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The Gardener


Posted: Wednesday, July 23, 2003
Word Count: 3893
Summary: Revenge or retribution?

Constance Hopewell had a smile like a sunflower, so wide and bright that it could light up any room that she walked into, so long as her husband, Alexander Braxton MBE, J.P. was not in it.

You see, Alexander Braxton MBE, J.P. was a bully.

In the real world, she was Mrs Alexander Braxton, wife of a very wealthy and successful businessman, who was the chairman of numerous boards, a Knight of The Order of St.John, Master of the Lodge and played golf on an 11 handicap of which he was inordinately proud. He was a fastidious man, little given to change or innovation, never left food on his plate or poured a drink that he didn’t finish. He only ever read the business and golf news in the NZ Herald every morning, always went to bed at the same time and would never be seen around the house in old clothes doing something just for the pleasure of it.

His pleasure was his work and he drove to it every weekday in a 1998 Bentley in Thai Silk blue.

His wife, however, drove a 1996 2 litre Rover, in green, and after many years of marriage, with no children, gardening had become the most important thing in her life. Alexander had arranged a housekeeper years ago, as he did not consider that the wife of Alexander Braxton should have to do housework, and so Constance had plenty of time to enjoy her gardening, and had become rather good at it. It was her only regret that she had not yet been able to grow roses to her satisfaction, and as yet she had no idea why.

Alexander knew nothing of this – on the rare occasions that he passed any remark it was invariably dismissive, and if he could make it in front of the very few visitors that they had, so much the better. It felt like he was beating her with words, so that the bruises wouldn’t show. He would never accept any opinion that she expressed, always wanted to know that she had confirmed it with someone else.

Constance had learned to live with his remarks about her, but she loved her garden, loved working in it and in many ways cared for her garden as she would have for a child. Occasionally she felt that she only had to put her hands into one of the beds full of her beloved flowering annuals and perennials and she was sure she could feel a heart beat.

Sometimes she would just stand by one of the beds and recite out loud the names of the plants just for the sheer pleasure of hearing them.
“ Dittany and Cranesbill, Bleeding Heart and Bluebells, Asphodel and Aconite, Venus Slipper, Primula and Loosestrife.”

And yet sometimes when she thought of what Alexander said about her and her garden, she became annoyed but anger was not in her. She would simply amble out to the garden and find a spot as far away from the house as she could. Eventually, she would become Constance Hopewell again. She loved the name Hopewell, called it her sunshine name.

The garden was a large one, and it faced North. The area had never been subdivided so the topsoil was original and things grew well. But Constance knew that had she not been to an Order of St.John fundraising event with her husband some years previously, she would not have met Manos Ayacucho and found out that they shared a love of gardening.

Manos was a native of Peru, and had come to New Zealand with his family some ten years before meeting Constance. He was in his late sixties, not a wealthy man, whose wife had died shortly before he and Constance had met. They struck up a friendship immediately, and when he found out that he lived only a few miles from their house and that Constance was starting a garden but finding the initial digging of the beds hard work, he offered to come over and help.

At first Constance was uncertain, knowing the sarcasm she could expect from her husband about her inability to complete any task herself, and wasn’t she lucky that she had him and his money to rely on. However, she knew that eventually he would agree, as much because Manos had not asked to be paid.

From the first time that Manos visited, Constance knew that she had finally found someone who loved, not just gardening as such, but the simpler process of helping things to grow. She found out that he was an extraordinary man, a scant 5 feet 4 inches tall, and so slight of build that it seemed that any decent wind would knock him over. But put a spade in his hand and give him the most basic details of what you were trying to achieve and within hours a perfectly dug and mulched bed would appear, edges trimmed and ready for planting.

He spoke little and that in a soft, kindly voice. He seemed to much prefer listening, and Constance so loved to talk to someone who shared her love of plants, gardens and gardening.

Then one day, Constance was burbling on to Manos about how she wished she could put in a pond of some sort so that she could plant some bearded irises and papyrus, when she suddenly stopped in mid sentence. She stared at Manos for several moments until he stopped what he was doing and looked at her, puzzled.

