Carla, grateful to John for helping with her assignment, and impressed with his intelligence, arranges to meet him for a tour around a well hidden flower garden.
Overcast weather that morning with spots of rain about.
Now and again, the sun tried to peek through gaps but even when it succeeded in doing so, other, near-inky black nebulae overwhelmed the upstart rays.
The council gardener drove his lawnmower back and forth across the top football pitch and a pungent smell of freshly cut grass filled the morning air. Somehow it made me more nervous.
Already she was fifteen minutes late. I wore my Barbour hunting coat, blue jeans and some non descript boots and I leaned on the memorial arch waiting for her at the entrance to the park.
With each minute that went past, I began to be more despondent. It doesn’t take a lot, but a girl I’m in love with not turning up for a date is up there with the best of the reasons.
It wasn’t really a surprise. I didn’t really expect her to turn up, but just once in my life, I hoped against hope to beat the odds. I began to pace between one half of the arch and the other, the gravel noisy underneath my boot heels. I could sense the contents of my stomach beginning to liquefy.
Inevitably, the typical thought processes circulated.
She’s twenty, you’re over forty. What would her friends think?
Her friends probably had hold of her last night and they probably had ripped her ambitions to shreds. They probably laughed at her. Called her names and called ME names, probably said I was a pervert or something and warned her and told her she could do a lot better than me.
I’d once met one of her friends in the pub, a very pretty girl named
, and I saw her look at me with utter contempt. I imagined, as I paced, that she would also be quick to lay the boot in. Charlotte
When I had finished facing that first wave of self-hatred, I was ready to return home and I cursed my optimism, my vainglorious plan.
I stopped pacing up and down for a moment as a couple walked past me on the way to the bowls club, an older couple, and they wished me good morning and I did the same, the nice old lady wearing a thick aquamarine coloured coat and a floppy crimson hat which made her look a tiny bit like Princess Margaret used to look and I wished them good morning in return. When they passed, I soon went back in to my fugue, the second wave of self-hatred coming in on a black and portentous tide.
Over and over and over again I went into the reasons why it would be madness for her to turn up, that it shouldn’t be seen as a reflection on me in any way, that it was all just a silly thing, a silly, spontaneous thing, which was never going to work. I leaned against the arch and bit my nail. My nails have been eviscerated over the years to the point where they hardly exist. Neither do the tips of my fingers because I am a biter, an anxious biter, and sometimes, I get so worried, I chew the fingerprints off my fingers when there is no nail protrusion left to bite on. Thus, my thumbs get whitlows and blains from where I get nails regrowing into the skin and most of the time, my thumbs are swollen and blistered.
Again and again, I checked my watch.
Ten twenty. That’s it, I thought.
She definitely isn’t coming. That’s the end for me down the Saddlers. I’ll never be able to see her again. The aftermath of her rejection will be too much for me. The embarrassment. The sheer, coruscating red faced embarrassment.
I’ll never be able to go in there again even if she isn’t working.
Churned stomach, flushed cheeks, burning eyes and beating temples, I pictured going home, turning the heating on, undressing, naked, sitting down on the sofa, listening to music, some David Bowie, some Lou Reed, something like that, and while I rest, I’ll slice chunks out of my armpit, pick the stitches out of the previous lattice, make it bleed and bleed and bleed and then maybe start on my legs and the thought of cutting made me feel calmer and even before I was aware of this happening, I found myself walking backwards up past some of the oldest oak trees in Wheatley Fields, halfway between despair and anticipation.
I heard a shout from near the Prebend opposite the arches. ‘John!’
It was her.
Quilted jacket, red scarf, jeans and wellington boots. Even though it wasn’t all that cold, she was wearing a royal blue woolly hat, two floppy dog-ears dangling to her shoulders from either side,
I stopped where I was, waved, watch her skip over toward me. She carried on her natter, that incredible, creamy soft, middle class, burnished accent that I remembered from my time in
. ‘I am so sorry I’m late, John. My tutor called me and he just would not get off the phone! I feel a bit guilty because I told him I’d run out of charge.’ Cambridge
‘Was it important?’ I asked, relieved.
‘He thinks it’s always important,’ she laughed. ‘But it usually never is. What he said could have waited until tomorrow,’
I calmed down, slowly, and as I did so, I felt a different kind of nervousness, a polar opposite emotion, a wild swing from despair to elation, some kind of buzzing, and I immediately clamped down on it. Taking hidden breaths, I engaged my positive, sensible, well trained self-talk, much of it to stop me from proposing marriage or something.
