Bea stood at the kitchen window watching Danny, her son, his arms filled with small heaps of vegetable matter, running on his little legs backwards and forwards between the man digging the beds and the compost heap. He had been out there for nearly forty minutes, 'helping'. Bea's heart swelled with pride at her little man's eagerness to do his bit: at the same time she recognised the familiar look of determination on his face that reminded her so very much of Tony, her late husband.
The little boy had never known his father, but he had never been short of love. But as he was getting older he was getting more adventurous and needed a bigger world to explore. Bea had never had the time, or the knowledge, to keep her house's large garden in check, so she had brought in a specialist to convert it from an overgrown jungle to a safe environment for her son to play in. She walked down the garden path to where all the activity was taking place.
"I've made you a sandwich, Mr Hammond. Come into the house and I'll make you a cup of tea. I've made you some lunch, too, Dan ... you've been working very hard this morning!"
"I've been doing composting, Mummy! Ben says it makes things grow better! Isn't that right, Ben?"
"It is indeed, Danny! But we have to be very patient: it takes a long time to grow things."
Bea looked down at her son and smiled: sometimes she forgot that he was only four, he seemed much older with some of the things he said. But her years as a teacher had taught her that young children soak up things like sponges, and that they can constantly surprise. Danny toddled on ahead of the other two, then sat on the doorstep while he tried to pull off his red Wellington boots.
"I hope he hasn't slowed you down too much, Mr Hammond."
"No, not at all! He's a great little kid!"
"Do you have children, Mr Hammond, you seem very comfortable with Danny?"
"No, no family, Mrs Bishop, and please call me Ben if you want to."
"Thank you! And my friends and family call me 'Bea'. I was christened Beatrice, but that's too much of a name for a little girl, so it usually got shortened." By the time that they got to the door, Danny was already inside.
"Don't worry about your boots, Ben; I only get Danny to take his off so that he doesn't traipse mud through the house. Have a seat, please!"
Before Ben sat down he took off his jacket, which he hung over the back of a chair, then he walked to the sink to wash his hands. Bea found herself watching him, and taking in his strong arms, broad shoulders, narrow waist, and, yes, his firm buttocks! He had a mop of curly brown hair that reached his shoulders and covered his ears. She had also caught a glimpse of brown eyes, and when she had been watching him and Danny in the garden, she had seen that he often smiled when he was with the boy: a lovely, natural, warm smile, she thought. She couldn't imagine two men more unlike than Ben and her husband; but when she looked at him something stirred inside her.
Bea had loved her husband deeply for the entire short time that they were together, but she was still a sensual woman, who sometimes longed for more than just the affection that an adoring little boy could give to his mother.
As he turned off the taps, she turned away. He dried his hands then sat at the table: Danny was already seated and eating his lunch. Bea put the sandwich in front of Ben, then poured hot water into a large mug.
"Have you been a gardener long, Ben?"
"Yes, I started at about Danny's age. My dad has been a professional all his working life: he works for the Alvechurch Estate."
"My Daddy's in Heaven!" Danny chipped in. Bea smiled a sad smile and wiped her hand through Danny's hair.
"I'm very sorry to hear that, Mrs Bishop!"
"Thank you!" Bea replied, but she didn't elaborate. "Please carry on with what you were saying, Ben ... about your father."
"Yes, he's head gardener for Lord Asbury. I worked there from the age of 16 until a few years ago, then I fancied having a go on my own, on a smaller scale."
"And how is that working out for you, Ben?"
"I'm just about making enough to get by. I have a small, regular client list, but obviously there's less to do in the winter, so I have to pick up whatever casual work I can get. It can be hard sometimes, but I like the independence."
"Well, we'll be happy for you to come here again, won't we, Dan."
"Ooh, yes! Come again, Ben! Can I help you if you do? I like growing things!"
"Of course you can! I think maybe a few more days to get the garden tidy and in order, then less frequent visits to keep things that way."
"That sounds good! Have you got any more free time this week?"
"Hmm, let me think ... yes, I could come again for a few hours on Friday."
"When's Friday, Mummy?"
"It's not tomorrow, or the day after that ... but it is the day after that."
"Oh, goody!" the little boy said, excitedly.
"But I've got some more to do today, Dan, if you want to help me," Ben said.
"Ooh, yes, please!"
"Is that all right ... Bea?"
"I don't see why not!"
She helped Danny on with his boots again, then she watched as Ben hoisted him effortlessly onto his broad shoulders and carried him down the garden.