“Manos,” she said, “I know of no-one who can listen like you and yet all I ever do is talk. I know almost nothing about you and have never bothered to ask. I do hope that you’ll forgive that – I’d like to start making up for my lack of interest and I would love you to come up to the house and at least have a cup of tea or something. You so rarely have anything to eat or drink here.”

Manos leant on his shovel for a moment, and then said, “ Yes, I would like a cup of coffee very much, thank you.”

The two friends walked up to the house, Manos insisting that he wash his hands carefully at the tap at the back of the garage before going into the kitchen. It was large and airy, bench tops finished in polished black granite on cream cabinets. The floor was finished in jarrah parquet and a large table sat in the middle of the room.

“Do sit down, Manos, I’ll put the kettle on, it won’t take long. I don’t know about you but I am rather hungry, can I get you some sandwiches or something?”

“I would like that very much, Mrs Braxton.”

“Oh please, Manos, call me Constance, so few people ever do, it’s always Mrs Braxton. Or it’s the one thing I cannot stand and that is Mrs Alexander Braxton. My name is Constance!” she said with such vigour that Manos smiled.

“It would be a pleasure to call you Constance,” he said, quietly.

Constance bustled around the kitchen, put together half a dozen sandwiches with ham, sweet mustard pickle, tomato and lettuce in Vogel’s bread, then brewed up a large china pot of Liptons English Breakfast tea and a pot of Alexander’s favourite Blue Mountain coffee, then sat down.

“Please help yourself, Manos,” she said.

They didn’t talk much while they were eating, they were content to just relax and enjoy the food. When Constance was about to start her third sandwich and had poured a second cup of coffee for Manos she sat back in her chair and said, “ Now Manos, please tell me something of yourself. I have a suspicion that there is more to you than meets the eye.”

Just for a moment an impish grin flashed over Manos’ face, then vanished just as quickly.

“As you know, my family came from Peru. I used to live in a town about 200 kilometres south east of Lima, the capital, called Ayacucho.”

“Oh,” said Constance” were you named after the town?”

“There’s a little more to it than that, Constance,” said Manos. “I’ll come to it in a moment.”

“My Father was American, my Mother, most unusually, was pure Quechua Indian. They met in the early 1930s’ while my Father was visiting Peru in the first year of his Masters in Anthropology from UCLA. My Mother often told the story of how she clipped my Father around the ear at a meal for the village when he helped himself to some food before the elders had been fed.”

“Even then the Quechua Indians were dying out, as were all of the original tribes of that area. My Mother and my Father were married about six months after they met, and my parents lived in the village until I was nearly 7 years old. Then the Second World War started, and once America was in the War, my Father went back to the USA to enlist. He became a pilot and was shot down in a B 17 bomber over Hanover in April 1944. His body was never found.”

“This broke my Mothers heart, because for a Quechua Indian not to be able to inter their dead is like a death for themselves. She died less than a year after she heard about my Father. I was put into a Catholic Orphanage run by the Sisters of Mercy. I regret that Mercy was not one of their strong points.”

Manos paused for a few moments, and seemed briefly to be somewhere else. Then he looked up, took a deep breath and spoke again.

“However, one of the best things about the Orphanage was that it was poor enough that it had to grow much of its own food, and to do this the Sisters had enlisted the help of several of the local Quechua Indians. When they found out who my Mother had been, they took very special care of me and showed me so much, not just about growing things, but of how to use plants in all sorts of ways, mostly intended to help people who were sick, but also some of the very old ways with plants, to help you overcome enemies.”

“That was when I was given the name Ayacucho. You see, in Quechua it means Place of the Dead.”

Constance shivered, suddenly, even though the day was warm.

“The reason for the name was that it was a place where the dead were mummified before being interred in caves. I learnt how to carry out the process so the local chief named me Ayacucho.”

“My younger brother had joined the Merchant Navy in California, and sailed all over the world. He had visited New Zealand several times and liked the country very much. We decided to come here after the civil war.”

Manos paused again and when he looked at Constance he seemed very tired. He said “ So much can happen sometimes, Constance, in your life that you don’t want to happen, you can do things that you don’t want to do because you believe you have to. The civil war made enemies of people who had been friends, and I was called upon by my elders to use what I had learned in a way I hated. I could not carry on harming people I had known for years to satisfy petty local fighting, so I and my family left.”

