does that mean I’ve got the job Holly?”

“Yeah, I guess so,” she spoke reluctantly, “due to a distinct shortage of any other applicants, it’s yours. Come over tomorrow morning -as it’s a holiday I’ll have time to show you around the nursery.” Despite her gruff tone, she was more than happy he’d offered. She had had plenty of time the night before to watch him working and liked his ethics. The dance band had been late arriving to the wedding reception and he’d kept playing with no complaints, waiting until they had set up and ready to go before he’d packed up his harp, bagpipes and fiddle and gone home. It said a lot about him and was the kind of attitude she needed at the nursery if she ever hoped to catch up on orders.

They’d arrived at the locked gate. Greg fished in his pocket for the padlock key.

“I didn’t think gypsies were into this level of security,” Sara commented, putting heavy emphasis on the word gypsies.

“They are when they come home late at night to find the gate wide open and their horse wandering out on the lane,” he muttered crossly. “Where did I put the stupid key?” He tried his other pants pocket.

“Doesn’t matter,” she was up and over before he could protest otherwise, “come on slow poke.” She waved a hand for him to do likewise.

He followed her, hoping he wasn’t going to get splinters in unfortunate places as he hefted his leg over the top bar.

“So is that why I saw you locking up the caravan as well?” Sara had been curious. Keys weren’t something people normally needed a lot of around Thornden.

“A couple of small things went missing from inside the van. Nothing big or of much value other than sentimental. Just an old pocket watch and a silver pinkie ring of mine. Not worth alerting the authorities but I’d rather nothing else disappeared while I’m out.”

“And you’re sure you haven’t just misplaced them,” Sara questioned.

“You’ve seen my place, between the lack of space and the necessity to be a neat freak there’s not a lot of opportunity for losing things. Besides, I searched through everything anyway and I’m sure they’re gone.”

“Hmm, shiny things,” Sara had more than an inkling who might be to blame for the pilfering. After similar thefts from White Briars, Liana had made her aware of Jack and his magpie-like attraction to sparkly items, particularly those that belonged to others. She made a mental note to alert Liana to the thefts, as she had insisted that she was the only one who had any dealings with Jack. Although curious, Sara was not so sure she wanted to see him for herself.

“Maybe it’s one of those scary Teddy Bears from the woods,” Greg added jokingly.

“Never a truer word said in jest and all that,” she solemnly agreed.

Greg was about to question her further when his eye was taken with the large snarly black Harley-Davidson parked on its kickstand near the edge of the lane.

“That’s our transport for the evening? Wow! You certainly know how to show a guy a good time!” he crowed enthusiastically. “Can I drive? Can I?” his eyes turned small-boy hopeful.

“Forget it buster. I am not showing you any time, good or otherwise,” she growled, “and you certainly do not get to drive.” She took the pack from him and proffered a helmet and a leather jacket before stowing the pack. “If you ride with me you get to be the plus-one pillion passenger.

“I guess I can live with being the eye candy on the back,” he sounded only mildly disappointed, before adding in plaintive tones, “…so, maybe you’ll let me drive on the way home? Huh?”

“Huh,” she grunted, swinging her leg easily over the bike and balancing herself on the soft leather seat, “when pigs might fly,” she waved a hand overhead. “This baby is one of the few left-over relics from my wild-child phase and I hardly ever get to ride it myself nowadays so I don’t like to share.” She did not add that her more usual transport was the staid and boringly respectable nursery van.

“Wild child? Now that sounds like a story I’d like to hear. Though I did wonder why you were wearing leather on such a warm evening. Looks good on you Holly.” While he chatted he shrugged into the jacket and put the helmet on, settling himself behind her. She felt his hands link around her waist.

“Puh-lease say that’s not the theme song from Easy Rider that I’m hearing you humming back there,” she complained as she placed her own helmet over her head.

“Just a little background music to get us in the right mood,” he laughed between hummed snatches of the song, starting to sing the lyrics in his strong tenor voice as she started the bike.

He might be on-key and loud but she could be louder. She gunned the throttle with a sense of puckish satisfaction and drowned his singing out with the guttural roar of the bike’s engine.

Five

like riding a bike

As it transpired, the five-minute ride to White Briars took closer to twenty.

They had been approaching the entrance gateway, Sara indicating the turn, only to have Greg tap her on her arm and signal that he would prefer they should carry on. Unable to make himself heard over the noise of the bike he had circled his finger in the air to indicate a ride around the block. Shrugging her leather-clad shoulders, Sara acquiesced, continuing past the entrance and on towards the turn to the nursery. If she took the hump-backed bridge a little fast and had him hanging on for dear-life as they became airborne, well, she thought, that was his problem. Perhaps next time he would take more care in choosing what he wished for.

Greg was having a wonderful time. If she thought he was scared and hanging on tight for anything other than the fun of it, well, he thought, that was her problem. For himself, he was inclined to take whatever opportunity came his way to cuddle up to a pretty girl, especially a Harley-riding, kick-arse Holly Short kind of woman who obviously knew more than the basic rudiments of how to handle a powerful bike.

They rode past the nursery. Sara didn’t stop, only slowing sufficiently to allow him a brief glimpse as they motored by. She noted, in the bike’s rear vision mirror, Greg’s thumbs up of approval of the thatched cottage that was her shop and tearooms, before she picked up speed and roared onwards to the intersection leading to the village. The lanes were narrow and required concentration so Sara did her best to ignore her passenger and keep her attention on manoeuvring the heavy bike round the twists and turns of the road. It was not lost on her that focusing on the job at hand was made more difficult by the sheer proximity of having him physically plastered against her back.

Greg was loving that same physical proximity, maybe a little too much, he chided himself, easing his hips away from her just a smidgeon. The only thing that would be better than this would be himself in the driver’s seat and her clinging on behind as his passenger but as the bike was hers; he wasn’t exactly in a position to argue. The way she was driving, he had a perfect excuse to maintain his firm hold. As it was, any further loosening of his grip and he might find himself flung off on any one of the tight corners.

There wasn’t a soul around the village green in Thornden. They tore through the quiet village and past the pub, Sara laying the bike hard over on the curves around the village pond before tearing on towards the rise leading up to the gypsy encampment. Unlike the day she’d run up the twists, there were no Puffing Billy impersonations to be seen as she slalomed around the bends; Greg canting his body in exact unison with hers as they took the S-bends at considerable speed. Mindful of frightening Cara, she eased back on the throttle going past the mare’s paddock before increasing the revs once more when they had passed by. Moments later they were back at their original destination.

The gate was open and Sara rumbled on down a single-lane driveway, passing under interlinking trees that formed a shadowed tunnel before the drive widened out for a short distance. To the right was a stone-built carriage house complete with doves sitting preening and cooing at apertures set in the upper walls. They passed by and Sara carefully negotiated an even narrower gravelled drive, not much wider than a footpath that ran between the crazily rounded forms of twin hedges either side of the sinuously curved walkway. Riding almost right up to the conservatory doors of what looked to Greg to be a miniature Gothic mansion, she idled for a moment before cutting the engine and engaging the bike’s kick-stand, waiting for her passenger to move before she alighted from the motorbike.

To her chagrin, it seemed that Greg wasn’t going anywhere in a hurry. She felt him shifting his weight behind her and looked in the mirrors to see him calmly removing his helmet. He tucked it under his arm, placing his free hand lightly on her shoulder.

“Kudos to you Holly Short-stuff. You can take me for a ride on this beast of yours anytime you like,” his tone was both respectful and impressed.

“Great,” she spoke gruffly, “you plan to get off my bike anytime today?” Secretly, she was quietly satisfied at his reaction -it wasn’t often that she got to show off her riding skills.

“I’ll move in a minute when my heart rate drops back to normal,” he laid the hand that wasn’t holding the helmet over his heart. “So do you ride like that all the time, or were you out to impress me?”

“I’m a bit rusty -and I may have been showing off a little,” she admitted grudgingly, “but you asked for it so there’ll be no call for any pious repentance on this one,” she added, thinking back to the day they had met.

“None needed …my child,” he couldn’t resist adding the priestly addendum.

She twisted slightly and dug him in the ribs, none too gently, “Off now, we’re probably late as it is and the others will be waiting.”

He dismounted the bike. “Speaking of ‘others’, I thought you were bringing this ‘Matthew’ person with you. But unless he’s stuffed in the pannier,” He opened it, “Nah. I don’t see him in here. I’m starting to think he is some invisible figment of your imagination.”

“Oh he’s visible alright,” she laughed, mindful of others she could mention who had the ability to be otherwise. “He wanted to walk from home. Unlike you, he knows the way and didn’t require chauffeuring. Removing her own head gear she finger-combed her brightly tinted hair, freeing it from the confines of the helmet. “That’s why I was able to ride.”

So this Matthew character co-habited at the same address as Sara. Hmmm, Greg didn’t like the sound of that one bit.

“He’s here already. Or at least he should be,” Sara added, unaware of the direction of his thoughts. It was a short walk from the nursery through the woods to White Briars and Matthew had left the nursery the same time she had. He was familiar with the route and she hadn’t thought to be concerned at him walking it alone but now, thinking back to Greg’s comments about the mischief-making of the previous evening and knowing a little of Jack’s past antics herself, she wondered if it had been such a good decision to allow Matthew to take the path on his own. She felt an over-riding maternal need to get indoors and check that her son was safe.

“Let’s go inside,” she indicated the open conservatory doors.

“Nice place,” Greg would have tarried to admire the house, built of creamy-white stone and exhibiting many of the hallmarks of the Gothic style. He particularly liked that Hamish and Liana had allowed Virginia creeper to all but cover the house, with only the windows and doors peeking through the vivid green curtain of vine. He glanced around as much of the terrace that he could see to the formal garden beyond. “Any chance we could tour the gardens?”

“Later,” Sara said shortly. She pulled his hostess gift from the pannier and held it out for him, impatient to go. When Greg accepted the bottle she immediately made for the doors, gesturing for him to accompany her. He had little choice but to follow.

It appeared he wasn’t to be allowed to linger to admire the well-proportioned conservatory either. Walking through, he caught the impression of tall arched windows and comfortable white cane furniture strewn with bright cushions amid a profusion of colourfully flowering potted plants. He had mere moments to glance at the patterns of the rustically tiled floor before Sara flung open another set of ornate double doors to enter the house proper. It seemed she was a regular guest in this house and quite at ease with arriving unannounced. Not bothering to knock or announce her presence, she bounced up a couple of steps into what appeared to be a spacious salon. His musical spidey-senses alerted, Greg briefly noted a baby grand piano to his left and a lute on a stand. His fingers twitched to try the pretty piano out but he controlled the impulse, gripping the bottle a little tighter to keep his fingers stilled.

“Matth ..,” Sara called loudly, “…Oh there you are.”

Greg caught a note of relief in the quieter tone of the second statement. Following close on her heels, he noticed her taut shoulders visibly relax. Sitting cross-legged on the mat between two large comfortable-looking sofas he saw Betony, Hamish and Liana’s little girl whom he had met at the pub. Opposite her was a boy. Well more than a boy, Greg revised, a sturdy tow-headed teenager, lounging in front of a half-built castle of Lego. Completing the relaxed scene was a large long-limbed brindle dog, asleep and taking up most of the space on one sofa. The animal flicked an ear at their approach but didn’t so much as open an eye.

“What’s up Mum?” the teen asked with equal nonchalance, lifting his face upwards to Sara.

Well, that was certainly a surprise. Whomever Greg had expected to find that Matthew was a strapping teenage son was definitely not an option he’d considered. He stood bemused at the sight for a moment before feeling a relieved grin stretch across his face. Knowing he must look like a bit of an idiot and not wanting Sara to see his evident relief, he turned to survey the bookshelves immediately to his right where several glass-fronted cabinets lined a recessed corner of the large room. A child, he mused, …while it wasn’t outside the realms of possibility, he had not given a thought to that scenario, especially since he had only just gotten used to the idea that Sara wasn’t a school-girl herself. Even so, she must have borne him when she was very young. He continued to peruse the shelves while allowing himself surreptitious glances at mother and son.

Sara walked over and sank to the floor next to the toddler and boy. Wrapping her son in a tight hug she sighed gustily, “Just some silliness on my part, nothing to worry about. Hi Betony love.’ She kissed the little girl. “Hey there Doug,” still holding her son tight she reached out a free hand to pat the dog, who responded with an enthusiastic tail-wag and rolled over on its back to with all four legs held in the air to give her better access to pat its stomach.

“Okay,” unconcerned, Matthew took her at her word, “if you’re looking for Hamish and Liana, they’re in the kitchen. “We’ve been waiting on you for ages. I hope it’s not long ‘til we eat. ‘Cos I’m…”

“…Starving!” Sara and Betony pre-empted the last word, chorusing it in unison, Betony’s childish tones piping alongside Sara’s.

Greg smiled. It seemed that this was a familiar sentiment where Matthew was concerned and one that he well remembered from his own boyhood and teenage years. He watched Sara affectionately tousle her son’s hair and climb back to her feet before he followed her, the children and the dog through another door that opened to the kitchen to greet his hosts for the evening.

Six

(not a) dinner date

Greg was relieved that his hosts eschewed the grander setting of the formal dining table at one end of the living room for the more relaxed kitchen table with its bright banquette seats and comfortable chairs. As a norm, he wasn’t overly fond of formality. He saw as he trailed Sara, the children and the dog through a door at one end of the long room that the cottage had a generously large high-ceilinged farmhouse-style kitchen. Handing him a soft drink, Liana directed him to sit next to Sara around a 50’s retro-styled Formica table tucked into a bay surrounded with tall windows. The sash windows of the alcove were wide open to allow the light evening breeze to waft sweet floral scents from the garden indoors. With his back to the wall between the kitchen and a small adjoining study, Greg could see a little of the expansive garden outside but his attention was quickly diverted to the food and people around the table.

The conversation, over a dinner of succulent Beef Wellington, glazed carrots and steamed greens was enthusiastic, vociferous, wide-ranging and mostly inclusive of the stranger in their midst … if occasionally Greg felt that there was some underlying in-house secret that he wasn’t a party to, he let it go for the moment, preferring to enjoy the company and food. He did, however, make a note to question Sara about the undercurrents he occasionally sensed among the company at the table, something he had already noticed the night of his performance at the Thornden Arms.

Liana continued to quiz him about his music, obviously intrigued as to why someone would opt to travel the by-ways of southeast England as a troubadour rather than live in a more conventional manner. Greg explained that he had recently completed back-to-back recording sessions for two new albums as well as session-work for a well-known rock band, and after being cooped up for months had wanted to get out on the open road and among ‘real’ people to perform his music live. When the opportunity to take Cara and her van on the backwater lanes of Kent for the summer had presented itself -in the form of a fellow musician who had booked the van before thinking about the reality of taking on the venture- he had jumped at the chance to do something different.

During dessert -a summer fruit crumble accompanied with thick cream that had Greg, Hamish and Matthew returning for seconds- Sara mentioned Greg’s missing trinkets and the open gate that had resulted in Cara’s wandering onto the roadside.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” there was a hint of steel in Liana’s mellifluous voice. “And is Cara safe this evening? I’m sure Hamish would be happy to drive by the encampment and check on her.”

“Nah, she’ll be fine. I padlocked the gate with the biggest padlock I could find and a chain that would take an impressive set of bolt cutters to sever. Whoever it was, they weren’t interested in stealing or hurting her so I doubt it’ll happen again. It was probably just bored kids from the village up to a bit of mindless mischief.” Greg remembered some of the less clever things he had done in his own youth and since no harm had been done was inclined to let it go.

Hamish was not so sure. He looked across at his wife, one eyebrow raised in question. She gave an almost imperceptible nod and he excused himself from the table on the pretext of popping upstairs to check on a sleeping Betony.

“Tea or coffee?” Liana asked. “Sara won’t touch my herbal brews but perhaps you would like to try something -an infusion of sage or thyme perhaps to soothe your vocal chords? On the other hand, raspberry perhaps? Also good.”

“I’ll give the raspberry a try,” Greg said, “My voice has felt a bit raspy the past day or two. Too much healthy outdoor living and fresh air, I think, after being stuck in a stuffy studio with chain-smoking rockers.”

“Coffee thanks, and strong,” Sara answered shortly. “Forget the herby things. I’ve got more work to do when I get back home and I could do with the jolt of a double shot of caffeine.”

Liana shook her head at her friend but moved across to the far side of the kitchen to prepare the drinks.

“You shouldn’t work yourself so hard, Holly S. Take a night off, why don’t you? Surely whatever it is you think you need to do can wait a few hours. And I’ll be round early tomorrow to give you a hand.” Looking more closely at her face, Greg thought she appeared pale and tired.

“No, I have orders that have to be sent tonight and fortunately the internet doesn’t sleep -so as long as I get them away before midnight they’ll get actioned tomorrow. Otherwise it’ll be another day and I’ll be even further behind on receiving stock that I need for my shop.”

“Are you coming to assist us at the nursery Greg? How lovely! Just what Sara needs,” Liana had been listening in on the conversation while pouring hot water into mugs.

“It’s a short-term thing -just ‘til Holly Short here finds some permanent help or until the end of the summer, whichever comes first,” Greg explained.

Liana carried their drinks back to the table. “Holly Short? Ah -So that’s why have you been calling Sara, Holly S all evening? I did wonder. Now I get the reference. I’ve been reading the Artemis Fowl books to Betony. She loves them. Anything with a fairy in it. You know little girls.”

“Yeah. Especially your little girl,” Sara couldn’t resist the slight dig.

“Better watch she doesn’t use a Mesmer spell on you,” Hamish came in the door, giving Liana another nod to indicate that everything had been in order at the gypsy paddock, before directing Sara a more stern look that suggested she watch her mouth. He had made the trip to the gypsy field and back in considerably less time than it had taken Sara and Greg to travel, but he had seen nothing of interest -the mare had been standing half-asleep under the tree and all had been peaceful but he had checked the padlocked gate and locked caravan for any signs of tampering to be on the safe side.

“You look tired, Sara,” He seconded Greg’s thoughts. “Why don’t I drive you, Matthew and Greg home after you’ve finished your drinks and you can collect the bike later in the week?”

“No thanks,” Sara shook her head. “The fresh air will help me wake up and I promised Greg he could drive back,” she hesitated a moment, “…though, on second thoughts, I would appreciate it if you would take Matthew home. I don’t want him walking through the woods after dark.” She didn’t say why but Hamish understood her concern.

“No trouble at all. You sure you don’t want to leave the bike? You’ll be coming back tomorrow afternoon for our May Day celebration anyway so you could collect it then.”

While the others had been talking Liana had been scheming. “Greg, you must come to our party too. We’re setting up a Maypole for the children to dance around and most of the village is coming. Now that you’ll be working at the nursery, you’re practically family so you must come,”

“Sure,” Greg answered, “sounds great. I love dancing.”

“If you don’t mind, we’ll head away now. Dinner was lovely but I do have things to do.” Sara broke in.

She had omitted to add that one of those ‘things’ was a nightly patrol of the nursery boundaries that she had recently instigated in response to finding an entire row of bagged semi-mature trees pushed over, plus other damage she had discovered to the sections of the nursery’s irrigation system that abutted the woods. Like Greg, she had put the occurrences down to youthful indiscretions -and since she’d made enough of those in her own past, she had not been inclined to make much of the damage, but now she was less sure that the perpetrator was from the village rather than from the woods.

“So you promised me I could drive, huh.”

Greg and Sara were standing outside the conservatory, having said ‘goodnight’ to Hamish and Liana. The air of the brick-paved terrace was tantalisingly perfumed with the evening scents of phlox and dame’s hyacinth, a tall, rather rangy member of the crucifer family. The hyacinth’s large flowers in lilac and white made it an obvious target for night-fliers attracted by the alluring perfume and several moths busily fluttered around the plants.

“It’s odd that I don’t recall you promising anything of the kind -more the opposite, in fact -but you are gonna make good on that now you’ve said it, aren’t you?” Greg’s smile was virtuosity personified. “After all, good mothers shouldn’t be liars.”

“That statement shows just how little you know about parenting,” Sara shot back. “But I suppose I have to now… though you’re taking advantage -you know I just said it so I’d have a reason to take the bike. No going round the long way though -it’ll be straight home and no diversions.” She spoke firmly.

“Spoilsport,” at the look on her face Greg quickly recanted, “Fine, straight home, zip-zap and no variations on that theme. I get the message loud and clear, Holly S.”

Greg felt that he barely had time to get the bike up to any speed at all on the all-too-short journey from White Briars to his caravan but it was worth it, he decided, to have Sara pressed up against his back for those few precious minutes. Thinking that he’d very much like to prolong the contact, he was tempted to continue on down the twisty bends to the village but, resisted, knowing how exhausted she had looked across the dinner table. He parked, alighted and stashed his borrowed jacket and helmet in the big bike’s pannier.

“I think I could fall in love with this bike,” he stood with one hand on the handle bars as Sara slid forward into the driver’s seat.

“Well don’t, he’s taken.” She placed her own small gloved hands on the bars, giving his fingers a proprietary slap.

“He?” Greg questioned, “Since when was a bike like this ‘he’? Don’t you know that man-made machines are always female gender?”

“Nonsense -think of ships like the ‘Titanic’ and ‘Ulysses’, -they’re hardly girls’ names -and then there’s Herbie and Bumblebee, and Thomas the Tank Engine, not to mention his best friend Percy,” she countered, “and anyway, who’s to say he wasn’t built by a woman?”

“Pu-lease don’t tell me you called him Percy. That would be too sad.”

“Okay, I won’t tell you his name,” her face took on a secretive expression.

“Well, if you have named him, I hope it’s something like ‘the Terminator’ and not some piffly-foo-foo name like Herbie. This beast of a machine deserves a strong and manly title.”

“Hah -you know nothing young Skywalker. Not all girls’ names are weak -think of Christine -she was a damned scary car…and Ghost rider’s chopper was named ‘Grace’ …when it wasn’t transforming into a hell cycle, that is. And just for that, I’m keeping mum on the name,” she mimed zipping her lips.

“Well, while you’ve got your mouth closed…,” before she had time to think about what he might do, he seized the moment to lean forward and kiss her lightly on the lips.

That certainly got a reaction. Her mouth unzipped in a hurry and she spluttered, “What the hell did you do that for?”

“Because I’ve wanted to since the day we met …and from Tuesday onwards you become my boss so it wouldn’t be very professional for me to kiss you at work.”

“Seriously, that’s your best excuse? That’s just pathetic.”

He noticed the small smile forming around her lips before she got them under control and frowned.

“So you won’t mind if I kiss you at work?” he smiled, “Wow, what an understanding boss. Glad we go that sorted before I start being your lowly employee.”

“That is not what I just said and you know it!”

“Perhaps I should kiss you again to seal the deal,’ he moved forward.

“No. You will not.” Her tone was steely with determination. “I have absolutely no time for romance in my life right now,” to emphasise her point, she placed her hand on his chest and gave him a slight push backwards. Forced to take an involuntary step back, Greg was once again reminded of her Pippi Longstocking-style strength. “And though I appreciate your offer to help out, I’ll have to decline if you insist on making advances to me again,” her tone turned icily prim.

“Whew,” he stepped away, “that’s harsh, Holly-girl.” He eyed her speculatively. “Very well, consider this a temporary retreat,” he moved away another step. “And thank you for a delightfully interesting evening.” He turned to straddle the gate and flicked her a jaunty salute. Calling back over his shoulder, “I’ll see you bright and early tomorrow, Ma’am, -we’ve got lots to do,” before jumping lightly down into the field on the other side and striding off into the dark.

As Sara rode slowly home, she thought about the kiss. However brief, it had been undeniably pleasant. More than pleasant, she admitted, and unquestionably sparky. But she did not want the entanglement of a workplace romance on top of everything else she had to contend with. The complications of dating her soon-to-be-employee would be more than she could deal with given her current workload.

She thought back to her recent dating history -what there was of it. Sure, she had gone out … infrequently, -with one or two of the local village ‘lads’ she had grown up with, but there had been no ‘sparks’ on any occasion and she had convinced herself that it was enough that she was focused on the dual jobs of running her business and raising her son.

She knew that she had absolutely no extra time or energy for romantic liaisons.

Still, her traitorous heart reminder her, nothing wrong with a nice kiss… particularly one she’d felt all the way down to her toes.

Seven

early start

Sara was dreaming of riding bareback, her feet free of shoes and her mind free of her daytime cares and worries. The solid piebald horse she was astride clip-clopped along a peaceful wood-edged lane. As she rode, she noticed the dappled rays of a sunny morning making patterns on the pavement whilst a light breeze wafted the fresh summer scents full of wild rosehip and lilac through the air and birds sang sweetly. In the way of dreams, it seemed perfectly reasonable that a large white hare sporting a polka-dot bow tie should be running companionably close alongside the horse’s feathery feet. Neither did she question that she could feel the familiar weight of wings on her back. Not those dress-up party things that little girls wore either -these were the real McCoy- all rainbow colours and as transparent as those of a dragonfly. As the horse trotted along, she was fascinated with furling and unfurling her them, enchanted with their gossamer prettiness.

Suddenly, without warning the dream changed from delightful fantasy to terrifying horror. A leafy green branch whipped out from among the roadside trees, reaching for her like some octopuses’ tentacle to grab her around the neck, its evil intent obvious when it began to squeeze and choke the life out of her. Sara could feel the tendrils closing ever tighter around her throat. As she twisted helplessly in the merciless grip, gasping for air, she saw bright iridescent-green eyes and a grinning face, all edged in poison-ivy staring at her from among the leaves with incomprehensibly malevolent pleasure.

Somewhere, amongst the sensations of fear and shock at the sudden intrusion into her pleasant fantasy by this nightmarish effigy, she felt herself tumbling.

She awoke with a start -to find that she must have fallen asleep in front of her office computer sometime around the witching hour and now had toppled from the confines of her comfortably padded chair onto the threadbare mat which was the only thing between her and hard floorboards.

Sara clambered groggily to her feet, one hand massaging her neck where she envisaged she would see ligature marks should she check her throat in a mirror and the other rubbing a spot on her hip where she’d connected with the floor. The dream had felt more real than any she had experienced. Since her office didn’t run to mirrors, she thought to head back to the house and check. She was making for the door when she stopped in her tracks. Was she still imagining or could she hear the clip-clop of horse’s hooves on the road outside? Listening intently, she heard the sounds grow louder and more distinct. She crossed the room to the low dormer window under the thatched roof of her office to peer out into the faint pre-dawn light.

She was greeted by the vision of Cara, wearing a leather collar and harnessed between the shafts of the caravan, sedately trotting up the lane towards the open gateway of the cottage. Greg sat up front in the wagon behind the horse, lazily relaxed with reins held slack in his hands -appearing to put his complete trust in the reliable mare. As they approached the entrance to the nursery, Greg roused himself to lean forwards and sideways to check for traffic behind, before pulling lightly on one rein to let Cara know that this was their stop. The mare turned gracefully to the right, pulling the heavy van through the nursery gate and into the yard as if it was nothing heavier than a light pony trap.

Sara unlatched the upstairs casement, tucked under the overhang of the thatching, to lean out, calling “You’re early,” in a voice that sounded more cheerful, she hoped, than she was feeling after her rude awakening.

“Morning sunshine.” Greg called back, wondered if Sara knew her hair was standing on-end in a particularly dishevelled but quite endearing manner.

“G’morning,” she responded.

“Where would you like us to park?” he asked.

“Wait there. I’ll come right down,” Sara’s head disappeared back inside and she shut the small window. Moments later she reappeared from behind a lean-to addition to the rear of the cottage. She looked as if she had run a hand through the errant hair-do but was still wearing the same clothes she had worn on the previous evening.

“You been to bed at all?” Greg questioned wonderingly.

“Sort of. Might have. Maybe.” Sara replied cagily.

“Sort of, might’ve, maybe how?” Greg leant forward, forearms on his knees as he stared down at her from his seat, the advantage of height giving him, he felt, the upper hand, “How does one ‘sort of’ go to bed?”

“Okay, you caught me out,” Sara admitted ruefully, “I was working late and must’ve fallen asleep at the computer. The only reason I’m awake is because I fell out of the chair and hit the floor.” She made a face, “There. You can laugh now.”

“No laughing here,” but his smile was a mile wide, showing the deep dimples Sara remembered from their first meeting. “You okay? You didn’t hurt yourself hitting the boards?”

“I’m fine.” He noticed that she kneaded an elbow where it had struck the corner of her desk when she had tumbled, “I just woke up from a good dream gone bad and fell on the mat. That’s all. No drama. Move along folks. Nothing to see here.”

“Fair enough,” it was apparent that she didn’t want sympathy so didn’t offer any. “So where do you want us? Cara’s had an early start and she’s keen for breakfast,” he tapped one foot against a bucket half-full of oats sitting under his seat.

“I’ll show you,” Sara made to walk in the direction she wished him to go.

“Why walk when you can ride in style?” Greg indicated the seat next to him. “You can be my plus-one pillion passenger. And the view’s better from up here than on your motorbike.”

“Oh har-har,” she replied, eyeing the elevated seat. “It’s a long way up. Am I supposed to fly?”

“Nah, save your fairy wings for the important stuff Holly-girl.”

Sara visibly cringed at his mention of fairy wings. She didn’t need the reminder.

Unaware of the connection, Greg continued, “there’s a step over that side,” he pointed, “you put one foot in it and heave-ho yourself upwards. I’ll give you a hand the rest of the way.”

Sara patted Cara briefly on her soft muzzle before walking around the side of the van. She did as Greg had instructed. When her head appeared above the step she saw a hand waving in front of her and grabbed for it. She was unceremoniously hauled the rest of the distance up to the front of the van, sitting down with a small thump.

“And now it’s a long way down,” she commented shakily, not entirely sure how confident she felt being up behind the horse now that she was here.

“Might be for you, Holly short-stuff, but for the rest of us it’s just a hop, skip and a jump.”

To her weary mind, he sounded entirely too cocksure. “Put a sock in it, Roo-boy and drive over that way,” she indicated the direction with an index finger. “We’ll let Cara loose in the field next to my house and you can park the van in the shed. There isn’t a lot of room with all the nursery vehicles but I’ve cleared a space I think should be wide enough to fit.”

Greg chuckled at her latest adaptation of her moniker for him and clucked his tongue at Cara. She ambled on, past tidy rows of bagged shrubs and potted trees until they came to an open-sided shed. Parked in one corner was a forest-green van emblazoned with the nursery’s logo alongside various vehicles that he could see would be useful around the place.

He marshalled Cara and the van into the one free spot before jumping down and unhitching the horse. Sara proved more adept at climbing down than up and helped him remove and stow the heavy harness in a compartment tucked under the van. Greg collected the oats bucket, and the mare. Leading her and following Sara to a gate let into a low drystone wall at one end of the shed. This opened to a green meadow edged with hedges of hawthorn and hazel.

Sprinkled around the meadow were several apple and pear trees and one large weeping willow. A sheep, so perfectly rounded that it put Greg in mind of rotund Shirley from Shaun the Sheep was grazing and two small goats dozed under the low-hanging boughs of the willow tree. The willow’s branches had been so neatly trimmed by the animals that it looked as if someone had taken shears along a precise horizontal line. Completing the picture was a small round dovecote, with several birds perched preening in the morning sun.

Despite Greg’s earlier comment, Cara seemed less interested in her breakfast than exploring her new home. Greg understood her sentiments, given the idyllic setting. As he unclipped her lead, through the trees he caught a glimpse of another thatched building that looked like some sort of dwelling straight out of a Brothers Grimm fairy tale. Keeping one eye on the mare trotting towards the far tree line, kicking up her heels and frolicking in her temporary home, he had the other on the structure, intrigued by the curves of the almost-circular stone building.

“Is that your place?”

Sara nodded, “Yep, that’s home sweet home for Matthew and me.”

“Wow. So where have you stashed the seven dwarves? Are the little guys still in the mining business or have they retired to sunny Spain?” he asked cheekily as he placed the feed bucket on the ground where Cara would find it upon her return, noting there was a full water trough nearby.

“Very funny, and yes, it is my house. However, I tend to see it as more Brambly Hedge than Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Hence the name -The Brambles.”

At his uncomprehending look, she explained, “from a series of tales about talking mice that live in the most wonderful houses near a hedge and forage for food. Hah,” she shook her head unbelievingly, “Can’t believe you haven’t read any of them, given your keen interest in children’s literature. I have one of the series but if you really want to improve your literary knowledge Liana’s got a full set of the stories over at White Briars. I am sure she would be happy to loan them to you.

“I might just ask her.”

“She won’t mind -she has a huge collection of fairy tale books. Understandable really.”

Greg was about to ask why this should be so when Sara rubbed a hand over her face and muttered something unintelligible. He was fairly sure it sounded like, “I’ve got to remember when to shut up.”

Before he could speak she said more loudly, “and speaking of foraging, let’s go and get ourselves some breakfast. I need a shower before I can start to think what needs to be done today and I imagine you’ve had an early start to arrive here by this time.”

“Yeah, it’s much safer to get out on the road before any other traffic, so me and Cara are used to pre-dawn starts on travelling days,” he replied matter-of-factly. As he spoke, his stomach rumbled loudly. He laughed unselfconsciously. “Though, now that you mention it, breakfast does sound good.”

“Come on then,” she said. “Matthew doesn’t have school today. I doubt he’ll be up this early but I’m sure I can rustle up something that will agree with both of you.”

Eight

breakfast of champions

Seen up close, Sara’s house proved to be every bit as magical as from a distance, making Greg almost forget his empty stomach. It sat prettily among an effusively wild array of cottage garden plants, looking somewhat, he thought, like a voluptuous plump dame in an extra-wide hooped skirt. The walls were built of natural stone and two-storied, with the lower level curving either side of a welcoming front door that was tucked under a portico. An intricately-thatched projecting roof that spoke of loving craftsmanship encircled the entire lower structure, creating a sheltered spot under the overhang for a timber bench that followed the curved outer walls. Set in the upper wall above the thatch, to either end and over the doorway, were mullioned windows below protrusions in the roofline that reminded Greg of thick bushy eyebrows.

Following Sara indoors he found that the inside was as much a treat as the outside. While noting that Sara’s decorating tastes ran to more simple than opulent, it was apparent that every original detail of the little house had been lovingly maintained in the years since its construction.

In explanation of her earlier Brambly Hedge reference, Sara pulled a picture book from a crowded bookshelf built in-situ to follow the curve of the walls. She wordlessly handed this to Greg before making her way through a door to a small kitchen. When he opened the pages and saw Jill Barklem’s beautifully rendered illustrations, he understood her meaning. If humans were ever to be included in the tales, Sara’s house would have made a perfect addition to those already in the stories.

He was tempted to ask permission to peek upstairs, but when his stomach grumbled once more, he opted to wait for another time and offered his services instead, as cook’s assistant. Once she had the breakfast started, Sara left him to mind a pan full of frying bacon, while she dashed upstairs to shower and change. By the time she reappeared, her damp hair combed and in fresh clothing, Greg had the bacon warming in the gas oven and was cooking eggs, tomatoes, fried bread and some country sausages he had found in the fridge.

“I hope you don’t mind the chef’s artery-clogging special for breakfast but I saw how much Matthew could eat last evening and decided to just fry up everything I found.” He had tied a frilly gingham apron around his waist. He’d it found hanging on a hook shaped like a squirrel, amusingly scampering up the white-painted bagged brick wall of the kitchen.

The domestic scene of him dressed so and standing at her stove, spatula in hand brought a smile to Sara’s face.

“Fine by me,” Sara replied. “Matthew will be down in a minute. You look as if you have it all under control but anything I can do to assist?”

“Nope, sit right there,” he pointed the spatula at her kitchen table, set for three, before loading warmed plates with the food and transporting them to the table.

“Breakfast of champions,” he said jauntily, removing the apron and sitting down.

“…And fat people,” she added, reluctantly removing a slice of golden-fried bread and a sausage from her plate and adding them to his.

“I cook for you and that’s all the appreciation I get,” Greg did a fair impression of a tearful falsetto voice.

She swatted him, not ungently, on the shoulder, “Huh, it’s okay for buff guys like you to eat this stuff but if I eat all that, I’d have to run another ten miles. I don’t have time to run, ergo, I can’t eat it or I’d end up looking like a squat dumpy dwarf.”

“Hmm, so maybe all the seven dwarves didn’t leave the neighbourhood, after all. Not that I recall one called ‘Dumpy’. Perhaps I should change your name?”

“Huh, Holly’s bad enough. And I’d appreciate less dwarf references when you are speaking about me, if you don’t mind,” she spoke indignantly.

“Fair enough, Holly S, though you forget, you will have time to run off this extra sausage now that I’ll be working for you,” saying this he plonked the sausage back on her plate. “But you’re not getting the bread back regardless. It’s my favourite.” To prove this he lifted the golden-fried slice to his mouth and took a large bite before setting it back on his plate.

Sara shrugged philosophically, continuing to eat her breakfast. She cut into the plump brown sausage, savouring its flavour.

“So I’m buff am I?” Greg sounded pleased. He puffed out his chest, reminding Sara of the resident Robin over at White Briars.

“I’m going to wish I hadn’t said that, aren’t I?”

“Probably. However, we buff men of the world do enjoy your appreciative appraisal,” he waggled his brows suggestively.

“Less arrogance would be more becoming, Roo-boy. And we will find out if those muscles are for real or just for show when we get out in the nursery. I have three rows of semi-mature trees that need moving this morning and then there’s compost to dig into the paddock where I want to plant more field-grown stock. We make our own you know.” There was a note of pride in her voice.

“Ooh, I feel tired already,’ he bemoaned. “Better eat more of these eggs and get my strength up.” He shovelled a large forkful of golden- fried eggs into his mouth.

“Good idea,” she agreed, turned her head at the sound of heavy feet clomping down the stairs, “I recommend you eat faster. Matthew’s on his way and any left-overs will be gone before you can say ‘second helpings’!”

Nine

nursery tour

“We can start the tour inside or out -the choice is yours” Sara sat on the step, tugging on a pair of battered Docs that looked as if they’d seen better days.

“Outside I think, if you don’t mind. That’s where I feel I’ll be the most useful. I’m not much for indoors.”

“Fine,” Sara assented, briskly lacing her boots and jumping to her feet. “I’ll show you the field-stock then we’ll work our way over to the tunnel houses and the greenhouse, and finish with the shop. The doves are mostly my Dad’s and Matthew’s responsibility so we won’t bother to disturb them this morning. I have a girl, Suzy, from the village who comes to help in the shop each weekday morning and another who I call on for casual help with the tearooms but come weekends, it’s mostly just Matthew and me,” she grimaced as she spoke. Matthew’s complaints at having to help at the nursery were becoming more vociferous by the week and of a constant theme; that he wanted to be off enjoying life with his friends rather than working behind a shop counter.

As they were talking, they walked the winding gravelled path that ran through the orchard. Cara trotted up for a pat, and then nosed around Sara’s jacket pocket with interest, searching for the apple slices Sara had secreted there. Laughing at the big mare’s antics, Sara fended her off with one hand while she retrieved the cut slices then fed her, keeping her hand flat as she had been shown. She fondled Cara’s long silky forelock as the horse scrunched the tasty morsels and was ready this time when the mare playfully butted her on the shoulder, standing her ground instead of falling. Greg collected the now-empty oat bucket before they made their way to the section of the nursery that abutted the woods. He was a little surprised to see a field full of Christmas trees.

“Not something we grew a lot of in Perth. The climate wasn’t right for them,” he commented. Suddenly he was feeling less sure that he would be of much assistance to Sara if he knew nothing useful about the species she grew.

