Short Fiction by SJ Tyrie
There were more cars than usual parked in the drive. Sat in his van, the gardener flicked off the radio and surveyed the area. It was a sprawling Georgian farmhouse practically in the middle of nowhere, enclosed within a fortress of holly. Houses like this once seemed remarkable, but in his line of work, they had become all too common, dotted around the countryside like hidden shrines.
He spun the wheel and reversed into the only space left, hearing the roof of the van scratch against an overhanging branch, before stepping out into the April heat and slamming the door. In the early days of lockdown, the gardener had joked that life was ticking along as it always had, only with better traffic. While others had lost work, he’d been working harder than ever. Being self-employed, he couldn’t receive money from the government’s furlough scheme until June and didn’t have the savings to last him until then.
Now the roads were filling by the day. Fatigue had set in. Here, it was like a car showroom. There was the Range Rover and the prehistoric Volvo estate, as usual, plus the vintage Jaguar under half-peeled cover poking out of the garage, but also an Abarth 595, a Mercedes Benz and a racing-green Mini Cooper.
He would have to come back another day. Then again, he’d already wasted half an hour driving here. It would be another half an hour getting to the next job, and that would cut dearly into daylight hours.
He was still debating what to do when he heard the front door open and turned to see Alan, the owner of the house, in Wellington boots and Barbour, overdressed for the weather, stomping over to him. Alan had been one of his first clients. He was a quiet, unassuming man, who had retired several years ago but was still, he said, ‘married to his work’. The gardener had never been too sure exactly what Alan’s work entailed – something to do with architecture – but now Alan spent his days either collecting awards for his achievements or jetting off around the world, though most days when the gardener arrived for work, Alan was about, usually in the garden, or sipping coffee in his extravagant kitchen, which the gardener knew had a boiling water tap and fridge with an ice dispenser. The thought of entering Alan’s kitchen now seemed insane. They shared little in common but could make small talk about the weather or music or football. Sometimes they even discussed politics, but only when they found they shared something to complain about.
Alan stepped a little too close and held out his hand, as was custom, but then remembered himself and pranced back apologetically.
“Whoops,” he said. “Old habits die hard. Good to see you. Coping in these strange times, are you?”
“Yeah, good thanks. Bit weird. But got to keep on, you know.”
“Listen, I put an extra three-hundred quid in your bank account. I know, I know. Before you say anything, I knew you wouldn’t accept it otherwise, but hopefully, that will help out a little. I appreciate it must be hard right now.”
“I don’t know what to say, Alan. Thanks.”
“Don’t mention it. Least I could do. How’s your little girl doing?”
“Loud as ever. To be fair, she just watches TV all day, so it’s not all bad.”
Alan’s expression, which had so far been the sort one uses to express condolences, suddenly transformed. “I’m glad to hear it.”
There was an awkward silence as the two men stood two metres apart.
“Well, I’ll leave you to it, shall I?” Alan patted his trousers and made to head back inside, but then clicked his fingers and said, “By the way, we’re throwing a little party for my grandson. He’s three today. You don’t mind, do you?”
The gardener raised his eyebrows. He looked back at the cars clogging the driveway. Held his tongue. “No. That’s OK.”
When his daughter was born, the gardener had compared her to the size of a marrow from his garden, which he had reared from seed while his daughter grew in his wife’s womb. The marrow was harvested in October, the day before his daughter was born, and when he and his wife returned from hospital he lay his daughter and the marrow side by side on the carpet and took a picture, posted with the caption Baby 1 and Baby 2. The marrow was the gardener’s pride and joy: he had kept it safe from slugs and other pests, fed it with water and high-potash liquid fertiliser, sheltered it through cold snaps and had taken pictures of its progress on his phone every week. In contrast, the work that had gone into keeping his daughter healthy had been mostly invisible to him until the day she was born.
It had been a relief when she left the NICU. He hadn’t enjoyed the quietude of the place, interlaced with the constant bleeping of machinery, where parents learned to adjust to the quickening pulse of heart monitors and undulations of oxygen levels. Or the constant hand washing, rolling of sleeves. The whole clinical atmosphere of the place, where any germ was deadly.
