DEATH IN THE WINTER GARDEN

Cow Parsley © Barry Lowe Home

Books

Templates

About me

Gallery

Contact


DEATH IN THE WINTER GARDEN

Chapter One
Thursday 13 December 2001

‘I’m not giving up now.’
Fern caught sight of the girl in the CCTV screen above the counter: a slight figure in a padded anorak, a knitted cap pulled down over her hair, as she stood hunched into her mobile phone. It was much the same conclusion Fern had reached, driving up from Lydford. Trying to make a living from Star Gardens, her garden design business in the South Shropshire hills, was a tough challenge, but there was no way she was giving up and going back to the claustrophobia of London.
‘In the bleak midwinter’ droned from the shop radio as she paid for her petrol. No-one wanted their garden designing at Christmas. It would be bleak indeed if she didn’t win Owen Stanyard’s commission for what he had described on the phone as the ‘resuscitation’ of Plas Graig.
She crossed the forecourt to her Suzuki jeep, the wind icy in her face. Low clouds like grey fleece pillowed the Welsh hills, threatening snow. It was barely two o’clock but already the daylight was fading. She drove north-west through Oswestry. Above the narrow streets of the market town, strings of gaudy Christmas lights bobbed in the gusts. It was not a day to be outdoors, even for a gardener.
Beyond the town, the road climbed steadily between dense brown hedges laced with the jewel berries of dog rose and hawthorn. Across the fields of the North Shropshire plain, bare ploughed acres glinted with the pewter of standing water. The first fat raindrops hit the windscreen, crystals on the verge of snow.
She almost missed the sign under the wreathing ivy. She braked and reversed, swinging the jeep to head up the steep lane beneath overhanging trees. The lane petered out into a grassy track between the tumbled stones of low walls that marked an ancient cart-way. Branches of hawthorn, yew and holly grew so low, no vehicle could have passed there for years. To her right a rutted track dipped towards a shelter belt of cypress.
She came upon Plas Graig much as the Prince must have found Sleeping Beauty’s castle. Its smooth white walls gleamed in the dim light. Tall windows with elegant strap-like bars exuded a distinct Art Deco glamour that not even the surrounding mud and mounds of rubble could diminish.
She checked her watch. She was twenty minutes late. She hoped Owen Stanyard was not an impatient man. Climbing from the jeep, she picked her way between the piles of builders’ debris and scaffold planks. Evidently it wasn’t just the garden that was being resuscitated.
‘Miss Green!’ A man in a baggy grey coat was striding up the lane towards her, two black Labradors trotting in his wake, their breath steaming in the cold. ‘Owen Stanyard,’ he announced as he drew level with her, thrusting out a large strong hand. ‘Glad you made it. Bloody awful day,’ he growled. His voice had the volcanic depth of a Richard Burton. The Welsh cadence reminded her of Drummond.
It was two months since the Detective Inspector had last called at her cottage. To update her on the Hamble case, he said. And had not called again, as if their fledgling relationship had been closed with the case. The somersault in her stomach was a reminder that her feelings for Drummond were not quite so neatly shut away.
‘I’m sorry I’m late,’ she said. The dogs snuffled eagerly round her, pushing their noses into her hands as she bent to pat them.
‘No matter. Go on in,’ he continued as he trudged on past her up the track away from the house. ‘The dogs have been shut in all day.’
Fern watched him through the shower of thickening raindrops as he headed up the lane. Go in? When she looked back at the house, she saw the front door was now open. A woman stood there, her arms folded as if to ward off the cold.
‘Croeso i Plas Graig,’ the woman said. ‘I’m Meriel Halkyn, Owen’s partner.’ She was small and slender, with that waif-like look of a ballerina, her dark hair drawn sleekly back into a knot. ‘Owen won’t be long.’
The glass-panelled front door closed with a hollow echo. Fern glanced back with just the faintest tremor of her old claustrophobia. On such a day little daylight penetrated the slim glass panes, yet the hall glowed. Not just the white walls and the polished oak floor; light sparkled from the central chandelier and from shining chrome sconces along the walls.