“Oh, these trees aren’t much bother. There’s not a lot to be done here other than checking the irrigation over the summer months, feeding and keeping the weeds down.” She pointed along the soldier-straight rows “But just in case a customer asks, we have three species, two firs -Nordmann and Balsam, and Scotch Pine. We rate them on how well they retain their needles, fragrance, branch firmness and needle softness so it may be worth you learning about them, but then again, Christmas is months away and you’ll be long gone by then.” She felt a sinking sensation in the pit of her stomach as she said the words but quickly put the feeling down to over-indulging at breakfast. Regardless of the source of her feelings, culinary or hormonal, she was determined not to sound or appear disappointed at the prospect of his departure.

“Still, I’d like to learn as much as I can while I’m here,” Greg had never heard of a rating system for Christmas trees. Even with his family running a nursery, he had grown up more accustomed to artificial Christmas trees than real, Perth’s climate not being overly suited to growing fir trees and celebrating Christmas in mid-summer had never been particularly conducive to the kind of trees more common to European traditions. Though privately, he conceded, it all sounded terribly organised -not his usual forté. Apart from turning up for pre-booked gigs and recording sessions, his life was by-and-large an unplanned affair and that was the way he had always liked it.

Unaware of his thoughts, Sara continued, “Well, in that case, it might interest you to learn that we operate a buy-back scheme for our Christmas trees as well. If buyers take good care of their live ball and burlap tree and don’t want to see it go to landfill, once Christmas is over we purchase the trees back for a third of the original cost and replant them. It is a scheme that’s grown in popularity and we’ve built up quite a sizable forest of recycled trees in the last few years.”

“Sounds like a great idea. I’ve never heard of that before. Better, I imagine than having them chucked out or turned into mulch.”

“I agree. It’s part of our move towards improved sustainability -like making our own compost from materials we collect hereabouts. There’s a riding school just outside the village that provides us with old stable bedding and mountains of horse poo and I collect the vegetable scraps from the village pub. If at all possible, we try to work in the most sustainable manner we can. I came up with the idea about the trees one night when I was mashing numbers and couldn’t sleep,” she sounded rueful and he wondered how often she suffered from sleepless nights.

“Hmmm, inspiration does strike at odd times. Happens to me too, when I’m writing music.”

“Really?” she looked at him with interest, thinking, he must live a life that was almost the direct opposite of her own. No deadlines, no responsibilities, no worries about everything from the economy to the weather. “Do you write most of your own material or play covers? Or do they even call them ‘covers’ when the songs are so old?” She was curious. Hamish and Liana had quite an extensive collection of folk music, ancient and modern, but it had never been a genre that Sara had had much time for, thinking herself more a solid rock and metal fan. However, after hearing Greg sing at the pub and again at her friend’s wedding, she was considering expanding her musical tastes.

“About fifty-fifty, I guess. I write a lot of my own material but I love to sing and play the old songs as well, otherwise there’s the risk that they’ll be lost to future generations. It’s not exactly Top of the Pops stuff so folk singers don’t generally reach such a wide audience, though our fans do stay loyal. So much so that they’ll often hand the love of the music down through generations. But we didn’t come out here to talk about my music,” his tone was brisk, “how about you show me the rest of your plant stock? I’m hoping there’s something you grow that I’ll recognise.”

“I have just the thing,” she twisted to her right, “we have a section of Australasian natives over this way. Hebes, hybridised flaxes, Callistemons and Cordylines that my customers like to plant in pots for their terraces.”

“I recognise the bottlebrushes, -sorry, Callistemons, and some of the Cordylines as Australian but the rest of that list sounds more Kiwi than Aussie. We do have pretty different climates and growing conditions you know.”

“Hmm, yes, I’m aware of that. A lot of New Zealand’s temperate species do well here in Britain as long as they’re protected over the worst of our winter but I’d also like to stock more species from Australia. There’s already a nursery that specialises in New Zealand native plants up nearer London but I read somewhere that Western Australia has one of the highest biodiversities in the world and some amazing plants so I hoped you could give me some hints about hardier species that I would be able to grow for sale.”

“Yeah, South-western Australia is a bit of a biodiversity hotspot. We have some pretty unique flora -and fauna. Just as well it’s not all spiders and snakes. The countryside is a truly spectacular sight in spring when the wild flowers bloom. Of course it doesn’t look much like the sort of wildflower meadow that you would expect to see here but I’m sure you would love it.” His face took on a nostalgic look.

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to make you homesick,” she apologised.

“Nah, I’m not homesick,” he shook his head in denial, “it’s just that sometimes I’d like more than two days of sunny weather in a row. In Perth you know, the sky stays blue for months over the summer. People complain about it being predictably boring.”

“Hmm, you do realise you are living in England now, don’t you? The land best known for grey skies and rainy summers? I hate to be the one bearing bad news but I think you’ve come to the wrong part of the world if you’re looking for endless blue skies and sunshine.”

“No worries, I’m not too bothered.” He laughed and waved his hand in a sinuous motion, “I’m a leaf on a breeze. I go where the wind blows me and for now that’s here. I’m tough enough to put up with a rainy day or two.”

“..How about ten or twenty?” she questioned wryly.

“I’ll manage,” he laughed. “I have a raincoat.”

Sara liked the sound of his uninhibited laughter. She wished that she could laugh more often but it seemed to her that occasions for mirth were few and far between in her life.

“Hmmm, there was a time I used to think I’d be free like that too -but, well, being ‘ a leaf on a breeze’, as you describe it wasn’t as much fun as I thought it would be. And I came down with a thump when reality struck in the form of Matthew.” She stopped, aware she sounded as if she was unhappy with her life, “not that I’d change a thing, it’s just that sometimes I’d like to be that floating leaf and have a little more leeway in my life for spontaneity and, I don’t know how to describe it …perhaps a bit of whimsy, I guess.”

“Spontaneity and whimsy, aye?” he turned to her and lightly held her by the shoulders for a moment before flicking her under the chin with a gentle finger, “I’m sure we’ll be able to conjure up some of those this summer, if we try.”

She shook her head as if to dispel the notion. “Forget it. In fact, forget I said that at all. I don’t have time, or energy, for whimsy. I’ve no idea where that comment came from.”

“From your innermost self maybe,” he tapped a finger on her chest, his lips twisted in a melancholy half-smile. “That is utter nonsense Sara; everyone should have time for whimsy in their life. What’s the point of living otherwise?”

“Oh I don’t know,” she flung back; irritated that he should judge her life lacking some essential element. “Work. Family. Responsibility.” She did not like that he appeared to think her life missed some fundamental aspect…such as ‘fun’. Who had time for ‘fun’ these days?

“Wow, when did you get such old outdated attitudes? Whatever happened to the ‘dance like there’s nobody watching’ generation?” As if to prove his point he stopped in the middle of the yard and began the intricate steps of an impromptu jig.

He wasn’t half bad at dancing either, Sara noted, watching him cavort along a row of shoulder-high clipped bays as if they were lines of fine ladies at a Regency dance. “Hey look Sara,” he shouted, half way down the line, “you could dance strip-the-willow with these guys!” He pointed at half a dozen willows in pots.

“Ha. Shows how much you know,” she retorted, “they’re tortured willows; I don’t think they’d be much good as dance partners!” Still, she couldn’t help but smile at his crazy capering.

Greg pranced back along the line until he was facing her. He danced around her once before stopping and bowing low to the nearest topiary, twirling his hand as if he was flourishing some imaginary hat.

“You’re barking mad, you know,” Sara scolded.

“Yeah but maybe I’m just the kind of mad that you could do with a bit more of,” he puffed, his chest heaving with the recent exercise. He looked at her speculatively over the top of a perfectly rounded bay tree.

“If you are quite finished your performance, do you think we could continue with the rest of the yard now?” her tone was sweetly acidic.

“By all means. Lead on, fair lady -or should that be fairy lady? I am your willing servant.” He gestured for her to lead but could not resist a small jump and a kick-together of his heels as he made to follow.

“You might want to remember that there’s a ‘time to dance’, Roo-boy, and that time is not right now. We have work to do.”

He came alongside, “Yeah, Holly Short-stuff, but considering that the Biblical alternative is ‘a time to mourn’, I know which I’d rather be doing,” he quipped, ensuring that he had the last word.

Well now you’ve seen it all, do you still want to stay and help?” Sara was standing in the middle of the upstairs bedsit that would be Greg’s quarters for the time he worked at the nursery. The elongated low-ceilinged room was tucked under the eaves above the shop, with a narrow door that opened opposite her office space. She noted that there was barely room for him to stand straight, even in the centre of the room below the thatched roof.

“Frankly, Sara, now that I have seen everything I’m quite amazed you’re still standing. I do not know for the life of me how you manage to run this place on your own with so little help. We had a staff of six back home for a nursery that was much the same size as this -and that was without the added hassle of having an on-site café.” His voice had taken on an increasingly respectful timbre, the more he had seen. During the tour Sara had shown him hundreds of field-grown and container trees and shrubs, several large tunnel houses full of seedlings at various stages of growth, plants being hardened off for sale in cold-frames, an older greenhouse which housed cacti, succulents and hosts of tender plants and then soldier-like rows of clipped box topiary that she said her father liked to help with in the warmer months when his arthritis wasn’t troubling him too badly.

“Perhaps now you understand why dancing is not at the forefront of my mind,”

“Nope.” He shook his head, the fringe of his ash-blond locks settled over his eyes and he gave it an impatient comb with his long musician’s fingers. “There should always be time to dance. You just need to re-organise your life better to make time.”

“And you think you can do that for me?” her tone was half-incredulous, half-sarcastic.

“If you’ll let me, I might. But just so we’re clear -for this to work, I’ll need to be free to get on with things my own way and not have you looking over my shoulder all the time.” From what he had seen, Greg wondered if she wasn’t something of a control-freak who felt she had to do everything herself.

“Okay, you’re on,” nodding once, she accepted his challenge, metaphorically picking up his thrown-down gauntlet.

“In that case, I’ll unpack my stuff later. Right now, you need to tell me what needs doing first and we’ll go from there.”

“You do know that today is a holiday, don’t you?”

“I have nothing better to do this morning -and Liana and Hamish aren’t expecting us until after lunch, so I may as well get started.”

“Okay then. As you wish. In that case, that would be spreading and digging in the compost,” she spoke with a certain glee, “followed with mulching around the rest of the field-grown saplings that I didn’t get done last week, since we don’t use herbicides here.” Now she would see what he was capable of and if he would, in fact, be of any use to her.

“I’ll get right on it,” he held up a hand to forestall her when she began to speak again, “You have already shown where everything I’ll need for the jobs is. You can trust me to sort it and you can get on with whatever else you need to do. I’ll be Jake, mate,” with this decidedly Australian phrase, he was off out the door.

Sara opened her mouth to speak, but before she had time to respond, she heard his footfalls on the stairs. Seconds later, through the dormer window she caught sight of his tousled head making for the shed where she kept tools.

Sara smiled tightly. He said he had worked in his parent’s nursery when he was younger but she had seen no hardened calluses on the palms of those fine musician’s hands. Well, she thought with the tiniest twinge of self-satisfaction, it would be interesting to see how his pretty hands fared by midday.

Ten

all in a day’s morning’s work

With Greg occupied working in the field nearest Cara, Sara strode purposefully in the opposite direction, towards a section of the nursery that abutted the woods close-by the path leading to White Briars. As she wended her way across the nursery she scrutinised her stock, checking for potential problems, passing between lines of roughly trimmed hedges that acted as both wind-breaks for her container-grown plants and habitat for birds and insects. Companion planting along the base of the hedgerows ensured the nursery had a permanent population of beneficial insects, like the pretty spotted ladybugs that would help to protect her flowering roses from aphids, and a wide variety of flowers that were useful in attracting pollinators such as bees and butterflies, necessary for the fruit trees and perennials.

As she had told Greg, she had decided to relocate the rows of container fruit trees that were growing closest to the woods to a spot further from the margin. For some reason the woods had quite recently started to encroach upon the nursery boundaries. As Sara had never seen the woodland margins alter in any way since her childhood ramblings among the trees this was odd. It was strange that there should be a change now and she made a mental note to mention her observation to Liana when she next saw her. But for now her saplings needed more sunlight and clear air than they had been getting so she intended to shift the three rows closest to the woodland periphery to the far side of the lines of trees where there was ample space and sun. Arriving at the wood’s edge, Sara glanced along the first of the rows of semi-mature trees that she wanted moved. Each specimen tree was linked to pipes that provided drip-irrigation and they were growing in specially designed air-root pots that ensured their roots would grow healthily outwards rather than in confining circles. The trees were all in leaf, growing tall and vibrant, but would not remain so for much longer with the woodland trees overhanging them.

She started along the first row, unclipping the irrigation pipeline in preparation for the move. The trees in their pots would weigh, she guessed, roughly sixty-five to one hundred and twenty pounds apiece. She knew that for appearance’s sake she should walk back to the shed and retrieve the nursery’s forklift tractor to assist with the transfer, but frankly, she didn’t want to waste the time. It was quiet back here; she was alone and as the nursery would remain closed for the day so she considered that she was safe from prying eyes. Greg was busily engaged and she shouldn’t be bothered, but still, she took a furtive look around to make sure no one was watching before easily hefting the first of the pots in her arms and striding with it to its new position. Twenty pots later, all moved in the same manner, the line was relocated. Happy with the result, she started on the second, then the third.

When the last pot was in place in its new home and the irrigation reinstated Sara stood back with a self-satisfied smile, dusting off her hands on the backs of her thighs. There, she thought, that had gone much faster without the stupid tractor and no one was the wiser as to how it had been accomplished.

Sara was well aware that she was stronger than your average girl -not that she was some kind of superwoman mind-you, but had he spotted her, Greg would have seen that his joking comparison of his new boss to Pippi Longstocking was much nearer the truth than he might have imagined. Sure, she had no immediate plans to start bench-pressing Cara or the like but her superior lifting ability did come in handy at times. She knew that as abilities went, her above-average strength was a useful one, often making the difference between her being able to run the nursery solo or not, but it was something she wanted as few people to know about as possible. The last thing she wanted was for some casual observer to see her, hence the check that no one was watching as she went about her work.

She had begun to exhibit this ability as a pre-teen and since that time there had been few others she had trusted enough to tell her secret. Sara had no clue as to where the trait had come from, but having lived with it most of her life, she was not inclined to search for answers about its origins -besides, it had not been the only facet of her makeup that had set her apart from her adolescent peers -reminded of this, she automatically ran her fingers through her short spiky hair and over her ears, feeling the ever-so-slightly pointed tips hidden under her locks. Her hair might be cut short but it was always left long enough that the tops of her ears were never revealed. Fed up with trite comments about her elfin size and features and not keen to fuel that particular comparison, she made sure that ears remained covered at all times and had kept quiet about her strength, not even sharing her secrets with her father or her son.

Of course, in recent years, as vigilant as she had tried to be it had proved impossible to hide anything from Liana and, by proxy, Hamish -though they weren’t any more inclined to reveal her secrets than she was likely to blab about theirs -well, apart from the odd teeny hint just to keep a certain flowery fairy on her tippy toes, she thought smugly.

She was thinking about Liana’s abilities and how useful she had proved to be around the nursery theses past years, as she leaned forward to begin unclipping and transferring the automated irrigation system -when a slight change in the air set off her spidey senses, alerting her to a familiar presence.

“Liana, that you?” she hissed in a loud stage whisper.

Nothing. Perhaps she was imagining she had company.

No, there it was again. That shift in the air.

“Liana!” this time with more volume.

“Shout more loudly, why don’t you?” a disembodied voice murmured from somewhere near Sara’s left elbow, “I don’t believe everyone in the county quite heard you.”

“You know perfectly well there’s no one but me to hear you,” she grumped. “And if you will go creeping up on decent folk while they’re working, what can you expect?” Sara scolded crossly, “Oh, for goodness sake, where are you now?” She turned and waved a hand in an attempt she knew was futile, vainly trying to ascertain Liana’s location.

A merry laugh wafted from yards away, “If I’d known you wanted to play Blind man’s bluff I’d have brought a bandana,” Liana chortled, “oh no, wait, we don’t need one -you can’t see me no matter how hard you try.” Her droll comment was designed to remind Sara that she could wave her hand around all she liked -if Liana did not want to be found, Sara was not going to be able to locate her.

“Stop fooling about Liana. I don’t have time for your silly antics this morning. I have mountains of work to get through before lunch.” Frustrated in her futile endeavour, Sara planted both her feet and fisted her hands on her narrow hips -her ‘go to’ stance when she was frustrated with someone or something.

Not for the first time, Liana wondered if her friend was aware just how much she resembled Peter Pan when she stood like that. Forget cutie-pie Tinkerbell …this one was pure Pan, full of earnest determination and set to do battle with Hook and his pirate minions. All she needed was a sharp blade, green tights and a felt hat with a feather for the picture to be complete.

“You’ll get a forehead full of wrinkles if you keep scowling like that dearie,” Liana admonished cheerily.

“Hmmpf,” Sara knew her response sounded juvenile, but couldn’t help herself. -Liana’s habit of sneaking up on people got old, fast.

“Smile Sara -or should I say Holly Short?” Sara felt the lightest of touches waft over her temple, smoothing her furrowed brow, “Because life is much too short not to have a little fun when the opportunity presents itself.”

“Oh, ha ha.” Sara could feel her ire rising. “That’s quite enough short jokes for one day.” Her level of frustration was evident in her next words. “What a change of tune from the Liana I first met. You weren’t exactly the life of the party back then as I remember,”

Knowing Sara would never normally say anything remotely hurtful; Liana was surprised at the words. And Sara’s grizzly tone put Liana in mind of little Betony when she was overdue for a nap. She knew her friend was often tired, which was why she had come over this morning to help.

Liana sighed, now somewhere off to Sara’s right, “Yes, I admit, I had lost my joie de vivre and I can’t have been much fun to be around. I am sorry about that.” When she had been forced awake from her long self-imposed sleep four years before, Liana had been justifiably angry and bitter, she had thought at the time, at the unwanted intrusion into her retreat from a world she had considered too painful to inhabit. Fortuitously, Hamish’s arrival at White Briars had triggered a cascade of events that had resulted in a much happier existence for them both, culminating in their marriage and the arrival of their daughter, Betony. And now, if her intuition was correct, -unseen by Sara, Liana placed a protective hand low on her abdomen- she and Hamish would be welcoming a new little brother or sister for Betony in seven or eight months’ time. This was the news that she had rushed over to the nursery to share with Sara. However, she put aside her own announcement for a few more moments to add, “You know perfectly well that these days I am as mortal as everyone else and I am very happy and loving every minute of it.” She did not care to add, that in her eons of experience, she had seen more lives ended before their time than she wanted to remember, and knowing this, wanted to see her best friend happier than she had been of late.

“Yeah right. So now you’re like some kind of reformed smoker or whatever, – telling me how to live based on your own mistakes. Do remind me, won’t you, just how many lifetimes you had to practice before you got it right in this one?”

Liana’s voice changed to one of wistful regret, “Sara dearest, I doubt that I ever ‘got it right’ before now. But I can tell you, from all my experiences, that one lifetime is more than enough – provided you live it well, of course.”

“Well, being a mere mortal from day one, I wouldn’t know,” Sara replied tiredly, “though personally, I could do with some of your longevity because I’ve got enough work backed up here for five lifetimes,”

“Perhaps I can be of assistance with that,” Liana offered brightly, “Hamish is occupied with ‘manly’ things this morning -he and several of the village men are putting up the Maypole on the top terrace ready for this afternoon’s festivities, helped by Betony and Doug -which I am sure will make the job take three times as long -so I am free for the rest of the morning and available to help. What can I do?”

“Well, first off, you can start ‘helping ’ by not playing your silly vanishing tricks,” Sara stared pointedly at one spot, refusing to cast her eyes around in attempts to get a fix on the sound of Liana’s voice. Besides, she knew, when the occasion demanded it, the irritating sylph could throw her voice a considerable distance if she chose to -which just added to the confusion.

“Oh, I’m sorry. Sometimes I forget I can’t be seen,” Liana’s form instantly materialised in the morning air, transforming from little more than a misty shimmer to her familiar appearance in less than a heartbeat.

Involuntarily, Sara stepped backwards -no matter how many times she witnessed the apparition of her friend she always got goosebumps at the vision of such an ethereal being simply appearing out of thin air. It made little difference that in many ways Liana was the most down to earth being that Sara had ever met, the effect was just as magical each and every time she witnessed its occurrence.

“So just how long were you watching me before I knew it was you?” Sara’s questioned, suddenly feeling a trifle uncomfortable. She glanced around uncomfortably. From Liana’s tales of the woodland fey, she knew there were others in White Briar’s woods who had the ability to blend so seamlessly with their environment that she might not know they were nearby and now she wondered if she had been as alone and unobserved while working as she had thought.

“Not nearly so long as I stood enjoying the sight of your newest employee industriously digging in the far field,” Liana quipped. “He must have been over-warm because he stopped work and removed his shirt.” She gave a half-smile that put Sara in mind of the Mona Lisa’s knowing smile. “Hmm, well-developed upper and mid-body musculature, I might add.” In the interval since she had reawakened, married Hamish and borne their daughter, Liana had altered her speech considerably to fit in with current English usage but occasionally she still sounded as if she was from another time.

Hardly surprising, thought Sara, given that she had slept through the latter half of the twentieth century and the beginning years of the twenty-first.

“You mean, ‘nice abs’,” Sara corrected, “or ‘great guns’, even ‘awesome six-pack’, but not ‘well-developed musculature’, girlfriend. Keep speaking like that and you’ll sound like a medical journal.”

Liana shrugged as if to say ‘who cares?’

Sara continued smugly, “Ha -I’m way ahead of you there. Been there, seen that already,” then couldn’t resist adding, “Not too awful a sight, aye?”

“Not, as you would say, too awful at all,” Liana laughingly agreed with her friend. “Not that I was ogling or anything -we married ladies don’t do that sort of thing. I had already stopped by the house and just happened to be passing by and ...”

“And what? …and stopped to watch him work? Ha. I believe you. Not.”

“No. Really,” now Liana appeared flustered -a rare occurrence for her. “I was searching for you and heard the whistling and singing. Something about someone called Matilda, who was waltzing ... I merely went to investigate,” she explained.

“It’s okay -I do believe you ...after all, why-ever would you need to eyeball Greg when you have the oh-so gorgeous Hamish to cuddle up to every night? You’d better leave the single ones to me, fairy-girl.” Sara waited, mentally counting the seconds, knowing full-well that her descriptor would garner a reaction.

“For the millionth time, Sara, I am NOT a fairy!”

That had taken less than two seconds. Not quite a new record …but close.

“Woohoo …It gets a rise every time,” Sara chortled, happily satisfied. She felt that she owed Liana for that ‘short’ comment.

“Hmmpf. Perhaps people in glass houses should not throw metaphorical projectiles,” Liana murmured the words under her breath.

“What was that you said?” Sara hadn’t quite caught the phrase.

“Oh, nothing at all.” Liana spoke airily, in slightly condescending tones. She had had her suspicions for some time now but was not yet ready to reveal her thoughts to her friend until she had all the facts straight. And that, she knew, would require a conversation with the garden’s guardian -an act she had not yet managed, despite numerous attempts, at any time in the years since her awakening.

This morning not been the first occasion she had stood unseen and watched Sara performing feats of surprising strength and agility. She had been watching for longer than she had let on. Allied with her physical traits -and yes, Liana had seen the ears, little escaped the notice of one who could walk the woods unseen; those pointed helix, plus the unusual shade of Sara’s eyes -not oft seen in humans, her slight stature -again, not so notable when taken on its own, but when added to the others, something to take notice of. It all added up to a puzzle worth investigating.

Liana had already tried gently probing Sara about her family’s history, but Sara was neither interested nor knowledgeable regarding her genealogy. Her interest piqued, Liana had turned her questions to Arthur, but here, any initial enquiries had been adroitly sidestepped in a manner that suggested he did not so much not know, as he was unwilling to tell. Liana had persisted until Arthur revealed that he had destroyed all photographs of his wife and Sara’s mother after her death and he refused to talk about the subject further. Since that time, all her queries pertaining to Sara’s mother had been met with a gruff wall of silence from the old man.

She would get to the bottom of it -but not this morning. Today Sara needed her help more than her questions.

“You were complaining, I mean saying, that you needed my assistance,” Liana reminded.

“Yes. I’m done here, so if you’ll come with me I’ll show you what I mean. They’re just over here.” With this, Sara strode off. Given little choice, Liana quickly followed.

They stopped in front of an area that Sara had designated her ‘nursery hospital block’. Set back from the more public areas of the nursery, it was screened with green netting that formed a tall barricade for privacy – this was where Liana could be found tending to any of the nursery’s sickly or struggling plants. Given the way she went about it, not an activity that either wanted passers-by to witness. Matthew had jokingly splashed paint in a bright red cross over the netting that covered the gateway but even he was not privy to Liana’s ministrations to any of the ailing plants that found their way into this enclosure.

Sara opened the gate to allow Liana entry and pulled it shut behind them, padlocking the gate. At Liana’s raised eyebrows she said, “Well, if you can watch without being seen, who knows what else is out there? Besides, I don’t want Greg to chance upon us.”

Liana didn’t comment, instead she looked around at the devastation.

Given how well Sara ran the nursery and normally accustomed to seeing one or two unwell plants at most, Liana was surprised to find the small area full to bursting of yellowed and broken trees and shrubs, some of them Sara’s most precious large topiary plants. These were ruined in ways that would take years of regrowth to repair in the normal way of things.

“I haven’t seen damage this severe since we had that unexpected thunder and hail storm last autumn,” Liana murmured, shocked at the state of the plants. She immediately went to work, hunching over the smaller shrubs, running her hands over mutilated branches, all the while whispering words of healing and encouragement to the injured plants. Sara watched, marvelling as bent boughs straightened and sickly-yellow leaves took on a healthy glossy green once more. Knowing that Liana preferred silence while she worked, she waited, arms crossed over her chest, until Liana straightened before speaking.

“Thank you Liana. You are a life-saver,” Sara said simply.

“That’s the best I can do for now,” Liana spoke slowly, “some of the older box topiary are beyond my help. They’ll survive but I can’t ask them to grow new limbs to replace those broken. They are too weak and there is just too much damage. I’m so sorry. I know you have invested a lot of time and effort into growing.”

If Sara felt that the words of apology were directed more to the plants than to her, she understood the sentiment. Several of these plants had been around before she had, planted, trimmed and trained by her father and his father before him.

“How did this happen?” Liana asked.

“I’m not entirely sure,” Sara answered. “I noticed yesterday but I hadn’t looked at that part of the nursery for a few days, or maybe even a week. I just haven’t had time to check. I was busy.” Her tone was mildly defensive, as if she felt she had to explain her lack of care to the forest sylph.

“The blame for this is not on your shoulders Sara,” as Liana spoke she placed a comforting hand upon Sara’s nearest shoulder. A remnant sparkle of the energy that Liana had been formerly directing at the plants tingled down Sara’s arm to her fingertips. It was like a strong cup of coffee to her tired self but Sara doubted that the sylph even realised the effect she was having as she continued to speak, “I do not for a moment imagine that this was any of your doing. I do, however, have an idea who may have been responsible. If I am correct, it is the same individual who was up to similar tomfoolery over at White Briar’s orchard last week.

“And who might that be?” Sara asked, keen to confront the culprit.

“Green Jack,” Liana tersely replied.

“Hmm, ‘tomfoolery’ …bit more than that I’d say, “ Sara corrected, “more of a ‘bull in a china shop’ -it looked to me as if someone or something went through several lines of the stock that were closest to the woods- I get the physical damage but I don’t understand why the branches have withered and yellowed so much. If I didn’t know better, I’d say it looks as if they had the life squeezed out of them.

“I think you are correct in your deduction, dear Watson,” Liana stroked a hand across a bough she had healed. Sara imagined she could almost hear the shrub purring like a kitten, happy at being petted.

“Great. But I’m not trying out for a part in Sherlock Holmes here. I just want it to stop.” Seeing her valued stock abused like this had been another of the reasons that she had been so keen to move her larger trees away from the woodland edges that morning. That reminded her…

“…and there’s another thing that I’ve been meaning to say to you -the treeline is encroaching on the nursery so much so that my stock is running out of light and space to grow. It wouldn’t be so weird except the woodland edge has never changed that much since I was a girl. Do you know anything about it?”

“Ah, that’s the reason you were moving those pots,” Liana sounded thoughtful. ‘I wondered?”

“What -you thought it was just some whim that I was lugging around great heavy trees. You thought maybe that I needed the exercise?” Sara couldn’t resist the acerbic reply.

Liana ignored the gibe. Sara definitely needed that nap, she thought. “Would you like to accompany me to speak with Jack?” she asked. Liana had been waiting for a suitable opening to introduce Sara to the woodland fey without making a big deal of it and this would, she had decided, create the perfect opportunity. Not that Jack was a perfect specimen when it came to representing the fey but he would do at a pinch.

“If by ‘speak’ you really mean kick some green leafy fairy butt, I’m your girl,” Sara replied enthusiastically, “but I’m not interested if we’re just chatting about the weather and the price of toadstools and all. I’ve got too much work still to do.”

“We can’t be sure if he is to blame for the damaged plants until we talk with him, can we?” Liana’s tone was annoyingly reasonable. “It is your own legal system that insists upon innocence until proven guilty, is it not?”

“Over-rated notion, in my opinion,” Sara replied shortly. “And since when is one of your ‘fey’ bound under English judicial law?”

“True,” Liana agreed, “but Jack has come under the Garden’s own special brand of law once before,” she pursed her lips, “…for a crime of such magnitude that he was sentenced to death.” She shrugged, “but for what, I haven’t discovered.” She frowned, “all I know is that it happened in the years after Jon’s death. While I was sleeping,” she explained.

“Well, from what you’ve told me, that would cover quite a few decades,” Sara said tartly.

“Yes, I am aware that I slept overlong,” Liana agreed softly, once more overlooking the dig. She did, however, hope that Sara’s new employee would take some of the strain off her friend and put her in a better mood than the one she’d been in for several months now. As Sara would say, it was ‘getting old’ and Liana was tiring of her grizzly responses to everyday conversation.

“I have attempted to discover what transpired but the Garden is not telling,” she didn’t add that the ‘Garden’ had not been telling her anything since the day she had awoken, despite her numerous attempts to gain an audience.

“Well, why don’t’ we go and ask this Jack character what’s up and get the story right from the horse’s mouth?” Sara wondered why Liana had not tried this avenue before if she was so interested in past events.

“We could,” Liana agreed, “but whether we could trust a word out of Jack’s mouth to be the truth or not is another matter. He was never one to bother with facts if a lie would benefit him more,” she added as an explanation.

“Well, let’s go talk to him anyway. If he is the one messing with my plants, I want the chance to put the fear of God into him so he won’t do it again,” Sara unlocked the padlock and purposefully dragged open the gate, standing by for Liana to exit the nursery sick bay before relocking the entrance.

They turned to head towards the forest path.

At that moment they both heard the sounds of cheery whistling and boots scrunching along the gravel path towards them. “No mention of this stuff in front of the hired help,” Sara whispered.

Liana nodded her compliance, turning the conversation towards a discussion of the weekends wedding, curious to see if Sara had met anyone interesting while attending.

“Not likely,” Sara bemoaned, adding, “That’s the last of my friends married off. I gotta say it feels like everyone is getting hitched except me. I’m becoming the village old maid, left high and dry on the shelf.”

“Hardly,” Liana disagreed. “And here’s a likely candidate if you are in the market for a comely husband,” she joked as she spied Greg approaching.

“We’re not in the middle ages anymore,” Sara hissed. “The word is ‘hot’, not ‘comely’.”

“I should not have thought that a man’s relative body temperature would have any significance in respect to his physical attractiveness,” Liana sounded confused at Sara’s correction of her speech.

“Nothing to do with it,” Sara said, “Simple maths. Hot equals comely. Got it?” She frowned, “Shame he’s put his shirt back on.”

“What a curious concept,” Liana replied. “In my opinion the usage of the English language has not improved any in the past half century.”

“In case you didn’t notice, nobody asked your opinion. That’s what you get for snoozing through some of the most significant years of history since the dawn of mankind. You missed a lot of action girlfriend …The Beatles. Burning bras. Miniskirts. Maggie Thatcher -though come to think of it, missing the Iron lady’s reign might qualify as a good thing. But still, there was the whole near-miss global nuclear winter, the Yanks landing on the moon, the demise of the Berlin Wall …shoot, heaps happened that you should’ve stayed up for.”

“Then I count myself doubly fortunate that I awoke when I did and that I have you to assist me in catching up on late twentieth century history and contemporary vernacular,” Liana parodied Sara’s droll tone.

“Yep, you sure are,” Sara grinned and Liana couldn’t help but laugh out loud.

“You ladies look chirpy,” Greg commented on approach. “Could it be that you are pleased to see me?”

“Depends,’ Sara spoke dryly.

“On?”

“On whether you’ve finished spreading all of that compost.”

“All muck spread, Ma’am.” Greg touched his forelock and bowed in abeyance. “I thought it was time for a break and a cuppa so I came in search of your good self to find out if you wanted to partake of said cuppa with me.”

“What lovely manners,” Liana observed. “It is so nice to see that courtliness is not dead in this era,”

“Ha. You wish. He’s just taking the pi…, I mean mickey,” Sara explained. Noting Liana’s bemused face, she added, “He’s joking.”

“So was I,” deadpanned Liana. “…and you needn’t think that is a phrase that I am unfamiliar with.” She turned to Greg, smiling benignly, “I must apologise but I need to borrow Sara for the next half hour to assist me in a small errand so I hope you don’t mind if we take a rain check on the tea until later in the day. Though I am sure that Sara would insist upon you making yourself one in her absence.”

“Yeah, what she said,” Sara agreed, “There’s a kettle in the tearooms in the shop. Go help yourself. You might even find something to eat if you look in the fridge -Suzy leaves any left-overs from the week in a plastic container for our cuppas. I shouldn’t be long. Come on Liana, let’s go and do your errand,” she said, heavily emphasising the word ‘errand’.

Greg glanced from one woman to the other, sensing that something was up but not knowing what it might be. Seeing that he wasn’t about to be given an explanation he waved at the two and set off in the direction of the shop. “See ya later,” he stuck his hands in his pockets and strolled away, whistling as he went.

Eleven

babe in the woods

The two moved quickly, both well accustomed to the twists and turns of the woodland route. Their footsteps muffled by leaf litter strewn on the path, they had walked side by side along the wider section of the track that led from Sara’s nursery to the waterfall, reverting to single-file to hop across the flat moss-edged stepping stones surrounded by clear shallow water above the falls. The path narrowed up considerably and became uneven and rocky along the steep slopes of the escarpment which bounded the stream below the waterfall so Liana stayed in front with Sara trailing behind. Sara, coasting along in Liana’s wake, could not help but notice the way the trees all along the edges of the pathway rustled their leaves and leaned their boughs towards the sylph as she passed by, as if reaching out to touch her in welcome.

Liana held out a hand to briefly caress the leaves as she walked, not stopping but taking just a little time to enjoy the presence of the beeches, oaks and elders that grew lushly in this part of the woods; some with accompanying dryads -though the majority of the woodland fey were all staying well out of sight this morning. From the heights above the waterfall’s lower pool, she had spied a pair of water nymphs down below, sunning themselves on the rocks around the water’s edge but had not pointed them out to Sara, not wishing to distract her from their primary goal of locating Jack.

Once the two crossed over the path from White Briars -at the point where it wound down the slope to Thornden village, they re-entered the shadier green depths of the woods. Liana was turning to speak to Sara about just where she thought they might find Jack holed up; when suddenly a small child popped her head out from behind a large oak that bordered the path. Not speaking, the little girl smiled shyly and held out her hand to Liana, who instantly recognised the familiar berry-red locks and bright green eyes of a rowan dryad. Unable to pretend she hadn’t seen the child, she stretched out both her hands before her and motioned the girl forward. After a moment’s hesitation, the pretty rosy-cheeked child, who was barely more than a toddler, tripped gaily into her embrace, allowing Liana to lift her into her arms.

“Greetings little one,” Liana spoke softly, “Do your parents know you are here?”

The young dryad shook her head, a mischievous grin upon her chubby face.

“Very well then, it will be our secret. I shan’t tell on you, but,” Liana spoke quietly but firmly, not wanting to frighten the girl but knowing the behaviour of wandering alone should be discouraged in one so young, “you should not stray far from the protection of your family and your home tree, as it is not always safe to wander the woods alone.” Her gentle admonishment, accompanied by a tap of her slender finger on the girl’s snub nose was sufficient to gain a solemn nod of ascent from the child.

Satisfied, Liana turned to Sara with the child still in her arms. Sara’s round eyes and open mouth gave testament that she could see the girl quite plainly. Well, she thought, that cleared up one question she had planned to ask. Dryads, by their very nature were shy and not forthcoming and could be seldom seen by humans, though on occasion they made themselves visible. Liana doubted that the child had purposely made herself so; ergo Sara had the ability to see them for herself. Another box ticked, she thought.

“This is Sara. She is a good friend of mine and can be trusted,” Liana said. She motioned Sara to come closer.

The child nodded once more and held out a hand to stroke Sara’s cheek. Her fingers felt soft and papery, like the new bark of a young tree.

“Pretty lady. Like us,” the little girl babbled happily.

Out of the mouths of babes, thought Liana ruefully. Neither agreeing nor dissenting, she set the child down, saying simply, “now hurry along home to your tree and your mummy and daddy …and no more solo exploring, little one.” In reply the girl ran off back along the escarpment path on legs as sure on the uneven terrain as a young goat on mountain rocks.

“You’re certain she’ll be okay,” Sara brow creased with concern. It wasn’t every day you saw small children running about in the woods alone, fey or otherwise.

“She will be quite safe,” Liana paused to reach out a hand to the nearest tree, a birch, briefly touching the smooth pale bark of its trunk. “The trees are watching out for her,” she said after a moment. “And remember, these are her woods. As long as she has the good sense to remain invisible to those she doesn’t want to see her, she will be fine.”

“So is that why I could see her? -because she wasn’t trying to shield herself,” Sara asked.

“Possibly,” Liana was not inclined to start this discussion until she had all the facts.

“Wow, that was amazing,” Sara said wonderingly, “I didn’t think dryads could speak. Well, not English anyway.”

“And where did you get that useful piece of information?” Liana asked in sardonic tones. “From the ‘Bigger Book of Fairies’ or some equally weighty tome I assume?”

“Well, now that you mention it,” Sara responded sheepishly, “it may have been from a movie I saw.”

“Ah yes. Disney and co. Along with contemporary fiction-writers, the font of all current knowledge pertaining to things magical and otherworldly,” Liana spoke cuttingly. “According to them, we are all Vampires, Werewolves or Fallen angels, are we not?”

“Huh. Don’t blame me. Where else I am supposed to find out stuff if you don’t tell me anything?” Sara batted back swiftly. Generally, Liana was closed-mouth in the extreme when it came to her relationship to the fey -which made this morning’s venture all the more remarkable. Sara was quite looking forward to seeing this Jack character in the flesh. She couldn’t help adding, “Sticking with the Disney theme …To quote Elsa from Frozen, you may as well ‘Let it go’, dearie,” she sang the short phrase, enjoying Liana’s narrowed eyes, before adding as an afterthought, “she was such a little cutie, wasn’t she? ..It’s a relief to discover that some fairy folk can be pleasant and well mannered. And I never knew dryads had babies.”

“Curious. How did you think they procreated, if not in the manner of all living creatures?” Liana held up a hand when Sara opened her mouth to reply, “No. don’t tell me. I doubt that I will like your answer.”

Sara closed her mouth.

“But you are correct in one thing. It has been a very long time since I have seen a dryad child,” Liana commented. The woods had been alive with change in the years since her wake-up call from the Garden’s guardian. “And since we are speaking of babies, – I have been waiting for the right moment all morning to tell you that I suspect that I am expecting a new babe also,” with this quick rejoinder, Liana stepped off the beaten path and disappeared behind a large holly bush.

