Authors: Anthony Eglin
Life begins the day you start a garden.
She woke to a murder of crows.
The noisy fluttering and cawing came from an entire family of them, as they took off from the top of a towering cedar in the meadow behind the wall.
Kate Sheppard yawned, stretched and sat up on the rickety old white bench. How long had she been napping, she wondered. Rubbing her eyes, she gazed up at the birds, now black specks disappearing in the hazy distance.
A murder of crows. Who thought that one up?
A parliament of owls; a mustering of storksâ¦an exaltation of larks.
An exaltation of larks. That, she decided, was her favourite.
Why on earth did she retain such useless trivia? She was getting as bad as Alex, her husband â he was a veritable repository of frivolous facts, figures and minutiae, always bringing them up at dinner parties.
Kate yawned again. It was unusually warm for the time of year. She felt like taking another forty winks. Glancing down between the slats of the seat, she noted flakes of white paint on the ground. Another item for the âto do' list. She reached into the canvas bag beside her and pulled out a small notebook with a pen clipped to it.
Repair and paint white bench by Japanese maple
, she wrote under the last line of the neatly printed list of items on the second-to-last page of the book. Since they had bought the old house the list had become something of a joke. Every day it got longer but few lines were ever crossed out. Alex was convinced they would be octogenarians before her zillion projects were completed.
Kate could recall in precise detail the events of that morning when she and Alex had stumbled on The Parsonage, a small nineteenth-century country house on the edge of the village of Steeple Tarrant in Wiltshire. With its high-walled garden that covered more than two acres, it had made a powerful impression on both of them. She still didn't know what it was that made her ask Alex to stop the car and back up as they were leaving the village early that Sunday back in March. She hadn't seen the discreet For Sale sign when they first drove by, but there it was. With nobody in sight and few cars on the road at that time of day, they had both taken turns peering over the high wall. With scarves up to their chins, shivering in the hoar-frosted silence of the sleeping village, they had stared in disbelief at a real-life version of the sketches Alex had been drawing over the past months. Sketches of their ideal country home. To see so many details replicated had been positively spooky.
A surrounding wall of russet-coloured brick some eight feet tall concealed the honey-gold stone structure from the street. Two weathered stone pillars, each with a lichen-crusted stone ball on top, flanked the driveway. Intricately scrolled iron gates â their once shiny black paint now chipped and dulled â rested permanently in the open position, the lower rails on each side anchored in a dense tangle of dark-leaf periwinkle that fringed the sandy drive. Set high in the left-hand pillar was a tarnished bronze plaque. Engraved on it in Roman type were the words,
OLD STEEPLE TARRANT PARSONAGE
. The villagers, they found out later, simply called it The Parsonage.
Alex, an architect, was smitten by the house, blathering on with phrases like âsympathetic alterations', âintegrity' and âreflective of the period'. Kate had instantly fallen in love with the garden. The house was nice, but it was the enchanting old garden that made her heart race. It was exactly what she'd always dreamed of owning.
On that bleak morning the only colours in evidence had been various shades of green, where the sheltered sides of evergreen shrubs, box and yew hedging, the leathery leaves of evergreen clematis and jasmine had outwitted the uncharitable frost. Save for them, she might have been looking at an old silver-print photo. In spite of its neglected state, there was no mistaking the garden's ambitious design. With its mature trees and shrubs, mellow brick and stonework, thick yew hedging, different levels and shifting viewpoints, it had obviously once been a garden of considerable importance. Such gardens take many years in the making.
Immediately below her, matted tangles of climbing rose canes hugged the inside of the wall. At their base, some of the main canes were thicker than Kate's arm. Farther along, the wall was given over to espaliered fruit trees. A wide border that ribboned the garden's perimeter was scattered with twiggy mounds and dark clumps of dead vegetation. Rose bushes, dotted here and there, resembled stark miniature trees. Closer to the house were several lattice structures and a long pergola festooned with silhouetted vines.
At that telling moment, Kate knew that The Parsonage would be their home.
Two months and a few days later the house was indeed theirs. Despite Kate's taking the week off, moving and settling in took longer than anticipated. Any worries they might have had earlier, about their furniture fitting in, were unfounded. With few exceptions, all the pieces from their two-storey house in Bath â most of them antique â slipped into place as if they'd been there for years. A spell of unusually showery weather hadn't prevented Kate from making several exploratory trips around the garden.
Now â three weeks after they'd moved in â the moment she had been waiting for had finally arrived. They were going to begin the daunting task of restoring the garden to its former glory. No more just looking and making notes â they were going to map the garden, begin cutting back, raking and shovelling, and start the lengthy clean-up job. Finally they'd get a true idea of just what they were dealing with. The night before, Alex had agreed â after some coaxing and a couple of glasses of wine â that, as long as the weather held up, they would devote the entire day to the garden.
They had awakened to blue skies. A day alive with the earthy smells and sounds of summer. A perfect June day for exploring the garden and starting to catalogue its overgrown contents. She'd already made a note in her book to ask her friend, Vicky, to help identify the many roses scattered throughout the garden. A few still had their original markers, but most of the roses were unknown, the markers having long since been buried or displaced. Vicky Jamieson was one of the owners of a successful nursery called Holly Hill in the neighbouring county of Berkshire. Way back, Vicky had helped establish the garden at the Sheppards' home in Bath, and since that time had become their gardening guru and closest friend.
Over breakfast they divided the property into eight distinct sections, each named and numbered on a plan drawn by Alex. Kate would start by conducting a recce of the entire garden, making notes as she went along. Alex, the self-professed âblack thumb' in the family, would start on a general clean-up.