For some reason, a group of pregnant women always gathered outside in the car park to smoke, and passing them by each time he and his wife entered the hospital seemed to intensify this feeling of danger lurking outside, as though the purpose of the pristine neonatal unit was to keep the reckless smoking mothers away from his child.
In the incubator, his daughter looked like something being grown in a laboratory. Raw and wrinkled. It was only when he returned from the hospital café on the first evening to find her under a crochet blanket no larger than a paperback novel that he thought she looked more real.
All he wanted was to take her home the moment he saw her. But part of him wanted to keep her in that plastic bubble forever.
The back of the gardener’s neck itched in the sun, burnt skin baking twice over. He had finished cutting the grass and was now strimming around the apple trees dotted along the lawn. The air was heavy with pollen. It had been a mission working around the children. There was easily a dozen of them, spreading themselves out along the garden, crawling through the rhododendrons. He tried to imagine his daughter playing with them but found he couldn’t, which was stupid, of course. She could keep up with them no doubt better than he could, always surprising him. Maybe it was because he couldn’t imagine getting annoyed with his daughter the way he was with these children.
The gardener had his routine for each garden, the best way to get from A to B in order of priority and making the most efficient use of his tools, so he wasn’t going back and forth, minimising his time walking to each spot. He mowed the lawn in a particular way, starting at one end and finishing at the other, like a racetrack. But the path ahead had become a minefield of blown bubbles.
He could smell the soap in the air. They looked innocent enough, glistening in the sunlight, but he couldn’t help but imagine each as a tiny virus-carrying bomb, home-brewed biological warfare. He swerved to avoid them and hurried over to a different section of the garden, usually left to last. It had been winter when he was here last, and since then, the deciduous trees had burst back with a vengeance, sprouting new growths along verdant boughs, and the bushes had grown wild and greedy. Weeds were pushing through the cracks between the paving slabs. Bees were drunk on nectar among the lavender. There were no more mulchy autumn leaves making a mess on the path – his personal bugbear; he always recommended planting evergreens.
A ripple of unrestrained laughter erupted behind him. There must have been four generations of them in all, lounging around in the sun, sipping cocktails and bottles of lager. The swimming pool was uncovered, rippling golden light, and some of the teenagers were splashing about, vexing the sunbathers lined up along the water’s edge. The gardener swatted the air to dislodge a wasp from his headspace, which was buzzing too close for comfort. He scratched his neck. Set down the strimmer and crouched down to pull out the lamb’s quarters growing near the trunk. Broke the stem. Crumpled it in his hands.
He carried the strimmer back to his van to be swapped for the hedge trimmer, making a mental note as he ducked to avoid a wayward bramble to set aside an extra day for the side passage, which had become particularly unruly. The ivy would be a pain to cut back. As he walked, he collected an empty crisp packet and squashed pouch of Capri-Sun from the pavement and binned both. More cars parked in the driveway. He found his baseball cap squashed up in the glove compartment and screwed it to his head.
The holly needed levelling. The gardener started the trimmer, letting out a plume of noxious gas. There was nothing like the smell of petrol and freshly cut grass. Keeping the blade vertical, chuntering dolefully, he moved it steadily up and down, scattering fragments of dark holly in the air. He had misplaced his goggles in the van and so worked without protection, squinting in the sun, the sound of the blade roaring in his ears.
Alien gargling undercut the noise of the hedge trimmer and the gardener looked down.
He jumped. There was a toddler crawling along the grass, giggling at him.
The toddler looked no older than his own daughter.
That morning, his alarm had gone off-hours too early and he’d been too lethargic to find out why. He unfolded out of bed and crept over to the landing, peering through to the room where his wife and daughter slept, a necessary arrangement to avoid disturbing them. He watched the barely discernible rise and fall of linen over his daughter’s shape, a wrinkle in the bedding. They were both still asleep.
