Lovage, gardening entrepreneur and part-time volunteer, is squatting in the closed Community Centre for the duration of the Pandemic. Left without an income, she is in despair until Bub, matriarch of the Over-Fifties Club, persuades eccentric survivalist, Red, to employ her.
For the Duration II: Where did our love go?
Why have I chosen to squat in a concrete labyrinth smelling of pine cleanser and cheap biscuits? Because anything’s better than sharing lockdown with my bossy sister and her moody fiancé. Down the community centre, I have sole use of the kitchen and I can choose from a selection of shower cubicles. Best of all, I sleep like a log on my camp bed padded with yoga mats, undisturbed by the sounds of late-night box sets or 3am coitus. For me, it’s a no-brainer.
Since my divorce, I’ve learned to value my independence. It’s just as well. When I found myself single again at forty-five, my girlfriends threw a party to congratulate me on my lucky escape. ‘He never appreciated you!’ they cried, clinking flutes of sympathy fizz. Deceived by their scented group hugs, it was some time before I realised that my social life was dead in the water. All my so-called friends had ‘ghosted’ me in case I stole their men. I didn’t know whether to feel furious or flattered, because I’m no femme fatale. Although I always try to look my best, nature could have given me better material to work with. I have chunky calves, mousy hair and uncooperative eyebrows, and, thanks to my farming ancestors, my build is sturdy rather than elegant. A date once described me as ‘square’, and he wasn’t talking about my taste in music. However, my broad back and strong legs came in useful when I began my new career as a gardener.
Gardening is one of the few jobs you’re allowed to do under lockdown because social distancing isn’t a problem. That’s why I’ve been able to take on Red’s project. Red is a survivalist who made a small fortune, before all this craziness happened, by writing books about existential threats. Unfortunately, he neglected to mention pandemics. His survival-themed garden has become an embarrassment, so I’ve been hired on a pay-as-you-go basis, to restore the herbaceous borders and climbing roses. That’s what Red thinks I’m doing. In fact, it would take a mechanical digger to demolish his asteroid defence system, water storage tanks and half-dug bunker. I’m actually going to create a wilderness garden. Red will love it when it’s done. At least I hope so.
The only fly in the ointment is that Red’s younger brother, Sky, who shares the house with him, has the hots for me. My volunteer friend, Bub, and I met Sky when we went skydiving, and he asked Bub to persuade me to go out with him. Instead, she talked him and Red into hiring me. So, while I’m working in his garden, Sky is always hanging around, gawping at me like a socially distanced lovesick poodle. I find this very annoying. Everyone enjoys being an object of desire, but when a man’s paying your wages, the only thing you want to be hard for you is his cash.
Today, I’m improving the area where Red once planned to bury a shipping container and fill it with enough supplies for three years. He doesn’t know it yet, but the hole in the ground is going to make a perfect bog garden. In fact, there’s already a soggy patch at the bottom. I’m digging out a few cheeky brambles and muttering to myself about butyl liners, when I look up and catch Sky watching me from the government-approved distance. He and Red have opted for motorbike helmets as masks and he’s wearing a silver one with the visor pulled down. It would be a cool look, if only Sky wasn’t a fan of trashy T shirts. Today, his manly chest bears enormous fluorescent pink letters spelling out, ‘Yes, I am awful – but you like it!’
I really don’t like it, but at least it’s an improvement on the string vest he was wearing yesterday.
‘Hi there!’ Sky calls. ‘What are you up to?’
‘I’m clearing brambles,’ I reply, glaring at a thick root that’s been putting up a spirited resistance. I love doing this. It’s nasty but satisfying, like squeezing spots.
‘I thought you might appreciate some company.’
I try to make my tone frosty, but it comes out squeaky. ‘You shouldn’t have bothered.’
‘Don’t worry, I won’t come closer than two metres. How’s it going?’
I’m too intent on inserting my spade in the ground at just the right angle to reply. I’m planning to use my body weight as a lever in order to pop the big root free.
‘I could come out here this evening and dig up that patch, so you’d have less work to do.’
Less work means less pay, so I shake my head. ‘There’s no need, Sky. I’m fitter than you think.’
I return my attention to the task on hand. The bramble root is starting to give way, but not fast enough. I lean forwards, then back, with my full weight on the spade. When you’re fighting Mother Nature, balance is crucial.
‘Lovage, you are definitely fit. Very, very fit.’
The besotted fool has totally distracted my attention at the very moment when the bramble root chooses to give up the struggle. Before I know it, I’m sliding down the slope, out of control. I finish up sitting in the wettest, muddiest mud puddle since mud puddles were invented.
Sky peers down at me with an apologetic look on his sensitive face. He knows he’s done wrong.
‘Oops! Are you okay?’
‘Of course I am.’