“Hey. Wait up there!” Sara yelled, rushing to catch up. Rounding the bush, she was relieved to find that Liana had not resorted to invisibility but was instead taking a shortcut through the woods. A faint path led away into the trees that she had begun to follow. “You cannot deliver news like that then just steam off,” she called breathlessly as she jumped over a fallen log and trotted up behind to touch Liana on her shoulder. “That’s amazing! Wow! Congratulations. Does Hamish know? How are you feeling? When are you due?” she peppered Liana with excited exclamations and questions.

Liana halted suddenly and turned, causing Sara to almost run into her. “Thank you. And no, Hamish doesn’t know. Not yet. I merely suspect that I am with child but I haven’t the opportunity to verify any dates as yet.”

“Nah, knowing you, you’re a cert.,” Sara replied. “Surely there’s no need for fairies to pee on sticks to know these things.”

Liana let the ‘fairy’ reference go this time. Instead, she smiled happily, “Yes, I am fairly sure. But just to make absolutely certain, I shall perform a pregnancy test before I share the news with Hamish. And now that I am mortal, I do indeed need to ‘pee on a stick’ to be absolutely sure.”

“You’re on -soon as we’ve done with this little errand, we’re going right down to the village to buy you a kit.” Sara grabbed Liana for a tight hug, “You and Hamish. Preggers again. Yay, I’m going to be an auntie-times-two!”

She looked about impatiently, “So where’s this green dude hanging out? Let’s go and get this over with so we can get on with the important stuff.”

“Jack is this way.’ Liana spoke grimly, pointing ahead. “The trees informed me he’s taken to hiding in the old oak nearest the gypsy field.”

“Oh, okay,” Sara said, “lead on then.” As an afterthought, “You haven’t told me much about him. Should I be at all worried about this character?”

“In a word. Yes. Do not be fooled by his appearance.” Liana had purposely told Sara very little about Jack, briefly mentioning his colour and mask of leaves but not expanding the description to tell in detail exactly what he looked like. It didn’t do, she knew from long experience, to stir up too much interest in the fey. She paused briefly, “now that you mention it, you would do best to stay behind me when we do find him,” she cautioned, “We are only here to chat but Green Jack has never had a great deal of love or respect for humans.”

“Thanks for the warning, but I think I’m fairly capable of looking out for myself,” Sara replied. “And I’m hardly going to hide behind the pregnant lady, am I? …though now that you’ve said that, you’ve got me wishing I’d thought to bring a can of weed spray just in case, maybe something along the lines of agent orange or similar…”

“…We are here merely to talk.” Liana stressed. “To my knowledge, Jack is not violent. It won’t come to blows,” she frowned, “Still, stay behind me,” she repeated the order. They had reached the stone wall that formed a barrier between the woods and the traveller’s field. Flat stones jutted from the sides of the stonework in ascending intervals, forming rough steps. First Liana, then Sara climbed, dropping over the far side of the wall.

Seeing the enormous old oak tree starkly silhouetted against the morning sky, Sara, in contrast to her confident words, was struck with a sense of unease that had her treading warily at Liana’s back. With the van and Cara gone, the Travellers’ field felt bereft of living things and no longer seemed like such a happy place to hang out. Even the birds had stopped singing. The silence was deafening.

“Get a grip,” she muttered to herself, “it’ll be like talking to a big green salad. How could that harm anyone?”

They walked across a thick carpet of dry fallen leaves to the base of the huge spreading tree. Liana halted, one hand on the trunk, staring upwards. Whatever she felt caused her to frown in consternation.

“Jack,” she spoke firmly, her voice carrying easily in the unnaturally silent air, “Come down. I wish to speak with you.”

“Well …goodness gracious, what have we here,” a voice answered mockingly from among the branches above their heads. “I am honoured by a visit from The Garden’s favourite pet …and …one of those.” Jack’s tone sounded as if ‘one of those’ was the equivalent to something nasty he had stepped in.

“Come down here, Jack,” Liana repeated. Her voice held an authoritative timbre that Sara had not previously heard. “I would like to speak to you about damage done to plants in the garden and the nursery …and to this tree also.”

“Yeah, Jack. Come On Down,” Sara cheekily gave the words the game-show inflection. She would have said more but Liana’s look of censure had her promptly closing her mouth. “Okay, your show,” she whispered, taking a step backwards and putting up both hands in a display of capitulation. “Just trying to help.”

“And what if I don’t want to come down?” While they had been distracted, Jack had appeared and was now sitting, legs dangling, on a thick bough half way up the tree. Still well out of reach.

“Come down. I will not ask again.” Liana’s tone on the final word was commanding.

Still Jack sat, unmoving. Sara would have said he was grinning, but the leafy facemask made it impossible to tell just what his expression was. He certainly sounded cocky.

She hoped Liana had a plan for how to get Mr Smarty-pants down out of the tree because she was bereft of ideas. She craned her neck, staring upwards. The guy was wearing some kind of outfit that covered him from head to toe like a sharp-shooter’s camouflage suit. He would have been impossible to see if it hadn’t been that the oak tree’s leaves had coloured up into yellows and shades of brown and orange as if it was autumn instead of the healthy green colours they should have been. Despite herself, Sara was intrigued at his arrogantly insouciant attitude towards Liana. She had thought Liana to be some sort of queen over the woodland folk but this guy didn’t appear impressed in the least.

“This tree is unwell and tells me that it is stressed as the result of your actions, Jack. So, no more warnings,” at this last word the oak trembled as if struck by an earthquake. Ripples rose up through the branches, increasing in magnitude as they climbed so that by the time the waves struck the bough Jack was sitting on, the effect was whip-like. With a sharp crack sound, he was promptly unseated and catapulted through the air, summersaulting quite impressively, thought Sara with a certain glee, to land heavily on the ground. His arrival on terra firma caused a flurry among the fallen leaf litter.

The tumble did not appear to have injured him unduly. Although, even without seeing any facial expression, Sara could tell from his body language that Jack had instantly morphed from arrogantly cocky to mad-as-hell.

“What’s that line out of Toy Story?” she quipped, unable to contain her amusement, “something about ‘falling with style’. That was fun to watch. Go on – do it again.”

Apparently rubbing salt in the wound was not such a clever idea with this dude. The speed with which Jack jumped to his feet and charged at Sara was astonishing. She was quite unprepared for his attack and might have fared badly but for Liana’s equally quick reactions. At her friend’s command, a tree root shot up from where it had been traversing the ground, catching Jack’s foot and tripping him, -sending him sprawling on his face this time. When he looked up, Sara, about to make another smart remark, was silenced by the look of pure hatred in his hard green eyes, obvious even behind the mask of leaves, directed first to herself and then towards Liana.

Gathering himself, Jack slowly pulled his limbs into a low crouching position, swaying this way and that and putting Sara in mind of some leafy version of Gollum at his most malign. She re-evaluated her first impression, deciding that she had underestimated the potentially dangerous nature of this character. It appeared that Liana had been justified in warning her to take care.

She prepared to back off but Jack moved first, scrambling several steps away towards the open green grass of the gypsy field. He slowly stood, raising his hands, palms facing it seemed, in supplication to Liana, ignoring Sara as if she was not worthy of his attention. “My apologies, Madam Liana of the Vines ,” his obsequious voice put Sara in mind of an oil slick on water -equal parts greasy and deadly, “I would not have reacted so, but you startled me with your uncalled-for attack and I felt compelled to defend myself.” He continued to back away, as if frightened for his own safety. Sara was not convinced by the display, having seen enough ham-acting in her misspent youth to know a con when she saw one.

“My intention was not to harm you, merely to get you to come down out of that tree,” Liana said by way of explanation, “This old oak tells me that you have been hurting it intentionally, Jack.” She patted her hand on the rough, lichen-encrusted bark of the tree as if to comfort the ailing tree. “The poor thing is half-starved and is losing its leaves prematurely. Why would you do such a thing to one of your own brethren?”

“I did nothing of the sort,” Jack spoke defensively. “The tree is befuddled, -or telling an outright lie. They do, you know. It’s a kind of tree dementia.”

Sara cynically thought she knew who -or what- was telling the fib. Looking more closely at Jack’s odd outfit, she decided that the ivy he wore was not the only poison thing about his personage. When he moved, she had moved in unison, shadowing him but staying far enough away for safety.

“We came here this morning simply to ask you if you had anything to do with the damage done to Sara’s nursery stock,” while she was speaking, Liana walked away from the tree towards Jack, and further into the field.

“Me?” Jack put a world of affront into the word. “Why ever would you suspect me?”

“Yeah, Liddle old you,” Sara imitated his outraged tone.

Liana, wanting Jack’s attention to remain upon her, glanced towards Sara with a look that told her to keep quiet.

Sara’s eyes remained firmly fixed on Jack. Her street-smarts told her he was up to something. She could feel the vibes from where she stood.

Jack had been waiting for just such an opening. Judging his moment, he charged at Liana like a rampaging bull. Out in the open, away from the oak, she had forgotten that she had no ready means of defence. The tree roots did not extend this far and there was little that a field of meadow grasses could do to help her. Precisely what Jack had planned.

Sara, waiting for something like this and seeing the imminent threat, leapt to shield her friend. Stepping in front of the sylph and pirouetting with a dancer’s grace, she kicked out her leg in a low arc that caught Jack around the knees. He went down hard but was back up on his feet in a heartbeat. They danced around one another for a second or two, both looking for an opening. Sara saw one first. Not interested in prolonging the fight, this time she put her superior strength and life-skills learnt on the harsher streets of London to good use. Jumping high, she thrust with both legs and caught him full on the chest with her booted feet -propelling him backwards with a kick like a mule. This time he went down and stayed down, hitting his head hard on the ground. Apparently even a deranged salad could be concussed, she thought with satisfaction. Good thing too, as she hadn’t fancied tussling in unarmed combat with someone covered in poison ivy.

“I’d say this morning’s negotiations are over, Liana,” she said, breathing heavily. “Hah, puts me in mind of Obi Wan. ‘Master, the negotiations were short’.” At Liana’s uncomprehending look, she pursed her lips, “What?’ her tone was querulous, “You mean you still haven’t watched those Star Wars DVD’s I gave you for Christmas last year?” When Liana didn’t reply she added, “Why do I bother trying to educate you in the ways of modern living?”

“I did watch one,” Liana objected. “But there are so many of them. And despite your recommendation, I strongly doubted that the fictional account of life in a galaxy ‘far far away’ would tell me much about contemporary living here on earth.” Despite her jocular tone, Liana looked a little pale and shaken. At the sound of a low moan from Jack, both women turned their heads to study his recumbent form.

“Could be an opportune moment to skedaddle before he comes to, don’t you think?” Sara prompted.

“Yes. Let’s leave before he wakes. I doubt your actions have improved his mood and not to denigrate your fighting skills, I think we both got lucky this morning. Jack will not be so easy to deal with next time.”

Concerned at Liana’s pallor, Sara tucked her arm around her friend, “I’ll go with you back to White Briars and perhaps Hamish will give me a lift to the nursery. I’ve sort of lost my desire to walk the woodland paths for now.”

“So much for me telling you to stay behind me for protection,” Liana laughed apologetically as they moved away.

“Ah, no bother,” Sara replied, patting her hand. “I needed the exercise. But I think I’ll stay out of the woods now I know what’s lurking here. He’s no Teddy Bear, that’s for sure.” She was thinking of the recent conversation she’d had with Greg.

“I have never thought of Jack as threatening in a physical way,” Liana replied, taken aback by Jack’s display of anger. “Conniving and manipulative, yes, but not outright dangerous. I am so sorry that I under-estimated him and put you in peril. I will not make that mistake again.”

They were over the wall and back on the path towards White Briars -Sara glancing behind at frequent intervals to check that Jack was not trailing them. Seeing no moving shrubs stalking them, she assumed he was still out of action -that kick she had used would have felled a lesser mortal permanently. These fey types seemed to be made of tougher stuff than your average human but she hoped it would, at a minimum, keep it him incapacitated for long enough to get Liana home and safe.

“Well, we might need to rethink our strategy with that one,” she replied, “’cos he seems the type to hold a grudge.”

Nurture and water it regularly, more like, she thought sourly.

“What did you say his history was again?’ Sara asked. “I remember something about him dying and coming back to life as some kind of mixed plant-man thing?” Liana had given her sketchy details but Sara had to admit she had not listened as carefully as she might. Now, she wanted to know her enemy. “He’s a bit too much ‘Day of the Triffids’ now for my liking.”

“I have yet to discover precisely what it was that Jack did to cause his own demise,” Liana answered slowly, “but the Garden had never, to my knowledge, harmed one of its own before it sentenced Jack to die. His crime must have been untenable to warrant that kind of harsh justice from the Guardian.”

“Yeah, about that Guardian thingy? Any chance you could have a chat with Him, Her, It …sometime soon? We could do with some help here.”

“I have tried on numerous occasions to speak with The Guardian. However, despite my entreaties, the Guardian has not communicated with me since the day I awoke.”

“Bummer. Well, keep trying. We could do with some background info on Vege-man. Forewarned is forearmed, I say.”

“I will speak with the older dryads -they may have seen something or know more about the circumstances that led to his death, which might help us to understand his current state of mind,” Liana agreed.

“Okay, that’s a plan,” Sara nodded her approval. They had reached the lower garden glade with its flat round pool and serenely floating pair of white swans, “Good. Attila and Nefertiti are better than attack dogs if he’s following us so we’ll be safe from here on,” she sounded relieved, “I don’t know about you but I could do with a nice hot cup of tea before I go back to work.”

“How about coffee with a shot?” suggested Liana.

“You’re on,” Sara said, “but no shot for you -you’re drinking for two now -and one of you is underage, remember?”

“We’ll know for sure when we get that test,” Liana laughed happily, the sound floating on the cool morning air above the water of the pool as the two climbed arm in arm up the terrace steps and passed between the neat ranks of fantastically-trimmed yew topiary on their way towards White Briars cottage.

Back in the sunlight of the meadow, Green Jack groaned as he rolled to a sitting position. Gingerly clutching his chest, he ran his hands over several broken ribs -or at least, the branches that served in that capacity. Crawling, he succeeded in reaching the shelter of the woodland -he did not feel safe out in the open meadow but was unable for the moment, with his injuries, to climb back into the tree. He found a sheltered hollow among the latticed roots of another massive oak, this one well away from both the meadow and the paths and waited while his body began to mend, using the time to plot his revenge on the one who had treated him so badly.

Twelve

May Day merriment

Sara stood among the small crowd of onlookers, tapping her foot in time to the music. A mixed-age group of girls and boys from the village, each holding the end of a brightly-coloured ribbon, skipped around one another, weaving their way in and out in a delightfully imperfect version of a Maypole dance. It was, after all, only the second year that Hamish and Liana had reinstated the village tradition of celebrating May Day and the steps were still not well rehearsed. And even if they had been, Sara doubted that there wouldn’t be mishaps. It was, she thought happily, half the fun of watching. Early on, one young miss had stopped in her tracks to wave to her parents, and now there was a smattering of laughter as another youngster managed to entangle his ribbon with a little girl’s, who then attempted to ignore him and dance on with the protesting boy in tow …he howled and it wasn’t long before their respective mothers stepped into the fray to disentangle the befouled pair and set them back on their merry way, with the crowd clapping their approval upon seeing the dancers disentangled. The little girl still carried on as if nothing had happened but every time the boy did another circuit of the Maypole, he stuck his tongue out at her in protest. This had the effect of causing more laughter among the spectators.

Possibly the only person who did not appear entirely happy with her charges’ unique interpretation of the choreography was the elderly village dame who taught ballet in Thornden village hall and served as dance-mistress for the event.

Liana was there among the dancers, her colour restored and holding Betony on her hip as she was still too young to master the steps, a ribbon clutched in her daughter’s hand as they lithely swayed and bobbed under the ribbons held by the shorter children.

Sara sighed. It must be lovely, she thought, to see your children involved in the fun.

Matthew had taken part last year but had announced, when asked if he wanted to be included in the dance this year, that he felt himself too old and ‘grown up’ to join with the other children. He stood on the opposite side of the pole, away from his mother, in a small knot of his school cronies, more intent on peering over the shoulder of his friend to see the tiny screen of a hand-held game-console in his mate’s hands than he was in watching the dance.

Sara sighed gustily once more, an action caught by Greg, who was standing near-by.

He noted the direction of her stare. “Kids, can’t send them back, can’t make them stay babies forever,” he commented.

“Hmm,” she hummed agreement.

“That, of course, is not a bad thing, or you’ll still be looking after him when he’s thirty. What do they call that? …Failure to launch or something?”

“I s’pose.” She could see his point, but then, he wasn’t the mother watching her darling first-born turn into an irritable hormone-driven teen.

“You sound like a lady who needs a drink,” Hamish came by, holding aloft a tray of fruit cocktails. “Alcohol to the left, non-alcohol to the right,” he indicated with a nod of his head.

Sara reached for a tall glass, shot with orange, green and yellow, from the right hand side of the tray. Greg did likewise and Hamish moved on.

Greg tapped his glass to hers, “Here’s to a bountiful summer,” he toasted.

“If you’re referring to the nursery, I’ll second that,” Sara sipped the refreshing drink.

“I must say, this is the most amazing house,” Greg had turned back to study the front façade of White Briars. Apart from the steeply gabled roof and the windows, the house was all but covered in Virginia creeper -the leaves forming a coat of fresh bright green. From down here on the terrace he could make out the parapet of a balcony or viewing terrace of some sort perched at the very top of the steep roofs.

“Bet there’s a great view from up there.”

“Yeah, you’re right. There is,” but Sara was not offering to show him.

“It is a pretty special house. But wait ‘til you see the garden,” Hamish had returned, his tray now empty. “Sara’s dad and grand-dad and countless generations of her family have made it what it is today. In fact, Sara here was the one who first showed me the cottage -well, sort of … she kindly pointed me in the right direction one chilly morning. Back then it was more of a Sleeping Beauty’s castle -completely covered with vines and almost impossible to see.”

“Complete with Sleeping Beauty,” added Sara. “Only you didn’t know it.”

“Thank you, Sara.” Hamish’s eyes narrowed in warning.

Sara stared back with an innocent ‘what?’ look on her face.

“Well it all looks wonderful now,” Greg commented admiringly.

“Yes, well, we have Liana mainly to thank for that,” Hamish said. “We both enjoy working in the garden but she is the driving force behind the flower displays.”

“You can say that again,” Sara couldn’t help herself. “She’s certainly a force majeure when it comes to plants.”

“From your adventures this morning, I’d say she wasn’t the only force majeure around here,” Hamish’s expression and tone reminded Sara that he could give as good as he got. He, Liana and Sara had spent a good hour debriefing after the run-in with Jack. Hamish was not at all happy that the two women had accosted the green man without back-up from him.

Greg looked from Sara to Hamish, wondering at which point he had lost the thread of the conversation. He was about to ask what they were talking about when the crowd broke into enthusiastic applause.

The Maypole dance was done, all the ribbons now bound around the tall pole. With shouts of excitement the children broke ranks and made a bee-line for tables laden with food and drink.

Liana approached with Betony, who had exchanged her maypole ribbon for a cream puff. She and Liana were sharing the treat, the custard cream filling now spread all around Betony’s rosebud mouth and cheeks.

“Good time to be celebrating fertility, flowers and spring, aye what?” Sara, watching them approach, placed a heavy emphasis on the word fertility and gave Hamish a dig in the ribs.

“I’d say a big ‘yes’ to that,” agreed Hamish heartily, his eyes on his wife and daughter.

“I hear that congratulations are in order,” Greg said.

At Hamish’s surprised face he added, “Sara told me earlier when she came back to work. A new baby on the way.”

Hamish’s eyebrows rose further, “Ah, thank you, of course we’ve barely confirmed it five minutes ago ourselves. Good thing we have our local GP on speed dial and he was planning on coming this afternoon anyway. He brought a test kit with him. Still, I doubt Liana needed to do the test other than as an affirmation of what she already suspected, – I trust my wife to know these things.”

“New little bruvvas for Bet’ny,” her mouth full of cream puff, Betony’s words were somewhat muffled.

“Well, we don’t have that much detail yet sweetheart,” cautioned her father.

“Yes, bruvvas,” the little girl’s tone brooked no argument. “Little Bruvvas called James and Jared,” she repeated. Squirming to be let down she laid a tiny hand on her mother’s stomach. “They says so,” she said, matter-of-factly.

“Children,” said Liana. “Wonderful imaginations.” From the stubborn look on her daughter’s face she could see that a hasty retreat might be in order. “I’ll take Betony indoors to clean her face,” She put Betony on the ground but kept a firm hold on one little hand.

“Yes, let’s,” Hamish agreed, taking the other. “I’ll help you.”

“Meanwhile, why don’t you take Greg for a tour of the garden Sara,” Liana’s suggestion came smoothly, without a hint of artifice. Sara knew better though. The guile that Sara suspected was lurking very near the surface.

“That would be great,” Greg enthused. “I’ve been trying to get a good gander at the yew topiary on the next terrace down but I didn’t want to look as if I was being nosy.”

“Well then, Sara will be your tour guide. Off you go Sara,” Liana made a shooing motion with her free hand.

“Stop it,” eyes narrowed, Sara mouthed the words silently over her shoulder as she moved away. “Both of you,” she pointed a finger at Hamish to include him in the caution.

Thirteen

bound together

Jack recovered fast. The lignin that covered his ribs healing more quickly than the calcium of bones. More proof, he thought, of his superior nature.

Within five days he was back to his former self, – with a better-defined purpose than mere mischief-making. The evening after the altercation, moving slowly and holding his arms crossed over his torso to protect his damaged ribcage, he relocated to the less frequented parts of the wood, finding the tangled roots and bole beneath a mature European Beech growing on a partially eroded bank an acceptable alternative residence to the Travellers’ field oak. He was pleased to note, as he reclined at the back of the space watching the soft evening light turn to the comforting blackness of night, that some woodland creature residing there before had lined his new boudoir with soft moss and feathers, making it more comfortable for him in his current ailing state. As he healed, he resisted practicing his arts on the tree above or on any of the nearby undergrowth; for fear that the whispering network of dryads and fern-fairies would pass information regarding his current location to Liana. For now he preferred to stay out of sight and fly under the radar of any snitches who might tell on him while he lay and devised potential schemes to get back at the slip of a woman who had brought him so low. To make absolutely sure no-one knew of his nascent plans, he kept the details to himself, not even sharing with his lieutenants, given that foxes were not the most trustworthy confidants.

On day six and seven he managed to walk across the woods to reconnoitre the nursery but learned little for his trouble. The woman, Sara, and the man who was her new help had spent hours ensconced in the tunnel house, potting seedlings and performing various vacuous little rituals necessary to the smooth running of the nursery but of little or no import to Jack. Customers came and went - the sole interruption to the work save the odd tea break- until Jack wished he could sleep just to escape the tedium of watching and listening to their idle chattering. He watched the entire first day but could scarcely manage the second -leaving when the two disappeared for a late lunch-break and not feeling inclined to return for more of the same in the afternoon.

It was all he could do to force himself to return the next morning. Sara it seemed had sent her minion to working elsewhere in the nursery and was occupied with performing bud grafts on a row of potted standard roses, working in the sunshine outside the open doors of the tunnel house. Prepared to be as bored as he had been on previous days, Jack settled himself to watch behind a group of holly bushes, hidden from sight by the lush growth of the spiny, evergreen leaves.

He had seen bud grafting before -it being one of the most ancient forms of plant propagation- and was familiar with the process of taking a scion from the desired variety of a plant to slip into an incision made into the stem of a hardier rootstock. Up to the point where she slid the bud from the scion into the slit she had cut with a small utility knife, it all seemed rather rote. Sara worked quickly, obviously well-practiced at the art, performing a dozen grafts on rootstock before she glanced around with what Jack easily recognised as a shifty air. Then, instead of taping the grafts and leaving them to take and grow for several weeks, she went back along the row of plants. At each standard, she stopped and wrapped her hand around the graft, waiting a minute or two before snipping off the top growing portion of the rootstock and moving on to the next.

Jack sat up straight, startled at what he saw next, for in the time she had spent with each plant, the graft had grown a small tuft of soft new leaves. This was not what he had expected. Rose grafts did not happen instantly. They took time -around three weeks for the scion to bind itself to the rootstock and another three before the new variety sprouted leaves of its own.

Sara, it seemed, had somehow circumvented that six weeks in less than ten minutes. It appeared that the little human had gifts no normal human should have.

From this moment on, Jack took to stalking Sara in earnest, his interest piqued by her abnormal ability, wondering if this was the only extraordinary power she possessed or if there were more. He began watching her day and night, seldom letting her out of his sight.

It wasn’t long before his vigilance was rewarded -when he saw her lifting weights no human of her stature should have been able to move, let alone carry considerable distances -all, he noted, done when she thought herself unobserved. Whenever she worked with the man, Greg, of any others of the nursery staff she would use the small forklift to lift and move pallets of plants or materials but when alone she frequently opted to heft several heavy bags of potting mix at once or perform tasks which should have been well beyond her feeble human strength.

All of this went some way to explaining how she had bested him on the day they’d fought -his pride was salved a little to realise that no normal woman of her puny weight and stature should have been able to kick him half way across the field as she had, but it wasn’t until he saw her casually flick her short brightly hued hair back from over her unnaturally tipped ears one afternoon a week later that he the final revelation as to the source of her attributes.

She was fey, neither wholly nor pure fey but some bastard-child of a fey-human coupling like the brat that Liana and the human male had borne between them. She had to be -it was the most obvious conclusion.

Discovering this engendered in him an overwhelming desire to uncover more about her.

However, this was not as easy as he would have liked. It was irksomely difficult to get close enough to overhear conversations. Unlike Liana, Jack had no gift of invisibility -instead relying on camouflage and artifice to insinuate himself near enough to watch and listen to the puerile discussions and pointless chit-chat she had with others, looking all the while for possible weaknesses he could exploit to exact his revenge. The more he watched, the less he felt he learned. Part of the frustration was that he needed to be ever-vigilant for the presence of the sylph, who travelled over from White Briars to work at the nursery at unpredictable times. After several near-misses and no new titbits of useful gossip, he decided it best to halt his surveillance. He retired to his lair under the Beech to mull and fester, mightily frustrated that a plan for revenge would not present itself.

Fourteen

strip the willow

After Greg’s arrival, life at the nursery quickly settled into a new routine. It was hard to say who was more surprised at just how quickly, Sara or Greg, but the transition had been seamless. Greg worked tirelessly at tasks either set by Sara or those he knew from past experience needed to be done around a commercial nursery. He went off to play gigs, some on weekday evenings, others on weekends – depending on the size of instruments he chose to play borrowing Sara’s bike or the nursery van to attend …bagpipes, lute or flute he could manage in the motorbike panniers but the larger harp necessitated the use of the van.

Mid-morning, mid-week of week three the two were sitting on upturned crates among the rows of roses, the heady scent of multiple varieties of rose blossoms filling the warming air. After a particularly early start, both were down to the dregs of a well-deserved coffee-break. It was becoming a regular part of their routine to have their outdoors among the roses -Greg, as he had explained, preferred to be outside and with Suzy minding the shop, Sara was free to join him. This morning she had brought lattes over from the tearooms as well as some of Suzy’s freshly baked scones. Greg had eaten his and half hers and was now tossing the crumbs to the nursery’s resident juvenile Thrush, who went by the name of Spot. Sara watched as Spot greedily pecked the tiny morsels right out of Greg’s open palm, marvelling at how tame the bird had become. When no more crumbs were forthcoming, the youngster picked up an empty snail shell and proceeded to play with it for a short minute. Tiring of this game, like a child with a short attention-span, he then dashed about in the typical Thrush run-and-stop manner, briefly hunting for small invertebrates in the leaves piled at the end of the row before flying away to search for snails among the undergrowth.

Taking a final sip from his mug before setting it on the gravel, Greg’s eyes first followed the flight of the bird then watched as a prettily spotted ladybird that had been searching for aphids for her morning snack took to the air,

“Lady bird, lady bird fly away home,

your house is on fire,

and your children all gone,” he chanted in a sing-song tone as he turned a rose leaf to check the plant for the ladybird larvae that would keep any aphids in check without the need for pesticides.

“…All except one,

And her name is Ann,

And she hid under the baking pan,” Sara completed the rhyme, grimacing.

“Not exactly the happiest of children’s rhymes, is it?”

“Show me one that is. They’re mostly lessons about death and destruction -look at ‘Jack and Jill’, didn’t end well for them, did it? Or what about ‘Ring-a-ring o' roses’ …A-tishoo, A-tishoo, we all fall down…

…with bubonic plague, no less,” he grimaced. “No happy endings there.”

“That’s not true,” she argued good-naturedly. “They’re not all bad or sad. What about ‘Little Jack Horner?’ -he got a pie with a plum, and, going with the ‘Jack’ theme, there’s ‘Jack Sprat’…”

“…Yeah, his wife got all that fat he couldn’t eat …nice visual there and good for the arteries.”

Sara laughed, and then thought, more soberly, of the other ‘Jack’ nearer by. She wondered what he was up to. It had been awfully quiet these past days, with no reprisals and no sightings of the green man -and that, she was sure, was not a good sign.

“Hmmm,” Greg’s voice sounded pre-occupied. He was staring at the recently grafted standard roses in the next row over, “I can’t get over how quickly these bud grafts have taken,” he mused thoughtfully.

“Yeah, they have, haven’t they,” Sara tried to sound as if it was a surprise to her also. She held her hands up in loose fists and waggled her thumbs at him, “Combination of my superior green thumbs and global warming -speeds everything up.” She was trying for a nonchalant tone but at the same time, could feel her heat thumping in her chest. Her manner was more flippant than she felt but from past experience she knew it was best to stick close to the truth - just not so close as to give away any secrets. She had been hoping no-one would notice her efforts to speed up the grafting process. Should have known better and left well enough alone this time, she thought, mentally berating herself for her impatience. With Greg’s sharp eyes around the nursery every day it was becoming increasingly difficult to get away with her usual short-cuts. Still, with her ‘ encouragement’ those grafted roses would be ready for sale far sooner than if she left Mother Nature to take her time so she’d decided it was worth the risk.

She resorted to changing the subject. “It’s the spring bank holiday coming up. You got any gigs planned for this weekend?”

Greg took the bait gladly; pleased she had provided him the opening to ask something he’d been looking for the right moment to broach. “I did those two last weekend, so I’m taking a break. Matter of fact, there’s a ceilidh I’ve been invited to this Saturday night. Since I’m not playing for a change, I thought it would be nice to be on the receiving end. The band that’s playing is one you might like. You want to come with?”

Sara was relieved that music was a safe bet when it came to distraction but had not expected an invitation. “Um, ah,” she spluttered.

“Eloquent reply,” Greg picked up his mug and sprang to his feet, “I’ll take that as a ‘yes’ then? It’s a date. Mate.” His smile was a mile wide.

He had turned and was gone before Sara could manufacture an excuse. Open mouthed, she stared at his back as he walked off in the direction of the potting shed, back to the work he had been doing before their break.

Shrugging, Sara tossed the dregs from her own cup and hurried away towards the shop. Suzy was due a break and Liana was unavailable to help until after lunch as she had a maternity check-up at Doctor Mclean’s. Well, she thought, it looked as if she was going on a real date this weekend.

Now all she had to do was find out what on earth a ceilidh was…

A very noisy gathering, with -oh no, she saw … dancing, specifically, that kind of dancing that was accompanied by considerable whooping and hollering …all with a decidedly Celtic flavour. Sara stood, frozen with indecision in the dimness under the coffered stone ceiling of the entryway. From this vantage point she could see a limited view of the dancefloor below in which heads were bobbing about, belonging to dancers weaving around one another in an intricate reel that looked, to her eyes, as if you had to be born into some highland clan or other to be able to perform. She sights and sounds put her mind of Liana and Hamish’s wedding, held more than two years ago, but she had not known that this was what a ceilidh entailed, having managed to sit out all but the first dance on that occasion and not having heard the term used before or since. She wished now that she had made more effort to search Google or ask Liana, but the rest of the week had been frantically busy with customers, orders and nursery-work. If she’d known what she was getting into, she would have stayed at home. Even now, the desire to see inside this amazing building was at war with thoughts of backing up and making a swift escape. As if sensing the direction of her deliberations, Greg’s hand stayed firmly locked at the back of her elbow, the increasing pressure of his warm grip implying that they should continue to move forwards. When this did not have the desired effect he added his other hand to the small of her back, having the dual result of discouraging any plans of running away while actively encouraging her to move on.

“You didn’t mention dancing,” she hissed, her emphasis on the last word sounding as if dancing was on equal footing with a trip to the dentist.

“I said it was a ceilidh and I told you there was a band. What else were you expecting? Gilbert and Sullivan perhaps?”

Sara narrowed her gaze at his amused expression, replying curtly, “I don’t know, something musical and folky, I guess.” She had turned her head to look back outside the double-door entry across a small central lawn towards the outer gate with its twin portcullis set between tall double towers that had reminded her of the rooks in a chess set on their way in, checking out a possible escape route. Unfortunately, these places tended to be one way in one way out and the high fortified castle walls looked too sheer to climb, but perhaps if she ran, she might make it out the gate and back to the car before he caught up with her. Shame she’d worn heels, even these low ones she’d chosen would slow her down considerably.

“Bang on description Holly S, -this is both,” she felt him increasing the twin pressures on her elbow and back, until he was all but pushing her through the doorway.

“Ease off on the coercion there, Roo-boy, or I’ll have to bring out the ‘huh’ and ‘hiyah’.” She had twisted about, intending to bat his hands away when the reality of the vista opening out before her struck. Maybe she would stay for a little while after all, she thought, moving out onto the landing of a grand divided stair that led into the room beyond.

Not that the word ‘room’ hardly did this space justice. When he had first issued the invitation, Greg had omitted to mention that the ceilidh was being held in near-by Pethcraben Castle. He had informed her of the venue later in the week, after she had casually asked what one might wear to a ‘kay-lee’. Until she had heard that this was the setting, Sara had been seriously contemplating ditching the event in favour of Saturday night TV or that old favourite, washing her hair, but once aware of the location, her curiosity would not allow her to say ‘no’. Pethcraben had been privately-owned by a publicity-shy celebrity couple for the last fifteen years or more and was seldom open to the public. Knowing this, Sara was quite aware that this might very well be her one and only chance to see inside the castle.

Dancing aside - it was an amazing place. She stared around, awestruck and trying to take in everything at once. The high-vaulted, expansive ballroom with its spectacularly tall columns, stained glass windows -the windows all highlighted by outdoor spot-lighting for maximum night-time effect- and intricate timber ceilings was a true ‘great room’. And, she had to admit, the picture would have been incomplete without the dancers. It was a room created specifically for dancing, after all. It seemed that most of the dancers had been more knowledgeable about appropriate dress than she -there was a fair smattering of tartan in both the men’s and women’s outfits but all in all the dress code did not appear to be as elegant and ostentatious as their surroundings. She was relieved that she’d made that last-minute decision to wear a dress instead of her more usual pants.

“So, you think it measures up to the Old Oak Palace?” asked Greg.

Sara laughed, “I see you’ve been reading up on Brambly Hedge.” His reference was to the book that centred on the tale of a winter ball held in an ice-carved ballroom. “It’s pretty nice, but still not a patch on the winter ball,” she said.

“In that case, I’ll have to have a word with our hosts and see what they can conjure for a winter dance. Mac likes a challenge.”

“Hmmm,’ Sara was distracted, craning her neck to stare upwards, “So just how did you swing an invite to this shindig?”

Seeing that his date for the evening was no longer looking as if she was planning a hasty retreat, Greg let her go long enough to snag a couple of tall frosty glasses of carbonated water from a passing waiter. He handed her one. “I did some session work for a studio recording with Mac’s band a couple of years ago. Despite our quite different music genres, we got along really well. They might be a little reclusive but he and his wife are nice people -they just hate being hounded by paparazzi so they tend to invite friends to their place rather than go out. Come on, they’re over there,” he waved his glass at a couple standing at the far end of the enormous room who were beckoning, “Let’s go say ‘hi’.” He tugged her behind in his wake as he descended the stairs.

“Okay,” she said, allowing herself to be towed along, thinking, ‘sure beats watching episodes of Downton Abbey in my ‘jamies’ -which is what she knew she would probably be doing if she hadn’t accepted the invite.

As Greg had said, Mac and his wife Donna proved to be far friendlier than they were generally portrayed by popular media. Sara, doing her best not to appear star-struck, prepared to shake hands when introduced but was promptly engulfed in a bear hug of massive proportions by Mac. A tall man with broad shoulders, he dwarfed both Sara and Greg but stood nearly eye to eye with his equally tall, thin fashion model wife. Not surprisingly, the conversation centred mainly on music until Mac turned his attention to Sara.

“So, at last we meet the lady who’s succeeded in getting our Greg to settle in one place!” he chortled, smiling benignly down at Sara.

Sara almost choked on the mouthful of bubbly water she was sipping. Mac obligingly patted her on the back, which had the effect of almost sending her sprawling. By some twist of fate, she stumbled towards Greg and was caught in his arms before she could fall. When she could gain her breath, she looked up into Greg’s friend’s twinkling knowing eyes. Seeing his look, she suspected that he might have engineered her fall on purpose.

“Why don’t you take Sara for a spin out on the dance floor Greg, before my husband does her any more bodily-harm?” Donna suggested, once Sara had her breath back once more.

“Yeah, I think she’d be safer out there away from Mac,” laughed Greg. He turned to Sara, “any more of his tender ministrations and you’ll be in A and E. C’mon Holly, let’s go torture the willow.”

Sara missed his meaning as, once more, she found herself tugged along in his wake. Ahead, she could see couples lining up in rows, women and men opposite one another.

“No, no. I think I’ll sit this one out,” she protested, pulling back.

“Nah, you can’t miss this, its Strip the Willow , -remember that morning in the nursery yard,” Greg continued to pull her in the direction of the nearest queue. “It’s fun. You’ll like it. I promise.”

“Oh no, not this.” Not anything, more like, she thought, wanting to pull away with more strength but unwilling to make a show in front of so many watchers.

“C’mon Sara, it’s a ‘time to dance’,” Greg smiled as he reminded her of her words from the morning she had shown him around the yard.

Heads were turning from the dancers lined up. “Step lively now,” encouraged the man in the closest couple, “the music’s about to start.”

“Over here dear,” this from his partner when Sara made for the incorrect side. She beckoned to a position on her immediate left.

“But I don’t know how the steps,” Sara cried beseechingly.

“No worries, I’ll lead, you follow, and the great thing about this dance is that you’ve got time to watch all the other couples go through most of the steps before we do, since we’re on the far end,” Greg encouraged from across the gap.

The music started, couples clapping in time with the beat as Sara watched the first pair begin weaving and circling down the line. Greg was right, by the time the man got to her; she had a fair idea of the steps required. It really was more straightforward than she had first thought. She watched closely and counted with the music. To start, the top couple clasped each other with crossed hands and spun in dizzying turns for sixteen counts, before first the woman then the man systematically worked their way down and back up the line of successive partners, hooking arms and whirling once, -each time returning to their own partner until they finally reached the end. A second crazy spin before they performed the same manoeuvre on their way back down -whereupon the next couple began the whole thing over again. Still, she was pleased that the line was quite long and she had plenty of opportunity to watch before it was her and Greg’s time to be in the spotlight. As she danced, she went down the line muttering “ left, right, left, right,” making sure she presented her right arm to Greg and her left to the successive males down the line. By the time the dance was done, she was quite out of breath.

“Well done you,” Greg said appreciatively. “Let’s go and find another drink, -perhaps we’ll throw caution to the wind and splash out on juice this time,” he kept her arm tucked in his, still not entirely confident that, having tried one dance she wouldn’t opt to flee the ballroom.

He needn’t have worried, after the success of that first dance, Sara was hooked. The clapping, comradery and fun of the whole affair was infectious and she was keen to try more. As Greg had pointed out, tonight was ‘a time to dance’ and leave work behind for a few precious hours of enjoyment.

