Read an Excerpt
I don't know what woke me up I drank no alcohol last night, I observed the carb curfew, I had only one espresso during the day, plus I did a Pilates class and hours of gardening in the fresh air but I'm definitely awake now. Wide awake.
Outside, in the garden, a cat is screeching, or a fox. In the far distance, I can hear the rumble of night traffic on the Westway flyover. But it's too early for planes. And it's too soon to get up.
In a minute I'm going to go into the wet room and find one of those French sleeping pills you can buy over the counter, if you're in France. I need to calm down. Two things are twining together in my mind, like mating slugs. First, Gideon's away the first half of next week at the Danish furniture expo, for which he's designed a stool, so basically there's no way I can conceive this month, because he'll be away right in the middle of my fertile period. Second, the lilies. I just forgot them, which is not like me at all.
I'd been shopping with Donna, as she'd persuaded me to invest in a crystal to hang in the hall, to slow down the fast-flowing chi she says is surging from our front door and rushing along the stairs and making visitors to our home feel all unsettled and transient. I felt like saying, "Thanks, Donna," but instead I merely pointed out that Gideon wouldn't go for it I mean, he is, after all, a postminimalist ecotect, which means he is very into rainfall harvesting and wind turbines and recyclable materials, so tinkling water features and repro statues of the squatting Buddha are not really his style at all. But she persuaded me to buy this crystal and hang it high on an in visible nylon thread and promised me the only thing Gideon would notice would be an increase in wealth and good luck.
"Will it help me conceive?" I'd asked, as I put in my card and pin number to pay for the one she said I needed, which was surprisingly expensive.
"I'm not promising you a Christmas baby, but it will definitely help. So would a brass wind chime in the hallway. Crystals have been a powerful healing tool for thousands of years, Clare. If you follow your own path . . ."
Anyway, we were so busy with the crystal I managed to talk her out of the Buddha and the brass wind chime that I forgot to go back to the Moltons and finish up there and put the lilies under cloches or in the greenhouse until I potted them up. So now the toad lilies I bought from Crocus, with their star-shaped pale-blue spotty blooms, might never flower.
To distract myself from thoughts of plants flowering or not flowering and the aching sadness that I, too, might be a flower that never even blushes unseen to waste its sweetness on the desert air, I get up.
I pull up our light-excluding cream blinds we don't have curtains or carpets or valances, as it's very bad karma to have anything made of any sort of material touching any surface you walk on in outdoor shoes. Then I push open the sash window and lean out.
It's certainly cold, but I don't think it's freezing although the weather girl did say something about a late frost, and I look across the communal garden to the Lonsdale Gardens side of the square. The garden is a classic hortus inclusus, but it isn't shaped like a square, it's more rectangular, with two short ends and two long sides that are Lonsdale Gardens and Colville Crescent.
Hardly any lights are on in Lonsdale Gardens, as you would expect, as most of the residents are families with school-age children or bankers or both, and bankers have to get to their desks an hour and a half before their children have to be at school, so this is a place of early birds, not night owls.
The lawned central area of the garden, surrounded by paths, is a dark pool of blackness, but it's easy to discern the outlines of the huge plane and ash trees against the white stucco backs of the houses opposite.
I pull back from the window.
The rear elevation of the Avery house, the last in the terrace, is suddenly bathed in bright white light. Something has triggered the security lights a fox or a cat, some intruder. I keep staring hard at the house, waiting to see the shadowy shape of a fox padding out into the undergrowth, brush aloft, as if he owned the garden, not all of us. But nothing.
Then, just at the moment I would expect the lights to power off again, I see the figure of a woman in white slip down the central path in between the Adirondack chairs and the lead planters, past the old garage covered with dense ivy and creepers, to the gate at the bottom of the Averys' garden. As she pauses to find the latch, she stands bathed in light, and I can make out exactly who it is, in a killer outfit of short white nightie, lush caramel-colored pashmina flung around her shoulders, and green Hunter wellies. Her long brown legs merge into the darkness, and all I can see is the shape of her pintucked nightdress bobbing along the path like a ghost and ducking into her own garden next door.
As the security lights dim, I can come up with only one reason that Virginie Lacoste might be stealing away from the Avery residence at I glance at my watch getting on for three in the morning.
A mental image of Bob, in blue shirt and khaki chinos (which is, for some reason, what he is always wearing in my imagination), pops into my mind. Bob is East Coast, rugged, ruddy, Republican, and not, in my book, overendowed with charm.
Virginie is French, blond, soignée, and her transition from Paris to London only serves to exaggerate her extreme Frenchness. It's not just the effortlessly smart way she throws together outfits, or runs her household and business and social life to the click of her fingers, she has this very carnivorous, very amoral, very Gallic thing going on but still I just don't believe that even Virginie, who seems capable of most things, has the gall (so that's where the word comes from), with all the families of the garden slumbering around, to have Bob Avery under the nose of his sleeping wife and his four children.
