Neil plunged his hands into the warm, pungent earth, savouring the feel of soil and compost between his fingers. It was his choice not to wear gloves, although he knew he should to protect himself. Glimpses of sunlight filtered through the dense canopy of palm fronds as he dug away at the hole, the oppressive heat and humidity already creating damp patches beneath the arms of his polo shirt. This was the bit he liked the best: burying something gnarled and ugly, hiding it away from the world. He patted the soil until it felt firm to the touch, a satisfied smile spreading across his face, all traces of what lay beneath concealed in its shallow grave. Slowly, he struggled to his feet, arching his back and shaking the numbness from his left leg, which was always more troublesome in the colder months of the year.
The azure skies visible through the glass ceiling panels overhead belied the arctic conditions outside the Palm House of the world-famous botanical gardens in south-west London. Earlier that morning, Neil had woken to ice on the inside of the single-glazed windows of his bedsit in the attic of a Victorian terrace. It was a regular occurrence throughout the winter months if the overnight temperature dropped below freezing, but it was not so usual in early March. That morning, as his eyes traced the intricate icy patterns left by Jack Frost, which bore a remarkable resemblance to some of the exotic plants he worked with on a daily basis, he allowed himself to think about how different his life would have been if he hadn’t sustained the injury that had crushed not only his leg but his dreams. He knew Elsa, his therapist, would not approve.
Neil had started seeing Elsa three years previously after he had tried to commit suicide, following a particularly big loss on the horses. It had seemed pointless carrying on living. He had no wife or children to miss him, and he had always felt like a burden to his parents since his injury. Over time, Elsa had helped him to realise that he had plenty to be thankful for. He was still only in his early forties, and he had a well-paid job that he loved. The only thing he was missing was someone to share his life with, which she believed was part of the reason he gambled. Because he had told her he was shy around women, she had suggested that he set himself up with a profile on a dating website. At the time, he hadn’t felt sufficiently confident, but when Lydia, one of his female colleagues, had confided that she was on a dating website because she found it difficult to introduce herself to strangers in real life, Neil had taken the plunge and asked her to help him set up a profile. There had been a few matches in the early days, but no one he particularly liked the look of until, last month, Rose had come into his life. They were yet to meet because she travelled a lot with her work, but they chatted endlessly online and seemed to have a lot in common, not least a love of plants and flowers.
Smiling, Neil moved along to the next planting position and squatted down. How funny that someone who loved flowers should be called Rose, he thought. As he took the next hairy lily bulb in his hand and dropped it into the hole he had dug, a movement caught his eye.
He’d seen the woman before. She’d been in the Palm House every day that week with her sketch pad and pens. He assumed she must be a student. She glanced over in his direction and started to walk towards him. Neil dropped his head and concentrated on placing fresh earth over the bulb and firming it down.
‘Excuse me,’ she said, taking him by surprise. ‘Do you work here?’
Her English was perfect but there was a hint of a European accent, maybe Spanish or Italian.
‘Yes,’ he said, indicating the logo on his polo shirt and feeling the blood rush to his cheeks.
‘I wonder if you would take a look at these and tell me if they are any good,’ she said, thrusting her sketch pad towards him.
‘I’m no expert when it comes drawing. I just look after the plants,’ he replied, flustered.
‘But you know what they are supposed to look like,’ she persisted.
Neil struggled to his feet, avoiding eye contact, and took the pad from her to look at the drawing she had been working on. The likeness was so good, it could have been a photograph.
‘It looks pretty good to me, but like I said, I’m no expert,’ he said, handing the pad back to her. ‘Are you doing illustrations for a book?’
‘No, it’s just a hobby. I studied art and botany at school and I like to be precise with details,’ she said, pushing her long dark hair behind her ear. ‘I noticed you have a limp. What happened to your leg?’
She’s definitely foreign, Neil thought, English people are far too reserved to be that direct.
‘An old injury. A broken bone in my thigh that refused to heal properly. I’m lucky they didn’t have to amputate.’
‘You are lucky. It could have ruined your life.’
‘In a way it did, although I prefer to think of it as changing the course of my life.’
