"It's too quiet," Rosemary says decisively. "It's suspicious."
It's their third day at the Manor House in Upper Cleghorn and the most exciting thing to happen so far has been the postman's van knocking over the bird bath that the owner had, for some unknown reason, decided to put in the middle of the drive.
"You're just saying that because no-one's died yet."
"You're talking as if I enjoy it!" She sounds genuinely offended. "It's not my fault if people choose to die left right and centre around us!"
"I don't think they exactly choose it," Laura begins, but thinks better of it at the glare that Rosemary shoots her from under the brim of her straw hat.
"Anyway," Rosemary carries on. She nestles a bright pink begonia delicately in the hole she's just dug and presses the earth around it with gentle fingertips, settling it into its new home. "Someone did die."
"Alf Marsden down the road, three months ago. Didn't turn up for work one day. They found him in bed, dead as a doornail."
"Oh my god, that's terrible! Was he young?"
"Ninety-two," Rosemary says darkly. "But apparently he was fit as a fiddle!"
Laura splutters, and nearly drops her tray of Busy Lizzies. "Ninety- Rosemary, are you going mad?"
"What?!" It's a trifle defensive, but she seems genuinely confused.
"There is nothing suspicious about a ninety-two year old dying of natural causes, Rosemary, and you know it." She sets the tray of plants safely down, out of the way of sprawling elbows and accidental falls. "Admit it, you're just bored."
"I am not!"
"Look, I know another formal garden wasn't really what you wanted to do - not after the debacle of Lord Heyward's fountain - but-" She sighs. "We need the money. And beggars can't be choosers."
Rosemary sighs. "It's not that I don't like the garden here. It's charming! And I do appreciate that we need the work. I just wish we didn't have to be so- so-"
"Exactly!" She jabs an accusing finger at Laura. "Mercenary. All these begonias and carnations make me want to throw up. Where's the innovation?! Think of all the new and exciting plants we could have installed with this bloke's budget - but no, here we are, stuck with exactly the same uninspired design as they've had since some poor sod redesigned the place in the thirties."
Her belligerence is endearing, actually, and Laura can feel herself smiling, despite the fact that Rosemary is now waving a garden trowel at her in a vaguely threatening manner. "Forgive me if I've got this entirely the wrong way around, but...didn't we design this layout?"
"Yes, well. You weren't in the meeting with good old Walter Farraday, he was very insistent that we should use exactly the same plants as before. Something to do with tradition - but Laura, wouldn't it have been lovely to put some cornflowers and baby's breath in the middle, maybe some red poppies scattered through to draw the eye...."
She's right, of course. The flowerbeds are crying out for a redesign, for something with more depth and variety than the bright pinks and oranges currently dominating the colour scheme. But..."Work is work," she says with a sigh. "And we are being paid extremely well for this, remember?"
"Sell-out," Rosemary pouts.
"Practical, Matthew calls me."
"Oh, come on, it's nearly lunchtime anyway - let's go for a walk. There must be a nice village pub around where we can drown our sorrows?"
"Speak for yourself. My eyes are firmly fixed on the money we're getting, there's nothing sorrowful about that."
That startles a laugh out of Rosemary, and Laura gets to her feet, extends a hand down to where she's sitting on a couple of plastic bags to keep the damp soil from soaking her trousers. "Come on, Miss Doom-and-Gloom. Let's get a glass of wine in you and cheer you up."
"You do know how to treat a woman." Her hand slides slowly out of Laura's grasp, leaving a trail of potting compost across her palm. "Lead on, Macduff."
Post-lunch (and post-wine), they're been wandering the lanes of Upper Cleghorn in something of a daze when Rosemary clutches at her arm. "Oh, Laura, look!"
It's the most excited she's sounded all day, so Laura follows her gaze and alights on a small cottage at the end of lane, surrounded by a veritable wilderness of plants and flowers.
Rosemary's eyes are positively covetous. Laura can see her rearranging the garden in her head, adding a plant here, taking one away there, subtly and carefully adding to its character with a deft hand, all in the space of a minute.
The garden is spilling out from its confines, not a defined bed in sight. Herbs line the path to the front door - Laura notes sage, yarrow, and garden mint amongst the throng - and the cottage itself is covered in a disorderly riot of climbing roses. At the front, rosemary sprawls in an ungainly fashion through the rickety wooden fence intended to keep it from spreading out into the street, vying for space with a determined ivy that has colonised the lower parts of the fence posts; in the corner, and going as far back as Laura can see, is a hedge of hawthorn, the thick lace of its flowers almost cloyingly sweet on the air. The entire garden has an air of wildness about it, and were it not for the distinct lack of weeds between the plants, she would assume it had been left untended for months.
