The muscles in his leg had stopped complaining for now so he ambled along the terrace, trying to tense and flex as the physiotherapist had taught him. It still hurt, but that and the ultrasound were working the joint loose and he could already walk for longer, and with less of a limp. As long as he avoided getting his boots caught up in the trailing stems of bindweed and brambles, he’d be fine. The flagstones were bordered by a wild and gloomy jungle that might once have been a shrubbery. Here and there small paths led into the wilderness and he chose one at random, expecting it to dump him at a dead end or even a man-eating bog. It twisted and turned between the gnarled trunks of laurels whose leaves burst into a canopy a foot above his head, and he soon lost all sense of which direction he was heading in.
The path might once been gravelled, but over the years the gravel had been kicked away and it was now little more than a muddy, slippery trail. Nat concentrated so hard on not slithering into an ungainly heap that he didn’t notice when he stepped out from amongst the shrubs. It was only the sudden sound of splashing water that alerted him; that, and the way the stuffiness had been replaced by clean clear air.
He found he was on another terrace, smaller than the first and better kept, with formal beds of roses surrounding a central pool. In the middle of the pool a stone cupid clutched a dolphin with water pouring out of its mouth; the cascade pattering down into the duckweed below in an endlessly changing song. The light had faded suddenly, but he could still see a few late rose flowers nodding on their stems and the air here felt milder, as though it was sheltered from the elements by some magical force. It reminded him of Tolkien’s Lothlorien and he half expected an elf to come prancing past. Mercifully for his sanity the only things that moved were the spray from the fountain and the leaves, wafting on a gentle breeze.
The air smelt of good rich earth and green growing things, inviting him to linger and enjoy the last of the sun. Oddly, in a garden attached to a hospital, there were no seats. The only thing resembling a bench was the raised stone coping around the pool, so he limped over and lowered himself onto that. Stretching his leg, he shuffled around until he was comfortable and drew in a deep lungful of air. He felt drowsy suddenly, his eyes heavy and the beginnings of a headache tautening across his brow. Exhaustion from his earlier grief, perhaps, or just the warmth and the unaccustomed peace and quiet. It was hard to believe the house was no more than a few yards away, beyond the hedge of shrubs. Surely such a large and busy building would give its presence away. Doors opening and closing, voices and footsteps and trolleys wheeling about, the blare of a radio, the insistent ringing of a phone. But there was nothing. Only the steady trickle of falling water and an occasional buzzing fly…
He hadn’t meant to doze off, especially in such a precarious place. Jolting awake a few minutes later he found he was slumping towards the water and only just managed to right himself. He wondered what had woken him. A sound, he thought. Something sharp enough to have broken into his dreams, but too quiet to have disturbed anything else. He listened but there was nothing, until… There! Faint but unmistakable—the scrunch of footsteps on the gravel path. So someone else had managed to find this place too. He wondered who. Someone who already knew it was here, or someone who’d stumbled on it, like him, by chance? A gardener, perhaps, or one of the other patients who’d slipped out for a fag. The scrape of a match and a sudden flare of flame bore out the latter theory. Twilight had crept in while he was asleep; he couldn’t tell if it was anyone he recognised. All he could see was the glow of the freshly-lighted cigarette, and less clearly, the lips of the person smoking it. A man’s lips, wide and slightly full, that turned up naturally at the corners into a permanent, impish smile. Tolkien’s elf, made flesh and blood after all.
Whoever it was could clearly see better than him in the dark. The cigarette lowered suddenly and the lips widened further into a full-blown grin. ‛Sorry, mate, didn’t mean to startle you,’ a rough voice said. ‛I just came out here for a smoke. They don’t like it in the house.’
Nat grinned back. ‛No problem. Stupid place to fall asleep anyway—I’d have been in the water if you hadn’t woken me.’
‛Feeding the fish. If they haven’t choked to death on all this weed. God knows how long it is since that pond was cleared. The gardener should be shot.’
The footsteps crunched again and he came closer, stopping just short of Nat’s outstretched foot. Nat felt silly squatting down here at knee-level, but his leg had stiffened while he dozed and he didn’t think he could jump up. The other guy solved the problem for him, anyway, by dropping down to sit next to him. Nat peered at him through the gloom and tobacco smoke, and got his first proper look at the face that went with those lips. His first thought was that elf wasn’t far from the mark, since all he could see was eyes. Huge green mischievous eyes that took up half the guy’s face. They were set, wide apart and slightly slanted, in a round clean-shaven face, and his hair, which looked grey in the dusk but was probably fair, was cut short above his ears. The overall effect was oddly feline, but as enticing as any of the faery folk. Nat swallowed and remembered to close his mouth.
‛Want one?’ the elf said, in an un-elf-like voice.
‛Hmm?’ He looked down to find he was being offered a cigarette from a small white cardboard box. He didn’t recognise the brand, but to a starving man all food tastes as good. ‛I’m not really supposed to.’ Need overcame his scruples. ‛Oh, what the hell. Cheers.’ He took a cigarette and held it out for a light, shivering as long tapered fingers rested on his own for just a split second too long. All the hairs on his arms stood up and he snatched his hand away, raising it to his mouth and drawing smoke deep into his lungs. Aware of the other man’s eyes on him, he held his other hand out for a shake. ‛Brook.’
His hand was taken readily enough and this time there was no lingering touch. ‛Richard Douglas. My friends call me Richie.’
Date Book Published
1 December 2020
About the Author
Fiona writes darkly humorous paranormal romance, often featuring gay characters and almost always with a twist in the tail. Her books include gay romances ‘December Roses’, ‘Echoes of Blood’ and ‘Just Visiting’, and paranormal romp ‘Got Ghosts?’.
She lives in a slate cottage within stone-throwing distance (never a good idea in Glass houses…) of England’s largest lake with her husband and rarely has her nose far from the pages of a book – or a cup of tea.