Nights in the Gardens of Spain

Alan Bennett

Nobody normally gets killed round here; they’re mostly detached houses and you never even hear shouting. So it took me a minute to tipple to what she was saying.

I said: ‘Dead? Is it a heart attack?’

She said: ‘Oh no. Nothing like that. Just look at me, I’m in my bare feet.’

I really only know her to nod to but they have a lovely magnolia so once when she was in the garden I called out: ‘You’ve had more luck with your magnolia grandiflora than I have.’ But she just smiled and said: ‘Yes.’ And since I didn’t have another remark up my sleeve ready, that was the end of that. I do that all the time, start a conversation but can’t keep it going.

Blondish woman, a bit washed-out looking. Nice, tired sort of face. Anyway she comes out into the road and waits for me to get to their gate and says: ‘I know I don’t really know you only there’s something wrong with Mr McCorquodale.’

I was actually rushing because I’d planned on getting the five to nine and going into Sainsbury’s but anyway I went in. I said: ‘Has he been poorly?’

She said: ‘No. I’ve a feeling he’s dead. Come through ... only Mrs Horrocks ... he doesn’t have any trousers on.’

I said: ‘Well, I do a stint at the hospice twice a week, that’s not a problem.’ Only to be fair I just take the trolley round I’ve never actually been there when anybody’s been going and they think I’m not really ready to administer the consolation yet.

She had a nice linen dress on, very simple. I think she might have been drinking.

He was lying on his back on the rug, one of those fleecy hairy things, with blood and whatnot coming from somewhere behind his head. And it’s awful because the first thing I thought was, Well she’ll never get that out.

He had on these green Y-fronty things which I’d have thought were a bit young for someone who’s retired, but Henry’s the same, suddenly takes it into his head to go in for something he thinks is a bit more dashing. Little Terylene socks.

I said: ‘Should I touch him?’

She said: ‘Well, you can if you want but he is dead. I’ve been sitting here looking at him for an hour.’

I said: ‘His pants are on back to front.’

She said: ‘Oh that’s me. I thought I’d better put them on before I fetched somebody in.’

He had a little tattoo not far from his belly-button and I remember when they moved in Henry said he thought he had something to do with vending machines.

I said: ‘Did he bang his head, do you think?’

She said: ‘Oh no. I shot him. I’ve put the gun away.’ And she opens the sideboard drawer and there it is with the table-mats and playing-cards. He had a gun because he’d been in Malaya apparently.

My first thought was to ring Henry and ask what to do but I couldn’t face the fuss. I was still a bit nervous of calling 999 because I’m never sure what constitutes an emergency. Anyway I thought if she’d waited an hour already I might as well get her a cup of tea first, and as I was running the tap I called out: ‘The police haven’t already been, have they?’

She said: ‘No. Why?’

I said: ‘Nothing.’

Only there was a pair of handcuffs on the draining board.

*

The policeman had some difficulty writing. Big boy, nice ears, spelling all over the place.

When I asked him what he thought had happened he said: ‘Well, it’s marriage isn’t it, the stresses and strains of. Though we don’t normally expect it with oldish people, they’ve generally got it out of their system by then. And it’s a bit early in the day. People seem to like to get breakfast out of the way before the shooting starts.’

I’m just signing my statement when Henry arrives back and of course prolongs the process.

‘I don’t know that Mrs Horrocks quite means this, officer. What you said to me on the phone, young lady, was ...’

I said: ‘Henry. You weren’t there.’

The policeman winks and says: ‘Now then, we don’t want another shooting match do we?’

I mean at first Henry didn’t even know who they were.

He said: ‘Not the chow?’

I said: ‘No. That’s the Broadbents.’ Anyway he sits about for a bit, whistling under his breath, then goes upstairs and attacks his computer.

After the policeman had gone I went up and apologised and asked Henry whether he thought anything had been going on. He said: ‘Why?’

I said: ‘Well, she didn’t have anything on under that linen dress.’ Of course any suggestion of that embarrasses Henry, he’s such an innocent.

He said: ‘Rosemary. I don’t know what sort of world you think you’re living in but there’s probably some perfectly reasonable explanation. In the meantime let’s just remember that somebody has died. I’m only sorry that you had to be the one who was passing, because I’d have preferred you not to have been involved.’

I went out later to get some milk at the garage and there were still one or two reporters outside number 17, a whole branch of the magnolia broken off.

