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by acwhitehouse 

Posted: 15 November 2007
Word Count: 3525
Summary: An unlikely friendship blossoms in the garden of a once-great country house. An old-fashioned little story but I make no apologies for that.

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The gardener took a grip on the weathered handle of his fork, and heaved himself up from the flowerbed, wiping his brow with a handkerchief. Although it was the first of October, the soil remained warm, so his knees creaked only a little as he rose. He thought this would probably be the last day he could spend in the beds until the following spring. In the meantime, he would be confined to the potting shed, or the large Victorian glasshouse on the opposite side of the park. He felt that he would soon have to take the Management up on their offer to employ him an assistant - in the busier months at least. Having no children of his own, he had decided it might be pleasant to find someone to whom he could pass on his knowledge; someone to carry the heavier loads, and take over some more tedious tasks, such as the sweeping of leaves, and the seemingly endless raking of the many winding gravel paths that wove through the various formal gardens. In addition, it would leave him more time to devote to the maze.

The famous maze at Westheaton had been designed by his great-grandfather, in the days when it was still a private home and he had been Head Gardener, with six permanent groundskeepers under him and casual labour in the spring. Glossy, small-leaved privet formed an intricate knot over a space of perhaps one quarter of an acre. Early sepia photographs showed the young shrubs dotted sparsely along the edges of bright white paths. Almost a hundred years later, the hedges were ten feet high, and the paths no longer visible from the hotel windows above. Perhaps because the maze appeared symmetrical, guests often underestimated its complexity and became hopelessly lost. Warnings were posted and maps were, of course, available in the foyer, but many of the constant stream of young lovers and newlyweds who stayed at the hotel found themselves having to be rescued, shivering and long after dusk, their earlier bravado quite evaporated.

The gentle genius of the Westheaton maze lay in the fact that it was not governed by the usual geometrical rules. No pattern of consistent left- or right-turning could bring one to its centre; the trick of it was in the colours. There were, in fact, two varieties of privet in the maze, the foliage of one ever so slightly darker in colour than the other. The only way to navigate the maze successfully, was to follow the darker paths, but the majority of entrants failed to notice the difference – at least until it was much too late.


Although not marked upon the maps, there was an alternative route into and out of the maze, entirely self-contained and intended to allow the gardeners free access for maintentance purposes. These narrower paths ran side by side with the guest paths, but at no point did they meet or cross. As his joints stiffened and his breathing became more laboured, it was becoming a habit of the old gardener’s to spend increasing amounts of time resting in the many secluded corners provided by these secret paths. The benches here were wooden and roughly hewn - by the gardeners themselves - and were quite unlike the ornate curls of wrought iron that decorated the rest of the maze. The wooden benches were comfortable and, whilst sitting there, he felt a comforting connection to the past. Among his grandfather’s many tales of ‘The Way Things Were’, had been a richly detailed and oft-repeated account of the bales upon bales of luxurious velvet cushions and feather bolsters that had to be set out upon these fancy iron seats each morning, and cleared away again at dusk, or whenever it looked like rain.

Such extravagant practices had ceased immediately at the outbreak of the Great War, when the major part of the house had been given over for use as a hospital. It had remained a hospital for a few years after the fighting had ceased, for the long-term treatment of victims of shellshock; pale, haunted creatures who appeared in the gardens from time to time, rarely speaking but frightening the village children, who concocted outlandish tales of ghouls and zombies to ward off the fearsome truth. The building had been sold to an American hotel chain in 1935, and remained with them ever since. Both the gardener's father and grandfather had fought and returned alive, and both had married women employed on the domestic staff. Other than for his honeymoon, or an occasional trip to a local market town, neither man had left the estate again until they day they died. By the time it was his turn, the traditional domestic staff had been replaced by an ever-changing roll-call of chamber maids and waitresses, all passing through on their way to ‘something better’. The kitchen was now the exclusive domain of a highly-strung Frenchman and his troupe of downtrodden lackeys. The chef took no interest at all in the painstakingly tended kitchen garden. The gardener had protested, but to no avail; apparently the man had a Michelin star and wasn’t to be bothered.


