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Authors: Diane Lee

The One

BOOK: The One
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The One
(A Short Story)

Copyright © 2015
Diane Lee

All rights reserved. This book may not be reproduced or used in any manner without the express written permission of the publisher other than the use of brief quotations in book reviews. If you have “acquired” this book without buying it, or without the author's permission, please respect her hard work and purchase a copy.

First printed 2015.

Delicious Publishing
PO Box 3653
Norwood, South Australia, 5067


- 1 -

A scarred fig tree, branches naked and the flaxen, strappy leaves of bulbs growing wild around its base, mark winter. Camellia bushes, flushed pink with blooms, line an old rendered wall, crumbling now with age. Struggling, the sun warms through threatening clouds and weakly lights the bleached slabs of cracked cement blocks that stretch into a footpath that snakes, disappearing, toward the back door of a large old house. This garden is one of the last remaining in the city and is an unofficial tourist attraction; the house is on the government’s Architectural Curiosity List (Relics of The Early 21st Century).

It is an old building, one that has gone through many changes. Built originally as a gentleman’s bungalow, then turned into maisonettes and later an office, it is now a refurbished retirement home. The limestone walls, once a chalky-white, are now flecked charcoal and green with mould and lichen. A clear expanse of windows reflects the garden, mirroring back the sun.

Inside the day-room, a wall-screen is turned on, blaring out the jagged sound of an advertisement, before returning to the soothing, rhythm of an old 1990s movie. The room is peppered with the elderly. Some slump huddled together in hover-chairs, parked neatly in front of the wall-screen, others perch on ergo-stools, talking animatedly, papery blue-veined hands busy playing vintage Game Boys and Nintendos. Still others are lost in their timeless worlds, ear buds plugged into vintage smart phones and tablets, providing relief from the drudgery of the present. Several small droids dot the room, efficiently overseeing the various needs of the inhabitants of the day-room.

One frail old man sits some distance from the others, and ignoring protocol, has chosen an old, leather junk-chair over the ergo-stool, positioning it in front of the window facing the garden. He sits quietly, gazing out at the old fig tree, hypnotised by the wintry landscape. His hair is a powdery gray, thinning in patches. His once handsome face is marred by liver spots, mouth frayed at the corners. He grips the arms of his chair, knuckles white and strained, as if preparing for a wild ride.

Outside, in the hall leading to the day room, the laughter of children rises to meet the blare of the wall-screen, as families come to visit with their elderly relatives. They are fetched and hovered or walked away to other parts of the house, and despite the cold and impending rain, outside to the garden. The children’s laughter disturbs the old man and rouses him briefly from his garden gaze; he utters a small, heartfelt sigh.

A human nurse approaches the man tentatively and gently asks: ‘Are you all right, Mr Marshall?’ When he doesn’t reply, she slides a nearby lapcoosh onto the old man’s thin legs, then reaches out to pat his hand.

‘No visitors today, then? Tell you what, I’ll be your visitor. I can sit with you awhile.’

The nurse pulls up a hover-chair, and places herself next to him. They both take in the garden, now ghost-like from the misty rain masking the sun. Surprising her, the old man’s voice, proud and strong asks: ‘What do you want to do that for?’

She hesitates before replying kindly: ‘It’s my job, Mr Marshall.’

The old man turns away from the nurse, his attention back to the outside world. And as the rain falls in opaque sheets onto the muddy grass, he gently escapes into sleep, where he dreams the wishing dreams of a sad, lonely man.


- 2 -

As soon as she opened the door, Paton knew.

He stood, body blocking the door frame. He was tall; his long limbs lean, his hair a dirty blond, black eyes quick like a bird’s.

‘I’m Tom,’ he said. ‘Tom Marshall. I’m looking for Paton McLean.’

‘I’m Paton,’ she said. ‘I’ve been expecting you. Please. Come in.’

