Part 1: The Beginning
The house, my house, is an oasis in a sea of concrete, brick and tarmac. My parents bought it shortly after the War; it was the only structurally sound building in a sea of devastation, all the others having been flattened by the bombs or so damaged it was cheaper to demolish them. It came with almost half an acre of land, though it took them a long time to clear away the bricks and everything that littered it.
Probably it was only because it stood on a corner that my parents were able to avoid a compulsory purchase order and save it, but they did. I once overheard something that suggested they had a friend in high places ... but the result was that our Victorian, brick-with-stone-trim, three-storey home was the only old house in the area, the rest being ugly concrete blocks of flats. Anyway, they worked so hard on the place I was born late in their lives, nineteen-seventy-one. Perhaps because of that I was over-protected, but whether it was that or something else, I was a loner.
What green there was round about was manicured (if very worn) grass and the occasional tree. My parents climbed early on the 'green' bandwagon and our garden was, let's say, informal. In fact, you could almost describe it as a jungle. It took some time, as we were some distance from the nearest park or area with meaningful gardens, but gradually our little jungle became a haven for wildlife ... mainly birds and insects, of course, but local cats loved it and had to be discouraged from decimating the bird population.
We undertook some maintenance so the plants didn't take over altogether. We cut back shrubs, particularly energetic ones like Buddleia, and twice a year cut the 'meadows' for hay. It wasn't an enormous amount, but it was warmly welcomed by a riding stable a mile or so away. Then there was the vegetable and herb garden which needed a little more attention. No formal flower beds – the meadow blossoms were quite sufficient.
I never knew what my parents did in the war, but I think that had a bearing on the fact that when I was fifteen Dad died of pulmonary disease at the age of sixty-seven, and my mother five years later, of cancer at the age of seventy. I was on my own, but I owned the house and had enough money to finish University with a physics degree. I got into computers while at University and had no problems landing a job in the industry. Not exactly on the ground floor, but probably early enough. My life was computers and the house and garden ... too shy to approach any of the young women I encountered.
I suppose the core of the story begins in about 1996, at Easter. I got in from work one day and had barely put the kettle on for tea when there was knock on the door. I grumbled a bit, but answered it to find, standing there, a young woman. Stereotyping is a bad idea, but my immediate impression was of a budding librarian. Slightly over medium height, slim, with thick-framed glasses that dominated an otherwise pretty face. Medium brown hair pinned up at the back of her head, baggy hoodie and jeans that concealed her figure.
She spoke and I was fascinated by her lips, curved and ... I had to shake my head and concentrate.
"I'm sorry, Miss ... would you mind repeating what you just said? I was a bit distracted."
"Oh ... yes ... um ... My name is Susie Shaw. I'm a student. I share a flat just there..." she waved at the ugly concrete monstrosity overlooking my own place. "I look down at the green, the flowers and trees ... I know it's cheeky, but I was wondering if I could come and sit in your garden sometimes to study? It looks so peaceful and fresh."
Now you have to realise that that was really the first encounter, on a personal level, I'd ever had with a girl of a similar age to myself – I was about five years older. I wasn't about to be fussy or critical of her attributes ... or lack of them, as the case may have been.
"Sure," I said, "help yourself. If I'm in, knock on the door and I'll see about tea or something. Otherwise, feel free. Oh, and I'm Andy Collins."
"Thanks!" She beamed at me. "Can I bring a friend, Andy?"
"Why not? Just so keep the numbers down and don't tread plants down more than absolutely necessary for access to a seat. There are benches positioned so you can usually sit either in the sun or in shade, as appropriate for the day. I'm sure you'll be quiet and not disturb the wildlife, won't you? Just sitting still won't bother the birds, but sudden movements spook them."
"Of course! This is great!"
"Come round and I'll give you a tour, if you like?"
Well, I showed her the best way to get around the house and the best paths. "Bear in mind," I told her, "that the meadows hold dew or rain quite a while and in the morning, or after rain, your legs are going to get wet unless you have wellies and over-trousers."