"So, are you seeing Frank tonight?" Bea's best friend, Sarah, asked her. For the last year she had been trying to get Bea to start dating again. Bea had steadfastly held out against this idea, but in a moment of uncharacteristic weakness, she had given in and agreed to have dinner with Frank Chesney, a friend of Sarah's husband, Chris.
"Yes, we're having a meal at La Valois."
"And then I'm coming home, to bed."
"That's the spirit!"
" ... Alone! Really, Sarah, we aren't all obsessed with sex!"
"I'm not obsessed, I just have a healthy interest and a very hunky husband! I'm sure that you and Tony..." Sarah stopped mid-sentence when she realised what she had done.
"It's okay! It's been five years: he's left me Danny and some wonderful memories! He's never going away, even if I do meet someone, one day." Sarah gripped her hand.
"I know, Bea, but just give Frank a chance; he's very good looking, and a nice guy!"
" ... Maybe! But I'm still sleeping alone tonight!"
She got up to look out of the window into the garden, where Danny was once again helping Ben. She couldn't hear what they were saying, of course, but Ben was crouched down near the ground explaining something to her son, who was listening attentively to what he was being told. She became aware that Sarah had joined her at the window.
"Hmm! Not bad! And the garden's looking pretty good, too!"
"Yes, it's coming on," Bea said, choosing to ignore her friend's innuendo. "Danny's taken a real interest; it's all he seems to talk about at the moment."
"Come on, Bea: I've known you too long, you can't tell me that he's the only one interested in gardening at the moment ... But I don't blame you ... he is rather yummy!"
She felt the heat rise to her face. Bea wanted to deny her friend's implication, but she had to admit to herself that Ben was starting to interest her: and for more reasons than just his horticultural expertise!
It had been a pleasant evening with Frank, who had turned out to be as good looking and charming as Sarah had said. He was also a teacher, they came from similar social backgrounds and had several other things in common; but there was no 'spark', and certainly no sexual attraction, at least not on Bea's part. So after inviting him in for coffee and then politely declining his invitation to 'do this again sometime', they exchanged chaste pecks on the cheek and said good night.
Bea got into her cold bed, where she slept fitfully: partly because she missed her son; but also because her thoughts kept turning to a certain handsome landscape gardener. In the morning she got up and showered, before driving the short distance to collect Danny from her parent's house.
"Who's Ben, Darling?" her mother asked her, "Danny hardly stopped talking about him yesterday. Is there something I should know about?"
" ... He's a nice man who's doing the gardening. Danny likes to go and help him and they get on very well together. That's all, nothing else to tell..."
"And how was your date, Darling ... Frank, I believe you said?"
"He's a nice man, too, Mummy, but believe me, I'm not looking for someone to replace Tony; but the odd evening out with adult company makes a nice change." Just then Danny came bounding in from the garden, followed by her father. Bea scooped him up in her arms and hugged and kissed him. " ... Did you miss me, Dan?"
"Of course, silly! I've been telling Granddad about our garden, Mummy! When's Ben coming again?" Bea registered the looks on her parent's faces, but she didn't comment.
"Not until next week now, Darling. He has other people's gardens to look after, too, you know!"
While they were driving home, Danny was chatting away as usual, but while listening to him, Bea also tried to get her thoughts in order regarding Ben. Her parent's look wasn't exactly one of disapproval: rather, it seemed to be saying 'be careful!' Bea wondered if they were right: was her son getting too attached to Ben? And what did she really think about the good looking gardener?
Danny was so excited about helping Ben again, but she knew how capricious children could be, and by next week he might have gone off gardening and latched onto something else; but until that happened, she couldn't see the point in discouraging him, or risking upsetting her baby! She would watch and listen, and only if she thought that there was the potential for a problem would she say something to Ben.
The following Wednesday, when Ben arrived to continue working in the garden, Danny was as excited as ever by his arrival, and as usual Bea watched the two of them interacting in the way that she'd always previously imagined Tony would with their children. And although it did occur to her that maybe Danny was getting too close to Ben, she thought that it wasn't altogether a bad thing for the little boy to have such a positive role-model: and she, herself, was beginning to see the advantages of Ben perhaps, just perhaps, being a more permanent fixture in both their lives.
When Ben came in for his usual lunchtime break, he washed his hands, but then before he sat down to eat, he took an envelope out of his pocket and handed it to Bea.
"Happy Birthday!" he said, then quickly planted a small kiss on her cheek. "I'm sorry if you can't read it very well ... I have awful handwriting." Bea looks flustered.
" ... But ... but how..." Ben looked a little embarrassed.
"I hope you don't mind. I have a very good memory and I remembered hearing you say something on the phone last time I was her."