"Well, I'm glad we're not working in this garden, that's for sure." Rosemary's voice comes from just behind her shoulder and Laura almost jumps, shoots her a glare instead.
"I don't know, I think it looks interesting. A little bit of care and it could be really beautiful."
"Yes, but-" Rosemary's voice is soft and conspiratorial- "have you noticed some of the plants?" She points over into the near corner, under the shade of the closest hawthorn tree.
"Atropa Belladonna," Rosemary pronounces.
"Deadly Nightshade, I was going to say."
"Same thing." Rosemary shoots her a warm smile. "Sorry, it's the horticulturalist in me. Can't resist a good Latin name."
"Oh, don't worry on my account."
"Never do," Rosemary says, the same warm smile still trained unerringly on Laura's face.
The afternoon sunshine is comfortingly summery, the air thick with myriad scents drifting up from the sun-warmed garden in front of them, but Laura feels oddly cold. Now Rosemary's mentioned the Deadly Nightshade the garden has taken on sinister proportions, right down to the mushrooms visible growing in the shade of the hawthorn trees. They're probably harmless, but Laura has sudden and unrestrained visions of an elderly woman in a pointed hat popping a few into old Alf Marsden's evening soup; she suppresses a shiver.
Next to her, Rosemary places a concerned hand on her arm. "You're looking a bit pale," she says, and she almost looks worried. "Maybe we should get back to the Manor House. I don't mind planting the rest of the middle bed by myself if you want to lie down?"
"Oh, I'm fine." She manages a weak smile, inhales a deep lungful of hawthorn-scented air, and turns to look back along the rest of the lane. High hedges full of flowers are overhung by well-spaced oak trees, giving shade where the sun would otherwise become too insistent, patches of cool amidst the brightness. "It's just an eerie old place when you think about it, isn't it?"
"I suppose it is." Despite her earlier discovery, Rosemary speaks with the air of someone who's only just considered the idea. "Come on. If you don't feel up to doing the planting then you can keep me company while I moan about the design."
It's an attractive prospect, Laura thinks, as she links her arm with Rosemary's and they head back down the lane towards the Manor House.
At the very least, it will keep her mind off mushroom soup.
She's almost asleep when the first whisper breaks the silence. The murmur barely reaches her and she shifts in bed, turns over to block out the sound.
"Laura." Rosemary's voice is more insistent. "Laura, I've just thought of something."
She cracks open an eyelid and sees Rosemary's face, pale and wide-eyed in the moonlight, gazing at her from the next bed over. "What is it?" she grumbles. "I was nearly asleep, Rosemary, you know how tired I am."
"Oh, stop your moaning." There's not even time for an indignant retort before she barrels on: "It's that garden, Laura, The one from earlier."
A noncommittal grunt is all she gives in reply, as if her thoughts as she drifted almost to sleep hadn't been full of winding ivy and the scent of lavender. It wouldn't do to let Rosemary think her late-night ramblings were encouraged.
"Well- didn't you think it was odd? All those strange plants jumbled together with no rhyme or reason to it?"
"Not everyone's as keen a garden designer as you or I," Laura says, and cuddles up closer inside the duvet in the vain hope that Rosemary will just stop talking.
She should have known better, because less than a minute later, just as she was starting to relax, Rosemary's voice breaks the silence again. "Conium maculatum," she says significantly.
"I beg your pardon?"
"In the garden. It's been bothering me all night - I initially mistook it for ordinary cow parsley, but the bottoms of the stems were spotted purple. It's really quite distinctive."
"That's as maybe." Laura sighs, and gives up all hope of going back to sleep any time soon. "But unless you're going to explain to us lesser mortals exactly what...comey ... coney...."
"Conium maculatum," she repeats. "Poison hemlock."
Laura sits straight up in bed and reaches for the bedside lamp, flooding the room with a weak yellow light that softens the worry on Rosemary's face. "Now that I do understand."
"And thinking about it, I'm sure I saw Wolfsbane and Monkshood in there too."
"Not a coincidence then?"
"I doubt it," she says gravely. "Laura, I'm very much afraid that someone is deliberately cultivating deadly plants."
