Coming Up Roses

Rachael Lucas | 16 mins

Chapter One

Daisy could almost, just about reach to water the furthest edge of the rockery with the hose. If she just balanced on tiptoe and pulled . . .

She gave the hose another yank, stretching it out as far as she could, muttering to herself as she did so. It was proving impossible to get things done with the haphazard collection of equipment her parents had left behind.

She didn’t hear the gate swing open. She wobbled. The slow dribble of water from the leaky hose made the old grey boulder she was perched on slippery and even more precarious. Crashing down into the newly weeded aubretia, she lost control of the hose. It spun round crazily, a rainbow arc of water sprinkling right across the path.


Daisy looked up. Standing on the front path, half of her blonde hair beautifully blow dried and the other half now dripping wet, stood a furious-looking woman. She was probably only in her early thirties, but her demeanour – and her dress – suggested she was definitely a Proper Grown Up. Her pale suede boots were darkened with water, and a string of droplets sparkled on the hem of her dress.

‘I’m so sorry.’ Daisy scrambled to her feet, embarrassed. She brushed away a couple of wet pieces of plant which were sticking to her jeans.

‘The hose – I didn’t mean to – it’s my parents – they only have this stupid coiled thing like an old-fashioned telephone wire and it—’ As she gabbled, the woman withdrew a cotton hanky from her bag (Daisy hadn’t realized anyone actually used them any more, apart from her dad, who she lovingly thought of as a mad old fossil from another century). She dabbed at her forehead, her expression unreadable.

‘It’s absolutely fine,’ said the woman, not altogether convincingly, taking a tiny mirror with a distinctive twin C design from her bag (even the not-exactly-fashion-conscious Daisy recognized that one) and frowning at her appearance. It didn’t look very fine from where Daisy stood, covered in a layer of freshly dampened compost, a collection of painful rockery bruises just beginning to make themselves known.

The woman snapped the little mirror shut, having patted at her hair, which seemed to be magically springing back into shape. Presumably that’s the effect of a posh blow dry, thought Daisy, catching a glimpse of her own reflection in the diamond panes of the front window. She’d knotted her long red hair back with a piece of green gardening twine earlier, and a halo of orange fuzz had escaped, giving her the appearance of a mad gardening bag lady. That was, she thought, perilously close to the truth.

‘I was coming to bring you this.’ The woman pulled three brown envelopes out of her handbag. ‘We had a stand-in postman this morning. He can’t have been concentrating. This is Orchard Villa, isn’t it?’ She glanced at the front door, where an old metal sign, the enamel flaking away in places, confirmed her guess.

Wiping her hands down her jeans – noticing as she did so that the woman’s perfectly plucked eyebrows flashed upwards for just a fraction of a second – Daisy took the letters, scanning them briefly.

‘It is. These are for my parents – they’re not here right now, but thanks. And I’m really sorry I soaked you.’

‘Not at all.’ First a handkerchief, now a very formal handshake, Daisy thought, as the woman reached out. Life in Steeple St John seemed like stepping back in time to the 1950s. She half-expected the grocer’s boy to come cycling along the lane at any moment, his basket overflowing with today’s delivery.

‘Elaine Thornton-Green.’

‘I’m Daisy. Daisy Price.’

Letting go of Daisy’s muddy, still slightly damp hand, Elaine turned, taking in the front garden properly. Daisy watched as she scanned the overgrown cables of the rambling rose which hung, precariously low and liable to take someone’s eye out, over the archway at the front gate. The flower beds were choked with early spring weeds, determined to make their mark. The dead remains of last summer’s valiant hollyhocks and foxgloves nodded, faded and limp, strangled by the relentless bindweed. There was so much to do, Daisy thought, but she relished the challenge. Here was a place she could hide away and escape from everything. A project like this was the only way she’d forget.

‘Lovely to meet you, Daisy.’ Elaine gave her a dazzling smile, as if they’d just been introduced at a garden party rather than in unfortunate, rather soggy circumstances. ‘Hadn’t realized this place had been sold. It’s such a beautiful old Victorian house, isn’t it? So awful watching these lovely gardens go to rack and ruin over the last few years. It used to be so pretty here.’

