Smutty was inexorably drawn to Giles, as if an invisible thread were pulling him in, closer and closer. He didn’t want to move too fast, didn’t want to scare the man off, who right now reminded him of some skittish creature, ready to fly away at the slightest provocation. For all the earlier display of obnoxious entitlement, Smutty could tell that Giles was fragile. It had been there all along, in the bloodshot eyes and the scent of despair. He’d have picked up on it sooner if he hadn’t been so preoccupied with the boat.
As Smutty approached, Giles dropped his gaze to something in the flowerbed. When he was close enough to make the form out, Smutty drew in a sharp breath. A tiny bird lay there, a nestling, not yet feathered. Its skin was like parchment, stretched taut over the fine bones. The eyes seemed unformed, still covered with a translucent layer of skin, yet its beak gaped open as if demanding food. As they watched, the body twitched one last time, then lay still.
“I couldn’t save it,” Giles said, his voice flat. “I couldn’t do anything. I was totally bloody useless.”
Smutty crouched down next to him and rested a hand on Giles’ shoulder. “There’s nothing you could have done. The mother wouldn’t have accepted it back into the nest even if you knew which one it came from, and there’s no way you could have kept it alive yourself. It’s just Mother Nature’s way, sometimes.”
“Then Mother Nature is a heartless bitch.” Giles swiped a hand through the weeds in the flowerbed, but despite being momentarily flattened, they soon sprang back up again.
“She gives every creature its chance at life, and in death, they give back.” Smutty recited the words he remembered Starlight using that time he’d accidentally killed a nest of young mice when turning the compost heap. “Come on, let’s give it a proper send off.”
Smutty squeezed Giles’ shoulder before letting go and starting to clear a small site in the overgrown flowerbed. At some recent time the garden here had been well tended. The only weeds were annuals, the soil clinging to their roots rich and dark. He looked up at the rose bushes in the centre of the bed. They’d obviously missed a prune this last winter, but they were in pretty good shape. There were roses all over the garden, he realised. Not only the tea roses in the beds but the climbers and ramblers covering the walls and threading their way through the wrought iron pergolas.
“This place must be stunning in June,” he said, imagining it a riot of scent and colour.
Giles sniffed and looked away, as if trying to hide his emotions. “It is,” he eventually whispered in reply.
“I always wanted a walled garden like this in the commune. Was told it was a waste of land that could be used to grow food, though.” Smutty gave a wry smile—communal living wasn’t always idyllic. But it wouldn’t do to get lost in nostalgia when Giles was clearly suffering. “Would you like to pick a few flowers? As an offering, I mean.” Smutty added when Giles gave a blank stare. “You know, to place in the grave.”
“We’re not children,” Giles said, looking uncertain. “That sounds like what I did when my pet hamster died.”
“No, but maybe kids have got the right idea about burying animals. Come on, I was raised to treat all life with respect. Please?” Smutty smiled and watched to see what Giles would do. He thought Giles was going to refuse or pour scorn on the idea, but was pleased to see that his words had a positive effect, pulling Giles out of his torpor and getting him up off his knees and moving around the garden.
Once the grave was a few inches deep—any deeper would be impossible without damaging the root systems of the roses—Smutty prised some vivid green moss from the low stone wall and lined the shallow depression, then gently lifted the delicate body and placed the bird on its bed of moss. He was aware of Giles beside him, of the heat of another body and the susurrant whisper of breath against his cheek. And then Giles’ hands were next to his, arranging plucked hyacinth blossoms and miniature narcissus flowers around the body in a ring of alternating blue and yellow.
“It’s perfect,” Smutty murmured.
“Yes.” Giles cleared his throat. “Uh, little bird, I’m sorry I couldn’t save you. Um…” He gave Smutty a beseeching gaze.
Smutty drew in a deep breath and tried to recall Starlight’s words over the mice. “Your body will now return to the earth and feed the plants, and you will live again in them, just as they feed the animals. So life turns full circle.”
“Amen,” Giles added, which sounded odd to Smutty’s ears, but which nevertheless seemed to fit their home-made ritual.
Both men covered over the bird with handfuls of soft, dark loam.
“My mother’s ashes were scattered here, you know,” Giles said, his tone curiously neutral.
Smutty pondered this piece of information, wondering if it had some bearing on Giles’ earlier tears. A recent bereavement would explain a lot of things. “It’s a beautiful place to rest. Was it somewhere special to her?”
“Yeah. She spent every moment she could out here.” A wistful expression flitted across Giles’ face, and for a short moment Smutty was entranced. But then it passed, and the shutters came down again. “It was a long time ago.”
