in the Wind
- Auksford, 2004 -
Copyright Robin Gordon, 1995/2004
The house was Susan's joy - the house and the garden. Once, it was said, Chaucer had lived there, though the present house was at least two hundred years younger, with additions and accretions through several centuries. It was a house that had been loved by generations. The bannisters, worn and polished by the hands of countless owners, parents and children, gleamed in the sunlight - and if, over the years, they had also been polished by the trouser-seats of sliding boys, they shone all the brighter for it.
She looked through the small-paned windows at the garden. It was overgrown now, and some of the trees were nearing the end of their lives. The poplars were over seventy years old and would have to come down. Seventy years is a good age for a poplar, and already dead branches were threatening to fall. Someone had suggested a kind of beech with a slim silhouette, though she felt it would be better to keep to poplars. The garden had once been famous. Another poet had lived there at the end of the nineteenth century, her first married home before she moved on to create her more famous garden elsewhere, and it was said that Gertrude Jekyll had advised her on the planting.
It was Hugh Powys who had told Edward about the beech. Hugh was Edward's closest friend. They had been at school together and never lost touch. Sometimes she was a little jealous. Edward deferred to Hugh far too much, she thought. Hugh knew everyone and everything, and Edward was too ready to follow his advice. She was not pleased when Edward said to her one day, "What about having Hugh to stay for a while? He's got some marvellous ideas for re-planning the garden."
"I've got some marvellous ideas of my own," she wanted to retort, "and I don't need Hugh Powys to tell me what to plant!"
She didn't say it though. She couldn't quite remember what it was she did say, something non-committal that was meant to convey her distaste in a gentle and inoffensive way. Whatever it was, Edward hadn't taken the hint, and Hugh moved in a few days later.
She frowned now as she saw them coming along the terrace. Hugh had a plan in his hand and was obviously explaining something to Edward. His face was radiant with enthusiasm as he made those ridiculous grand gestures of his. Lakes and waterfalls, she thought, grand terraces and sweeping flights of steps, alleys of horse chestnuts, and perhaps a ruined tower in the middle of the lawn - all far too grandiose and romantic for their cosy cottage.
Hugh Powys! Hugh Powys had ruined the summer for her. Edward had eight weeks of freedom - he had no marking to do and his only graduate students were off to a conference in America. Those eight weeks were hers - and Hugh Powys had robbed her of them. She was to have planned the garden with Edward, and Hugh Powys had spoiled it all.
She came to a sudden decision.
"Edward!" she said.
He didn't hear her. He was engrossed in the plan and in what Hugh Powys was saying.
"Edward!" she said again. "I think I'd like to have Cheryl Milton to stay for a while."
"That'll show him," she thought. Of all her friends Cheryl was the one Edward liked least.
"Of course, darling," he replied. "Whatever you like. Now, Hugh, do you really think a paved terrace would be right?"
"We need a retaining wall here," said Hugh. "We need to create a difference in levels ..."
She turned away and left them to it.
* * * * *
Cheryl was her usual self. She arrived with far too much luggage, talking all the time. It was really rather amusing to see Edward and Hugh put out of their usual routine, laying aside their plans, and struggling up the stairs with Cheryl's heavy trunks and cases. Edward's face was a picture as Cheryl thanked him profusely for his kindness, his very great kindness, in inviting her to stay and helping with her few poor belongings - and she did so hope that he hadn't really put his back out, backs were such tricky things, weren't they? She had an uncle who suffered constantly from backache, and the odd thing was that he was quite used to lifting and carrying heavy weights but one day he just happened to drop his pencil under the table and reach for it at a funny angle and something went and from that day to this his back had never been right, well not actually to this very day because he died five years ago and people did say that it was the strain of being constantly in pain that had worn him away - and what a lovely room this is, you must be so proud of your new home ...
Poor Edward! Cheryl could be rather wearing. Even her best friends had to admit it. The trouble was that she seemed to go to pieces whenever she met men socially. To hear her no-one would ever guess what an intelligent woman she was. It was impossible to imagine her as a partner in a highly successful independent publishing firm specialising in women's literature, though that was what she was. Men never saw her at her best: kind, sympathetic, intelligent. They only saw - and heard - her as an empty-headed chatterbox. Edward in particular seemed to bring out the worst in her.