But as the evening progressed, Sara, who had lost count of how many new dances she had attempted -some with more aplomb than finesse- recognised that her tired feet were telling her it was time to stop dancing and go home to rest. Unlike the majority of these dancers, she had her usual early-morning start catching up on unfinished jobs around the nursery to look forward to on Sunday.

After a brief stop at the bountiful supper-tables, Greg and she said farewells to Mac and Donna. Climbing back up the grand ballroom stairs, Sara couldn’t help but feel a little like Cinderella, having to leave the ball before the hour struck midnight. However, once under the barbican towers, they did not continue out the door to the car park. Holding her hand, Greg directed her to one side, before he opened a heavy timber a door set in the entranceway wall.

“Where are we going?” Sara had assumed they were heading for the carpark.

“Mac said I should be sure to show you the view from the ramparts before we leave.”

“But I have to get home,” Sara protested.

“Come on. It’s a bit of a climb but he said it’ll be worth it. It won’t take more than ten minutes to go up, have a quick look and be back down again. I promise.”

Taking her silence for agreement he started up the stairs. Sighing heavily, Sara followed in his wake.

Mounting the worn stone treads of the tight spiral stairwell they ascended the turret. Huffing and puffing her way upwards, Sara promised herself that with the exercise she’d done this evening she wouldn’t need to run for the entire week. Just as she was beginning to think they’d never make to the top of the tower, Greg pushed open a small door that led to the rampart-enclosed circular open space at the top of the rook. A three-quarter moon and clear skies gave sufficient light to see their way across to the parapet. Sara walked to the edge and stood, looking around at the rolling Kent countryside bathed in moonlight. The brighter streetlights of the nearby village were all but hidden by tall trees that grew on the edges of the castle grounds. Here and there, across the landscape, pin-points of light showed where farmhouses and clusters of dwellings lay, but for the most part the expanse of blue-black sky and moonlit countryside was uncluttered by human existence.

“Looking down from up here it would be easy to think we were still back in the days when this castle was first occupied,” Sara remarked, leaning Greg thought, rather dangerously over the edge of the crenelated stonework of the fortified parapet to watch people pouring out the door from the ballroom and onto the central lawn.

“Yeah, except that’s someone’s BMW parked down there that I can see and not a horse,” commented Greg.

“What’s going on?” The doors leading to the ballroom had been thrown open and people were pouring out onto the central lawn.

“Hey careful Holly-girl. Long way down,” Greg cautioned, moving forwards, ready to grab should she lean too far.

“Why is everyone coming outside? Is there a fire? ” Sara questioned. She didn’t have to wait long for an answer -seconds later the sky was lit by a shimmering cascade of fireworks.

“Oooh, Wow!” she exclaimed, stepping back from the edge. As she reversed, she bumped into Greg, standing close behind. Not one for looking a gift horse in the mouth, he wrapped his arms around her as they both stared upwards at the sparkling show of coloured light and sound.

Sara stood still, surprisingly unprotesting his embrace. Rather, she leaned back comfortably and rested her head on his chest. It was nice to be held for a change, she thought, and the fireworks gave a perfect excuse to stand like this and watch. She rested her hands on top of his, feeling the new calluses from his work around the nursey as he loosely clasped his hands around her waist.

The display lasted most of fifteen minutes, ending with a final enormous crescendo of multiple rockets and exploding showers of brightly coloured sparks.

Greg, opening his mouth to comment on the show, was surprised into rapturous silence when Sara sinuously turned in his arms, encircled her own arms behind his shoulders and head and kissed him. Whatever he had been about to say was promptly forgotten as he allowed himself to be drawn deeper into her kiss. Unhinged by the flooding tide of emotions, one of his hands, in complete accord with his mouth, found its way down her lower back to her rear, enjoying the contours of her taut body beneath the smooth satiny fabric of her dress, while the other crept to cradle her head. The fingers of the hand around her head had begun to fondle one delicate ear and things were just starting to get interesting when Sara drew away, every bit as breathless as she had been after dancing.

Greg was less willing to surface from the kiss and reached to draw her back into his embrace but she stepped further away, just beyond the circle of his arms.

Moments passed before he was able to think, let alone draw breath to speak.

“Wow Holly-girl. It’s a wonder someone down below didn’t see the sparks flying. That was a better finale than any fireworks,” he whispered, when he was able to form words into a complete sentence once more. He reached for her a second time, unwilling to end the kiss, but she was no longer anywhere within arm’s reach.

“Don’t get the wrong idea, Roo-boy. That was a one-time-thing. Just put it down to the fireworks and the heat of the moment and don’t go reading anything more into it -tomorrow we’ll be back to business as usual,” Sara spoke more flippantly than she felt, still somewhat out of breath herself. As she spoke she was backing beyond his grasp and walking towards the door. “A time for … everything, remember. You were the one that said it. Now deal with it,” she said these words as she looked back over her shoulder before she ducked under the low lintel.

“Yeah. …for everything …under heaven,” he completed the line, indicating the wide expanse of moonlit sky above their heads, still wishing she would come back into the circle of his arms. Still, he thought jubilantly, it was a better end to the evening than he had pictured when they had first arrived at the castle. He followed her to the doorway, determined to act as blasé as she.

“Remind me to thank Mac and Donna the next time I see them for suggesting we come up the tower to enjoy the view,” he commented happily, adding a small insouciant shrug for her benefit as they began to wind their way back down the spiral.

That statement got Sara briefly wondering if Greg’s friend had been playing cupid with his thoughtful ‘suggestion’. Between Liana and Hamish’s manoeuvrings, and Mac and Donna’s machinations a girl could start to believe that she was being set-up by a bunch of well-meaning match-makers Still, all-in-all it had been a fun evening and the fireworks had been spectacular so she decided not to hold it against Greg’s friends. This time.

It was with a light-hearted feeling that she practically danced down the steps. “Did you know that castle tower stairs always spiral anti-clockwise from the top-down, making it easier for the castle’s defenders to swing their sword arm for defence than whoever was attacking from down below,” Sara waved her right hand as if she held a sword. “Huh and hiyah. Take that you blaggard,” she cried, thrusting her hand in riposte. “Back you scoundrel!”

“Bit of a bugger if you’re left-handed,” Greg cheerfully noted, following her down the steep uneven stairs. “Though I’d hold onto that rope while you’re repelling the invading hoards if I was you, -it’d be a nasty tumble down these steps if you fall and I don’t want to have to explain to some overworked junior doctor in the local A and E that you were fighting off imaginary Saxon invaders.”

Sara could go off-topic all she liked, he’d decided, but he would make certain they revisited this particular area of conversation again -the sooner the better. After several weeks spending time with her he was feeling increasingly determined to circumnavigate Sara’s self-imposed boss-worker rules and regulations.

Fifteen

burn the knotweed

Sara woke the next morning after a restless night. She was tucked up in her tiny bedroom under the thatch of The Brambles, early morning sunshine beaming through the mullions of the miniscule diamond-paned casement windows set at the end of a room that was barely large enough for her narrow single bed and a small wardrobe. The bright light formed criss-crossed lattice patterns over a flower-strewn patchwork quilt that had worked itself off her bed with her tossing and turning and onto the faded rag rug on the floor. Peering blearily up at the window, she was pleased to see it wasn’t raining, as the weather report had predicted, but not thrilled to discover it was morning already.

Her dreams had been full of disjointed Cinderella-like images of dancing with a handsome prince in a beautiful castle ballroom but had ended with something wicked lurking in the shadowed recesses of the castle that had been reaching for her with malevolent intent. As she raised her head off the pillow, she shook herself to dispel the last of the imagery. It had not been a pleasant to awaken again to the sense of twisted vines wrapping themselves around her limbs and throat. She was reminded of the dream of several weeks ago that had ended in a similar vein and as before, she involuntarily ran a hand across the base of her neck and upper arms as if to check that nothing was clinging to her skin.

“Silly girl,” she chided herself, “of course there’s nothing there. No boogie-man in the cupboard and you’re in the bed alone …as usual.” She grimaced. Even if there had been space in her miniscule bedroom, she had made the decision years ago not to have overnight guests sleeping in her bed. Not least because her son’s room was mere steps away across the equally tiny hall.

Switching to autopilot, she prepared to shove back the duvet and climb out of her small but cosily comfortable bed, first stretching her arms over her head in a manner reminiscent of a cat. The bed might not be large but it was perfectly sized for her small stature -stretched to her full length her feet did not touch the end. She was in the act of pushing back the covers before she remembered that there was no pressing need to rush. On accompanying her to the doorway of her cottage the night before, Greg had offered to collect Matthew and the van from White Briars this morning when he returned Hamish’s car. No-one to prepare breakfast for, hence there was no necessity to start her day quite as early as she had thought. Under more normal circumstances, she wouldn’t have been so keen to accept Liana’s offer for Matthew to sleep over when she was only out for an evening, but after the run-in with Jack she was not feeling so confident when it came to leaving her son alone in the cottage at night.

She reached a hand to turn and check her bedside clock. Hmm, seven forty, she noted. If she cuddled down she might manage another twenty minutes of dozing before she had to be up and in the shower. She closed her eyes and tried to concentrate on nothing at all, determined to feign sleep until at least eight a.m.

Greg meanwhile was also enjoying the morning’s sunshine, sitting at the kitchen table at White Briars, a mug of fresh coffee brewed by Hamish in front of him and deep in a conversation he had never intended to start. The subject: ...How to win over Sara’s heart. Greg was still a little flummoxed as to how the debate had begun as he certainly hadn’t driven to White Briars with the intention of sharing details of his -or Sara’s for that matter,- private lives. But somehow, that was just what he had done.

It had all begun simply enough with him expressing his thanks for the loan of the Austin, which he had driven the night before at Hamish’s insistence, Hamish’s argument being that the cumbersome nursery van was completely unsuitable as a chariot for any date involving an evening at a castle. This had been followed-up this morning by Hamish’s seemingly innocuous inquiry as to how the ceilidh had gone, which had somehow segued into an in-depth analysis of the evening’s dénouement and Sara’s apparent insistence that things would go no further, romantically speaking, between her and Greg. Much to his chagrin, he had even found himself describing in some detail how she’d walked at arm’s length from him all the way across the moonlit and indescribably romantic pathway under the orchard to her front door, whereupon she had briefly and formally thanked him for a lovely evening and disappeared indoors, firmly closing the door in his face. No offers of nightcaps or any further shenanigans. On his way back to the field-gateway, he had encountered Cara, who, for a mare, had given him such a look of disdain that he had begun to question his attraction to the fairer sex.

Talking with Hamish, Greg was fast becoming increasingly disheartened by the lack of progress towards a workable solution and was now watching a small red-breasted Robin, which had spent the last few minutes hopping around on the outer door stoop, chittering as if it was deciding whether to come inside and add its insights to the discussion.

“What was that?” Greg was sure he’d caught the sound of a muffled childish titter. He strained his ears to listen for sounds outside the sash windows. Shortly after they’d started their discussion, Hamish had opened all of the doors and windows to the kitchen, including the outer mudroom door, allowing a pleasantly fragrant breeze to waft around the room.

“Probably just a bird in the garden,” said Hamish. “Perhaps what this debate needs is a woman’s perspective. If Liana were here, I’m sure she could give you better advice than I.” Hamish spoke in studied tones and considerably louder than he had previously been talking.

Odd behaviour, Greg thought. Hamish had raised his voice for no apparent reason and was staring fixedly at a spot just outside the windows. Greg turned his head but could see nothing.

The bird flew away from the door all of a sudden – not leaving but flitting back to alight on the open kitchen window sill, where it perched, as if awaiting the continuation of their dialogue. Moments later Liana appeared, as if on cue, silhouetted in the light of the doorway, a large bunch of flowers loosely clutched under one arm while her other held the hand of her daughter. Both were barefoot but neither seemed overly bothered by their dew-wet toes.

Betony tittered, -much like the sound Greg had thought he’d heard- dropped her mother’s hand and ran to her father, climbing on his lap. She reached a chubby, not entirely clean little hand to grab a toast soldier from a plate on the table, dipping it in Hamish’s boiled egg and stuffing it her pretty little mouth before reaching up and kissing him on the cheek with egg-smeared lips. “’Morning dada. Mummy talked to flowers an’ they gived us blossoms. Lots of pretty.”

Her childish babble was cute if not entirely comprehensible, thought Greg, with the ‘l’s’ in flowers and blossoms coming out more as a ‘w’.

“That’s nice sweetheart. While you beautiful ladies were gone, I made boiled eggs and toast soldiers for breakfast,” Hamish spoke rapidly, hoping to distract his small daughter from revealing more than she ought. “I’m sure you’re hungry after all your adventures. Here, have another,” he placed a second and then a third segment of buttered toast in her hands in the hope that she would fill her mouth.

Liana looked on knowingly, a small smile hovering around her lips. She picked up a flannel off a rack near the stove and walked forward to wipe Betony’s hands, removing the remaining toast from her fingers before washing and drying, first her hands, then her feet.

“There, that’s better,” she murmured, “now, before Daddy has you choking on toast soldiers, why don’t we put your breakfast on a tray -then you can have a special treat and eat in the living room while you watch Winnie the Pooh.” She scooped the little girl off Hamish’s lap and settled her on her hip, promptly disappearing into the adjacent room, from where she reappeared moments later to collect the food.

She came back through the kitchen door, “There, all settled,” she raised an eyebrow to Hamish, “our daughter does love all those charming characters from the hundred-acre wood. Must be something in the genes,” she fixed Hamish with a steely look before turning to Greg, “Now, what is this that requires a woman’s perspective?” she enquired sweetly. “Something about you and our Sara. I couldn’t help but overhear a little as Betony and I walked past the window.”

Hamish, knowing full well that she and Betony had been standing outside and listening, unseen if not exactly unheard, did his best to maintain a straight face.

Greg wondered how he hadn’t noticed the pair passing by the open kitchen windows. But then, he thought, he had been distracted by the Robin’s antics. Maybe they had both slipped by while his attention was elsewhere.

“Well, it’s like this…,” Greg restarted his tale of the previous evening.

Hamish settled back in his chair, marvelling at his lovely wife’s ability to look as if the story was completely new to her ears.

Greg recounted the night’s happenings, culminating in Sara’s kiss and his confusion over whether to remain patient or to pursue. He ended the tale with, “I don’t understand why she turns around and plants one on me then shrugs it off as if it’s nothing and says that’s it, he concluded.”

“Simple, when you know her,” Liana said gently, “She’s…

“…scared.” She and Hamish spoke in unison.

“I got it on the second hearing,” Hamish added sheepishly, raising his coffee cup, “took a bit of time for the coffee to kick in.”

“So what should I do?” Greg ignored Hamish and aimed his question at Liana, figuring she had better insight into her friend’s mind.

“I believe I know the way to Sara’s heart,” Liana smiled, “Now, if I were you I would…”

She gave her instructions.

Up and dressed, Sara wandered across to the nursery and followed the sound of happy whistling to its source -Greg was watering seedlings in the tunnel house.

“You sound chirpy this morning. Had breakfast?”

He looked rested …And far too sexy for this time of day, dressed as he was in faded jeans and a wrinkled tee-shirt with the word Wintersun emblazoned across his chest. But she wasn’t about to voice those thoughts. She was still trying to come to terms with her own impetuous behaviour the night before. So much for not breaking her ironclad rule of never fraternising with the staff. Mind you, she thought, he was the first male employee she’d had that wasn’t either family or still in high school so the ‘rule’ had never really been water-tested before now. As maiden voyages went though, she was concerned that this one was heading towards a similar outcome as that of the Titanic on her first trip across the Atlantic.

“Yep, I was up with the robins -well, one Robin anyway. I ate over at White Briars. Yummy boiled eggs with toast soldiers,” he smiled beatifically, looking like some slightly dishevelled angel with those double dimples, before he ruined the ruse by flicking the hose in her direction, spraying her with cold water.

“Ugh, stop that,” Sara moved further away, “I’ve already had one shower this morning. I do not need another.”

“Oh come on, I’m feeling frisky.” He did a little impromptu jig before resuming the watering.

Unimpressed, Sara kept one eye on the hose. “Well, that’s good to hear you’re feeling your oats, because you’ll need all your energy today. We’ve got an unexpected job to do.”

“And that would be?” he crooked a finger in a come-hither gesture. “Come closer and tell me all about it.”

Sara just gave him a look as if to say, ‘do you really think I’m that stupid?’ and stayed right where she was, close by the door.

“I’ve just been for a walk around the Christmas trees and found an infestation of Japanese knotweed at the edge of the woods. It wasn’t there a week ago but it seems to have already taken hold and I want it gone before it can spread any further. So, if you’re up for a spot of digging, we’re going to drop everything else that I had planned for today, dig it all up and burn it.” Sara knew her father would be cross with her for missing the morning church service in Thornden but it wasn’t to be helped. He would just have to get over it.

“Doesn’t sound such a big deal.”

“Really? You’ve never dealt with knotweed before, have you?”

“No. But I imagine it’s like any other plant.” …At her look, “What’s the catch?”

“Well, it’s like this …knotweed is designated as a noxious weed here in the UK -and for a good reason,” Sara held her thumb and forefinger close together, “you start with a tiny bit, about so big, and before you know it,” she stretched her hands as far apart as they would go, “it’s everywhere.” She dropped her hands to her sides. “It doesn’t spread by seed here but it does multiple like wildfires, with underground rhizomes that can go down as far as four metres. So, if we leave even a miniscule piece of the rhizome behind,” she returned to the thumb and forefinger measurement, “well, even that much and it will sprout again -and we’ll be back to where we started in no time. So the upshot is, we have to dig deep and wide -at least seven metres around the stand of living plants- to make sure we get every last little bit. I don’t want to use herbicide so close to the nursery so we’ll have to dig the rhizomes out, sift the soil and burn any plant material we find.”

“Whoa. I see what you mean. Sounds like a fun day for all involved.”

“With just you and me, it could take several fun days. But I want this pest gone. If we don’t fight it right now and eradicate the lot, the clump will take over the entire nursery within a growing season or two. That stuff can grow twenty centimetres in a day.”

“Okay. It’s on the warpath we are then.” He smiled broadly, “Perhaps I should paint my face with woad and bring my bagpipes to lead us into battle.”

“Whatever works,” she said grimly, “although, in this case, I’d think the small digger and the large sieve might be of more assistance than face paint and bagpipes.”

“Fair enough boss. Then I’ll go collect the tools and meet you over there,” he crouched to turn off the hose tap. “Far side of the Christmas tree plantation, you said?”

“Hmmm, and I’ll grab the spade and a garden fork,” she started to walk away then stopped in mid-stride, turning, “where’s Matthew? I thought you were bringing him back with you from White Briars. We can use all the help we can get.”

“Liana and Hamish were happy to have him so I left him in bed. Hope that was okay?” Matthew had still been asleep upstairs, and Liana, thinking a day together for Sara and Greg, without Matthew’s presence, would help her plan to come to fruition more speedily had been disinclined to wake the teen.

“Oh … okay. Just us then.”

“Yep. Just you and me.” He smiled that angelic grin.

The day’s work proved to be every bit as arduous as Sara had described.

Satisfying though, Greg thought, leaning on his spade and looking at the gratifyingly-high pile of rhizomes and bamboo-like stems with their large heart-shaped leaves he and Sara had heaped up on a pegged-out tarpaulin. The work had gone faster than Sara had predicted -the soil was nicely friable, making it easy to sift and working together like a well-oiled machine the two had dug, sifted, sorted and piled up every last piece of plant by the time dusk was creeping in.

Jack, watching from behind the trunks of the woodland trees, was incensed. The knotweed had been something he had nurtured in the depths of the woods since finding a section of rhizome that had been inadvertently brought back from France. Jack remembered the occasion well -it marked the time when he had thought he’d rid himself of Liana for good.

Unfortunately, she’d come back and his very brief reign as King of the Garden had been nipped in the bud.

He’d kept the plant alive but not spreading; controlling its rampant growth with his burgeoning powers, thinking it might come in useful one day.

And that day had finally come, he’d thought. Keen to get revenge on the bastard half-fairy for her take-down and to show off a little of his special brand of mischief, he had transplanted the knotweed to the woodland edge after his run-in with Liana and Sara. Now all his efforts would come to nothing if he couldn’t get near the pile to procure a segment of rhizome. He had used all he had available to begin the infestation and he would lose the chance to grow more if he couldn’t grab a piece. He watched, hoping the pair would be lax enough to leave the pile unattended, but Sara was not leaving anything to chance. She and the man caught the corners of the tarp, folding the sheet so nothing escaped and dragged it to a concrete-paved part of the yard where Sara normally stored mounds of mulch, sand and other materials. She liberally doused the pile with accelerant then tossed a match on the whole, both she and the man staying like two sentries on guard-duty, watching it burn down to ash in the fading light of the day.

“That was a job well done, if I do say so myself,’ said Greg, poking the smouldering pile of hot ash to check for any viable pieces of rhizome, before he damped the fire down with the hose. The remaining embers hissed and sizzled with the addition of the water until nothing was left but a small pile of damp grey slag.

Determined to leave nothing to chance, Sara scooped up the fire’s residue and deposited it into a bucket. She would lock it in the shed, she thought, until she could be rid of it. “This stuff’s not going anywhere near the compost,” she said grimly.

Now they were done, Greg took the opportunity to check his watch. “Wow, is that the time? I didn’t realise it was so late.”

“Yeah, really flies when you’re having fun,” Sara said drolly.

He ignored her. “Hey, I have to be off and take a shower,” he announced. “I have somewhere to be.” With that, he turned and walked swiftly away in the direction of the shop and his upstairs flat.

“Ah, well. Bye then. Thanks for all your help and see you later,” Sara muttered to his retreating back. “So much for hanging around for the ‘after party’.” For some reason, she couldn’t help but feel a little sorry for herself. She had thought she’d offer to make him a cup of tea or possible even dinner as thanks for his assistance but he’d probably done them both a favour by running away so quickly before she had had time to mention it.

She dumped the bucket with its nasty contents in the shed and padlocked the door with a sturdy lock and chain before heading back to the cottage to clean up and find something to eat. Cara was standing by the orchard gate, but not waiting for her, it seemed. From the half-empty feed-bucket on the ground it was apparent that Greg had been by and given her dinner. The mare turned her ample, wide rump to Sara and continued eating as if Sara did not exist. Walking through the orchard, Sara felt a sense of loneliness, where before, there had always been ‘aloneness’ …which was an entirely different thing.

A scant ten minutes later, Sara emerged from the shower cubicle. Wrapping a towel around her body and tucking the ends over her chest, she rubbed a damp hand over the misty mirror surface, surveying herself.

“Hmmm,” she muttered, twisting her mouth to one side as she looked at her reflection. In the warm, damp air of the bathroom, the mirror was already in danger of misting up again. She passed her hand over the glass a second time, staring at the image. “Do I have the balls to do this?” she questioned.

Without Matthew and alone in the cottage, there was no one around to answer -she was left talking to own reflection and it was proving a less than vociferous conversationalist. She made a moue with her lips once more, before finger-combing her short locks back from her brow, exposing her distinctively-shaped ears. Raising both hands this time, she traced the outline of each up to its delicate point. “Oh, why not?” she reasoned, “I don’t have time to do anything else.” She opened the bathroom cabinet and grabbed a small bottle of Moroccan oil, tipping some on her palms before massaging it into her still-damp hair to hold it in place as she smoothed her locks close to her scalp. “That’ll have to do,” she announced, to no one in particular. Drying the rest of her body, she applied a minimum of make-up before fleeing into her bedroom and digging in the back of her wardrobe to find the shortest skirt she owned. She added a simple close-fitting top in a matching shade and a pair of black, knee-high boots, dragging the boots on as she made for the stairs and the front door.

The words, “I have to certifiable,” drifted on the evening air as she slammed the door behind her. The draft from the closing door sent a small sheet of notepaper wafting the air, where it flew like a leaf in a breeze for a moment before landing back on the kitchen table.

Sixteen

aye aye cap’n

It wasn’t difficult to find everyone. Easier, in fact, than finding a parking space. The entire village must be here, Sara thought crossly, as she saw familiar vehicles parked haphazardly all along the lane. Not able to progress further than a short distance down the driveway, she had to leave her bike squeezed in a barely large enough gap between two parked cars. She stowed the helmet and followed the noise of what sounded like a sizeable crowd, self-consciously smoothing first her skirt then her hair as she walked.

“I hope I don’t live to regret this,” she spoke to the still night air as she started along the path towards the terrace.

“Regret what?” a familiar voice questioned.

Sara started and stifled a small squeak as a shape materialised from under the shadow of a tree beside the path.

It was a barely-recognisable Greg. His longish locks had been trimmed; and judging by the outfit he was wearing, he’d known about this shindig considerably longer than she. Granted, the snugly fitting trousers and dark undershirt wouldn’t have been too hard to find but he certainly hadn’t had time to whip that costume up while they had been clearing the knotweed. Her eyes narrowed as she gave him the once-over. Considering that she had only found out via the note left on her kitchen table a scant half-hour ago, it was entirely possible that everyone here would have known longer than she. She wondered what she had got herself into with her rash decision to pick the easiest character she could think of at such short notice.

“Like what you see?” he asked, head to one side, grinning at her. With his shortened hair, sculpted sideburns and the uniform of yellow-gold outer shirt with its distinctive insignia, he bore more than a passing resemblance to Chris Pine as a younger James T Kirk. His normally laconic gait had altered to more of a swagger, and in keeping with the role he portrayed; his attitude had gone far enough beyond self-confident that it could have been described as ‘cocksure’.

Sara decided to play along in character too. “I’m unsure what it is that you are asking sir. After all ‘like’ is a rather emotive word, don’t you think, Captain?” she replied in a frosty tone, designed to put a dampener on his overconfident persona.

She walked forward a few steps, putting her within the circle of the dim glow of the path lamp.

“Wowzer!” he exclaimed. “Look at you,” he badly wanted to suck in a breath, but suddenly all the air in the garden had gone elsewhere. Role forgotten, he twirled a finger in the air to indicate that she should spin around for him to take a better look. He was sorely disappointed when she did not comply and stood still, hands on hips and glaring at him instead. “Nice costume. I’m particularly liking the little red skirt and black boots combination,” he spoke breathlessly, waggling the finger in an up-and-down motion to indicate her choice of clothing and footwear. “I haven’t seen those pins since the day you came running by my camp. It makes me glad all the way to my little pitty-patty little heart that you didn’t opt for trousers. So who are you then? Uhura?”

Sara tugged at the hem of her skirt. Too late to wish it were any longer, she thought. Hearing noises from the terrace, she turned ever so slightly to her left.

His attention rose instantly from her bare thighs to her smoothly coifed head, “Goodness. Not Uhura, then you’re a Vulcan. Those ears look so real.” A transfixed look on his face, he stretched out a hand.

“Don’t touch m’ …I mean, the ears!” Sara all but screeched.

“Oh, come on Sara, they’re awesome,” he chortled, “or should that be ‘earsome’?” Greg extended a hand a second time, only to have it forcibly batted away.

“Hands off boyo,” she all but snarled, raising a painted-on eyebrow in a supercilious expression to reinforce her point. “You try that again and commanding officer or not, I’ll forget the stunner and you’ll lose a hand. And what’s more, I will not put up with a whole night of ‘ear’ jokes.” She muttered to herself once more, “Reduced to cosplay just to watch a movie. I knew this was a bad idea.”

“No, believe me when I say,” He held up a hand in a placating gesture, “from the bottom of my heart -it’s a great idea.” He placed the hand over his heart. “I’m amazed you put such a great look together in such a short time.” Waiting and hoping that she would arrive, he had rehearsed an apology but seeing her like this, couldn’t bring himself to say the words. “I thought about telling you all day, but Liana made me keep mum. She said you’d just have more time to make up excuses why you couldn’t come out.” He held out a hand to forestall any response, “I was waiting for you -you’re almost late and the movie’s about to start so you’d better come with me. I’ve booked us a couple of bean bags in a prime position.”

Having come this far, Sara felt that she had little choice but to proceed. As she walked alongside, she could feel him taking surreptitious glances at her ears. When she noticed his hand start to sneak in her direction once more, she glared. He retracted the hand but from his wide grin, did not appear at all repentant.

“Yes Sara dearest. Movie night was Hamish’s idea but it was my idea to leave it until the last minute to tell you,” reiterated Liana a short while later. “Hamish had costumes sent down from London and if you refused to come I had planned to tell you we’d kidnapped Matthew and you wouldn’t get him back unless you came over in person, in costume,” she said in what sounded very much to Sara, a smug undertone. “I’m pleased to see that I didn’t need to resort to such underhanded tactics.”

Greg had wandered out of earshot in search of popcorn and drinks, which Liana had informed him, were on a table in the vestibule.

“You sure that you shouldn’t be dressed as that villainous Khan dude instead of …who exactly are you?” accused Sara, eying Liana’s long, body-hugging gown and loose hair flowing down her back, a few strands caught up with pretty sparkly clips. She looked as if she were heading for a ball, rather than any interstellar mission.

“Liana looped a finger behind one ear, exposing a pointy tip very similar to Sara’s. I am a Vulcan. In disguise,” she smiled serenely.

“An’ I’m a little Wulcan from Hoff,” lisped Betony beside her, brandishing a plastic light-sabre in one hand. The other was holding the hand of another little girl who looked vaguely familiar to Sara.

Sara smiled at the girls. “You both look lovely.” Betony wore a child-sized version of the white gown worn by Princess Leia in much of Stars Wars IV, complete with a wig made from thick brown yarn, knotted into side-buns.

“We are still a little confused on our Sci-Fi movies. At your insistence, Betony and I have worked our way through that set of DVD’s you so kindly gave us,” explained Liana, smiling fondly at her daughter, “and now someone is very determined that she is a Vulcan princess, from Hoth, so we have just decided to run with it. Do you like the wig? I made it myself. With my own fair hands” she added, wiggling her fingers proudly.

“Yeah, good job,” Sara was listening with half an ear, staring fixedly at the other little girl. Not anyone that she knew from the village. Sara still couldn’t quite place the child. Wearing a filmy green gown and sporting ears very similar to Sara’s and Liana’s, she looked more as if she was playing an extra elf from Lord of the Rings than any of the Star Trek movies.

Watching Sara closely, Liana spoke again. “And this is Betony’s new friend, Ariella. You remember Ariella, don’t you Sara?” The girl gazed up at Sara -with eyes of bright forest green and red hair tucked behind the ears that were a miniature version of her own. Startled at finally placing where they had met, Sara recognised the young rowan-child she and Liana had encountered that memorable day in the woods. Surprised to see a fey child out among the local villagers, Sara looked questionably at Liana as if to ask, “Do you think this is safe?”

“It’s fine Sara. Hamish and I thought tonight’s movie-choice and the costumes would allow the forest-folk to mingle more easily among everyone without standing out.”

“Are you sure coming out of the woodsy closet, so to speak, is such a good idea?” Sara was doubtful.

“Don’t be concerned Sara dearest. It’s not so much ‘coming out of the closet’, or the woods in this case, as merely opening the door slightly to allow a breath of fresh air.” Liana smiled briefly. “With the Gardener absent for so long, it’s high time more of the folk regained some control over their own destiny. Of course, that will take time.” She shrugged. “A few fey have agreed to attend this evening but most are still firmly lodged in their trees …and rocks …and pools.” Her tone on the last two words more than expressed her displeasure. She referenced the water nymphs, who had always been her least favourite of the forest-fey.

“So how will I know who’s who?” Sara looked around as if she half-expected fairy-folk to pop up at any moment.

“That is precisely the whole point of the evening, Sara,” saying this Liana once again touched a finger-tip to Sara’s nearest ear, “this fancy dress is all about being able to be yourself while remaining incognito.”

Something began to dawn on Sara. She felt as if she had been set up. “Have you been spying on me? What do you know that I don’t know you know?” she began to say, accusingly. She was interrupted by a deeply accented Scottish voice.

“Ahh, here are all my beautiful ladies,” Hamish spoke from behind Sara’s back. “Such lovely ears, Sara,” he touched a fingertip to Sara’s lobe before she could react and pull away. His Scottish accent had never been more pronounced.

“So, no prizes for guessing that you’re Scotty?” Sara said dryly, twisting around to look him up and down. His costume was similar to Greg’s other than the addition of a red top instead of the gold.

“Who else could I be with this accent?” answered Hamish, hamming it up. He appeared to be thoroughly enjoying himself.

“Then perhaps you could beam me up and get me out of here,” she grumbled.

“Sorry girl, the matter transporter’s broken and I canna fix it in time,” Hamish was enjoying his role immensely, “so you’re stuck in this galaxy for the duration of this evening. It’s high time you took the night off and had some fun,” he retorted laughingly.

Sara looked around at the crowd of people settling into an assortment of low-slung chairs, beanbags, rugs and cushions -placed in rough rows all across the top terrace of White Briars. A large screen occupied the space in front of the cottage, and the music and title sequences for the movie were already rolling.

“Now that we’re all here, let’s go watch the movie, shall we?” Hamish held out an arm for his wife and daughter. Betony kept firm hold of Ariella’s hand and she followed along. They moved to the far side of the terrace, where empty seats were waiting.

Greg, an elbow, crooked for her to take, appeared at Sara’s side. He was holding a carrier with two drinks and an overflowing carton of popcorn in his other hand. “Are you ready to accompany me to our places now, lieutenant? We’re front and centre, right where the Captain ought to be.”

“Don’t get any ideas, James T,” she warned. “I’ll do that Vulcan shoulder-thingy on you if you so much as think of touching an ear,” she glowered.

He looked at her from under his brows in his best James T Kirk impersonation. “I can throw you in the brig if you don’t comply,” he said sternly. The look and the intonation were both bang on.

“Have you been practising?”

“Yup. All day. Every time your back was turned.”

She shook her head and tut-tutted. “You’ve got it bad, haven’t you,” she stated.

His voice dropped and his expression turned serious. He leaned forward slightly, balancing on the balls of his feet and looked directly in her eyes. “You know what, I think I have.” He touched a finger softly to her chin.

Sara frowned and pulled away. She couldn’t move far without appearing rude, as he’d clamped her arm against his body. From his tone, it would seem that this time he was not acting a role. “How come I feel as if we’ve just gone ‘off-topic’?” she asked, gnawing her bottom lip in consternation.

“I don’t know about you, Holly-girl but I’ve never been more ‘on-topic’’ he replied a little tersely. “Though I do wonder if it’s going to be a ‘five year mission’ to convince you of that.” He was silent for a moment, then continued, his tone more jovial, “But, to answer your question and in the spirit of sharing, I feel that you should know that, yes, I am a Trekkie, from way back. You looked her straight in the eyes once more. “But deep down, I think that you are too. Now come on,” he grabbed her hand and pulled her in the direction of two unoccupied beanbags. “Stick with me lieutenant and I’ll show you a good time …after all, I have fresh popcorn.”

“That was spectacular!” crowed Greg, pumping his arms in the air as the movie’s end credits rolled. “I loved the ending. Doesn’t it seem so much more appropriate to watch a movie like this in the outdoors, with the moon and stars above instead of a cinema roof,” he added, lying back in his beanbag -throwing and catching the last pieces of popcorn in his open mouth while gazing upwards at the night sky.

“Hmmm,” Sara sounded preoccupied. He had seen her craning her neck several times during the movie, seemingly more intent on watching the crowd than on keeping her eyes on the screen.

“Too slow for you? Boring? Not enough death defying stunts?’ he asked curiously. He tossed a handful of popcorn at her, which she swatted away.

“Nah,” she spoke absently, “I’m just looking for …someone.”

“Well it looks like we’ve lost some of the crowd already, so you may not find them now,” he said. Half-way through the movie, when he had caught her glancing around for the fourth or fifth time, he had noticed that there were movie-watchers standing on the edges of the terrace, not seeming to want to sit in the empty places they could have taken up. He had thought nothing of it and redirected his gaze back to the action on the screen but now the crowd had thinned back to what it had been he wondered where they had all gone.

“Anyone in particular?’ He felt a small stab of jealousy that he tried to ignore. “Anyone I should know?” He pulled a small plastic prop from his pocket, “anyone I should taser?’

“No,” she replied, “not even anyone that I know,” she shook her head as if to dispel an errant thought. “Don’t worry about it. It’s no big deal.”

The screen went dark and people started to scramble out of bags and chairs and trickle away back to their cars.

“I feel as if I need a walk to stretch my legs after all that lying about and eating popcorn and fizzy. How about we go for a quick spin round the garden?” suggested Greg.

“I guess,” she acquiesced, still with half her mind on looking for fey. Having never seen an adult fey other than Liana, she did not want to admit it to herself but she had more than a passing interest in checking out what the grown-ups might look like.

“That’s the style. I like your enthusiasm,” he spoke glibly to mask his slight disappointment at her lukewarm response.

“Huh?” Quitting the surveillance, she dragged her attention back to the man beside her.

Five year mission…” She thought she heard Greg mumble the phrase again under his breath, as he jumped to his feet.

The night air was still, a thin sickle moon partially lighting the way down the steps off the top terrace. The pale glow of lanterns placed at intervals helped considerably. As they strolled through the amorphous masses of the clipped yew either side of the yew lawn, Sara recounted her first meeting with Hamish, on this spot. She ended her tale with, “…by the time we’d both fallen over and picked ourselves up, it was like something out of a Laurel and Hardy movie,” she laughed quietly, “…it doesn’t seem like only three years ago. So much happened back then but it all settled down,” she stopped, going silent all of a sudden. “And now everything’s getting all weird again,” she said.

It was on the tip of Greg’s tongue to ask her what she meant, but he was distracted.

They had descended the steps to the pool glade and were walking towards the summer house when Greg spotted a couple that he assumed must be villagers, either side of a little girl, their silhouettes barely visible in the dim light. Instead of taking the trail that led towards Thornden they all appeared to have been heading into the woods. He though it odd that they were walking home this late instead of driving like the other villages and even odder that they were not taking the village-path, but were instead looking as if they were about to disappear into the woodland proper. Hearing approaching footsteps behind, the man turned. He glanced across at the woman and they halted as if unsure whether to speed away or stop and wait.

Sara recognised the child this time. It was Ariella, and, presumably, her parents, caught in the act of returning home. This close, she could see that both parents had the same bright red hair as their offspring. As well as the distinctive ears of the woodland fey.

The girl tugged on her mother’s hand for attention and whispered a few words to her. After listening, the woman straightened, turned and spoke to Sara.

“Ariella tells me that we are not to be concerned. That she knows you and you are friend of Liana’s,” the woman’s voice was as soft as dew in the morning.

“Yes,” replied Sara, equally quietly. “Your daughter and I met each other, unexpectedly, one day in the woods.”

The couple eyed her curiously, the man’s eyes straying to her ears. He said nothing but Sara had the over-riding urge to pull her hair back into its more normal style to cover them from his inspection.

“Ariella explained that day, upon her return, that you were one of us,” the woman stated simply. “So, the stories are true.”

“What stories?” Sara asked.

“You don’t know the tale?” Ariella’s mother cocked her head to one side, reminding Sara of the way the garden robin would look at her. “Curious. I wonder why that is?”

“Tell me,” Sara pressed.

The woman shook her head, “If you don’t know, then it’s not for me to tell you.”

“How do I go about finding out if no one will tell me?”

“Perhaps you would be best to ask The Garden,” she smiled sadly. “Farewell.” With that the trio walked away without a backward glance, disappearing into the darkness of the woods …all except Ariella, whose hands were firmly grasped by both her parents but who glanced with a puckish smile over her shoulder as if to say ‘see you soon’.

“That was a little odd,” said Greg. “I feel like I’ve just encountered an alien race that adopted you as one of their own, but left me behind. Any idea what she was talking about?”

