Tom England teaches high school English in Manchester, England, and lives with his two cats. His poetry has appeared in a number of literary publications in England and America. “The Gardener” is his first debut work of short fiction.
I must clean my tools while the sun stays, scribbled Wendell Scherbe on the back of an envelope.
A lot of people had sympathized with him, written to him, concerned, to check how he was holding up, and for a while he had wondered if they had a point. Perhaps he wasn’t altogether well in himself. But now, though admittedly his behavior was, even to his own mind, clearly rather strange, he felt comfortable, assured and actually quite cheerful. And this in spite of what Mathilde and her handsome, virile play-thing have been putting about, he noted.
It was a hot summer in the Wolds, and Wendell had the big house to himself. He had entered a new phase in his life, without really making any conscious decision to do so. In recognition of this, he logged everything he thought, or did, or which sprang into his jumbled mind, on whatever scraps of paper he could get his hands on. His writing was invigorating, felt significant, and soon he found he had steadily accumulated large stacks of notebooks, leather-bound volumes, stapled lined paper, wedges of paper held together by elastic bands, jumbled heaps of crumpled scraps which he left in heaps either on the folding table in the large shed, or dotted around the pots in the old green house, covered in his slanted black handwriting.
…holed up in the big house, surrounded by the hills and trees and brambles, he felt at ease as he wrote endlessly.
The presence of these stacks had troubled him before he had devised his system. Waking in the night to fill a glass of water he had been shocked to find whole piles of scrawls he didn’t recognize littering the kitchen table. But now, with the new shelves he had painstakingly constructed after days of measurements and calculations, and the clever labeling method he had diligently adhered to, everything was satisfyingly organized, itemized and accessible. True, he never had once revisited his papers: once filled with his ramblings they remained filed away. But now, holed up in the big house, surrounded by the hills and trees and brambles, he felt at ease as he wrote endlessly, satisfied in the knowledge it was all stored for safekeeping.
Normally very diligent, he now kept neither regular mealtimes nor regular patterns of sleep. He carelessly worked his way through the pantry, picking metal cans at random without so much as a glance at the labels, and eating out of them with a spoon at the kitchen table. When he did sleep, he usually did so in the old hammock in front of the shed, covered with a dusty blanket he had dug out of the attic. Often he would rise in the early hours, sitting at the kitchen table by the paraffin lamp, absentmindedly tucking into plastic containers of instant-cook noodles, scribbling furiously. The moon’s face is a dusty pink, he wrote, rather than the pale orange which is normal for this phase in the cycle. Curious how even the most familiar of planetary bodies can take you by surprise. He collected rainwater in an old metal bucket and boiled it on the ancient stove in the back kitchen. In the mornings he would wake to hear the rain peppering the leaves above him. During the afternoons, he would sit in the cushioned wicker chair overlooking his gardens for many hours, flitting peacefully between sleep and wakefulness. Now and then he picked tomatoes and salad leaves from his gardens, gently unfolding them from their vibrant foliage. He watched the movements of the sun, and the patterns of the moon, and how they illuminated the rich brown-green cadences of the hills. Occasionally he would catch sight of himself in the dirty windows of the shed – his unshaven face, his thinning hair – and pause for a moment, making some scrawling notes, before continuing his work.
He saw now he was not the man he had thought – had expected, had always assumed – he was going to turn out to be.
Some months earlier, in the fullest blossoming of spring, he had uncomfortably realized that he could no longer deceive himself. He must take stock, must thrash it out, must face up to it all. He could no longer justify any of it – his failed marriage, his failed career, his failed personality. Every decision I have made, he reflected, has been the opposite of what any sensible person would have advised. At first it seemed unimportant – people sabotage their lives all the time, he reasoned, – you put up with it. Men, cuckolded, smilingly returned to their desks each morning. Elderly drunks, ridiculed but quietly going about their business, seemed a point of reference, a source of comfort. But finally, watching his wife – ex-wife – glare down at him with a mixture of pity and anger and disappointment, he knew it was no use.