(You might laugh. I’ve done it before. My record for this romantic gesture is three and a half hours into a first date. She looked at me as if I was crackers and I never saw her again outside the office).
I listened to her natter about her tutor and her course and constructed a gentle smile, hoping I didn’t look like a psycho of my inner self-portrait. The simian dribbler, the fecund drooler. The tilted head, the heavy lidded eyes of the lizard. The missing tooth. The giant ears, almost detached, a Lombroso measured head twice the average, football sized. I watched her talk, never leaving her eyes once, her cavernous, enormous brown eyes.
If she was wearing any make up, it was so tastefully applied I couldn’t tell. Her lashes long and perfectly balanced. Her plain, symmetrical face, devoid of marks, clear and fresh, as if she had woken this morning, walked down into her garden and splashed her face in a crystal clear pool while mounted on a water lily. . When she spoke – and I have to confess, dear reader, that I wasn’t listening to every little bit she said about college – her pink lips caressed each syllable perfectly. As she spoke about some Open Day she had to help organise, I distinctly remember thinking that I could spend the rest of my life just staring at her face, occasionally reaching over to cup her cheek, stroking her.
Oh man, I could listen to Carla talk. She could recite a Hovermower instruction manual from cover to cover and I wouldn’t interrupt once.
Then, she seemed to dry up and she grabbed my arm. ‘Let’s go and have a walk down to the flower garden. I’ve been told the cherry blossom trees bloomed last night and we won’t have much of a window to see them,’ she said and I nodded and the two of us, hands in pockets, walked down past the changing rooms toward the destination. ‘Did you know that eight years ago, a developer put in an application to build three hundred houses on all this, John?’ She asked, sweeping her right arm around the park imperiously as we walked down.
‘Can you believe that? The council threw it out straight away, but for one reason or another, they allowed the same developer to build on a wood up near the garden centre. Lots of protests at the time, but they weren’t enough to stop him. It’s a tragedy, don’t you think?’
‘I would imagine they would argue that people have to live somewhere?’ I replied.
‘My tutor said that four out of five people who purchased the houses on the wood that died were from outside of town. That can’t be right, can it? It really upsets me. Can you imagine if they ever built on this?’
We walked through a small graveyard at the bottom of the memorial park. No more than thirty gravestones in various states of repair. I looked at the dates. They were old graves, in some cases very old.
‘Are they allowed to build on cemeteries like this?’ I asked.
She stopped and crouched over one. ‘I don’t know. I’ll ask my tutor. Look at this one,’ she said, gesturing me over. I crouched down next to her and felt my knee crack. She seemed to do the crouching thing a lot easier than I did. I read the weather beaten, faded writing on the granite stone.
Amy Cooper. 1843 – 1869. She Was Much Loved.
‘I wonder what her life must have been like? She was a real person once. She must have gone to school, worked, loved, had children. Look at how young she was when she died. Just twenty six. Oh My God, that’s just six years older than me.’
‘You’ll live to be a hundred, Carla.’ I said, grinning.
She tapped me on the arm playfully. ‘No way am I going to be a hundred. That’s so old.’
‘On average, women live about eight years longer than men, all other things being equal.’ I replied.
She stood up. ‘That makes sense,’ she said. ‘Both my grandmothers are alive and both my grandfathers are dead. Still don’t want to be a hundred though. All that wee…’she laughed. ‘What do you think Amy did?’ She said referring to the gravestone once more.
Truth be told, I wasn’t interested in the slightest, but I could sit and listen to her forever, and I wasn’t bothered what she spoke about.
I remember that time well. If she wanted to talk about it, I wanted to listen. It was as simple as that and that never varied, never altered. If we’d have married, I am absolutely, incontrovertibly convinced that that pattern would have continued. I sometimes wonder whether I was in love with her voice. ‘Don’t know,’ I said, with that desire in mind. ‘You tell me.’
With that, Carla playfully recounted her story of Amy Cooper.