“No. None at all,” Sara said shortly, wanting to change the subject. “If we go up this way we can circle back to the driveway and my bike. Matthew’s staying with Liana and Hamish another night and I’ll let you drive if you like.” She indicated a path to the right of the summerhouse.

Greg could tell that he was being manipulated by the enticement of driving the bike, but decided to go along with her carrot-on-a-stick ploy. He had hoped for a longer walk though now Sara seemed lost in her thoughts and not inclined to tarry. Still, he stood for just a moment to appreciate the starlit sky. Looking up to the heavens, he put a hand on her shoulder to get her attention. “Wow, look at that,” he pointed skywards, “a meteor.” The long plume of its bright white tail shot across the night sky, shining briefly among the myriad pinpricks of the stars before disappearing from view. “Quick. Make a wish.”

“Later,” said Sara absently, moving away towards the path.

So much for Hamish and Liana’s earlier suggestion of a post-movie ‘romantic starlit stroll’, thought Greg dourly. It was obviously going to take the big guns to crack open this girls’ romantic streak. He was sure it was there, somewhere, lurking under the surface of her indifferent behaviour …he would just have to dig deeper to find it.

Well, he thought, after weeks of working around the nursery, he had the calluses already …so he might as well enjoy the digging.

“I have an idea,” announced Greg, as he set the big bike onto its stand. It was now or never.

“You do?” Sara’s voice was somewhat muffled by the helmet she still wore.

“Tomorrow,” he glanced at his watch, “today, I mean, is the final day of the Green Man Festival at Biddenden. I have tickets if you’d like to go?” he placed his hands over hers and gently prised the helmet off her head.

“I haven’t been to a folk festival in years. And Biddenden’s one of the best.” There was a hint of wistfulness in Sara’s voice that immediately turned to resolve, “But you know I can’t take the day off,” she briskly shook her hair out, pulling strands over to cover her ears. “We’re far too busy.”

Greg did wonder for a moment why she had not removed the fake tips. He peered closer in the dim light …those ears did look remarkably life-like. “Already taken care of,” he said. “Hamish, Liana and Arthur will mind the nursery. All day. You know they’re more than competent to run the place for a day.”

He opened the gate to the orchard, gesturing for Sara to go ahead.

Sara paused halfway through the gateway. “What about Matthew? I feel like I’ve hardly seen him lately. I shouldn’t leave him for another day.” As she said this, she knew Matthew would like nothing better.

“Sorted that too. Mac’s offered to pick him up and is gonna show him how a rock star lives for a day so no need for the maternal guilt-trip.” Greg gave her a little push and closed the gate behind them.

Sara started along the orchard path, speaking over her shoulder. “Ha. Rock star for a day …that’s a good thing? How?” Now he could hear threads of both doubt and wistfulness in her voice. “Besides, I wouldn’t ask him to do that for me. I don’t know Mac and Donna that well.”

“Good thing that I do then. Done already.” He counted off on his fingers, “Asked. Agreed. Organised.”

“I don’t know about this. You seem to be specialising in very short notice for these outings. First the movie, now this. Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t.”

Sara turned to speak, determined to say a final ‘no’ to the festival plans, no matter how organised Greg seemed to have everyone. He was no longer following docilely along behind her. He had hoisted himself onto the lowest branch of the first apple tree alongside the path and as she watched, swung his body in an arc so that he was dangling by his legs.

“Shouldn’t. Wouldn’t. Couldn’t.” Imitating a clock pendulum, Greg nodded his head side to side with each word. He stretched towards her, grinning and revealing what Liana had referred to that day in the nursery as ‘well-developed musculature’ as his Captain Kirk top draped around his upper chest and neck. “You know you want to Holly. Why not just say ‘yes! What a terrific idea Greg?’”

It was difficult to remain serious in the face of a grown man who was acting more like a kid at a playground. In addition, the sight of all that ‘well developed musculature’ was making it a trifle difficult to concentrate. Throwing caution to the wind, Sara could not help but grin back at him, “oh, what the hell. Yes, what a terrific idea Greg,” she poked him in the belly, causing him to sway backwards and forwards. “Since you’ve already taken care of everything else, I’d love to go.”

“That wasn’t so hard to do, was it?” he vaulted from the branch and took her hand in his. “Now I’ll see you to your door madam so you can get some beauty-sleep before our big day.”

They crossed the remainder of the orchard. Cara and the sheep were dim shapes under the willows, still and asleep, so they crept quietly beneath the trees to the far edge. He left her at her front door, saying, “I’ll pick you up around nine. Night-night Holly-girl.”

He had leaned in, kissed her on the cheek and was gone before she could protest, leaving her standing open-mouthed in surprise.

Smiling to herself, Sara unlocked her front door and slipped inside.

Seventeen

the green man

“Wow, folk festivals have changed a lot since the last time I went to one!” Sara exclaimed, scanning the vast throngs of people moving this way and that from her seat on the back of the bike. The peaceful wooded hamlet of Biddenden that she was familiar with had undergone a transformation, with its population of less than three thousand swelling exponentially over the weekend. It was barely mid-morning, but there were people everywhere as far as her eyes could see.

“Yeah- this festival’s getting bigger all the time -it’s not up there yet with the really big ones like Glastonbury -but it’s a lot less muddy underfoot and the toilets are a huge improvement,” Greg said, speaking over the low rumbling of the bike’s low-idling engine. “I like that they still only have four stages,” at Sara’s look he added, “some of the big festivals have nine or more these days. Plus, it’s good too that you can park right by your tent or tepee or whatever, saves the worries around security for your gear and gives you somewhere to keep the beers stashed. We should have come last night and we stayed over. It’s fun to sleep under the stars and wake up to the sun in places like this.” However, even as he said this, Greg knew he had reasons why he had not suggested the alternative to Sara.

“Thanks, but I’ve slept outdoors more than enough to last me several lifetimes, so I’ll pass on that,” Sara thought of the grim, cold, damp and decidedly insecure places she had sheltered when homeless.

Greg spoke as if he had read her mind, “Yeah, but this isn’t like sleeping under a bridge in jolly old London, Holly. It’s camping for fun. You should try it, you might like it.”

Greg paused briefly, balancing the heavy bike with one booted leg while he showed an entry pass to security. The guard sketched a casual salute and indicated the general direction they should take. Greg tucked the pass back under a worn Metallica tee he was wearing under his borrowed leathers and set the bike in low gear. It was a warm morning and he had undone the jacket to stay cool now they were off the road. After a heated discussion earlier that morning, he and Sara had decided who would drive the bike with a round of ‘rock, paper, scissors’, …when Sara had lost the first round, she’d insisted on best of three. It had been a close-fought competition, Sara had taken the next round but Greg had won the third …he couldn’t decide if driving the bike or having Sara plastered against his back was the better outcome of his good luck but wasn’t arguing about either. It had been a good start to a day that he hoped might bring them closer together. Now, he thought wryly, if he could just get Sara to accommodate a slight fluidity with the truth that he had been telling her these past weeks. He put it out of mind as he puttered into a free parking spot next to a large black bus with darkened windows and the words Clifford and Co painted in stylised print along the sides. He cut the motor, kicked the bike stand in place and he and Sara hopped off and stowed their leathers and helmets.

They had been greeted at the festival entrance by a gigantic effigy of a green man, his base formed of three enormous upturned tree stumps and his body a solid mass of intertwined twigs, straw and greenery. Surveying the monster, thinking that it veered a bit on the scary side of benign, Sara had tried hard not to think of Green Jack, though the thought that it was a good thing Jack wasn’t as mega-sized as this did cross her mind.

Not knowing where to look first, she swung her head in a wide arc wanting to take in as much as possible. To her left a sprawling tent city had sprung up, disappearing beyond a small stream and over the low rise of what she knew more normally as a hay meadow that would not have looked out-of-place in a Constable painting. Before her crowds jostled along a mown-grass boulevard with large tents and caravans either side, selling wares, food and drink and to her right excited groups of revellers danced exuberantly on the flat amphitheatre of trampled green in front of a large covered stage area. Further back, on gently sloping banks, other festivalgoers picnicked or just lazed on rugs and cushions, enjoying the sunny morning and the Irish folk-rock band that was currently playing.

“And they’ve gotten louder than I remember, too, for a folk festival that is.” She raised her voice over the pulsing beat of the drums, bagpipes and electric fiddle emanating from the stage, where huge speakers were placed strategically either side to amplify the sound.

“Yeah, I really like these guys a lot,” Greg yelled back, “but their music’s more folk-rock than folk and not made for conversation. Come with me.” He motioned Sara further away, through the field dotted with everything from pup tents to tepees, across a low footbridge and among trees skirting the perimeter of a reed-edged pond. “There’s still plenty happening over this way but it’s generally a tad quieter,” he announced, once they were out of range of the speakers.

“You seem to know your way around awfully well. I gather this isn’t the first time you’ve been to this festival then?” she asked.

“Nah -I’m a bit of a regular.” He was reluctant to say more. She would find out soon enough.

Greg was correct about the variety of entertainment and activities on offer away from the main stage. They stopped for a moment by one small crowd who were transfixed by a performer dancing with fire, watching her flirting and cavorting with the flames as if they wouldn’t hurt her. They moved on, passing by another knot of people listening to a lone saxophonist. Briefly joining a third group who were clapping and swaying in time to drummers playing a calypso beat on Jamaican steel drums. Eyed food tents that offered a dizzying array of edible treats, many freshly cooked on portable gas stoves. Children wove around and about among the adults, chasing one-another and trailing bright ribbons as they ran.

As they approached the pond, Sara was surprised to see that set at intervals around the edge were half a dozen wooden hot tubs, each with its own smoking chimney. In twos and threes, festivalgoers either lounged in the warm waters with glasses of wine or beer, or alongside the tubs on striped canvas decks chairs. A few brave souls had ventured into the pond, paddling or splashing around in the grey-green water but most seemed to prefer the tubs.

“How about we claim one of these for ourselves?” enquired Greg, tapping the side of an unoccupied barrel. “I fancy a soak.”

“No thank you. I had a shower this morning and don’t want another bath right now,” protested Sara, “Besides, I thought we came to listen to music.”

“Ah, but as you pointed out, things have changed and folk festivals have gotten a bit more sophisticated nowadays than you might remember and are far more than just listening to a bit of music and smoking the odd illicit joint,” Greg said. “Look around.” He swung an arm in an arc, “you’ve got the music; but now they’ve added story-tellers, poets and theatre acts and wild-food providers. And,” taking her by the shoulders, he spun her gently towards a group riding stationary bicycles, intent, it seemed, on producing power from their workout, “don’t forget there’s your greenies and vegans and suchlike and an entire area devoted to yoga, healing and alternative medicine.”

“Aww, that’s all very well but where are the Morris dancers?” Sara observed sadly. “It’s hardly a folk festival without them. Frankly, I’m disappointed.”

“Well, it’s more than likely they’ll be along later,” Greg raised a brow in question. “I wasn’t aware you favoured Morris dancing as a folk-art form?”

“I don’t. I was joking.”

“Uh huh,” he nodded in understanding. “I getcha. Is that like a mild dislike or you really can’t stand?”

“Wherever they are, I’ll make sure that I’m elsewhere.”

“Ooh, ouch, -definitely not your favourite then?”

She shook her head, grimacing. “Ick.” On the topic of Morris dancing, she agreed with both Hamish and Liana, thinking it odd that men would chose such a silly dance-form when there were so many others to opt for.

“I dunno,” Greg mused, his eyes alight with merriment, “I kinda like the eccentricity of it all. And I don’t have to love the dancing to appreciate the cultural stuff. To be honest, it’s no weirder to an Aussie than a lot of other English traditions.”

“Yes, but it’s downright embarrassing when you are English.”

“Isn’t that the whole point of folk traditions though?”

She stared back at him, bemused, “Huh?” she scrunched her neck and raised her shoulders in a questioning gesture, “you think it’s a good thing that I’m embarrassed by my fellow countrymen’s behaviour?”

“Nah, I don’t mean it like that.” He waved away her half-formed protest. “But isn’t it important to have something that marks a particular place as being special in the world and not just another cog of the whole globalisation wheel?” he asked. “Like, say for instance, cheese-rolling? I tried that for a lark last year in Gloucester. Lot harder to do than you would think. Bloody steep hill they run it on -I almost twisted an ankle an’ I lost my cheese.”

“Sounds like a barrel of laughs. Rolling in the aisle stuff,” she deadpanned.

“Har, har. Yeah, I got off lightly compared to one or two that were carted off in the ambulance. Speaking of barrels, -you just reminded me -there’s a tar barrel race they do down in Devon. They light up the barrels. I watched it but I’m not giving that one a go anytime soon. I saw some guy with his hands on fire. I like having all my extremities intact too much to try that.”

“Oh, the Guy Fawkes run at Ottery St Mary, you mean?”

“Yeah, that’s the one. Bunch of flaming crazies.”

“Never been. Never seen. And it just proves how wacky we English are that we’d run around with flaming barrels on our shoulders and call it entertainment.” She considered, “I’ve got one for you. How about wife-racing?” she suggested. “No fire involved. Much safer. They do that in Surrey.”

“Really? I haven’t tried that either but I’m game if you are Holly-girl. Course, we’d have to get married first to qualify.”

“Pshaw, minor detail, Roo-boy.”

“Minor detail we could fix anytime you wanna say ‘I do’.” His tone was jocular but the look he gave her was not.

“Huh,” Sara swiftly turned the subject to another, “I know a good one we could do. Pancake flipping. Your fingers would be safe and there’s no marriage license required to take part.”

“See, it’s those wonderful traditions that make England the great nation and quirky country that it is. You should keep all the wacky traditions that you can. Including Morris dancing.”

Sara twisted her lips, her manner self-effacing. She considered a moment, then spoke, “Yeah, I guess you’ve got a point. I hate it when people are right,” she sighed, then thought of a come-back, “hey, but getting back to Morris dancing. Maybe the only reason Morris-dancing hasn’t gone global is that everyone else realises how completely dorky it is.”

“Just when I was thinking of joining a dance troupe. You’ve quashed my dreams, Holly-S.”

“As if.” she squinted her eyes at him, as if considering, “You know, if you added some silly socks, ribbons and bells, I could see you as a Morris dancer.”

“Get away,” he swiped her very gently on the arm with a closed fist, and then grinned wickedly. “So, does that mean you’ll be front and centre to watch the Morris dancers with me later on?”

“Nope,” she grabbed his fisted hand and enunciated the word very clearly while wrinkled her nose in distaste, “but I will do my best to appreciate their eccentrically quirky art form from a suitable distance. Like, from the other side of the tents.”

“Ha,” he chuckled. “We’ll see about that later. Come on; let’s keep on with the tour.” He deftly twisted his hand to grasp hers, placing it in the crook of his elbow.

“Well, aren’t you the foreign gentleman,” Sara left her hand where he had put it.

They walked by a dozen more tents, one set up as a mobile tattoo-parlour where a girl was lying face-down on a bed, in the process of having a delicate fairy tattooed on her shoulder and another with tent flaps open, revealing an unclothed, towel-draped festival patron lying on a futon, a massage-therapist kneading her shoulders and spine.

“So, Holly-girl. If you don’t want the hot-tub experience and you don’t approve of Morris dancers, how about stripping off for a nice relaxing massage?” Greg suggested with a leer, patting her hand. He pointed to a chalkboard sign. “They’ve got a two-for-one deal going and I promise I won’t peek …much.”

“And there goes the gentleman,” Sara sighed, removing her hand. “I think it’s high time we headed back to the loud music,” she announced firmly.

Eighteen

wind-blown leaf

Sara sat on the sloped green on the edges of the main stage area, beneath a Japanese-styled parasol that Greg had bought her before he had mysteriously disappeared into the crowd, leaving her with the words, “I shouldn’t be gone more than an hour. I’m off to see a man about a dulcimer.”

Prior to leaving, he had made sure she had a picnic rug, cushion and a cool drink, before eliciting a promise from her that though she could wander off in the interim, she would be back in same location within the hour. He’d said he would have a surprise for her. Now, his hour was almost up and Sara could see no sign of his returning. Granted, she had not remained in precisely the same spot …a rather amorous couple who appeared to be more interested in one another than in watching the performers up on the stage had taken her space. Even if she could have caught their attention, she was not about to ask for her rug and cushion back.

She didn’t feel that she could blame anyone for taking her spot -especially given that she had only stayed for a few minutes after Greg had gone walkabout. First, she had listened to the closing numbers of a band she liked well enough, then, when another had started that featured some very repetitive and loud drumming, she had abandoned the rug and soft cushions. Keeping the parasol, she wandered away to see what was on offer nearer the pond.

After watching a comedy duo performing an amusing balancing act with a save-the-orangutans theme that was equal parts slapstick and serious drama, Sara had toured the tents once more, buying a raspberry sorbet from a vegan stand. She enjoyed the tartness of the icy treat on her tongue but she was still hungry when it was gone and a trifle disappointed at the miniscule portion size. She tossed the cup and spoon into a recycle bin and went in search of something more substantial for lunch.

Passing by the tattoo booth, she noted the artist was currently taking a tea break. She was a tall, lithe woman who was a living advert for her art form -sporting full sleeves of multi-coloured ink winding sinuously up both arms and around her neck before disappearing under her clothing. Curious, but with absolutely no intention of acquiring a tattoo Sara stopped to check out the album of work that was lying open on a desk in front of the booth. That the tattooist had considerable talent was obvious from drawings and photographs of completed tattoos that were both original and beautiful.

“Hi, my name’s Raina,” the young woman set down her mug, approached and introduced herself. “What do you think?”

“I love them,” Sara spoke honestly. “All your own work I presume?” she asked, continuing to flip pages in the folio.

“Yep. All mine,” Raina nodded. She pulled up her tank, revealing a taut torso decorated with a brightly coloured robin perched among the twisting stems and barbs of pretty roses that ran up one side of her ribs. “This is my design as well, but of course, I had to get someone else to draw it for me.” She laughed merrily. “That’s when you know who you can really trust.”

Sara felt a twinge of envy at the sight of the woman’s long lean torso, something that no amount of running and exercise could give her shorter self.

“So, are you just browsing or interested in having some body art done?” Raina smoothed the top back in place.

“Oh, I’m just looking,” Sara replied. “At least, I think I am,” she prevaricated, suddenly aware that she wouldn’t mind having one teensy tattoo of the quality this girl could produce, if only to remind herself of a time when she was not so busy dividing her time between being a solo parent and running a business.

“Oh well, take all the time you need. There’s no rush. Enjoy looking.” Raina sat back on a high stool and picked up the mug of tea, not seeming to be in any hurry to drum up more business.

“I had a lot of rubbish tatts on my hands, arms and legs as a teen. I was living rough,’ Sara spoke wryly, feeling the need to explain her lack of enthusiasm. “They were mostly amateur stuff and it hurt like hell to get them drawn and then again to get rid of them. I don’t want to make the same mistake again.” She remembered the too-painful sessions with amateur ‘scratchers’ inscribing her with tools that had been less than sanitary and, not for the first time, was thankful she’d never picked up Hep C or anything worse, from the experience.

“Yeah, tattoos can be as painful to remove as they are to get in the first place,” agreed Raina, with refreshing honesty. Peeking over the top of the mug, which announced in black on white ‘Tattoo Artist by choice & Psychologist …because you people leave me no choice’ she glanced over Sara’s exposed arms and legs with a discerning eye. “It’s weird though, your skin looks so pristine. I can usually tell if someone has had a tatt removed but I can’t see any evidence of damage at all. If anything, you’ve got the skin of a ten-year old.”

“Yeah,” Sara mused, running a hand over her bare shoulder where there had once been a large, poorly inked and decidedly awful tattoo of a skull, snake and dagger. She had never thought much of it but having someone point out the lack of scarring made her think. “I don’t tend to scar. Much. In fact, come to think of it, ever.”

“Good healthy skin. I like that. Makes for a nice smooth canvas,” Raina laughed lightly. “Did you keep any of them? I mean is there something I can’t see?” She zigzagged a finger lightly through the air to indicate the rest of Sara’s body, covered by her clothing.

“Just one.” Sara patted the right cheek of her rear end, to indicate where the ink was located. “I hardly ever think about it and I’m not entirely sure if I kept it because I liked it or I just didn’t fancy the hassle of having it removed.”

“I’m pleased you kept one -it’s good to keep some record of our past mistakes and successes. Especially if your skin’s history is integral to your own history …wouldn’t you say?” Raina commented softly.

Hearing this insightful remark, Sara could see that the Psychologist reference on Raina’s coffee mug might be truer than she had thought. “I hadn’t really considered it that way ...but now that you mention it -I guess I did want to keep some of the memories of that time alive.” Though there was much that was forgettable about her rebellious years, she did not want to forget them completely either. It was her life, after all. “Not many though,” she amended wryly.

It’s not as if I was taking photos or video to remind me of being homeless on London’s streets, Sara thought sadly.

“So what prompted you to get rid of the ink? If you don’t my asking. You can tell me to butt out if I’m being too intrusive.”

“Oh, I don’t know …yes, I do.” Sara rubbed one finger alongside her nose, as she spoke, “aside from most of them being rubbish …you know, stuff like ‘love’ and ‘hate’ on my fingers and junk like that,” she held out her hands as if to show Raina the long-gone ink.

Raina nodded in understanding, “No scars there either …but yeah, I see a lot of that stuff still. Amateur hour.”

“Well, I was a mother by then and a businesswoman. I wanted to forget those years and it just didn’t seem to go with who I was trying to become.” She had taken to wearing gloves for a while to cover the tatts while in the shop but it had become more and more uncomfortable wearing them in the warmer summer months.

“Easier to erase a tattoo than bad or sad memories,” observed Raina sagely.

“You’re absolutely right,” Sara agreed. “The bits I can remember, that is, in between drinking binges. Not me at my best.”

“But I’m figuring that you’re in a different place now?” Raina took a sip of her hot drink.

“You can say that again,” Sara said. “My son is fourteen. I run my own business. I’m a recovering alcoholic and I spend most of my waking hours running like crazy just to stay in the same place.” She thought again of the conversation she’d had with Greg the day they had first met, “but occasionally I’d like to be that irresponsible leaf on a breeze that could just blow where the wind takes me …though without the alcohol haze.”

Raina chuckled, “In that case, I’m sure we can come up with a design that hints at that desire without tipping you off the wagon, so to speak.”

“Yeah,” Sara agreed. “But can you do all that in no more than this much of my skin?” She made a small shape with her thumb and forefinger.

“Ha ha. Well I’m no miniaturist but I do like a challenge,” laughed Raina, draining her cup and setting it aside. “Let’s get down to business and talk wind-blown leaves.”

They discussed the size, location and design of a possible tattoo, quickly coming to an agreement.

When they were done talking Raina said, “Okay, now I want you to go away for a bit.” She made a shooing motion with her hands, “go and get yourself a coffee or walk around for ten minutes or half an hour …or however longer it takes for you to be sure, and then, if you still want this, come back.” She smiled serenely, “I’ll be here.”

Sara was back in ten, a take-away coffee cup in one hand and a pair of newly purchased flip-flops in the other. “I want it. I’m quite sure,” she announced firmly.

“You absolutely sure you’re sure?” Raina asked, her eyebrows rose in question.

“Yes. Absolutely.”

“Okay. This won’t take long to draw, so let’s get started. Make yourself comfortable on the bed here.” Raina patted the end of the raised, freshly sheeted examination table that looked like something more suited to a doctor’s office than a tent at a music festival, and then reached for her sterilised tools.

Less than thirty minutes later, Raina pulled the tattoo needle away for the last time. “Two tiny leaves on a gentle breeze, all done and dusted,” she announced.

Sara looked down at her right foot, waggling it this way and that to get the feel of her new ink then grabbed her ankle with both hands to pull her foot up to her face for a closer inspection.

“Wish I was that flexible,” Raina laughed. “No matter how hard I try at yoga, I can barely touch my toes!”

“Ha, and here I was wishing I could be tall and thin like you,” admitted Sara.

“Perhaps we should both just be happy with who we are,” Raina tapped a finger against the writing of her mug, “and I should stick with being a tattoo artist and ditch the psychology.”

“Anyway, I hope you like them,” she pointed at Sara’s foot.

Sara had decided, at Raina’s suggestion, to add a second leaf -representing Matthew.

“They’re exactly what I wanted,” Sara smiled then laughed happily. “The smallest one’s tiny, but perfect. Just the way my son was when he was born.”

“Great.” Raina carefully applied a bandage dressing to the newly inked skin, pulled off her disposable gloves and handed Sara a small package of antiseptic wipes and moisturiser. “For the after-care,’ she explained. “Look after your skin now and your leaves will stay fresh a lot longer than if you don’t.”

“Thanks,” Sara took the parcel, slipped her feet into the flip-flops, paid and hurried back to the main stage area. Her hour was almost up.

Sara’s relaxed mood was in danger of disappearing -and she was beginning to think she had been stood up, when Greg suddenly appeared. And that was, apparently, his surprise. It was not so much that he appeared as where.

The lack-lustre act that had been on-stage for the forty-five minutes had taken their curtain calls to a weak smattering of applause and was leaving. Idly, she watched the band exiting the stage, not exactly sad to see them go. One moment, she was glancing around anxiously, wondering where Greg might be and how she’d go about finding him in the crowd when next minute, he was right there, casually wandering out to centre-stage, wearing different clothes to those she seen him in last and holding an acoustic guitar. To rapturous applause from the crowd and without a word of introduction, he began to play. Three male band-members rapidly flanked him, insinuating themselves into the music with a smooth efficiency that spoke of much practice. Given that one carried a double bass, Sara was impressed with how quickly they joined in, adding their voices, a keyboard and a banjo to his lead vocals. Then, a trio of back-up singers suddenly materialised behind and the music grew. Within the space of a few bars, the watching crowd swelled exponentially as well, from a sprinkling of people to standing room only, increasing numbers clapping hands overhead and joining in with a lively song that Sara recognised from listening to the radio while she worked at the nursery.

Sara’s reaction was not perhaps what Greg had hoped. She scowled, her serene mood of the past hour dissipating with the realisation that she was not the only one keeping important secrets from those around her. She thought about it briefly before shrugging determinedly -they would talk about this later but right now, she loved this music and if she wanted to see anything of the performance there was only one thing for it, she would have to get up on her feet. Not that that would help much, she thought. She was inches shorter than most of the festival patrons and would most likely be looking at their backs rather than seeing anyone on stage. The flip-flops didn’t exactly help matters either. As Sara was clambering to her feet, wishing she had worn high heels, a hand reached from behind and tapped her elbow. She ignored the touch, thinking it was just some too-near or overly familiar festivalgoer, but when it was repeated, this time with pressure akin to a pinch she turned to see a young woman, dressed all in black from head to toe, who appeared to be trying to gain her attention. Still on her knees, the tightest pair of skinny jeans she had ever seen, tucked into scuffed black docs, blocked Sara’s vision. She glanced upwards. The girl’s tee sported an intricate design centred on the words ‘Clifford and Co’.

“Hi, I’m Siobhan. And I’m, um -like, the band’s personal assistant,” there was heavy emphasis on the ‘personal’.” As if to emphasise this point, she brandished an ID badge and stage-area pass, hanging from a lanyard around her neck.

Sara, stared, none the wiser. Looking up from her lowly vantage-point, she first noted a matching set of crudely-inked ‘love’ and ‘hate’ tattoos scrawled across the girl’s fingers before staring into a face with more piercings that she’d thought possible on one person. She could not help but think that it was like looking at herself, a decade and half ago. The thought briefly crossed her mind that she was glad facial piercings hadn’t been so ‘in’ fifteen years ago or she’d have had to remove those as well as the awful tattoos.

“Um, Jason says,” the girl paused as if trying to recall the exact words she had been asked to convey, “…would you like to come up on stage while they perform. To stop you from being trampled underfoot an’ all. Well, …that’s what he said, not me,” the language was polite enough but the monotone delivery gave Sara the distinct impression that this girl was not enjoying being the bearer of such tidings and that she wouldn’t be bothered overly much if Sara was trampled underfoot by the crowd. This multi-pierced, petulant young woman did not look as if she was at all pleased. In fact, she looked decidedly pissed-off.

“Huh? And who’s Jason?” Even as she spoke, Sara had a strong feeling she knew just who Jason was.

“Him. Up there. On stage,” her lip curling in derision, Siobhan continued, “Jason Clifford …Like duh, lead singer of Clifford and Co. He’s like, awesome.” The girl first pointed a finger at her tee, followed by her thumb in the direction of the stage as if trying to hitch a ride. “Oh yeah, I remember now,” she touched her forehead in a gesture that Sara recognised suggesting she was a few sandwiches short of a picnic. “Jason said you probably wouldn’t know who he was,” the lip curled again derisively, “as if.” Sara was left in no doubt by the patronising tone of the final two words just what her messenger thought of anyone who didn’t know who ‘Jason’ was. “Anyway,” heavy sigh, “there’s a place you can sit on the stage out of view and listen. If you want to that is, makes no difference to me. You can stay here for all I care.” The girl made to go, seemingly feeling she had done more than enough in delivering the message. She walked away a couple of steps then turned to speak over her shoulder, “Well, you coming or not?”

“Uh, yeah, okay,” Sara replied, trying to sound more gracious than she was feeling. “Since you asked so nicely,” she muttered under her breath as she scrambled the rest of the way to her feet.

With the amplified music coming from the speakers, it was unlikely Siobhan heard the addendum to Sara’s reply -or, as she had made quite clear, particularly cared. She simply marched off. Sara trailed in her wake, her newly inked tattoo was hurting a little under the bandage and the unfamiliar footwear made progress difficult. Furling her umbrella and flip-flopping her way behind her reluctant guide, she was led past security and into a cordoned-off area at the rear of the stage and to the base of a set of metal stairs that led up to the stage.

Siobhan waved a hand upwards to indicate the direction Sara should go, while she ascended another set of stairs to the opposite side of the stage; taking her eyes off the band -or more correctly, just ‘Jason’-Sara surmised- only long enough to glare at Sara. Fortunately, another smiling stage-hand, wearing an identical tee to Siobhan’s, who was seemingly in a more solicitous mood towards a stranger, leant down and gave Sara a hand up the steep stairs and offered her a bottle of water -indicating a folding fabric chair, should she want to sit. Sara slid into the chair gratefully, relieved to take her weight off her aching foot. She watched the entire performance from the relative solitude of the wings.

The band was great and their performance riveting. If she had thought Greg, -Jason-whoever he was, could keep an audience well entertained at the Thornden pub or a village wedding, those venues were peanuts compared to the quality of this performance, which placed him in a completely different league.

Nineteen

almost famous

The crowd just would not let them go. An hour and multiple encores later Jason and his band retired from the stage amid raucous applause and catcalls expressing the audience’s reluctance to see the musicians leave. Alas, the massed audience was less than mollified by their replacements -which were not a patch on the preceding band.

Talk about hard act to follow, Sara thought sympathetically.

Sara felt some sympathy for the crowd -though her own feelings were alternating between admiration for the performance she’d just seen and annoyance at being kept in the dark about just how successful her itinerant nurseryman’s music career might be.

Greg, -or should she call him Jason now- stood with his fellow band-mates, now out of the crowd’s view in the wings opposite to where Sara sat. She watched as he alternated between guzzling the contents of a bottle of water and pouring it over his head, before he unbuttoned his sweat-soaked cotton shirt and shucked it and a sleeveless vest he had been wearing while performing. He handed them off to a fawningly attentive Siobhan, who passed a towel she had at the ready.

Sara saw that she and Siobhan were not the only women -not to mention a couple of men- who were watching the impromptu strip show. Other heads had turned and Sara noted several appreciative eyes admiring the effects of weeks of hard physical work on Greg/ Jason’s upper body muscles. As he raised his arms to rub briskly at his damp hair and neck, his jeans rode even lower on his hips -revealing his navel and gut muscles to the approving onlookers. Unaware of the effect he was having, Greg casually dragged his earlier t-shirt over his head and tugged it down. Sara imagined she could almost hear a collective moan of disappointment from the female crew and bystanders. Greg completed the ensemble by slipping on a pair of dark sunglasses and plopping a cloth cap on his head -ignoring the stares and stairs to jump off the back of the stage and walk across to those Sara had climbed earlier. With a disarming grin, he sauntered to the base and waited -one hand on the railing while the other was motioning for Sara to come down and join him.

If he noted Sara’s thunderous look, he said nothing, instead removing his cap to plaster back his wet hair and tuck the ends under before replacing it.

Sara descended the steps in ominous silence. The haughty effect she had aimed for was rather ruined when one of her flip-flops twisted under her foot, forcing her to clutch at the railing. Greg quickly put out a hand and grabbed her arm, “Steady on Holly-girl. You’ll go arse over turkey if you’re not more careful.”

“Huh,” grunted Sara. “Sweet talk like that might win you points with Siobhan and all your adoring fans but it won’t get you anywhere with me. …Jason,” she heavily emphasised the last.

“Uh, oh,” Greg-Jason pursed his lips and pulled the ball cap lower over his forehead, as if protecting himself from her ire. “Guess I should have told you a little more about me and the band beforehand, huh?” At her raised eyebrow and mutinous expression, he added, “I thought it would be a fun surprise …but, um …bit too much of a fun surprise, aye?”

Sara stuck to the silent treatment, saying nothing.

Ignoring her look, Greg tried another track, “But whaddya reckon, Holly-girl? We did alright out there, didn’t we. It felt good. …We totally kicked ass.” He did an impromptu dance on the spot, finishing with his signature heel-kick before peeking up from under the brim of the cap like some mischievous five-year-old. Sara had to concentrate to maintain her sombre expression. As if he could see the cracks in her façade of crossness, he reverted to his strongest Aussie accent, “All in all, it was pretty bonzer mate, or so I thought” he added, in a more subdued and formal voice.

Sara held up a hand to halt him, giving him her meanest stink-eye. “Let’s see if I remember this correctly, …from the first day we met,” she nestled her chin between her thumb and forefinger, as if musing, “You said, and I quote, if I remember rightly …and I believe I do …it went something like this .. ‘I left home and ventured over here to earn my fame and fortune as a musician. Haven’t quite managed either yet, but I’m enjoying the journey and the scenery, or some such bullsh…”

“Now, now,” he placated, shaking a finger back and forth, “I’m sure I never swore in front of the horse and no bulls were involved. Just the lovely Cara and meself, getting away from it all on a bit of a summertime adventure. Things have been moving along pretty fast with the band -bit of whirlwind to tell the truth. To be honest, we just needed some down-time from all that hype and tripe, ‘specially, Cara …she was knackered,” he chortled at his own joke, hoping to break through her defences with a spot of humour.

Sara shut him down with a single glare that doused his high spirits – Greg felt like he’d just done that awful ice bucket challenge all over again. “You know what I think? I think you’ve been either telling me a pack of lies about whom you are or you’ve got a serious misconception about how successful your music career really is,” she said with biting asperity. “So. Tell me. Who. Exactly. Are. You?” she asked, poking him in the chest with an accusing finger. “The truth this time, if you don’t mind, Jason …Mr high and mighty Clifford and Co.” Her brow furrowed, “I don’t even know your last name.”

“You didn’t ask so I didn’t say.”

“It didn’t seem important. You offered to help me and I trusted you -it wasn’t as if I was filling out tax forms for employing you, was it? I do not even pay you. I am an idiot. I should have known something was up. No one works for nothing.”

“Hey, don’t be so hard on yourself. I am Greg Ryan. Honest -Greg is my real name …I’m only Jason Clifford with the band. Well, I ‘s’pose I’m Jason too,” he took the cap off for a moment to scratch his head in consternation, “my full name is Gregory Jason Ryan, if you must know.”

“So what about Clifford?” Sara countered. “As in …Clifford and Co. The famous folk-rock band that everyone has heard of except me?”

“Um -well, yeah. …And no. We’re not really famous yet -just kind of almost-famous,” this engendered another death-glare “…and that’s not really helping either, is it? To answer the easier question, I took Clifford from me Mum’s name. But none of makes a blind bit of difference to who I really am. I’m still that guy who sings and dances and helps out around the nursey …I’m just meself,” he replied, “Me, meself and …not Irene. Ha ha.” The joke fell flat. He scratched his head once more before he pointed to the general area of the stage-front, where he had totally owned the crowd. “I’m that guy when I need to be but otherwise I’m just an ordinary bloke.” His eyes beseeched her to believe him.

“Hmm,” she alternated between wanting to cut him some slack and wanted to hit him, hard.

Whilst watching the show, Sara had acknowledged that, though his fellow band-members were undeniably talented musicians and able vocalists, every song they had performed had relied heavily on the talents of their lead-singer. By the end of the first number, Jason had the audience eating out of his hand. He was natural-born performer, interacting frequently with the crowd. He’d had them all singing along with the band when he prompted, waving their hands and dancing like he was some kind of benevolent puppeteer and the mass of the crowd was totally within his control. What’s more, they had loved every minute of it.

And so, -if she was completely honest- had she.

Nevertheless, right now Sara couldn’t trust herself to have a conversation about how much she might have enjoyed the performance. Being lied to was a big deal. Moreover, he’d lied, both, it seemed, about his name and his apparent fame. At the very least, he had purposely kept a secret. Now, for the life of her, Sara could not understand why he was wasting his time working at her nursery when he could obviously be off doing far more important things. Then a sneaky little voice somewhere inside her head reminded her …he was not the only one keeping secrets.

Keeping her anger under wraps, she decided to stick to a safer subject, enquiring, “So Roo-boy, is there any instrument you can’t play?” In the last ninety minutes she had seen him switch from acoustic guitar to electric to banjo, then violin, mandolin, keyboard and …for several minutes, he’d alternated with the double bass-player in a comedic and obviously very well-rehearsed, two-man switch. The audience had loved it, screaming their approval at the antics of the two.

“Well, I’m rubbish at playing the flugelhorn,” he spoke flippantly, relieved to have a question that he could answer easily and one that seemed to put them on neutral ground.

“Seriously?”

“Too right -All that flugeling and fingering is too flummoxing for me,” he put a hand up as if imitating playing a horn, “plus I can’t sing and play at the same time,” he replied, somehow managing to keep a straight face.

Sara had run out of safe topics and could think of nothing more to say that wouldn’t involve both loud yelling and wild gesticulating. Considerable amounts of loud yelling. She resorted to glumly shaking her head.

Not sure if he was happy at her silence, or not, Greg tried a placating tone, “Come on Holly-girl. I’m starving. We’re done here for now so let’s go over to the tents and grab something to eat.”

“Won’t your adoring fans recognise you and hassle us if we go out there,” Sara indicated the world beyond the fenced security-area.

“Nah- I’m not that recognisable. We’re only just in the top forty and the band barely has a handful of fans anyway. And anyhow, with this cunning disguise, I can blend in and move among the crowds, totally incognito,” he brushed his fingers along the brim of his hat then tapped the dark glasses.

“Whatever.” Sara noted more than a few heads turning as they passed by the security guard and several raised phones and cameras capturing the moment for posterity, “I hate to tell you this, Roo-boy, but I think the crowd is more on to you than you realise.”

They’d found a quiet spot in the shade under an oak tree over near the food tents, Greg chowing his way through a massive burger and Sara stealing his fries. The truce was holding …they shared a soda.

“So, Ryan, huh?” Sara eased her back into a more comfortable spot against the rough bark of the tree’s trunk, “It’s weird, I can’t believe all these weeks have gone by and I never thought to ask what your last name was. I feel like I’m the last one to know the secret.”

“Shhh. Keep it on the down and low, Holly-girl,” Greg hunched forward and spoke quietly. “I’m tryin’ hard to keep some anonymity,” he sighed. “But yeah, Ryan it is. The ancestors were Irish exports to Australia. Not their own choice, you understand.” As if sharing a secret, he leaned over and whispered in her ear. He smelled of Bar B Q sauce and meat pattie. Good enough to eat, mused Sara, before she quashed the thought. “Convict skeletons in the family closet, you know. We got relocated, compliments of the British government on an HMS transport -ship.”

