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Ruth Aylett

It was my job to wash the gnomes down every second day. That meant I was allowed
to use the hose. Mostly Alan had the hose for doing the watering. They wouldn’t let
me do the watering after the first time. How was I to know if you turned the nozzle
from mist to jet it flattened the delphiniums? The gnomes were fine with a jet. I liked
the way the water bounced off the gnomes and the sound it made when I got it centred
on a nose or the pointy end of a hat.

Mr Thomas was always on at me to do it quicker.

“Just get on with it laddie and stop mucking around with the hose,” he’d say. “You’re
taking all day. You’re supposed to be helping me, not playing with water like a bairn.
We’re not that kind of nursery.”

He was like next door’s dog. It’s a bulldog and it always growls at me when I walk
past. Mr Thomas had the same round face with wrinkles round the edges and the same
small angry eyes. He was always stressing.

Alan wasn’t like a dog. He made me think of those antelopes on the BBC, leaping
across the plains. He was very tall. He had long bouncy hair that he kept tied back. He
walked in a bendy slow kind of way. It made you feel calm to see him. But he talked
about the plants as if they were his kids or something. He wasn’t exactly cross about
the delphiniums, because he wasn’t a cross sort of person. But he looked at me as if it
had made him sad. I didn’t like that.

Weekends and holidays were our busy times. Mr Thomas told me when I started that
I’d always have to come in then. “No sloping off, laddie, if you want to keep this
job.” But I hated weekends and holidays anyway. Mam would be on at me to “Go off
out now and have some fun.” But it wasn’t fun going out. Other lads laughed at me
and they jostled me too and poked me in the back. And then laughed some more.

The gnomes didn’t laugh at me. They liked being washed. “It tickles!” the one with
the spade would say when the jet hit him on the nose. That was Bill, and he chuckled
a lot, but just to show he was happy. It was Bill told me about the drug smuggling.

Fred and Freda were on a little swing together and I could make it swing quite high
with the hose. They would go “Wheeh!” when I did that.

Alan didn’t laugh at me either. He let me help unload the new plants off the lorry
when they came in. I’m quite strong. But he wouldn’t let me drive the fork-lift with
the pallets of paving stones. He gave me a nice smile. “I’m sure you could do it, right
enough,” he said. “But you’ve to have a licence or it could be trouble for us all.”

There again, Alan smiled at the customers too.

Mr Thomas told me that’s what I should do but the customers didn’t make me feel
like smiling. Some of them were nasty to me. Though just because they were nasty
didn’t mean they were the drug smugglers. I knew drug smugglers would be nice but
in a false way, like crocodiles that look as if they are smiling when they are really
waiting to crunch up an antelope. That’s what I was on the look-out for, a customer
with a crocodile smile.

The drug smugglers were using the gnomes. I was unpacking them from their cartons
so as to make a nice display. Little packets of white stuff fell out from inside them.
Each packet had a label that said ‘Do not ingest’. Though the white stuff was in little
bobbles so I don’t think you really could inject it anyway. Bill said it was dangerous
to tell anyone about it so I didn’t.

I hadn’t realised the drug smugglers could be women. But I recognised the false
smile at once when the woman came up to me. I was washing down the gnomes and I
saw her come out of the building, looking. She wasn’t looking for a plant like the
other customers. She walked over to me, and smiled. But only with her mouth,
showing lots of white teeth. Her eyes didn’t smile, they looked nervous. She had long
brown hair and her face was covered with make-up. Maybe she was in disguise. The
hair could have been a wig.

“Excuse me, do you have an Alan Jamieson working here?” she asked.

I was startled. Why did she want Alan? Alan couldn’t be a drug smuggler. Then I
realised she was being cunning. I would go and get Alan for her and she would try to
get the drugs out of the gnomes while I was away. So though I couldn’t see Alan over
at the fruit tree section with a customer like the last time I looked, I had to stay where
I was.

I didn’t mean to make her wet. Because I was thinking what to do the hose got a bit
twisty and the jet bounced off Bill’s hat and sprayed on her legs. Her jeans went dark
blue where the water hit them and her face went pink. She jumped back. Then she
yelled the sort of words at me my Mam says I mustn’t use even if the other lads do.
She scared me because she looked so angry but I knew I had to stay with the gnomes.
I didn’t know what to say. Can you say sorry to a drug smuggler? Even if you make
them wet?

She stopped shouting and her voice went low and snarly just like a crocodile would
sound if it had a voice. “Tell that Alan Jamieson I want to talk to him,” she said. And
she stomped away to the exit.

Bill chuckled. “You saw her off good and proper”. He looked clean and cheery with a
glitter where the drops of water in his face were catching the sun. But I was worried.
Maybe she really did want to talk to Alan. But could that mean he was in with the
drug smugglers? What if they were blackmailing him? Or maybe he knew about them
and she wanted to threaten him. He could be in danger.

I waited until we were having our lunch. Mr Thomas told me when I started that I was
to have my lunches with Alan just for half an hour, no longer, and then Alan would
look after the till indoors and he would have his own lunch. When it was a nice day
we’d have our sandwiches behind the hut with the tropical fish tanks in it. I liked the
fish but Alan said it was bad to tap on the glass because it scared them. Though it was
fun to see them scatter away from where you tapped.

Mam had given me egg sandwiches which are my favourite but I felt a bit quivery and
not very hungry. So I just sat for a minute, not eating my sandwich. Alan smiled at me
with his sandwich in one hand. It looked like cheese, which he told me once was his

“You’re not eating. Too much breakfast?”