Greatly daring, I went on, "Have you time for a cuppa now?" I still can't believe those words came out of my mouth. Up to that point, I'd been merely responding to her interest. That was definitely a step out of my comfort-zone.
"Um. I'd really like to, but I was just popping in to ask about the garden. I need to meet a friend shortly. But perhaps another time? I mean, really, another time?"
I shrugged. "Sure. Like I said, if I'm in, call." I didn't expect her to, not at all.
Just the next day, though, I found I was wrong. She must have heard the gate (cast iron – noisy when it shuts unless you're very careful) because she was at the kitchen door when I went in to make my own tea. She was in a dress ... despite the time of year, it was sunny and warm, with little wind. It was apparent that she was quite shapely, if not spectacularly so. She was carrying a cloth bag which clearly contained books. I opened the door. "Hey, Susie. Come in."
"Thanks." she said with a warm smile.
"What can I get you? Tea? Coffee? Something herbal?"
"Herbal? Got any Rooibos?"
"Oh, yes. My mother swore by it. Frequently."
She giggled as I dropped Rooibos tea bags into mugs for the two of us, then we sat each side of the kitchen table to sup our beverages. I learned that she was training to be a primary-school teacher. In my turn, I talked a little about computing. She nodded, saying that computers were finding their way into schools and colleges, but that many students couldn't really afford them.
"In a few years," I told her, "it will be almost essential to own and use a personal computer. I know, it's my field, but they're only going to get cheaper. At least, the low end is going to get cheaper."
"You think?" She looked sceptical.
"I'm sure." I paused, and once again stuck my neck out. I liked this girl. "I need to sort out something to eat. Would you like something with me?"
"Well..." I could see a conflict in her expression. "Are you sure you don't mind?"
"I'd welcome your company. Are you in a hurry? It would be best to do something from scratch if you can spare an hour..."
"Um..." her head rocked from side to side in indecision whilst I held my breath. "Okay. I'd like that. I'd better go back to studying though, if that's okay."
That was the beginning of a growing friendship. A few weeks after that first encounter, I dug her out an obsolete BBC Master computer (128K ram ... hard to believe these days, isn't it?) and an old dot-matrix printer. She was able to use those to prepare her assignments. Of course, the files weren't entirely user-friendly and they weren't compatible with my Windows equipment, but it was certainly easier to use than handwriting or a typewriter. I saw a little less of her once she had that, as she had to work in her flat ... the old computer was definitely not portable. She did come to sit in the garden, though, and several times a week she'd eat with me. After a while, we'd alternate the cooking.
You might think I'd leap at the chance to ask for a date, make her my girlfriend. I can only say that didn't occur to me. Oh, I fancied her alright; even thought of her, imagined her naked, as I wanked at night ... but despite her welcome of my previous approaches I just couldn't somehow think in terms of ... relationship.
In late May, though, there came a day when she was very quiet and subdued. She didn't tell me what was wrong before our meal, or during it. In fact, she said very little, and though she tried to show interest in something I was saying, I could tell it was much more of an effort than usual. When we'd done eating, in fact, she appeared to be about to leave.
"Susie, I can tell there's something wrong. Won't you tell me what it is?"
"I don't like to bother you, Andy."
"Susie, aren't I your friend? I thought you were my friend." I thought she was going to cry. "Please, Susie ... tell me." She picked up her mug of tea and stalked off into the lounge and I followed, in time to see her sink wearily into an armchair.
I sat quietly in another chair, fairly close, at an angle to her so I could look at her without being intimidating (I didn't know what I was doing at the time, it was just instinctive),
We sat silent for a while.
"My flat-mate has been arrested for possession of a banned substance," she said, despondently. "I told her she'd get caught out eventually if she kept using..." she looked up, directly at me. "It was only marijuana," she said, "I know it's not exactly dangerous usually, but the University is on crusade about the stuff just now, and she's been supplying it to others. I asked her to be more careful, but..." she shrugged, and stopped.
"Okay, your friend's in trouble. But other than your concern for her, how does that affect you?"
.... There is more of this story ...