This is the third instalment of the serialisation of Leefdale by Michael Murray.
Now read on ….
‘Well, here we are,’ said Sharon.
As they drove into Leefdale, Dylan was struck by the village’s all-pervading atmosphere of peace. He knew instinctively that the inhabitants respected tradition and continuity, yet despite having a strong attachment to the past they were not entirely resistant to change. This was evident from the eclectic pageant of charming dwellings that lined Leefdale’s main street: Elizabethan timber frame buildings stood cheek by jowl with imperiously symmetrical Georgian houses; converted seventeenth century barns were neighbours to respectable Victorian villas. Yet the occasional presence of modern cottages built in the vernacular style suggested that, even here, in this most conservative of communities, some modest degree of innovation was accepted.
Although he was cautioning himself to be detached and objective, Dylan couldn’t help but be seduced. Leefdale was so picturesque: the quintessential image of an English village in bloom that is carried nostalgically in the heart of every English exile. It seemed that the front garden of each house, no matter how small, burgeoned with leafy shrubs and masses of flowers in all the glorious colours of April; climbing plants colonised all available walls, their advancing green tendrils complementing perfectly the bricks, chalk and other materials to which they clung; the roadside verges trembled with white, gold and purple crocuses, petals agape and open to the sun like the hungry mouths of young fledglings; and there were yellow daffodils and creamy narcissi too, nodding in the gentle breeze. Spring had startled itself out of the earth and dressed in its many hues was delighting in its own existence, promising hope and renewal. The artist in Dylan was deeply moved.
‘It’s lovely,’ he said.
‘You should see it in summer.’
In some of the front gardens keen gardeners were already at work, scrupulously maintaining that high standard of horticultural perfection which seemed to characterise most of the village. What Dylan couldn’t know, of course, was that some villagers thought there was something rather sinister about the way their neighbours pursued this pleasant outdoor pastime with such competitive industry, uncompromising will and obsessive perfectionism.
‘Beautiful, isn’t it?’ said Sharon, sounding almost proprietorial.
‘It’s won the prize for best kept village four years running.’
‘Best kept village in Yorkshire?’
‘No. In the whole country!’
‘So that’s why they’re all so hard at it. I thought we’d blundered into a recording of Gardening Club.’
Despite his wife’s objections, indeed, precisely because of them, Major Roberts was now on his hands and knees vigorously weeding The Old Rectory’s borders, flinging the weeds angrily into the wheelbarrow at his side.
The tyres of Sharon’s Passat crunching over the white gravel of the Corbridge’s extensive drive halted Howard in his labours. Somewhat shakily, he got to his feet and stared at the vehicle with a look of pleasurable recognition.
The car stopped close to the house and Sharon and Dylan got out. Sharon gave Howard a smile and a quick wave. She then joined Dylan who was taking in the rectory’s impressive Georgian frontage. Howard watched as she gave Dylan information about the exterior. At one stage she became quite animated and pointed out the date above the spider’s web fanlight: 1780.
Sharon touched Dylan lightly on the arm. She said something to him and then, with a gesture, indicated Howard. Together, they set off across the lawn towards him.
With a good deal of displeasure, Howard assumed that the young man accompanying Sharon had come to view the house. This was not good news. Hopefully he would find it unsuitable. Howard had always regarded young men who wore tight black leather as profoundly suspicious; but he was courtesy itself when he wished them both good morning.
‘Hello, Howard,’ said Sharon. She turned to Dylan. ‘This is Major Howard Roberts.’
‘Dylan Bourne!’ Dylan offered his hand to the Major and was surprised by the limpness of the hand that gripped his in return. ‘You’re a soldier?’
‘Retired,’ said Howard. He quickly changed the drift. ‘Here for a look round?’
‘Well you won’t do better than this. It’s a magnificent property. Finest in the village!’
‘Are you the gardener?’
Sharon laughed loudly. Just long enough for Howard to convert his affrontedness into jovial good humour.
‘Good heavens, no! I’m just keeping everything neat and trim. I promised Bruce, that’s the owner, I’d look after the gardens for him until the place was sold.’
‘I see,’ said Dylan. ‘Sorry.’
‘The Major’s chairman of the Magnificent Britain Sub-Committee,’ said Sharon.
Dylan looked bewildered. ‘Magnificent Britain?’
‘The best village contest.’
‘Ah, yes,’ said Dylan. ‘I hear Leefdale’s won first prize four times.’
‘That’s right,’ said Howard. ‘All down to this place, of course.’
‘You shouldn’t overlook everyone else’s modest contribution,’ said Sharon.
Dylan thought she sounded a little miffed.
‘I don’t,’ said Howard. Realising he’d been tactless, his hand lightly touched her arm. ‘And I would never overlook your contribution, my dear. But you’ve got to admit that the gardens of this house are the jewel in the crown.’
Dylan turned and surveyed the lawn. ‘It’s certainly very well kept. Certainly… um… very tidy.’
‘That’s because the Major’s a fantastic gardener,’ gushed Sharon.
‘Not at all,’ said Howard. ‘It was Bruce who transformed the place. Spent a lot of money on it.’ He fixed Dylan with a searching glance. ‘You keen on gardening?’
Dylan grinned. ‘No, my flat in London doesn’t even have a window box.’
The Major looked concerned. ‘You’d be taking on a lot here. There’s an even bigger rear garden.’
Dylan shrugged, non-committedly.
‘From London, are you?’
There was a long pause. Howard, who believed strongly in first impressions, was finding Dylan intensely irritating. The Major had an aversion to blonde, slack jawed young men who, in his experience, invariably turned out to be mummy’s boys. And what kind of a name was Dylan for Christ’s sake? Welsh background, was it? Named after the poet?
Fortunately, he didn’t seem to have a wife or family in tow: and he looked in his very early thirties, so hopefully wasn’t old enough to have teenage children.
Howard nodded towards The Old Rectory. ‘It’s a very big house you know. Got seven bedrooms.’
Sensing that he was being probed, Dylan became guarded. He saw no need to divulge any more than was necessary. ‘I know. I like a lot of space.’
Now that’s ominous, Howard thought.
‘Mr Bourne’s an artist,’ Sharon explained, and immediately shot Dylan an apologetic look. ‘Sorry, I hope that wasn’t confidential.’
‘Not at all,’ said Dylan, wondering if he’d given too much away.
Howard said, ‘An artist? Really? I like Constable and Joshua Reynolds. And, of course, military art. I’ve got a couple of good prints of “The Death of Nelson” and “The Death of General Wolfe”. Do you do that sort of thing?’
‘No. I paint abstracts.’
Major Roberts seemed at a loss. He pointed towards Rooks Nest. ‘That’s my house over there. Finest rose garden in the village, even if I’m the only one who thinks so.’
Sharon touched him on the arm. ‘Now you know everyone agrees with you. Stop fishing.’
The Major grinned back at her urbanely.
‘Well, time’s getting on,’ said Sharon. She looked to Dylan. ‘I’d better show you around.’
‘And I must get back to my weeds.’
‘See you later, Howard.’
Dylan gave Howard a nod, and then he and Sharon walked off towards the house.
The Major stared long at their retreating backs, his greying moustache accentuating his disappointed moué. ‘Oh dear! I don’t think you’ll do! I don’t think you’ll do at all!’
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