"I had a very unsettling dream last night," Laura confides. They're halfway to the village on a post-breakfast reconnoitre: Rosemary is insistent about taking a second look at this infamous garden so she can cast her professional eye over it once more before deciding whether or not to report it to the police.
"It was probably the wine," Rosemary says dryly.
She rolls her eyes, nudges her in feigned annoyance. "I might be old, but two glasses of wine are not enough to give me nightmares!"
"Oh, you're not old," comes the easy response. "Go on then, what message did the spirits bring you in your sleep last night?"
"It was all very odd. There was a witch living in the cottage, and I think the garden came to life. I woke up just as I was about to be squeezed to death by some sort of enchanted ivy."
The cottage and its garden appear at the end of the road and Laura slows her pace, moves closer to Rosemary's side. "You wouldn't laugh if you'd had that dream. Just looking at that place gives me the willies."
They amble up as slowly and as casually as possible. Odd, Laura thinks, that a garden full of poisonous plants should look so inviting - a horticultural gingerbread house, in fact. All that's missing is the witch.
And then Rosemary clutches at her arm, hisses "Look," and as if on cue, the front door swings open.
The woman who emerges is tall, the front of her curly blonde hair gathered away from her face, and she's clearly familiar with the garden. She inspects each plant carefully with gloved hands, pulling a dead flower off here, a broken stem there, and making the odd note in a small book that otherwise sits tucked under her arm.
"That tweed jacket can't be practical." Laura can hear the judgement in her own voice, . "It's so fitted I can't imagine she can even lift her arms above her head, and what use is that in a garden?"
"That woman has enough poisons to kill the entire village and you're worried about her jacket?" Rosemary asks, incredulous.
"That and her deadly enchanted ivy," Laura grumbles, shivering at the memory of her dream. "You don't think she's actually a-"
"A witch?" Rosemary frowns. "Nonsense. There's no such thing."
Laura eyes the garden suspiciously, notes the candles in the kitchen window - tall tallow candles, half-burned, set three together on either side - and the broom outside the front door, no doubt placed there to look as if its only purpose is to sweep the front porch clear of fallen leaves. "Are you sure about that?"
Rosemary hesitates for a second, then scoffs. "Of course I'm sure. I know it all looks terribly suspicious, but I'm not sure that witchcraft is the natural conclusion to be drawn."
"There's an elder tree at the back. Did you know that they were once planted to ward off evil spirits?"
"And periwinkles! Once known as the sorcerer's violet, if I remember correctly."
"Quite aside from the fact that I have no idea how you even know all this - Laura, she is not a witch!"
"She looks like she could be one," Laura mutters under her breath. "Probably bathes in the blood of virgins and everything."
"Stop being ridiculous," Rosemary hisses. "It was a nightmare, not some sort of divine sign."
She has a retort on the tip of her tongue when the woman in the garden turns from her survey to look straight at them: "Can I help you?"
She freezes. They've been standing conspicuously in front of the ivy-wound fence for far too long to be casual about it, and so it's a relief when Rosemary puts on her best smile, the one she usually uses to sweet-talk grumpy old men into letting her borrow their garden tools. "We were just admiring your garden," she says, and holds out her hand. "Rosemary Boxer, we're doing some work down at the Manor House."
"Vivien." The woman shakes her hand, dark blonde curls shining in the weak sunlight. "Vivien Harrington."
"Pleased to meet you." Rosemary hesitates - a sideways glance at Laura, so fast as to be unnoticeable - and then, with all the brazen daring of a miniskirt at Ascot, she plunges straight in. "Actually, we were wondering - you know, about the plants. We're gardeners, you see, and we couldn't help but- well, we noticed-"
"Oh!" There's a tinkling note of amusement in Vivien's voice. "You mean the poisonous ones?"
Rosemary nods. "We were just wondering- well, why on earth someone would grow so many dangerous plants in their front garden?"
"It's my area of expertise. Medieval plants - specifically, their medicinal uses. Growing them is something of a hobby, you understand - helps with the research to know what all the old recipes are talking about!"
"The hands-on method," Rosemary chimes in with a smile. "There's nothing quite like it."
"I'm very careful," Vivien says. "Special gloves and everything, would you believe - not quite the sort of hands-on they'd have been using a thousand years ago, but still. Dedication is all well and good, but I have absolutely no intention of accidentally poisoning myself. I have two papers and a book to finish first!"
