James measured the final gap between the plants, inserting his trowel exactly half way between them, precisely excavating enough soil to create a space for the plant. He gently tucked the last plant into the border. The neat row of bright pelargoniums edged the garden bed, completing it. He stood back, admiring his handiwork. With the finishing touches in place, the garden was looking perfect.
It was a secluded garden, backing onto woodlands, which made it feel much larger. He’d been carefully choreographing its layout over the course of years, meticulous planning and planting, training and trimming shrubs. This was his place, his refuge from the stresses of work. He hated it when Tammi intruded on this space, wittering on and destroying his solitude. Worse, she dared to pick his beautiful roses and put them into vases! As if he wanted his plants mutilated and transplanted into a false environment and die a slow and drooping death.
Saturdays were her shopping days, or days to meet up with girlfriends for lunch. They were his favourite day too, because it meant a day’s peace pottering in the garden. With the planting finished, he cleaned and packed away his tools in the shed, each one into its carefully assigned space. Satisfied that the shed was pristine again, he headed inside to make tea. He couldn’t abide tea made Tammi’s way – a teabag in a mug. He warmed the teapot, added the tea bags, a pinch of salt, then poured in the boiling water, allowing time for the teabags to steep. He set a tray with a white linen cloth, fine china cup and saucer, and carried it to sit outside. He placed a sliver of lemon in the china teacup, and poured in the tea, He sat back to admire his garden, enjoying the perfection of the clipped hedges and sharply defined pathway, surrounded by sculptured plants.
Tammi was usually late coming back from Town, having her dinner with friends, leaving James to prepare his own meal. It allowed him to cook his type of food. He savoured the vichyssoise, accompanied by a chilled chardonnay. He followed it with ossobuco and a glass of chateauneuf, and finally, stilton and biscuits with a fine port. When he cooked for Tammi, she scarfed the food, barely taking time to appreciate the fine combination of flavours. Worse, the meals she cooked were boring, unappetising, and far too often, were microwaved.
With the dishes neatly packed away, and the kitchen spotless, James settled to watch Cosi Fan Tuti on Sky Arts. It had been a perfect day. The opera concluded, and there was still no Tammi. It was unusual for her to stay out so late. He had enjoyed the peace too much to be too concerned.
Changing into his flannel pyjamas, James settled into his bedroom, closing the door to shut out any noise she might make on the way to her bedroom. He fluffed up his pillows, and settled into crisp, clean, Egyptian cotton sheets, and slept.
James woke promptly at eight the following morning. In slippered feet, he drew back the blackout curtains, appreciating the soft light caressing his garden. He dressed in dark cotton trousers– he could never abide the casualness of all pervasive denim – he selected a white cotton shirt, and lemon cashmere jersey.
In the kitchen, he brewed coffee and prepared his breakfast. He briefly contemplated Tammi’s closed bedroom door, knowing she wouldn’t be coming out any time soon: Tammi preferred to lie in on Sundays, and never wanted a cooked breakfast. Collecting his paper from the front doorstep, he headed for the conservatory. He changed the radio from Tammi’s hideous pop music station to classic FM, then settled down with his breakfast and paper.
The shrill ring of the telephone shattered his peace. Who would possibly be ringing this early on a Sunday? He would have loved to ignore it, but its shrill insistence demanded a response.
‘Hello?’ he answered.
‘James? It’s Judith. I’m trying to reach Tammi.’
‘She’ll still be sleeping at this hour,’ he replied pointedly.
‘I was worried about her – she didn’t meet us yesterday – didn’t even phone to cancel. She’s not answering her mobile either. I wanted to make sure she’s all right.’
‘That is rather odd. She wasn’t home yesterday – I thought she was with you.’
‘Didn’t you see her last night?’
‘She wasn’t home when I went to bed. I assumed you had gone out for the evening.’
‘You haven’t seen her since yesterday?’
‘I’m sure she’s just sleeping. You know she likes a lie-in at the weekend.’
‘Please won’t you check on her to make sure she’s okay?’
‘Very well. Please hold.’ James sighed, knowing he’d not be allowed any peace unless he acquiesced. It had begun. There was only one way to ensure his timings worked. He walked to her door, opening and surveying the room. Sunlight flooded in, a spotlight on her empty bed. It clearly hadn’t been slept in. The room was too tidy for her to have returned home last night.
‘Judith, she’s not here. She didn’t come home last night,’ he spoke instilling alarm in his voice.
‘I think you’d better call the police. This is not like her.’
‘Isn’t it possible that she met up with someone else and is still out with them?’
‘No, if we made plans, she always came, or let us know if there was a problem. I’m very worried about her. Please phone the police.’
‘Very well.’ James sighed. ‘I’ll call them now.’
‘Let me know when you have any news.’