Then I have an aha moment maybe the guilty pair were at it in the garage, not the house. As the Averys never park their Chrysler Voyager in there, maybe Bob uses it to service his mistresses?
Some instinct tells me to note the time and the date. It is 2:44 A.M., 18 March, the day after St. Patrick's Day. For some reason, I think it might be important.
As I lie on my back, in bed, waiting for the pill to take effect, I can't decide whether I'm shocked or not. After all, these gardens, where the rear elevations of the houses enclose a private square, off limits to all but owner-occupiers, are famous for it, as Gideon wistfully tells me. It's so easy to leave a back door invitingly unlocked, and if someone sees you popping into someone's house the back way, your observer won't darkly suspect that you are up to no good with your neighbor's wife he'll assume you're dropping off that thing you borrowed.
There was one particularly famous time, before all the houses became single occupancy, when the Notting Hill police were trying to catch a serial rapist who'd been preying on young women in basement flats along Elgin Crescent. They put infrared cameras on the roofs for several nights and trained them on the communal garden and waited. Reviewing the footage later, they realized, to their embarrassment, that all they had managed to capture was the lustful crisscrossing of the garden at dead of night by amorous neighbors among them pillars of the community and prominent financiers. Not surprisingly, the tapes were quietly "lost" before the Evening Standard could get hold of them.
But I don't need a camera to prove what I've seen. I'm a direct witness: I know what I've seen. I know what they've been up to, and I wonder if it's any coincidence that today is the day of the Averys' party a party we've all been looking forward to, not least because tonight we'll find out how Bob and Sally spent six figures on redoing the downstairs kitchen-family room, a room that the previous owners had already redecorated to within an inch of its life, all slate this and Boffi that, only months before the Averys moved in, ripped everything out and started over, which is what happens round here. Houses are redecorated and refurbished on a loop.
And it also means that, later, I'll get to find out how Virginie and Bob act around each other in public, and we're going finally to get a chance to inspect the new billionaire on the block, Si Kasparian, who Mimi is obviously already all excited about even though she hasn't met him yet. I asked her whether she'd Googled him and she denied it, but I don't believe her. Of course she's Googled him. He's a billionaire who's moved on to the garden. She's a journalist with curly chestnut hair, and breasts, and so disgustingly fertile, with her three babies in five years, she could probably self-pollinate if she chose. I know she's determined to get to Si and make him her property before anyone else does.
I get up, close the window, and walk barefoot and naked into the wet room, enjoying the dry warmth of the underfloor heating through the poured concrete floor, the same concrete, in the same soft dove-gray shade, that covers every square foot of floorspace in the house. Gideon goes on and on about concrete, especially when it's made from some waste byproduct like fly ash or slag cement. He says it's a friend to the environment in all stages of its lifespan, making it the ideal material for sustainable construction, but all I care about is how delicious and warm it feels underfoot.
I find a David Mellor tumbler and pour myself some water to counteract the dehydrating effect of the narcotic.
I wake again at 6 A.M. because I hear scrunching underneath the window, and my first thought is relief that I got back to sleep without needing the pill. Then I remember I did take the pill.
My eyes won't open properly so I just lie there for a while. A few minutes later, I hear scrunching again. Someone's running around the garden. I know who it is without bothering to look. Bob Avery. Not only is he American, he has someone to be in shape for and he has something to get in shape for. Virginie, and the garden sports in June.
Most years, we have at least one banker who believes that coming second is for losers presenting himself at the Minor Injuries Unit of St. Charles' Hospital with ankle or groin in-juries, and having gravel picked out of his knees.
As the jogging fades away, I clamber out of our huge Savoir bed with its all-white linen and stand in the pounding hot shower with directional body jets for ages. I try to slough off the sleeping pill, and enjoy the feeling of the water drilling into the top of my head and drumming my breasts and stomach before sluicing into the runnels at my feet and draining away into the floor.
I put on some Levi's and some cashmere socks, a gray cashmere sweater over a white agnès b. long-sleeved T-shirt, and pad down to the kitchen. I make a cup of green tea, slip on my fleece-lined lace-up nut-brown Ilse Jacobsen boots, and head out into the communal garden for some fresh air, pausing only to fondle the bud of a mop-headed allium in our garden.
I'll do a circuit, check the frostbitten lilies, the blue toad lily plants Tricyrtis 'Blue Wonder,' and make a list as I go. The other day, Ralph Fleming found me on my hands and knees, and he told me I was the spirit of Lonsdale Gardens. I looked up in surprise and saw him smiling down at me, in an awful holey maroon jersey and some baggy cords, a newspaper tucked under his arm, and my heart did a little somersault, and I thought, suddenly, "Lucky Mimi," then the moment passed. I said, "Don't be silly, I'm only potting up blue sage," but it was the nicest thing anyone's said to me for ages.
Copyright © 2006 by Rachel Johnson