It’s true, my substantial buttocks have saved me from serious harm – not for the first time. But if I wasn’t okay, wild horses wouldn’t make me admit it. I stand up and start to brush the mud off my bum and thighs, trying not to look too much like fetish night at the wrestling club.
‘Why don’t you go in the lavvy and have a wash? I’ll make some tea.’
The house Red and Sky inherited from their late Granny is, like the lady herself, old and crumbly. Because of lockdown, I don’t know what it’s like inside. However, my guess is that it’s packed with ‘original features’ because there’s still an outside lavatory. Apparently, Granny believed in keeping the toilet germs out of doors. I must say, if I were a germ, that spider’s web behind the high Victorian cistern would be my ideal home. In revenge for Sky causing my fall, I wipe the rest of the mud off my backside with a pristine hand towel he provides.
When I emerge, feeling cleaner but damp in all the wrong places, to my surprise a dainty repast is laid out on the wooden patio table. Sky has placed a pretty china cup, saucer and plate at one end for me, and a mug for himself at the other. On the mug is written, ‘Best Dad’. There are two slices of fruit cake and a packet of jaffa cakes. When he sees me, Sky fills the cup and mug with tea from a flower-patterned teapot and pours a little milk into each, out of a matching china jug.
‘You don’t take sugar, do you, Lovage?’
‘How did you know?’
‘I asked Bub.’
Oh dear! What else has Bub said to him about me? I make a mental note to tell her not to share any of my more intimate secrets. But, as Sky’s gone to so much trouble, it would be rude not to enjoy the feast he’s prepared. I try to think of a conversational topic that might defuse his passion and my eyes light on his mug.
‘That’s so cute. I didn’t know you had children. How old are they?
‘I think he’s twenty-five. His Mum generally emails to remind me of his birthday. Since he joined the SAS, he’s been abroad so much that I’ve lost count.’
Not so cute, then.
‘What about Red? Does he have children?
‘Five. All grown up. Don’t ask me their ages.’
The idea of Red as a father of five leaves me gobsmacked, so I shut up and gulp my tea. I’m about to say, ‘Well, I’d better get back to work’, when Sky puts down his mug, leans his elbows on the table, and gazes intently at me. Now that he’s discarded the helmet, I can see that his eyes are the same pale blue as campanula flowers.
‘Lovage,’ he says, ‘Sitting here with you like this is….I just wanted to say….’
It’s as if a one-night-stand I never expected to see again has moved in next door.
This mess is complicated by the fact that, in a weird way, Sky and I have history. He was my skydiving instructor. We fell to earth together, bound with leather, his thighs clamped to mine. At the time, I was repulsed by his heavy cold, but no amount of snot could prevent the experience from being deeply intimate. Now, he’s turned up like a bad penny to declare a totally unrequited passion for me. It’s as if a one-night-stand I never expected to see again has moved in next door.
‘Please, don’t say any more,’ I stutter, my mouth going dry.
Suddenly, a bundle of energy in a scarlet motorcycle helmet and black leathers is striding along the patio towards us. Good old noisy, insensitive Red bellows, ‘What’s going on here?’
Sky jumps up and starts clearing the table. ‘I made Lovage a cup of tea, that’s all. She’s been working so hard!’
‘You twerp! Why did you get out the Crown Derby tea set? Granny must be turning in her grave.’
To judge by what I’ve seen of her grandsons, the old girl must have been spinning like a top for years, but it’s not my place to say so. While they argue, I slide off my seat and head for the bunker. I’m wielding my spade with a deep sense of relief, when Red appears out of the long grass. He’s taken off his motorcycle helmet so, for the first time, I can see his craggy, handsome face.
‘Lovey, is my brother making a nuisance of himself?’
‘No, of course he isn’t! Certainly not! Why would he be?’
Yes, I have begun to babble. Red notices my confusion and looks embarrassed.
‘You’re doing a fine job and I don’t want anything to upset you – especially not my soppy brother. He’s ultra-susceptible to feminine charms, and you’re an attractive woman. Very attractive indeed.’
While Red is marching away, I admire his fine shoulders. They’re almost as broad as Sky’s.
Later, over beans on toast in the Community Centre kitchen, I zoom Bub. ‘I’ve got double trouble. Sky is really keen, and I think Red likes me too.’
In her own kitchen, she looks up from her knitting. ‘You don’t do nothing by halves, do you?’
‘I need this job, Bub, so I daren’t upset either of them. What would you do in my place?’
‘Let me think: You give up men, and all of a sudden two of them come after you with their tongues hanging out. Well, in a situation like that, there’s only one thing you can do.’
‘Enjoy it, Lovey.’
Loarn is currently trying to place her first crime novel and working on a range of short stories she aims to self-publish this year. Her day job is supporting hearing-impaired university students, she also volunteers and has recently passed British Sign Language Level 2. ‘For the Duration II’ is the latest instalment in her series ‘Up the Community Centre‘ which she generously writes for Funny Pearls.