The men escaped as soon as the last bag was dumped in the bedroom. Edward still looked as if he had a bad smell under his nose, but Hugh was smiling. Was it the situation he found so amusing, or was it perhaps Cheryl herself? If they could be thrown together ... well, if he liked her he might take her away and marry her, and if he took a dislike to her perhaps she might drive him away.
For the next couple of days Susan and Cheryl scarcely saw Edward and Hugh. They met at breakfast and then went their separate ways, the men to the garden and the women out and about. Cheryl wanted to see the countryside and the shops in the nearby town, and Susan was glad of an excuse to get away from Hugh Powys. She didn't want to think of the garden. After he had gone she could set about making it hers - she just hoped that he wouldn't build too many walls and terraces. His horrible planting schemes could be abandoned, any really ghastly shrubs grubbed up, and the worst of his trees cut down, but it would be too much for her to have to demolish paved walks, grandiose fountains and towering follies.
On Thursday Cheryl went off by herself to visit one of her authors who was being rather difficult about delivering a long-promised manuscript.
Susan was glad of the chance to stay at home by herself. She had a headache niggling behind her eyes and felt she needed a rest. She sat outside in the shade with her letter-pad on her knee and closed her eyes.
It was the crisp, military voice of Hugh Powys.
"Hell!" she thought and opened her eyes, then thought, too late, "I should have pretended to be asleep."
"I know you think I've taken over your garden completely," he said, "but that's not what I want to do at all. When I saw it ... well, I hope you won't think this is too fanciful or sentimental or gushing or any of that rot, but I did rather fall in love with it - and when I heard that Gertrude Jekyll had had a hand in the planting, well I thought - don't take offence, will you, old girl? - I thought, Edward may be a deuced clever chap and the pride of his faculty and all that, but he'll make a real pig's ear out of restoring the garden, and Susan will let him have his way, as she does every time, and she'll be bitterly unhappy with the result."
Don't take offence indeed! The pompous idiot! Who did he think he was, talking about Edward that way? Did he think she was some sort of doormat? Letting Edward have his way as she did every time! - Why had she ever let Edward have him there?
"You see, Susan, I've done a bit of ferreting around in the weeds and brambles, and I think I've found the retaining walls for the old terrace. Dry-stone, and they've collapsed into a sort of lumpy slope, or been turned into a sloping rockery perhaps, but you can still trace the line. Look, I've drawn it on the plan here."
She looked. She found maps and plans difficult to decipher, but she knew every inch of her own overgrown garden - she had found the line of the old terrace wall herself a few weeks earlier, and planned to restore it. There it was, laid out on Hugh's plan exactly as she had envisaged it.
"The terrace was paved in Cotswold stone," he said, "but it's been totally ruined by roots and frost getting in. I thought the best thing to do would be to use some artificial Cotswold slabs set in concrete. You'd need a full-time gardener to keep crazy paving weeded properly, but the decision is yours of course, and the planting plans too."
"I'd thought of geraniums," she said, "not the bright pelargoniums, the European geraniums, the cranesbills ..."
"Yes, and ibericum."
"Called magnificum now."
"Is it? What about sanguineum for the sunny terrace?"
"Phaeum and phaeum album for that shaded area?"
"The Mourning Widow, yes, and Claridge Druce."
For most of the morning they sat together planning the garden. From spring bulbs, through geraniums and roses, hollyhocks, mallows, fuchsias and hydrangeas, to winter-flowering viburnums, jasmines and crocuses. Of Edward they saw no sign. He must have gone to his study. They got up and walked about the garden, seeing it, not as it was, but as it would be.
Then Edward appeared from the house to demand in querulous tones if lunch wasn't ready, and Susan had to abandon her visions and retreat to the kitchen.
"This afternoon," said Hugh, "we go to work on that wilderness."
Edward looked aghast.
"Spades, forks, pickaxes, trowels, bare hands - whatever seems appropriate," said Hugh. "Susan and I have got it all planned. All you have to supply is the muscle."
"Never quite my forte," murmured Edward with a rueful look, but, after lunch, Hugh took charge, and the three of them set off to make a combined assault on the jungle.
