A mild, damp winter was edging towards spring when Agatha Raisin motored slowly homeward to the village of Carsely after a long holiday. She persuaded herself that she had had a wonderful time far away from this grave of a village. She had gone to New York, then to Bermuda, then to Montreal, and then straight to Paris, and so on to Italy, Greece, and Turkey. Although she was a wealthy woman, she was not used to spending all that amount of money on herself and felt obscurely guilty. Before, she had nearly always gone on the more expensive arranged package holidays where she was with a group. This time she had been on her own. Carsely had given her the confidence, or so she had thought , to make friends, but she seemed to have spent a blur of weeks either in hotel rooms or in dogged solitary forays around the tourist sights.
But she would not admit she had had a lonely time any more than she would admit her prolonged absence had anything to do with her neighbour, James Lacey.
At the end of what she fondly thought of as "my last case," she had drunk too much in the local pub with one of the women from the village and on returning home had made a rude gesture to James, who had been standing outside his cottage.
Sober and remorseful the next day, she had humbly apologized to this attractive bachelor neighbour and the apology had been quietly accepted. But the friendship had sunk to a tepid acquaintanceship. He talked to her briefly if he met her in the pub or in the village shop, but he no longer came round for coffee, and if he was working in his front garden and saw her coming along the lane, he dived indoors. So Agatha had taken her sore heart abroad. Somehow, away from the gentle influence of Carsely, her old character had reasserted itself, that is, prickly, aggressive, and judgemental. Her cats were in a basket on the back seat. She had stopped at the cattery to pick them up on the road home. Although still married, although she had not seen her husband for years, did not want to, and had practically forgotten his existence, she felt exactly like the spinster of the village, cats and all.
The village of Carsely lay quietly in the watery sunlight. Smoke rose from chimneys. She turned the car along the straggling main street, which was practically all there was of Carsely, except for a few lanes winding off it and a council estate on the outskirts, and turned sharply into Lilac Lane, where her thatched cottage stood. James Lacey lived next door. Smoke was rising from his chimney. Her heart lifted. How she longed to stop the car at his door and cry out, "I’m home," but she knew he would come out on the step and survey her gravely and say something polite like "Good to have you back," and then he would retreat indoors.
Carrying her cats, Boswell and Hodge, in their basket, she let herself into her cottage. It smelt strongly of cleaning fluid and disinfectant, her dedicated cleaning woman, Doris Simpson, having had free run of the place while Agatha had been away. She fed the cats and let them out, carried her suitcases out of the car and put her clothes in the laundry basket, and then took out a series of small parcels, presents for the ladies of Carsely.
She had bought the vicar’s wife, Mrs. Bloxby, a very pretty silk scarf from Istanbul. Longing for some human company, Agatha decided to walk along to the vicarage and give it to her.
The sun had gone down and the vicarage looked dark and quiet. Agatha suddenly felt a pang of apprehension. Despite her hard thoughts about Carsely, she could not imagine the village without the gentle vicar’s wife. What if the vicar had been transferred to another parish while she, Agatha, had been away?
Agatha was a stocky middle-aged woman with a round, rather pugnacious face, and small, bearlike eyes. Her hair, brown and healthy, was cut in a short square style, established in the hey-day of Mary Quant and not much changed since. Her legs were good and her clothes expensive, and no one, seeing her standing hopefully on the vicarage doorstep, could realize the timid longing for a friendly face that lay underneath the laminated layers of protection from the world which Agatha had built up over the years.
She knocked at the door and with a glad feeling heard the sound of approaching footsteps from within. The door opened and Mrs. Bloxby stood smiling at Agatha. The vicar’s wife was a gentle-faced woman. Her brown hair, worn in an old-fashioned knot at the nape of her neck, was brown streaked with grey.
"Come in, Mrs. Raisin," she said with that special smile of hers that illumined her whole face. "I was just about to have tea."
Having temporarily forgotten what it was to be liked, Agatha thrust the wrapped parcel at her and said gruffly, "This is for you."
"Why, how kind! But come in." The vicar’s wife led the way into the sitting-room and switched on a couple of lamps. With a feeling of coming home, Agatha sank down in the feather cushions of the sofa while Mrs. Bloxby threw a log on the smouldering fire and stirred it into a blaze with the poker.
Mrs. Bloxby unwrapped the parcel and exclaimed in delight at the silk scarf, shimmering with gold and red and blue. "How exotic," said Mrs. Bloxby. "I shall wear it at church on Sunday and be the envy of the parish. Tea and scones, I think." She went out. Agatha could hear her voice calling to the vicar, "Darling, Mrs. Raisin’s back." Agatha heard a mumbled reply.
After about ten minutes, Mrs. Bloxby returned with a tray of tea and scones. "Alf can’t join us. He’s working on a sermon."
Agatha reflected sourly that the vicar always managed to be busy on something when she called.
"So," said Mrs. Bloxby, "tell me about your travels." Agatha bragged about the places she had been, conjuring up, she hoped, the picture of a sophisticated world traveller. And then, waving a buttered scone, she said grandly, "I don’t suppose much has been going on here."
"Oh, we have our little excitements," said the vicar’s wife. "We have a newcomer, a real asset to the village, Mrs. Mary Fortune. She bought poor Mrs. Josephs’s house and has made vast improvements to it. She is a great gardener."
"Mrs. Josephs didn’t have much of a garden," said Agatha.