"Of course I don't mind!" Bea said, having recovered her composure, "It's lovely that you remembered!" Then leaning in she returned his chaste kiss.
" ... Er ... I was wondering ... I was wondering, if you'd like to come out with me for a meal ... to celebrate your birthday?"
Bea smiled at him sweetly. She didn't really need time to think about it, so she took a deep breath and then said: "Yes, please! I'd love to go out with you!" She was feeling the way that she hadn't for a long, long time. She had that same fluttering in her stomach that she used to get as a pretty teenager when boys had first started asking her out. The last time that she could remember feeling it, was when she was waiting to have her pregnancy confirmed. But despite her own eagerness, she needed to check with the other person who might be affected by her actions.
"You don't mind Mummy going out with Ben one evening do you, Dan? You can go and stay with Nanny and Granddad again."
"No ... but ... can't I come with you?" Bea hugged him.
"No, not this time, Darling! We'll be out way past your bedtime. But perhaps Ben will take us both out somewhere another time!" Danny smiled as brightly as his mother just had.
"Oh, would you, Ben!"
"Yes, of course I will ... if you both want me to!"
They had a bath and then Danny sat on the bed in his pyjamas while Bea, wearing just her underwear, searched her wardrobe for something suitable to wear. She remembered when she had gone out to dinner with Frank Chesney she had known exactly what to wear and she was ready in under half an hour. This time, though, she just couldn't decide, and she had tried on several different dresses already. Her father would be here in fifteen minutes to collect Dan and she still couldn't decide! Even young Danny seemed to sense his mother's growing agitation.
"What's the matter, Mummy ... don't you like Ben?" Bea sat down next to her son and put her arm around him.
"You might not understand this, Darling, but I like him a lot ... that's the problem!"
He had been watching her and wondering why she had been taking clothes out of her closet, trying them on, looking in the mirror, then taking them off and putting them back.
"Mummy, do you have a dress that my Daddy liked?" Bea smiled and kissed him on the head.
" ... When did you get to be so clever, Baby!" Danny just giggled.
" ... I don't know, Mummy."
Bea took a simple black dress off of its hanger and stepped into it. "Zip me up, Darling!"
At eight o'clock the doorbell rang: Bea was almost nauseous with anticipation as she walked to the door to open it. Her eyes opened wide with awe at the sight that confronted her: she knew that Ben was ruggedly good looking in his work clothes; but the clean-shaven man at the door, wearing a smart blue suit and a crisp white shirt, was absolutely gorgeous! And in his hand was a bouquet of at least two dozen beautiful, long-stem red roses. He leaned in and kissed her cheek ... his lips felt as soft as the petals of the roses he carried. He seemed almost as awestruck as her:
"I think you're looking very beautiful this evening, Bea!"
" ... Hmm ... what ... yes ... thank you! Please come in."
"These are from my garden," he said, handing her the flowers. "I hope you like roses?"
"I adore them! And such lovely aromas! I'll just put them in water, then we can go."
"I'm afraid I don't eat out very often, so I picked a restaurant at random: it's called La Valois ... do you know it?" She wanted to say: 'Yes, I was there recently. But it's very expensive ... for a gardener!' But instead she said: "Yes, I have been there before ... it's very nice!"
"I thought it was probably not a good idea to go in the van, though," he said, smiling, "So I borrowed a friend's car: he lets me use it occasionally, so I'm on his insurance." When they got to the restaurant, Ben opened the door for her. Bea recognised the maitre d' from her previous visit; but if he remembered her, he didn't acknowledge the fact.
"I have a reservation in the name of Hammond, for 8:30."
"Of course, Sir! You're table is free ... if you'd care to follow me!" They were seated opposite each other at a table for two.
"Would you care to order drinks now?"
"Not for me, thank you!" Ben replied, " ... Bea?"
"Nor for me, either!" she said with a smile.
The waiter handed them both a menu. It was at this point that Ben began to look noticeably uncomfortable: Bea thought that it might be because he had seen the prices. She looked at him and waited for him to speak.
" ... I have a confession, Bea: I'm afraid I can't read the menu."
"That's all right! I know a little French, and the waiters will always help us."
" ... No, you don't understand: I can't read the menu; it doesn't matter what language it's in ... I can't read..."
He expected her to look shocked: that was the usual reaction he got when he told people. But Bea just smiled, then reached across the table and took his hands in hers.
"It's all right!" she said quietly, "Its not a crime, and its not an illness ... its just the way it is for some people. Let's just have a nice meal and you can tell me about it later."
It wasn't at that point that Ben knew that he was in love with Bea ... he had known that for weeks ... but it was the moment when he thought that she might be able to really love him, too.