That was Edward.
"What's the matter?"
"It's full of creepy-crawlies. Aren't there any gardening gloves?"
There were, but Edward didn't seem any happier. He grunted and groaned, he kept pausing to rest, then he seemed to have difficulty in bending, and finally he stopped altogether.
"I've always rather liked the idea of a wild garden," he said, "a sort of nature reserve, a refuge for endangered species."
"I thought you didn't like creepy-crawlies," said Susan.
"No... I mean butterflies, birds and all that sort of thing," Edward replied. "Oh well, sorry I spoke."
They worked on. Edward sighed and grunted. Once or twice he gave a little yelp. He put down his fork and straightened up.
"Aaaargh! ... Oh! ... Eeugh! ... Oh my back! It's no good. I'd like to help, but I think I must have strained my back carrying Cheryl's luggage upstairs."
"Better go and lie down, old chap," said Hugh, scarcely pausing in his work. "Sue and I will manage this, won't we, Sue?"
Edward dithered. "Well, if you're sure ..."
"Oh do go and lie down, Edward," said Susan. "You won't get any better just standing there, and you're not doing anything to help."
Edward put on his wounded expression.
"Perhaps you could make us a cup of tea in a little while," Hugh suggested. "We'll probably be ready for it."
"Right-oh," replied Edward and hobbled off.
"Overacting," thought Susan. "How like Edward: full of enthusiasm until the going gets rough, and then his good intentions collapse. Talk about the spirit being willing but the flesh weak! I shall have to have a serious talk with him. It really is not right to leave all the hard work to a guest."
Hugh was a tower of strength. He worked tirelessly all the afternoon, and all the next day. Cheryl had volunteered to sit with Edward, and Susan accepted with alacrity. She hadn't quite got round to telling Edward what she thought of his behaviour - after all, she supposed, his back might well be playing him up, but there was still no need to be quite so feeble. He certainly was not going to get off scot-free. He would sit with Cheryl, and listen to Cheryl, and learn to think of someone other than himself.
She found herself more and more realising just why Edward admired Hugh as he did. She had begun to thaw towards him as he explained the garden plan. He certainly knew a vast amount about horticulture - in fact she had never known anyone except her own mother to whom she could talk so easily about the plants she loved. Edward didn't know a begonia from a bougainvillaea.
The day was hot. Hugh wore only a brief pair of shorts and a sun-hat. He stooped and straightened without apparent effort, turning over the bramble-covered ground, digging for the deep roots, ripping out the trailing runners, while she followed him, breaking up the loosened clods and picking out the smaller weeds. She too was lightly clad, in shorts and sun-top, with a broad-brimmed hat. She rested more and more frequently as the day grew hotter, watching Hugh's muscular leg driving the fork into the earth, watching the rivulets of sweat that ran down his broad, bronzed back as he bent to turn the root-entangled sod. They did not talk much, but concentrated on their own work in companionable silence. Susan was surprised how much they achieved.
Soon after midday she went up to the house to see about lunch. Edward and Cheryl were still sitting in their shady spot on the terrace, but it was Edward's voice she heard. She paused. He was talking about his research, expounding it to Cheryl as once he used to expound it to Susan - and Cheryl had ceased to chatter: she was listening, nodding, saying, "Yes, I see," leaning forward in chair, a perfect study in rapt attention.
Susan did not disturb them. She went quietly into the kitchen and prepared a simple lunch.
The afternoon was even hotter. Cheryl persuaded Edward to try a gentle stroll to loosen up his back. Susan watched them go. Edward was still talking and Cheryl was hanging on to every word he uttered. She rejoined Hugh in the jungle and began turning over the loosened earth with a trowel.
"There's a root here I can't get out," she said.
He came over to her with a spade and dug down. He heaved on the root while she scrabbled with the trowel. He forked while she pulled, then they pulled together, until, at last, the stubborn root gave way and they stood together sharing their triumph, her bare arm against his bare chest, leg against leg. She felt an electric current of excitement flow between them and held her breath.
"Well, we did it," he said, and stepped away from her.
She stooped again to her trowelling and turned her back on him. When she looked again he was digging with the same easy rhythm as before.
"What would it have been like," she wondered, "what would it have been like to have surrendered to a man like Hugh?"
