Hauling sacks of compost was hot work and Perry was glad the day was cooler than the previous one. It got harder as the stacks got higher: they’d had a bulk delivery the previous day and it all needed to be moved.
Barnaby Goodlock, co-owner of the nursery, stood up and wiped his brow, wide and sun-bronzed. Both men were muscled from all the manual labour involved, but Barnaby had a broader build than Perry’s wiry strength.
“What’s all this, then?” Perry asked. The sacks had Spanish or some other foreign words on them.
Barney rolled his eyes. “Special soil, for Frankie’s exotics. Cost an arm and a leg.”
The couple had met in South America somewhere, backpacking. When they’d started Goodlock Nursery Frankie had wanted to run a sideline in rainforest exotics. Collectors would pay a premium for them, she argued, and she’d largely been right. The problem was that there wasn’t a huge amount of collectors. It also meant one of the greenhouses was given over as a hothouse but plant-for-plant they made tenfold what petunias and pumpkin seedlings did.
They also cost tenfold to import, but Frankie insisted the margins would improve as they grew the market for them.
Flamingo flowers, Chameleon vine, Peacock Poinciana. The names were far more colourful, in Perry’s view, than the struggling specimens under glass. He didn’t see how there could ever be much of a demand. Most of the orders seemed to be from Cornwall, for where else could you hope to keep such a thing alive? Perry had never been to Cornwall but he’d been told it was warm enough there to grow palm trees. Not like Oxfordshire, where the first frost would have done for the lot of them.
It wasn’t for him to say anything though. Albeit he suspected that Barney felt much the same way.
Perry had been late arriving to work that morning because the police had stopped by the canal. He should have guessed they’d come. After all they were asking questions of everyone in the area, and Perry had form. Paint a man, as they said.
Perry didn’t want them on his boat, polluting it with their heavy tread, so he had stepped off it onto the bank. He had his own reasons enough to be wary of coppers. “Just a few questions.” “Routine inquiries.” Little notebooks and pencils, times and dates. Then they stitched you up.
They didn’t know about the kid visiting him of course, and he wasn’t going to tell them. That was her business, not his.
He could tell from their tone and the questions that they had few leads. They weren’t targeting the wife yet anyway, as they didn’t even ask if he knew her. Perry had never met the brewery owner either – now “the deceased” in police talk.
Perry had nothing to tell them and they didn’t seem to know what to ask, so they soon moved on and he made his own way to the nursery.
It was good land they had, Barney and Frankie. Good soil. Affordable too because it was no good for building, edging onto floodplains. You could run a small market garden on the side if you didn’t mind being flooded out every few years. The flood risk kept the land value down. Otherwise in this part of the country, so close to the city, you’d have needed to be a millionaire to put up a shack there.
Frankie appeared with cheese rolls and cans of beer. “Got to feed my workers,” she said. She had long hair, all plaited into tiny braids, from a recent plant-buying trip to Costa Rica or somewhere. Perry supposed she was attractive enough but she wasn’t his type. Like Barney she was tanned from working outside, her lean shoulders exposed to the sun under her dungarees.
“Ta.” Barney took a roll and handed another to Perry, cracking open the beer.
“Thirsty work?” Frankie asked Perry.
They were nearly done, and then there was a load of statuary to move onto a display. It wasn’t in either Barney’s or Frankie’s taste, but customers kept asking for it. Fake marble planters with cherubs, ornamental bird baths, stone animals to dot around a suburban garden. So far they’d drawn the line at gnomes.
“Perry had the police round earlier,” Barney told Frankie. “Asking about that Stanton man’s shooting.”
“I should say it was suicide,” Frankie said. She was dismissive of it. “Probably had business problems.”
“They never found a gun, so it was said.”
Frankie looked scornful. “Who said?”
“Dilys,” Barney told her.
“I might have guessed.”
Dilys Jones cleaned at the pub in the mornings, bringing gossip along with her mops.
“Nasty business though,” Barney said, biting into his cheese roll. “Not what you’d expect in this neck of the woods. Guns.”
Frankie shrugged. “There’s always guns. Loads of farmers have them. You of all people ought to know that, Barney.” This was a reference to Barney having been to agricultural college.
“Not that type though. It was a pistol, so Dilys said.”
“As if she would know.”
“She works at the Stantons’. The wife – the widow – probably told her,” Barney pointed out.
The widow. It gave Perry an uneasy feeling. He wondered how the girl was. He reminded himself that it wasn’t his problem and tried not to think about it.