‘Um.’ Daisy looked at the front hedge, which she’d already hacked back to a more respectable height. The lawn had been cut, and she’d been feeling pleased with the work she’d done over the last few weeks, but looking at the garden with a neutral eye, she could see it still looked pretty chaotic. ‘My parents own Orchard Villa. They’ve gone to India for a few months and I’m house-sitting – well, garden-sitting.’ She pointed at her filthy jeans, by way of explanation. ‘Hence the outfit.’

‘Oh, you must excuse me.’ A hint of pink rose in Elaine’s cheeks, and she looked slightly uncomfortable. ‘I didn’t mean—’

‘No, you’re absolutely right.’ Daisy smiled at her. ‘The gardens are a mess. I’ve been on at them for the last two years to get a gardener in and do something about it.’

‘And lucky them – here you are, come along to save the day.’ Looking relieved not to have caused offence, Elaine brightened.

‘Something like that.’ Daisy, thinking about the circumstances that had brought her to Steeple St John, closed her eyes for a brief moment.

‘I’ll look forward to seeing how you get on.’ Elaine, smoothing her hair once again, took a step back. ‘If you fancy it, I’m having a little gathering next Thursday evening at eight. We haven’t been in the village that long ourselves. Thought it might be nice to reach out the hand of friendship to some women of our age. You know, it can be surprisingly tricky to make friends in a little place like this.’

Daisy gave a non-committal noise of agreement. She wasn’t in Steeple St John to meet people, or to make friends. She was more than happy with her own company, and that of Polly, her parents’ elderly golden retriever. She glanced down at the front porch where the dog lay flat out beside the stained glass of the porch, snoring on the terracotta tiles.

‘Let me give you my card.’ Elaine flipped open an engraved silver card holder, pulling out a chic, matt-grey business card. Daisy took it with mumbled thanks, popping it in her back pocket for safe keeping. She’d no intention of doing anything with it, but given she’d just soaked the woman, it was probably best she kept her sweet.

‘Do try and come along.’ Elaine gave her a bright smile. That 1950s manners thing again. She hooked her bag back over her shoulder and turned to leave.

‘I’ll try,’ fibbed Daisy. ‘I’m really sorry about the hose.’ She made towards the front gate, holding it open.

Elaine slipped through, calling over her shoulder as she made her way down the path towards Main Street, ‘Not at all. See you next Thursday!’

Daisy smiled back with a little wave, waiting until Elaine was out of sight before she stepped back onto the path, looking up at the solid Victorian villa before her, its faded red bricks glowing warmly in the morning sunlight. A quarter of a mile from the market square, Orchard Villa sat in around half an acre of gardens. The bricks of the house were laid in the traditional style, and high ornate chimneys twisted above a tiled roof. Decorative white-painted bargeboards sat under the eaves, giving the house the appearance of a Dickensian spinster in a lace-trimmed cap. It was safe here, closeted behind the overgrown hedge. She closed the gate safely behind her and turned back to the garden, locking out the world.


‘You really ought to go, Daise.’

Daisy shuffled the phone under her ear, aware it was slipping. She carried on scrubbing at the filthy dog bowl. ‘I’m not here to make friends, Miranda. Seriously, I just want a bit of peace.’

Her sister gave an exasperated snort which Daisy recognized all too well.

‘You can’t just hide yourself away like a hermit for the next six months until the parents get back.’

‘I’m not being a hermit. I’m just – I’m not out in town every night like you, that’s all.’

She tipped the soapy water out of the bowl, rinsing her hands, almost dropping the phone into the sink as she did so.

‘I just think you need to get out and have a bit of a life. You’re not going to bounce back if you spend all day gardening and all night swooning over Monty Whatshisname on Gardening World.’

Gardeners’ World. And it’s Monty Don.’ Daisy couldn’t help smiling. They’d had this conversation so many times. ‘And I don’t want to bounce back.’ She felt the familiar half-sick wave of pain and remembrance wash over her. It was a constant companion these days.

‘Come on. You’re twenty-nine, not ninety-two. I’m only saying this ’cause I’m your sister and I love you enough to be brutal . . .’

Rinsing a coffee cup, Daisy turned away from the kitchen sink, opening the fridge as Miranda continued talking.

