The Gardener

August 3, 2009 by
Filed under: News, Stories 

gardener1The Gardener was published in the first issue of Necrography a couple of months back. I’ve just realised I haven’t written anything about it on The Great White Space so here goes.

The eerie illustration is by my friend and conspirator Owen Priestley. This is the colour version of the accompanying illustration – Necrography printed a monochrome version which is pretty effective too. Thanks again to Owen for coming up with something so atmospheric and representative of the story.

Shaldon‘s a quaint fishing village on the South West coast of Devon and my parents have a house a little way up the estuary in the hamlet of Ringmore. (I’m writing a series of tales set here and the second story, Low Tides, is forthcoming in All Hallows). As you might envisage, the majority of the residents are quite elderly and there’s always some work going if you take the time to look for it.

For several summers between the ages of about eleven and fourteen, maybe even fifteen, I filled my holiday time doing odd jobs around the gardens of my neighbours. The Gardener was inspired by an experience that has stuck with me all these years; and a little feeling of regret that I have from one summer in particular.

IMG_2290Mrs Merchant asked me to put a mouse out of its misery after what might have been a close encounter with a cat. I couldn’t stamp on it, or put any wieght on it, so I chose an easy option, or so I thought. And it has stayed with me since then. And a year or so later, the same lady passed away before I was able to fulfil a very simple promise I’d made to her: cut the grass around the grave of her husband. The next time I visited the grave was at her funeral and somebody else had cut the grass – that made me feel guilty, and still does, a little.

I combined these what I believe to be gently formative but very memorable events with the graveyard setting of the St. Nicholas Church in Ringmore (which I can see from my parent’s house), and the flow of people, (or grockles as we call them) that cause most coastal tourist destinations to shrink and expand over the seasons, to form what I hope is a dark and very personal take on the undercurrents that swirl around such communities during the summer months. Lacking  a bit of confidence I speculatively emailed Gary A. Braunbeck, a writer whose work I greatly enjoy, and he was kind enough to make some suggestions on the structure and tense of the story.

IMG_2298Here’s an excerpt from The Gardener:

It was the day between the end of spring and the beginning of summer; the second summer that Howard spent in Shaldon. Just like last year the air was still and the birds silent, as he weeded the flowerbeds in old Mrs Merchant’s tiny back garden. It was so small it barely required any tending, but she insisted he come twice a month.

He sensed Mrs Merchant hovering behind him in her own silence. Her presence was always there when he was crouched over this one small flowerbed in particular. He felt she was watching him closely, for this was where she had buried her dog, Stroud, several years ago. Howard twisted his neck and looked up at her.

IMG_2302“The weather is waiting for the change!” he shouted at her, breaking the hushed spell. “It’ll be a lovely day tomorrow!” She had been completely deaf for three years, and it was too late in her life to learn how to lip read. But still, she appeared to understand everything he said. Sometimes, she even seemed to hear his thoughts.

Mrs Merchant didn’t reply; she wasn’t looking at him. He noticed that she didn’t look at him at all since her husband, Oliver, had died three months ago. She was staring at her feet, her head bowed, influenced by the hunched fragmenting bones in her spine. She didn’t say much any more either. When her husband was alive, she shouted enthusiastically due to her deafness, oblivious to the din she was making, Oliver listening with a smile playing just behind his lips and eyes.

“Look at that mouse.”

IMG_2294It was more of an observation than an instruction and Howard paused a moment before realizing she had spoken, whispered without moving her lips. Maybe he’d heard her thoughts this time. But Mrs Merchant spoke again, indicating with a gnarled hand, the fingers frozen into the wooden clump of a walking stick handle.

“In the corner over there, Howard. Please help it.”

Howard walked to the end of the garden where some cherry red Rhododendron bushes dominated. A tiny field mouse was lying on its side in the grass. Its brown body was shuddering sporadically as it lay there in shock.

“Something must have attacked it,” he said, not sure if Mrs Merchant could hear him.

“Howard will you put it out of its misery please? Then I need to talk to you.” He heard her footsteps recede behind him.

All your energy has gone, he thought.

Howard quarter filled a bucket with water from the outside tap. He gingerly picked up the mouse by its tail and softly placed it into the water. It lay under the surface on its side, held down by the twig in his hand. Howard stared into its glassy black eye and he couldn’t tell if the mouse was looking back at him, or looking at something far away, maybe something deep inside itself. Its body gasped for air for a surprisingly long time and he kept it submerged until it was still. Its eye looked no different in death, impenetrable.

What do you see?


One Comment on The Gardener

  1. your brother on Tue, 18th Aug 2009 2:52 am
  2. memories of merchie! can you let me have a copy of this story please brother?
    what did happen to the mouse? did you drown it?

    do you remember at Holly cottage when father went down the well, on a ladder, in the back orchard and found an old tin covered in oil with a dead mouse in it – covered in oil too…… that image has stuck with me.


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