“Wow, those must’ve been harsh times, back then.”

“Yeah, pretty tough-love justice anyway. I don’t think my Great great Granddad ever did much to warrant being convicted and incarcerated on a prison hulk, but, as it turned out, it was probably the best thing that ever happened to him. He got a free trip to Aus and a new start ..not exactly five-star travel or accommodation to start with but once he’d done his time he had more opportunities than he’d ever had back in Ireland. He worked hard, picked up some skills along the way and saved enough to buy a block of land …and that was the beginning of the family business.”

“And now you’ve come back to Britain. Full-circle. Playing and singing to adoring crowds. I bet your however-many-times-great Grand-Dad would be proud of you.”

“You reckon? -I dunno, he died a long time ago so I never met him,” he smiled thoughtfully, “ …but I guess it does kind of complete the circle. Life’s funny that way,” he shrugged, taking another huge bite of his burger. “So are we okay now? You’re not mad at me anymore?”

“Yeah. Pax.” She punched him lightly in the shoulder before she relented. “I owed you that.”

He rubbed the spot thoughtfully. “Does that mean I can use you for a pillow ..Since you ditched the one I bought you?” he checked his watch, “We have to play again in another hour and a half and I’m tired. I could do with a power nap.” Not waiting for an answer, he dropped his head onto her lap and settled himself to sleep. Within moments, he was snoring softly.

Sara settled back and finished the fries.

Half an hour later Greg was awake …and staring along the smooth length of Sara’s legs towards her feet. His close-up view of her silky, unblemished thighs was marred by the white bandage that acted as something of a full stop down beyond her ankles. “Why have you got a bandage on your foot, Holly-S? Were you trampled in the crowd? See, I can’t leave you for more than five minutes and you go and hurt yourself,” he scolded lightly. “That’s why I asked Siobhan to go and get you -she was supposed to be looking out for you.”

“It’s nothing,” Sara crossed one foot in front of the other to obscure the neat square bandage. “Just a scratch.” The little lie came easily. Too easily, she thought. She had told so many half-truths and kept so many secrets over the years that it was becoming all too easy to be economical with the truth. It really was simpler to lie when you did not want those closest to you to find out your secrets. She felt an uncommon urge to come clean to Greg …about everything. But how did you undo so many secrets that you did not know where to start the thread to unravel? She felt like a kitten caught up in a crazy knot of wool -too caught up to free herself and yet unable to ask for help from anyone else.

That would require an uncommon level of trust that she had not felt …in ever. She had to start somewhere. Might as well be now.

“If you must know, it’s not an injury,” she spoke neutrally, trying to mask her nervousness. “I had a little tattoo done while I was waiting on you to come back from seeing that man about that dulcimer …and Siobhan did find me, though I think she’d have rather not. I don’t think you’re aware of it but that girl has a major crush on you.”

Greg was not sure which to respond to first. He chose the easier, “Tattoo …cool, can I see.” He reached towards the bandage as if to peek under but Sara smacked his hand.”

“No peeking. The artist told me to leave it be until tomorrow.”

Greg sat up, raised an eyebrow. “And Siobhan -surely not. Nah,” now he sounded less certain. “She’s just a kid. And she’s my band-mates little sister. That’s the only reason she got the job.”

“I tell it like I see it,” Sara quipped.

“That’s just wrong. She is like, seventeen or eighteen at the most. I would never date someone so young …and besides, I have a no dating anyone with anything to do with the band rule. It gets too messy when things so south.” Greg had a moment’s guilt, when he remembered his initial attraction to Sara and his wondering if she was a still schoolgirl, regardless of how old he thought she might be. He also recalled his profound relief at finding she was older. “Hmm, if you’re right, which you probably are, I’d best nip that in the bud.”

“I get the ‘no dating’ almost-minors, but why the no-dating-band-extended-family rule?” Sara asked, curious.

“Well, look at history; it’s chock full of bands that have imploded, exploded and generally fallen to pieces after intimate relationships went south.”

“Who, for example?”

“No, not The Who …they’re still around. Well, the ones that are alive are.”

“Very funny,” Sara rolled her eyes. “Ooh, I’ve got one …Abba.”

“Classic example. Divorce all round and the group went kaput.”

“I dunno ‘bout that. I think they’ve patched things up these days and are talking about getting back together.”

“Get outta town. I hope they get a better stylist this time round. Those clothes …urgh.” he thought briefly, “How about …Fleetwood Mac,”

“Yeah, undeniably messy and entangled, but …they’ve pretty much made up as well. And you have to admit -they wrote and sang some pretty cool songs about the break-ups.”

“Getting the band back together seems to be a theme you’ve got going here…well what about Sonny and Cher? Ike and Tina Turner? I don’t see them kissing and making up anytime soon.”

“Sonny’s dead, you ninny. They can’t, even if they wanted to.”

“’Kay, then definitely not getting that duo together then, aye?”

Sara sighed heavily, “and nor are Ike and Tina, for much the same reason, aside from anything else.”

“What? Like hating each other’s guts, you mean?”

“Possibly -something like that. Those bands are all pretty old school. What about contemporary examples? Or do they just break up over the usual reasons, like drugs, alcohol and…”

“…hating each other’s guts? Well that happens fairly often. As for more up to date examples …off the top of my head, I can think of No doubt, The White Stripes and Smashing Pumpkins. I think that’s enough. That’s why the band and me don’t live in each other’s pockets. We all like and respect each other but when we’re not touring or doing gigs, we live our own lives. It’s worked so far and hopefully it’ll keep on working.” Greg sat up straighter and looked at his watch. “Hey. It’s time we were off Holly-girl. We have to be somewhere.” He stood and held out a hand to help her to her feet.

“Where that?” Sara asked, taking his outstretched hand, “I though you said you had almost another hour before you were performing again?”

“Yeah,” he hauled her upright, “but the Morris dancers are starting any minute now and I wouldn’t want to miss any of their act. So, let’s go girl.”

Sara’s protests were ignored as he dragged her away to watch the dancers.

Word had spread and the crowd for band’s second performance was bigger, rowdier and more determined to keep the musicians playing and singing than they had been earlier in the day. Once again, Sara retreated to the wings to watch from the side. From the crowd’s reaction, it was obvious they could not get enough of the band’s music. Encore followed encore until Greg, seeing his fellow band-mates flagging, announced one last song.

“Here’s a bit of quiet ballad to end with …one for putting the little ones to sleep. I’d like to dedicate it to a special person who’d come into my life in recent weeks.”

He turned to face Sara briefly, his wink and smile in her direction leaving her in no doubt as to who the ‘special person’ might be. Across the other side of the stage Sara could plainly see Siobhan cross her arms angrily and look daggers at her before the girl turned her back and stalked off-stage. Well, thought Sara, if that was ‘nipping it in the bud,’ he’d done a pretty effective, if rather brutal job of pruning the girl’s developing crush.

Greg played the opening bars of a lilting ballad, singing the plaintive lyrics with a voice that Sara had not known he’d possessed. She’d heard nothing like this in the performance he had given either at the Thornden tavern or any venue he’d played since. Too soon, the song ended.

“It’s been lovely singing for ya. ’Til next time!” With this farewell and a wave to the massed audience, Clifford and Co. exited the stage to rapturous and prolonged applause. While the rest of the band were shepherded to their bus Greg and Sara waited the few minutes until the audience’s attention was on the next band in the line-up and then attempted a relatively unobtrusive stroll towards the bike. Which was to say they were only stopped half a dozen times for autographs and selfies before they made it to their destination.

They had both pulled on leather gear and were preparing to don helmets, Greg standing astride the bike and Sara alongside when all of a sudden there was a sharp explosion. The early evening sky lit up with fireworks, Too early to be part of the festival programme, they were possible set off by some over-eager festival-goer.

“Ah now, that brings back fond memories,” Greg spoke, quickly swinging his leg back over the bike and resting his rear on the seat. Sara barely had time to note the sparkle in his eye before he’d slipped his arms around her waist and tugged her towards his body. Before she could react or protest, -or so she told herself later-, she found herself plastered against his length and being kissed quite thoroughly. If Greg was surprised at her lack of any protest and not finding himself thrown for a loop -literally- after the first kiss, he made no complaint, instead taking full advantage of the moment and deepening the kiss.

For her part, Sara was vaguely aware of warning bells and flashing lights that would normally have informed her that she should pull back. Only this time, she chose to interpret the lights as flashes from the colourful fireworks and the bells as coming from the current performers onstage -which was to say, she ignored them completely. Feeling in tune with that wind-blown leaf tattooed on her foot, she was floating on a breeze of pure pleasure from which she had no desire to come down anytime soon.

It was Greg, who noted the extra bright flash from a mobile phone out of the corner of his half-closed eye, held up by some over-zealous bystander. “We’d better stop or we’ll be making a right spectacle of ourselves on UTube,” he muttered against her throat, where he had been intent on kissing the pulse just under her chin. Glaring at the intrusive phone-user and jerking his head to indicate that the person should back-off; he took his time in releasing her. Her hair was a little mussed and tousled from where his fingers had been ardently combing it moments before -angling her head away from the photographer, he unobtrusively smoothed a few strands over the tips of her ears, thinking that he and she were overdue a private conversation about one or two salient details.

Ah, now she remembered what the bells and lights were for, thought Sara.

Bugger. Her normal self-control had dissolved under the onslaught of Greg’s kisses. Glad of the dark that hid her flushed features, Sara shook her head slightly as if to dispel the stars that she hoped she was the only one who could see circling. Although he had stopped kissing her, Greg’s arms had stayed loosely encircling her waist, holding within his embrace. After rechecking her hair, she reached down with hands, -which at some point, of their own volition found had themselves fondling the hair at the nape of his neck- to release his grasp. As it was, she was still not certain if the booming she could hear was the sound of amplified music in the background or her own heartbeat pounding in her ears. Her voice, when she could get it to function, sounded as breathless as it had that day after running up Thornden hill, “Do you think they saw anything?” she asked.

He did not pretend to misunderstand what she meant. “No, he was on the other side of you. All he got was us kissing.” He shrugged “No biggie, -people kiss all the time. …But you and I do need to talk,” he intoned softly.

“We are talking,” her tone was dry, “which, if that was all we’d done, would have been fine.”

“Oh, not that I don’t enjoy chatting with you, Holly-S but I preferred what we were doing much better than any conversation.” He smiled broadly, his eyes alight with mischief.

Sara couldn’t help the corners of her mouth tilting upwards in a tiny smile. “And there I thought you’d be tired from all that singing, strutting and selfie-taking,” she joked artlessly. “I was about to suggest that I drive home to save you the trouble.”

“Huh, nothing altruistic in that suggestion,” he guffawed. “Forget it, Holly-girl. I can see straight through your pathetic excuse to gain the wheel -and it is no trouble, believe me. I’ll be fine driving this fine manly bike all the way back home.” Greg took a firm grasp of the bike’s handlebars and swung his leg back over the seat, “Besides, I’m never going to be that tired. And performing always hypes me up for an hour or so afterwards. Takes me a while to come down from the high.”

“Oh well, if you’re under the influence, then I’d absolutely have to take over the bike.”

“Just put your helmet on and get on the back, like a good little fairy, Holly-S,” there was a glint in his eye that said he’d love an excuse for an argument.

Aware the she had started something she could not finish in such a public arena, Sara pursed her lips together in an effort to keep quiet. Wordlessly, she pulled the helmet over her head, glaring at him from behind the protective visor as she climbed on behind. At first, she attempted to keep her hands on her own thighs and not around his waist but as they bounced along the rough track that had become rutted with the high volume of traffic through the long weekend she was forced to abandon that small protest at being bested. She grabbed the back of his jacket -it was that or be bounced off the bike. By the end of the track, her arms had seemingly once again found their own way around his waist; annoyed with herself she drew back a little.

As they departed the festival, Sara heard a familiar song. She groaned, “Oh no, not Born to be Wild again …you really need to find another theme-song, Roo-ster boy!”

“Ha, Rooster. That’s funny. I like it! And now that you mention it, I do feel like crowing.” He did a fair imitation of a rooster crow. “And I like that song ‘cos it reminds me of you …there’s a line …something about a true nature’s child …that’s so you. Better hold on tighter, Holly-S!” he patted her barely-clasped hands then gunned the engine. They were off with a throaty roar, fireworks painting the sky behind them with bright trails of sparkling colour.

Twenty

a heartless attack

Jack had been poised for just such an opportunity as this, watching and waiting for an opportunity to retaliate after the failure of his knotweed experiment. His patience had been tried to near breaking point throughout the long day. Shortly after Greg and Sara’s departure, Liana and Hamish had arrived to oversee the shop and nursery spaces; then when Hamish left later in the day Sara’s father took over the reins out in the nursey spaces -so that by early evening Jack was seething with desire to do damage. He waited ‘til the early dusk when only the old man was left to mind the shop. It looked as if the elderly gent was planning to stay until his daughter arrived back -he had closed the road gate and locked up the shop and was wandering around the nursery -almost as if on patrol. Jack would have preferred no one be around to witness his activities but it seemed the chap was there to stay until his daughter returned. No matter, he decided. Nothing the old codger could do would stop him.

He emerged from the woods, angrily marching his way towards the shop beginning his rampage around the shop exterior. “Never liked chess,” he laughed gleefully as he flung the dwarf chess pieces this way and that -smashing everything from pawns to king to smithereens. “Stupid game. Stupid dwarves. Stupid rules. Jack doesn’t follow rules.” He upended a table of herbs and potted perennials near the shop door then looked for his next target -his gaze settled on the closest tunnel house. One that was full of half-grown seedlings and plants waiting to be hardened off before being transplanted outside. “That will do nicely,” he muttered as he strode towards the door. He yanked it off its hinges and went in. “I believe it’s payback time for killing my plants,” he grunted, as he began to toss pots and trays of seedlings, systematically working his way down the entire length of the house. He emerged from the opposite end into an area of landscaping material and looked around for what he might do next, his desire to inflict damage not nearly satiated. A neatly arranged pile of landscape logs caught his eye. Jack hoisted the first and tossed it away among Sara’s rows of standard roses. He hefted another and was about to throw it when Arthur appeared round the corner, alerted by all the crashing and banging.

Arthur was already out of breath from dashing from the far end of the nursery where he had been checking the irrigation lines to the rows of trees when he had heard the noise. “Oi there. Stop that! What you think you’re doin’?” he seemed less surprised to see Jack’s leafy form than he was to see the damage.

“I’m just having a little well-earned playtime,” Jack narrowed his gaze, “You aren’t going to try and spoil my enjoyment are you?”

“Damn right I am,” grunted Arthur, rolling up his sleeves for a fight, dimly aware of an increasing tightness across his chest.

“Well, in that case. …Here, catch,” Jack threw the log he had been holding straight towards Arthur. It caught him broadside across the chest -any higher and it might have killed him outright. As it was, Arthur toppled like a skittle in a bowling alley, the log breaking ribs and him falling hard with the log across his chest, winded by the fall and the weight of the timber. He laid on the ground, helpless, his arms outstretched like some specimen butterfly. With the added pain from his broken ribs, it was difficult to take in any breath at all. He lay there, gasping like a landed fish.

“Oh, that was such fun. Let’s do it again!” Jack tossed several more of the weighty landscape logs, careless as to where they landed -some falling among the roses before another caught Arthur -this time striking across his lower legs. The snap of breaking bones was audible. Jack stopped to survey his handiwork, staring with his pitiless green eyes at the man on the ground.

“Oh dearie me, it looks as if that leg might be broken,” he kicked the leg in question and was rewarded by a pained scream from the helpless man. “Music to my ears,” he crooned. Then he cocked his head, listening. He could hear the unmistakable sounds of an approaching motorbike. “Oh botheration.” It sounded as if the girl was back, presumably in the company of the man she had left with earlier in the morning. “Perhaps it’s time I was away,” he kicked the leg closest once again for good measure but this time there was no response. It appeared the old man had lost consciousness. Jack listened more closely -in fact, it seemed the old codger’s heart had stopped beating. “Oh goody, that’s a win for me,” he hurriedly piled a few more logs on top of the body for good measure before he rubbed his hands together with glee and made swiftly for the wood’s edge and the safety of the trees.

Sara had barely laid a hand on the road gate when she felt something was terribly wrong. The low murmur that was the baseline sound of all her thriving and growing plants had risen to a crashing crescendo. The sheer scale of the noise made any single thread incomprehensible. She put a hand to her throbbing head, “What is it?” she yelled. “One at a time and quieten down, I can’t hear anything if you all talk at once!”

“What’s up?” Greg, bike motor idling, wondered what had gotten into her.

Sara put her hands up to her ears, concentrating and listening. Next second, she had vaulted the gate and was sprinting. “Call an ambulance!” she screamed back over her shoulder, “And get Dr McLean! His number’s on the wall inside the shop. I’ve got to find Dad!” At that, she dashed away into the nursery. Although not understanding, Greg caught the urgency of her voice and hastened to do as she had asked.

At first, she did not see her father where the plants had said. Not until she spotted a boot sticking out from under an untidy pile of logs. Mindless of being seen using her superior strength, she swiftly dispatched the logs to reveal the battered body of her father lying unconscious on the gravel. She knelt beside him and immediately checked for signs of life. Nothing. Moving him as carefully as she was able, she began CPR.

Greg materialised out of the growing darkness to kneel beside her. “ Here, let me take over the heart massage,” he began counting beats, “the ambulance is on its way and Dr McLean says he’ll be here in five minutes, …or less.”

…The good doctor was true to his word.

Twenty-One

heart of the matter

Although the surgeon had gone into some detail to convince Sara that Arthur had come through surgery like a veritable trooper, the regular beeps and blips of the machinery recording his heart rhythms and blood pressure were both a reassurance and a source of worry to her, as she sat at his bedside. She had given up pretending to read the book that was open on her lap, instead gazing outside into the trees beyond the get-well cards and flowers adorning the sill of the hospital windows. It did not take a medical degree to know that heart bypass surgery at his age was no joking matter.

In the last days, she had spent every waking moment that she wasn’t working, alternately pacing the corridors while he was in surgery or sitting alongside him as he slept.

“Hrmpf,” Arthur cleared his throat, wanting to attract her attention. Sara turned her head back to the man in the bed. His familiar steel-grey eyes surveyed her almost as closely as hers did his.

“You’re awake then?” she enquired, stating the obvious but unsure of what to say next.

“Yep. An’ I’d like a drink, if you don’t mind,” Arthur gestured carefully with a hand encumbered with a heart rate monitor attached to one finger and a butterfly cannula in the vein on the back of his sun-spotted hand.

Sara reached for the water jug and poured a small glass, holding a straw to his mouth as he took a few sips. She could feel tears threatening behind her eyelids but did her best not to let them spill over.

His other hand crept over hers holding the water glass. He patted her hand reassuringly in a rare display of affection. “There, there, girlie. No crying needed. It’d take more than a little heart attack to kill your old Da.”

“That was a bit more than a little heart attack Dad.” She ran her eyes over his legs, encased in a protective cage to protect his broken and cast limbs. “Not to mention the rest.” She patted her rib cage.

“If you say so, girlie.”

It was a rare day that Arthur Blaine capitulated or conceded any point in a conversation. “Are you sure you’re okay Dad?” Sara asked, eyeing the machinery and wondered if there was a fault somewhere, “you don’t want me to call the nurse or anything?”

“No.” His voice sounded stronger. “I want you to close that door.” Arthur gestured briefly to the open door of his private room, insisted upon and paid for by Hamish and Liana, who had also been frequent visitors in the last days. “I need to talk to you about what happened. All of it.” His tone was staunch and his eyes drilled directly into her own.

Sara crossed and shut the door, returning to stand by the bed.

“Sit back down, will ya? Your giv’n’ me a crick in me old neck standing there.”

Arthur was sounding more and more like his normal self -that was to say, grouchy. Guessing this was a good sign, Sara sat.

“’Bout the other night. It might’a been the first time I’d come across that …whatever he is ...in the flesh, so to speak, but it weren’t the first I’d ever heard of him…” Arthur sank back into his pillows but continued to speak. “…We have a bit of family ...history, you might say, with him -that Jack-in-the-Green fellow.” Sara was shocked to hear the name come from her father’s lips. Arthur simply nodded, acknowledging her look “Yeah, I knew who he was. An’ there’s somethin’ about ‘im that you need to know.” He looked down at his tired old hands then back up at her. If Sara had not known her father better, she would have said he appeared ashamed. His tone turned about as apologetic as Sara had ever heard, “stuff I shoulda told you about years ago. I’m sorry it’s taken me this long.”

The verbal apology left Sara sitting stunned. Almost as stunned as hearing Jack’s name come out of her father’s mouth and that he knew of him.

“Erm, urgh,” Sara floundered.

“Well that shut you up a’right,” Arthur laughed tightly then caught his breath painfully, -laughing hurt his cracked and bruised ribs. “Not too often you heard those words comin’ outta my mouth, is it?”

Sara just stared back at her father. The parade of expressions crossing her mobile features saying everything she was thinking.

“Anyways, back to what I were sayin’,” Arthur was not going to be distracted from his primary goal. “I though he were long dead an’ all but I guess those creatures have nine lives, like a cat, or som’fing,” he did not sound at all happy at the notion.

Wordlessly, Sara made a ‘go on’ gesture with one hand.

“Give me a minute here, girlie, I’m thinkin’,” Arthur’s brow furrowed as he counted the years. “Oh, anyway, I don’ know exactly how long but it were a very long time back -generations ago …that there Green Jack, he forced hisself on your great-grandmother or yer great-great-grandmother or suchlike. Weren’t the first time he did some fin’ like that either…but, way I heard it from yer mother. She’d had it from her mother that it were the last time an’ he were took care of in a permanent way.”

“Mum knew about Jack?” Sara asked, not sure whether to feel shocked or merely surprised. Her father rarely mentioned her mother in any context.

“Yeah -course she did,” her father looked across at Sara as if she should realise this would be the case, “It were her family, after all said and done and he were her great gran-daddy or whatever, not mine. Hard to ignore really,” Arthur gave her a piercing look, “even when you try…”

“What do you mean ‘when you try’?” After being kept in the dark for so long, Sara was not about to give her father any assistance in coming clean.

“Well, there’s yer ears, to start with,” he gave her head a meaningful look.

“To start with?” she repeated questionably. “What else?”

“Well, if you’re gonna be difficult about it,” he sounded grumpy. “There’s other stuff that goes with it as well. “An’ you know right well what I mean, Sara Blaine.” He smoothed the sheet over his belly, as if more interested in the bed linen than in answering her questions.

Sara tried her best not to get annoyed at her father. Reminded herself that he was recovering from heart surgery. She rapped her fingernails on the arm of her chair in frustration then took a deep calming breath. “What about Mum?” she asked more softly.

“Well, she couldn’ handle any of it,” he tugged sadly at the edge of the sheet. “After you was born an’ all -when she saw that you had those,” he tapped one ear, “she decided we’d pretend you was just a normal kid ...but she ended up drinking herself into an early grave, mostly ‘cos she couldn’t take knowing what she was an’ what she’d come from.”

“That’s tragic,” Sara felt as if the barbs of a stingray had pierced her own heart. She thought about her own struggle with alcohol, thankful she had not succumbed to a premature demise as well.

“She were never as strong as you.”

Sara raised an eyebrow. Did her father know about her physical strength as well?

“Not like that,” Arthur thumped a fist lightly over his own heart. “In here.”

Apparently he did. Hmmm …So much for keeping secrets.

“Aside from that other …stuff …you have more heart and strength of character than she ever had.”

Now Sara could feel those tears threatening to spill, more than ever.

“Now, don’t go thinkin’ I didn’ love her ‘cos of that. I did. I loved yer mother, an’ I kept my promise not to tell you nuffin’ about who you were an’ what you could do, even after she were gone, but you found it all out yerself anyways.” He narrowed his eyes, looking more like the hard-eyed, judgemental Arthur that Sara remembered from her youth, “Granted, you made a few mistakes along the way, but I’m proud of you for all that ..An’ what you’ve gone an’ made o’ yerself these past years.” He stretched out his hand to cover hers, “I’m only sorry I never told you sooner.” There were tears brimming over in his eyes now as well as hers. “Can you forgive me Sara-girlie?”

“Nothin’ to forgive, Dad.” Sara rose from her chair to give her father a careful hug, mindful of drips and wires stretched between important pieces of medical machinery. Awkward as it was, it was the best hug she had had in years.

Sara sat back down and they chatted for a while, Arthur filling in one or two salient details about her mother.

“That’s enough for now. I’m tired,” with this admission, Arthur leaned back into his pillows once more. “I promise I’ll tell you more when I feel stronger.”

“I’ll hold you to that,” Sara smiled.

Arthur changed the subject. “So where’s that man o’ yours? Thought he’d be here with ya today.”

“Who? You mean Greg?” it was on the tip of Sara’s tongue to add, “and he’s not my man,” but she didn’t. If today was a day for honesty, she rather liked the sound of Arthur’s description.

“That’s the one. Unless you got another chap stashed away someplace I don’ know.” His usual asperity was back and Arthur sounded more himself. Listening to him, Sara was not about to complain.

“He’s minding the shop.” Greg selfless kindness had allowed Sara to spend time by Arthur’s bedside. “Now you mention it, though, he should be here any minute with Matthew,’ Sara glanced down at her watch, checking the time. As if on cue, there was gentle knock on the door. It opened and both Greg and Matthew’s heads popped round the frame, one above the other.

“Hey there Arthur, good to see you looking better.” Then, “You okay for some more visitors?” Greg asked.

“Feelin’ spiffy,” Arthur’s colour looked much improved. “I hear you’re keepin’ the home fires burnin’ while I’m indisposed. Good on ya, mate.” He did a creditable Australian accent on the last words.

“Ha ha, good try,” Greg chortled. “We’ll make an honorary Aussie of you yet Arthur. But I wouldn’t say I’m the only one keeping things afloat.” For someone who was happy to receive the adulation of fans when he was making music, Greg was very reticent about being given accolades in everyday life, preferring to, as he put it, ‘keep a low profile’.

“Wasn’ askin’ ya. Just sayin’ thank you for helpin’ out my girlie here. An’ I hear you kept me ‘eart pumpin’ too, t’other day, ‘til the Doc arrived.”

“Oh, no thanks needed,” Greg’s face was tinged pink with embarrassment, “I didn’t have to keep it up for long -and it wasn’t just me- Sara was doing most of the work. Plus, I think Doc McLean broke a land-speed record getting from his house to us that night. He said ‘under five’ and he was in the nursery gate in four and a half. You should be congratulating him, not me.”

“Ha. I’d’ve liked to have seen that!” guffawed Arthur before he remembered the broken ribs. A sharp look of pain crossed is face.

“So when are you coming home Grand-dad?” asked Matthew. “I miss you.”

“The doctor says he’ll release your Grand-dad to rest and recover at home in a couple of days,” Sara looked down at her father’s face. She knew he would not take kindly to ‘resting’ and ‘recovering’ if left in his own home. “He obviously doesn’t know my Dad and your Grand-dad like we do,” she said, “I think you should stay with us for the first few days. I want to make sure you do as you’re told.”

“Don’t worry -We will all make sure he rests,” Greg took Sara hand in his own.

“And what’s more, I’m buying a defibrillator machine to keep under the shop counter from now on,” Sara added grimly.

The following morning Sara and Liana carved out some time to finish putting to rights the last of the damage that Jack had wrought -taking the advantage to talk openly while Greg minded the shop.

Sara shared what her father had told her. As she spoke, recounting the connected history of her family and Jack, she felt a huge burden lifted from her shoulders. “So there it is …my mother went off the rails and drank herself to death. Dad said that she couldn’t handle having a foot in both worlds.” Sara spoke sadly, grieving for the mother she had never really known. “And after she died, Dad decided to carry on keeping everything a total secret from me. For fear that I wouldn’t be able to handle the family skeletons any better than my mother, he said.” The sadness was tinged with a bitter note.

“Sara, my dearest, you are much stronger than he gave you credit for,” Liana spoke with calm certainty. “Strong in both body and mind.” She laid a hand softly on Sara’s shoulder, “though, to give your father the benefit of hindsight, I suppose he was not to know that at the time,” she spoke kindly. Liana knew all too well how grief could cloud a person’s judgement.

Sara responded, “You say that, but at this moment I don’t feel very strong at all.” She prodded holes in the rich potting mixture with more vigour than was strictly necessary.

“You are strong and you will prevail,” Liana assured, “No, we will prevail. With or without the Guardian. Between us, you and I will see to it that this menace is controlled.”

“Well, personally, I’d like to do a little more than just ‘control’ him, if you don’t mind,” Sara spoke angrily, poking holes in a second tray. “He not only messed up my place -for the second time- he almost killed my Dad.”

“At the right time Sara, we must confront Jack. But I’m not so sure that time is now,” Liana ran her hands over her growing belly, conscious of the new lives she held within her. Her latest scan had confirmed Betony’s prophecy that there were, indeed twins. Whether they were boys or not would remain a mystery until they were born but Liana had said she would bet anything that Betony would be proven correct in her prediction. Still, she was not giving away Betony’s baby garments just yet.

Sara noted the gesture. “And I’m not asking you to do anything -not yet anyway,” she smiled grimly, “as someone has reminded me rather frequently of late, -there’s a time for everything.”

Liana nodded, “and the right time will come.” She laid a cool hand over Sara’s, as if to calm her friend’s troubled spirit. “For my part -I am truly sorry I slept for so long and wasn’t here to help you. Or your mother. Or your great-great-grandmother.”

“Wow. That’s a lot of generations to feel responsible for. It wasn’t your duty to protect us and I don’t blame you for anything that happened,” Sara continued to replant the fragile seedlings that Jack had flung around the tunnel house, taking more care now she held the delicate plants in her fingertips. Without Liana’s special form of assistance, she knew that most of these plants would not have survived but as it was, the bulk of those upended had been rescued and repotted.

“I disagree,” Liana said, “everything and everyone in the garden is my responsibility -especially with the Guardian absent.”

Sara didn’t reply -instead she handed a tray of resewn seedlings across to Liana. “Phew. Last tray. Would you mind doing your woo-woo magic thing on these?”

Liana was about to run a hand over the wilted seedlings when she halted. “You know something Sara. In the light of what you have told me -plus, she hesitated to mention, those times she had seen Sara at work when she thought herself unobserved- I believe you could do some of the woo-woo magic for yourself, if you tried.”

“Nah, I don’t think so,” Sara waved her hands in front of her body and took an uncertain step backwards.

“You have the gift,” Liana had seen that obstinate look on Betony’s face when she was asked to do something she did not want to. She decided to come clean. “It’s not as if I haven’t seen you, -countless times I might add- doing woo-woo magic around the nursery.

“You snitchy sneaky garden witch, you!” Sara stepped forward to poke a finger at Liana’s chest. “I knew you were out there creeping around when I was working -under that invisibility cloak of yours.”

“It is not a cloak,’ Liana said in an affronted tone. “I am not Harry Potter and I do not require additional props to render myself unseen.” She considered briefly, “you know, I believe I could teach you that little skill as well.”

“Ooh, that might be fun,” Sara like the sound of getting around unseen. “I don’t know, though,” the note of uncertainty had crept back into her voice and she rubbed her hands together nervously.

“Come on Sara. Enough procrastination. We’ll start simple,” Liana reached out to grasp one of Sara’s hands. Sara could tell that she was not letting go and reluctantly allowed herself to be tugged towards the potting bench.

The woo-woo experiment, as Sara later called it, was partially successful -which is to say, that without Liana’s subsequent ministrations, the young plants might not have fared so well. After some effort and coaching, Sara had managed to get the seedlings standing straight and tall -for all of about thirty seconds- before they fell limp and flat once more. Liana gave a short but encouraging speech about practice making perfect blah, blah, blah, while she fixed the problem. And that had been Botanical Magic 101’s first and slightly underwhelming lesson.

Given her somewhat disappointing first try-out, Sara might have given up any further forays into the world of woo woo, but Liana was not one to allow the grass to grow under her feet -unless she asked it to. Over the next three weeks or so she would appear -sometimes literally, in every corner of the nursery that Sara might try to hide. With increasingly regularity, she would pop up when Sara least expected, as if she were determined, by sheer force of persistence to wear Sara down regarding her latent DNA. The lessons progressed slowly. After numerous tries and failures, Sara could heal most plants she ministered to and was able, occasionally, to encourage a shrub to flower upon a polite request -but never on demand, as Liana had been at some pains to point out on more than one occasion. Apparently, in the world of Botanical magic, manners and a polite attitude were de rigour …but the invisibility thing was a bridge too far. Try as she might, Sara was having no success.

“Oh for crying out loud!” …for the tenth time that week -and it was only Wednesday morning- Sara sensed a presence standing right behind her, “Just appear already, Liana -I know you’re lurking back there,” she grumbled crossly.

A childish giggle alerted Sara to her mistake, “not L’ana, Aunty Sara. S’me, Betony.” With a rainbow shimmer, Betony appeared, looking particularly self-satisfied. To add to Sara’s surprise, a second small body glimmered into existence next to the little girl. Sara thought it rather sweet that the two were holding hands and could not resist a smile at seeing them.

“Well, hello Ariella. It’s lovely to see you again. I wasn’t aware that you could,” Sara gestured with her arms, crossing them backwards and forwards in front of her body as if she was a magician in a disappearing act.

“Betony showed me,” Ariella giggled happily.

“She did, did she? Really?” Sara smelled a rat. A beautiful, well-meaning but intensely annoying Liana-shaped rat.

“Are you two girls here on your own?” She sniffed the air, as if she could scent another presence. She swiftly turned counter-clockwise and raised a hand to point towards nine o’clock, “…Liana McAllister,” she growled. “I know you’re there. You might as well just appear.”

“Well done,” Liana’s voice emanated from precisely where Sara had pointed. “You’re getting better at spotting me every day. But the poetry needs work…I’m more into Haiku than rhyming couplets.”

“Ha ha. That was unintentional, and you know it. Besides which, I can spot a smokescreen a mile away …you brought these delightful little girls to visit for a reason, didn’t you?” The final words were spoken through gritted teeth.

“Might have.” Liana’s disembodied voice spoke grudgingly. “Admitting to nothing.” Still, she did not reveal her form.

“Mummy said I could help you learn dis’ppearing,” Betony spoke at precisely the same instant as her mother.

“Ha. There, you see,” Sara said in a self-satisfied tone. “Don’t bother apparating Liana-san. I’m too busy working to muck around with this rubbish today. She had been using her newfound powers to grow and train the tendrils of potted honeysuckles and clematis around tepee-shaped trellis. Once done, she had been asking, politely, for the plants to flower. In this last week, she had improved from around fifty per cent success with the flower requests to closer to ninety. She was well pleased with the results. They would make a welcome addition to the shop’s current inventory.

“But Betony taught Ariella, all by herself. With absolutely no help from me. None.” Liana did not mention how shocked she had been when both little girls had appeared and disappeared before her while playing a game of hide and go seek among the giant topiary.

Sara still looked unconvinced. Then she felt Betony’s little hand creep into her own. “C’mon Aunty Sara, Ari and me will help you.” Her other hand was taken by Ariella.

“Yes,” said Ariella, “Betony says it’s best to think happy thoughts,” she giggled again.

Sara shook her head in disbelief at the suggestion, “What am I? Peter Pan?”

“I’ve always thought, more Tinkerbell,” Liana could help but prod. “Go on though, do as she says, and think about blending in with your surroundings -that always works for me.”

“I thought I was supposed to disappear, not turn into a blasted chameleon,” Sara rolled her eyes, but did as she was asked. She glanced down at the little hands trustingly gripping her own, picturing Matthew when he had been much the same age -there, that was a happy thought- …and the next minute she could not see her hands. ‘Blend in,” she thought … then her arms started to disappear ‘til all she could see was thin air.

“Did I? Am I?” Sara couldn’t see herself to know if she had succeeded or not.

“Weeell, you’re almost there,” Liana spoke encouragingly, “there’s just the small matter of your face,” she tapped a finger against her lips, “but I’m sure we can work on that.”

Oh wonderful, thought Sara, here she was, like the Cheshire cat, with just her face floating around for all to see.

Betony and Ariella clapped their hands. “You look funny, Auntie Sara!”

“Shhh,” chided Liana. “We’re here to help, not to laugh,” she was almost choking, trying to stifle her laughter but in the end, it bubbled up anyway. She pointed, doubling over in mirth, “if you could just see yourself.”

“Great,” Sara’s (mostly) incorporeal voice sounded as dry as ever. “Wonderful,” she paused, “Now, please tell me you’ve thought of how I’m going to get back to normal again.”

“We’ll work on that next. Won’t we girls?”

Liana revisited the nursery later in the day …she had left Betony napping at home with Hamish and the dog. Sara, returned to her normal form, was outside the shop, unwrapping and arranging the replacement chess pieces around the chequered paving that was the board. There had been so few pieces left intact after Jack’s rampage that she had ordered a completely new set. Pottery was beyond even Liana’s capabilities to mend and the chess pieces had been all but rubble.

Liana walked around the shop corner to find Sara adrift in a sea of bubble wrap, inspecting the final piece of her new outdoor chess set.

“Oh, my. I’m not normally a fan of fairy wings but these pawns are quite lovely,” Liana had drifted among the discarded wrap and picked up piece. “Suzy is such a clever sculptress. I see you haven’t gone with traditional black and white pieces.”

“It seems that there’s less in my life that is black and white than I thought possible -so I opted for brighter colours,” Sara answered. The pieces were arrayed in either bright green or robin-red to define the opposing forces.

Liana picked up a pawn to inspect it more closely. She held an infant fairy seated cross-legged on a toadstool, complete with tiny wings and pointed ears, holding a rosebud in her cupped hands. Then she stared more intently at the face, “Goodness me, -this looks just like my sweet Betony!”

“Mmmm …you might want to check out the rest …,” Sara scratched her cheek, a mischievous smile on her face.

Liana ran her gaze from piece to piece, scanning the facial features, “Sara -What have you done to us?” She walked around the board, eyeing each piece in turn.

“Nothing much …just immortalised you all as chess pieces,” Sara’s puckish grin gave Liana a fair idea of how pleased she was with herself for having the idea.

There was Hamish as a stalwart medieval King -with the additions of a paintbrush and palette in his hands …and at his side, Liana, a formally robed and crowned queen, her crown made of oak leaves and her arms clasping a large floral bouquet. “Is that Greg as a Knight I see riding Cara …and brandishing a mandolin?” Liana asked in wonder.

“Yep -and Reverend Cowley. It seemed only right that he get to be the bishop …well, the vicar, that is,” ...Sally had dressed him in his usual Sunday robes and dog collar.

“Oh look -he’s carrying a miniature chess set under his arm. She has such an excellent eye for details!”

“Yeah -but you’ve got to check out the rook- I think it’s priceless,” Sara pointed to the final chess piece.

Green Jack’s leafy face glared from behind the bars of a prison grate -set into the wall of a stone tower engulfed in vines.

“He doesn’t look particularly happy,” Liana commented.

“Well, he shouldn’t, should he? -And that is precisely where he should be for what he’d done. Behind bars.” Sara added for clarity.

“Yes, but while I agree with your, I’m afraid the authorities would have a difficult time apprehending Jack …and an even harder task incarcerating him. I have no idea how he was apprehended or what form his punishment took as I wasn’t around when he committed his crimes,”

“Yeah, yeah …for which you keep endlessly apologising.” Sara interrupted, “…time to sing a new tune.”

“Very well. But, I imagine that my absence is part of the reason why the Guardian resorted to such harsh justice regarding Jack.”

“Well, unless your Garden Guardian drops in and lets us know otherwise, we’ll continue to be in the dark about that.” Sara shrugged. “I’d prefer to just deal with what I know. And what I know is that Jack needs to be stopped. Once and for all.”

“For a woman who professes to see shades of grey, you’re awfully black and white on this,” Liana observed.