‘Art Deco, it’s Owen’s passion,’ Meriel said, catching her gaze. ‘The renovation’s a massive project. His pride and joy.’ She gave a rueful smile. ‘We seem to have been rebuilding for years.’ In her cinnamon cashmere sweater and tailored black trousers, she didn’t look much like a builder, Fern thought, conscious of the mud that spattered her jeans, and the silvery trail of slobber left by the dogs on her sleeve. ‘Go on into the sitting room. I’ll make some tea.’ Close to, Fern could see the faint fretwork of lines in her otherwise flawless complexion. Early forties, she judged her. There was something distinctly self-contained about her, as if she was used to being in performance.
Fern held her chilled fingers to the blaze of logs in the black marble fireplace and glanced round the high-ceilinged room. It had more the look of a film set than a country house. There was even a baby grand piano in the wide bay window. A stage setting for a Noël Coward play, she thought, tempted to twirl even without the fringed dress and long string of pearls. She sat in one of the tan leather sofas and wished she had taken off her shoes before tiptoeing across the exquisite floor of inlaid maple and the pristine circles of cream rugs.
On the mantelpiece stood a slender blue glass vase of orange Chinese lanterns. Beside it was a shagreen and silver photo frame. She recognised the rugged features of Owen Stanyard, his hand on the shoulder of a younger man who was grinning at the camera, his lean, more angular face topped with spiky blond hair. Owen’s son, she guessed.
‘You’re the fourth designer he’s asked,’ Meriel said, the cups rattling as she set down the tray.
Fern hoped her sudden panic of disappointment didn’t show.
‘Don’t worry,’ Meriel smiled. ‘His bark is definitely worse than his bite. The house is a listed building. Grade II. One of the few surviving Art Deco designs by Walter Hamilton. Owen wants the garden to share the same spirit as the house.’
‘Is the garden listed too?’
‘No. But we do have the plans the Pennants left. Owen will show you when he gets back.’
‘So he knows what he wants for the garden,’ Fern said. It was a mixed blessing, in her experience. At Acanthus, the garden design practice where she had worked in London, there had been clients with such fixed ideas about their gardens, she had wondered why they bothered engaging a designer at all, since they weren’t prepared to listen to her suggestions.
‘Owen would be the first to admit he knows nothing about plants,’ Meriel reassured her. Her glance slid to the photograph on the mantelpiece. ‘No, it’s the house that’s his obsession. He’s an architect, you see. Every detail’s meticulously planned and sourced: every light switch, door handle, curtain rail. And the more problems he meets, the more determined he is to see the project through.’
There was a hint of regret, Fern detected. Did Meriel resent the time he spent working on Plas Graig? Was it possible to be jealous of a house?
‘How long have you lived here?’
‘Six years,’ she said with a sigh. ‘It feels like forever. The house was in a dreadful state when Owen bought it. There’d been a fire. And the sheep had got in. These floors had to be completely relaid. The ground floor’s almost finished but we still have most of the bedrooms and bathrooms to tackle. I’m afraid the garden’s been badly neglected. It hasn’t been touched since the Pennants left.’
‘When was that?’
Meriel’s glance levelled on her with just a hint of warning.
‘1939.’
‘Oh,’ said Fern, with a mix of dread and elation. Over sixty years of neglect. If her own garden was anything to go by, the four acres of Plas Graig must be impenetrable by now.
‘Morgan’s started clearing the woodland,’ Meriel said. ‘Owen hired him to tackle the lawns and general maintenance. He’d always hoped…’ She set her cup back on the tray. ‘He wanted Tristan to oversee the garden restoration,’ she said softly. ‘But Tris died in October. He was a botanist. He was out in Colombia with a plant-hunting expedition. His boat overturned and he drowned.’ Her head bowed, as if to study her tightly interlaced fingers. ‘It’s been a bloody awful time for Owen. For both of us,’ she said. She met Fern’s anguished glance. ‘Anyone would think this place is cursed.’ She drew a breath like a sigh. ‘Of course it only makes Owen all the more determined to carry on. That’s why the garden has to be very special. For Tristan. He was his only son.’ Her body stiffened. Fern, too, heard a door closing, then the heavy tread as Owen came to join them.
‘Ah, tea! Splendid!’ Owen said, banging his hands together as he strode in. Meriel handed him a cup. Its porcelain bowl looked fragile in his large wind-reddened hands.
‘Brought her up to speed, have you?’ he asked. Meriel gave a curt nod. He swallowed a gulp of tea and clattered the cup back onto the tray. ‘Good. Then I’ll show you the damage while there’s still some light.’

