Her friends thought they had the perfect marriage. “You and Harvey get on so well. How do you do it?”
Doreen didn’t know how they did it. Maybe it was that they had learnt from the mistakes they’d made first time round and pre-empted them in their prenuptial agreement. Maybe it was that they worked, as well as lived, together. Maybe it was that the project was bigger than either of them.
Driving back from the station in the early morning light, Doreen wondered what her friends would make of this recent hiccup. Was Harvey’s trip back to England proof of the strength of their relationship, or a crack in its very foundations?
It had never occurred to her to try to dissuade him. How could he miss his daughter’s eighteenth birthday party? But she’d have felt a great deal easier had he at least gone through the motions of offering to stay behind. After all, it had been his decision to hold the open day just two days after Lily’s birthday. He’d shrugged off Doreen’s reminders of the potential diary clash clash with the rebuke that the girl would be roaming the world until the summer. End of story, until Lily got bitten by homesickness on Bondi Beach and had to fly home at short notice and great expense to Harvey.
It’s not that I begrudge her the party, it’s not that I begrudge him the break, Doreen thought as she pulled the jeep to a halt beside the chicken coop. It’s the timing. If he’d listened to me I wouldn’t be juggling all the last-minute jobs on my own.
Across the other side of the plot, Doreen spotted a figure emerging from one of the caravans, ambling sleepily towards the toilet block. Harvey hadn’t left her to do it all alone. There was Oriel, the apprentice. And the volunteers, the phalanx of eco-warriors who, in two years, had helped convert one and a half hectares of Breton wasteland into a model smallholding, the last word in organic horticulture and husbandry. Harvey’s two-day absence couldn’t detract from the success of what they had created together.
Doreen gazed with satisfaction over her domain: the chickens; the pigs in their sty; the goats; the pond; the orchard; the herb garden; the compost heaps; the reed beds; the raised vegetable beds. Shit, the vegetable beds! As Doreen hurtled towards the vegetable garden, a pair of rabbits darted towards the perimeter fence and ducked underneath.
Oriel raced across from the caravans. “Merde! Harvey is going to be so upset. He was all yesterday afternoon planting out his haricot verts and maintenant …”
When she saw what remained of the bean plants, headless green stems flopping along the line of bamboo poles, Doreen burst into tears. Well, she could hardly start cursing Harvey in front of their employee, could she? She’d told her husband over and over to put up some chicken wire to keep the rabbits out.
Oriel touched her arm. “Do not worry. We can get some more bean plants.”
“We can get some bean plants! But some bean plants aren’t what we need.” Doreen plucked a label from the soil, scrawled in Harvey’s handwriting. “These are rare varieties. They come from a single supplier, and only as seed, heritage seed. Even with Harvey’s magic compost they won’t grow into plants in time for the opening day.”
“Soyez tranquille. I’ll put it right.”
Doreen could read the signs in his eyes: hysterical Englishwoman. “I’d give anything to the man who could put that right.”
“Anything.” She wiped her eyes with the back of her hand, forced out a laugh. “Even my body!”
Back at the house, Doreen swallowed a couple of aspirins and lay down. They were only a few bean plants, and yet the public would expect to see them. Unusual varieties, it said on the website.
She checked the time. Harvey wouldn’t yet have boarded Eurostar. If she phoned him, he would come home and sort it out.
But time off was time off. Respecting each other’s individual needs was part of what made their marriage work. She wouldn’t be a party pooper, a wicked stepmother. She would manage this herself.
Her friends said they could always rely on Doreen: she always kept her word. Waking in the night, disturbed by Harvey’s absence, Doreen wondered how many promises one could break for this to still hold true. No one seemed to mind that she, along with countless others, had broken her original marriage vows of Till death do us part. What then of her promise to Oriel? I’d give anything. Even my body. She had wanted a joke to banish her tears, but what a joke! All that day, as they exhumed weeds and tidied plots in readiness for the visitors, she’d detected a hint of expectation in his gaze. Humour is a risky business in another language.
Did she mean it as more than a joke? Might she, in the depths of her subconscious, feel attracted towards him? Had the words slipped out to punish Harvey for leaving at such an inconvenient time?
Doreen wrapped her arms around her husband’s pillow. It wasn’t as if she would be called upon to fulfil her side of the bargain. It wasn’t as if Oriel would be able to replace the french beans.
Doreen arose soon after dawn. With twenty-four hours until the open day, she was beginning to feel the calmness that comes on reaching the point where what happens next is largely outside one’s control. Maybe she could transplant some flowers into the empty bed. Or leave it bare and tell the visitors the story of the rabbits. After all, it was the very essence of organic gardening to work with nature rather than against it. It didn’t need to be perfect.
Around mid-morning, she made her way to the vegetable garden to start dismantling the beanpoles. Her fingers fumbled with the wire binding at the tops of the poles.
“Attendez une minute! I am going to plant these.”
