The Ladies dispersed into the cool afternoon. Many disappeared into shared cars and taxis, leaving Kate alone with Harriet. They walked back to Kate’s house, which was close to the centre of the town. Kate had not invited Harriet, but somehow she was coming back for a cup of tea. Kate’s head felt quite congested and she could happily have gone home for a doze.
‘One must feel a sense of belonging with one’s home, don’t you think?’ Harriet asked, casting an enquiring glance at Kate, who was looking aimlessly over walls and through windows as she guided Harriet through the older part of the town. Harriet seemed to know the way and Kate wondered what would happen if she took Harriet in the wrong direction. She could take Harriet to the wrong house and pretend she had left her key back at the restaurant.
Kate’s house was in a small development in the brown belt area to the north, where derelict sites were being re-claimed. Kate had bought the house because it was convenient and practical and there would be no messing with repairs or renovations. They reached a road that led into a neighbouring small enclave of sheltered housing. She could turn here and pretend to look for her keys. But Harriet caught her with a beady eye. ‘Surely our way is north dear…?’
It started to rain and the women walked briskly to Kate’s house. Standing in the small hallway, Kate pushed the door shut, noting that it had swollen slightly with the damp. Harriet was silent as Kate led her into the kitchen. Kate unplugged the kettle and filled it at the sink. The water pressure was low and it took a while. Kate was aware her bladder was full as she stood at the sink. Harriet hummed softly to herself.
‘Excuse me Harriet,’ Kate quickly put on the kettle and rushed upstairs. She didn’t want to use her downstairs loo whilst Harriet sat in the kitchen. She shut her bedroom door and rushed into her tiny en-suite shower room. Through the window, she could hear shouting in the street. A diesel engine chuntered. She remembered the workmen had started on the new pavement at the top end of the close. The noise reverberated around the tiled closet. At least she could be private.
Back in the kitchen, Kate found Harriet leafing through a packet of herbal tea. ‘Past the use-by date, dear,’ she said. ‘Never mind, I’ve got some in my bag, ginseng, orange and ginger. Good pick-you-up. Try one.’
Kate accepted two dog-eared sachets and put the teabags into her best cups. Rusty-brown leached out into the hot water. She could smell a steamy smell and a tiny hint of ginger. She wondered how long the tea had been in Harriet’s handbag.
The women sat at Kate’s kitchen table, the sound of a pneumatic drill ricocheting softly around the blank magnolia walls of the small room. Harriet remained quiet and Kate ventured ‘I hope the tea is all right,’ and sipped. She thought it watery, but Harriet said that it was perfectly fine and smiled a tourniquet of a smile that inclined Kate to say nothing. But this is my house, Kate thought, how dare she? How dare she what? It was hard to be sure. Kate stood, knowing she must do something. ‘You might like to see my garden. It isn’t much, but I think it has potential.’ Kate fumbled with her back door key, and for some moments, it seemed unwilling to stay in her hand, but at last she managed to line it up with the keyhole. Harriet put on her glasses and looked at Kate from behind the brown lenses. ‘Kate, dear, I am quite happy where I am, please don’t put yourself out…’ Her tone was peevish. Kate felt suddenly a little suffocated and her breath caught in her throat. The lock was turning, but it was stiff as though this door had warped in the rain too. She felt a damp draught through the crack of the door-frame. The key was unravelling the lock, and it turned back like old bones in their sockets. Harriet watched her quietly through the brown haze of her glasses. ‘Your tea will go cold, Kate…’ she said. ‘Mine’s chilly already.’
There! A clack told her that the lock had disengaged and Kate pulled down the handle of the door. It was stuck, but with a firm tug the door opened, letting in a gush of cool air. It seemed as though a waft of something not quite fresh wound its way out through the door. Kate stood on the step, taking a deep breath.
‘There, you see. The garden.’ It sounded almost triumphant. Kate looked out at the small square of coarse grass that the builder had considered fit to call a lawn. Kate knew that the topsoil was a sparse layer over rubble from the demolition of an old factory. The lawn was overgrown and surrounded by grey concrete slabs and flimsy post-and-rail fencing. A rotary washing line stood in the middle, set slightly out-of-true. Her neighbours’ gardens had been landscaped with the usual sort of pre-packed features from DIY stores, the barbeques and decking with imitation stone pots and figurines, but Kate could not bring herself to do this, preferring the children’s crayon box effect of her simple garden. It didn’t seem justified to over-embellish it; the out-sized blades of grass and squares of concrete satisfied her with their lack of complication and neutrality. Patios and barbeque terraces implied relationships and a kind of socialisation that was not a wanted part in her life. She viewed the comings and goings of her neighbours, the bringing out of lawnmowers, tables, lawn-sprinklers etc. out of the corner of her eye. When the man next door had offered her surplus pansies, she hadn’t known what to do with them and stuck them in a bare corner where the turf had not reached the wall of her house. The pansies obstinately lived, despite the lack of water and the encroachment of weeds.
Harriet swivelled in her seat and said in a distracted tone, ‘I had better go dear. I can see this is not the best day to talk. I expect that you are a bit tired after that lunch. The wine was quite strong. It gets to us more at a certain time of life, don’t you think?’
Kate stood at the door inhaling the outdoor air, picking up a hint of diesel exhaust.
‘I’m sure that you are right, Harriet. Won’t you look at the garden? I have some nice pansies by the wall.’
Harriet sniffed and stood up. She peered over Kate’s shoulder.
‘You look rather hemmed-in here, Kate. Bad for energy flow. You should think about moving.’
‘I find it convenient, Harriet. Very handy.’
The sound of rubble being tipped from a dumper truck drowned Kate’s words.
‘You should plant a tree, the biggest one you can find.’ Harriet almost shouted over the noise. She looked at Kate’s washing line, with its tangled drooping orange loops and a peg that Kate had forgotten to remove before closing it.
‘You want to draw energy dear, not dissipate it!’ She wagged her finger at the washing line. ‘A tree. A rowan would be good.’
‘A rowan to ward off witches, they say!’ Kate laughed. Her head felt a little muzzy, maybe she had drunk too much of that wine. The garden looked like a crude sketch with the perspective out of true – a child’s appliqué picture.
‘A rowan is a beautiful tree. You’ll see, dear, you’ll see…’ Harriet fiddled with the contents of her handbag and closed the clasp. ‘I’d have some more coffee, if I were you.’
‘Goodbye Harriet, take care…’ Kate was teetering on her doorstep trying to make sense out of her crooked fence. Harriet squeezed by her and walked out through the front gate. It wouldn’t close properly, even though the builder had fixed it several times.
‘Don’t get wet Harriet,’ Kate called after her; the rain had started up again. Kate pulled the door closed.