He hung up without reply.
While waiting for the police, he dutifully rang Tammi’s mobile yet again, but it went straight to answer phone, and he was forced to listen to her annoying giggly message. ‘Where are you Tammi? Please call me. I am rather worried about you.’
James despised gooey shows of emotion, which had always annoyed Tammi. But he knew he was automatically the prime suspect, so he prepared himself mentally for the role of worried and distraught husband. The police would be concerned when they discovered that James and Tammi led separate lives, and had become increasingly distant. James could no longer remember what he had seen in her, why he had so foolishly tied himself to someone like her. He’d be happier without her, but divorce was so messy, tedious and time consuming. If she never came back, he’d be perfectly happy - as long as no one suspected him of having anything to do with her disappearance.
James tidied the immaculate living room again, and made himself a cup of tea, sitting down to wait. When the knock came, he took a deep breath, and set his expression to ‘concerned’. They would expect that.
‘My wife is missing,’ he blurted on opening the door.
The questions were interminable, but James handled them stoically, calculated lip trembling periodically, handkerchief dabbing at dry eyes.
‘Didn’t you notice when she didn’t come home last night?’ Officer Robins asked.
‘We have separate rooms, officer. It’s a practical arrangement – I am a lark, and Tammi is a night owl. We sleep better this way. Tammi often stays out very late when she meets her friends, so I wasn’t surprised that she was not home when I retired for the night.’ He dabbed his eyes with the spotless white handkerchief.
‘When did you realise she wasn’t here?’
‘One of her friends, Judith, phoned this morning. When I checked Tammi’s room, she wasn’t there.’
‘Have you tried to reach her?’
‘I’ve been trying her mobile, and she’s not answering. Judith said Tammi never met them for lunch yesterday.’
‘We’ll need contact details for Tammi’s friends.’
‘Of course, I thought you would. I made a list.’ James passed over the neatly printed details.
‘When was the last time you saw Tammi?’
‘Yesterday morning – when she drove off into town.’
‘What time was that?’
James paused ’It was 10:05 I believe.’
‘How can you be so sure?’
‘I had glanced at the clock just before I heard her car leave.’
‘Has she ever done anything like this before?’
‘No. Periodically, she comes in late, but she always comes home.’
The questions continued, until finally the officers stood up: ‘That’s all we need for now. If you think of anything else, then please call me.’ He handed over a business card.
‘Thank you. Please find her soon,’ James asked, injecting a note of desperation into his voice.
He led them to the door, expression carefully constructed, maintaining it even after he had closed the door.
There was still no sign of Tammi when James left for work on Monday morning. On Tuesday, her burnt out car was found in a field a few miles away, and the police returned, faces grimly set. This time they focussed minutely on James’ activities on Saturday, and he showed them the immaculate garden he’d been tending, ran through his itinerary. ‘It’s not much of an alibi, but surely you don’t think I had anything to do with this? I loved my wife,’ he choked out the words.
‘It’s routine, sir. We need to ask these questions.
‘We have heard that your relationship had been floundering.’
‘We are very different people officer, naturally we have our disagreements. Doesn’t every couple have difficulties from time to time?’
‘I’m afraid it doesn’t look good,’ the policeman told him. ‘None of her friends have heard from her. Her credit cards have not been used. We’ve established that her handbag was not in the car. We’ve been searching the fields where the car was found. We haven’t found anything else yet. We’ll keep you posted if anything turns up. Phone us if you think of anything else.’
It made the papers. The villagers were agog as they imagined the horror that had happened. He found their questions annoying and tedious, especially when they espoused Tammi’s ‘virtues’ and spoke of how wonderful she had been. It took iron will not to tell them how shallow and inconsiderate she was, to tolerate their cloying sympathy and barely concealed curiosity, and to play the part of the distraught husband. He took time off from work because it was expected, but more because he needed to escape the façade.
The police dropped in regularly with ‘updates’ that held no information, and with endless questions, and James answered them consistently, congratulating himself mentally at the end of each performance. They searched the house, discovered a suitcase and some of Tammi’s clothes were missing, but there was no indication of where she could have gone. Time passed. The police visits became less frequent, and people no longer asked about Tammi. James delighted in maintaining the house to his standards without Tammi’s interference. Years passed, and they never did find her. At last, they allowed him and Tammi to rest in peace.
The garden was magnificent the first year that Tammi disappeared, and for years to come. The pelargonium flower bed was particularly spectacular. At last, he’d found the perfect fertiliser. In years to come, it would need renewing. Sitting looking at the flowers, James idly wondered if he’d be pushing his luck, if he married again.
Author Notes: If you enjoyed the story, follow me on Twitter @denicepenrose or read my blog: http://penrose-enterprise.wix.com/writelink