‘You wouldn’t think it to look at me now, but I was a professional footballer in my youth. The injury ended my career. My life would have been very different if I’d signed for Manchester United as I was supposed to,’ Neil said, surprising himself at speaking so freely to a complete stranger, and a female one at that.
‘I’ve heard of them. Their former manager is Portuguese, like me.’
‘Ah yes, Jose, “the chosen one”. I thought I detected an accent, although your English is very good,’ Neil added quickly. ‘Do you live here?’
‘No, I’m just visiting. Have you ever been to Portugal?’
A shadow momentarily crossed Neil’s face. ‘Only once, a long time ago. Probably before you were born.’
‘You didn’t like it?’
‘No, I did like it, but it was around the time of my injury and it brings back a lot of unhappy memories.’
‘I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to pry.’
‘You’re not. Like I said, it was all a long time ago.’
‘It’s good that you were able to build yourself a new life. Not everyone is that fortunate after bad things happen to them.’
‘It took me a while. At first I had no idea what I wanted to do once it became apparent that I would never play football again,’ Neil said, shaking his head as if trying to erase all memories of the months he had spent lying in his bed, in the darkened bedroom of his family home, wishing he was dead. ‘Then one day I came here for a walk because my physiotherapist said I wasn’t exercising my damaged leg enough, and I found it completely fascinating. When I got home, I looked into what qualifications I would need to get a job in horticulture and here I am, over twenty years later,’ he said, moving along to his next planting position.
‘Quite a change of direction. You must miss the lifestyle you had as a footballer.’
‘You can’t miss what you never really had. I was only eighteen when I got injured, and still living at home. I hadn’t even passed my driving test, so there was no flashy Ferrari sitting on the drive. The big time was just about to start for me.’
‘But the club you were at must have looked after you?’
‘I’m very grateful to them. They paid for the best possible medical care, or I would probably have lost my leg. But once it was clear that I’d never play again, I was no use to them.’
‘That’s so sad. I hope your teammates rallied round.’
Neil finished patting earth over the latest lily corm and looked up at the woman. Until last month, he would never have felt comfortable having such an in-depth conversation with a female, but that was before he had started chatting to Rose online. She was easy to talk to, just like this woman, and it had boosted his confidence.
‘At first, they used to visit me in hospital, but they had their own lives to get on with. And to be fair, it was probably my fault we lost touch. I wasn’t very nice to be around.’
‘Still, I’d have thought your friends would have stuck by you.’
Neil shrugged. ‘I don’t know if I would call them friends, really. They were people I worked with, and once I wasn’t in football any more, we didn’t have anything in common.’
‘Didn’t you have any other friends? People you grew up with?’
‘I was always too busy playing football to have friends.’
‘That’s a shame. In the village where I come from, you stay friends for life. My best friend and I would do anything for each other. I’ll probably give her some of these drawings. I particularly like this one,’ she said, turning the pages of her pad until she arrived at a sketch of Atropa belladonna. ‘Belladonna means beautiful woman in Italian, which suits her perfectly.’
Neil looked at the drawing. It was a perfect representation of the plant, with its shiny black berries not dissimilar to blackcurrants.
‘It also goes under the name deadly nightshade,’ he said. ‘I hope you didn’t get too close when you were drawing it. Even the slightest touch on the skin can cause a toxic reaction, and eating the berries can kill you.’
‘You forget, I studied botany. I know all about the most toxic plants in nature. Most people would have no idea that ricin, one of the deadliest poisons, is produced from the innocent-sounding castor oil plant,’ she said, flipping the page to show him a drawing of its flaming-red, sea-urchin-like flowers, and in doing so catching the back of Neil’s hand with the nib of one of her drawing pens. ‘Oh, I’m so sorry. Did that scratch you?’
Hours later, when Neil was writhing around in his bed in agony, sweating profusely and struggling to breathe, he began to wonder whether the encounter with the girl was as coincidental as it had seemed. Maybe the innocuous questions about his leg and whether he had ever visited Portugal were to confirm that she had the right person; she had even told him that she liked to be precise with details. His dying thought was: this is no more than I deserve.