* * * * *
That night Edward's back trouble had entirely disappeared. He was more than usually affectionate, and Susan responded with an eagerness that surprised her ... but, as she lay in Edward's arms in the darkness, she suddenly saw before her closed eyes the face of Hugh Powys. It was as if Hugh's arms were embracing her, as if she knew at last the answer to her question.
She lay awake in the darkness, unable to sleep. Was it Hugh she loved, or was it Edward? Edward lay beside her. He had started to twitch in that curious way he had, and she knew that he was dreaming. She sighed. What would it be this time: fire, landslides, tigers? Creepy-crawlies perhaps? He tossed and turned for a while, and then his agitation began to subside, and she relaxed. This time he would probably do no more than murmur and mutter before falling back into deeper sleep.
Whom did she love? Who loved her?
Edward was at the muttering stage. One word caught her attention: Cheryl.
"Cheryl ... mutter mutter ... Cheryl ..."
The answer to one question was clear. Edward did not love her - he loved Cheryl. At the height of their passion he had thought of no-one but Cheryl! Susan lay for what seemed hours with that thought alone in her mind - alone in the darkness she lay - while Edward, beside her, dreamt of his love for Cheryl.
* * * * *
There was a coldness about Susan's manner the next day that cast a frost over the breakfast. Edward retreated into himself, as he always did when there was unpleasantness in the air.
As she cleared the table, Hugh rose and said, "Look here, old girl, I hope you don't mind, but I have to pop into town today. There are one or two things I have to do."
"Perhaps you could give me a lift, Hugh," Cheryl said quickly, "that is, if Edward doesn't mind ..."
"Actually I've got a bit of work that I really must get on with ..."
And quite suddenly Susan found herself alone. Edward had disappeared to his study and the other two had left the house. She washed the dishes with a sullen savagery, brooding on the injustice of her lot. Hugh, the one true love of her life, had fled from her, and all because Edward had put her in a mood - Edward who embraced his wife while thinking of Cheryl, while Susan, faithful, downtrodden, old doormat Susan ... was ... thinking ... of ... ... Hugh!
She gave a sob. A gurgle? No, a giggle. Quite definitely a giggle.
"Just suppose I got pregnant - I'm not really too old," she thought. "The little beast wouldn't take after me and Edward at all. It would be a cross between Hugh and Cheryl - and serve us all right!"
That thought kept on recurring as she moved about the house and garden, now tidying, now dusting, now forking and trowelling the rough-dug earth, unable to settle long to anything, and still not knowing whether she wanted to laugh or cry.
At last she took a pen and some paper and settled herself at the kitchen table to do something she hadn't done since her student days. The words flowed from her pen as though the years of abstinence had stored up a mighty reservoir. The dam was broken and the flood gushed forth. Line after line, page after page, a torrent of emotion and irony, of bitterness and laughter, of fiction and truth, of life and imagination, uncontrolled and unbroken - until she heard Edward's hesitantly querulous voice enquiring if lunch wasn't nearly ready yet.
* * * * *
Susan's writing calmed her shattered nerves and the little company fell back into its peaceful routine. Meal-times passed in companionable conversation, and days in useful and pleasurable activity. Sometimes Edward and Cheryl would walk while Hugh and Susan worked; sometimes Edward would go to his study while the other three gardened; sometimes Cheryl and Hugh would go off to town, leaving Edward and Susan to their separate scholarly and literary pursuits; sometimes all four would work in the garden or abandon it for a day out.
Susan could not help but notice the mute appeal in Edward's eyes as he looked at Cheryl, the hopeless pain of unrequited supplication. She noticed too how Cheryl began to avoid him and spend more time with her or with Hugh.
It was Hugh who suggested one day that Cheryl should take a look at Susan's manuscript. Susan was confused.
"I didn't write it for publication," she said.
Edward sighed, and gave her such a peculiar look that she did not know what to make of it.
"If Susan wants me to look at it," said Cheryl, "then I shall, of course - but I can make no promises. Even if I, personally, like it very much, it would have to be right for our readership. I hope that is understood."
"Of course," said Hugh. "It's better to be business-like and avoid misunderstandings, especially between friends."
