WRITTEN BY CHRISTINE SUTTON
It was the place of special memories, but would it also be where her gran’s prediction came true?
Entering the abbey, Milly glanced up at the archway of lichen-covered bricks. One day the perilously unsupported structure must surely bow to the inevitable and fall, just as the vast, vaulted roof and several walls had done. For the moment, though, all seemed fine.
Adjusting her earbuds, she switched on her phone. The sound of monks’ chants filled her head, bringing a sense of calm and peace. If she closed her eyes she could almost imagine herself to be walking in the midst of the brown-robed brethren. When a crow cawed close by, she looked up, eyes narrowed. “Thank you, bird.”
The crow bobbed its head, as if acknowledging the rebuke.
Milly’s love of monastic music was inherited from her grandmother Susan, a talented chorister and active member of her local church.
“Even non-believers can find solace in places like this,” Gran had whispered, as they’d stood, arms linked, gazing up at the magnificent stained glass window of Notre Dame. It was April 2019 and the trip was Gran’s 18th birthday gift to Milly before she started uni. In a weekend of eclectic self-indulgence, they’d visited the Louvre, sampled sinfully delicious pastries from a patisserie, dined at the Moulin Rouge, and spent a convivial evening wine tasting in the cobbled jardin of a vineyard.
They’d finished their trip with an amble through the artists’ quarter, Montmartre. Here, to Milly’s astonishment, Gran had revealed she’d met her first love, Nathaniel, fifty years before. “He laughingly told me his name meant Gift of God and to the seventeen-year-old me, caught up in the romance of the city of love, that’s exactly what he was. I was staying with my French pen-pal, Pascale. She was seeing a boy, too, and was happy to let me go my own way once we left the house. Nathaniel took me to cafes and galleries and to see the Eiffel Tower by moonlight. It was magical.”
“Oh, I can imagine,” Milly had sighed.
Gran had patted her hand. “Don’t you worry, my lovely, there’s a special person waiting just around the corner to be your first love – maybe even your forever one. He’ll find you, never fret.”
Arriving home next day, they’d watched in tears the coverage of the devastating fire that had ripped through the majestic cathedral they’d visited just days before.
Four years on, Notre Dame would soon be welcoming visitors once more, but Milly had yet to experience the longed-for, heart-stopping feeling of her first real romance.
Not that there hadn’t been boys around those promised corners. In Brussels she’d spent time with Dieter, a fellow student on her archaeology course. Later, on her first dig in Edinburgh, there’d been affable Angus, a giant ox of a man more likely to dislocate her shoulder with a playful thump than a show of affection. Much as she’d enjoyed their company, neither had set her pulse racing. How many more corners, she wondered, before the magic happened?
Milly came to a halt before the high altar, reduced now to a pile of mossy stones. Lost in thought, she gave a start when a shape shot past her, a blur of black and white. It was followed moments later by a much bigger blur. She caught a glimpse of faded jeans and t-shirt streaked with dirt before the figure pounded away.
“Sorry,” a voice yelled back. “Little perisher’s got my dibber!”
Thinking that wasn’t a phrase you heard every day, Milly watched the man chase after the little dog – for that, she could now see, was what the first blur had been. From the back the man looked strong and fit, running with easy strides, shoulder muscles straining his t-shirt.
A moment later they disappeared beneath the perilous archway.
Shouldering her bag, she walked through the doorway they’d just emerged from and into the garden beyond.
Once, this quadrangle of tufty grass would have been edged with cultivated flowers, the air heady with the fragrance of roses and gardenia. Now wildflowers held sway and the borders were a riot of ragwort, thistles and mallow. Tucked away behind the far wall, a herb garden would have provided ingredients for the apothecary’s remedies, plants like borage, meadowsweet, peppermint and thyme.
Milly slipped off her shoes and was strolling barefoot through the grass when, through the far gate, came the running man, walking now and holding the panting Jack Russell in his arms.
“Got it,” he called, waving a pointy stick. “He’s really got a thing for this, thinks it’s a toy.”
“I assume, that is your dibber?”
“Got it in one.”
He waved again, then stepped through another gate into the old herb garden. Milly frowned. What was he doing, going in there? Well-meaning amateurs could do untold damage in historic sites. Curious, she hurried after him.
She found him kneeling before a freshly dug bed, pushing the dibber into the soil.
“What’re you doing?” she asked, her voice sounding sharper than she’d intended. The man sat back on his heels.
“Planting mustard seeds. Why?”
“Do you have permission?”
His brow briefly furrowed. “I’m restoring the gardens – or trying to, when Barney here lets me.” He ruffled the dog’s fur. “It’s part of a two-year programme of renovation. Not just here but in several areas of the abbey.”
Milly coloured. The team leader had told her there would be other authorised groups working here but she’d been so wrapped up in the importance of their own project it had barely registered.
“Sorry, didn’t mean to be rude. I just didn’t realise work had started. I’m with the archaeology group and our excavations don’t begin until next week.”