One of them said: ‘Are you a neighbour? Did you know the McCorquodales?’ I shook my head and didn’t say anything so one of them shouts after me: ‘You owe it to the community.’ So I turned round and said: ‘Yes, and you owe it to the community not to break branches off people’s magnolia trees.’ And of course that’s just the point where the photographer takes a picture and it’s in the paper this morning with me looking like a mad woman and the caption ‘The real face of suburbia’. Whereas the real face of suburbia was Henry’s when he saw it.

I woke up in the night and I could hear him whistling under his breath. I said: ‘Are you thinking about Mrs McCorquodale?’

He said: ‘No, I was thinking about the house. Prices are down as it is and something like this isn’t going to help matters.’ He reached over from his bed and took my hand. ‘You must try not to be upset, but if we don’t get at least 175 we shall have to kiss goodbye to Marbella.’

I keep wondering if I ought to have told somebody about the handcuffs.

*

I’d put on my little greeny-coloured costume, which is at least tried and tested, only when I came down Henry said: ‘Oh, are you going in that?’ So I went and changed into the black. No need, because it was all very casual, the policeman in his shirtsleeves, and some barrister taking me through what I’d said, scarcely interested at all. I gave her a little smile; they let her sit down most of the time, she did look pale.

Pleaded not guilty, which you have to do apparently even when they know you did it, only then her lawyer reads out a list of stuff they’d found wrong with Mrs McCorquodale when she’d been arrested, old fractures, new cigarette burns and one of her teeth loose. Another lawyer then jumps up and says, Were other people involved? And she said, ‘No,’ and he said he wouldn’t pursue that at this stage. The upshot is she was sent for trial.

I said to Henry: ‘Does that mean they’ll have to go through it all again?’

He said: ‘Oh yes. This is just the beginning.’

Policewoman came round this afternoon, said, Did I want any counselling? I’m entitled to it, apparently, through having seen a body and should have had it earlier only they had a charabanc run off the road so they’ve had a bit of a backlog.

Pleasant enough girl, though she would go on about all the terrible dreadful things she’d seen, accidents and violence and whatnot, so my seeing just one body seemed pretty ordinary really. But maybe that’s part of the counselling. We sat in the garden having some tea. Heavy on the biscuits; polished off half a dozen sandwich creams. She said, It was nice it was so civilised, had I seen a naked corpse before?

She was just going when she turns back and she says: ‘Mrs Horrocks, when I went on the counselling course one of the things they teach you is that it helps to look things in the face right from the start.’

I said: ‘Well, I did look at the body; I actually touched it.’

She said: ‘Yes, but when the police start digging, which they have to do, there is a potential for distress.’

I said: ‘Digging?’

She said: ‘Metaphorically.’

I said: ‘Why should it affect me?’

She said: ‘All the indications are that it won’t. But the potential is there. Things come out and I want you to know I’m here for you. I’m on a bleep.’

I said to Henry: ‘It’s nice she should be so concerned.’

He said: ‘It’s what she’s there for ... unfortunately.’

Article in the Mail yesterday, which I’d always thought was that bit more refined, but it’s full of silly stuff about the case, what goes on behind the neat privet hedges-type-thing. I said to Henry, Fat lot they know. There actually isn’t a privet hedge in the entire road. They’re mostly beech and one or two cypresses Leylandii. He said he didn’t think that was quite the point and to a reporter a hedge was simply something to be peered through.

Still, talking of neat, what with her being away on remand their garden which is usually so immaculate is already beginning to look a bit ... well ... shaggy. She’s got a herb garden outside the back door and the borage has gone berserk, bullying its way all over the border. Made me long to nip over and put it in its place.

I didn’t want to ask Henry, though, as I was sure he’d think it ‘Inadvisable, Rosemary, quite candidly’ but no, it turns out he’s all in favour and it had in fact occurred to him, though, it has to be said, coming at it from a different angle from me, saying that if ever we’re going to get anywhere near our asking price a garden going to seed in the same road is the last thing one wants.

So the upshot is I’ve started toddling up the road with my trusty secateurs. Thought I’d cut back the poppies now that they’ve flowered and give the achillea a chance to come through. Of course I’ve scarcely got my kneeling pad down before Miss Lumsden’s out, contriving to come by with an unconvincing bottle of Lucozade en route for the bottle bank. Wants to know if there are any sweet peas going begging. I said I’d thought of picking some and taking them down to the hospice. She said: ‘What a nice idea. Some people might feel a bit funny about them but I suppose they’re too far gone to care.’

