WRITTEN BY JO STYLES
She never hesitates where angels fear to tread, but has this neighbourhood heroine finally met her match?
“Do you need a hand?” Isla was wearing her battle slippers on Saturday afternoon when she first saw her new neighbour lugging in boxes while trying at the same time to control her two over-excited children.
The girl and boy, who looked about seven and nine, chased about between the removal men carting in armchairs and bookcases.
Isla, standing in her porch, rarely took no for an answer. Battle slippers on alert, she itched to get stuck in, unpacking books, setting cutlery in drawers, and getting to know the diminutive mother who wore ripped jeans and an oversized T-shirt. Only things didn’t go her way
on this occasion.
“No thanks,” the woman replied.
“Oh. Right. I could make some tea.”
Thanks for the offer, but no thanks.
“I could just… oh, er… bring round a few scones, then?”
“Thanks but we’re really busy.”
Isla’s battle slippers took a slow step back as the woman turned away.
“Kids, help with the smaller boxes, will you?” she shouted.
Isla pursed her lips. She turned about, closed her front door and hurried to tell Dennis the news.
“She’s a bit stand-offish, her moving in next door,” she reported.
Her husband sat reading his paper over a pot of tea in the kitchen. He narrowed his eyes as he peered at her footwear. He’d given her the slippers at Christmas, telling her with a knowing smirk, “If you’re always off to war, Isla, you’ll need a pair of battle slippers.”
Weeks earlier, she’d sorted out some teenagers in the neighbourhood. They used to gather in the dark street, playing loud music and yelling at all hours. She didn’t want babies kept awake or elderly ladies frightened (she’d never consider herself one of those).
When she’d dashed outside that night, she’d worn a delicate pair of floral mules not at all suitable for the terrain.
Dennis, two steps behind, muttered all the way, “Not again.” Her new hobby seemed to be getting involved; be it in litter-picking, neighbourhood watch or raising cash for lost souls. Now he sighed.
“Leave her alone, love,” her husband replied, referring to the new neighbour.
“I haven’t gone anywhere near her. I do know when to keep my nose out.”
He gave a strained laugh.
“Of course you do.”
Later that same evening, when they retired to bed, Isla lay in the dark, unable to rest. She was sure she had just heard something through the party wall. She threw the duvet aside and pressed her ear against the flowery wallpaper.
Behind her, a bedside lamp flicked on.
“What are you doing?” asked Dennis.
“I can hear crying. It’s the woman next door. She’s sobbing her heart out, the poor thing. Do you think I should go over? I could make some excuse. I could take over a house-warming gift?”
“Isla, you can’t – it’s past midnight. Come back to bed.”
Reluctantly, Isla returned to his side.
“I haven’t seen anyone visit. I haven’t seen a husband about either. Maybe he passed away, or maybe she’s freshly divorced. Maybe she came from one of those hostels. She might be escaping from some thug too fond of using his fists.”
“She’ll be in the witness protection programme next.” Dennis shook his head and snuggled back down.
“Well, you never know, do you? I’ll try talking to her again tomorrow.”
“I never doubted it,” Dennis muttered, before he drifted off.
The next morning, as Dennis sat munching his way through marmalade and toast, Isla spotted the family out in the garden next door. The weeds stood ankle-deep, even on the lawn; the borders all overgrown with thistles and kale. The house had sat empty for months before it sold.
Isla hurried out of the door. She hesitated halfway down the garden path, shielded by the trunk of a big apple tree.
“Look at it.” The mysterious woman’s voice lacked all oomph and energy “I knew this move was a mistake. What am I supposed to do with this lot? I don’t think there’s a single flower anywhere.”
Isla stuck her head up over the fence and made the poor woman jump.
Oh, sorry, love. Did I look like a jack-in-a-box? Hello there, kiddies.
She plastered on an innocent expression and pretended she hadn’t eavesdropped. “It’s a lovely space, isn’t it? The garden, I mean. It’s a bit overgrown, though. Would you like to borrow anything – a spade, a fork? We have a lovely mower.”
The woman crossed her arms.
“No, thanks. We’re fine.”
“How about a cuppa, then?”
“No, no – we’re just about to head off out, actually.”
“Oh. Right.” Isla forced a smile.
“Well – if you ever need any help, you know where we are.”
The woman waved her children back towards the house. “Thanks but we can cope.” The dark circles under her eyes said otherwise. “Come on, kids. Let’s go and buy some food and get your uniforms sorted. You’ll be off to school on Monday, remember.”
She couldn’t escape fast enough.
Isla shifted from slipper to slipper, at a loss how to fight this war
When she’d confronted the noisy teenagers in the street, she’d developed a strategy. She stuck fast to it, even when one mocked her attire.
“Nice slippers,” the cheeky lad had said, giggling with his mates at her foolish floral footwear.