“But the gardens have been kept up. I can tell. Was it you?”
“No. A gardener. But I had to… had to let him go. Last summer. I know, I should get someone else. I’ve just been preoccupied.”
Smutty wasn’t going to pry, no matter how much curiosity the words stirred up. But then an idea occurred. So breathtakingly simple that he had to think it over again to make sure he wasn’t missing something important. But no, it could work.
“Listen, Giles, I’m really sorry but I can’t fix the boat just yet. There’s a cracked cylinder head and Gods know what else I find when I totally strip her out. I haven’t got the money for the parts right now but I was wondering if we could come to some kind of deal.”
“Deal?” Giles sounded so bleak Smutty wondered if it was even worth suggesting, but ploughed on regardless.
“I can garden. It’s work I’ve grown up with. If I put in a few hours for you every day, could I stay moored up down there while I get her fixed? I won’t need paying, although if you want to give me something that’d be appreciated, but I’ve got other ways I can make a few bob. You won’t know I’m here. I promise. Well, you’ll know I’ve been doing the gardening, but that’s all.”
Giles looked all around the garden with a thoughtful expression, then met Smutty’s eyes. “Yes. I think I’d like that,” he said softly.
Smutty grinned and stuck out a hand. “Shake on it?”
Giles only gave a small smile, but it was like a shaft of sunshine breaking through stormclouds. “Deal,” he said, clasping Smutty’s hand. “Let me show you where the tools are.”
Giles stared at his computer screen, trying to make sense of the columns of figures. Numbers never had been his strong point, but surely he should have more money in his account than that? There should be funds paid in every month from his various investments, but at the moment it looked as if his sick pay was the only thing keeping his account in the black. Mind you, the only thing going out for the last month had been his weekly food and drink orders from Waitrose, along with the standing orders for the bills.
Damn it. He’d only bothered looking to make sure he had enough to pay Smutty for the gardening. No doubt there was some perfectly reasonable explanation like a new account had been set up for the funds to be paid into—it wouldn’t be the first time his accountant had played around like that, trying to find Giles the best interest rates. Yeah, that would be it. He really didn’t want to have to hassle his accountant about it.
Especially as his accountant was still Fabian.
Giles rubbed at the back of his neck and contemplated the phone call. He’d need a drink inside him first. Better wait until later. If he started drinking at this time of day it would be a slippery descent into full-blown alcoholism. He knew. He’d seen it happen with his father. It began with nothing more sinister than a G and T before lunch, but by the time Giles was twelve he’d find half bottles of scotch hidden around the house and was used to the sour stench of it on Daddy’s breath.
He thought perhaps his latest canvas would restore some normality to his day. The colours didn’t demand any thought, any discipline. Giles could place them where he wished—wherever his muse led him. They took him through the spaces where there were no words, only feeling, only being. Yet today there was something different. Today the canvases of his last few months filled him with a vague horror. He gazed into their dark voids and his stomach rebelled. He turned them to the wall.
Giles didn’t quite know what force was guiding his hand as he started underpainting on a fresh canvas. Underneath his brush, a ring of flowers appeared, sketched in with raw sienna. Yet in the centre, there was a space that didn’t want to be filled with a tiny bird. There was a woman instead. He saw her, head inclined as she tended to her precious roses. It had been many years since he’d attempted even drawing a figure—Fabian had refused to pose, saying it made his joints ache—but the lines on the canvas were sure and true.
There wasn’t any point in thinking about what he was doing. Giles simply mixed up a moss green for the background and began to paint, losing himself in the nascent image, the language of tints and shades, of dreams and memories.
It was five hours later when he finally downed brushes and stepped back, his throat parched and bladder bursting. It was only an underpainting—only blocks of colour with no detail—but it was her. No doubt about that. He gazed on the image and it wasn’t until he registered the ache in his jaw that he realised he was smiling. Had his tears in the garden finally washed something clean inside him?
He shook his head and left his brushes in the jar of turps. There was no point thinking about it now. It would be easier with a few drinks inside him.
Later, with a glass of wine by his side, Giles stared at the phone. Fabian’s mobile number was still programmed on speed dial. It would be so easy to call him up; he needed to know what was going on with his money, after all. But Fabian wasn’t the one he wanted to talk to right now. Giles didn’t think he could cope with the world-weary sarcasm masquerading as wit. No, he wanted a simple conversation. One not weighted with unhappy history and past insults.
He looked out of the window and spied a flickering light through the orchard branches.
Two minutes later, he was striding through the long grass with the bottle and a couple of glasses grasped in his hand.