And lots of jokes of course. On the lines of Mr Pemberton’s: ‘Who do I have to shoot for you to come and do my garden?’ Smile got a bit fixed after a bit. Except that Sheila Blanchard did actually come in and lend a hand weeding the borders. Said she didn’t blame her a bit. ‘I mean husbands, Rosemary. Who needs them?’

I said: ‘Well, they can be a comfort.’

She said: ‘Can they? Reggie isn’t. I’m the comfort merchant. What’s Henry like?’

‘Oh’, I said, ‘very ...’ and I said such a silly word ‘very considerate.’

I saw her smile and she’s a nice woman but I know it’ll be all up and down the road by tomorrow.

But he is considerate. Timid, I suppose. Always has been. Wish he wasn’t sometimes.

What I haven’t told Henry is that I dropped Mrs McCorquodale a note to the prison, bringing her up to date on what I’ve been doing. I do it every day now, in fact, even send her snaps. Told her today I was keeping an eye on the alchemilla mollis, lovely plant but you have to read it the riot act occasionally.

She rang this afternoon to thank me. I didn’t know you could do that in prison, ring up. Her name’s Fran.

‘Dear Fran ...’

*

I’ve misjudged Henry. Got him quite wrong. Thirty years of marriage and you think you’ve got somebody all weighed up but no. He’s lost half a stone while the case has been going on – and never set foot in the office. I thought, well, you’re a better person than ever I thought you were. I said to Fran: ‘He’s more worried about you than he’s ever been about me.’ I mean the day I had my scan he went off to a golf tournament.

So as a reward I got out the brochures for Marbella and that seemed to cheer him up.

It’s all come out in court, though. Turns out that Mr has led her a dog’s life. Literally. The defence produced the collar and lead in evidence. Beat her. Terrorised her. ‘A saga of protracted and imaginative cruelty’ counsel said.

The prosecution, of course, goes after her, claiming it was all part of some game, sexually speaking, and that the cruelty was what she wanted. But she said if it had been mutual he wouldn’t have been interested. Anyway, how is it mutual to have your arm broken?

A lot of lurid details, how he sometimes used to put a hood over her head so’s she couldn’t see and bring in other people to watch. Business associates, she thought. Leading lights in the world of vending machines, probably.

Henry says she was lucky because there was another case going on the same week up in Liverpool, a man had up for killing a child and that pushed her out of the limelight a bit.

Of course what Henry calls the wild and woolly feminist ladies were out in force, even shouting from the gallery. ‘To a degree irresponsible,’ Henry said. ‘However mitigating the circumstances, Rosemary, she has to be looking at a custodial sentence.’ Then, when he only gave her two years, the judge got it from the law and order brigade. But, as Sheila Blanchard said: ‘Worth every minute of it, dear, if you ask me. A couple of years basket-weaving and you get the bed to yourself. Cheap at the price. I just wish I had a gun. As it is I’m pinning my hopes on his prostate.’

I can’t go and see her so often now she’s convicted and Henry doesn’t know I go at all. Well, I’ve never had a best friend, the sort you can tell everything to. Never had one, never been one, even when I was a girl. Not the type, I suppose. And no secrets to tell either. And with not having children I wasn’t a member of that club either.

She’s in Rissington, the other side of York. It’s one of these modern places, looks like a business park or an out of town shopping centre. Crimes ’R’ Us. She’s transformed the prison garden, which used to be very utilitarian, cabbages, lettuces and whatnot.

Only now she’s got them to do some interplanting, even make it a bit of a potager ... and while it’s never going to be Sissinghurst ... the site’s too windy ... it’s still streets ahead of what it was. She has visions of it being open to the public but that’s difficult with it being a prison. We go and sit on a seat in the garden and she’s started telling me about all the stuff he forced her to do. Said she wanted me to know in case it made me not want to see her any more. I said: ‘Don’t be silly.’ But terrible things I never knew people did. And with the hood over her head and men there, watching in silence. More than watching actually.

One of them who had a funny habit ... and I knew what she was going to say the second before she said it ... a funny habit of whistling under his breath.

Of course, a lot of people do that.