Susan was not prepared to hand over her manuscript until she had revised it to her satisfaction, but agreed to sent it to Cheryl as soon as she could, and the following day Cheryl left them to return to London.
Hugh left a few days later. The garden was much improved. The terrace was built and paved, and Susan spent her days planting and her evenings writing. Her principal task was to type out her story, changing all the names.
Edward had his own interests. He spent a lot of time in his study. Sometimes he helped in the garden, but there was a constraint between them. Edward seemed to have something he wanted to say, but always he lacked the courage.
Susan knew very well what it was, and she longed for him to speak. Hugh would never betray a friend. He would sacrifice his love, his happiness, his very life, rather than cause Edward a moment's sorrow - but if Edward would make the first move, if he would declare his love for Cheryl and leave his wife, then nothing would prevent Hugh returning to her side. From the ends of the Earth he would come, and she would be his, his for ever.
Still Edward dithered. Susan was exasperated. On one page she typed Edward and Cheryl instead of Anthony and Sylvia. She was about to screw it up and start again, but she stopped.
"Providence," she thought, and, after a moment's hesitation, left the page as it was.
A couple of days later the typescript was despatched to Cheryl.
* * * * *
It was, thought Cheryl, really not bad. Susan's style needed a little attention, but her characterisation was surprisingly good, and the storyline would probably hold readers' interest if she could maintain the tension right through to the end.
Cheryl, who never wasted a minute of her working day, was sitting on a bench on a draughty station platform. She read with professional approval of the unspoken love between Robert and Frances, and of how Robert would renounce his love rather than come between Frances and her husband Anthony. She read of Anthony's love for Sylvia and hers for him, and how everything depended on whether Anthony would have the courage to tell Frances that he wanted to leave her. Then, suddenly, instead of Anthony and Sylvia she read Edward and Cheryl.
She had read many times of things dropping from nerveless fingers, and never really thought it likely or realistic. Now, as she sat there unheeding, the railway wind flicked the pages one by one from her nerveless fingers and sent them scudding along the platform, over the line, under the feet of passers-by, under the wheels of the shunting engines, out of the station, into oblivion.
* * * * *
Susan sat in her garden and looked around in contentment. The terrace bed was a riot of colour, the lawn was smooth and green, the soft shades of the herbaceous perennials mingled with the green outlines of the shrubs, the scent of roses diffused through the air, and the new poplars were coming on nicely.
She looked at Edward, sprawled on a garden chair in a way that seemed to her as uncomfortable as he could manage. Dear old Edward! His book was coming out at last, and he was happy. Too late to make any difference to his career, but he didn't seem to mind. He supervised his students with his usual lazy good humour, and at weekends they visited gardens together or worked on their own little patch. Edward had really got to be very knowledgeable about plants, but he insisted on employing a gardener whenever there was heavy digging to do. His back had never quite recovered from Cheryl's luggage and the first assault on the jungle.
Cheryl had never been back, and, of course, neither had Hugh. The two letters had come by the same post, one for her from Cheryl, and one for Edward from Hugh.
"I am very sorry not to be able to publish your story," Cheryl had written. "Though it was well-written, with well-observed characters, it unfortunately does not quite fit our readership profile. I myself enjoyed it very much, and I hope you will not mind if I keep the copy you sent me.
"By the way," she continued, "you will be pleased to hear that Hugh and I are getting married in a few weeks' time. It will be a quiet wedding with only our immediate relatives. No presents please."
When Susan had looked up Edward was grinning impishly.
"What do you think?" he had cried. "Hugh's getting married on the 15th of next month - and to Cheryl of all people. I'm tempted to say Poor old Hugh! You know I used to dream about that woman! The way she talked! I told her all about my research just to keep her quiet. I've never told you, but she virtually promised to get my book published for me, then started backing out almost immediately. I had this recurring dream about her taking it and tearing the pages out one by one and swallowing them. I was sure you'd get hurt if you let her have your story, but I couldn't quite put it into words without sounding ... well, envious, I suppose."
He had thought her quietness was disappointment at not getting her story published, and she had never disillusioned him. It was better so.
* * * * *
Edward opened one eye and pushed his sun-hat back.
"Isn't it time for tea?" he said.
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