“Marnie!” Beth said sharply. “Stop that right now!”
“No. No, I want to play with you.”
“I’m busy. Where’s Daddy? Why don’t you go play with Daddy? Or with Lewis?”
“No! I want to play with you!”
“In a little while. I promise. Marnie, I have to finish this ok?”
“Please?” Marnie tightened her grip around her mother’s legs and peeped up. She’d used her sweetest little-girl voice, and really, Beth thought, she did look cute. So angelic that Beth felt love in a painful wave clutch at her heart and she loosened Marnie’s arms gently so she could kneel down and give her a hug.
“I’m sorry honey. I’ll play with you later. I promise I will. Maybe you can do some painting or something? Make me a picture? Maybe a dream garden; that would be nice - how the garden’s going to look when we’re finished, how about that?”
Marnie let go of her mother’s legs and jumped with excitement. “I’m going to do a swing! You said we could have a swing!”
“Of course I did,” Beth laughed. “And you will. What colour did we say? Pink?”
“Not pink. Purple!”
“Purple then,” Beth said, and she watched as Marnie ran up to the house. Her fine curls, normally mouse-brown, caught the sun as she ran and gleamed like copper.
Beth stretched and rubbed her tired back, looking across the wild tangle of the garden. She didn’t see the weeds, the rubble or the patches of waist-high grass, instead she saw how it could be. How the lawn, green and smooth, would fan out from the house, bisected maybe by a path of white stone. How the swing might stand, in front of an apple tree, while the bells of fuchsia flowers swung below. At the back of the garden, where the ground dipped, she saw where she could put up decking – a place to sit in the sun and have barbecues when friends came over. The garden was large, so maybe there was even space for a pond. Lewis would love that, especially if allowed to fill it with life – with tadpoles and newts and water-snails, dragonfly larvae and mayflies. They would need to be careful of Marnie, watch she didn’t fall in.
Her hands were hot and wet inside the thick gloves. She took these off now and laid them down with the small shovel and secateurs she’d been using to access and attack the white-string roots of the choking weeds. She waded through the grasses, which clung and wrapped themselves around her, picking her way, as both the tangles of stems and the uneven ground threatened to trip the unwary.
The back of the garden was a genuine wilderness, brambles sprouted in thorny ranks around the base of trees. One was an apricot, allowed to grow so tall that Beth suspected any fruit would be bland at best. A narrow path, like the path through a wood, wound its way down. Beth was glad she was wearing jeans, every step caused nettles and thorny twigs to brush against her. Branches barred the way, but these she was able to push to one side or duck underneath. She began to wish she’d brought along the secateurs, so she could cut as she went.
She’d only been back so far once, on the day they’d come to the house for a second viewing. Both she and Chris, the reluctant house-agent following, anxious for his smart suit, had pushed through right to the back wall of the property. She’s emerged then to see Chris standing in a clear spot, staring doubtfully at a vast pile of logs and stones, but when he caught her eye he’d suddenly grinned and winked.
She came out into the clear place now, blinking as the sun dazzled her eyes. There was the pile. They would need a skip - there was so much. Logs and branches lopped for burning had lain so long they were green with moss and so damp that the wood crumbled under her touch. Beneath the wood was another heap of rubble, pieces of stone and ancient brick, pitted and worn.
To one side of this the ground was raised up like small platform. Someone, eons ago, had placed here a kennel. A Snoopy kennel that looked like a small house, slatted wood and a sloping roof, carved supports under tiny eaves. The paint had long since worn away, but there was still a suggestion of redness on the flaking slats of the roof and speckles of brown on the walls under patches of mildew. New, it would have been large enough to make a play-house for Marnie. Beth wondered what kind of dog had used it, and how cruel it seemed that its owners had banished it to the very end of the garden. But then, perhaps it had barked, or was otherwise wakeful at night.
Something wasn’t quite right though. Something was different. When she’d first seen it, five months ago on that second viewing, she would have said it was empty. Surely it had been empty. She could remember bending down to briefly peep through the little door. Now there was something inside, a soft shape difficult to make out in the gloom, fabric of some kind, fluffy like a blanket. A corner of it lay in the square of light that shone through the door, yellow stuff hemmed in red cotton.
Beth grasped this corner and tugged. It was slow to come and she pulled harder, wrenching at the cloth. The soft, heavy thing inside rolled suddenly, coming open, spilling out a noxious smell that stung her eyes and made her choke. Flies rose up angrily and she was snatching away her hand, screaming and flinging curling, questing maggots from her skin. Screaming and staring in horror and disbelief at the tiny child’s foot, swollen and grey and dead, that dangled from the little door.