The white car is steered carefully by the woman’s left hand. Her right cradles what looks like a baby. Heads turn as she passes a group of women, who are decidedly juggling baby paraphernalia, strapping tiny bundles into all terrain contraptions hardly resembling the baby-carriages I used to know.
I watch as they react to what they think they’ve seen. Expressions of exaggerated dismay gallop across their cosmetically perfect faces, their hands flap with manicured gestures of disdain. Their eyes follow the car to an empty area of the car park.
The woman is slow to leave her car, but still we watch, the mothers and I. The only difference between us is that I know what to expect and they do not. Lottie remains a beautiful woman, slim, elegant, poised. Her blonde hair is cut to frame her fine features, and traps the sunlight as she moves. Her movements are economical, but flow like those of a dancer. As she moves away from the car it becomes obvious that it is a dog cradled in her arms, a small breed with prominent eyes. Its coat is the colour of honey and its shine rivals that of Lottie’s hair. This is Bruce, her constant companion.
Today they both wear bright turquoise. They are utterly co-ordinated. Not that she dresses the animal, but it wears a jaunty harness and lead in the exact shade of Lottie’s close fitting trousers, over which is a caftan of silky material that pours over her body as she moves. She carries a cloth bag of the same blue and now the dog canters along beside her, connected to her cocked wrist by a bright fluid stream that is the blue lead.
The mothers cannot contain themselves. I can hear their strident comments from my position a few yards away.
“What on earth does she think she looks like?”
“That’s no way to treat a dog.”
“Poor dog more like. That’s sheer lunacy, matching colours, handling it as though it is breakable. As for nursing it like a child when driving, surely that must be illegal?”
“ The nursing or the co-ordinated outfits, I can’t decide which is worse.”
“It’s sad, but I suppose she has at least stopped short of dressing the creature in designer label costumes.”
“Talking of labels…”
I tune out the women’s crass words but take stock of their reaction. Rather than being relieved that there was no child, they are visibly agitated, and cheep at each other with much head shaking and ill concealed merriment. Their collective eyes are pinned to Lottie as she makes her way to the gate of the walled garden, encouraging Bruce all the way in a low voice, urging him along on his tiny legs. I hope their interest will wane and that they will move on like butterflies, to pounce on the next curious thing. I wonder briefly what it is about Lottie that has upset them so much and then dismiss them and their rudeness as my attention returns to the reasons for my vigil.
Lottie knows I am here. We planned this afternoon’s activities when she rang at dawn this morning,
“Tony, can you be free at three this afternoon? It has to be today.”
Her voice was tight with discomfort.
“ Are you sure Lottie?”
“ I’m sure. Just look at the sky. It has to be today. Three o clock at the Lavender Gardens.”
I did not understand the reference to the sky, but I was overjoyed that she was determined, and so I agreed. I would be there, would watch. She would telephone to discover what I had seen.
Lottie is my sister-in-law. Alan, my younger brother, died a year ago and Lottie has been bereft to the extent that she withdrew from life in an alarming way. An unassuming and unremarkable man, Alan’s one great success was his choice of wife. Lottie, beautiful, wealthy, gracious, had fallen for him at the age of seventeen and had remained devoted to him for the last fifty years.
As I watch from my Jaguar, Lottie picks up Bruce and tucks his passive body into the crook of her arm, exactly as when she had been driving. She bends her head to his. I notice that the sky behind her matches their outfits perfectly. Now I understand her reference to the sky. Lovely though she undoubtedly is, Lottie has become increasingly strange during her widowhood.
I am proud as she moves through the gateway, head high, nervousness under control, though I am perturbed to see the cluster of women and pushchairs following close behind. One of them holds a child’s soft toy in her arms. I believe she is attempting to imitate Lottie. She should not waste her time. Never in her lifetime will she match the presence and beauty of the woman in front of her. I hope that Lottie is unaware. She does not deserve to be caricatured.
I find a bench inside the garden. I can see most of the space, and the terrace where tea is served. I watch strollers bask in the warm sunlight and bury their noses amongst the flowering lavenders. The heady perfume affects me at my post, pungent and sun-scented. A sense of contentment steals over me, and I relax. I notice appreciative glances from women who pass. Where Alan was plain, I am attractive, his diffidence is my urbanity, his awkwardness in me becomes sophistication, charm. This is not conceit but truth, though my notorious bachelorhood pales in comparison with his marriage. I had the best of our shared genes, but he won the game of love. I smile and nod at the women, nothing more.
Seated on the terrace, Lottie is sharing a confection with Bruce. Her pale head lifts, her attention shifting from the dog to the people around her. I sense rather than see her small frown at the sound of fractious babies. I know their cries will arouse her sympathy. I hope she will not approach the women, for they will not take kindly to her intervention, having written her off as slightly batty, a figure worthy only of ridicule. I turn my eyes towards the mothers. They appear discomfited by the non-designer behaviour of their offspring. One of them, the most scornful of the group, the one who had mimicked Lottie earlier with the toy, notices Lottie’s interest. I have no idea what she says, but Lottie looks taken aback. She clumsily gathers bag and dog and rises to leave. Gauche now as she moves, her complexion, unattractively sallow, clashes with the cyanic hue of her clothes. I turn my head. I will not witness her disquiet, or her graceless departure. When I reach my car she is gone.
It is past suppertime when she phones,
“Lottie, well done,”
“What did you see – was there anyone…”
“I watched nothing more sinister than a beautiful woman taking tea Lottie,.”
“But I felt it, someone …”
“No-one. You have shut yourself away too long. At last you have beaten your fear. Now not only can you shop, visit the doctor, the library, but you can begin to enjoy yourself.”
“ Are you sure there was no-one following me. At times I was sure he was there….”
“There was no-one bar some rude young women, some lonely older ones, and me, looking out for your safety. You are neither being stalked nor haunted my dear girl.”
“ Maybe you are right, perhaps it is just the loneliness.” She sighs as though she has been holding her breath far too long.
“Do you want me to drive past to check the street? Or are we finished with all that?”
“No, you must be right. I must get used to feeling…different. I am sorry to be so silly. I’ll see you for lunch on Sunday as usual.”
“Goodnight then. See you Sunday.”
I enjoy one celebratory whisky. Lottie at last knows she is safe.
Much later, in the Prussian blue of a July night, I click shut the door of my car. I drive to the supermarket car park. It is a short walk to the churchyard overlooking Lottie’s garden. I know that I can stand in the gloom of the yews, breathe in the night-scents of greensward and lust, as I watch her moving behind her curtain. My love is preparing for sleep and I will watch over her.