“No, it’s good to check, I’d do the same. I started last week, but then my partner was taken to hospital with a burst appendix, so I’m pushing on alone.”
The word partner gave Milly a stab of disappointment. She bent to pull her trainers back on and to tickle the little dog’s ears.
“Well, if you need any help, digging’s sort of my thing,” she told the man. His eyes were the colour of bluebells, she noticed. A deep lilacky blue.
Those eyes lit up. “The magic word – help. Although it’s not so much digging I need, as clearing. I’ll keep a few of the bramble bushes, they would definitely have known about the health benefits of blackberries back then, but they’re rampant growers, so they need to be cut right back.”
“I can prune,” Milly said confidently. “I’m a girl of many talents.”
His smile was warm. “I can believe it.”
Milly felt a flare of heat inside. His corn-gold fringe was falling across his face and he absently pushed it back, leaving a smear of dirt on his forehead. Her fingers itched to brush it away. Getting to his feet, he crossed to a wheelbarrow.
“You’ll need these,” he said, holding out gardening gloves and secateurs.
Milly pulled on the gloves. They were huge on her and it crossed her mind that the last hands inside them would have been his. The unintended intimacy made her pulse quicken and she shot him a glance. What on earth was happening to her here?
“I’m Milly, by the way,” she said, positioning the cutters over a tough stem and squeezing. It barely gave. She squeezed harder, clenching her jaw until the blades met with a satisfying snap.
“Dave,” he said. “Dave Gardener.”
She glanced around to see him watching her closely. “Seriously?”
His lips twitched. “Nah, not really. It’s Hill. I’m just teasing.”
She laughed. “Mine’s Minnie Trowell.”
He snorted and the dog yapped.
She stared at him, feigning affront. “Something wrong with that?”
His face fell. “It’s really Trowell?”
“Yes, really,” she said, with a grin. “So I was either destined to do your job, or mine, and given how useless I’m proving at this…” she struggled to cut another thick, woody branch, “I think I probably made the right choice, but…” she gave a grunt, “I won’t let it… defeat me. There!” She held the branch aloft in triumph.
“Yay,” he crowed, “Milly, one, brambles, nil.”
For an hour they worked, swapping stories and chatting about their respective projects. When Milly stopped to ease her aching back, Dave shot to his feet.
“Here, I’ll take over now, you have a short break. Unless you’ve had enough, of course?”
“No,” she said quickly, “I’m loving it. It makes such a change, actually – but I do need a drink.”
She pulled off the gloves and grimaced. A large blister sat like a overstuffed cushion where her thumb met her palm.
“Ouch,” said Dave. “Hold on.”
He went and plucked a sprig from one of the more established plants.
“It’s thyme,” he said, when her brows rose enquiringly, “It’s quite an effective anti-inflammatory. Usually you’d infuse it, like tea, but it can’t hurt to try the leaves like this.”
He laid the sprig gently on her palm. As she curled her fingers to keep it in place, they accidentally touched his. Her heart leapt. Had he felt that too – that tingle up the spine?
So, uh… how long do you think your partner – sorry, what was the name…?
“Glen,” he said, starting to rake away the brambles.
“Glen, right. How long do you think he’ll be indisposed?”
“A couple of weeks, I imagine. His wife Lucy won’t let him come back too soon.”
So, a business partner then, and not a life one.
“So, you might need help over the weekend, too?”
“No ‘might’ about it. I’d love some help, if you’re free.”
A movement behind him caught her eye. Barney was making another run for it with the dibber.
“Uh, oh,” she said, with a nod.
Dave whipped around just as the terrier darted through the gate.
“Why, you little…!”
Standing in the gateway, Milly watched their madcap chase around the green and on through the far gateway. As they disappeared from view, her phone pinged. It was a text from Gran.
Where R U?
She quickly sent a reply.
Sorry, Gran, been delayed. Xplain later. Mill. XXX
Unscrewing the water bottle, Milly took a long swig.
Ten minutes later, Dave and Barney came bounding back.
“There you are,” she said. “I thought you’d gone to Timbuktu!”
“Not quite that far,” Dave grinned. “I’ve been making you this.”
He held out a posy of wildflowers, wrapped around with soft green moss.
“This glories in the very odd name of a tussie-mussie. In medieval times they were given as tokens of appreciation. It’s quite late in the season but I managed to find some columbine and willowherb – and this furry fellow, called traveller’s joy. And the orange coloured daisy there is black-eyed Susan – because of the dark middle, I suppose.”
“But Susan’s my gran’s name,” Milly cried.
Thank you, Dave, it’s lovely. No one’s ever given me wildflowers before.
He smiled. “And no one’s ever helped me this way either. I’m so glad our paths crossed today, Milly. It feels… oh, I don’t know, special somehow.”
A memory of Paris popped into Milly’s head. There’s a special person waiting just around the corner for you too, my lovely, Gran had said. Four years on, Milly thought she might just have met him.