“Yeah, well. I want the woods to be safe. You should too. Think of little Ariella out there, playing with your sweet Betony.”

“Hmmm. I see your point.” Liana nodded.

Sara said nothing.

“Just promise me that you won’t do anything rash. And not on your own. We face him together. Agreed?”

“Yes, mother.” Sara crossed her fingers behind her back unsure if this was a promise she could keep.

Twenty-Two

on the run -again

June gave way to a hot, sweltering first of July.

Of course, thought Sara, the minute she decided it was a nice day for a jog, the skies turned sombre and rain threatened. The first light spits had begun falling as she had entered the village and although the sun was still shining, parts of the sky above were growing blacker and blacker by the minute. As sun showers went, it was looking like it might be a doozy.

She quickened her pace, running past the pub and round the village green, hugging the edge of the asphalt closest to the church. The spits fell more heavily. She glanced skyward -it was either going to be wait it out here under the church lych gate or make a dash for the woods and the shortcut path to White Briars. She made a hasty decision, not breaking stride as she veered onto the lane leading to the woodland track.

“Hey there! Where are you racing in such a hurry?”

Startled by the sudden question -though the tones had been quite friendly and familiar, Sara jammed on her brakes and came to an abrupt halt. “Hey there yourself, Reverend.” She jogged on the spot, not wanting to lose momentum. The Reverend must have been doing a spot of gardening -if the floppy sunhat, secateurs and garden trug full of spent rose heads he was carrying were anything to go by. David Cowley stood between the pillars of the vicarage gateway, wearing long baggy shorts and a faded button-down shirt with the sleeves rolled up. “I was dead-heading the roses,” he explained. “But I’m popping back inside now for a cup of tea. You wouldn’t like one, would you?”

Sara glanced at her watch. “No time sorry, vicar. I’ll have to take a rain-check,” she grinned, turning her face up to the drops that were now becoming quite heavy.

The girl was always busy thought the vicar kindly. She needed to learn to take some more time for herself and slow down a bit. Of course, he was one to talk. He could not abide being idle and was always on the lookout for jobs that needed doing. He raised the secateurs in salutation, “Very well, another time. Enjoy your run. You take care through those woods though. You don’t want to trip and hurt yourself when you’re on your own.”

“Oh, I’ll be fine,” Sara replied breezily. “I know the woodland track like the back of my hand.” The spots were threatening to turn into a deluge. “I’d better get going though and let you get inside before you get any wetter. Bye!” She dashed away down the path towards the kissing gate, admiring the Reverend’s prize roses, which were growing up the tall stone wall that separated the vicarage garden from the lane, as she ran.

Twisting through the narrow gate, she began to jog along the track. Her footfalls were muffled and almost silent now on the leaf-strewn path. A path that Hamish had kept clear since he had first opened up the track nearly four years ago, though Sara was sure that, with Liana’s reawakening, the forest contributed to his efforts by not allowing the shrubberies to impinge upon the pathway as they had while she was doing her sleeping-beauty impression. Up ahead, she could see where the track rose steeply, zigzagging its way up the escarpment …she took a deep breath, steeling herself to tackle the slope. As if to get a run-up on the slope, she sped up a little in anticipation of what was to come….

…and, as per normal, by the top she was gasping for breath and feeling like a fish out of water, though proud that she had made it all the way up without resorting to walking. She stopped for a minute, hunched over with her hands on her knees, as she caught her breath prior to running the rest of the way to White Briars.

A snickering laugh from up in the big old oak that bordered the path alerted Sara that she was not alone. This time, the sound did not have that feel of the familiar or the friendly that the reverend’s greeting had. She turned her head upwards to stare into the oak’s branches, looking for someone she really hoped she would not see. A quick movement halfway up the tree was more than enough hint as to who was up there.

Oh bugger, Sara thought. She had advised others to stay out of the woods -perhaps it was time she listened to her own advice. Flight or fright? She wanted to run but her innate pride would not allow that option.

She chose to stand her ground.

A second later, with a quick rustle of leaves and the crack of a needlessly broken branch, Jack dropped to the path, several yards in front of her, effectively blocking her route to White Briars and safety. Sara did not fancy a headlong sprint down the escarpment as her only plausible escape and sought other options. There was the even trickier path that was little more than a goat track that ran along the top of the escarpment -it branched off a few yards back, but that was definitely not one to be taken at speed. Not unless she wanted to end up broken and battered in the pool or the stream at the base of the cliffs. She was sure that would put a dint in both her day and that of the nymphs who lived in the pool below. Her options seemed limited -she would have to choose one or the other. Before she could make her mind up, Jack spoke, his oily voice full of poorly concealed scorn.

“Well, fancy meeting you here on this fine sunny day.” Jack rolled his shoulders like a prizefighter about to begin a ring match.

Sara became aware of something she had not been cognisant of until he’d mentioned it -the bloody rain had stopped and the sun was back out shining brightly -making dappled patches on the path. Great. She should have stuck to the road and gotten a little wet. However, it was too late now.

She tried to sidle nonchalantly to her left, further away from Jack and towards the edge of the path, thinking that if she moved quickly, she might get around him. He leered, “I wasn’t born yesterday, you silly girl. You can’t get around me that easily,” and he mirrored her move with one of his own.

Sara felt like a piece in her own chess set. More of a pawn than a queen. There was not much room to move and she wasn’t sure that she could best Jack at such close quarters. She wished Liana were here to help. She wished Jack were locked up in that tower and not running free.

There had to be another option -think, think, think. Her brain didn’t do well under pressure like this.

She needed to stall until she could come up with something useful.

“You left my father for dead and I know about what you did to my grandmother,” she snarled, “you ought to be turned into mulch for either of those.”

“I didn’t put him in harm’s way. You did.” Jack retaliated. “The old man was merely collateral damage. Wrong place, right time. Wrong place for him, right time for me, that is. You hurt my plants, I hurt yours.” His grin was pure evil, “As for the other -well, that explains why you can do the things I’ve seen you do. I’ve been keeping my eye on you …grand-daughter.”

“Ick, don’t you dare call me that,” Sara felt some sympathy for Luke Skywalker, hearing the immortal words ‘I am your father’. She shuddered in revulsion. “I simply cannot believe that you I share DNA,”

“If by DNA, you mean blood. We do not. And you are nothing more than the by-blow of an itch I scratched.” His malicious green eyes showed no evidence of any humanity whatsoever.

Jack scoured his palm with the jagged end of a stick he broke off a nearby shrub -a viscous green substance oozed from the cut. “See, I have no blood -and even if I did, you wouldn’t share it.” He narrowed his eyes, “Green Jack does not share. He takes what he wants. When he wants it.” He leered lasciviously, “Now, perhaps I’ll have you.” Without warning, he pounced.

Wow- She had to give it to him. He was faster than a speeding bullet.

When he sprang and grabbed her, there was no time for reaction. He had grasped her upper arm and was squeezing. It hurt. A lot. She could feel muscle and bone protesting. If she couldn’t pull something out of the bag pretty damn quickly, she was going to be toast with a broken arm.

At last, her primal instincts kicked in, tired of waiting for her addled brain to come up with a workable solution.

Without thinking, she twisted and kicked him where his gonads should have been. Hard. Hearing the satisfying sound of splintering wood, she wrenched her arm from his grip. Yay, free …now what to do with it? He was already straightening -obviously, the blow had not done as much damage as it might have an ordinary human male. And the look on Jack’s face suggested she was not going to best him a second time. As she had at the base of the cliff, Sara took a deep breath in preparation for what was to come …then she concentrated with all her might on all that zen, one-with-nature, think calm and run for your life palaver.

There, she’d done it. Maybe. She couldn’t see her arms or legs ...or her torso. She held her breath, hoping she’d improved upon her previous attempts to render herself invisible. Otherwise, he was going to spot her frightened face floating around in thin air -let’s hope she’d done better this time when it counted.

Green Jack drew back in shocked surprise. Looking this way and that.

Double yay -it appeared she had mastered the disappearing trick. Face included.

“Where are you, you little bitch!”

Name-calling. That wasn’t nice. Sara was briefly tempted to kick him again where it hurt but thought better of it. She should just stick with the disappearing act and get as far away as possible before anything wore off. It would be just her luck to reappear before she had enough distance between herself and this nasty leafy-green psychopath.

“Come back here, grand-daughter,” even trying to sound pleasant, the words came out unctuous. “We’ll talk. …I can tell you things you don’t know.”

How stupid did he think she was? Stay and chat a while Sara …yeah, right. She would pass on that.

Sara moved off the path, creeping as quietly as she could -watching she didn’t step on any dried branches that might give her away …before discovering that she seemed to be able to move without making a sound. That was good. Heartened by this discovery, she put aside all pretence of stealth and made a dash for the path towards White Briars, adrenalin giving her a turn of speed that might have seen her on an Olympic sprint team.

Run, run, run away,’ she thought as she tore along the path, ‘…and live to fight another day!’ (Another rhyming couplet …she hoped she’d live long enough to tell Liana about this one!)

She emerged from the woods, dashing into the pool glade by the old summerhouse that Hamish had once rebuilt as a temporary home for Liana. In her rush to leave the trees, she almost ran headlong into Hamish and Liana. She skidded to a stop. “Am I ever glad to see you two!” she gasped.

“And we’d be glad to see you too …if you were visible that is,” Hamish said.

“Oh, yeah. Sorry. Gotta – Get – Breath – Back,” she huffed for a minute or so, “Okay, I’m working on it. How’s that?” she looked down at her body. “Oh dear.” Somehow, she had managed to reapparate precisely half her body, with a neat vertical line separating visible and invisible. “Help!” she squeaked.

Hamish couldn’t help laughing, “You remind me of one of those old silent movie characters that did that thing with mirrored windows, you know? Can you do this?” he flailed one arm and one leg up and down in a parody of a Charlie Chaplinesque-type of comedy actor.

Liana batted him on the arm. “Leave her alone Hamish. Can’t you see she has had a nasty fright. That’s why she’s having trouble reappearing.” She turned to Sara, trying not to show that it did take a certain amount of self-control for her not to smile. “You just need to find that calm centre that we discussed, Sara, and you’ll be fine. Now, take a deep breath …or two, and you should reappear. All of you. I hope.”

“What do you mean, I hope? … and just what do you think I’ve been doing? I’ve taken nothing but deep breaths since I stopped sprinting.” Sara reciprocated angrily. The adrenalin was wearing off and she felt a deep sense of rage that needed an outlet. Unfortunately, the closest person to take her anger out on was right in front of her.

Liana frowned, concerned for her friend. It was patently obvious that Sara had been shaken badly. But first things, first. She needed to calm herself sufficiently to counteract the curtain of invisibility she had been hiding behind. Liana reached out with both hands, “Place your hands in mine, Sara.” When Sara hesitated, “go on …hands in mine,” she repeated, “I can help you.”

Hesitantly, Sara placed both her hands in Liana’s. It was hard to allow touch after the fright she had just endured. Liana could feel Sara’s heartbeat thumping at an accelerated rate. She concentrated on slowing it down to a more normal pace. There, that was better.

“Now, try again,” she suggested.

Sara looked down at herself. “Well, that’s better.” She had a body once more. She touched her cheeks. “Assuming my face is all there as well?” she questioned.

Liana gently patted her cheek “Yes, dear, you’re all there. Now,” her tone turned steely, “What happened? I was in the kitchen and all the trees started screaming your name. We came running to find you. In her haste to leave the woods, Sara had not noticed that Liana and Hamish had both been breathing hard as well.

“Running. Rain. Took a shortcut. Met Jack,” she did not feel like explaining more than that right now.

“Thank goodness you’re safe,”

Sara was touched by Liana’s concern. She had expected a lecture. Now that she was out of harm, she could feel her knees wobble and threaten to give way. Noticing this, Hamish put out a hand to steady her and noticed the angry red mark on her upper arm where Jack had grabbed.

“Did he do that?”

“Yeah. He’s wickedly strong for a shrub.” Sara looked down at her arm -thanks to her skin’s restorative nature, the red mark from Jack’s poison touch was already fading. It was still hot and itchy and she knew there would be a bruise there later from the damage he’d done under her skin. “He was trying to break my arm. He almost succeeded.”

“Why on earth did you go in the woods alone?” Liana asked. “We talked about this and agreed that Jack was to be faced together.”

Yep -there was the lecture …strangely, Sara was quite happy to hear it.

“I could say it was raining and I didn’t think and just ducked into the woods for cover, but the truth is, I have to admit, I half-wanted to meet him. After seeing what he did to Dad, I was spoiling for a fight. But when I saw him again, I realised I couldn’t match him on my own. Like you said, we got lucky that first time.”

“Sounds like a case of ‘be careful what you wish for…’” Hamish’s voice was gentler than his wife’s was but nevertheless, Sara caught the admonition.

“Okay, I get it. I get it.” She held up hands in surrender. “I won’t go into the woods again Mummy and Daddy.”

“Well, as long as you’ve learned your lesson, we won’t ground you this time,” Hamish’s voice was full of humour.

“You know the worst thing?” Sara shuddered, “He called me his grand-daughter.”

“Sometimes filial/familial connections aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.” Hamish rubbed her uninjured arm in consolation.

“You can say that again.”

“Still, something good has come from this …experience.” Liana added.

“Like what?” Sara could think of little that was good out of the experience.

“You have mastered the skill of disappearing. It may be helpful when we both meet Jack again.” Liana heavily emphasised the word.

“Yeah, yeah, enough with the reminders,” Sara knew she sounded like some grizzly teen. “The zip-zap thing was pretty cool though, wasn’t it? The force was with me this time…” She knew that last reference would get on Liana’s nerves.

Liana resisted the red rag Sara was waving, limiting herself to an eye roll. “You see, it was so simple in the end. You just needed to change you attitude. Like Betony said …approach it more like a little child, you know, trust and believe and the woo-woo magic will prevail.”

“Why thank you for that delightful sermon. Remind me to suggest you as a stand-in for Reverend Cowley when he needs a break from the pulpit.” Though secretly Sara was more than a little bit pleased with herself.

Then another more disquieting thought occurred to her. “What are the chances that Matthew will inherit this …stuff… from me?” she asked. Matthew had perfectly normal ears that harked more to his grandfather’s than his mother’s side of the family.

“I don’t know.” Liana was honest. “There’s no real precedent for what is inheritable with a human-fey child.”

“I don’t want to keep him in the dark, like my parents …and then my father did with me. But I don’t want to spring something weird and unnecessary on him, either, not if it doesn’t affect him.”

“I see your point,” Liana said. “But you are his mother. It is for you to decide what you tell him and what you do not. There will be a right time for that discussion, I’m sure.”

“Great. Another one of those ‘a time for every purpose’ things,” Sara grumbled. She’d been hearing a lot of that lately.

“Well, I think it’s time for a cup of tea!” Hamish slung his arm across Sara’s shoulders and with Liana’s hand in his they retraced their steps back up the garden to the kitchen.

Twenty-Three

a pre-proposal

“Holly-girl, we need to talk,” Greg drained his morning coffee mug and tossed the dregs towards a large pile of freshly-chipped prunings, narrowly missing Spot the thrush, who squawked an indignant chirp from his vantage on the top of the low sapling wall that separated each bin. The scent of pine filled the warming air with a fresh, sharp tang.

“Ah now, that doesn’t sound good.” In Sara’s experience, conversations that began this way seldom boded well for her. “So,” she feigned a nonchalance she was not feeling and took the initiative, asking him first, “when are you leaving?” She might as well let him know that she was sure where this conversation was heading.

It was a full week after the encounter with Jack and though Sara had been steeling herself for this ‘talk’ for weeks, this was a conversation she did not want to have. She told herself that it merely because she had grown accustomed to having him around -plus, his help around the nursery was undeniably invaluable. Instead of giving her a final date after those first ‘few weeks’ that he had said he would help out for, Greg had made no mention of departing -staying on long after the initial time they had agreed upon had come and gone. Sure, he’d been away for gigs throughout the months he’d worked at the nursery and he had been absent most of the last week of June, after which he had arrived back from the band’s first and apparently very successful gig at Glastonbury. Clifford and Co. had played the John Peel stage, -as Greg had said afterwards-, it might not have been up to the prestige of playing the main Pyramid stage, but it was a very respectful venue all the same. It was obvious to Sara that if his band’s popularity continued to grow as it had been, they would be headlining on the Pyramid stage within a year or two.

Not having attended the festival, Sara had had to make do with hearsay and following the action on Facebook and YouTube.

It was not the same as being there but she couldn’t really complain. She’d had the opportunity to go and had turned it down. Multiple times.

Greg had tried in vain to convince her to go and had even resorted to attempted bribery; but much as she’d have liked to experience the festival Sara had used the combined excuses of imminent work deadlines, Matthew, Arthur and just about anything else to disguise the fact that she couldn’t vacate the nursery while Jack was still at large. Escalating his offers with each refusal, from a brand new pair of Wellingtons -in case of that notorious mud- and culminating in a once-in-a-lifetime ticket giving Sara full access to the VIP campsite, with showers, he’d added, and (this was the biggest carrot of all) -VIP toilets. Reluctantly, Sara had turned down all his gifts and replied no.

It was just too risky.

Disappointed, Greg had gone to the festival alone. As if to pour salt on her wounds, the sun had shone for entire week and there had not been even a hint of mud.

He had also come back -much to Sara’s surprise.

“You’re a sharp one, Holly,” Greg set the mug by his feet and leaned back comfortably against some packing crates, tossing biscuit crumbs for the bird. “It’s true, I’m going to have to love you and leave for a while. We have a short tour to play a few gigs in America then a couple of months touring around the continent. But I’m like the terminator – I’ll be baack, …you can’t get rid of me that easily.”

Sara laughed, trying to ignore the sinking sensation in the pit of her stomach, “that has to be the worst Arnie impersonation I’ve ever heard.”

“Well, you know, the whole Austrian/American-Australian accent doesn’t help,” Greg pointed across at Sara, who was perched on an upturned bucket on the other side of the mounded pile, “If you’re so clever, let’s hear you give it a go.”

Sara deepened her voice to something she thought might match Arnie’s, “I’ll be ba-ack,”

Greg reached for a handful of the fresh chippings and tossed them at her, “that was terrible -much worse than mine. So here’s your rotten tomatoes, well, fresh pine chippings.”

Sara threw a larger handful back at him. Greg batted them aside.

“Ah, its war you want lassie?” he leered, “an’ it’s war ye’ll get.” He jumped to his feet.

“Now you sound like Mel Gibson doing a really bad Scottish accent!”

“Watch it girlie, you’re maligning my fellow-countryman. I’ll give you Braveheart! Argh.” He pounced.

The skirmish was brief and bloody -ending with Greg pinning Sara under him in the middle of the woodchip pile.

“Let me up,” she laughed, pushing against his chest. “I’m going to smell like a Christmas tree all day if I stay here too long.”

“There are much worse things to smell of,” Greg indicated an adjacent heap -this one of horse poo and stable straw from the local riding school.

“Glad you mentioned it. That’s our next job.” She pushed him off with an ease that made him suspect she’d been holding back when they’d tussled. Her hair had become mussed in the play fighting and she carelessly tugged strands over her unusual ears.

Greg lay on his back; his head lower than his feet on the sloping pile -looking up at her from his upside down perspective. He thought about her distinctive ears, her unnatural strength and her uncanny ability to grow anything -she might dismiss it as nothing more than ‘green thumbs’ but he’d never seen anyone so gifted when it came to grafting and lately there had been some astonishing growth-rates among the nursery stock. “So, Holly-girl, when are you going to tell me your secrets?” he asked.

“You know I can’t -if I told you…”

“…you’d have to shoot me. I know that one. But you can’t keep it all to yourself forever.”

Refusing to be drawn on the subject, Sara sat back on her bucket, pulling on a sock and replacing one sturdy work-boot in in readiness to get back to work. Greg glanced over at her other still-bare foot with its delicately-drawn leaf tattoo.

“Have I told you how much I love that tattoo? The leaves kind of remind of that song…you know the one …he sang a line from the song Forever Autumn … ‘like a leaf on a breeze you blew aw-ay.’”

“Wow that sounds amazing. Where were you when the Moody Blues were looking for a singer?”

“Uh, I wasn’t even thought of …and besides, I think they’d already found Justin Hayward. He is pretty good, you know? However, thank you all the same. I do appreciate the sentiment.”

“You’re welcome. Now, are you getting out of that pile any day soon?”

“I’ll be here all week.” Even upside-down, he managed a fair copy of an Elvis impersonation. Then, “Hey look at me, I’m making a mulch angel!” he flailed his arms and legs.

“Ha. You can sweep that stuff all back neatly when you’re done.” Sara tied her boots and jumped to her feet.

She looked down at him fooling around like a small boy in the chippings. “More of a mulch joker,” His sense of humour was infectious. Sara knew she would miss him -more than she’d like to admit...and not just for the work he did. But she wasn’t about to let him know how she felt. She had spent most of her adult life keeping her emotions under tight control, always afraid that if she didn’t she would still make the same kinds of poor decisions that had led to her alcohol-dependency and teenage pregnancy. Until recently, she’d thought that she had mastered the techniques of stringent self-control pretty well. Then the man, currently sprawled at her feet, had arrived on the scene…

The man in question flipped his legs over his head and backward-summersaulted to his feet. “So, poop-pile next, mein cap-i-tan?” he asked, brushing pieces of mulch from his clothes.

“Too right. On to the poop, soldier!” she replied, shaking her head in wonder.

They had been shovelling horse poo and straw for several minutes, Greg filling the barrow and Sara taking loads of the smelly stuff to a bay further to the back of the nursery -away from where some of her more genteel customers might encounter the stuff.

“Hey, this horse poo reminds of a favour I’ve been meaning to ask you.” Greg leaned on his shovel for a moment and looked across at her.

“A poop-reminder. Ha. …Is that something like a remembrall, but with poop inside it rather than smoke? Go on, do. I bet this’ll be good,” Sara set down the barrow to listen.

The look on his face reminded her of how Matthew looked when he’d done something she might not approve of. She waited.

“Can you look after Cara ‘til I get back?”

Not quite what she expected. She shrugged, “If you’d like, -she’s no trouble to keep and she rubs along nicely with the sheep and goats. Why? I thought you’d have to take her back to her owner when you returned the caravan?” she asked.

“Mmmm -well, here’s the thing,” he prevaricated, then decided to come clean, “it seems that I might have gone and bought her -outright, so …I’m kind of her owner now.”

“Seriously?” Sara chortled in amusement. “And just what role does a large cart-horse play in your musical future?”

“I couldn’t just take her back, could I?” he spoke plaintively. “Not after I’ve gone and fallen in love with her. And I fell hard.” Adding to himself, the big piebald mare was not the only girl he’d fallen hard for. He dearly wanted to say something, but thought that perhaps that was a subject for another day. “Cara’s getting too old to be doing that heavy work every day. I thought maybe she could retire here …I guess I should have asked first but you know how it is…the heart wants what the heart wants.” Damn right about that, he thought.

Sara rolled her eyes, “that’s a feeble excuse, if ever I’ve heard one. But I kind of love her myself -and if you can afford to buy her I wouldn’t like to see her going back to pulling heavy vans for a living any more than you would …so she’s welcome to retire here.”

He took hold of his shovel and started work once more. “Great. I’m so relieved that you see it that way …’cos I bought the van as well. They were a job-lot and I couldn’t get her without buying it too.”

“You’re impossible!” she couldn’t help but laugh. “What on earth are you planning on doing with the van?”

“I have plans.” He hesitated, thinking of his earlier decision not to say anything before he thought she was ready to hear it. He threw caution to the wind. “Fact is …I thought it would make a rather lovely romantic honeymoon van.”

“Yeah, I guess it might.” Sara could imagine trotting along quiet country lanes behind Cara’s wide backside, evenings spent under starry skies gazing into a lover’s eyes beside a cosy fire and nights spent cuddling up in the comfortable and quaint van. “For whom?” she quizzed.

“Oh, go on, you know,” he swallowed with difficulty, “for us,” he blurted. “Not that I’m asking you right now…it’s too soon.”

The noise she made sounded something like that he imagined a gargling fish might make. “Too soon for what?!”

He brushed aside her comment. “…anyway, I figured you’d need a bit of time to get used to the idea. So …Sara Blaine, consider this a pre-proposal.”

“A pre-proposal?” she guffawed, thinking he was taking the mickey, “I’m sure there’s no such thing.”

“Well I just made one so there it is.” The glint of metal on the ground gave him and idea. He bent and picked up the tear tab some customer must have discarded from a drink can, “As you can possibly tell, this is a bit spur-of-the-moment so, here, I’ll give you this artfully-fashioned token as a pre-proposal ring. He had reached and slipped the slippery aluminium ring on her finger before she could think to protest or pull her hand away.

“Hey, I haven’t even said ‘yes’ yet!” she protested.

“That’s the beauty of a pre-proposal,” he said, “it’s especially designed for gun-shy ladies like yourself. Like I said, it’ll give you time to get used to the idea. I figure three or four months will be about right. You should be good and ready for a proper proposal by the time I get back from touring.”

“Oh go one with you,” she sighed unbelievingly, “we need to get back to work.” She handed him his shovel and bent to take the weight of the barrow “someone is certainly shovelling the poop round here this morning.”

“You do know I love every little thing about you Holly-S, don’t you?”

“Shovel, Roo-boy, shovel.” When she grabbed the barrow handles the tab dug into her finger. She pulled it off, thinking to throw it away but instead looked at it the metal ring a second before shoving it into her shorts pocket.

Baby steps, thought Greg, cheerfully. They were small and slow, and sometimes the outcome was uncertain, but if you persisted, you still got where you wanted to be in the end.

It was the end of the day and Greg was locking up the tools in the shed.

“By the way, I’ve organised a bit of surprise for you over at White Briars tonight. Think you can come over around 7 o’clock?”

“Another surprise?” Sara eyes narrowed. “I guess. As long as it doesn’t involve more livestock.”

Greg shook his head, “Nope, no animals. I promise.”

“And no dress-ups? No movies?” though, come to think of it, she wouldn’t have minded a movie.

“No dress-ups either …unless, that is, you want to wear that cute short skirt again.” He grinned, “I’m sure I wouldn’t object.” At her scorching look... “Ok-ay, dress code is casual and jeans, shorts or whatever you want to wear will be fine. Now, I have to get going. Things to do. I’ll see you later.” He dropped a quick kiss on her mouth -then at her shocked expression said matter-of-factly, “…that’s what pre-proposed people do, you know?”

“Go away Greg,” she poked him in the chest. “I could hurt you. You do know that, don’t you?”

“Yup -that’s one of the many things I love about you. And you love me -even if you won’t admit it yet- so you won’t harm me. See you at seven Holly-S. Oh, by the way, Matthew and I are taking the van. You’ll have to ride Bob,” since Sara had refused to tell him the bike’s name, Greg had taken to calling it Bob. He knew it bugged her -but not enough that she’d reveal the motorbike’s real name. “Don’t be late,” he leaned in a second time, “I think I might have to kiss you again,” He did so, pleased to see that she didn’t make good on her threat, before he strolled away, whistling happily.

Twenty-Four

the alt-Glastonbury

Sara throttled down the engine and listened. Where she had expected to hear evening bird-song she could hear music.

Very. Loud. Music. More Metallica than Sigur Rós. The deep-throated thrums of bass guitar and drums coming from the direction of the cottage were forceful enough she could practically feel it through her boots. She parked the bike, shimmied out of her leathers and packed away her gear. Under the protective gear, she had chosen to wear light cotton pants and a prettily embroidered chiffon top with a silk camisole. She balanced on one leg as she changed the heavy boots for a pair of sparkly sandals and grabbed a cardigan she had stowed in case the evening grew colder.

She started along the serpentine path towards the cottage. Half-way along she found a pair of lime-green wellingtons sitting in the middle of the gravelled pathway -accompanied by a hand-written note that read ‘ wear me…’ with crossed kisses and Greg’s signature. Sara picked up the boots but did not do as the note suggested, instead carrying them in one hand.

“What do I find next,” she muttered under her breath, “a note that says ‘drink me’? …I’m not Alice in bloody Wonderland.” I occurred to her, after her bad-tempered comment, that the role of Alice might be an improvement on the Cheshire impersonation she’d been doing with her recent teething troubles in disappearing.

The sight that met her when she emerged near the conservatory put any ideas of Alice or Wonderland right out of her mind … although if the Queen of Hearts had appeared from behind a bush right at that moment, Sara would have been no more surprised than she was with the scene before her eyes.

“Can I see your pass, miss?” a burly security guard appeared to be manning a check-point in front of temporary barriers set up across the path so she couldn’t progress any nearer the cottage without his permission. He had to speak quite loudly to be heard over the music.

“Um, erm,” Sara had no such pass. “I was invited.”

“Then you might want to check inside the boots miss,” advised the guard kindly, pointing at the wellingtons.

Sara stuck her hand, first down one boot then the other and sure enough, her fingers encountered a flat plastic pass. She pulled it out and handed the plastic-encased card to the guard without a word. Belatedly, she realised that if she’d put the boots on, as advised, she’d have found the pass.

The guard smiled, gave the pass no more than a cursory glance before handing it back. “Might want to keep that round your neck miss.” He passed her a rainbow-coloured lanyard. “It’ll give you access to the VIP area. Now hold out your hand please,” Sara did so, to be promptly rewarded with a stamp across the back of her wrist. She looked down but all she could see were faint yellowish-green outlines.

“That’s your re-entry stamp. It’ll show up after dark,” the guard explained. He shone a black light on her wrist to reveal a fluorescent stamp with the words ‘White Briars Music Festival’ encircling a stencilled rosebud.

“White Briars Music Festival?” Sara asked.

The guard simply smiled and nodded. He moved aside so she could make her way through the turnstile. Perhaps he felt the incredibly loud rock music was a sufficient hint as to what might be going on inside the cottage’s garden.

Sara pushed the turnstile and walked on. Once she navigated her way round the shrubberies closest the conservatory, she saw several things at once. First, a considerable crowd of people, a fair number of whom she knew from the village and surrounds, then massive speakers and lastly a stage, set up on scaffolding over the drop at the far end of the top terrace. There was band playing -the obvious source of the loud music. She recognised the singer as Greg’s friend Mac. Presumably, the rest of the musicians on stage were members of his rock band …and there was Greg, pounding away with skilful bravado on the drums. As she watched, he began to play a solo, exhibiting some chops with the drumsticks.

“Hey there Sara!” a voice she identified as Hamish’s yelled her name. She turned, searching for the source. “Over here.” Hamish beckoned. He, Liana, Arthur, Matthew and Betony all stood in a tight knot to one side of the cottage doors. Hamish and Seamus from the pub were manning a Bar B Q and wearing ‘kiss the cook’ aprons. A small line of villagers had queued and it looked as if the two might be in for a busy evening. Sara’s stomach grumbled in a reminder of the meal that she had missed to make it by the appointed time. She walked over to find out what was going on.

“I’m surprised to see you here Dad,” Sara spoke loudly.

“What’s that?” Arthur yelled, cupping one hand behind an ear. Sara noted that his other hand, creeping out of sight behind his thigh, held a sausage wrapped in white bread. She sighed.

Liana touched Sara’s arm. “He can’t hear you terribly well. We gave him ear plugs.”

“And a sausage, I see.” She pursed her lips, “That’s not exactly on his recovery diet plan,” she admonished.

“Aw, give over, Mum,” Matthew’s voice spoke from behind her back, “You need to chill. Everyone needs a night off every now and then, even you …and Greg ‘n’ I set this all up ‘specially, since you missed Glastonbury an’ all.” At moments like this, Matthew sounded very much like his grandfather.

Looking around, Sara wondered just how much of the organisation had fallen to her son. Given that he found it difficult some mornings to find all his clothes for school, she doubted that he had been a key player.

“Yes,” Liana added, “It’s our inaugural …and possibly only ever, music festival. We invited all the neighbours. The children are going to sleepover. We’ve organised a bed for Arthur too -though in the cottage, not outside.”

Sara noted the heavy emphasis on all …checking around, she spotted Ariella and her parents, dancing to the music. Interesting, she thought, that the fey seemed to have a taste for heavy rock. She hoped Liana’s all did not include a certain leafy-green individual and looked back at her friend in concern. “Not him,” mouthed Liana, shaking her head.

“Your Greg called in lot of favours to make it happen -and all in a very short time too.” Hamish waved a spatula to emphasise the words then did his own impromptu drum solo with spatula and barbeque fork on the lid of the barbeque. When Mrs Trapper from the village shop -now at the head of queue- waved her slices of buttered bread at him, he lowered his instruments and went back to serving sausages.

Feeling overwhelmed, it was on the tip of Sara’s tongue to retort, “he’s not my Greg,” but she thought the better of it and kept quiet. Once again, her traitorous left hand crept into her pocket to touch the tear tab ring she had received that afternoon. She couldn’t remember transferring the silly piece of metal from her shorts into the clean pants when she had showered and changed clothes, but there it was. Her fingers ran around the outer edge of the ring. …she really needed to talk to him and hear him say that this pre-proposal stuff was a load of nonsense.

However, she had little opportunity to speak to Greg all evening as he spent nearly all of it on stage -and when he wasn’t performing, he was surrounded by too many people for any kind of private chat. First, he had played with Mac’s band, then his own and then he provided accompaniment to various local musicians -including Seamus, who had brought along his fiddle. The two performed a rousing Irish jig. Sara had been surprised to see how many people knew Irish dancing.

As the daylight softened into dusk, Sara was sure she saw more fey among the crowd -if the barely-there filmy dresses of a number of the womenfolk and delicate facial features of the menfolk were any indication. There were more small children running about than she knew as well, -some recognisably belonging to the locals and others -none much older than Betony and Ariella- with qualities hinting more of the woodland folk than the villagers.

When she saw a couple of little people walking by, holding the hand of an even smaller person she sauntered over to Liana during a quieter interval in the music to ask a question. “Is it just me,” she whispered, “or do you think there might have been a bit of population explosion in the last few years with the fey?”

“Ah, you’ve noticed,” Liana responded. “Yes, there have been a number of births.”

“That’s nice,” Sara commented. “I hope they’ve got enough trees and rocks and …ponds, or whatever they need, to live in.”

“The fey are fine, for now,” Liana said. “Though I’m not sure what will happen if they keep up the current rate of population growth. They are still limited by the Garden’s walls.”

“Fairy birth control?” Sara joked, “Well, that’s a conversation I’m going to leave you to have.” She patted Liana on her arm. “Good luck.”

“Gee thanks,” Liana retorted dryly.

A nasty thought had occurred to Sara. “I hope Jack can’t have more little Jacks.”

Liana replied tersely, “I don’t believe Jack is capable of procreation in his current form,” she frowned, “at least, I very much hope not.”

Sara thought back to the kick she had given him that day she’d encountered him on the woodland path, picturing him bent over, “Nah, I doubt it. I think he’s mostly twigs and leaves…and when he showed me his blood it looked more like sap than anything else.” She made a face, “kind of gross though.”

Betony and Ariella chose that moment to run over, dragging Liana away to dance and ending any further conversation. When her stomach started rumbling once more, Sara went in search of food and drink.

“Okay, this is our last song for the evening. We’re going to finish with a cover …it’s an old one, but a good one,” Greg set the microphone back on its stand, and adjusted his guitar strap around his neck to a more comfortable position. “Seems appropriate for the moment. …Now, where is she?” his gaze searched the crowd until he found who he had been looking for, Sara. Eyes on her, he began to sing.

…The applause was dying down. …“Hey -is it my imagination …or did I just hear Greg propose to you in that song?” Hamish poked Sara gently in the ribs.

“Nuh-huh,” Sara had a slightly shell-shocked expression on her face, “it’s just a song, and that’s how the lyrics go, pre-proposal indeed,” she muttered under her breath, fingering the tab that she hadn’t been able to ignore all evening.

“Pre-proposal, aye?” Liana had sharp ears. “That’s a romantic if somewhat quaint notion in this day and age,” She looked over Sara’s head to her husband, saying, “…I particularly liked the line he changed …how did it go again?” Instead of the standard lyrics to Leaving On A jet Plane, Greg had ad-libbed, “but I know when I’ll be back again…” then he had momentarily broken into the song to announce, “that’ll be November 25th, 2:45pm, terminal 3, Heathrow …and I’d appreciate being collected,” he’d grinned over at Sara as he’d made the request.

“No. It’s nothing more than a song,” Sara repeated, still fondling the tab. Like a hole in her tooth, she couldn’t leave the thing alone.

“We’ll I definitely heard mention of bringing back a wedding ring,” Hamish was not to be put off that easily, “and I don’t think he was looking at me when he sang it.”

“Nor me,” Liana agreed pleasantly.

“Get over it,” Sara grizzled. “Doesn’t mean a thing.”

Hamish and Liana looked at one another over her head. “Yeah, I’m sure …just a song,’ Hamish made an ‘I don’t believe a word she just said’ face across at his wife. She gave tiny nod in agreement.

“I saw that, you two. I hate it when you do that thing over my head,” Sara said grumpily. “Stop it right now.”

“Ok-ay,” Liana capitulated.

Not letting it go, Hamish hummed ‘Leaving on a Jet Plane’ for the next few minutes until Sara had had enough. She needed some alone time. She collected her wellies from the cottage porch and stomped off in the direction of the orchard.

Unfortunately, alone time was not going to be so easy to find. After passing-by Betony, Ariella and a group of younger children, all wearing wellies and playing in a muddy area that someone had made by leaving a hose running -watched over by Ariella’s parents- she discovered the orchard to be full of pup tents and noisy teenagers. It appeared that this was where the younger festivalgoers had set up camp and were intending spending the night. She spied Matthew with a few of his schoolmates lounging under the awning of a larger tent. He waved and she waved back. He looked happier that she had seen him in some time, laughing and joking around with his friends. Someone had strung lights in among in the orchard trees and set up lanterns at intervals around the orchard and from what she could see it appeared they were well set up to spend the night. Knowing that he would hardly welcome her intrusion, Sara continued towards the end gate that led down to the lower topiary terrace, thinking she would leave by way of the path up the opposite bank of the terrace and just head home. It had been a long day and all she wanted now was her own comfortable bed.

She was caught in the act of crossing the terrace.

“Oi, wait up Sara!” Greg’s amplified voice boomed from the end nearest the house. She turned her head and could see him outlined, standing up on the stage. As she watched, he nimbly negotiated the scaffolding then jumped down to the steps that normally connected the top and lower terraces. He ran down the length of the terrace, sprinting between the tall clipped topiary and coming to a stop in front of her.

“You weren’t leaving were you?” he was barely out of breath.

“Erm, well, Sara didn’t want to lie.

“I’ll take that as a ‘yes’,” he grabbed her hand, “You can’t go yet Holly-girl. You haven’t had the final bit of my surprise.”

“I think I’ve had more surprises than one girl needs for a day,” Sara answered with some asperity, then, as if in justification, “I’m tired. I really need to get some sleep.”

“Then I have just the thing for you,” he half-turned and indicated with his head, “this way ma’am,’ when she offered resistance, “c’mon Sara,” he cajoled. He pulled her along, leading her back the way he’d come.

As he walked, he reached a hand across and tapped the pass, hanging around her neck. “What did you think this was for?”

“I dunno ...the toilets?” The cottage had been open for anyone wishing to use the facilities. “Can’t be the showers -I had one of those at home already,” she yawned hugely, hardly bothering to cover her mouth with her free hand. “I’m pooped after barrowing all that poop today.”

“You’ll like this then. Here we are,” he stopped, Tucked between the large topiary towards the end of the terrace were several bell tents. Bigger than those in the orchard -the entrances lit by LED lanterns hanging on tall poles. “Ta Da.” He spread his arms, “the full Glastonbury VIP glamping experience …brought to you with a fair bit of help from my friends.” He held the heavy canvas flap to one side and gestured for Sara to enter. She crossed over the jute doormat and poked her head inside.