He saw now he was not the man he had thought – had expected, had always assumed – he was going to turn out to be. Sitting now in the dimly lit back kitchen, he conceded that this was largely his own doing. He had been a bad husband – he had known it even at the time – and had treated his wife terribly. To his parents he was neglectful. To his friends, even more so, to the extent he had not spoken to most of them for many years. But how was he, now, in what must unarguably be acknowledged as his middle years, to rediscover his verve, his energy, his vitality?
God knows that as a young man I had promise, he noted. But while he had always been lazy, he reasoned, it was an intelligent laziness, a confident laziness, more a statement of intent than true rejection of effort. He had had flair, charisma, a talent for drawing, for music. But he had never been pushed, he argued with himself, never been encouraged. He had developed a tendency for passivity. Passivity in work, in love, in aliveness. His wife – ex-wife, he reminded himself again, bitterly – had made pains to point this out to him over the years. But he had, of course, derided her. Foolish Wendell! Blind Wendell! That poor, delicate creature!
The big house was surrounded by the empty Wolds. Acres of rich brown and green curved in a succession of arcs and swells for miles in every direction. No other houses or structures disrupted the eye-line. The only sounds which reached Wendell here were those of the dawn and evening chorus, the chirping and clattering of the birds in the mid-afternoon, the occasional owl during the night hours. And so, Wendell had the respite he needed to work and write.
As such, on the 20th August, the day he discovered her, he found that he was more curious than alarmed.
He had slept undisturbed in the hammock through the night. When he woke, early, it was the morning’s clear light that invited him to stretch, and rise, and fill up his watering cans. His first circuit took him around the vegetable and salad beds, which were carefully positioned on the near side where he could monitor their growth, their vitality, their hardiness. He kept his seedlings in orderly rows nearby, and rotated them in accordance with the sun’s movements. The newly bedded sprouts, further down the slope, he also kept a watchful eye on, tending to them attentively, and had crafted cloches out of the plastic bottles he collected in a large box on the kitchen counter. He had cut and trimmed the cloches carefully with a kitchen knife, carefully stripping back the thin strips of translucent plastic, and allocating them to those most in need of protection. Though they look flimsy, he scribbled, the cloches protect them well – they are young and vital, full of life, full of potential.
At the bottom of the slope were his peas. In earlier months, when he had more time and was less burdened by the hours his writing necessitated, he had constructed a sturdy wigwam out of bendy bamboo canes, lashing them together with twine and securing them in place with a sand and concrete mixture of his own devising. The peas were now tangled up the canes in a satisfyingly exuberant burst of green. They will bear their fruit before long, he noted.
The main beds which sat at the flats some 20 meters from the big house and its adjacent shed and old greenhouse housed the bulk of his efforts, the rows of brassicas, roots, aliums, in soils he had effortfully dredged in months past, and which were now flourishing in the morning sun. These had been masterfully plotted and were almost ready to harvest, although Wendell had not considered this. He poured a light coating of rainwater over the soil.
It was only upon tracking around past the brambles – they must be cut back, they must be stripped back – that he caught sight of the body.
It lay, spread-eagled, face down in the dirt, around two meters to the left of the path he was taking. It was a woman’s body, clothed in a heavy raincoat and wearing wellington boots. He knew the tangled black hair. Though tied back, its wisped curls were uncontainable. He remembered her last words to him, and scrawled them down without thinking: I never loved you Wendell, not really, not how you wanted me to.
Had it been there yesterday? Wendell didn’t think so. He had made this circuit each day for weeks on end. It was inconceivable that he could have missed it, even if absorbed by his thoughts, even preoccupied as he often was in these early hours. He carefully knelt over her, and turned her face towards him. She was still beautiful, even in death, her face smudged with the thin dirt which it had rested in. Her pale skin was luminous in the morning’s pale light. Her neck had blotched markings in a pattern around it. He gently placed her head back on the cool earth.
He stood over her for some minutes, considering. He had no phone, no internet connection. His car had not been used for months, and in any case the roads were poor and it was some miles to the nearest town. He looked down at her still, silent body. Not how you wanted me to, not really.
