Paolo felt for each step like a child in the dark. There was a rattle coming from his insides, like a shaken bag of scrabble letters; clink, clink, clink. Reaching the patio, he lowered himself into a chair, lighting a cigarette and watching, numbly, as a blackbird pulled at a worm on the circle of lawn. There was the unmistakable thud of next door’s ginger tom landing on the fence behind him. If he had the energy he could have turned his head to see its tail twitching as it eyed the bird, or he could have picked the ashtray up and thrown it; only he hadn’t.
He hissed, instead, through clenched teeth.
Up until a few days ago he would have been out here in the garden at first light, patrolling, barefoot, in his blue hummingbird kimono, clutching the hose like a pistol, looking for the cats that preyed on his birds. Cats that left tiny offerings of wings and pale bones on the lawn, by the back door.
If he had known then that the number of nights left with Tony were so few, he wouldn’t have rolled away from his warm body when the birds began their chorus. He would have stayed to stroke the length of his spine, feeling every knobbly joint; tracing languorous circles on his freckled shoulders, on the ripple of his belly. He would have drunk in the smell of his sleep, stroked the grey hairs shading into his neck.
It was here on the patio that Tony’s brother, Pete, found Paolo yesterday, sitting in his chair, just like this; hoping that if he stayed very still, Tony might appear at the top of the steps, returned from work as usual, damp and discoloured with brick dust and sweat.
Pete had stood over him, shifting his weight between work booted feet onto the verbenas and nasturtiums, still flowering, in the border below.
‘So … mate, when you gonna be out?,’ he’d asked, ‘need to get on, get the house sold … you know.’
Paolo had struggled to make sense of the words, ‘You … want … me … go?’
‘Thing is, Shelly’s gonna want her share. There’s the kids. Best get it done and dusted, eh?’
Done and dusted. Paolo turned the words over in his head, tumbling them like stones caught in a rip-curl.
‘But … Tony?’
‘We’ve got it sorted mate, Shelly and me mam’s sorting it; funeral and that. You can stay til then, but you’ll have to jog on after.’
Tony’s imprint was still in the mattress; his scent in the hoodie slung over the back of the sofa. ‘We’ll be round start of next week, Pete said, starting back up the steps towards the house. ‘Nothing personal, like.’
It was a Saturday in November when Paolo had first knocked on Tony’s front door, a duffel bag slung over his shoulder and Tony’s address scribbled on the back of a beer mat.
‘You have room?’ Paolo had asked, bobbing and blinking on the top step like an inquisitive wren.
That first night he had been woken by the knockings of an idea. He’d rummaged for his fountain pen in his bag, slung down beside the bed and pulled a tatty envelope from between the pages of ‘The Smell of Summer Grass,’ to catch it – a vision of Tony’s garden, the grim square at the back of the Victorian terrace, with its Leylandii shroud and prickle of dandelions and docks, transformed into a series of rooms. Rooms that vibrated with colour and texture, the sound of birds and water, the scent of honeysuckle, jasmine.
‘Is like a painting!’ Paolo had explained to Tony as he stood in his boxers in the kitchen the next morning and Tony stared down at his coffee.
‘It start with splash of colour and then … the detail, it just grow and grow,’ Paolo made wild shapes with his slim brown hands, ‘like the plants, yes?’
‘How long’ll that take, then?’ said Tony, pushing round him to put his mug in the sink.
Paolo grabbed Tony by his shoulders,
‘But Tony, it be magic! And magic, it take time, no?’
Tony let Paolo’s hands rest for several heartbeats, a smile twitching at the corners of his mouth,
‘Gotta go, I’m down Romford; I’ll be late back.’
‘Magic, I promise!’ Paolo had called after him.
As Paolo’s plan had shifted from the back of the envelope – Tony dragging and digging, Paolo standing back, hands on his hips, pointing and smiling – into a green flush, they had found a rhythm. The garden had threaded a tent over them and they had sat under it each evening as the summer strode on; smoking, drinking and talking as lamps lit the late-falling darkness and moths batted at the light. Sparrows congregated at the tinkling water, rising in a flutter at the slightest movement, the sticky, boudoir scent of lilies thickening the air. By mid summer deep purple clematis starred the fences and Black-eyed Susans strung themselves, like fairy lights, in orange bursts from the trees. An atmosphere at once of calm and carnival dripped from the new growth and kaleidoscopic blooms.
The first time they made love it was in the garden.
The week had been hot. The kind of July heat that sat in the tarmac and smog, in the exhaust fumes and chicken shop ventilation flues chugging out onto the Goldhawk Road. By Friday night nobody had known what to do with themselves; the city felt bad tempered, overstuffed.
Tony had appeared at the top of the steps waving a bottle of champagne, the Romford job finished at last.
‘We celebrate!’ said Paolo, getting up from his weeding on the path.
‘What, you gettin’ up off your knees without sounding like an ol’ woman?’ Tony laughed.
‘Thees!’ said Paolo, whirling his arms and making little circles in the air, ‘summer… life … friendship.’
After they had drunk the champagne, followed by a bottle of Sancerre and several large brandys, Tony lay Paolo on the circle of lawn. Concealed in their green chamber, they had found each other out, shyly at first, and then with the intensity of a reunion.
Afterwards Tony had breathed into the soft nape of Paolo’s neck,
‘I never thought I would have a garden like this,’ and Paolo had whispered back,
‘Your garden, it make me feel so much peace; thank you, thank you for your garden.’
And now he was gone. They were gone. And the garden would go too.
‘Paolo? Paolo, you there my love? Saw your light on. You OK?’
It was Katie, from next door.
‘Fancy a coffee? Don’t move. I’ll bring it round.’
A few minutes later she appeared through the back door, clutching two mugs steaming in the chill.
‘No need to talk, love. You OK?’
She put the coffee on the table and sat in Tony’s chair, looking, through the steam, at Paolo. Next door a woman started shrieking,
‘Jeeeeeesssss! Jeeeeeessss!’. All along the terrace, dogs started barking.
‘Oh, nice, she’s off then,’ Katie nodded towards the noise.
‘He say … I go …’ croaked Paolo.
‘Who? What you talking about?’
‘Pete? You mean Tone’s brother, Pete? What’d he say that for? Ignore him, stupid bugger; what’s he know?’
‘They not like me, his family. They think I steal from him. I pay no rent. Tony, he say, “you make garden, no rent”. They say Shelly, she want me go.’
Katie stretched across the table and gripped Paolo’s thin arm.
‘You listen to me, you silly sod. That man loved you. He didn’t want rent. He wanted this. He wanted you. Shelly can do one.’
She took a swig of her coffee and blinked hard.
All around them autumn crept in, mouldering and damp.
‘Listen, we’re going round new people’s tonight; you coming? Have a drink?’
Katie went over to him and threaded her arms around his neck. Paolo let himself be hugged.
‘Think about it?’
Over Katie’s shoulder Paolo watched the fence wobble as the cat returned with a thud, his tail twitching insistently; the cat wasn’t giving up, he was coming for the blackbird, who had seen him, his yellow eyes wide, his tail a black fan of alarm.
Published in The Blue Nib Literary Magazine and shortlisted for the Mslexia Short Fiction Competition 2020.