“I knew you when you waddled about in a big fat leaky nappy,” she’d retorted. “Nathan Cruickshank, isn’t it? I know your parents.”
This time, at an utter loss, she frowned at the weeds and the thistles over the fence, then gazed across her own lush green lawn to a bed of bright pink summer geraniums.
“I can’t get anywhere with her,” she reported to Dennis, when she plonked herself into a chair at the kitchen table.
“You can’t win them all, love.”
“No – that’s very true. Sometimes people just won’t let you. I suppose they have their reasons. I expect it’s best to… to give up.”
Dennis reached over and patted her hand. “Sometimes, I think it is.”
She followed her own advice all day. She kept her distance. Only, a dream came to her that night. The garden next door wasn’t full of weeds any more. They withered and died as snow fell. It smothered everything, not a single footstep marring its flat white surface.
Next, the sun beat down and the snow began to melt, soaking into the earth. The warmth of spring brought forth green shoots. They poked their heads into the light and grew and grew. They turned into delicate cornflowers of electric blue, while ox-eye daisies added splashes of merry yellow; then red poppies opened their petals and smiled up towards the summer’s sun.
The garden filled with bees, buzzing over the heart of every flower. Isla could feel the warmth on her face and joy filled her heart.
She woke with a start in the darkness of the bedroom, Dennis snoring away in his sleep like a traction-engine, as normal.
She heaved in a deep breath, then pushed back the duvet. She slipped her feet into her slippers.
“Well, that was a dream and a half.”
Dennis found her already in the kitchen the next morning, bright and early. She sat over their usual favourite of tea, toast and marmalade.
“You’re up with the birds,” he commented, raising an eyebrow.
“I couldn’t sleep. I got up around three. There was a full moon. It looked like daylight outside. I tidied up a bit and put some washing in the machine to keep busy. I’ll hang the clothes out later.”
“All right, pet.” He nodded.
She ambled down the lawn that morning with her washing basket. She hung out Dennis’s shirts and her blouses. Finished with pegging things out, she checked the flowerbeds for weeds as a robin sang in a tree above her head.
All the while, she kept an eye on the garden next door. The children always came out to play in the sunshine. When they appeared, she waved.
“Morning,” she said cheerily.
“Morning,” they returned politely in unison, before the boy picked up a ball and started kicking it about in the long grass. The girl sank down and started plucking up handfuls of moss.
Isla was just collecting up her peg-bag and basket to go indoors when it happened. She heard the little girl shriek, “Look, look!” to her brother.
Isla hurried to the fence. Beyond it, the girl pointed between the weeds in the flower-bed. “Mum!” the girl yelled back towards the open patio doors. “Mum, come and look at this.”
Her mysterious neighbour came hurrying out. “What is it?” She walked to the edge of the grass where her children lingered. “Oh!” she said.
You see, Mum, we do have flowers.
The girl sounded relieved as she took her mother’s hand.
“Yes, Mum,” the boy joined in. “We have loads and loads.”
Isla smiled. There, nestled between the kale and thistles stood a tall, wide clump of wild flowers: the cornflowers, ox-eye daisies and poppies of her dream.
“Well, I never!” As she spoke, all heads turned. “Isn’t nature amazing? In amongst all those weeds, too; who’d have thought it?”
She smiled big and wide.
The woman, whoever she might be and whatever she might have suffered, managed a bud of a smile in return.
“Do you need to borrow our mower, love?” Isla asked again. “It’s a big brute of a thing. It’ll take down all that grass on your lawn right away. I could lend a hand and I bet my Dennis would too. We could just get the place a bit tidier for the kiddies and –” she nodded towards the flowers “– we could clear a bigger space so those can breathe.”
The woman looked all set to give her standard rebuttal – only, this time, she hesitated as she gazed at the blooms.
“That would be lovely, thank you.”
Isla warned herself not to dance a gig or whoop at the sky.
“We’ll be straight round.”
Her heart soaring, Isla made her way back inside. In the kitchen, she explained everything to Dennis.
“I should have guessed you wouldn’t really give in,” he said, before he frowned down at her slippers. “How did they get so mucky?”
Dirt covered Isla’s favourite footwear. Denis might also wonder where their trough of wild flowers had vanished to from its position by the shed.
“I have no idea.” Isla gave an airy wave of her hand. “I’m going to put my gardening shoes on.”
In the hall, she set her slippers aside. Dennis had given her a very comfortable pair. They fitted snugly about her ankles, were robust and made of leather. She wore them to every battle she could to honour her husband’s kindness, foresight… and patience. She smiled.
“You’re like a lot of folks these days, aren’t you?” she said to her slippers. “You look tough on the outside, but where it really counts you’re as soft and fluffy as a cloud.”
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