Standing on the stone-paved patio behind the house, Fern faced the icy bluster of the north wind. Before them, the garden dropped away down the hillside into a forest of seedling trees: rowan with the last vestiges of orange berries, dark holly beaded with scarlet. Fern screwed up her eyes against the peppering rain. Thick cloud almost obscured the surrounding hills.
‘You should see it in summer,’ Owen said above the roar of the wind. He thrust his hands into his coat pockets and turned his back on the landscape. As he looked up at the house, his expression momentarily softened. His pride and joy, Meriel had called it. Love, she realised, was what he felt as he gazed up at the house he was coaxing back into life.
‘Caradog Pennant was a dye-maker. Made a fortune in the First World War. All those uniforms. He had this place built in 1926. You can see across to Chirk from here,’ he told her. ‘He liked to keep an eye on his factory, make sure there was smoke coming out of the chimneys. He commissioned Walter Hamilton to design it. Brilliant young architect. Killed in the war. Such a waste.’
The curved bay and the sinuous Art Deco lines of the balconies gave the house the look of an ocean-going liner, breasting the green wave of the hillside.
‘It’s beautiful,’ Fern said. ‘You have to wonder what else he’d have gone on to create.’
‘So much promise unfulfilled,’ Owen said. She guessed he was thinking of his own son.
‘Meriel said you’ve got the Pennants’ plans of the garden.’
‘Yes. There’s a box of garden journals too and some photos.’ Owen refocused his attention on the landscape before them. ‘We found them in the garden cottage. Tris was going to catalogue them when he got back. He was really excited about the project,’ he said. ‘I was just glad to have something to bring him back here. Anchor him for a while.’
Fern glanced up at him as he surveyed the clouded distance.
‘He’d just graduated when the Colombian expedition came up,’ he said. ‘Plant hunting. Too good an opportunity to miss, he said. He died doing what he loved best. That’s something I suppose. Though it’s no bloody consolation to me.’
She heard the anguish in his voice and stared helplessly at his huge frame.
‘I’m so sorry,’ she said, but knew that nothing she could say could diminish the grief he felt. Was that why the other designers had not taken the commission? No matter how brilliant their ideas or how beautiful a garden they built, they could never compete with a ghost. The garden Tristan might one day have created would always overshadow them. ‘I’ll try to make a garden worthy of his memory.’
Owen gave a non-committal grunt, calling to the dogs as he marched ahead of her along the path.
In the wide border that edged the lawn, bedraggled seedheads and the soggy brown plates of achillea rose drunkenly from a mush of dead leaves. Beside the iron gate into the woods, a clump of hellebores flourished, their palm-like leaves brown-tipped, their creamy freckled cups of flowers drooping shyly like Victorian maidens with downcast faces. On the wind Fern caught the fragrance of viburnum.
Owen pushed open the rusting gate and let the dogs trot on ahead. It was a familiar path, judging by the muddy trample of footprints.
‘The Crûg, they call this. Means a mound. Some prize specimens here, Tris said. Azaleas. Camellias. All overgrown now of course.’
She followed him along the narrow path, ducking beneath the overhanging branches, glad of some shelter from the wind. The path followed the slope of the hill, winding its way around the stout boles of beech, their sparse coppery leaves rustling in the gusty wind, their branches creaking. Between the self-sown hawthorn, birch and rowan saplings, rhododendron colonised the ground.
From somewhere ahead came the buzz of a chainsaw.
‘Morgan,’ Owen said by way of explanation. ‘He’s cutting back some of the trees… Bloody woman!’ he broke off in exasperation.
They had reached the iron fence that lolled drunkenly between the boundary trees. Beyond, a narrow track, hardly more than a rabbit run, was discernible through the field, leading down the slope towards the lower woods. On the fence was a snag of red wool.