At that moment, Constance heard Alexander in the hallway. She had not heard him come into the house and he strode through into the kitchen. As he walked into the room he saw Manos sitting at the table.

The look on his face would have melted glaciers. He glared at his wife, then at Manos, then shouted at Constance.

“Just what the hell do you think you are doing. Not only have you brought the damn gardener into the house, you are having a bloody meal with him. This is not a damn Salvation Army hostel, get him out of here, now!”

For several moments Constance stared dumbly at her husband. Despite his customarily brusque, dismissive manner he did not usually abuse other people, at least not in their hearing, and he didn’t usually swear and this change in manner scared her. She didn’t know what to say to Manos and was on the verge of crying when he quietly stood up and said, “My thanks for the coffee and the sandwiches, Mrs. Braxton, it was most generous.”

Something in the way he spoke gave her strength, and when she looked at his face, normally so placid, she saw a deep anger that she did not understand. Without thinking about it she walked out of the house with Manos to the front gate.

He stopped at the gate and said “Mrs Braxton, I have been coming here for some years now and in that time I have seen many instances such as this with Mr Braxton. I do not wish to interfere, but if I can ever help, please let me know.”

The slight, gentlemanly figure turned and walked away, and Constance slowly trudged back up to the kitchen. She cleared away the plates and cups then sat back down at the table with her head in her hands. She sat there for nearly an hour both frightened and lonely. Finally she walked upstairs and went to bed,
but couldn’t get to sleep until nearly 3 a.m.

She was the first down in the morning, made herself a cup of tea and sat back down at the table. Alexander came into the kitchen about half an hour later and she got up to get him his toast and coffee without saying a word.

He ate his breakfast in silence but as he finished he said “ I don’t want you out in the garden today, the surveyor will be here with his assistants at about 10.30 this morning.”

“What do you mean, surveyor?” said Constance.

“There have been some developments in Redlake Corporation that will necessitate my becoming involved in some important hosting of associates of the company. I intend to build a guest wing on the east side of the house and then a swimming pool and tennis court on the lawn in front of the wing. I really don’t want the work of the team interrupted by your gardening, this development must happen as quickly as possible.”

Constance just stared at her husband, too dumbstruck to speak. As he got up to leave she stammered, “Do you mean that you are going to dig up all of my flower beds?”

“Do you have to be so ignorant of everything, Constance? What in heavens name will flower beds contribute to the expansion of my business interests? They are no more than a diversion for the wife of a very prominent citizen who would otherwise have nothing to do all day. Besides, I have had it on good authority that if this business goes as I want it to, my Knighthood should proceed without difficulty. Don’t you want to be Lady Braxton?
“Apart from anything else, Constance, it will mean that you won’t have to put up with that tiresome little gnome of a gardening helper.”

“Now, I must go, or I shall be late for the Redlake board meeting. Don’t forget what I said about the surveyors. I may be late tonight.”

Alexander walked out of the room and Constance slumped at the kitchen table. A dull numbness settled on her and a sense of complete helplessness sapped her ability to think. It felt like she had been sitting there for hours when a knock at the kitchen door jolted her back to the morning. It was a young man in shorts and open neck shirt, with a leather bound notebook in his hand.

“Hello, my name is Peter McKinley, from Johnsen and Ross, the surveyors. We’d like to get started if that is alright with you.

Constance just nodded and closed the door. She stood at the kitchen sink for a while, watching the surveyors walk all over her flower beds, trim branches off her Prunus Shimidsu Sakura to get line of sight and then move her four magnificent Pony Tail palms in their antique Turkish terracotta pots to the bottom of the garden, by the compost heap.

After about half an hour, Constance could stand no more. She started to walk upstairs, got halfway up, then something burst inside. Anger welled up like a spring tide, so powerful it made her dizzy. She had never known real anger in her life before, and this rapidly grew into something that took over her thinking. She had never been the kind of person who, if slighted, wanted to get her own back, she would always walk away and let things calm down.

But not this time.

This time the anger grew and grew until she could have taken on an Army on her own – and won. Then, as the anger started to subside a little, her thinking became as clear as crystal. In seconds she knew exactly what she was going to do.

And it all started with a short phone call to Manos, asking if she could come over and see him later that morning. He said that he would be delighted to see her.