She opened the screen door, holding it for him so he could pass. His black leather work-boots were caked thick with dry mud. He didn’t wipe his feet, and she didn’t ask him to. He brushed past her and she breathed in his scent: sweat, soap, earth, dust. Catching his eye, Paton smiled up at him. He didn’t return the smile, just glanced at her as he passed.

They walked through the house, Paton leading the way. Tom didn’t seem to notice the simplicity of the decor and in some rooms, the absence of furnishings. It was a large house, old, with the rooms in various stages of disrepair and renovation. She led him out to the garden, and heard him catch his breath sharply. Overgrown ivy and wisteria supported an ancient, weathered pergola and weeds strangled any hint of what was once a garden bed. An old sugar gum in the middle of the yard was in danger of collapse; a branch hung dangerously low over a dilapidated pine picnic table.

He walked around the garden, scrutinising it closely, stopping to push aside weeds, rock a branch, look under a shrub. Paton sat down on the sagging verandah, some distance away, rubber-thonged feet resting on the broken concrete step.

‘As you can see,’ she said brightly, ‘It’s just gotten out of hand. Way beyond me. Thought it was about time to call in the professionals.’

Tom turned to face her. ‘What do you need done?’

She touched the frame of her glasses, pushing them up. ‘Well, anything would be an improvement, don’t you think?’

He turned back to the garden, surveying it again. She stood up and walked toward him as he started talking and pointing.

‘How about I trim all that excess growth from your pergola, stop that tree over there from killing someone and re-dig your beds. Fifty bucks an hour. Probably take me a couple of days.’

‘See what I mean? About professionals?’ Paton was standing next to him now, flirting. ‘It’s always such a good idea to call one in occasionally. Definitely worth it.’

Tom looked at her, not quite sure of her tone. He held her gaze briefly, then looked away, uncomfortable.

‘I can start now, if you like. I’ll just go get my tools.’


- 3 -

Paton could see Tom clearly from her kitchen window. He had stripped down to his shorts and singlet, faded flannelette work-shirt hanging from a nearby branch. A damp film of sweat sheened on his arms and face. He was concentrating on digging garden beds, muscles straining as he drove the shovel deep into the dusty, uncompromising soil.

She had never met a man so handsome, earthy and unaware of the effect—the power, almost—of his looks. Tom didn’t respond when she flirted with him and she liked that. As a small child, into her teens and, now as a woman, boys and later, men, fell over themselves to receive her attention. Even with eye-glasses, she didn’t have to do anything, say anything or be anyone. It was an effortless existence. A man not reacting to her was interesting, refreshing. A challenge.

He stopped work and was sitting on the picnic table, one foot resting on the bench seat, looking around the garden, appraising it, eating a paper wrapped sandwich he had taken from his tool-box.

Paton placed a pitcher of lemon cordial and two glasses on an old mosaic tray and carried it out to the garden, putting it on the table next to where Tom was sitting. She poured the pale liquid into the glasses, pushed one toward him and leaned on the table.

‘Here,’ she said, ‘Help yourself.’

‘Thanks,’ he said, drinking down the cordial in one gulp

‘Hot work.’ Paton wanted to get him talking. She needed to find out more about him. She poured him another glass of cordial.

‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘Yeah. It is.’

She tried another approach.

‘Is this all you do? Gardening, I mean. Do you do other stuff?’

Tom stared at the empty glass, then his sandwich, then the garden, before looking back at her.

‘What do you want done?’

‘Well, all sorts of things,’ She was gushing now, happy to have a way in. ‘I’ve just… sort of…acquired… this place. As you can see, it needs some work. Actually, it needs a lot of work, and I’d really like to have it painted. Do you do that? Paint, I mean?’

He hesitated before replying. ‘Not usually.’

‘Oh.’ Paton wanted him to be available, hoped that he needed the work. She got up from the table and found his dark eyes on her. He was watching her, as if seeing her for the first time.

‘But I need the work… so… I’ll paint.’