‘Neighbour of mine,’ he said. ‘Insists on using my land as a shortcut to the village.’ He gave an impatient sigh and stomped off down the path. Before them the ground rose to a low mound. On its summit stood a dilapidated wooden building that looked close to collapsing under the weight of ivy.
‘The Japanese tea house,’ Owen said, waiting for her to catch up. ‘Or the hut, as Morgan calls it. There used to be a carved dragon on the roof, painted and gilded. Long since gone.’
‘Are you going to restore it?’
‘Oh yes. I’ve got a photo up at the garden cottage. Used to be temple lanterns by the path. I’m rather hoping Morgan will unearth them in the undergrowth. Morgan!’
The chainsaw sputtered into silence. A man stepped out from the depths of the ivy and spindly trees, the brown cords and dark green fleece he wore merging with the woodland’s sombre colours. He pushed back the goggles that protected his eyes, showing forearms covered with a swirl of inky tattoos.
‘This is Fern Green,’ Owen called up to him. ‘She’s come to resurrect the garden.’ Fern looked at Owen in some surprise. Somewhere along the path from the garden he had decided to offer her the commission. She felt a surge both of relief and of panic at the chance to transform the neglected garden.
Morgan surveyed her through narrowed eyes, taking in the thick cream jumper under her green waterproof.
‘Not afraid of a challenge then,’ he said, his light melodic Welsh accent a counterpoint to Owen’s rumbling growl.
She smiled resolutely. ‘Can’t wait to get started.’
‘Take more than a few fancy sketches to tame this lot,’ he said. He turned away and retreated back to his work.
Fern’s smile tightened. Was Morgan going to prove more of a hindrance than a help?
She focused instead on the straggling branches of azaleas and rhododendrons that cloaked the bank. The tips were studded with fat brown buds, biding their time till spring. She stroked the shiny chestnut bark of an acer that overhung the path.
‘Tristan was right. There are quite a few specimen trees here,’ she said. ‘Some careful pruning and a dash of feed, and we should be able to restore them.’
‘You’d better see what else there is before Morgan takes his chainsaw to ’em. Come on. I’ll find those plans for you.’
Owen headed back up the slope. Through the gate, he took the path that ran beside a high brick wall. An arched door lolled on rusted hinges, allowing a glimpse into the wilderness beyond.
‘Used to be the kitchen garden,’ he said as she peered through the gap. She saw the tall rusty seed-heads of dock among the mesh of bramble, and the warped bars and jagged broken glass of a long-abandoned glasshouse. ‘Morgan’s keen to make it productive again.’
‘It would be a waste not to,’ she agreed. It had taken her all summer to reclaim and restore the potager at her cottage. She was under no illusion how much work it would take to revive the walled garden. She admired Morgan’s ambition, even envied him.
‘This is the garden cottage,’ Owen said, as they reached the stone-flagged courtyard. The two-storey cottage was built into the garden wall and faced a row of storerooms and garages. In the far wall, wrought-iron gates stood open to the lane beyond.
She followed Owen into the low-ceilinged room, grateful for its warmth after the icy wind that burned her face. The dogs slumped onto the rugs that covered the slate floor, their heads turned to the heat of the log-burning stove.
‘We lived here to start with,’ Owen said. ‘Till the house was habitable. There’s a small kitchen, looks out onto the garden,and two bedrooms upstairs. I use it as an office now, as you can see.’
On the large oak table against the wall a computer screen was hemmed round with teetering piles of papers. Beneath the table, cardboard boxes overflowed with more books and papers.
Owen hauled off his overcoat and dropped it over the back of a scuffed leather armchair. Impatiently he pushed aside what looked like several days’ unopened post and lifted one of the boxes from the floor.