It was a constant source of surprise to Daisy and Miranda’s friends just how different the two sisters were. Daisy’s red hair was generally tied back with a scarf, her freckled face bare of make-up. Miranda, effortlessly glam, worked as an account manager for a multinational beauty company and was never knowingly under-tanned.

‘Well, if you’re going to be stuck in Steeple St John for the foreseeable, you’d better try and make some friends. You can’t spend all day talking to plants. Hang on –’

Waiting obediently, Daisy peeled the lid from a four-pack of dips and tipped the contents of a bag of tortilla chips into a bowl.

She could hear Miranda instructing a taxi driver to take her to Bloomsbury. Her voice was confident and clear. For a second Daisy felt a pang of loneliness, realizing that she was settling in for another night alone – and that nobody was going to turn up with a takeaway and a bottle of wine. Not tonight, not ever. Not now.

She filled the dog bowl with water, setting it down by the back door. Polly, who was hoping for more food, raised one eyebrow at Daisy from her bed.

‘I’m back – sorry.’ Miranda’s voice made Daisy jump. ‘Seriously, Daise, you need to get out. You can’t spend the rest of your life brooding and feeling sorry for yourself.’

‘I’m not,’ Daisy snapped, bristling slightly.

‘You sure?’ Miranda’s tone was conciliatory, realizing she’d pushed a little too far.

Daisy sighed. It was always going to be hard for Miranda to understand how she felt. Surrounded by hordes of friends at school and then at college, Miranda was gregarious to a degree that made Daisy’s head spin. She was always out, always on the phone, always had friends round staying the night or visiting. She didn’t have any trouble finding people to share a coffee and a gossip. Thinking back, Daisy’s friends had been harder won, but she’d always considered them a close-knit group. She gripped the kitchen worktop, remembering. The involuntary movement whitened her knuckles.

‘I’ll be fine.’

‘Good. Just make sure you’re not moping around for too long.’ Miranda’s tone was brisk. Probably arriving at the scene of her latest date. Daisy could picture her: a quick check of the lipstick and a smoothing down of the hair, pouting at her reflection in a window outside the restaurant.

With some hasty kisses blown down the phone, she was gone. ‘Lots of love.’

Dismissed by her sister, Daisy looked through the kitchen window. Almost half an acre of land, most of which was choked with weeds. The twisted apple trees were just beginning to show the first signs of blossom, their roots hidden under a mat of thick couch grass. She was facing an enormous task. She groaned, realizing she hadn’t taken the dog out that afternoon. She shoved the crisps and dips to one side and picked up the dog lead. Polly materialized at her side, sleep forgotten at the jingle of leather and metal, rheumy grey-ringed eyes suddenly bright. The clocks had changed at the weekend, leaving time for a last stroll before night fell.

Standing under an oak tree in the park, Daisy watched as Polly made her regular sniffing tour of tree trunks and lamp posts. Her elderly legs weren’t up to much more than a quick walk these days, but the late evening sunshine had given her a burst of energy and she even managed a bit of stiff-legged cavorting across the grass. Daisy shivered, regretting her decision to come out without a coat. The evenings were still cold, and tonight’s cloudless sky would make for a chilly night.

‘Come on, Poll, let’s get going.’

As she called, Polly veered off, disappearing through a hole in the hedge. As she was almost deaf and quite short-sighted, there wasn’t any point in calling her. Daisy set off at a run across the park.

Squeezing through the gap, she saw Polly sitting obediently at the feet of an old man. He was leaning peacefully on the wooden gate of the churchyard, smoking a pipe.

‘Polly! Sorry, she’s a bit old. She gets a bit confused.’ Daisy clipped on the lead and made to pull Polly away.

‘Don’t we all, my dear,’ said the man, a smile curving underneath his moustache. He bent down and stroked Polly’s ears. ‘Lovely evening for it.’

‘Beautiful. Getting cold now, though.’ Having survived one encounter with an odd villager, Daisy wasn’t keen on another. She took a step backwards and the dog lead tightened. Polly, smiling at the attention, was not budging.

‘I always come down here, every evening, to say g’night to Violet.’

Daisy gritted her teeth, arranging her face into a suitably polite expression. It wasn’t that she was rude, not as a rule. But she really wanted to get home, sink into a bath – she could feel herself aching where she’d fallen earlier – and curl up in her dressing gown with her comfort food and the television.