Holding a slice of toast in one hand while scrolling the news on his phone in the other, the kitchen became doused by the spinning blue lights of an ambulance zooming past outside. He stood at the window with his cup of tea and watched it park between numbers thirteen and fifteen. One number unlucky, the other not. His eyes drifted to the colour-coordinated pill organiser on the sideboard, which had become varying shades of grey in the early morning light, a monochrome pick-and-mix of antibiotics, enzymes, reflux medications and vitamins.
The kitchen was small, painted walls faded and cracked. It was fine, he supposed, did the job. But not worth the money spent on rent. No mod cons, no space.
There was the sound of doors shutting outside and he looked back at the ambulance outside. They were heading for number fifteen. He felt like he had been holding his breath the whole time. Only after getting in his van did he remember that thirteen could be a lucky number too. He thought back to his alarm and it sounded in his head like a warning.
The gardener lowered the hedge trimmer and held out his hand to signal to the child to keep back, but the toddler stood up and ran over, falling onto his boots.
“Get back,” he said over the trimmer, stumbling away from the toddler.
He looked in the direction of the house. Rubbing his forehead, he set the trimmer down on the grass, ears burning. The sunlight was blistering. Traipsing over to the garden party, he could see they were starting up a barbecue. Smoke was beginning to slither over the patio, where a group of forty-somethings were sitting under a spreading parasol and discussing what they would like to do after the lifting of lockdown. They were drunk. One of the men was encouraging the children present to play football with him, bouncing an inflatable ball off his flip-flops, but none were interested. There was a teenager, eighteen or nineteen, explaining to an elderly woman in a straw sun hat that he had just returned home from London, where he was studying.
“Everyone’s dying,” said the boy. “It was just a bit depressing.”
The gardener cleared his throat. “Um, excuse me, sorry. Does anyone know whose kid that is?” He pointed to the holly bush, where the toddler was now sitting cross-legged on the grass, picking daisies.
Only one of the adults appeared to have heard him, and she raised her martini glass, reclining in her deck chair by the pool. She looked around the same age as the gardener, wearing a bikini, oversized sunglasses, and a wide-brimmed, floppy hat. Her martini had been made with enough precision to actually contain a green olive.
“Is that your kid?” asked the gardener.
She lowered her sunglasses to look over at the toddler. “No.”
“Do you know where Alan is?”
“Alan? Inside with Spencer, I believe, getting the Pimm’s.”
“Right. Do you know how long he’ll be?”
“Not long.” She sipped her martini. “So, you’re the gardener. Gorgeous day for it.”
The gardener smiled, shielded his eyes. “Yeah.”
“We’re so lucky with this weather. And you’re still working? That’s so good. I’ve been furloughed. But I’m treating it as an extended holiday, you know?”
The gardener rubbed his hands together. “Yeah. I can’t really do that.” He shuffled back a little, keeping his distance. “Crazy though, isn’t it? Twenty-five thousand dead. They reckon it might be more than that even.”
The woman lowered her martini. “Really? I had no idea it was that many.” She shook her head. “I try not to watch the news. Better to enjoy the weather while it lasts.”
The wind changed and smoke started drifting towards the gardener. “I’m being extra careful,” said the gardener, “because my daughter –”
“Oh, there’s Alan.”
The doors opened to the conservatory and Alan came out, now wearing something more suitable. A Hawaiian shirt and shorts. Another man was with him who looked like his son: they shared the same jawline and bright blue eyes.
The younger man said something to Alan and Alan looked out to the distance.
“Jesus Christ,” he said. He placed the jug of Pimm’s he was carrying down on the ceramic table under the shade of the parasol and looked angrily at the gardener.
The gardener looked back at the holly bush. The toddler was now prodding the hedge trimmer, which had been left supine on the grass. Something dark formed in the pit of his stomach.
He started to run over to the toddler. Had he left the motor running? It appeared to be vibrating, but perhaps it was only the heat over the ground forming a mirage. He had an image of the toddler’s arm caught in the blades, his face disfigured. Bright red on the green grass.
Alan caught up with him. “What the hell are you playing at? Get him away from that, that thing.”