‘Here,’ he said, fishing out a roll of yellowed paper. ‘This is what I wanted you to see.’ He unrolled the paper and anchored it with a stapler and a coffee mug. ‘It’s a plan of the Crûg.’
She recognised the serpentine path that encompassed the woodland. Here and there were sketched blobs labelled in a precise and elegantly curled script with plant names: azalea, rhododendron, camellia. In spring it must have been beautiful.
‘And this is the photo I told you about,’ Owen said, extracting a photograph from the box. ‘The tea house, in all its former glory.’
The wooden structure with its elegantly upswept roof corners stood on a rise of bare earth sparsely planted with small azalea bushes. On the roof she could see the carved dragon, its tail curving along the ridge. The little house was built with what looked like bamboo panels. A zigzag of flat stones descended between Japanese temple lanterns to the main path.
At the time when the Pennants were creating their garden, before the Second World War, plant hunters were risking their lives in China and Tibet to discover new species for nurseries and botanic gardens as well as for wealthy private collectors. Fern recalled their names, commemorated in the plants they found. Pieris formosa var. forrestii was named for George Forrest, who collected over five thousand rhododendron seeds during his expeditions in China. Forrest, Fern had read, almost died of starvation on one of his expeditions. Reginald Farrer, collecting rhododendrons and alpines in Burma, did die of exhaustion, at the age of forty. His memorial in Burma reads that ‘he died for love and duty in search of rare plants’. It could have been Tristan Stanyard’s epitaph, she thought.
‘We found the gardener’s journals in a chest upstairs,’ Owen said. ‘May be of some use to you.’
Fern knelt on the floor and picked out one of the musty journals from the box, its leather cover hazed with mildew. Carefully she turned the fragile pages. It was a glimpse into the daily life of the old garden, the battles of a gardener long since gone. The handwriting was painstaking, the ink faded to a spidery brown. November, she read, had been wet, but the hotbeds were made up with manure from the farm, and they had taken delivery of a hundred rose bushes.
For Eleanor Pennant, the garden had been a fashion statement, where all the latest must-have flowers could be shown off. While Fern wanted the garden at Plas Graig to pay homage to the Pennants’ time, using some of the plants Eleanor Pennant would have known, she knew the garden could not be frozen in time like a museum piece. New varieties were constantly being discovered and improved. And in Tristan’s life was an echo of that long legacy of plant hunting, though now the expedition’s focus was more on conserving than coveting the plants they identified. The garden was a living, changing structure that encompassed both the heritage of plants and plant hunters and the promise of growth and renewal. She already knew that she wanted it to reflect Tristan’s spirit of adventure and that shared, timeless, passion for plants: a once and future garden.
‘Meriel says I’m obsessed with the house,’ Owen said. Fern tensed, her head still bowed over the journal, but her eyes no longer focused on its pages. She could hear the fire’s crackle, the dogs’ snuffling breath. Her knees ached from the cold floor, but she did not move. ‘Truth is, I don’t know what I want any more, for Plas Graig, or for me,’ he said. ‘I’ve always been so certain. This house was so important to me. I always thought it would be my legacy, but now…’ He gave a deep sigh. ‘With Tris gone, what does it matter? Oh, I won’t abandon the house. I’ll complete the renovation. The garden is the last link I have with Tris but I’ve no heart for any of it any more,’ he said bleakly, such loss and confusion in his eyes that Fern felt again that spasm of dread; she could never meet his expectations for the garden. She could not replace Tristan.