“Wow.” She looked around, speechless. The tent was furnished with everything a discerning camper could desire and more …including floor rugs, a low hand-painted table, a mirror (though she was fairly certain that she didn’t want to see herself right now – even in the gentle glow of the tea-light chandelier that was hanging from the central pole) …and, most importantly, a wide comfortable-looking bed. Sara threw herself onto the softness of the downy duvet in happiness. Though she had to admit, the bowl of juicy ripe strawberries on the nightstand did look good too. With one thing and another, a proper dinner had remained elusive all evening.

“That’s one hundred percent Egyptian cotton bedding you’re lying on and …best of all …I’ll be right next door, …should you need me…” the look he gave had a glimmer of unspoken promise.

She glared. “I thought you said you were leaving on a jet plane?”

“That’s tomorrow,” he shrugged at her glare, instead reaching for a bottle in an ice bucket that had been sitting on the table. He held it up and pretended to read the label, “a good year,” he announced. At her questioning look, he added, “its grape juice …quite drinkable,” before he unscrewed the cap and poured two glasses. He handed her one. “To our alternative Glastonbury …and our future,” he toasted.

“I can drink to that,” Sara replied, touching her glass to his before taking a sip from her own. After all, she planned to have a future.

“Strawberry?” he held out a ceramic bowl overladen with plump red berries. “I could feed you one if you like?” the glimmer was back again and was heading from mischievous towards something more romantic. He sat on the edge of the bed, then put his feet up and leaned back against the multitude of pillows. Feeling increasingly drowsy, Sara allowed him to pull her more comfortably against his chest.

“Thank you but I’m more than capable of feeding myself a strawberry,” she took one, then another before she commandeered the bowl. “I’m hungry,” she explained, clutching it to her breast. “I never did manage to get more than one sausage. I think Mrs Trapper got my share.” She had spied the woman in question going back to Hamish and the barbeque more than once.

They finished the strawberries and drink. Sara could barely keep her eyes open. Greg took her glass and the empty bowl, sitting them back on the low table.

“If I forget to say so in the morning, thank you for all of this.” She leaned against his chest, enjoying the warmth and scent of his skin through a thin cotton shirt. “Why are you so nice to me?” she said sleepily.

“You’re welcome,” he whispered against her cheek, his breath soft on her skin. “And to answer your question …you’ll work it out,” his lips found her mouth for a brief moment. The kiss was light and sweet. “I’m pretty sure of that …but you need rest and I think I’d better go, while I still can,” he released her, slid off the bed and was gone out the door before she could answer back. If Sara was a little put out at his chivalry … his voice floating back through the thickness of the canvas tent brought her back to reality, “Of course, I am just next door -so you know where to find me.”

She did not answer. There was too much to think about.

She lay down on the bed and was asleep seconds after her head touched the downy pillows.

Twenty-Five

your children all gone

“Greg. Greg, wake up. I need you!” the combination of Sara’s terse anxious voice and being roughly shaken had Greg instantly alert. Torchlight shone in his face and he put an arm up to shield his eyes from the bright beam.

“What’s up?” It was obvious from Sara’s tone that this was no social call.

“The children are gone.” Sara’s voice was threatening to break with fear. “Matthew and Betony …they’ve been taken from their tents and I need your help to rescue them.”

Greg tossed aside the covers, grabbed his jeans and was dressed in moments -reaching under his bed for the torch that all the tents were equipped with. Judging by the light that had blinded his eyes, he thought, Sara had found hers. He dashed outside.

Sara was there, crouching beside a quietly sobbing Ariella and speaking softly, “Ariella sweetheart, you need to be a brave girl now and run up to the cottage. I know that the doors are unlocked. Wake up your parents and Betony’s Mummy and Daddy. Tell them exactly what you told me,” she gave the little girl a brief hug and set her on her way. “Run fast now.”

Ariella ran away in the direction of the cottage.

Sara turned to Greg, “C’mon. I’ll fill you in while we go.” She started at a fast clip, moving off in the direction of the summerhouse. “I got up to go to the loo,” she said by way of explanation, “figured the summerhouse was the closest bathroom and I was just going in when Ariella came running from the woodland path. Sara had not known that the little girls had nagged their parents until they had been allowed to sleep in same tent as Matthew. Ariella said that Jack…,” at Greg’s questioning look she waved a hand in a ‘not now’ gesture. “That’s a story for another day,” she prevaricated , repeating, “…anyway, Ariella said that Jack had taken Betony from the tent and ordered Matthew to go along with them if he didn’t want to see her hurt. Of course, Matthew did as he was told and Ariella followed along behind them to see where they went …it was all she could do.”

“Go on,” Greg encouraged. “So you know where they are?”

“Yes. No. Sort of. …Ariella said she left a trail.” By now, the two were standing under the overhanging roof of the summerhouse. Sara ran her torch back and forth across the lawn, “should be somewhere here.”

Greg did likewise, not sure what he was looking for. He saw something. Faintly glowing dots in the grass caught the torchlight, “Yes, there it is!”

“Toadstools!” There was a telltale trail of phosphorescent fungi leading in the direction of the path to Thornden. The same path she had met Jack on while running. “Ariella said that she’d marked the way…” she smiled grimly, “clever little girl.”

“Glow-in-the-dark toadstools?” Greg’s voice held equal notes of wonder, awe and disbelief.

“Well talk, after we find them.” Sara darted towards the path, increasing her speed.

“You can be sure of that Holly.” Greg sounded grim. Sara heard him mutter under his breath, “fairy tales -why didn’t she just go with breadcrumbs and be done with it?”

“So,” he asked instead, “do we have a plan?”

“Of sorts,” she replied tersely. “Find them. Get the kids back. Kill Jack if I have to.” Her tone was sufficiently menacing that Greg was not about to argue.

“Fine by me.” A little short on details, he thought, but they would cross those bridges when they came to them.

They were both running now, moving as fast as they could with only torchlight to navigate the path. The only sounds were their increasingly laboured breathing and the pounding of their feet on the track. Trailing slightly behind Sara, Greg noticed that she’d finally decided to wear the wellies he had given her. Her cotton pants, tucked into the lime-green boots made for an interesting jogging outfit.

They were almost at the descent down the escarpment when Sara veered sharply to the left. “This way!” she called, “he’s taking them towards the falls.” Not being familiar with the trails, having heeded Sara’s advice to stay out of the woods, Greg could only trust that she knew where she was going.

The going was considerably more difficult along the escarpment. Here and there, Sara would warn Greg to take extra care as they clambered over rocks and tree roots that appeared to be clinging to the steep rocky hillside. Unsure of what was off to his right, he shone his torch over the downhill side once or twice but the beam was lost in a kind of darkness that he thought might indicate a lack of solid ground. He tripped once and would have lost his footing except Sara reached back and grabbed his arm, steadying him before he could topple towards the blackness. “You don’t want to do that again,” she admonished, before resuming the chase.

“Stop here!” Sara hissed a moment later. Greg came to a skidding halt, glad to catch his breath. He could hear water, running over rocks. “They’ve gone over the stepping stones,” Sara shone her torch and pointed to the far side of a swift-flowing stream -Greg could just make out the faint glow of Ariella’s trail-markers on the other side. “The stones are slippery sometimes so watch where you put your feet. If you trip you might go over the falls,” she warned. “Let’s go.” Seemingly quite familiar with the stones, she leaped nimbly from one stone to the next. Greg took a little more time, not wanting to make a mistake that might put him in the water.

On the far side, Sara picked up the trail, “how much further could he have taken them?” she asked no one in particular. Greg was just about to say that he didn’t know the answer to that question when a noise that he’d never heard before caused him to stop in his tracks. Away to their left, a sound was approaching through the trees -leaves and branches rustling in a way that was more than a whisper, less than a shout -it put Greg in mind of a Mexican wave of living sound moving through the woods. It approached, passed over and moved on before he or Sara could do anything, leaving them in its wake. “Good. That’s a kind of Liana APB. It means she knows and is on her way,” Sara’s voice sounded quite sure of this and happier at the prospect of reinforcements.

“I guess so,” Greg hoped Liana was bringing more than just her good self, pregnant woman that she was. He wondered again just who this Jack character was and why he’d taken the children but Sara was on the move again.

“We should go,” Sara ran on and he followed. They crossed the stream a second time, over a narrow hump-backed bridge, still following Ariella’s telltale markers. A few minutes later, Sara once again put out a hand to indicate he should stop. Greg pulled up beside her. “We have to jump,” Sara pointed down and ahead with her torch. Greg followed the beam with his eyes and saw a cleft in solid rock about a metre wide. He nodded ascent and followed Sara over the gap. He could hear the stream running very fast through the tight crevasse between the rock walls. Once over, they both noticed the toadstool-trail stopped in front of a low overhang of rock. The mouth of a small cave, Greg thought. The twin hanging rocks above the gaping black entrance looked like teeth and reminded him of a manmade cave he’d once visited in Italy, made to look like a monster’s mouth. He wasn’t overly fond of caves and hadn’t liked that cave either. You never knew when something nasty was going to drop on your head, he thought. He noticed all of the tumbled rocks around the entrance -they looked like teeth that had already been pulled- and that didn’t help him feel any better about the possibilities of rock falls either.

He was about to say something along these lines when Sara put a finger to her mouth to indicate that he should remain silent. He nodded, understanding. She stretched upwards to whisper in his ear, “I wish the others were here, but we can’t wait. We’ll have to go in on our own.” She frowned. “He looks pretty weird, but I’m warning you. He’s strong and he’s fast so don’t underestimate this guy. Okay?”

He nodded again, having no idea what she meant. He moved forward, intending to enter the cave but Sara placed a restraining hand on his arm and pulled him back. She shook her head, pointed to her own chest and mouthed, “Me. First.” Frowning, Greg complied, moving behind her. He had to duck his head not to hit the rocks at the entry -hunching over, he followed Sara into the dark. Their torches made creepy silhouettes of a rock formation that looked like the tentacles of some kind of nasty sea-monster. Greg shook his head to dispel the imagery and concentrated on walking as quietly as possible.

Not quietly enough. An oily voice issued forth from the blackness. “Come on in. Do. I know you’re there …grand-daughter.” The last was said with a nasty chuckle. Greg caught up with Sara. Beside him, he saw her visibly shudder.

The cave was not deep -they rounded an outcropping of rock and were met with a scene that might have been out of Dante. First and foremost, Greg saw Matthew and Betony, hanging from the low ceiling, cocooned by leafy vines. The children’s eyes were open and they appeared unharmed, but the vines attached to the roof were noosed around their necks and they were both standing tiptoe on piles of loose rocks, much like those that had been at the cave’s entrance. Neither the rock cairns nor the cave’s ceiling appeared particularly stable -if the clouds of rock dust and small particles falling around their heads were anything to go by. Greg wished he’d thought to bring a knife or some kind of weapon to cut down that strangling vine. He and Sara started forward.

“Stop right there. No closer or the youngsters get it.” The source of the voice was standing between the children. What Greg had taken to be some sort of tall shrub was, on closer inspection, a figure with a recognisably human outline -torso, arms, legs …and a face? It appeared to be connected to the vines encircling the children. As if to reinforce this demand, the tendrils that imprisoned the children tightened and shortened, forcing both to go up even higher on their toes. Matthew’s breathing grew noticeably laboured with the constriction. He appeared in greater distress than Betony, who had managed to get one small hand between the vine and her neck. Sara would have taken an involuntary step forward but Greg held her back, concerned for what it might do to the children. He had no idea how the triffid-man was controlling the vines but somehow he was and another step might be the difference between breathing and not for them.

He shone his light over the thing, searching for a weakness they might exploit. In the torchlight, the green eyes reminded Greg of the phosphorescing toadstools they had followed here…and possibly just as poisonous. If he was deadly as Sara seemed to think, they needed to buy some time until the others could arrive.

“So, this is the famous Jack?” He did his best to modulate his voice to tones of polite inquiry, “I don’t believe we’ve been introduced.” While speaking , he cast his eyes around the small cave for anything he might use as a weapon …it looked as if they were limited to rocks, rocks or more rocks. Still, a well-placed rock might be better than nothing. What they needed was a distraction.

The thing spoke again …Ugh, talk about Little Shop of Horrors, thought Greg. It was enough to put you off having indoor plants for life. “Yes, I am Green Jack,” it said. “In the flesh, so to speak. They tried to get rid of me …but I came back. And it’s time for my revenge.” He shook himself like a dog, sending vibrations through the tendrils that had him attached to both children. The movement caused Matthew to struggle to maintain his balance, looking as if he might topple off the rocks at any second.

Glancing down, Greg noticed additional tendrils snaking along the ground towards his and Sara’s feet. One had already crept close to his boot and slithered up to entwine his ankle under the hem of his jeans. His skin started itch and burn almost immediately and it was then that he realised the vine was some sort of sumac or poison ivy. He stepped back out of range, stepping on the offending runner with his other boot until it released his leg and nudging Sara to do likewise. By now, the Jack thing was surrounded by a living green moat of writhing ivy, and Greg could see that attempting to rush him might end badly for any would-be rescuers, not to mention the children.

He leaned down to whisper as quietly as he was able in Sara’s ear. “We can’t get close so I think the rocks are our only hope. How good an aim are you?”

Sara looked at the stones strewn around on the cave floor and then back at Jack. She shook her head almost imperceptibly.

“Now, now children,” Jack’s unctuous voice interrupted, “you know it isn’t polite to whisper in company.” He twitched the vine just a little to emphasise his point. Unfortunately, even the small ripple was enough to cause Matthew to topple from his unstable base. As if in slow motion, he began to fall…

…and in the next instant, muscular arms that looked as if they were encased in granite reached down from the cave’s ceiling to grasp both him and Betony, swiftly pulling them up and out of sight.

Greg and Sara gasped -unsure if they should feel relief or horror at the disappearance of the children but they had no time to react. In that same instant, five figures devolved from the cave walls. Short, stocky figures stepped forth from the solid walls all brandishing clubs made of equally solid rock. Greg looked closer -the figures appeared as if they were made of something resembling stone themselves. He stepped protectively in front of Sara, unsure if these new protagonists were friend or foe. Then one of the five, the closest to him and Sara turned and smiled in a way that Greg imagined he might think would be friendly, if it hadn’t put him so much in mind of the gaping teeth at the cave entrance. Balancing his club over his shoulder, the rock-dwarf (Greg could think of no better descriptor at such short notice) motioned for Greg and Sara to move backwards in a ‘ [_ you go …we’ll take over now -we’ve got this _]’ sort of gesture.

Uncertain, Greg was about to consult Sara, when they both heard noises behind them. Greg kept one eye on the rock men while Sara turned her torch back towards the cave entrance. The light shone on four startlingly beautiful women, of similar height to her, barefoot and not entirely decently clad in what appeared to be tiny bikinis fashioned from pondweed and a few artfully placed lily pads. Their long hair hung wetly, as if they had just stepped from the shower …or the stream, Sara surmised. “Wow, the naiads,” she breathed.

“What?” Greg turned, “Whoa, who goes there?” he whistled.

The leading naiad stretched out a hand to Sara’s torch and directed the light downwards and away from their faces. Sara felt a damp hand caress her cheek while another gently tucked her hair behind her ear, fondling the pointed tip as it did so. She heard an indrawn breath from Greg beside her and wondered if wandering hands might be fondling him also. She recalled Liana’s stories and prejudices against the water-folk. “Nice to meet you ladies, but hands off, he’s spoken for,” she warned.

“That’s good to hear, Holly-girl,” Greg muttered. There was an indrawn breath, “a bit touch-feely, aren’t they?” he commented.

The lead naiad spoke, her voice a perfect foil for her appearance, “You may leave now. The children are outside, being cared for by the others …and we will take care of this …ourselves.”

Sara might have objected to being excluded from any punitive actions against Jack but when Greg reminded her that Matthew and Betony were their first order of concern, they quickly exited the cave. Greg did wonder a little at what might happen to the Jack character but it looked as if the ‘folk’ had it well in hand.

As promised, Matthew and Betony were outside, surrounded by a small gathering of what Sara recognised as more fey. The children’s poisonous bonds had been removed and piled to one side and they were sitting up, being ministered to by a couple of fern-fairies …if the scanty costumes of filmy ferns were anything to go by, thought Sara. Apart from an initial double take, Greg seemed to be taking it all in his stride and was remarkably unperturbed by the appearance of the children’s rescuers. Though Sara supposed, once he’d seen the rock-dwellers and the naiads, anything else was something of an anti-climax. That was, until one of the delicate fairies turned around to reach for more of the tincture that she had been applying to the welts around the children’s necks and skin that been exposed to Jack’s nasty concoction and Sara saw tiny wings sprouting from between her shoulder blades. Well, she thought resignedly, they had pretty much passed any hope of passing this all off as some kind of fancy dress exercise anyway. When the fairy asked in a soft voice if either of them had been affected and offered to treat the welts on Greg’s ankle he accepted gratefully, sitting calmly as she massaged cream into his skin. He did, however, glance pointedly over at Sara and touch a finger to his ear while mouthing the words “we need to talk.”

Sara nodded glumly, once again hand in pocket, fingering the tear tab ring. Well, she thought, it had been nice while it hadn’t lasted…

True to their word, the woodland folk had taken care of Jack. For good this time.

Sara, who had taken Matthew back home for what was left of the night, woke late …and opened her door to find a large sack full of leaves and sticks on her doorstep …with a note attached that read ‘burn me.’ She had dragged the sack and its contents to the same concrete pad where they had burned the knotweed that Jack had introduced to her nursery and she and Greg had done so, making certain that every bit of living tissue was reduced to ash and could never be regenerated. If they had been careful to render the knotweed unviable they were doubly careful with the contents of the bag, wearing gloves and protective overalls to stay safe and making sure that nothing but dust remained.

Liana had arrived just as they were cleaning up. She waved hello to Greg, who was shovelling the still-hot ashes into a steel bucket. The night before, she and Hamish had appeared just as Sara and Greg were beginning the return journey with the children. Sara had not been party to Liana’s brief conference with the fey, and they had left the cave without knowing what justice was to be meted out to Jack. Both mothers were more concerned at getting their children away and to the relative safety of their own homes than in exacting punishment.

“How is Matthew?”

“How is Betony?” both women spoke at once.

“Jinx,” said Sara, laughing tiredly. “Matthew was fine when I left him this morning -still sleeping. Not that that is unusual. We spoke a little about what happened last night -he handled it very well, considering. I think he sees it all as some form of embodiment of his Play Station games. And Betony?”

“Up and running around as if nothing untoward has happened,” Liana replied. “I guess that she, being my daughter has the advantage of foreknowledge of …,” she indicated herself, “plus Betony already knew of Jack and the fey so that was nothing new. Physically, she seems unhurt.” She laughed, “Though she’s milking it for all she’s worth today with a campaign to get a new puppy.”

Sara laughed, “good on her. Maybe a dog would be a good idea for us too.”

“We can go to the pound together,” Liana chuckled.

Her expression turned more serious, “Is that what I think it is?” she pointed towards the bucket of grey ashes.

“I reckon so,” Sara said. “It was on my doorstep this morning.” To Sara the note had seemed a little too close to the previous night’s ‘wear me,’ and she’d wished the fey had chosen different wording.

Liana scrubbed hands over her face in consternation. “This is entirely my fault. I should never have left the fey to manage on their own, but all I could think about was getting away from my own grief. I’m so sorry for all the hurt your family has suffered, Sara.”

“I don’t think that’s true,” Sara disagreed. “I think Jack was a nasty bastard just waiting for a chance to hurt someone.” She shrugged, “yeah, maybe your being asleep gave him more opportunity for mischief than he might have had if you’d been awake but he was looking for the opportunity anyway ..And he’d have found it sooner or later with or without you being around.”

“Until last night, I never knew that it was the fey who had taken it upon themselves to be judge, jury and executioner of Jack all those years ago. I, …I always thought it was something the Guardian had done. I should have questioned.” In Liana’s brief talk with the posse of woodland folk the night before, she had been enlightened as to what had transpired more than thirty years before.

“Questioned who or what?” Sara demanded reasonably. “Thought you said the Guardian’s been MIA since you’ve been back on the job. And it seems like the fey have done a pretty good job of keeping Mum about what they did …or at least they weren’t telling anyone what they’d done until last night when they sort of had to come clean,”

“Yes, but… what if we’ve just cut off one head to have three more grow in its place?” Liana sounded more unsure than Sara had ever heard her. “The garden has been out of balance ever since the Guardian woke me and disappeared. I don’t know what to do to fix it.”

“Oh, for goodness sakes Liana. Stop beating yourself up over things you have less control over than you seem to think you do.” Sara knew all about that. “The past is the past and the future’s not here yet. Leave one behind you and we will deal with the other if and when it happens. You are not on your own now. We’re in this together. Okay?”

“Since it’s your past, and you’re telling me to …then I guess I really should,” Liana smiled wanly in gratitude. “Thank you Sara,” she whispered, “you are a good friend.”

“Hold that thought,’ Sara grinned mischievously, “I think we need a cup of tea,” she signalled to Greg, “Hey, Greg! You know that ‘we need to talk? …Let’s all go over to the café and grab a cuppa ‘cos Liana has some things she wants to tell you.”

The ashes had cooled by early the next morning. Sara collected the full bucket from the shed where she had stored them overnight. It wasn’t exactly a suitable crypt, she knew, but beggars couldn’t be choosers. She carried the heavy bucket with little difficulty to the place she and Liana had agreed as Jack’s final, final resting place.

Liana met her outside the wall, across the lane from the nursery shop. It was a pretty spot and possibly better than Jack deserved. They had agreed that he would not have wanted his ashes interred in the Thornden churchyard.

They sprinkled his last earthly remains over a wide area under the trees. As Sara had pointed out, the potash would give some useful nutrients back to the soil. She was all for recycling.

“There he goes,” she tipped the last cloud of ash out of the bucket. “Nothing left. He sure won’t be regenerating this time.”

“No,” Liana agreed. “But Jack always wanted to be outside the walls of White Briars, so I hope he’s happy, wherever his soul has gone.” She did not want to think too hard about that. “I suppose the fey were right in what they did -another incarceration would have been more than he could have endured.”

“And it’s not like he was truly alive anyway,” Sara felt a tingle go up her spine in that ‘goose walking over your grave’ kind of way. “He was more sort of zombie-Jack.”

“I feel that I should speak some sort of eulogy but all I can think of is that he wasn’t always all that bad,” Liana quickly ran out of words.

“Yep, that should just about do it,” Sara was less inclined not to speak ill of the dead. Then she recalled something her mother had once told her. “You know what they say -if you can’t think of anything good to say, say nothing.” She caught a movement out of the corner of her eye. Greg was waving from the upstairs window of his soon-to-be-vacant apartment. “I’ll see you later Liana. I gotta go and see a man about a dulcimer.”

Liana laughed a deep, rich laugh. The ripple of sound carried over the clear morning air.

“Go on,” she said.

Interim

…He said he was delayed and he would call when he had a new ETA. But November 25th through 29th came and went and there was no call.

She said any person should be forgiven for wanting to cut and run after what he’d seen and heard. It was okay. Really.

She said she was fine. Repeatedly.

No one believed her.

She said absence couldn’t be expected to make the heart grow fonder -she said it so many times that Liana and Hamish had taken to keeping weekly tallies and her father had a tavern betting syndicate based around the monthly total.

She missed him. Horribly. And she kept the tear tab ring with her in her pocket wherever she went.

Twenty-Six

a snowball

It was the last day of November…and climate change was making its presence felt in the garden. Fifteen inches of snow had fallen overnight. Sides had been chosen, defences erected and a snowball fight was in full swing, when, for no obvious reason that Sara could discern, the enemy, aka Hamish, Matthew and Arthur quit throwing balls. The field of battle went eerily quiet for a moment and Sara wondered what they were up to this time. She glanced behind and directed her lieutenants to check to either side of the giant teacup they had been sheltering behind. She wouldn’t put it past those miscreants to try for a rear attack.

Instead of defending against balls of icy-cold snow that all too frequently seemed to end up melting down her neck someone lobbed a gently-arcing curve-ball from behind the teddy-bear topiary, and a familiar -but unheard for months- voice declared loudly, “You’ll want to catch this one Holly-girl!” The baseball-sized snowball that came arcing her way was so carefully shaped that Sara had little difficulty reaching upwards and fielding it in her mittened hands. She held the thing in her cupped hands, marvelling at the delicately etched smooth surface of the cold white ball in her hands, with pretty scraffito-like patterns of snowflakes in blue on white. As if this was not a big enough hint that this ball might have some special significance, the ball weighed considerably heavier than any others that had been thrown so far.

Suddenly, it occurred to Sara that the garden had gone pin-drop quiet and heads had popped out from behind the tall topiary-bushes where the various warring factions had been hiding and bombarding one-another. It appeared that an impromptu -or perhaps planned- (she wasn’t sure yet), truce had been called -with Liana, Hamish, Arthur and the children all halting their snowball fight to stand and stare expectantly.

The chilly air was charged with a sense of anticipation and it felt to Sara as if the trees and shrubberies to either side of the grand lawn were leaning inwards over the tall hedges in an attempt to see and hear better.

It was not until Greg himself appeared in the flesh and dropped to his knees across the other side of the snow-covered lawn that Sara caught on to the best-kept secret of the month. As he placed his gloved hands across his heart, Sara had more than an inkling at to what exactly it was that they had all been expecting.

She drew in a sharp breath as Greg began to speak, “Sara Blaine, you already know I love you with all my heart and soul …and since I’ve already gone to the trouble of asking your Dad’s permission…”

Sara turned her head slightly. She could just see Arthur’s white head, protruding from behind the angel topiary, tears in his eyes and nodding happily.

“…and mine too!” another voice piped up. Matthew’s face emerged, grinning from ear to ear, from behind the snowbank where he and Betony had been hiding. Sara heard Betony’s childish giggle and a “has he said it yet?” quickly shushed by Matthew.

“…that’s right and Matthew’s too,” Greg added with all seriousness. He glanced towards Matthew, smiling when the boy made a get-on-with-it gesture.

“Looks like I’m on the clock here,” he laughed, “and playing to a tough audience,” he turned to Sara once more.

While he had been distracted, she had covered the space between them and was now standing directly in front of him.

He got to his feet, pulled off his gloves and held his hands over hers on the snowball. Sara was a little surprised when his thumbs started to dig into the frozen ball, quickly dismantled the outer layers to reveal an icy core. She looked down at their intertwined hands -there, suspended within the glittering ice was a ring.

“I told you I’d bring you back a wedding ring. Now, will you marry me?” he asked simply.

The breath that Sara had taken in seemed stuck in her throat. She tried to speak but could only nod her head.

“Is that a yes?”

She nodded once more, still incapable of talking. He looked deep into her eyes, “then it’d be good if you breathed Holly-girl, or I’m gonna need to give you mouth to mouth.” He smiled a mile-wide grin, “Oh heck, I will anyway,” he leaned in to kiss her and instantly felt the whoosh of her exhaled breath as she relaxed into his arms.

“Woohoo!” carolled Hamish. “’bout time!”

“Congratulations!” called Liana.

Everyone came out from their hiding places and Betony ran around and around the happy couple, racing excitedly after Matthew and the dogs, her footsteps weaving an intertwining trail of bright yellow crocuses that popped their pretty heads above the snow wherever she ran.

Her parents held hands, smiling and shrugging shoulders as they watched their daughter’s antics.

“Must be time for celebration hot-chocolates,” announced Liana, a hand over her burgeoning belly. The babies kicked as if in agreement. “I know we’re ready for one!”

They all made for the stairs.

 

‘‘The birch begins to crack its outer sheath

Of baby green and show the white beneath….’‘

 

Robert Frost (1874-1963), U.S. poet. “A Young Birch.”

Epilogue

a promise made

A gentle breeze soughed through the trees, barely discernible to the small gathering below. Trailing behind the group, Betony stopped for a moment and glanced upwards.

“Garden sad,” she observed quietly, placing her small hand on the trunk of a leafless birch, “Don’t cry. When I’m all big and strong, I’ll fix you.” She wound her chubby arms around the trunk as far as she could reach, hugging the tree as if to console it, then bent and placed a delicate rosebud that had not been in her hand until now, down among the roots at the base of the tree.

“C’mon Betony, hurry up!” Matthew had turned to check where she had gone and was waiting for her to catch up.

“Fix you. Promise,” she repeated. With that, she scampered off to follow the others.

“It’s too cold to hang round out here, tree-hugger,” Matthew tousled her fine baby hair then picked her up in his arms.

“Not tree-hugger. Tree-mender,” Betony amended.

“Okay, if you say so,” he agreed, laughing, hoisting her higher on his hip. “Let’s go get that hot chocolate, tree-mendous! How many marshmallows you want?”

“Fifty gazillion three hundred five!” giggled Betony merrily, her momentary sadness forgotten.

The tiny breeze faded to a worn-out whisper.

The End

To my readers:

 

Hello again and thanks very much for finishing my book. If you enjoyed it, I am shamelessly trolling for good reviews (and now you know why its free) so PLEASE leave a review (just stars or a one-line comment will suffice if you’re not in the mood to write …and I would really appreciate you not including plot-spoilers).

 

Thanks again.

 

Irene Davidson

ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

Thanks Tim, for everything you do.

 

About the Author:

 

Growing up in the far south of New Zealand, Adrienne rapidly came to the conclusion that her native home was a long way from anywhere and unless she wanted to spend all her holidays on Stewart Island she’d need to get used to flying.

With this in mind, she jetted off to school in Tennessee, university in Palmerston North (that’s in the North Island), living in London and France, then Australia and the USA, gathering material for writing along the way.

Following a degree in biology, she studied post-grad in Landscape Architecture before producing two beautiful babies; both of whom are now well on their way to being grown-ups.

Adrienne currently lives in Seattle, Washington, with her husband Tim and an adopted greyhound called Smudge.

 

Other titles by Irene Davidson

 

Flowers in the Morning, (Book 1 in the White Briars series) available as a free download from Shakespir

 

Collecting Thoughts (Book 1 in the Chateau de Belagnac series) free download from Shakespir

 

A Good Read (Book 1 in the Athenaeum Library series)

 

Various short stories -see Shakespir.com or other ebook retailers

 

Connect with Irene Davidson

 

Friend me on [+ Facebook+]

Website and weekly blog: http://irene-davidson.com

Shakespir Interview: https://www.Shakespir.com/interview/AOaks

Shakespir profile page: https://www.Shakespir.com/profile/view/AOaks

A sample of Irene’s next title: A Good Read

And ye, who have met with Adversity’s blast,

And been bow’d to the earth by its fury;

To whom the Twelve Months, that have recently pass’d

Were as harsh as a prejudiced jury -

Still, fill to the Future! and join in our chime,

The regrets of remembrance to cozen,

And having obtained a New Trial of Time,

Shout in hopes of a kindlier dozen.

-Thomas Hood

One

I was new in town and it was my birthday. Being fresh off the boat -well, plane to be more precise- I knew absolutely no one with whom to celebrate the event. Under the circumstances, I felt that this was a good thing. Given that the one person with whom I would have wanted to celebrate the day was no longer around, I preferred to treat the day like any other. I had learned to be happy enough with my own company -especially as it meant I had no one to remind me what had happened on this day a scant twelve months before.

So, there I was on my twenty-eighth birthday -with little to do other than search for a decent cup of coffee. And just for the record, I had not been looking for a library. Yes, if truth be told, I love a good read almost more than anything else, but I was currently deep in the middle of reading a great thriller and was not in the market for a new book on that particular morning. Even my walking into the bookshop -the place I decided later that everything had started from- had been nothing more than chance.

Or so I’d thought.

Now, I’m not so sure any more.

I had simply wandered in off a street bereft of pedestrians whom I might have asked, to enquire where there might be a good local café. I had a mind to sit back, relax and maybe watch the world go by, so bought a glossy magazine by way of thanks to the lady behind the counter. She had pleasantly recommended not just one but several coffee spots nearby and I’d thought I would idly leaf through its pages while I worked my way through one, or possibly more, cups of my favourite brew.

As I paid for the magazine I imagined myself beginning to salivate like some Pavlov’s dog at the thought of a piping hot latté. Feeling that I was about to start slobbering all over the counter-top, I made a hasty exit from the shop before I embarrassed myself in front of a complete stranger. Ironic, the intensity of that imagery, I’d later thought, once I’d had the luxury of time to look back over the events that followed.

But seriously, a trip to the library was just about the furthest thing from my mind. Honest Injuns.

Bugger. There I go again. My sincere apologies to any and all of the indigenous tribes of North America because that is not how I usually speak.

But I think I know where it came from.

Politically-correct creature that I am, phrases like that are so not something you would normally hear coming out of my mouth. It’s weird what that darn book’s done to my speech. My command of the language has transmogrified so much that I sound like some anachronistic, tobacco-spittin’, ‘there’s-gold-in-them-thar-hills’ version of myself -and it’s not just my speech that’s changed. I’ve noticed a few oddly uncharacteristic behaviours as well, like sudden cravings for beef jerky and a heapin’ helpin’ of beans served on an old chipped enamel plate. Not foods I’ve ever favoured, pre-library. I’ll have to watch myself or I’ll be saying and doing all sorts of inappropriate and potentially offensive things if I’m not more careful.

Frankly, I hope it all wears off soon.

But I digress…

…Getting back to my unexpected visit to the library. Please understand -I have nothing against libraries per se. As I’ve said, I love reading. Always have. Give me a suitcase full of books (and a change of underwear -the last piece of good advice my mother ever gave me) and I’m ready to travel to just about anywhere. I’m a book editor for goodness sake, so, I guess you could say that I don’t just live to read, I read to make a living.

But this day that should have been special was ruined by a less-than-special memory, and as nourishing to my psyche as a good book might have been under normal circumstances, my mind didn’t feel up to anything too taxing. Maybe tomorrow. Today I just wanted to get through the twenty-four hours that was my birthday as best I could.

I did want a drink rather badly though. Not alcohol, in case you are wondering and are too polite to ask. After what I’d been through this last year, I’d been careful not to turn to drink or drugs to dampen the flash-backs and nightmares -and when it seemed that I’d never be free of the demons of my abhorrent memories I’d finally sought help from a PTSD therapist rather than resort to prescription medications or alcohol.

I just wanted that coffee. As I left the bookshop and turned my face towards the direction the lady had recommended, I fancied I could smell the freshly roasted beans in the air. I walked, my mind wandering from subject to subject as its wont to do and I pondered about when some concerned individual would form a coffee drinkers anonymous to go with all those other anonymous groups that one could join for various addictions? Today, I could care less. Until such time as mine was designated an addiction requiring group-support, I’d stick with caffeine.

My helpful guide had said that a number of cafés were to be found in the town square -or, more precisely its Octagon, the town’s cultural and social hub and a mere stone’s throw away from my present location. I smiled in memory. Her exact words had been “... just take a wee walk down the street and you’ll find plenty of nice cafés, all within cooee of one another.” I had struggled to keep the amused grin off my face at her quaint usage of the words wee and cooee. …Not for the first time since my arrival, I’d noticed that more than a few of the local inhabitants I’d come across still maintained strong links to their not-so-distant Scottish past.

I turned the corner to find that language was not the sole link, apparently. As I rounded the street corner into the Octagon -an eight-sided plaza that was the heart of this town, I noted a large seated bronze of Robbie Burns, the revered Scottish poet, uphill to my left, atop a steep terrace. To my right were a tavern by the name of The Craic and its near-neighbour, the Thistle café. If these were any indication, the town-folk were enthusiastic in celebrating their Celtic roots. I studied the café’s sign. I was no botanist but I knew enough of thistles to recognise that the prickly purple flower depicted on the sign was of the large Scottish variety rather than my more-familiar yellow Californian species.

I was mere steps away from that delightful café, with its comfortable bistro chairs, hot buttered scones and nectar-of the-Gods coffee, when I spotted a set of imposing, delphinium-blue coloured doors between the café and the tavern -and alongside, a brass plaque on the wall that announced the Athenaeum and Mechanic’s Institute Library to be open this morning. The doors were tantalisingly slightly ajar and just asking for me to go through.

What a wonderful name for a library, I thought. Deciding that I might rethink my lazy morning and explore said library after I had downed a cup or two, I checked my watch. I found, to my consternation, that the library would be open for only another fifteen minutes. I re-checked the opening times and dates, finding that the establishment was more often shut than not -it wouldn’t be until the same time next month that the doors would allow public access once more. My interest was immediately piqued -I didn’t want to wait another month before I could see inside. So I put aside my pressing need for the coffee and made for the entrance.

Fate, you might say? Nah, I wouldn’t assume anything so lofty. Just me and my overly well-developed sense of curiosity -of the ‘curiosity killed the cat’ variety. Nosiness, you might as well call it, if we’re being blunt. So, with my coffee within cooee and my magazine tucked firmly under one arm I decided to take a wee walk inside. I pushed the large blue door further open and walked through.

The sign might have said the Athenaeum and Mechanic’s Institute Library was open but, once inside, there was a dearth of information about just where I’d find said library. Plus, it appeared someone was saving on electricity -either that, or they really did not wish to encourage the public to visit after all. A few steps inside and I was reduced to feeling my way along a barely-lit dark-panelled hallway, before proceeding down a steep circular stairwell to a second more-narrow corridor. This was slightly brighter than the first with… Were those gas lamps? The dimly glowing lamps certainly looked convincing enough to be the real deal -but perhaps they were just a modern-day equivalent? With mounting feelings of trepidation, I followed increasingly smaller signs depicting a finger pointing to an open book, feeling as if I was being led down into the bowels of the building. Well, perhaps not the bowels, but the sub-basement at the very least.

I was wondering if I’d somehow taken a wrong turn and should retrace my steps when, at last, I came to a frosted glass door, etched with the words Athenaeum and Mechanic’s Institute Lending Library –in a gothic typeface. It appeared I’d found my destination. With a small sigh of relief I turned the handle, hoping this would be worth delaying my much-needed coffee for. But what kind of library, I thought, would be tucked away out of sight in the basement of a building and only open one morning a month? Probably one not worth visiting my more cynical inner voice replied. From the looks of the dated signage and old-fashioned doors, it might boast, at best, a few dusty titles, published circa 1900 or before, and nothing I’d want to read. Yes, I’d read my share of classics and toiled my way through one or two weighty tomes, but more for good forms’ sake than any sense of enjoyment. Aside from Tolkien, I generally preferred contemporary authors. That was my job, after all. Contemporary fiction.

If only I’d known then what I know now.

I should have turned, beat a hasty retreat and dashed back to the quiet comfort of the Thistle café and three cups of coffee.

Still, I doubt it. After all, curiosity and that cat are powerful influences.

With this thought in mind, I opened the door and walked in.

Now available for pre-order from Shakespir.com

Release date October 31st, 2017


Leaf On A Breeze

Single-mum and business owner-operator, Sara Blaine’s life is busy; far too busy for romance ...or so she believes. it's difficult to fit in time for even so much as a lunch-time jog. So, when she (literally) stumbles across the path of itinerant musician, Greg, who says he is spending the summer enjoying a gypsy lifestyle amid the quiet byways of rural Kent, she feels a little envious of his freedom. To her surprise, Greg offers to help out at the nursery for the summer -despite feeling attracted to him, Sara is determined not to mix business with pleasure. But she has not taken into account Greg's winsome manner and winning ways, nor his determination to prove her wrong. Add to this mix; a malevolent garden spirit bent on revenge, a 'budding' flower sylph for a best-friend and a son rapidly approaching his teen years and Sara’s life threatens to go from ‘busy’ to explosive. Can love blossom once more in the garden and nursery of White Briars? Perhaps…but for a new romance to have any chance, Sara and her friends must first survive Green Jack when he attacks those they love the most…

  • ISBN: 9781370153756
  • Author: Irene Davidson
  • Published: 2017-09-05 22:20:35
  • Words: 81344
Leaf On A Breeze Leaf On A Breeze