There is a child in the garden. A quiet child, of little more than seven or eight. A child with wild hair, pale skin and fiery eyes. She will be the death of me.
When first I saw her she was standing, hands on hips, admonishing the bronze lion guarding the path to the folly. What mischief the lion had attempted I cannot guess. He had done nothing but gaze at the lake since my father put him there one Christmas: the same Christmas my uncle locked himself in the library along with his ill-temper and a bottle of whiskey.
Strange that such a dim memory should puzzle its way through to daylight. For the most part, memories of my childhood lay mouldering among others in some viscid pool filled with bitter spoils. The war had begun you see, and he is the greatest of thieves, purloining memories while laying waste to claims upon innocence. In the end he left me nothing but the smell of bubbling flesh and screams filtered through burst eardrums.
I was pulled from the rubble near Caen, broken in body and will. They sent me home to mend, but a body so broken can only mend so much, a mind so shattered can do little but hope to hold whole thoughts for moments before they seep away through the cracks. So, when the child appeared I bid her good day and carried on through the arch in the hedge, on toward the folly. She found me later, digging and planting as I had done every day since my return. She wandered among the beds, watching me, running her fingers over the tips of the flowers, releasing their scent.
When finally she spoke, her voice echoed strangely, as if there were others whispering with her.
‘They’re wriggly and bent,’ she said, pointing at the flower beds.
It was true, I had dug all the beds that way—curved and swayed, radiating out from the stone heart of the folly.
I have added more since that day, too many for my mother to bear, though she visits the folly most days.
‘Surely that is enough now,’ my mother says, though she addresses my father, not me. She finds it hard to look at me, though my face bears few scars.
My father stays silent, but sets aside the manuscript he has been working on, his latest treatise on some long dead architect.
Finding no conspirator, my mother turns on me. ‘We have gardeners, Peter, gardeners who know how to look after the grounds properly.’
In am ruining the place, you see. It is a grand garden of some significance or other I no longer care to remember. As for the gardeners, there is Wallace, and Price and his son—they do as my father asks as he asks so little of them and it is a vast estate. Besides, Price and his son mostly work alone as Wallace is aggrieved by gout and sticks to the greenhouses most days.
‘They have enough to do, Mother,’ I say.
Frustrated, she stumps away, back to the house. Then she stops, right in front of the girl who is playing in the hedge. For a moment I think my mother sees her, perhaps hears the girl singing. Then she turns. ‘Mary will be here at six. Be civil.’
Mary is the daughter of Lady Beardsley. We were to be married. She visited me for the months I lay in the hospital. I was not kind.
As my mother’s footsteps fade I plant the last of the lavender, breathing in its warm scent.
‘What next?’ asks my father, stretching.
He has been sitting on the steps of the folly for a good while, spending time with me before he joins Mary and my Mother on the trek to Lady Beardsley’s estate. He does not wish to go, but he is resigned to attending Mary’s engagement party. He is fond of her. They are bound by the memories of visits to see me when I first returned.
What next? The question hangs there, but my father is good at waiting.
‘Roses,’ I answer. I do not know why, though roses will do. I suppose it is because the garden must be filled with fragrance, anything to mask the stench. It followed me home you see. I cannot rid myself of it.
Father nods, gathers his things, and heads back to the house. He will talk to Price about the roses.
I watch him go. He takes the long way back to the house, down behind the folly. Anything to avoid my mother’s ire for a little longer. But, while Mother rages, at least she rages, how else is she to let out the grief. Father stays silent, believing that fresh air and long walks will heal everything, in time.
None of this is the fault of the child you understand, she is blameless. They grieve for the son they have lost. I am not who I was. I am no longer the young rugby captain, the carefree young son of a lord, the son they parade at parties. Parties. My mother takes my medals in place of me these days. I won them. Won them. As if medals are prizes to be won. I cannot look at them.
I stand, brush the worst of the dirt from my hands and grab some sticks and twine from the wheelbarrow Price has given me. I work away, having marked out the next few garden beds before I realise the girl has been singing that old nursery rhyme about the roses, the one where they all fall down. She looks pleased as she leaves the hedge and runs around the lavender beds, arms stretched out as if she is flying. The singing grows louder, stranger—like others have joined in from afar. Then she is gone.
My dreams are filled with nursery rhymes, stretched thin by distant voices. I wake. First light plays across my bedroom windows. I throw on my clothes and head to the shed. The shed is the gardeners’ realm and I the most rancorous pest.
I knock, though the door is open and Price and his son are already at work.
‘Have the roses arrived?’ I ask.
‘No,’ says Price, whose hands, ingrained with dirt, look as if trees will sprout from deep lines in his knuckles. ‘But Wallace gave me a dozen or so from the greenhouse. Pure white they’ll be. The lad can take them to the folly for you,’ he says pointing to his son, a young man of perhaps nineteen or so.
‘No.’ My answer is too curt, too blunt. I do not want the son’s company.
‘Right you are,’ says Price. He ignores my outburst and hands me an old water bottle and a bread roll stuffed with cheese. ‘Whether you eat that or not you must drink.’
