The Gardener

With his dead ex-wife tucked under his arm, Geoffrey shuffled as quickly as his bent legs could take him, through the automatic doors of the garden centre.

“Now my lovely, what will it be? Hebe? Rose? Clematis?”  He trundled, head down, through the first section where shelves were arranged to present hoses, secateurs and wheelbarrows as if in need of immediate loving homes. He passed, without a glance, the plinths of cacti and cosseted house plants whose vicious bad-tempered flares of flowers and glossy leaves projected ‘high maintenance’ attitudes. He emerged out under the plastic corrugated roofing, open to rows of raised flower beds beyond – a concrete quadrant stuffed with cribs of plants, all tethered and labelled begging for freedom and release. His footsteps slowed, and hesitantly he considered one plant at a time; peering closely to read a label, or stroke a leaf, smell a bloom.

He came to a row of Hebes, all in black pots, wedged closely together so it was hard to see where one small shrub ended and another began. ‘hebe speciosa’ the label read:Small green fingers of leaves, like the stumpy curious fingers of children. In his mind’s eye Geoffrey saw the hedge of hebe that used to line their garden, adorned with the purple spears of flowers throughout the summer, attracting so many butterflies that the hedge itself seemed to be fluttering and coalescing into a heaving mass of tortoiseshells, admirals and large whites.

“Hebe: Bearer of nectar to the gods.” As he stooped before the shrubs, absentmindedly rubbing the little leaves between his thumb and forefinger of one hand, he saw again a small figure emerge from the hedge. Trowel in one hand, trug in the other, old coat, wellington boots and a mass of brown curls flecked with hebe petals. Geoffrey’s heart tore at the memory and he wanted to clutch the image in his fist, hold it to his eyes and make it real once more before him – to recreate it in substance. As a dry, wretched sob escaped him he watched the faint film of recall: Like a butterfly herself, she flitted back and forth weeding below the hedge, resting every now and then to watch the butterflies while she eased her aching back: A small nut of a figure, part of the hedge itself – almost. ‘Hardy, needing little care,’ the label also stated.

“Maybe not a Hebe my love, eh?” The old man suddenly decided, letting his hand fall from their foliage, clutching tightly at the jar under his arm. He stumbled onwards, blinded by watery eyes, he saw blurred ripples of evergreen Euonymous, and the pre-menopausal flush of Pieris. He only came to a stop when he brushed a plant that engulfed him in waves of lavender, the sense of smell appealing where sight failed him: Down through the ages lavender wove its spell, an incense to waft prayers to deities, to cleanse body and mind and raise the passions in its cauldron of magic. He perched on a low wall with the tender shoots of lavender brushing him on either side, as if being hugged by aroma that dragged at his memories, conjuring them up with every intake of breath.

“Lavender. I know you. ‘Spikenard’ to the Greeks, but ‘Lavender’ to the Romans from the word, ‘lavare’, to wash. Do you wash me now as I sit before you? Do you cleanse the soul of an old man? Can you erase the sins of life, or do we carry them onwards?” As the perfume encircled his head he saw again tumbling naked bodies, feverish in new love, cries of delight and discovery. He wanted more. He breathed deeper and saw a running figure, wide skirts flaring, laughter, like a robin flitting between rows upon row of purple lavender under a searing sky. She looked back, laughing and teasing, running further into the heady aroma. But the memory faded, bleached and erased before he was ready, before he could drink in his fill.

Now he saw lavender being clutched at with desperate hands, hands that gulped in the scent to revive, to calm and heal; the tiny flowers crushed to grease on the skin. Life wore happiness out, just as the lavender flowers turn grey and fall as husks, to be blown by the wind, scentless and dead. He saw the tortured twist of fingers, the screams of sorrow and anguish. Lavender had been scattered on the pillow to entice sleep, it was the aroma of distress and loss – the figure dancing away from him in the lavender field, danced away from him in life, to a place he could not reach. He tore angrily at the tendrils of plant brushing him, to banish the imagery the perfume conjured, but this just increased the power of the scent. It clung to him, trapped him and condemned him.

Looking around with desperation he spied the roses: Troops lined in long rows, sticks, thorns, labels fluttering slightly in the breeze. He staggered from the clutches of lavender towards the spiky dormant twigs, saber-toothed and vicious in their nakedness. He blundered too close and a thorn snagged at his hand, loose flesh tearing, large droplets of blood beading.

“That’s right!” Snarled the old man, “mock old age from your silent winter retreat. We do not age gracefully, as do you, where petals tumble down on a warm summer’s evening, still glistening with pearl whiteness to reflect the face of the moon. We die from the inside out, fade and deflate, so our skin wrinkles over our shrunken lives. I curse you! All roses! For your trickery; sweet trickery!”

