“Evening.” Ben? Bill? Gary couldn’t remember. He (Ben? No, Bob.) was one of those hippies. No, that wasn’t right. They didn’t say ‘hippies’ any more. Hipsters, that was it. Taken the allotment as a hobby, to show he was in touch with the planet, or something. He didn't have much clue what he was doing. The young man's patch always looked barren. A few spuds, a few cabbages. Nothing much. Not like Gary's. Potatoes and cabbages, yes. Also peas, beans, cauliflowers, lettuces, carrots and onions. You name it, he'd grown it at one time or another. Though this spring he'd mostly reaped rhubarb. How many crops had he dug up this year? Three? Within seconds the man disappeared through the gap in the hedge that led to the allotment’s car park. The hinge creaked, a door slammed, and the diesel engine of an elderly Land Rover coughed its way into the distance.
Gary stirred on the wooden bench. He’d had this plot over forty years. Longer than his marriage. Longer than his relationship with his daughter, too.
In recent years he'd taken to spending his evenings sat on this bench, watching the skies darken. He'd installed a small fire pit at this end of the allotment, away from the shed. A long poker rested against the bench. Gary picked it up. He grunted as he leaned forward to poke the fire. Flames licked the air and spat fireflies into the sky.
A small face emerged from the shed. His grand daughter, Bella. She smiled, as if not expecting him to be sat where she left him, and pushed the shed door closed behind her. It wasn't dark, not yet. But he heard a soft click, and a harsh white light spilled onto the floor. Bella carefully picked her way down the path towards him, and hopped up onto on the bench. She turned the beam off and shuffled closer, snuggling in as close as she could to her grandfather.
"I found the torch." Something crinkled in her pocket. "And the jelly babies." She smiled as she said that last part, awaiting the permission she already knew would be granted.
Gary wrapped an arm around her shoulder, and squeezed gently.
"Oh. Were they right next to the torch by any chance? Go on, then. Open them. Just don't tell your mother how many you've eaten."
Her smile broadened. She wrestled with the packet for a moment before handing it to him. He took it from her and opened it. He handed it back with a smile of his own, after taking one of the sweets.
"There you go. Your hands are cold. Where are your gloves?"
"Left them in my school bag."
"Your mother shouldn't be letting you out without your gloves, not with the nights drawing in."
Bella shrugged again and shoved another jelly baby in her mouth. She shuffled her backside even closer to him, and swung her feet back-and-forth.
"Grampa, are you going to be an artist?"
"Well, there's an unexpected question. Why on earth would you ask that?"
"I saw a pot of chalks on the bench in your shed. Precipice chalks. I don't know what colour that is, though."
"Precipitated chalk. It's not for colouring. It's for cooking. But don't worry about that."
"I didn't touch it. Just looked."
"That's okay, it can't hurt you."
The fire crackled, a tumbling orange glow that warmed the two of them. Bella shoved another jelly baby into her mouth. Birds nested in the trees around the allotments. Traffic passed in the distance. It would get louder before getting quieter. It wasn't quite rush-hour yet.
“Grampa, have you taken your pills?”
“Got them in my pocket.”
Bella's feet swung to a stop. She folded down the top of the jelly baby bag until it was tight, and stuffed it into her coat pocket.
"Will you come with us? When we move house?"
He ruffled her hair and gave her shoulder and another squeeze.
"You know I'd love to. But I can't move."
Bella stopped staring into the fire. She looked up at him.
"But what if I ask mum and Darren to buy a house with an extra bedroom in it? Then you wouldn't have to worry about finding somewhere to live, you could just come and live with us."
"You're such a darling. And that's a really sweet idea. But they can't do that."
Gary squeezed her shoulder again.
"When you get older, my girl, you'll understand that very few things go the way they should. I love having you here. But you really need to get home before it gets dark. Take the torch, to be safe."
"What about you? Won’t you need it to get home?"
"No. I won't need it. Now get home before your tea gets cold."
"It's 'dinner', grampa."
Bella slid from the bench and turned to face her grandfather. She reached out her arms for a cuddle, and kissed him on the cheek when he leaned forward. He hugged her and smiled, then watched her walk back up the path. She stopped as she passed his shed, turning to give a final wave with the torch. He waved back and watched the white light get smaller as his grand daughter walked out of the allotments and onto the pavement.
His daughter only lived three streets away. He’d often thought it might as well have been the other end of the country. But now that's where his grand daughter was going to be. They wouldn't visit, and he couldn't travel. Three, four, sometimes five visits a week would become phone calls. Weekly at first, of course. But his daughter would soon get tired of Bella tying up the phone line. The calls would die off as Bella developed new friendships, new hobbies. Besides, how could they sit in perfect relaxed silence together on the phone?
He patted his pocket. The little pot of pills. He poked the fire again, enjoying the warmth.
The skies were getting darker. It would be night time before he knew it. He fished the pill bottle out of his coat pocket and unscrewed the lid. He tipped the little white lumps into his palm, then put the lid back on and tucked the bottle away. He pulled his scarf tighter and buttoned his coat to the top. The wood and coals burned orange, yellow and white. He watched as the colours fell into one single glow, and faded to black.
Morning. The allotment was abuzz with life. Gary lay on the bench, oblivious. Bill stood over him, one hand clasped across his mouth.
"And you found him like this?"
"Yes. I left my phone charger here last night. Just popped in to get it on my way to work. I saw Mr Oliver here. Called his name a few times, he didn't answer. Took his pulse. Or tried. He was already cold. So I called you, and the ambulance at the same time."
The shed door opened, and a constable walked out. The detective who had been taking notes from Bill turned, and called towards the constable.
"Nothing much. Glass jars, looks like he was making homebrew or something. A pot of pills. For angina I think, recognise the name from the stuff my uncle takes. Most of a pot; the date on the label is a good few weeks old. Looks like he hasn't taken them in a while."
"Okay. Is there a name on the pot?"
"Yeah. Gary Oliver."
The detective addressed Bill again.
"Don't suppose you have any idea where he lived?"
"No, sorry. I only ever saw him here. But he has family nearby, or did. A little girl, his grand daughter I think, used to come round quite often."
"And you’ve nothing else to tell us?"
"Nope, that's it. Oh, but I did find this. It's a little singed. I don't know if he was holding it and dropped it, or whether it blew out of the fire." Bob pulled the train timetable out of his pocket and handed it to the detective. "It might be important, it might not."
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