"There’s quite a bit of space at the front, and Mrs. Fortune has already landscaped it and she has had a conservatory built at the back of the house on to the kitchen. She grows tropical plants there. She is also a superb baker. I fear her scones put mine to shame."
"And what does Mr. Fortune do?"
"There isn’t a Mr. Fortune. She is divorced."
"It is hard to say. She is a remarkably good-looking lady and a great help at our horticultural society meetings. She and Mr. Lacey are both such keen gardeners."
Agatha’s heart sank. She had nursed a hope that James might have missed her. But now it seemed he was being well entertained by some attractive divorcée with a passion for gardening.
Mrs. Bloxby’s gentle voice went on with other news of the parish, but Agatha’s mind was too busy now to take in much of what she was saying. Agatha’s interest in James Lacey was as much competitive as it was romantic. Since she had a great deal of common sense, she might even have accepted the fact that James Lacey was not interested in her at all, but the very mention of this newcomer roused all her battling instincts.
The vicar’s voice sounded from the back of the house. "Are we going to get any dinner to night?"
"Soon," shouted Mrs. Bloxby. "Would you care to join us, Mrs. Raisin?"
"I didn’t realize it was so late." Agatha got to her feet. "No, but thank you all the same."
Agatha walked back to her cottage and let the cats in from the back garden. She could not see much of the garden because night had fallen. She had put in a few bushes and flowers last year, Agatha being an "instant" gardener—that is, someone who buys plants ready grown from the nursery. In order to get in on the act, she would need to become a real gardener. Real gardeners had green houses and grew their plants from seed. Also, she had better join this horticultural society.
With a view to finding out about the opposition, Agatha drove down to Moreton-in-Marsh the following day and bought a cake at the bakery and then drove back to Carsely and made her way to the newcomer’s home, which was in a pretty undistinguished terrace of Victorian cottages at the top of the village. As she opened the garden gate, she remembered with a pang of unease the last time she had pushed open this gate and entered the house to find Mrs. Josephs, the librarian, had been murdered. An extension had been built to the front of the house, a sort of porch made mostly of glass and filled with plants and flowers and wicker furniture.
Holding the cake, Agatha rang the bell. The woman who answered the door made Agatha’s heart sink. She was undoubtedly attractive, with a smooth, unlined face and blonde hair and bright blue eyes.
"I am Agatha Raisin. I live in Lilac Lane, next to Mr. Lacey. I have just returned from holiday and learned of your arrival in the village, and so I brought you this cake."
"How very nice of you," beamed Mary Fortune. "Come in. Of course I have heard of you. You are our Miss Marple." There was something in the way she said it and the appraising look she gave that made Agatha think she was being compared to the famous fictional character not because of that character’s detective abilities but more because of her age.
Mary led the way into a charming sitting-room. Bookshelves lined the walls. Pot plants glowed green with health and a brisk log fire was burning. There was a homely smell of baking. Agatha could almost imagine James relaxing here, his long legs stretched out in front of him. "I’ll just take a note of your phone number," said Agatha, opening her capacious handbag and taking out a notebook, pen, and her glasses. She was not interested in getting Mary’s phone number, only an excuse to put on her glasses and see if the newcomer’s face was as unwrinkled as it appeared to be.
Mary gave her number and Agatha looked up and peered at her through her glasses. Well, well, well, thought Agatha. Thunderbirds, go! That was a facelift if ever there was one. There was something in the plastic stretchiness of the skin. The hair was dyed, but by the hand of an expert, so that it was streaked blonde rather than being a uniform bleach job.
"I have heard you are a member of the horticultural society," said Agatha, taking off her glasses and tucking them away in their case.
"Yes, and I pride myself on doing my bit for the village. Mr. Lacey is a great help. You know Mr. Lacey, of course. He’s your neighbour."
"Oh, we’re great friends," said Agatha.
"Really? But we must sample some of the cake you brought." Mary stood up. She was wearing a green sweater and green slacks and her figure was perfect.
The doorbell rang. "Talking of James, that’ll be him now," said Mary. "He often calls round."
Agatha smoothed her skirt. She realized she had not bothered to put on any make-up. Agatha knew there were lucky women who did not need to wear any makeup and that she was not one of that happy breed.
James Lacey came in and for a second a little flash of disappointment showed in his eyes when he saw Agatha. James Lacey was a very tall man in his mid-fifties. His thick black hair showed only a trace of grey. His eyes, like Mary’s, were bright blue. He kissed Mary on the cheek, smiled at Agatha and said, "Welcome back. Did you have a good holiday?"
"Mrs. Raisin has brought a cake," interrupted Mary. "I’ll make some tea while you two chat."
James smiled at Mary without quite looking at her, as if he longed to look at her, but was as shy as a schoolboy. He’s in love, thought Agatha, and wanted to get up and walk away.
She forced herself to talk brightly about her holidays, wishing she had some amusing stories to tell, but she had hardly talked to anyone and hardly anyone had talked to her.
Mary came back in bearing a tray. "Chocolate cake," she announced. "Now we shall all get fat."
"Not you," said James flirtatiously. "You don’t have to worry."
Mary smiled at him and James sent her back a shy little smile and bent his head over a slice of chocolate cake.
"I was thinking of joining the horticultural society," said Agatha. "When do they meet?"
Excerpted from The Potted Gardener by M. C. Beaton.
Copyright 1995 by M. C. Beaton.
Published in July 2009 by St. Martin s Press.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.