“Can I help you with anything?” Came the tentative voice of a young man, clad in green, as if dressing like a blade of grass would improve his chances of a plant sale. The older man stepped away from the roses, disorientated by the sudden intrusion into his ramblings. He clutched the jar in his arm tightly, holding onto the one thing that seemed solid and real. “A drink of water perhaps?” Added the youth, steering the man over to the restaurant end of the garden centre and pushing him gently into a chair at a table. Geoffrey nodded silently to make the youth go away. He was not really thirsty.

He would turn his dead ex-wife into a rose he decided. Plant her beneath it so she would be drawn up through the roots and be renewed as leaves and petals, with long thorny arms to wrap around trellis, to tangle and twist. She would be free to grow, to bloom: But forever imprisoned, trapped by twist ties to the trellis, pruned, controlled. And he would take care of her. He knows that now. He knows that he has to pay attention, care, water and feed. Roses left to their own devices ramble, climb away from their trellis, tangle with other shrubs and trees. Lessons learned too late. Too late.

“Here you are sir.” The bean shoot had returned with a glass of water. The old man ignored the lad and the water. He set his face upwards, catching a glimmer of heat in the spring sun. Always that first glow of real heat from the sun in spring made him want to dance, to throw wide his arms and be thankful. The cancerous cold of winter nudged aside as warmth crept into old bones. The worms will be rising from the depths of the soil. He should be digging over the clods and crumbling the top ready for his seeds.

Children were playing in a small playground area and he watched them idly as if they were ants. ‘Why did children never walk?’ He wondered vaguely. They only ran, or skipped or danced about, sometimes on their tippy-toes, sometimes flat footed plodding, but always running; never walking. Parents stood self-consciously lifting, rescuing, or just waiting around the perimeter of the play area…..’Our kids were never so much trouble!’ He thought to himself. He didn’t remember all that running about, the screams and yelling for attention. He frowned, unable to remember his own children at that age at all. Polly, Suzanne and Rachel. He saw them for a moment as a photograph, frozen in a two dimensional pose, smiling – and still.

They were Janice’s job, her duty to look after them. He brought home the wage, painted the fence and serviced the car. Together they planned and worked the garden, creating patterns and pallets of natural paint. The ‘clink, clink’ of a hoe on a damp afternoon, a glance across the lawn to see the bowed figure, easing fresh clamouring seedlings from their pots into the borders. They were a union of energy, creating something far greater than both of them. He sighed deeply at the memory.

The darnel blew over the fence that year on the summer breeze and settled amongst the petunias.

He spent hours on his knees, breathing in the fleshy plum of damp soil as the dew fell in the dimpsy. He could free the petunias of their suffocating weeds but not the weeds that took root in the empty pit of his stomach at the realization that love had died, leaving hollow space – what had filled it before? Hope and future dreams? The space filled with wood smoke of smouldering anger, as the barren wasteland of his middle years gobbled up his life and spat him out at the end, bitter, and broken, when time had all gone.

But he had created glory from the wasteland, he had made his garden bloom so neighbours leaned enviously over his fence to discuss tips and admire his talent – that had helped fill his emptiness. It was easier to dig in the soil and plant than to reach out, cross the divide that so suddenly opened up between them without warning. Plants didn’t judge, didn’t criticise, didn’t nag! They needed, weeding, pruning, and feeding – and they returned this in flower, colour, scent and power over death – the recycling of one life into another life, compost into growth, waste into value and something precious.

“The world needs more flowers. Less people.” He reasoned. Despite himself he took a small sip of the water. He had decisions to make.

A rose it would be. But with a history of 35 million years, and its position as the world’s favourite flower, there were so many to choose from, so many factors to consider! There is colour, but also fragrance, hardiness, disease-resistance, and type – should she be a floribunda, grandiflora, shrub, climber, miniature, tree, or rambler? Not a rambler – she’d done enough of that. He slowly creaked to standing and made his way along the rows of sticks with images of flowers stuck to their stems like war medals.

“A climber I think. Then I can tie you firmly in place to the trellis. Now, which one? Which colour? ‘Gardeners Glory’ – I like the name! You would be my glory! But yellow? Not sure that will go with the other three climbing roses there already…..’New Dawn’? Maybe , pretty oyster shade of pink, scented – to waft on a summer’s breeze….’Summer Time’? maybe…’Scent from Heaven’ maybe appropriate, but…too orange….’Times Past’ – I like this one, tight swirls of petals all wrapped into a posy of pink-white. Not too showy, but delicate. Yes, maybe. Yes. Hey you! Boy! “The young lad emerged behind a row of ferns brandishing a hose.

“Yes sir? Are you feeling better? This rose? Don’t you worry, I shall carry it for you to the checkout? Would you like anything else, soil? Food for the rose? No? No problem. Shall I carry it to your car for you? There, it is safely propped up on the back seat, it shouldn’t fall if you take it steady. Have a good day.”