Back on his boat, a surprise even less welcome than the police. He should have guessed they’d track him down. They were like fleas, you could never shake them for long.
“Beck my lad. It’s a fine set up you’ve got yourself here. Quiet and cosy, like.”
King John Lochinvar, as he styled himself. Hale, hearty and black-bearded, though with more of a grizzle in it now than Perry remembered. It had been a few years but it might well have been yesterday.
Behind King John loped Old Owen, his shadow and henchman. Old Owen looked unchanged, but he’d been pale and elderly looking for as long as Perry had known him.
“You can’t stop here,” Perry said. He knew why they had come. He had always known they’d come back and start pestering him again.
“A fine way to greet family! For we’re all family from long back, aren’t we, uncle?” This was addressed to Old Owen, though he wasn’t King John’s uncle or even a relation.
“Speak your piece,” Perry said. He just wanted them gone. They were part of his past and they were nothing but trouble.
“Now, now, my lad, we’d hoped for a warmer welcome than that. Particularly with what we’ve got to offer you.” King John beamed but there was a wily glint in his eye.
A job. Perry had guessed the minute he saw them that King John had come to claim the hands he’d trained.
It was indeed a job, an “easy little number with good pickings in it for you, Beck my lad.”
“It’s not what I do anymore,” Perry told them bluntly. It wasn’t what he had ever willingly done.
“See, we tried to train up the boy Joe to help out, but he’s not got the knack has he, uncle? None of your charm, Beck.”
Perry had no idea who the boy Joe was and didn’t ask.
“It’s not a good time,” he said. “There’s been cops round here. Cove done in with a dag.” Despite himself he slipped back into their familiar cant.
King John drew his breath between his teeth in a whistle. “And what be they sniffing round here for? You in the suds, Beck lad?”
“All clean. Just routine, so far as I know.”
“That’s good then. That’s all good.” King John looked around himself, eyeing the direction of the cabin. “Been waiting here a while for you, haven’t we?”
He was angling for a drink. Old Owen hovered behind him. “That we have,” he said.
Perry hadn’t got any beer on the boat and he didn’t want them accompanying him to the Boatswain. It was his patch and he didn’t want to be explaining these two.
The White Stag would be more in their line anyway. It was half a mile walk the other way, next to the canal. It attracted more day trippers and more transients, and with that more shady kinds of trade ferried up and down the canal.
“There’s nothing here, but we’ll go for a drop nearby,” Perry said. He’d buy them a round then shake them off.
“Quiet sort of place, I trust?” King John asked. He meant were there police sniffing around.
King John suddenly slapped Perry on the back. “You’re a good lad, Beck. Wouldn’t turn your back on the Company, would you? Just as I was saying to uncle here earlier. He doesn’t forget who his friends are, does he?”
“Ah,” Old Owen said.
Perry had flashes of those earliest years. He wasn’t sure exactly who had raised him after his mother died, but the main female figure had been Black Bessie. Bessie wasn’t black, she was large, fat and white. Her daughter Tina was mixed race as her dad, one of Bessie’s many gentlemen friends, was West Indian. Tina wasn’t around much, living mainly with her father.
The rest of the Company stayed in various houses, often on the move. A couple of them had vans but they weren’t much of a travelling community in terms of living on the road. Moving was often sudden, swift, in the night.
But again, Perry was remembering that from later. As a small child he really didn’t recall much at all. Just the locks and the picks, and a scratchy brown carpet that he seemed to be sitting on for hours.
Then everything had changed when Bessie got into trouble for something and the Social stepped in. Five-year-old Perry was taken away from everyone he knew and put with a foster family. He didn’t remember minding much about it at first. There were too many new things to take his attention, including a very nice, hairy dog.
That house wasn’t for long though, because then he went somewhere else, and passed through several more places. Sometimes there were other kids his own age he could play with. Sometimes there were older ones who were mean to him.
There was a spell in a children’s home when one foster mother had to go into hospital. No one had ever told Perry what happened to her but he had long forgotten her name. He got used to packing his little case with his few possessions and hand-me-down clothes and moving on.
There was school too, and that was an ordeal. The foster kids usually stuck together; they were always picked on by the others. You grew a pair of fists or you hid away at break time. Somehow through all this Perry managed to learn to read and write. He liked books but he was never given access to very many. “They always rip them to pieces,” he’d heard someone saying of foster kids. It was true, some of the other kids did rip books up. They were useful for paper planes and other purposes. And if you couldn’t read them, and many of the kids couldn’t, why not rip them up?