And so, the gardener continued, in his solitary way, to do the job as his father had taught him. He changed little about the gardens, and went about his business largely unnoticed.

The hotel guests were universally unaware of his frequent presence in the maze, although at times he was no more than a foot from them. He had a slow, quiet way of moving, and even of breathing, that had nothing to do with stealth or a conscious desire to eavesdrop; it was simply that he lived entirely without haste. His work presented him with no urgent demands or deadlines, and the pace of it changed as gently and predictably as the seasons. The gardener was not unaware of the experiences he had foregone by choosing to remain upon the estate all his life: travel, marriage, fatherhood, and yet the periods of melancholy he suffered were few. It would be an over-simplification to say that his plants were like his children, but the pleasure he gained from them was, in some ways, comparable. When, from a safe vantage point, he observed a child bending to smell a yellow rose, or a bashful young man guiltily pluck a peony for his sweetheart, he felt that he had given them that gift. He could not, therefore, be judged too harshly for wanting to witness, first-hand, the emotional response elicited by his creations.

Very early in his career, he had developed a fascination for the way people reacted to the gardens; the way in which people were visibly calmed by the patchwork of lavenders, with its many fragrant varieties, divided by immaculate borders of box. Or the vast majority of couples, unconsciously linking arms and slowing their pace, to stroll through the heavily scented rose garden, as if they had been transported directly to the pages of a Georgian romance. He delighted in the secluded arbour at the top of the oak walk, from which he could observe the expressions of those who, upon reaching the summit of their gentle climb, surveyed for the first time the rich autumnal shades of the vast woodland spread out below. From his usual place of concealment in the glasshouse, he watched visitors marvel at ancient tree ferns, or listened with rapt attention to the whispered conversations of the couples that came to rest on the wide stone rim of the fountain. Nowhere was his influence more marked, however, than in the maze.

A few of the very many dead ends within the maze curled themselves into wider circular seating areas, like commas in the general calligraphy, and each was furnished with one of those elaborate wrought-iron seats, and planted below and around with very carefully selected species; each chosen for the effect it might have on the visitors. Trapped in one such leafy bower, and having released the scent of the savoury herbs underfoot, couples, as though fortified, found themselves disposed to make extravagant promises, to speak of the future, of grand dreams and plans; and so this was how he imagined love to be – as if the everyday topics of his parents’ conversation had been the exception to the rule. In another, surrounded entirely by an overwhelming array of white flowers, and showered with tiny cherry blossom in the spring, proposals of marriage were both frequently made and utterly irresistable. The holly grotto sparked arguments, but the privacy of the passionflower pergola was evidently a place for making up. The gardener’s voyeuristic tendencies seemed to him quite natural, and not in the least bit nosy or prurient. Indeed, his sojourns were evenly spread, without prejudice for any particular area. Like any artist, he felt a desperate need to attest to the human condition; to bear witness - particularly to its extremes. That no one but he could see the perfect whole of his creation was of little concern to him. It was his experience alone that counted, and other people, although not exactly meaningless, never seemed quite real.

Autumn gave way to winter which, apart from a great rush over the festive season, was a quiet time for the hotel. It seemed an age before the snow cleared to reveal purple and amber crocuses beneath the bare branches of the tall trees. The windows of the glasshouse lost their icy filigree, and the gardener realised that the arrival of the new assistant was fast approaching. The gardener began to fret; what would he do if the young man were lazy or unwilling to learn? What if he had a lot of new ideas and wanted to go around changing things? And what on earth would they talk about every day? He began to regret his capitulation; sure that he could have managed another year or two alone. He approached one of the deputy managers, and outlined his concerns, but the man said he didn’t know anything about the person who had been hired. 'External maintenance issues' were no longer within his 'area of influence' and he didn’t know who had won the post, but he assured the gardener that it was Hotel Policy to put all new staff on a three month probation period, so at least he couldn’t be saddled with a complete incompetent. He gave the gardener the name of the woman he thought might be the right person to ask, but the gardener gave up and returned to his potting shed, feeling defeated.