‘Oh definitely the daughter of a Merchant, I think. Definitely pretty…’ and as we walked down to the flower garden behind the cemetery, I made sure each step was like walking on the moon, slow and measured, almost floating, as if I was a very old man indeed, while she knitted her elegant story of young Amy Cooper. Her life, her loves, her ambitions, her personality, all the way to her passing. She described her clothes, her hair, her smile, like a born writer and I knew there and then that she was studying the wrong subject; a girl with an imagination like this should study English Literature somewhere grand, write great sweeping stories, historical romances, historical transpositions, what-if histories, all that stuff people buy in their lorry loads nowadays.
I made each step to the flower garden last ten seconds by some contrivance or another. Each time Carla faltered in her narrative, I prompted her to go in another direction and each time she responded, earnestly, vivacious, in that sublime, balmy, measured, unutterably hypnotic voice of hers, with its occasional redundant, trans-atlantic inter-connectives, it’s likes, and stuffs, and oh my gods, and I feasted on it, each word exploding in fountains of gold.
Cleopatra never luxuriated in her marble bathtubs full of asses milk as joyously as I relished listening to Carla.
Eventually, we reached a high hedge which hadn’t been trimmed in an age, it’s tendrils and tiny branches pulling the whole over. ‘I’ve run out of things to say about Amy,’ she said, somewhat flat and awkward.
‘Let’s go and look at some flowers, then. I’m looking forward to this.’ I replied.
‘Oh, I am too. I’ve only been here once before. I’ve brought my camera. I was thinking of doing a project. Will you help me write it?’
‘How?’ I asked.
‘You’re really clever, I can tell,’ she blushed. ‘You know things.’
‘I don’t know much about flowers. I’m a physicist.’
‘Oh no,’ she said shaking her head. ‘I can tell. You’re much more than that. Will you help me? I have to write a project on wild environments under pressure in Wheatley Fields. That’s how I know about the development application and stuff. We can visit the Cherry Wood and cycle up the Heritage Trail near the college.’ She suddenly did that thing young girls do, that eye thing, that cat’s eye thing, the one where their eyes expand to the size of the twin moons of Saturn. She put her hand on my Barboured forearm. ‘Please, John. I’d love it if you could help me.’
What could a love struck man say in this situation but ‘Of course I will. I’ll be glad to help.’
‘Fantastic! Thank you. Between us…’ she said, struggling with the door to the gardens, I, too stupefied to help her open it, too dull witted, too stunned at the amazing turn of events, all of it, ‘…I think we’ll create the very best project.’
The two of us might have entered the secret flower garden at that point but I’d entered somewhere else entirely.
We walked around the garden, with it’s early spring riches, it’s Snow Blossom, it’s nascent Crocus, its carpet of Bluebells, it’s Pink Belladonna bushes, it’s sweeping banks of Snowdrops, its freshly planted Daffodils. The Holly bushes to the north side, the fledgling mauve and lemon Primroses, the Azeleas and the Apple Blossoms. We stood for ages underneath a row of Cherry Blossom trees, not quite in full bloom, a few days off or so, but we could smell them and the fragrance of those trees allied to Carla’s presence will stay with me forever, I think.
That ten minutes, that nexus, in that flower garden, with the cherry blossom just beginning to bloom, Carla talking animatedly about the beauty of nature and the sanctity of wild flowers, was without doubt the finest ten minutes of my entire life.
Nothing had gone before.
Nothing would ever happen again. If there is a God watching over us (and I doubt that very much), he would have stopped time, or at least suspended Carla and I in a perpetual Groundhog Ten Minutes because I was in heaven and whatever had assailed me previously had gone.
All the pain, the misery, the anger, the pathology, the flawed, disturbed psychology, the tortured impulses, the desire to cut, the desire to end it, the memories (oh, those horror memories), had gone.
I was at one.
And do you know what?
I never told Carla.
I simply carried on listening to her talk and when it came to my turn, I talked about the cycle of the four winds or something silly like that and we walked up toward the Three Steeples and finally, all I can remember her saying for the rest of that day is how much she enjoyed our walk and how much she was looking forward to working on the project with me and I could have cried, I really could have cried.
I can still see her now, walking into the town, waving at me - her floppy hat, her swinging scarf - then skipping happily toward the shops where she’d arranged to meet some friends...
 I am aware that this is the third time I’ve mentioned my feelings about Carla’s voice. I’m trusting you now to remember how I feel about it. Okay? Sorry to bore you.
 If you want to learn to be a listener, rather than be one of those people who wait for their turn to speak (those silly narcissists!), then find someone with a voice like Carla’s. You’ll be a Melanie Klein quality listener in weeks.