With that weight lifted from him, he relaxed and settled back to being the Ben that sat and laughed with her in her kitchen and who played with Danny in the garden. They sat and ate and chatted about all manner of things: and in between courses and coffee, one or other of them would reach across the table to touch a hand. When at the end of the meal the bill arrived, it came as no great shock to Ben: perhaps he couldn't read, but he was nevertheless intelligent and he had done his homework; and when he had rung to make his reservation, he had asked about the prices and he knew that, although high, the lady was worth every penny!
Bea had known for hours that she was going to ask him to stay the night. "Coffee?" she asked, as he opened the car door for her.
"Yes, please!" Although he knew her kitchen very well, he was unacquainted with the rest of the house, so he followed her into familiar territory. The kettle was filled and the coffee cups were laid out ready.
" ... Ben, I think it's time you kissed me, properly!"
Standing in the middle of the kitchen, they came together like seasoned lovers. Ben knew exactly where to hold her, and Bea instinctively knew which way to tilt her head and the angle to raise her chin.
It had been over five years since Bea had kissed a man the way that she kissed Ben. She'd never known such a hunger for a man as she had for him during those frantic minutes! She'd forgotten until then how much she thrilled at the thought of a man being deep inside her ... and the man that she wanted to be there was Ben! And from the feel of what was pressing against her hip, he definitely wanted her, too!
Several times they pulled apart, only to look into each other's eyes, and then lip was once again pressed against lip, and tongue tasted tongue. But eventually the enchantment was broken and both stood dazed and confused by the intensity of what had just happened to them. Bea made the coffee and they carried the cups through to the living room sofa.
"That was a pretty amazing kiss, Ben!" She needed to turn the heat down. "Do you remember what we were talking about in the restaurant?" He remembered everything. " ... About your reading?"
Ben had always been wary about talking openly about his illiteracy: which was probably part of the problem; but when he was with Bea he felt that he could tell her anything and everything.
" ... I don't know why, but I've always struggled with it. I don't suppose things are the same now, but when I went to the little village school, if you got behind you didn't get extra help, you seemed to get less. And I'm sure you were told during your teacher training that people who can't read develop all sorts of strategies for coping ... I happen to have a really good memory."
" ... Yes, you need one for all those funny Latin plant names..." Bea interjected.
"I told you that I spent lots of time with my dad in the estate gardens," Ben continued, "and like Danny, because I was interested I listened and remembered. I got through school somehow and then I went straight to Lord Asbury's estate, so it didn't seem to matter that I couldn't read." By this time they had finished their drinks and Bea had snuggled up against him on the sofa.
" ... Well, I'm going to help you to learn to read, Ben," Bea declared, " ... But now ... I think we ought to go to bed!"
After turning off the lights they walked up the stairs to Bea's bedroom. She turned away from him so that he could unzip her and then with a shimmy and a shake, she was stepping out of the little black dress. Within minutes they were both naked and in each other's arms, in bed.
As the ferocious heat increased between them again, Bea knew when the time had come. Ben wanted her just as badly, but he hung back: "I can't," he moaned, "I haven't got..." Bea held her fingers against his lips.
" ... Sshh! I don't want to know what you can't do ... I only want you to show me what you can!"
And then she gasped loudly as he pushed himself deep inside her. Five years of longing was condensed into her love-making that night. Her husband had been good: but Ben was making her feel things that she couldn't remember ever feeling before! He hadn't had a lot of sexual partners, but he was a tender and considerate lover, whose only aim was to give this woman the maximum of pleasure that he could.
It took every ounce of self-control that he possessed, but he watched and listened and felt all the little signals that her body was giving off. And Bea, while she wanted to be an equal partner on this journey to a place of pure pleasure; she knew that her body was merely a passenger. Ben was driving her senses and all she could do was enjoy the ride ... and, oh, what a ride it was turning out to be!
Ever since the day of their dinner date, Ben had been to the house a lot: sometimes to work in the garden, but other times just to visit, when they would eat together and play together. Ben of course stayed after they'd both put Danny to bed, but he hadn't stayed the night any more. With Danny in bed, Bea would sit with Ben working on his reading. They started with the very simple approach that Bea had taken with Dan ... who was already quite an accomplished reader ... of associating words and their sounds with pictures. With his excelBeat memory, and the added advantage of having such a patient and attentive teacher, Ben made good progress: although for some inexplicable reason, he seemed to find it hard to grasp 'K is for kiss', requiring repeated examples and practice.
But, with such a good incentive to learn, after only a few weeks of lessons he could remember quite a few simple, everyday words. At least once a week, all three of them went to the big supermarket near Bea's home, where both Danny and Ben could practise reading the many every-day words on packaging and signs.