‘Oh, really?’ she said, politely.

‘My wife. She died five years ago. She was a beautiful redhead, like you.’

‘Oh! I’m sorry.’ Now she just felt guilty.

‘She was a lovely girl. We were married forty years.’ He blew a kiss over the fence in the direction of a very simple headstone, where a single rose stood. ‘Walking back into town?’

‘I am.’ Polly, taking her cue from the old man, stood up happily.

‘Will you do me the honour?’

She couldn’t help but be charmed by his old-fashioned manners. Feeling a little ashamed at her lack of grace, Daisy smiled back at him.

‘Go on, then.’

‘Thomas Broughton. Pleased to meet you.’

‘Daisy Price.’

They strolled down the lane, Polly ambling by their side. Willow trees stretched their delicate fingers down to the bubbling water of the stream, the birds singing loudly in the last of the evening light. On the far side of the green Daisy could make out a dad and his son kicking a football back and forth.

‘So what brings you to Steeple St John?’

‘My parents moved here a couple of years ago, from Oxford – he was a professor of anthropology – and they fancied a quiet life with their retirement. I don’t think they’re cut out for English village life, though. Mum had a heart scare a year or so back and it’s made them determined to get out and enjoy life while they can.’

‘Good way of thinking,’ said Thomas, with a nod of approval.

They walked together along the lane by the stream, the still-bare trees arching overhead.

‘And where d’you fit in? You’re a bit old to be living at home, aren’t you?’

Daisy smiled at his forthrightness. ‘I gave up working in an office a couple of years ago, and went back to agricultural college to study horticulture. I unexpectedly needed somewhere to live, which coincided with my parents deciding to go on a long trip abroad. They offered me the house – I get somewhere to stay, they get their garden sorted out.’

She thought back to her parents in their whirlwind of packing. She’d arrived at Orchard Villa as they were making preparations to leave on their version of a gap year trip to Asia – no hostels for them, though. They had rooms booked in luxurious hotels, and a detailed itinerary taking in some of her father’s old haunts from his years of research. Polly, who would otherwise have been bundled off to stay with long-term dog-sitters, had been particularly pleased to see Daisy.

Daisy’s father, quiet and thoughtful, had suggested that Daisy didn’t overdo it but took some time to relax and look after herself.

‘Nonsense, David,’ her mother had said, kind but brisk as ever. ‘Best thing you can do is throw yourself into a project, darling. Don’t let the buggers get you down. You’ll be fine.’

‘There are some pretty gardens in this village.’ Thomas interrupted her thoughts as they walked along. ‘Not many I don’t know.’

He stretched both hands out in explanation, showing gnarled, calloused fingers. ‘Gardened the best part of sixty-five years. Badges of honour, these hands.’

Crossing the little lane, he motioned to the right. ‘That’s one of mine – or at least it was.’

A pebbled driveway led to a huge Georgian villa with gardens to the side and back. A bright estate-agent sign was nailed to the wooden fence.

‘Evening.’ Standing on the perfectly manicured lawn was a fluorescent-coated workman. He caught Daisy’s eye and gave her a smile, clearly relieved to be heading home for the night.

‘Evening.’ Thomas nodded, curtly.

The man, straightening up the sign on the lawn with a shove of his boot, gave them a nod as he headed for the large pickup truck that was parked on the grass verge. Daisy looked up at the sign, taking it in. Acquired by OHB Property Development, it shouted, in bright red writing.

‘Property development?’ Daisy looked again at the house and garden. It was perfectly maintained, with not a single leaf out of place. She peered in through the window, where she could see the low lights of the kitchen casting a glow across spotless countertops. ‘Doesn’t look like it needs much done to it.’

‘The house is perfect, you’re right.’ Thomas gave a sigh. ‘And that garden – I worked that for years. Know it like the back of my hand. Bloody developers.’

He turned, and started walking at a surprisingly brisk march. Daisy tugged at Polly’s lead, and she broke into a trot to catch up.

‘You’ll have seen it in the papers. It’s happening all over villages like Steeple St John. The gardens in lovely old houses like this one are too big for people nowadays, and the owners can make a fast buck by selling half of them off.’