"Wait, you're not-" Rosemary's gaze flickers between the incriminating garden and the woman's face in front of her, honest and open and with a questioning smile just forming across her lips. "Doctor Viven Harrington? The medievalist?"
"The one and only," she says, and her response would be sheepish were it not for the delight visible in her eyes. "You know my work?"
"Know it? I adore it! Your book on the traces of medieval herbal remedies in early modern gardens completely changed how I look at period garden design!"
"You're an academic?"
"Lecturer in applied horticulture," Rosemary confirms. "Up until a couple of years ago, anyway - but the academic life never really leaves you."
They share a laugh, and Laura suppresses the urge to roll her eyes. It seems, these days, that all a woman has to do to gain Rosemary's trust is flash a pretty smile and know a few words of Latin. Not that she's jealous - no, she is firmly of the opinion that it's far more sensible to know the common names of plants rather than their fancy Latin appellations, no matter how nice the words might sound when Rosemary says them. Besides, it's nice for Rosemary to meet people on her level - even if there is an outside chance they might be growing a poison garden to bump off the locals one by one.
She takes a protective step forward to stand at Rosemary's side, ignores the questioning flash in her eyes.
"Please, come in," Viven is saying. "I'm working on something you might find interesting - and if you're lucky, there might even be cake in the tin!"
It sounds ominous to Laura's ears, but Rosemary is smiling. What's the worst that can happen, she thinks wryly to herself, and follows her over the threshold into the cottage.
Dr Vivien Harrington, BA, DPhil (or so the certificates on the wall say) takes an awfully long time to make a cup of tea.
"I'll just see if she wants any help," Rosemary says, and Laura is left standing alone in the living room of a woman who, for all they know, is both a witch and a murderess. It's silly, she knows, especially after the revelation that Vivien is some sort of high-flying academic with a legitimate interest in horticulture (even if it is the sort that could kill you), but there's something about the way that Rosemary has taken to her that has her petulantly wondering whether the woman has cast some sort of glamour.
In the kitchen, Rosemary is laughing - no doubt sharing a horticultural in-joke with her new best friend - and Laura takes a seat in front of the bay window, crowded around the edges with glass-filtered refractions of the climbing roses that cover the outside walls. She can just see over the windowsill into the garden beyond, foxgloves and aconite jutting brightly out of a bed of something green and unidentifiable that Rosemary would probably recognise in a split second, even from this distance and without her glasses.
She sighs, and settles back on the sofa. The cushions are soft - too soft, she thinks uncharitably, but comfort is probably a necessity if you spend all day inside writing academic papers about musty old medicine recipes that probably don't even work. The rest of the living room is homely enough. A vase of fresh flowers sits in front of faded wallpaper on the far wall, a motley bunch of cornflowers and daisies that Laura hasn't seen in the garden outside. Probably a gift, then, but the dried flowers dotted around the bookshelves and on the coffee table - mostly lavender and yarrow, by the look of it - are definitely homegrown.
"No cake, I'm afraid, but I did manage to find some tea." Vivien bustles in with a tray, Rosemary following behind, and hands Laura a less-than-tastefully patterned china teacup, adorned with one too many roses to be sophisticated.
Beside her, Rosemary sinks down onto the sofa, all but engulfed by the cloud-like cushions
"It's so rare for me to get proper visitors," Vivien continues. "I'm afraid half the village thinks I'm a witch." She laughs, as if the idea is absurd. "It's lovely to meet some fellow horticulturalists."
"Oh, I'm not-"
She's halfway to a denial when Vivien cuts her off with a decisive shake of the head.
"Don't sell yourself short. Rosemary was telling me all about you. You have good instincts, apparently."
Rosemary avoids her gaze. It's not embarrassment on her face, not exactly, but Laura is too on edge to try and decipher it further; she brings the teacup to her face and inhales, lets the steam rising from the teacup take responsibility for what definitely isn't a blush on her cheeks. "This smells amazing," she says, unable to keep the surprise from her voice. "What is it?"
"Rose tea. I make it myself - don't worry, I'm very careful with the more dangerous plants out there. The rose petals come from the climbers on the front of the cottage, and they're up well away from anything disagreeable."
The first sip feels a little like taking her life into her hands, but the tea is good, the floral notes balanced by the bitter tang of something citrusy and sharp. Lemon balm, maybe - whatever it is, the blend soothes her throat, and the fumes ease the tension of a headache she hadn't even noticed she had. The over-soft sofa feels suddenly ever so comfortable. "It's delicious," she allows, and when Vivien smiles in return she feels oddly at ease.