I swallow hard, gratitude stuck in my throat, blocking the words gathering behind.
He talks quietly to his son, the lad as he calls him. A few words, none harsh and leaves me to it. I know Price is afraid for me. He senses I carry too much shame to expect life to bear me much longer.
I am partway through planting out the second flower bed when the girl appears. She takes the last rose from the wheelbarrow and kneels beside me as it starts to rain. She fingers the thorns for a moment, tracing the tip of each one with her thumb. Then she takes my hand and presses the rose into it, hard. Her hand is strangely warm.
‘Now it is right,’ she says, eyes on fire. ‘Plant it now.’
The thorns bite, and I watch the blood pool with the rain. It drips onto the bed. The girl laughs and jumps up. Certain of some small victory she soars among the beds once more.
I watch her, trying to remember the joy of running, of being small. I grasp the rose harder, pressing the thorns deep into my skin, desperate to remember.
Then Price is there, taking my hand to remove the rose. The girl stops and screams. She beats the air with her fists, then is gone.
The shed is warm. The lad places a cup of tea before me and Price tells him to be off home. He does not want me to be uncomfortable.
I sip the tea. The bandage on my hand guards a thick layer of yellowish unguent Price concocts himself ‘to stop the cuts festering.’
‘You ought to be more careful, your …’
I cut him off. ‘How old is he?’
Price watches the lad disappear down the path. ‘Twenty-one this winter.’
There is silence as I take another sip. My hands are shaking now. The lad is older than I thought. Old enough to be given the uniform I so willingly sought.
‘The war will end some day,’ says Price, regarding me with either pity or confusion, I cannot tell which. ‘Besides, they won’t have him, if that’s what’s concerning you. He’s a good lad, but he can only do what he’s told, if you follow me.’
I place the cup on the table, willing my hands to be still, grateful for whatever it is that ails the boy, grateful for Price as he rattles around and takes up a pair of garden shears and begins to sharpen them.
Before I can stop myself, the words spill from my lips. ‘Did you see her?’
Price stops sharpening. ‘See who? Lady Mary?’
‘What?’ I stand to take my leave, ashamed I have spoken. ‘No. Yes, Mary. Sorry, I must have drifted off.’
He stares at me for too long. I head for the door.
‘At least wait until the rain stops.’
‘You should not punish yourself,’ Price says as I step outside. ‘Soldiers do what they must.’
What they must … I want to laugh at him, hit him, pummel his stupid face. He does not understand. I am doing what I must.
‘Let me know when the rest of the roses arrive,’ I say, slamming the door behind me.
I make my way back to the folly and find the last rose lying in a pool of water where it fell. I scoop it up, jam it in beside the others and head off to see if Wallace is willing to part with more.
It is long past noon when the girl appears again, a posy of wildflowers in her hands. The rain is gone and the sun squints through remnants of exhausted clouds as the girl places the posy next to me. She is no longer angry, though she does not stay.
I am sitting in the shade of the folly studying the posy when Price arrives with a barrow full of roses. They come from Warburton’s farm, a few miles down the road.
‘They were glad of the money,’ says Price dropping the barrow and wiping his hands on the apron he always wears.
The apron is well worn, with the pockets stuffed with seeds and twine. A rabbit’s foot and a string of black beads are among the other bits and bobs he carries. He is superstitious despite all his practicality. Father says he carries one charm in particular. A small tin fashioned from spent bullet cases. The soldiers make them in the trenches, the first and last gift to a sweetheart or child they may never see. Perhaps this tin was such a gift. He is never without it.
Price removes his hat and wipes his brow with his forearm. The posy catches his eye.
‘Wildflowers … not from around here though.’
No, not from around here. They are the flowers I saw covering small graves in Normandy, flowers from woodlands and meadows ravaged by the toys of generals and madmen. But I lie when I tell him. ‘They’re from Mary, she just went back to check on Mother.’
He knows I am lying, he would have seen Mary walk back to the house, she does not know the way that runs behind the folly.
‘Must have just missed her,’ says Price, before wandering over to see my latest work. I follow, feeling wretched, Price is not a man to lie to.
‘You need to plant them further apart,’ he says, crouching down to inspect the roses. Then, he notices something I have not. This morning the roses were stick soldiers, bereft of camouflage, bearing up as best they could in rain beaten trenches. Now they are covered in buds.
Price looks up at me, momentarily flummoxed. ‘Are these the ones Wallace gave you?’
He does not wait for an answer. In one quick movement he is up, grabbing the posy from me as he casts about the grounds wildly, his gaze coming to rest somewhere near the arch in the hedge. The girl is there, standing perfectly still, her eyes brighter than I have yet seen them.
He has seen her. He sees her.
‘Get them out. Get them out,’ he yells, falling to his knees and tearing at the roses, trying to rip them from the bed
I throw myself at him, meaning to stop him, but pain stabs at my ribs and heart bringing me to my knees beside him. There is shouting. I hear my father’s voice, I catch a glimpse of the girl, then the world turns red.