Daisy turned back, looking at the houses that lined the lane. Each of them was set back from the road, closeted with a high wall or a thick hedge surrounding a huge garden dating from a time when people had the money to pay gardeners, or the time and leisure to spend their weekends working away at making them beautiful. Nowadays, she knew, everyone was keen on the easiest and quickest way of making the garden look good – and with mortgages going through the roof, selling off half the garden must be a tempting proposition.

‘But aren’t there rules about things like that?’

‘There’s rules – and there’s rules.’ Thomas rubbed his chin, shaking his head. ‘Trouble is it’s easy enough to get round ’em. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t have a problem with people needing somewhere to live, but there’s enough disused houses sitting around this country. Why they don’t do something with them, I’ll never know.’

‘Mmm.’ Daisy had clearly hit a nerve. Much as she enjoyed chatting, she was quite relieved to see that they were almost at the end of the lane and in reach of home, and the sofa.

‘Every time I look,’ continued Thomas, who was on a roll, ‘there’s another developer knocking something down or putting something up round here. I can’t keep up. Not to mention bunting and blooming cupcakes and all that Keep Calm and Carry On nonsense in the shops. Whatever happened to fairy cakes? I blame the Americans.’

Daisy couldn’t help laughing. Thomas’s irascibility reminded her of her dad.

Polly picked up speed as she reached the foot of Main Street, knowing dinner was imminent. She pulled on the lead impatiently, willing Daisy forward.

‘That’s me over there,’ Daisy explained, pointing up the lane towards Orchard Villa in the distance. Knowing he was a gardener, she felt a bit ashamed of the shaggy mess of tangled foliage which hung around the gate, obscuring the archway that led into the Victorian house.

‘Orchard Villa? That’s another of mine. Looked after that for thirty years. Absolute shambles that garden is, nowadays.’

‘Not for long. I’m going to bring it back to life,’ promised Daisy. That’s the second time someone’s pointed out what a disaster it is, she thought. I must work on the front garden for now, just to get everyone off my back.

‘I see you’ve made a start on the rockery at the front. I laid that, you know, back in ’74. They were all the rage back then. And I planted that old wisteria round the door. I’m very fond of that one.’

Daisy felt herself smiling at him. Despite wanting to get home, she found herself lingering as he asked about the health of the huge mulberry tree in the back garden, as if enquiring after an old friend. It really was lovely to hear someone else feeling the same enthusiasm for the garden that she had. During the last couple of weeks she’d been a virtual recluse, locked away in the house and garden, venturing out only to grab supplies of milk, chocolate and red wine. It was surprisingly nice to chat, even if it was to a kindly old stranger. Perhaps Miranda had a point. Thinking back to her first sight of Thomas, leaning over the gate of the churchyard, she felt a pang of sympathy.

‘Would you mind – I’m sure you’re probably busy.’ Daisy knew already that he wasn’t, and that she was asking as much to save him from loneliness as herself. ‘I’d love it if you’d come round some time and give me some tips. I’d like to know what the garden used to look like before the weeds took over.’

Thomas looked utterly delighted, his pale eyes crinkling at the edges with happiness.

‘I would be thrilled, my dear. I’ve got notebooks and records going back to the fifties in my study. I’ll dig them out.’

Daisy watched from the street corner as Thomas made his way along the road and out of sight in the very last of the evening light. Across the road, the little Indian restaurant was filling up as too-tired-to-cook commuters made the detour from the railway station to pick up a takeaway. There was a constant stream of cars passing by, taking the rat run through Steeple St John to save the extra five minutes it’d take to go via the ring road. It was a peculiar mixture of town and village life – not quite rural, but definitely a far cry from Miranda’s busy, whirling London life.

Daisy’s phone flashed. Talk of the devil. It was Miranda, probably texting from the loo of whichever posh London restaurant she was in tonight.

Quite like this internet dating lark. This one’s got a Maserati AND a house in Italy! Xxx

Daisy headed towards the house as she tapped her response.

Funny old evening. I met someone too. He’s very sweet.

Miranda’s reply shot back instantly.

Fast work. Impressive. Details?

Well, he’s tall, fair, quite handsome.

Excellent . . . and?

Knowing her sister would be hanging on for the reply, Daisy counted to ten and hit send.

And about 85. Ha ha. x