Rhododendrons

Half a mile or so from the heavy farm gate a figure could be seen approaching in the gloom. A dark shape bobbing gently along the cinder path that ran all the way from the main road, dissecting the wide corn fields on either side of it. Fleetingly the figure disappeared in the low cold mist only to appear again, this time closer, close enough to see that it was a young man on a bicycle. He wore a cloth cap pulled down tightly over his brow, a long coat and a pair of solid brown work boots. When he reached the gate he dismounted, rested the bicycle against his thigh and disengaged the iron bar that locked it shut.

Now on its far side he paused and seemed preoccupied with some thought or other because he leant against the damp wood of the gate and looked back at the route he had taken as if he had dropped something and was looking for it. He pushed at the peak of his cap with a single finger and then ran his palm thoughtfully over his chin before turning slowly and pulling himself back up onto the high saddle. The bicycle itself was old and its frame was black and chipped, the wire basket on its front held a brown paper packet. It wasn’t long now before he reached the silent farmyard; again he dismounted but this time he walked the creaking bicycle across the yard, parking it against the dark wooden slats of the empty barn.

He was now in full view of the great house. Its windows peering out like sunken eyes over the sleeping farm. They made him feel uneasy but he walked out beneath the high red brick gables and around to the side, pushing open the cast iron gate that led into the garden. The ducks were muttering; mallards and muscovies digging their orange bills into the edge of the silty pond. He could smell the muddy water across the cool morning air. The lawn, freshly cut spread in front of him taut as a bowling green, reaching out gently towards the newly turned flower beds and leafy shrubs at its edge.

He fetched the wheelbarrow from its resting place by the stone wall and then ran it effortlessly along the winding stone path towards the circular bed of hydrangeas. The garden implements in the barrow suddenly shifted and he winced at the noise, slowing his pace. He looked guiltily back over his shoulder at the house but could see no lights nor any sign of life within. Removing the garden fork from the barrow he cleaned the dried mud from the tines with the practised toe of his large boot. Then standing he leaned on the handle and looked about the hushed garden, a prelude to the day’s work ahead. Now he could hear the pigeons under the eaves and the abrasive caw of the rooks playing sentry high in the turkey oaks; he thought they were his only audience.

She watched him from the safe darkness of the warm kitchen. She watched him pushing the fork into the heavy clay of the flowerbed effortlessly heaving up the clods of dark earth. Kneeling he pulled at the sod, his slender fingers delicately sifting out the roots and unwanted detritus, throwing them unseen into an untidy heap behind him. Every now and again he paused, glancing up towards the window but she was sure that he could see nothing except perhaps the reflection of the trees in the dark pane. She thought of her late husband as she continued to study him, something of the boy reminded her of him. She didn’t know what exactly. She tried vainly to grasp at it as she washed her teacup in the warm water of the sink but the idea drifted away into the soap suds. Perhaps it was just that he was there in the garden his fingers picking at the same dark soil.

She tried to remember when she had hired him. He had knocked on the side door of the farmhouse early last summer. She remembered his face flushed from the ride as he stood there breathless, the bicycle by his side. He had spoken clearly and with a confidence she thought born of an education even if his appearance seemed at odds with it. That was what had won her over, that and the way he had looked at her, directly, almost imploringly with those pale green eyes.

Since her husband had died the garden had become overgrown , roses unpruned hung their heads like scruffy schoolboys and the flowerbeds long untended had been almost indistinguishable from the rough land by the meadows edge. Ground ivy smothered the ferns and hostas by the pond and the snails and slugs had long since had their fill of anything appetising. It had made her happy for a while to leave it like this, a demonstration of her grief, a tangible tangle of greenery. But his arrival had stirred something deep within her, she felt as if it were time to wake, time to breathe again. She would get him to plant a bed of rhododendrons there by the pond, that would be a start.

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