Geoffrey pulled the car into the drive and clambered out, displeased to find Derek, the annoying neighbour hovering.

“Geoff? You alright old man? Police been here looking for you….I told them that I had seen you drive off earlier, said I thought you would be home before lunch – that you’d probably just nipped into town for some milk or something. I expect they will come back. Seemed fairly urgent – you sure everything is alright?”

“Yes, yes Derek. Everything is fine. What could be wrong?”

“-Thought it might be to do with the spate of cat deaths in our street  – but they didn’t want to talk to me about that: I could tell them a theory or two I have…” But Geoff had shuffled away and was unlocking the garage door.

“Nice rose.” Derek commented, following Geoff. “Want me to carry it round to the back for you?” Together the two men went through the garage, and out into the garden. Derek always liked the chance to be in Geoff’s garden – ‘a small enclave of paradise’, he regularly told his wife: Always something in flower, colours sliding pleasingly from one hue to the next, to draw the eye and calm the spirit. Rows of neat beds, not a weed in sight, all plants tethered to stakes, fed and watered, arranged to draw the eye down to the far corners. A large beech tree marked the end of the garden, where it resided in the centre of a small circle of lawn of its own, flanked by tall waving fronds of toxic, cow parsley, green fountains of foxgloves and the dark hooded phallic pokers of ‘lords-and-ladies’ winking in the shade: Lords and ladies in waiting.

Uninvited Derek took up a seat on the patio, stones scrubbed clean from the green algae that plagued his own patio next door, he noted with chagrin. He watched silently, as Geoff dug a large hole at the end of the trellis, where other roses were crucified against the crosses, pruned back to bare stems and claws, just a faint glimmer of rosy red new shoots showing where this year’s leaves and flowers would delight. Once dug, Derek wandered over.

“Big hole for a small plant.” He commented.

“Got to fill a lot of the hole up with dead and decaying matter – provides the nutrients for it to grow well.” Commented Geoff. “But I will do it later. After lunch.” His tone dismissed Derek, who taking the hint and thinking of his own lunch, waved a friendly arm and retreated back the way he had come. Geoff waited until all was quiet and then returned to the car, lifted out the pot seat-belted into the passenger seat, locked the car, pulled the garage door closed after him and returned to the hole by the trellis.

“Right my lovely. It seems as if time is running out for both of us, so I am afraid I will have to cut any ceremonial processes and just get you where you belong, safe and sound.” And he unscrewed the lid and tipped the fine ash into the large hole. He shovelled a spade full of his dark loam soil back into the jar, shook it vigorously and then tipped that on top of the ash. Then discarding the jar, he delicately added some more top soil before lifting the rose from its pot, freeing the roots from the tight ball they had woven inside the confines of their container, and placed it in the hole. He filled the hole, and with uneven tread, stomped down around the root to settle it in. Then slowly and carefully he dragged a watering can, slopping water over its brim, to the hole and gave the rose a long drink. Just standing back and watching the water soak into the ground seemed to slake his own thirst, as if he was also the rose. He stacked the empty pot with others in the greenhouse, he refilled the jar with a trowel full of ash from the bonfire, where he had been burning some leaves the evening before and set it onto the patio table. Then he went into the house to mix himself a salad for his lunch, leaves he had gathered earlier from his garden.

Geoffrey took his lunch out to eat in his precious garden. The heat the sun gave out was snatched back by a cold wind. The old man shivered, but stayed where he was, munching steadily on his leafy greens, accompanied with a hunk of bread and a wedge of cheese, washing the bitterness down with a can of Pepsi low sugar. With satisfaction he surveyed his garden, his eyes threading along every blade of lawn, every stem and leaf – he knew it all more than he knew the crinkled skin of ‘some other old person, not me’ on the back of his hand. The garden was the only consistency in his life, the evolving growth of shrubs, the turning of the seasons, the decay and rebirth to bring colour under a controlling hand, a knowledgeable eye, a master, a lord of creation. He nodded at his climbing roses staring back at him across the grass: Janice, Polly, Rachel and Suzanne; all home at last. He closed his eyes as the pain ripped through his body.

Geoff didn’t hear the insistent ringing on the front door bell, nor the banging on his garage door. He didn’t see the blue lights flickering over the roof of the house. He didn’t stir when Derek pulled at a fence panel to allow two policemen, with big boots that trampled across the flower bed, to reach the patio. He had no explanation to give when they found the jar stolen earlier that day from the local funeral parlour, and of the bowl of nearly consumed leaves plucked from under the beech tree at the bottom of the garden. The tree stood silent and still in its green finery. Unrepentant. The roses were mute. The daffodils and tulips, as the light started to fade from their petals hugged the cat bones around their roots tightly. The wisteria spinning a web over the pagoda, twitched in the wind and drawing on rich nutrients beneath its feet, sent out a new spiral of growth into the spring garden.

The Gardener – short story – Scribble – July 2021

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