It took her less than an hour to get changed and drive over to Mano’s house and just a few minutes to explain to him what she had decided she had to do. She found a true ally in her friend since a personal insult, to a Quechua Indian, must always be avenged.

He told her that he would help willingly, that she should have a cup of tea with him, then return home. He said that he would send a letter to her husband in the next few days and that she should not on any account, open it herself.

Constance did as he suggested, and strangely enough found the next few days very peaceful.
On the Friday before Labour weekend, as the first truck carrying a digger arrived outside her house, Constance went out to collect the Herald from the postbox and found a handwritten envelope addressed to Alexander.

Constance very carefully left the letter beside Alexander’s plate on the breakfast table. As they started their breakfast, the digger began ripping into the lawn at the bottom of their garden. It was almost amusing to Constance, that her husband was eating his first slice of toast almost in time with the arm of the digger, which was digging, at first, a test hole about six feet long and three feet wide.

Before he started on his second slice, Alexander slit open the letter by his plate. As he did so, a fine, grey powder puffed out of the envelope into the air and onto Alexander’s hands and clean white shirt. He sneezed as he breathed some of the powder in.

“Oh damn,“ he said, “this is a brand new shirt. I should make that stunted little gnome of yours pay for this, this bloody letter is from him.”

“What does he say,” said Constance.

“For some unknown reason he has sent in his notice. God alone knows why, we had never employed him. He has the damn cheek to say that he has enjoyed his time working here and if he can be of any further service, please let him know. What an arrogant little runt.”

Alexander stood up and walked over to the sink, washed his hands and dried them on the tea towel. Without another word he walked out of the kitchen and left the house.

Despite the digger and the building crews starting to mark out the site, Constance had a quiet day. She disposed of the tea towel, letter and envelope in a paper bag, which she burnt in the incinerator. Alexander came home at about 4 p.m., saying that he didn’t feel well and was going to have a lie down. Constance asked him if he thought that he would like something to eat later on, he said no just let me have a sleep. The digger and the builders had done no more than the initial work and, since it was a holiday weekend, they finished for the day at about the time Alexander came home.

Constance had a light evening meal, watched some television, then went to bed at about 10.30 p.m. She found it difficult to believe just how relaxed she felt when she climbed into bed and heard Alexander breathing very slowly and irregularly. She read for a little while, turned the light out and went to sleep.

She woke shortly after 4 a.m. and the bedroom was silent, the only sound her own, measured breathing. She sat looking at Alexander for a time, then picked up the phone and called Dr. Alistair McKinley, who had been her and Alexander’s GP for years. His abrupt reply to a phone call at 4.30 a.m. was understandable, she felt. He was a shade more cordial when he found out it was Constance. She spoke quietly, pausing on a couple of occasions.
Dr. McKinley told her to take her time. He said that he would be there in about half an hour and true to his word he was.

He examined Alexander and quickly pronounced him dead from a heart attack. He knew his patients history well, had tried for some time to get him to reduce his workload, enjoy some more leisure. When Constance told him about the new project and showed him the work starting in the back garden, he shrugged his shoulders. He didn’t tell Constance that he was due to speak at the Auckland Medical School end of year that same day, just issued the death certificate.

It all went very smoothly from there. Constance contacted the funeral director, explained that it was to be a burial at Purewa Cemetery, and asked that the casket be brought back to the house for the rest of the public holiday, for the family to pay their last respects.

Manos came over on Sunday morning, helped Constance around the garden for most of the day. Much of the turf that the digger had lifted on Friday still lay where it had been left, and if any of the neighbours had been interested, they might have wondered why Manos would be moving several barrowloads of the turf up towards the house. They might also have wondered why, for the first time ever, he had parked his car right up by the garage doors. None of them saw the six foot long by about three feet wide pile of salt that lay on the floor of the garage for some two and a half months, right in front of the 1998 Bentley, in Thai Silk blue.

And no-one complained too much when, about two and a half months after Alexander’s death, Constance hired a chipper. It was noisy in a neighbourhood not much given to noise. But it only ran for about an hour – she seemed to be feeding in some pieces of bark-like something or other.

That year Constance’s garden produced the finest roses she had ever grown.