Oriel set down a plywood box crammed with seedlings in individual biodegradable grow-tubes. The heart-shaped leaves, the tiny buds of red and white and purple flowers, the stems striving to spiral around an imaginary pole: there was no doubt that these were beans. Doreen inspected the labels. Bonne Bouche. Coco Bicolour. Lazy Housewife. Ryder’s Top O’ The Pole. Not any old beans, but heritage varieties.
“How did you do it?”
“I have my contacts.”
“Oriel, you’re amazing. How would we manage without you?”
Oriel smiled. “I will have my reward. Bientôt.”
Her friends said that Harvey would do anything for her. Doreen remembered this, hand-in-hand with her husband, strolling around their property in the moonlight. Still she hesitated to tell him what had happened in his absence.
Although tired from his trip, he had wanted to pace the site before tomorrow’s opening. At the vegetable plot he came to a halt. “I can’t believe the beans have grown so much in two days.”
Choking back her tears, Doreen explained about the rabbits, her ill-conceived joke with Oriel, the replacement plants conjured out of nowhere, her concern that the apprentice expected more than their thanks in return. As she unburdened herself, she felt easier. They walked back to the house, arms wrapped around each other’s waists. Harvey would know what to do. He’d find a way of appeasing Oriel that didn’t require pimping his wife.
“Oriel’s a good worker,” said Harvey. “He puts in far more hours than we pay him for. We’d never have got this far without him. And a promise is a promise. It’s a small price to pay for all he’s done for us.”
“You think I should go through with it? The project means that much to you?”
“I’ll leave it to you,” said Harvey. “Let’s go to bed now. We’ve got a big day tomorrow.”
Doreen arose early and waited near the caravans until Oriel emerged to go to the washrooms. “I’ve spoken to Harvey about the bargain I made with you.”
Oriel rubbed at the stubble on his chin. “He must be furieux.”
“He told me to keep my promise.”
Oriel shook his head. “What magnanimité!”
The sun was spreading its rays across the site, but they couldn’t penetrate the husk that was hardening around Doreen. “Come on, Oriel. Let’s get it over with.”
Oriel held her by the shoulders, looked solemnly into her eyes. “Doreen, I have adored you ever since we met. La nuit I dream of making love to you. But I have no desire to profit from the infortune of Harvey. I release you from your promise.”
Her friends said that after all these years, Doreen was living her dream. A house in France; a husband who shared her love of the land; an escape from the confines of the nine to five. As she served English tea and scones to the line of smiling visitors, Doreen reflected that other people, even close friends, were oblivious of the spade-work and sacrifice needed to keep up the façade. What disturbed her was the suspicion that her husband was content to delegate the bulk of this back-room work to her.
They met up intermittently throughout the day, when Harvey ushered a party of visitors into the tea-tent on completion of their tour. Each time he looked increasingly animated. “I can’t believe how well it’s going. It’s all I ever hoped for, and more.”
Each time she saw him, Doreen felt increasingly weary, her back aching from standing at the tea urn. “Remind me why we’re doing this!” But Harvey had swaggered off to escort another group around the smallholding and, if he answered, she didn’t hear.
When the crowds departed, Harvey lit the barbecue and uncorked a case of burgundy for the volunteers. Doreen sat slightly apart, but within hearing distance of where Oriel and her husband were chewing over the events of the last couple of days.
“Jolly decent of that fellow to give you those bean plants,” said Harvey. “Really saved the show. Few people would be so generous.”
“Except you,peut-être,” said Oriel, “insisting that Doreen keep her word. It cannot have been easy for you.”
“No, but I wasn’t aiming to do what was easy,” said Harvey. “I was trying to do what was right. Anyway, if we’re talking decency, what about you? You let her off. I’m extremely grateful for that.”
Doreen cradled her glass. The barbecue was smoking, pricking at her eyes. She told herself to be patient: once he’d properly congratulated the apprentice, Harvey would turn to her to acknowledge the partnership that underpinned it all.
“Who cares which one of us was the most magnanimous? This is bigger than bean plants, or honouring a promise.” Harvey stood up and walked towards Doreen. She smiled and raised her glass.
Her husband’s gaze appeared to be focused on a point beyond her left shoulder. He raised his voice as if still in tour-leader mode: “All that matters is the project. That’s the only reason any of us are here.” He sauntered past her to attend to the barbecue and his troupe of volunteers.
The only reason? Doreen gazed out towards the Eden her perfect marriage had created. The chickens, the pigs in their sty, the goats, the pond, the orchard, the ornamental garden, the herb garden, the compost heaps, the reed beds, the raised vegetable beds. Working with nature to improve on nature; three days before, it would have made her proud.
Over by the raised vegetable beds, Doreen detected some movement. She narrowed her eyes and focused in on the rows of heritage french beans where a family of rabbits nibbled at the new buds of red and white and purple flowers.