The gardener felt more at home in the potting shed than he did in the cosy front room of his own cottage. Over the years it had become filled with odds and ends brought there by his ancestors. Two dusty chesterfield armchairs (rejects from the main house), with stuffing leaking from their cracked leather, contrasted strangely with a homemade rag-rug, in a garish design of concentric orange and green circles. An ancient wooden radio, with peeling once-beautiful veneer, stood atop a mahogany display case, which had most of its glass missing, and contained his tea things and a biscuit-tin decorated with small fluffy kittens in pink silk bows. A framed tinted photograph of a young Queen Elizabeth hung on the wall, alongside a yellowing newspaper cutting, describing her one and only visit to the estate in 1959.

The young queen had toured the main attraction with his father as her guide, and commented favourably on the lush foliage the privet retained, even at the height of a long dry summer. 'Manure, ma’am, and plenty of it,' his father had apparently responded, loudly and without hesitation, scandalising the Managing Director and eliciting sniggers from his entourage. He smiled at the recollection. How often the story had been retold! He felt he could not bear to share this place with someone who wanted to put up pictures of football teams and retune his wireless, from its time-honoured position at what they were now calling 'Radio 4', to one of the noisier local stations. He was truly beginning to dread the day, only two weeks away, when his worst fears would surely be realised, and his comfortable life must change forever.

The days seemed to rush past him in a blur. He was jumpy. He thought, perhaps, that an obvious increase in efficiency might show the management that he was still highly capable, and that they would gently inform the prospective assistant that his services would not, after all, be required. For the first time ever, he was glad to get home at the end of each day; for the first time ever, he was not enjoying his work. Of course, no one noticed. The end of that awful fortnight found him tired and fractious, still hoping in vain that no assistant would come.

On Monday morning, he was called to one of the management offices, and subjected to a long and quite baffling speech, which seemed to be largely about tolerance and expectations, and particularly about expectations not being met and the need for tolerance under such circumstances. He found it hard to follow as they were regularly interrupted by the telephone. He thought perhaps he was being reprimanded, but could not fathom what for, so, when the man finally dismissed him, he went back to his shed none the wiser.

On approaching the potting shed, he saw a bicycle parked outside, with a lumpy green cardigan stuffed into the basket. He wondered if perhaps the new assistant was to be so young, he would be escorted to work each morning by his mother! As he entered the shed, he saw before him a short, apple-cheeked woman of fifty-five or thereabouts. The gardener looked around the interior, but to his surprise he saw no one else. The woman smiled but said nothing, only handing him an envelope. Inside were two letters. Withdrawing the first, he saw at once the hotel’s own curliqued gilt letterhead, and read the brief message: 'Dear Mrs Milner, we are glad to inform you that you have been successful in your application to the post of seasonal assistant gardener… (blah, blah),' he read no further. The second letter was addressed to him, and appeared to originate from Mrs Milner herself. The gardener was puzzled, but read on.

1st March
Dear Mr Wainwright,
I have been very much looking forward to meeting you, and to starting my new job. Although I have no professional gardening experience, my garden in the village has won the Westheaton Mercury’s ‘Best in Bloom’ title fourteen years out of the last twenty and now that my husband has passed on I find myself in need of work. You are probably wondering about this letter – since birth I have been profoundly deaf and the hotel tells me they have no one working here who does sign language so, for the meantime, we shall have to communicate largely by writing. I hope you won’t be disappointed. I hope you will be pleased with my work.
Kind regards
Annie Milner

Slowly, to allow himself time to think this over, the gardener refolded both letters and returned them to the envelope. He gestured with the kettle toward a box of PG Tips. Mrs Milner nodded gratefully, and quietly took a seat on the dustier of the chesterfields, from which she surveyed the clutter without any trace of disapproval. As they sipped their tea in silence, the gardener took a stub of pencil and some paper and began writing his reply. He began by making a list of the tasks he had mentally set himself for that day, and by each wrote either 'A.M.' or 'T.W.' Then he realised that she would first need to learn her way around the park and the various gardens within it, and he considered starting with a guided tour, but what could he tell her? How could he explain to this woman about the way things were done - had always been done - if he had to stop and write little notes every five minutes? In the end, he decided that the best way would be simply to have her watch him as he worked. Soon enough she would be able to go off on her own, and he would be back to normal.