- 4 -

The lounge room finally looked like it could be lived in. Tom and Paton had worked together stripping wallpaper, damp mops soaking the walls, tearing down the mottled paper in long, wet strips. They patched up holes and cracks, sanded back rough spots, and painted on the undercoat. Then they painted the walls a soft blue, pale and delicate, and the pulled carpets revealed honey-coloured floorboards, which added more warmth to the room. Tom was putting the finishing touches to the skirting boards, and crouched panther-like in the doorway, his body lithe and lean.

It had taken only ten days to transform the room. Tom arrived at Paton’s house at 8.30 every morning, and left at 3.30 each afternoon. He wasn’t too sure about her helping him; he said he was used to working alone. But it didn’t take long for Paton to show him that they could work well together, and that she wouldn’t get in his way.

And it didn’t take long for Tom to start talking. Slowly, at first, he started telling her about his work, and the many gardens he worked on. He talked about how he loved animals and spent much of his time alone. He told her his mother and father died when he was young, and he was raised by a much older brother. He told her he was considered bright, but didn’t do well at school and that he travelled the world when he was younger, playing squash. Paton listened while they patched and painted, gleaning the details of his life as if they were precious stones mined from a barren and unforgiving earth.

Every day they would eat their lunch in the back garden, thick sandwiches of ham and pickles, home-made lemon cordial, ice-cold from the fridge. This was where Paton talked. She laughed about her friends, and about her work, her life, her family. Tom listened, eating, drinking, comfortable now in her presence.

Some days, though, they would just sit, not saying a word.


- 5 -

On the last day Tom worked for Paton, the sky was angry and threatening rain. Even with a naked window, the curtain not having been rehung, it was gloomy inside the lounge room. The soft blue of the walls had become a dull grey, and the floor absorbed the mottled light. Paton was washing up the last of the brushes in a nearby bucket, their short bristles clumped with paint, unwilling to come clean. She watched Tom over her the top of her glasses; his overalls spotted and streaked with dried blue paint, as he packed up the ladder, and pulled drop sheets from the floor.

‘I don’t think we’ll be needing these anymore,’ she said.


‘That’s about the last of it, then. I’ve run out of things for you to do. Things I can pay you for anyway.’ Paton laughed at her own joke. ‘Pity. Because we sure made a good team.’

He looked over at her and smiled. ‘Yeah. We did. Looks like a different place now. I’ll miss coming here. It’s been…’

Paton waited for him to finish the sentence, but he didn’t. It hung there, unspoken, like a spider’s fine web, and while she wanted to know what he was going to say, she realised it would remain unsaid.

‘You don’t have to be a stranger, you know.’

‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘I know.’

Paton pushed the point. ‘Anytime. I mean it. Call in. Anytime. And I’m not just saying that.’ She needed for him to understand the urgency, that it was the end of the work, but maybe the beginning of something else.

He smiled as he started ripping masking tape from the floor around the skirting boards.

‘I might just do that,’ he said.


- 6 -

About three weeks after Tom had stopped working for Paton, he came to see her. It was early evening, the sky washed pink, orange and blue, the light from the sun pale and fading. Paton was just about to meet some friends, and was wearing her favourite black dress, low-cut and sparkling with sequins and rhinestones, and matching high, strappy black sandals. Closing the door behind her, she nearly tripped over him sitting on the front step, drinking a beer. Next to him was an opened six pack, with five beers still remaining. He stood up quickly, reached out and steadied her; his strong hands calloused from work catching the threads on Paton’s dress.

‘Tom.’ she caught the flip of her stomach. ‘What are you doing here?’

‘I knocked. Didn’t think you were home, so I thought I’d wait.’

‘I must have been drying my hair,’ Paton joked. She noted that his hair was shorter and he was more tanned. His quick, black eyes met hers, and she was the first to break away. Her cheeks flushed pink.

BOOK: The One
7.59Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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