*

‘I see they’re selling the Murder House,’ Sheila Blanchard calls out to me this morning. ‘The board’s gone up. Asking 160.’ I didn’t say I knew, or that actually it’s sold already. Fran says they’re an Asian family, quite well-to-do, have a chain of electrical shops. I thought, Well, that won’t do Marbella any good. Poor Henry. Golf with Jimmy Tarbuck takes a knock.

I look at him a lot now, this once upon a time spectator, or maybe still, who knows, somewhere. And I think ... well sometimes I just think: ‘You dark horse.’ Other times I think about Fran and get upset. He caught me staring at him the other night, said: ‘What are you looking at, young lady?’

I said, predictably: ‘Nothing.’

‘You’ve been getting a bit broody lately,’ he said. And he patted me on the knee.

What I’d actually been thinking was whether all these years he’d been wanting to see me crawl round the room naked on my hands and knees. No worse than bedding out, I suppose, though if I did it nowadays I’d have to have my knee pads on, which might take the edge off a bit.

But I think about the collar and lead, then I think, Well, that’s what my marriage has been like too, being jerked along. I mean, what else is Marbella?

We never settled on what to call it, that was part of the trouble. The garden’s made me quite used to things having a common name and a Latin one. Only with sex neither seemed to suit Henry. Coming from me, anyway. Just got embarrassed.

He’s no idea I go and see her. I tell him it’s the hospice. The farm goes from strength to strength; she’s put her onions in for shows and gone commercial with the tomatoes. She’s there every free moment, well, I say free. Except that when I say good-bye at the gate it feels it’s me that’s going back to prison.

Once a month they let her out for a half-day and we go off for the afternoon and do all sorts. Open gardens, obviously, auctions we’ve been to, car boot sales. And old churches, which I’ve never cared much for, only Fran knows a lot about them. One church in the middle of a field near where there’d been a battle. And we sit there in a pew while she explains all the architectural features. And sometimes I think I’ve never been so happy in my life.

She took my arm this last time, just as we were coming down some steps at Fountains Abbey and then, when we got to the bottom she didn’t let go. It was just like it was when I was a girl when a boy did it. Such a bold step. And so meant.

And I thought, here I am strolling arm in arm with someone who murdered her husband. I said ... out loud ... ‘I know what this is.’

She said: ‘What is it?’

I said: ‘It’s life.’

She wasn’t feeling all that clever today so we just went and sat in the grounds, and she held my hand again. Going into York next week for a check-up. I thought I could go along and hang about the hospital just on the off-chance I might see her but she’ll be with a warder apparently so I won’t.

Gave me this.

She has a large tomato which she puts to her cheek.

A patio wall. A tropical night. Crickets etc.

*

I’ve never had to start a garden from scratch before. There are no features at all. Flat, square, stony it’s like one of the ‘before’ pictures in the gardening magazines. Or an exercise yard.

A lawn’s pretty much out of the question in this heat and the water supply’s very quixotic, though Henry says the greens at the golf club are immaculate. And he saw Sean Connery last week. So I sit and look at it and draw plans.

‘Look on it as a challenge,’ Henry says. ‘You’ll crack it, young lady,’ he says. ‘I know you.’

She died, did Fran. A lot of toing and froing before they eventually tracked it down. No surprise to either of us. Doctors. It’s the first thing that occurs to you and the last thing that occurs to them.

By which time it’s too late.

‘Oh, it was always too late, Mrs Horrocks.’

She was in a hospice at the finish so I knew the drill. I used to hold her hand, kiss it. And she’d kiss mine. We’d talked about a little garden centre.

Best thing that could have happened, Henry said. Which is when I should have packed my bags. Instead of which I just went and sat in the greenhouse for a bit. Typical.

He’ll sometimes wear one of these caps with the big peaks that boys wear. Reckons it’s for the sun. Caught him the other day wearing it back to front. I suppose it’s known as a new lease of life.

There are supposed to be lots of criminals round here. Bank robbers and such like who can’t go back, play golf all day.

Of course it’s just what would happen in a play. Fran shot him so she had to pay. Only this place is crawling with people who haven’t paid. Unless you count just being here as paying.

The gardening books talk about the plants that are supposed to like shade. They say they prefer it.

I don’t believe it. I don’t believe anything likes shade. They do perfectly well in the shade, it’s true. But give them even ... give them a bit of sun and suddenly they come into their own.

I sit here at night, listening to the frogs and the crickets, and Henry, whistling under his breath.