The first message, exchanged for her empty teacup, read ‘follow me - show you round. T.W’ He rinsed the cups and set them on the wooden drainer, took his jacket and keys from their pegs, and waited expectantly for Mrs Milner to rise from her chair. From the racks of ancient and lovingly oiled implements, the gardener selected his favourite hoe, and a rake that was seldom used as the handle was too short for comfort; this he handed to the woman. They made at first for the roses, whose beds would need to be kept scrupulously free of weeds if the blooms were to reach their full potential later in the year. The minutely pocked crescent blade gleamed dully in between clods of recently thawed earth as he turned them, and the woman followed behind, gently working the willing soil into crumbs (like dark chocolate cake, they both thought).


The following week must have seemed to the new assistant gardener a great improvement upon the first days' tedious raking. Monday morning greeted her with the following – hand-delivered to her door long before she awoke – ‘Come straight to the meadow opposite the dairy today. It will save you a journey to the potting shed and back. T.W.’ The gardener had lived on the outskirts of this village long enough to see the old houses passing down through the generations, or occasionally sold to city-dwelling weekenders with big shiny cars, so he knew which place was hers. It didn't really occur to the gardener that, although it would certainly save Mrs Milner a mile on her bicycle to go straight to the meadow, which was nearer her end of the village than his, it had cost him two at least on foot just to deliver the message.

It seemed no hardship to the gardener to deliver notes before dawn. In fact, he reasoned that it was simply more efficient, when they were to be working in the far corners of the grounds, to ‘get a head start on things’ than to wait for his assistant in the potting shed. However, from his impersonal beginning, these small kindnesses multiplied without attracting the gardener’s notice. Although Mrs Milner often arrived to find the potting shed empty, but for the usual scribbled indication of his whereabouts, on colder days her gloves might have been set to warm on the cast iron stove, or the note might also say that he had taken all of the necessary tools with him, and she would therefore have nothing to carry. In time, it became clear that his seemingly brusque manner was borne out of years of solitude, with none of the arrogance that most village people attributed to him.

As he watched Mrs Milner work, over the weeks that passed, the gardener came to marvel at the delicacy with which she handled the young seedlings, and the instinctive way she took her cuttings at exactly the point he himself would have chosen. As they relaxed into each other’s company, he began to look forward to the oddly braying laugh she made from time to time, as she read some article or other in the local paper during their lunch breaks. This was the only sound she ever made in his presence, and yet they communicated so well that the notes were almost unnecessary. In fact, after only a short time, everything about the pair spoke of perfect ease. One evening, after they had cleaned and put away the tools, he invited her to walk with him in the maze. He hadn't planned it. In fact, he didn't even realise that this was the first time he had entered the maze, with another human being, since his father died. He just wrote 'fancy a walk?' and she nodded and then there they were, in the maze - in his most precious and private place. They sat comfortably on a bench, still and silent, until the sun had set. Never in his life had he considered himself anything other than contented, and yet, at that very second, he looked back on the long, solitary years and was overcome by a terrible fear of being alone, ever again - even for a moment. Suddenly he couldn't bear it. He couldn't catch his breath. His chest hurt. In a moment of panic, he took hold of Annie’s hand. As soon as he had done so, he was embarrassed, and yet couldn't bring himself to let go. He expected her to pull the hand away, to stand, to leave at once. He felt torn to shreds and scattered at her feet. But, instead, she turned to him with a soft and kindly look that said "I know Tom, I know."

- end -

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