Beside her, Rosemary stirs. "Vivien has been telling me about her current research," she ventures. "It's terribly interesting. She's looking at the cultivation of herbs and plants mentioned in the Old English Pharmacopoeia, which is-" She hesitates, looks to Vivien with a smile. "You're probably better at explaining this than I am."
"It's an early 11th Century medicine book - one of the oldest surviving English medical texts, actually - and it's really quite remarkable. You see, most books like this were written in Latin, which meant that most ordinary people didn't have a hope of understanding what they said, but this one was translated into the vernacular Anglo-Saxon, making it accessible to a far wider audience."
Despite herself, Laura's interest is piqued. "So what you're saying is that this book gave ordinary people access to knowledge they wouldn't have had otherwise?"
"Yes! And I'm growing as many of the plants as I can, to try and find out whether there might just be a kernel of scientific truth in some of the remedies. Although-" she smiles, somewhat ruefully, and brushes a stray curl back behind her ear- "I'm no scientist, of course. It's a joint project with a friend."
"So that explains why you have so many strange things growing in your front garden," Laura says, and try as she might the tone of relief in her voice is audible.
"Yes, exactly." Vivien laughs. "You must have thought it was dreadfully suspicious, but I promise you, it's all for research."
"Well, we were a little worried - especially you, Laura!"
"I'm not the one who woke in the middle of the night and started babbling about hemlock," she says pointedly. She is not going to to let Rosemary paint her as some sort of hysterical conspiracy theorist just to look good in front of someone who is, apparently, one of her academic idols.
But to her surprise, Rosemary just laughs, hits her with the full force of her smile. "We were both worried," she allows, without even looking at Vivien. "Naturally suspicious, that's us."
"Us indeed," Laura mutters, but she can't find it within herself to really grumble, not when Rosemary's attention has finally shifted away from (yet another) attractive scholar and back to her.
"Vivien has been kind enough to offer to show us around her garden," Rosemary says, one hand on Laura's arm. "But I've said we really do need to get back to work - we're already well over being able to claim this as a reasonable lunch break. What do you think, Laura?"
"I think you're right." She sets the china teacup carefully back on its saucer, and puts both down on the elegant glass coffee table at her elbow. "Thank you very much for the tea, Vivien, you've been very generous, but we really must be getting back."
"I quite understand." She stands, looks between them with a small smile. "It's been lovely to meet you. I do hope you'll be happy."
What a strange thing to say, Laura thinks, but Rosemary looks unconcerned.
Academics are decidedly odd.
"So what do you think?" Laura says into Rosemary's ear as they leave. "Do you reckon she put a drop of hemlock in poor old Alf's evening brandy, or was it natural causes after all?"
"What- oh, don't be ridiculous, Laura. She's a respected academic, not some common or garden murderess."
As if we've never met someone who was both, Laura thinks to herself, but says nothing. Rosemary is positively glowing; far be it from her to puncture her happy mood, especially not after yesterday's miserable morning.
Rosemary is whistling, an irritating habit, but the walk back to the Manor House is via a winding country road, hedgerows full to bursting with cow parsley and red campions. The bass drone of contented bees hums through the scented air, and the afternoon sunshine warms her from scalp to toes.
Vivien Harrington is a distant memory, and her name hasn't so much as been mentioned since they left her little cottage.
Rosemary turns to her
"Let's finish this boring job as fast as we can." She says it as if she's sharing a secret, conspiratorial. "And then we can run off somewhere nice and hot and convince some expat with more money than sense to let us redesign his ailing garden."
It might just be the lingering effects of the tea, but Laura doesn't have the will to argue. "Sounds good to me."
"Anyway," she continues, wrapping both her arms around one of Laura's, "being with you makes even the dullest job bearable."
"High praise indeed," Laura says, but she's smiling. She pats Rosemary's hand. "We do make a good team, don't we?"
"The best," Rosemary assures her. "The very best."
In her cottage, Vivien Harrington - celebrated academic and lecturer - puts the jar of rose petal and violet tea back on the kitchen shelf with a smile.
The instructions are simple: put two tablespoons of the petals into the teapot, stir three times clockwise while meditating on your intent, and strain into rose-patterned china.
After all, it never hurts to give love a helping hand.