“You’re not really working with bodies? Not really?” her mother said when she first transferred to Forensics. “I thought you wanted to be a doctor.”
“I am a doctor. My patients just aren’t very chatty.”
Couldn’t sue her for malpractice, either. Her parents didn’t find that very funny.
“Still, working with the police, are you, darling?” her mother said. “Must be lots of lovely young men around.”
“Maggie…” her father said.
“What? I’m just saying. You’re not getting any younger.”
“Don’t push, Maggie. Although if there’s someone you’d like us to meet, sweetheart…”
Laura tried very hard not to scream.
There were lovely young men, and her mother even met a few of them. There were lovely young women, too, and her mother didn’t meet any of those.
Her sister got engaged, then married, then pregnant, then there was a baby. After Laura’s surgery, everyone stopped asking when she was going to do the same.
Her sister said, “You’re so secretive about your life. You spend too much time alone.”
“I’m not alone. I’m surrounded by people.”
“Dead people,” Bea said, as if that made a difference.
The baby let out an almighty squall.
“I like the quiet,” Laura said.
When she bought her first home, the only thing she insisted was, “It has to have a garden.”
“In Oxford? That’ll cost you.”
She shrugged. “It doesn’t matter about the house. As long as there’s a garden.”
It did cost her. All her savings, in fact. But that winter she moved into a run-down terrace off the Cowley Road with no wiring on the top floor, a leaky bath and a garden overrun with bindweed. It was perfect.
She set to work, cutting the weeds back, digging up the roots and laying down new soil. In spring she planted ferns.
And then there was Franco. It happened so slowly she barely noticed the way he carved out a space in her life, her home, her garden. Until one day she looked up from pruning the roses, saw that silvered head curled over a book, and realised she was in love.
She should have expected it – when someone had borne with your parents and your hellion niece, and started talking in not-so-vague terms about the future, and turned down that lucrative job in Munich. Still, “would you marry me?” came as a surprise.
So did her answer – a quick, unhesitating, “yes.”
She enjoyed the thrill of being an engaged woman for three months.
Then Franco said, “I hope our children get your eyes,” and it all came to a crashing halt.
“I can’t have children,” she said, wondering how he didn’t know, how this had never come up, why it had to matter so damn much. “I don’t want them, either.”
He looked at her.
So that was that.
She returned the ring, and he took the job in Munich, and she called her mother and told her it was over. It was for the best.
She cried anyway.
Her mother calls it her ‘tragedy’. Her sister calls it ‘Laura’s little problem’. Her father doesn’t call it anything at all, and Laura’s grateful for that last bastion of British reserve.
Once, Ligeia called it a blessing. It’s not til Halloween, years later, that Laura understands.
Most of the time, Laura doesn’t call it anything at all. It just is, in the same way her hair just is blonde and she just is a head shorter than everyone else.
‘Infertile,’ her doctor had said, and the worst of it was, Laura had heard it with something awfully akin to relief.
Years later, there’s Robbie Lewis. There’s every reason it should work – there’s the garden, for starters (Robbie’s the only man she’s ever trusted with her roses). And there’s a decade of memories and a stack of corpses between them.
So it’s a surprise when it doesn’t work. They try and they try, but somehow they never seem to fit.
“Timing,” Robbie suggests, when they finally call it a day.
Could be. But Laura’s seen the way Robbie’s eyes linger on James Hathaway, and she thinks timing is the least of their problems. Some things are just never meant to be.
She’s been living alone for ten years and has liked it for nine when she finds herself with an unexpected house guest. She doesn’t know Jean Innocent well, but she’s cheerful, and she’s quiet, and Laura likes the quiet.
Jean lends a hand in the garden, and one day she says, “You should leave the daisies.”
They’re a weed, but Jean doesn’t know that. She likes them.
In spite of her better judgement, Laura lets them grow.
A year flies by, and it’s not until Jean makes noises about moving that Laura realises how much she’d like her to stay.
Everyone else looks at Jean like she’s some all-terrain vehicle, all-capable, unstoppable, irresistible. When Chris Innocent comes to stay, he looks at his mother like she’s about to break.
“She’ll be all right,” Laura says, not because she believes it, but because he needs to hear it from someone.
Chris strings a pile of beans in silence, then says, “Thanks for looking after her.”
“Thanks for letting me.”
Most of the time Laura doesn’t regret what she can’t have. But that night, when she sees Chris press the lightest of kisses to his mother’s temple, she feels an unexpected pang.
She doesn’t say anything. There’s no point – Jean’s not like her, she’s only here til she’s back on her feet, they’re barely friends, let alone anything more. She doesn’t say anything when Jean moves out, when she starts seeing a counsellor, or when she starts colouring her hair again. Laura bites her tongue, and tries to get over this stupid whatever.
Jean’s tiny flat is depressing as hell, but she seems happy, so Laura doesn’t say anything about that, either.
Jean is less quiet now. Some days, she talks a lot. Laura’s house feels too quiet when Jean isn’t there.
“I did love him, you know. Andrew.”
Laura almost uproots a beloved fern.
“I don’t want you to think I didn’t try.”
Laura puts down her trowel and looks up to where Jean is systematically stripping a daisy of its petals. She loves me, she loves me not…
“I know,” Laura says. Then, “You’re the strongest woman I know.”
She wishes language could be more than words, but it isn’t. So she reaches out to take Jean’s hand between her own soil-stained fingers. It’s a minute before she realises what she’s done, another before she realises Jean isn’t pulling away.
It’s been years since Laura did this with a woman, and she worries she’s forgotten how. But it turns out nothing could have prepared her for this, here, with Jean. Maybe some things are new every time.
Little changes afterwards. Jean stays in her dismal flat, and Laura keeps weeding the flower beds and lets daisies run riot across the lawn.
After a year, she invites Jean to lunch at her sister’s, and Bea is surprised and her niece isn’t. After another year, Jean says, “I was thinking of giving up the flat.”
“If you like,” Laura says, and smiles.
The funny thing is, Laura’s mother never came to the house off Cowley Road, and she never saw the ferns or the roses, the daisies or the bindweed. But they’ve only been in the new place three weeks when she invites herself to tea.
She and Jean get on like a house on fire. That’s unexpected too.
“The garden’s a bit bleak,” her mother says, looking across broken lawns and empty flower beds towards the canal.
“We’ve got plans. Laura wants to plant an apple tree.”
“They’re slow-growing, apple trees.”
Jean smiles, quiet and secret as spring. “We’ve got time.”