The gardener froze. His eyes moved from the toddler to the trimmer. The toddler’s eyes grew wide as he started to cry. Either forgetting or disregarding any remaining rules of social distancing that had not yet been broken, Alan and the younger man rushed past the gardener to retrieve the toddler from the grass.
The younger man carried the toddler back to the garden party, leaving the gardener and Alan alone by the holly.
The wind picked up. Alan’s face had contorted into something unrecognisable, the tops of his cheeks burning red.
“Careless,” he said at last. “Careless and irresponsible. You can’t just leave your tools lying around. My grandson could have been seriously injured. It’s not on.”
“What’s careless was letting him loose. He’s not my responsibility.”
“Letting him loose? This is my garden. This is my house.”
“I set the rules, you hear me?”
The gardener clenched his fist. He breathed heavily through his nostrils. “This is a joke.”
“Excuse me? Is this funny to you?”
“Actually, yeah. It is funny that you think you can call me irresponsible.” The gardener gestured back to the party. “Or am I blind?”
“I think you might be. We’ve all been very careful. We’ve all had to endure being locked in, stuck inside, cancelling holidays. Can’t I throw a party for my grandson?”
“It’s illegal,” the gardener said. “I can’t work like this. You know how sick my daughter is.”
Alan swayed on his feet slightly. His eyes seemed to shrink into his bloated face, his flushed skin popping out of his Hawaiian shirt. “You seem to have forgotten. I pay you. Not the other way around.”
The gardener returned to the driveway with the hedge trimmer, leaving chopped-up debris scattered along the lawn. The brown bin he had used earlier to dispose of chopped grass and weeds stuck out like an unpruned tree and he had the urge to empty its contents along the pavement, so he tipped it on its side and dragged it out across the driveway, leaving a chalk-white line in its wake, and kicked the garden waste up in the air and onto the cars, the Mercedes and the Mini and the hulking Range Rover.
Then he started up the hedge trimmer again and made for the holly that circled the house. He hacked at it sideways and downwards, haphazardly shaving the greenery until all that remained was an ugly tangle of exposed twigs. When his work was done, the holly resembled the remains of a bushfire, old dolls that had lost their synthetic hair.
Coughing from the fumes, he turned off the machine and bent over, heart pounding. It was silent apart from the sound of his breathing and the goats round the back. There was a caterpillar at work folding a nettle leaf only a few inches from his nose. On any other occasion, he would have yanked the nettles from the soil; they were weeds after all. Not today, however. He would leave the caterpillar to carry on folding.
He looked back at the house and cursed himself, as though it really was a shrine that he had desecrated. It was unlike him to lose control like that. He collected the garden waste from the patio and car bonnets and deposited it back in the brown bin, which he wheeled back to its original position. He rubbed his dirty hands against the ground to try and hide the scrape.
The holly was another matter. There was no undoing what he had done there.
If Alan asked, the gardener would say the holly was diseased. That it had to be cut back to stop the disease from spreading.
He checked his bank balance. Up three hundred. Hush money. A cheque against his cracked lips, a stark reminder of where power lies.
That’s just the way it is.
The gardener opened the van and lodged the trimmer beneath his ladder; he would have to wipe down every tool before returning home. The inside of the van was hot and stuffy. He squirted a rare tube of hand sanitiser into his muddy palm and scrubbed his hands together, unwrapped a cheese and cucumber sandwich and sat with his legs hanging out, his weathered face sheltered under the roof. Sweat had collected around the collar of his t-shirt. He finished the sandwich. Undid the cap of his flask of tea and swirled its contents around his mouth. Breathed in the warm air.
The first time the gardener held his daughter he kissed her face and she tasted of salt. Long ago, it was thought that children born with salty skin were bewitched. He had read it once.
The gardener knew he carried the gene. He and his wife were offered antenatal testing but had refused, preferring to let nature run its course.
He flicked the radio back on and watched a vapour trail crawl the empty sky. They were discussing the dilemma faced by the government, whether to prioritise the health of the population or the health of the economy. As if debating what came first, chicken or egg.
The gardener closed his eyes and started up the engine.