I didn’t know how to tell him about the woman and maybe telling him about getting
her wet first was wrong, and I wasn’t sure I should tell him why the crocodile smile
was important. It was all a bit confusing, and he stopped smiling and started looking
at me as if he was worried. Like an antelope that could see a lioness. I didn’t like that.

Then he said very quietly: “She asked for me by my name?”

“She said ‘Tell that Alan Jamieson I want to talk to him’. Then she stomped off. She
was cross because I made her wet but I didn’t do it on purpose. You won’t tell Mr
Thomas, will you?”

“Nae problem. We’ll keep it between the two of us, right enough. Deal?” He smiled at
me again, but it was a worried smile. He was in danger.

In the afternoon I had to shift the trellis panels and the fence posts. I’m quite strong
really. But I wanted to ask Bill what I should do. When I finished with the trellis I
went to see the gnomes and explained to Bill how worried I was about Alan.

“I think you should keep an eye on him then,” Bill told me. “Two people are better
than one when there’s danger.”

So when it was time to go home I said I had a bad stomach from my egg sandwich
and couldn’t walk up to the bus stop. And Alan asked me if I wanted a lift home like I
hoped. That way the drug smugglers couldn’t get him on his own when he left.

It was beginning to get dark when we left. There aren’t any street lights out here
because of being in the country. I never liked walking up to the bus stop when it was
getting dark because it took a long time and I kept thinking something horrible might
be creeping up behind me. I could never see anything when I looked round but I got a
stretched feeling in my back as if something was looking at me. Like wolves maybe,
running very quietly.

Alan stopped his car just outside the gates. One of his jobs is to lock up. I looked
down the road while he was putting the padlock on. There was a dark shadow that
could have been a man. But I wasn’t sure.

Alan got back in and we drove up the hill past the bus stop. There’s a big bend after
that and when we went round it I saw some flashing orange lights. A car had stopped
and there were some people round it. One of them waved at us as we came up and so
Alan stopped too.

“Stay there,” he said. “I’ll just see if they need a hand.”

Our car lights were still on and when the back door of the other car opened and
someone got out I could see them right away. It was the crocodile woman! The drug
smugglers were ambushing us. I was right about Alan being in danger!

I would have been quicker if the seat belt hadn’t got in the way and the door handle
wasn’t so fiddly. When I got to the other car the crocodile woman was shrieking at
Alan and waving her arms in a very threatening way.

“It’s against nature! Filthy! Just leave him alone, we were fine until you came along.”
And then a lot of those bad words she’d shouted at me earlier.

There were two more drug smugglers but they were just standing there watching. For
a second I thought she looked a bit like Mam used to when she was shouting at Dad. I
realised I had to do something before she attacked.

I probably shouldn’t have pushed her quite so hard. Maybe then she wouldn’t have hit
her head on the top of the car when she fell back across the seat. She screamed as if
she was very scared. One of the other drug smugglers shouted at me “You fucking
cretin,” which was just what Dad used to say before he hit me, so I hit him first and he
fell over.

But before I could hit the other drug smuggler, someone grabbed my arm and I
realised it was Alan.

“Stop, for Christ’s sake stop!” he shouted. He sounded as if he might be going to cry
because his voice was all wobbly. “You’ve no clue what’s going on here.” I thought
for a moment that maybe he really was in league with the drug smugglers.

But the next thing was that another car came up the hill behind us. It stopped very
suddenly and the driver’s door opened almost at the same time. A man leapt out, and
started running just as soon as his feet were on the ground. He didn’t even switch the
engine off or shut his door. “Alan,” he cried in a voice that sounded strangled, as if he
couldn’t breath properly.

I felt Alan’s hand fall off my arm suddenly. He looked astonished. “Chris!” he said.

So I thought this must be someone on our side and not another drug smuggler. And as
soon as Chris got to us he flung his arms round Alan and they hugged each other very
tight. And it looked like Alan really was crying.

Too many things were happening. And just then my bus came up the hill. It couldn’t
get past all the cars and it hooted. The driver stuck his head out of the window.

“Has there been an accident?” he asked, sounding worried. “Do you need an

There was a bit of a silence. The crocodile woman was crying inside the car and the
drug smuggler I hit had got up and was leaning against the front of the car. I suppose
it did look a bit like an accident.

Alan was the first person to answer.

“Nae problem,” he told the driver. “Bit of a break-down, that’s all. We were
following and stopped to help.”

“Sure, are you?” the bus driver asked. I expect he could hear the crocodile woman
crying. Or maybe he could hear that Alan was really upset.

“We’re fine, pal,” said the second drug smuggler, the one I hadn’t hit.

“Right enough,” said the bus driver. “So maybes one of you would move some of
these cars so I can get past?”

Before Alan moved his car he said to me quietly, more in his usual voice: “Just get
onto the bus now, there’s a good laddie. You’re better off out of this. Dinnae worry
about me, it’s all under control now.”

I looked at him. He smiled at me. He must have wiped his tears off. So I got onto the

At work the next day, I went to talk to Bill about what had happened. It didn’t make

“I think the crocodile woman might have been jealous,” Bill told me. “Perhaps she
wanted Chris to be her friend and not Alan’s.”

“But what about the drug smuggling?” I asked.

“Mistaken identity,” Bill chuckled. “You’ll just have to keep looking out for them.”

I kept looking for weeks after that, but I didn’t see any more customers with crocodile
smiles. Bill was right about the friends thing though, because that’s what Alan said
when he came in later.

I wish I had a really good friend like Alan has.

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