He had to go back to the house, but found he could not. Something was nagging at him, tugging at the corners of his mind, something that would not let him be. He sat down next to the cauliflowers to think things over.
How long had he been at the big house? Many months, many months, as long as I can remember. This he could possibly work out from the vegetable plottings, and began to do so in a hurried scrawl. But then paused. More importantly, what of his time here could he clearly pin down? Time is not the question, he jotted in the margin, It is time known, time recorded. It was all a bit of a blur. The early months in particular were rather chaotic. There was a lot of things breaking, and then being mended, painstakingly. He had ransacked the attic and the cellar, that was true, and thrown much out, burnt many things in the yard, photo albums, pictures, books. He had done extensive work with wood and the toolkit he had dug out of the shed and cleaned at length, but then abandoned most of his projects in more fires. Yes, they were confused days.
But more recently? It is true, he scribbled hesitantly, that I have lived in something of a fog these past months. Now, he continued, the planting and garden work is vivid to me, quite vivid. Repairing the greenhouse, sowing the new plants, testing the soil, re-potting, pruning, watering… it is all vivid. At first it was chaotic, angry, physical, violent. The digging was particularly consuming, requiring great reserves. And then my writing too, I wrote with energy, with passion, with power.
He paused to begin a new page. But what of the bits in between? I can barely recall what I ate yesterday, when and where I went to sleep, what clothes I wore. This worries me. It worries me. The parts I cannot remember. What I may have pushed out of my mind, or may have never written into my memory in the first place.
He looked down at Mathilde’s body, her coat – these are unfamiliar, presumably Victor’s, borrowed – and her wellingtons – but these I bought her, I remember, expensive too. He looked at her pale face, and the bruises around her twisted neck. He put his hands in his pockets. He would have to make his way back up to the house. He needed to think, to work things through.
He was sitting in the kitchen, looking around it with fresher eyes. The dusty, cobwebbed corners, the stacks of tins on the side, the stacks of plastic containers in boxes. The floor was only partly swept, and the hob was coated in a black char. He was drinking cold water out of a tin cup. A large pile of papers were next to him, and he was holding a biro in one hand, starting to scratch down letters in a slanted black script.
Although I am not naturally a violent man, I could have done it, he wrote, hurriedly. I am a strong man, my hands are strong. After all, I dug over the beds, which were in a terrible state, much lifting and retrenching was needed, and I was more than capable. I could easily have choked her, broken her neck even. I have the physical capacity.
And, it is true, I have often thought about it, he went on. Not necessarily strangling her, but striking her, throwing her down, beating her body, making sure she bruised so Victor would know about it, who did it. It is true I have often wanted to harm her.
But not recently, he reasoned, not recently. In the early weeks and months, certainly, but I have barely thought about her for an age. My work has absorbed me, churning the soil, sowing new life, raising new life. I have calmed. I have rested. She is no longer part of me. I no longer feel a part of her.
Unless, that is, he argued back, unless I have blocked off the part of my mind which has, nonetheless, been occupied by her. A quiet, angry corner, still fuming and raging, and waiting to strike. Perhaps I went to find her, drove to her, killed her, and brought her back here, and then locked it all away in some dark cellar of my consciousness. It is possible, it is certainly possible.
But then he paused. It wasn’t possible, though, surely. It would all depend on the car.
He tossed his papers down on the small kitchen table and strode out to the back of the big house. His old car stood there, covered in dust and dead leaves and bird droppings. A thin green dusting covered the windshield. There were no tracks in the dirt around it.
He went back inside, dug around the cupboards, opening and closing all the drawers hurriedly, finally digging out his keys. He went back outside, wrenched open the door and tried the ignition. Nothing.
As I had thought, he wrote, back inside, scrawling now with speed, the battery is dead. Impossible that I drove out to her, impossible that I brought her back – but then he paused. Perhaps she had come here herself. But then, also impossible. No other car is parked anywhere near the big house. He would have seen it this morning. She had not driven here.
