He was known, primarily, for his marrows.
This made him a figure of considerable suspicion to the ladies of the Horticultural Society, who, until his arrival on the scene, had vied quite happily amongst themselves for the most coveted award in the vegetable class at their annual show. The fact that he was a newcomer to the village no doubt fueled their resentments; that he lived alone with a housekeeper some years younger than himself, a woman whose cast of countenance could only be described as Oriental, permitted them to bury the pain of defeat in malicious gossip.
That first year he carried off the prize, I can recall Mrs. Meade and her cronies huddled together at the back of the marquee, like cows before a gathering storm. I can also remember the vicar, somewhat the worse for wear after an enthusiastic sampling of the cider entries, handing down his verdict on the marrow category. With an air of almost lascivious relish, he declared Mr. Athertons prodigious specimen to be positively tumescent (thereby reinforcing my own suspicions about the good reverend).
Mr. Atherton, tall, lean and slightly stooped by his seventysome years, approached the podium without the aid of his walking stick. He graciously accepted the certificate (and the bottle of elderflower cordial that accompanied it), then returned to his chair. I happened to be seated beside him that warm, blustery afternoon, and while the canvas snapped in the wind and the vicar slurred his way through a heartfelt tribute to all who had submitted Victoria sponges, Mr. Atherton inclined his head toward me, a look of quiet mischief in his eyes.
Do you think theyll ever forgive me? he muttered under his breath.
I knew exactly whom he was talking about.
Oh, I doubt it, I replied, I doubt it very much.
These were the first words we had ever exchanged, though it was not the first time I had elicited a smile from him. Earlier that summer, I had caught him observing me with an amused expression from beneath a Panama hat. He had been seated in a deck chair on the boundary of the cricket pitch, and a burly, lower-order batsman fromDroxford had just hit me for six three times in quick succession, effectively sealing yet another ignoble defeat for the Hambledon 2nd XI.
Adam turned the sheet over, expecting to read on. The page was blank.
Thats it? he asked.
Evidently, said Gloria. What do you think?
Good? Good is like nice. Good is what mothers say about children who dont misbehave. Boring children! For Gods sake, Adam, this is my novel were talking about.
Probably best not to mention the overzealous use of commas. Very good. Excellent, he said.
Gloria pouted a wary forgiveness, her breasts straining against the material of her cotton print dress as she leaned toward him. Its just the opening, but its intriguing, dont you think?
Intriguing. Yes. Very mysterious. Who is this Mr. Atherton with the prodigious marrows?
Aha! she trumpeted. You see? Page one and youre already asking questions. Thats good.
He raised an eyebrow at her choice of adjective but she didnt appear to notice.
Who do you think he is? Or more to the point: What do you think he is?
She was losing him now. The wine wasnt helping, unpalatably warm in the afternoon heat, a wasp buzzing forlornly around the neck of the bottle.
I really dont know.
Gloria swept the wasp aside with the back of her hand and filled her glass, topping up Adams as an afterthought.
Excerpted from The Savage Garden by Mark Mills, © 2007 by Mark Mills. Excerpted by permission of Penguin Group USA. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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