Jenny really missed Granny. She pulled up outside the cottage and her five year old car looked shiny and new against Granny’s overgrown home and garden. In the grey, November light, it all looked so faded.
Jenny pulled out the keys and went around to the porch. It needed painting, but the hardest thing was the locked door. It had never been locked when Granny was alive. The paint may have been peeling a little as Granny faded, but there had always been a fire in the stove in the kitchen, and tea in the pot, and if Granny knew you were coming she would have baked scones, soft and fluffy and full of sultanas.
The lock was stiff, but Jenny managed to turn it and go into the cold kitchen. She’d been in a few times to air the place out, but it wasn’t the same. The crocheted throw on the little nursing chair that had been Granny’s favourite was damp and grey with dust. The curtains sagged and cobwebs straggled around the window frames.
Jenny took a breath. It was hers now, to the utter fury of her stepmother. Granny had pottered along, seemingly ageless, until she had a fall, which took her to hospital, and she had never come out. After the funeral, Jenny was shocked to find that Granny had owned a lot more than the cottage and had been quietly collecting rents on the fields around for many years. There was plenty of money for renovations and updates, though Jenny kept that away from her stepmother.
Granny had told her, before she fell into her final sleep, “You need to do it up, my girl. Get some new curtains, and that sofa has had its day. I daresay the stove will do a bit longer, but the bed is on its last legs and the carpets are almost threads. You get what you want, love, but be careful in the garden.”
Jenny paused by the window. Damp was speckling at the corners and the panes were cold to touch. The garden had been Granny’s pride and joy. Jenny had spent many happy, sunlit hours alongside her as they weeded, planted, pruned, pricked out and harvested. They had pulled caterpillars off the cabbages and fed them to Granny’s hens, placed pots of mint among the tomatoes and sage between the cabbages and sprayed soapy water over the aphids. In the rambling, purposeful garden, only one spot stayed immune from Granny. “You leave that bit alone, my girl.” Granny had warned. “Never touch it, never prune it. That’s the heart of the garden and it minds itself.”
Jenny had been fascinated by the small stand of hazel and wild rose near the gate, mingling with overgrown hawthorn from the hedge and quite impenetrable. She had never gone near it, though. It had been important to Granny, and, besides, Jenny had always been so busy. There had been the hens to feed, the garden to tend, the stove to clean, firewood and coal to stack up, cakes to bake, and, best of all, sitting in the shade of the garden, with Granny, listening to her stories while they knitted. Sometimes Granny would tell stories of years ago, like when the old lord had a manor here and he lost a bet with the local smith and had to pay a wagon of hay to every farmer. Sometimes it would be gossip about Him Down the Road and what he said at the Post Office and who had punched him for it. Sometimes it would be stories of fairies and goblins and why it was a good thing to have the swathes of honeysuckle that tumbled over the wall in heaped drifts.
Jenny was shaken out of her memories by a car pulling up. It was large, black and shiny and the man who got out was unfamiliar. He was slim, slightly balding and his cold eyes had an unnerving air of assurance. She made sure she had her phone with her as she went out onto the porch.
“Miss Smith? I’m Richard Simpson. I believe you refused our offer for the cottage and the land surrounding.”
“I don’t want to sell.” Jenny said quietly.
“May I come in?” Richard asked.
Jenny shook her head. “I don’t want to waste your time.”
A flicker of irritation crossed Richard’s face. “This is not a place for a young girl.” He said. “It needs thousands spending on the house to make it up to code. You do know that I could call in inspectors to check whether everything is as it should be, don’t you? I daresay that place hasn’t had its wiring checked since…”
“It’s fine.” Jenny said.
“And if there are issues with drainage, or the correct licensing on the fields, you could find yourself with extremely large fines.” Richard waved his hands towards the Thompson farm. “And you would be responsible for anything amiss on your tenants’ land.”
Jenny was fairly sure that the Thompsons were up to no good. They were always up to no good, and Granny had warned her never to ask questions as long as they paid their rent on time. “I’m sure it’s all under control.”
“Right now we have a very reasonable offer on the table, but it’s reducing all the time, and, in the end, it may not cover all the fines that may be pinned on you.” Richard smiled. “Why don’t I come inside and we can discuss things reasonably.” He looked around. “It may have all your memories but keeping a place like this takes a lot more work than you would believe, and it would be a shame to see it all fall apart. The memories would be there, but then you would have the memories of the garden being overgrown or the house falling down and draining the little money you have.” He would have patted Jenny’s shoulder paternally but she flinched back. “Why don’t we just talk?”
“Please leave.” Jenny said, hating how her voice sounded small and frightened.
Richard shook his head. “If you feel this nervous about a respectable businessman visiting in broad daylight, imagine how you would feel when it’s dark and there is an unexpected knock on the door. It could be tricky for a young girl out here on her own. Have you really thought this through?”
Jenny swallowed. “I think…” Her voice cracked and she tried to clear it. She had to be assertive. There was no-one else around.
There was a rustle from the hazel trees and a young man strode out. His dark hair was tousled and unkempt and the rough trousers with the collarless shirt and waistcoat looked out of place, but his clear grey eyes were sparking fire and he strode up to Richard without hesitation. “The lady said you should leave. So leave now.”
“I don’t know who you are, but this young woman and I…”
“She’s a lady. And she told you to leave. Last warning, you heed my words!”
“This is my business, not yours.” Richard said.
The stranger grabbed Richard by the front of his expensive shirt and stared hard into his eyes. “I can see all your little secrets, all your dark places, all your fears.” He grinned wickedly. “Which should I release first?” He let go and Richard stumbled back.
Jenny watched, horrified, as all the colour drained from Richard’s face. He shook his head. “I paid them off. It’s all over. No-one knows.”
The stranger stepped forward. “I know. And I could keep it my little secret, or I could tell the world. What do you think? Are you going to leave like the lady asked?”
They watched as Richard jumped into his car, spun around and raced up the track, swaying wildly.
The stranger looked at Jenny. “You can call me Rob.” He grinned. “It’s not my name, but it will do. Your Granny told us about you. She said you’d take over and look after us.” He looked around the little patch. “We owe her. She found a few of us in a poacher’s trap made of iron and she set us free, without asking anything for it.”
“She always had a kind heart.” Jenny smiled sadly. “And she would never ask anything for helping someone.”
“So we owe her, and we promised we would look after her and hers.” Rob said. “As long as you stay kind.”
Jenny remembered all the stories Granny told her. “I’ll stay away from your home.” She said. “And I’ll let you know the news, and if I’m making changes.”
Rob had a devilish smile. “Your Granny said you would have to do a lot of building if you were going to stay. We won’t interfere too much. And if you’re planning on staying, you’ll want to settle down.” He nodded to a farm worker coming up from Holly Farm to see what the car was about. “He should do you pretty well. And don’t forget – keep the honeysuckle.” And he laughed, walking backwards towards the hazel, until suddenly he was part of it, fading and twisting, and then he was gone.