‘You just need more time to be sure what you want from the garden,’ she said.
He shook his head.
‘No, there’s been too much time wasted already. I won’t let him down again.’ He glanced at her. ‘I always thought there’d be time for us to get to know one another. We were never close, you see. I was busy with my career, building up the practice. Tris was eight when we divorced. Libby went back to Scotland. She took Tris with her. I hardly saw him. I wasn’t there for him, growing up. Then, just when I thought I had a chance to get to know this young man, this stranger, he’s taken from me.’ He lifted the mug from the table and let the plan curl in on itself. ‘I didn’t want him to go to Colombia,’ he said. ‘I told him I needed him here. But it wasn’t what he needed. I couldn’t stop him going. That photo on the mantelpiece in the house was taken the day before he left for London. He was so excited. Plants were a real passion for him: one I never understood. I couldn’t feel what he felt.’
‘Perhaps if you begin to understand the garden, you’ll learn,’ Fern said.
‘I should like that,’ he said. ‘To finally understand him. To feel connected.’
She nodded, clutching the journal like a talisman. So many long-dead lives and trampled hopes were locked into the garden she was about to recreate. She needed to understand the past that had already shaped the garden at Plas Graig before she could design its future.
‘I’ll take some of the journals home to study, if I may. For now, I just need Tristan’s date of birth. Star Gardens,’ she explained. ‘Usually I use my client’s astrological chart as a starting point for my design as a way of understanding what they want from the garden. As this garden is about Tristan, it would help me to get some insight into the kind of person he was.’
Beneath his iron-grey brows, his gaze hardened.
‘Tomorrow,’ Owen said hoarsely. ‘He would have been twenty-five.’
Fern stared at him, appalled. So raw a grief. And tomorrow that bitter reminder of all he had lost. The image came into her mind of the young man in the photograph, that broad eager smile, about to embark on the adventure that would cost him his life. Ideas began to gather like pale ghosts in her mind. A winter child. A winter garden for a searching, restless Sagittarian.
‘Only instead of a birthday party, we’re burying his ashes.’ Owen turned abruptly from her and gathered up his coat. ‘Tomorrow we’ll make a start on putting this lot into some sort of order.’
‘Tomorrow?’ she faltered. ‘But what time is the service?’
‘Twelve in the village church. There’ll be some people coming back here afterwards for lunch.’
‘If you’d rather I came back later in the week…’
‘No, I told you. There’s been too much time wasted already. Besides, it’ll be a welcome distraction for me. Meriel’s got the caterers to supervise. She won’t need me under her feet. Meet me here at nine.’
The dogs stirred from dozing and in mirror image raised their heads towards the door, ears pricked. The door thrust open, banging back against the smooth white wall. It was Morgan, out of breath as if he had run up from the woods.
‘You’d better come, Mr. Stanyard,’ he said, his eyes so narrowed they seemed almost to have disappeared in the shadows of his face. Behind him, snowflakes swirled, dusting in over the slate floor. ‘There’s a body. Behind the hut. Not more than a spade’s turn deep. A baby,’ he said, pronouncing it the Welsh way: babi.
‘What the devil…’ Owen seemed to rock back on his heels as if he had been punched. ‘Call the police. I’ll go and take a look myself. Stay!’ he rapped out as the dogs lurched to their feet to follow him. Dutifully they dropped back onto their haunches.
Morgan stood aside as Owen strode out past him into the yard.
‘How long do you reckon it’s been there?’ Fern asked him anxiously.
‘A lifetime,’ Morgan said as he picked up the phone on the desk. ‘No flesh, just bones, but a babi all the same.’ Then, quietly, as if to himself, ‘but whose, now?’

Return to homepage

ORDER FORM


Return to Bookshop