âAnd whatever you do, Alex,' she had said with a smile and wag of the finger, as they were about to leave the house, âdon't cut anything or pull anything up!'
Legs stretched out, hands clasped behind her head, Kate lolled on the bench, waiting for Alex to show up. After two hours of wandering around the garden, she was enjoying the break, drinking in the surrounding loveliness. The last several days had been warm, and a myriad of roses, perennials, shrubs and vines had exploded in a breathtaking spectacle of beauty. Their brilliant petals and seductive perfumes were the signposts pointing the way to pollen and nectar for bees, butterflies, and all the flying creatures responsible for most of the pollination essential to a garden's survival.
She was aware of a sudden shifting of light. The scene grew dappled as the sun dodged in and out of the fleecy clouds moving in. It was definitely getting cooler. She'd noticed lately that the garden was beginning to exert a subtle influence on her. It had a pleasurable way of intensifying her emotions, a bewildering sway over her that she found impossible to explain. When she had insisted to Alex that there was something very special â even spiritual â about The Parsonage he had simply shrugged and wisecracked something about Shirley MacLaine.
Where was he, anyway? Perhaps she should go and see how he was doing.
As if on cue she heard a noise down the path. She turned to look.
In a leather-gloved hand Alex carried a machete. Loppers and a coil of rope dangled from his belt. He was wearing an Aussie-style straw hat with the cord dangling under his chin. Asp, their little Sealyham terrier, bobbed along behind nipping at his heels.
She threw her head back and laughed. âThe Temple of Doom's that way,' she said, pointing up the path.
He smiled. âWell, Kate, you've got to admit, it is a bloody jungle we're dealing with!'
âWell, nobody can accuse you of not being prepared.'
âA lot of good it does me,' he sighed. âIt'll take a bloody lifetime to sort out this garden of yours. I've been working half the morning on one measly corner, and it still looks like I've done bugger all.'
She patted the bench next to her. âDump that stuff and come over here, darling.'
Discarding his tools, Alex sat down heavily, took off his hat and wiped his brow.
âCareful,' said Kate, as the bench wobbled. âIt's a bit shaky.'
He smiled. âIt's like me, it needs some love and attention.'
âLater,' she purred, kissing him on the cheek.
They talked for several minutes. Finally, Alex got up, plonked the hat on his head, and started to gather his tools. Taking his wristwatch from his pocket, he glanced at it. âAlmost eleven. How does lunch about noon sound?'
Kate hesitated. âHow about one o'clock?'
âI suppose I can hold out till then. You might want to keep an eye out for circling buzzards, though.'
Smiling, she eyed the red handle of the pruning shears protruding from his back pocket. âRemember, don't prune anything or pull anything out, unless you're absolutely positive it's a weed. Promise?'
âDon't worry, I won't. You go and talk to the roses,' he said, pecking her on the cheek. âSee you at the house,' he added, walking off up the path.
âDon't joke, now,' she shouted after him. âPrince Charles talks to his flowers all the time, you know!'
Smiling to herself, she watched him disappear round the curve of the path. The way he walked, with a sense of purpose and a rolling of the shoulders, had always reminded her of John Wayne. She thought back to the first time they'd met; she'd found it very hard to fathom him out. She recalled being more intrigued than smitten. At first, he gave the impression of being almost saturnine, yet there was something decidedly manly in his face and his demeanour. She had soon discovered that the sober countenance was deceptive, as if he cultivated it solely for the purpose of masking a gentleness and good humour that characterized his true nature. When she had managed to coax a smile out of him and make him laugh, he turned into another person completely. Gone was the stern gaze and distant manner, his face lit up like a flash of light on a crystal. Their marriage was now in its ninth year. She was very lucky, she reminded herself. She loved him, very much.
Dismissing her parting salvo with the flick of a wrist, Alex kept walking. Kate and her gardening! What on earth did she see in it all? How could she possibly derive such sheer pleasure and fulfilment from planting a puny sprig of vegetation and waiting an eternity for it to grow â then, after its pitifully short life, stand by and watch it perish? And those roses she loved so much â to him, they were downright ugly. Granted, the flowers themselves were beautiful and most of them smelled nice. But the plants themselves? As far as he was concerned, they were little more than hideous thorny sticks.
He glanced back at her. Despite her lack of make-up, frayed jeans and faded Les Mis T-shirt, she looked positively fashionable. Her hair was ash blonde and shoulder length. She was slender but not quite tall enough to be termed willowy. Except for her eyes, her features were unremarkable. But the eyes were inescapable, wide-spaced and aqueous grey-green, making it hard to look away.
He had now reached the long border where he'd been working earlier. He'd far rather be doing something else â playing tennis, or perhaps tinkering with his old Alfa Romeo Spider Veloce â but he had promised the day to Kate. He paused for a moment, sighed, then got back to work.
After an hour and a half of raking layers of rotting leaves and debris from the border, hacking away dead limbs from shrubs and trees, and cutting back wayward canes on ramblers â Kate had approved his doing that â he decided it was time for a breather. In any case, the wind was picking up and it was starting to look like rain. He eyed the border. The results of his work were noticeable. Things looked much tidier. Kate would be pleased with the improvement. He was about to turn and walk back to where he'd left his tools when he stopped.
The area where he'd finished working dead-ended in a brick wall several feet taller than he was. To his left, the wall took a sharp curve and disappeared. Since he'd only walked through the garden two or three times it was understandable that he hadn't noticed it before. Might as well do a little exploring, he thought to himself.