They had debated about whether to take Danny to Kew Gardens or London Zoo: in the end they decided on the zoo. To be honest, Danny wouldn't really have cared where they went ... all his little brain knew was that it was him, his mummy, and Ben.
Like a lot of children he had always been interested in animals. He had been bought lots of soft toy animals, he had animal pictures on the walls, he loved sitting with his mother and watching wildlife TV programmes and Bea read stories to him every night about the different animals.
It was his first visit to a proper zoo, however, and he dashed about wanting to see everything. He loved the monkeys and the apes and was fascinated by how big elephants and giraffes really were, having only seen them in books and on television. The big cats were a bit scary, but he held on tightly to Bea's and Ben's hands.
Even at such an early age, he impressed Ben with his knowledge of where they came from, what they ate, and what the young of each species was called:
" ... Indian elephants have small ears and people use them to move trees. Lions don't live in jungles, they live in big places called ... what's that word, Mummy? Oh, yes... 'savannah' ... but they can climb trees, too. Monkeys have tails, but not apes..."
They waited patiently in line until it was their turn, and then he sat between them as they rode on the seat on the back of an Indian elephant. And when he was tired, Ben picked him up and carried him in one strong arm, while Bea and Ben walked slowly along, talking quietly and holding hands.
It was also Danny's first experience of the London Underground, and although he laughed as the wind from the train coming into the stations blew his hair, he clung onto Ben's neck when they were among all the people hurrying about to get to their trains. Bea had been brought up in London, so it was a commonplace experience; but Ben confessed his preference for digging the ground, rather than being underneath it!
But all-in-all it was a great day out, which Bea dared to think of as being 'like a family'. By the time they got home little Danny was exhausted, so she stripped the clothes of off his sleeping body and put him straight to bed.
"Shall we go up too, Love?" Bea asked Ben, " ... I'm so tired, I think you'll have to undress me and put me to bed!" Ben looked at her and smiled. " ... Well ... if you insist!"
In fact the first night that Bea and Ben had put him to bed, Danny had run into her bedroom early the next morning ... only to be disappointed that Ben wasn't there!
"He has to go to his own house, Darling: to look after his garden and to look after other people's ... he doesn't live here, Dan!"
" ... But he could if he wanted to, couldn't he?"
"Yes, I suppose if he wanted to."
"He would if you asked him, Mummy."
But although Bea had thought about that very thing herself, she never got the chance to bring it up in conversation.
"Bea, I have to go away for a while," he said the next time he saw them, "My father has to have an operation, it's nothing life-threatening, but he wants me to take his place at Lord Asbury's for a while, until he's back on his feet again."
" ... Of course you have to go, Ben! Do you know how long for?"
"I'm really not sure ... six weeks ... two months ... it's hard to say..."
"I understand, but I don't know how Dan's going to take it ... you know how fond he is of you." He nodded.
" ... I'll tell him, Bea ... that way he'll know I haven't just gone away and left him! But what about you, Love: how are you going to take it?" Bea didn't reply, but she put her arms around his neck and pulled him close.
" ... Like this," she said, kissing him with all the passion that she could muster to try and convey the longing that she felt for him. When the kiss finally ended, he could see the pain in her face and the tears on her cheeks. " ... Now go and tell Dan, he's in the garden..."
She stood at the kitchen window and watched as the little boy, until recently her whole life, came running up the garden and threw himself into the strong arms of her lover. She watched as the two of them stood there, and then she choked back the tears as the boy put his arms around Ben's neck and clung on tightly, as she had done herself only minutes earlier. And as he turned to face the window where he knew she would be standing, she saw Ben's tears. Bea put a hand on her belly. She had been waiting for the right moment to tell him her news, but she couldn't tell him now...
Bea and Danny were in the bath together. It had been three weeks since Ben had left London for the Alvechurch Estate and it would be the first time that they had seen him since then.
"Do you know where we're going today, Dan? We're going to see Ben!"
"Yay! We're going to see Ben!" the little boy cheered.
"I've got a secret, Dan ... shall I tell you what it is?"
"Yes, tell me, Mummy ... please tell me!"
"Okay, but you've got to promise not to tell anyone else; not Nanny and Granddad..."
" ... Not even Ben, Mummy?"
"No, not even Ben, Darling!"
" ... All right, Mummy, I promise! What is it?" Bea took her son's small hand and placed it on her belly.
"Well, there's a little, tiny baby growing inside here ... it's your baby brother or sister!" A big smile appeared on the little boy's face.