I did not drive her here. And she did not drive herself to visit me. He paused and looked at the dirty windows. Only a thin film of light reached inside the dim kitchen. There is only one alternative.
He was in the old shed, clambering to reach boxes, running his eyes along the shelves and their indexes, throwing leather-bound notepads and binders onto piles at his feet. The metal step ladder was rusty, and rattled, shaking on the uneven ground as he hurriedly moved from shelf to shelf. If it had happened, he must have written it down. He can’t not have done. That nagging something, that itching in the corners of his mind, it must have had a source – and if it did it, he must have recorded it somewhere. Time is not the question – it is time known, time recorded.
The notebooks were in a heap, back on the kitchen table, and he was tearing through them, throwing sheets onto the floor. His system had served its purpose, and now he was tearing it apart, destroying it to satisfy that gnawing in his mind. Now it was only speed, and energy, and urgency that mattered – he had to know.
And then, in a rich blaze of amazement, he found what he was looking for. Scribbled, almost illegibly, complete with crossings-out and digressions, sprawling in fragments over three sides of crinkled A4. The notes were filed two weeks ago, before the spate of rain:
Victor is here, and I told him, I told him he needn’t have come, that it no longer concerns me – I am a new man now, but here he is anyway, so I am pouring him drinks […]
He is talking at me, shouting at me about her, asking why she left me, which I told him is a little rich seeing as he was quite closely involved. But he rants about her, how she insulted him, and now he insults me, asking me why I am writing, and he doesn’t understand my answer […]
This idiot man was always blind to Mathilde and her faults. He was just a toy, as was I, as we all make each other even when we don’t know it […]
I laugh because he says I can have her back, he doesn’t want her anymore, which is funny because I don’t want her either – for the first time I too don’t want her, I no longer want to be the man I was with her – although, clearly, he still does want her dearly, the poor man […]
He is drunk now, and he is still ranting about what he would like to do to her, and I am half listening, but also half thinking about my peas and how they will hold up if the rain comes as it looks like it may […]
He is ranting, drunk, his language is violent, he is boring me. It is a shame she has left him, but I can see why, he is insufferable, he is very unpleasant […]
He is asking about how I sleep (I sleep well) and is looking at my hands, which are all calloused, and asking about how far the nearest house is from here, and keeps looking outside and asking if I intend to stay over the next few weeks (which of course I do) […]
He is still here, parked out the front but struggling to leave because of the dirt, and I told him about the other place, at the bottom of the hill, which is far easier to get to, and it’s only a short walk, I had pointed it out earlier when I showed him the greenhouse […]
He has gone now, and it is dark, and I am here alone. Tomorrow I will move the nasturtiums, they are not getting enough sun and are beginning to wilt […]
Wendell was standing over the silent, motionless body of his former wife, Mathilde (still legally Scherbe, neé Gemälde), and thinking about how unlucky she was.
She had fled from his arms – he, who drove her to hate him, to hate life with him – into the strong, powerful arms of Victor. Victor, who physically was surely as strong as Wendell, but who also had the emotional vigor to carry out his violent fantasies.
Wendell had walked down the path and found the tracks. Victor must have driven her broken body here, for goodness knows how many hours, must have parked down the hill, in the place he – I, Wendell – had shown him, and carried her up, silently, in the night. Must have laid her to rest by the brassicas, before leaving, driving softly away into the blackness.
But, Wendell reflected, Victor had calculated correctly. Although Wendell had worked out the truth, he was, it had to be admitted, the more-guilty-seeming party. Victor only had to deny his parting from Mathilde, and Wendell would appear the vengeful, hatred-riven, murderous ex-husband – Wendell, whose house was in disrepair, who was eating cold food out of tin cans, who slept in the middle of the day and gardened at night, who wrote reams of rambling streams of nonsense and stored it in an elaborate system of shelves in his back shed.
Wendell looked down at Mathilde’s delicate, broken body, resting on the cool, dark earth. In its ill-fitting coat, far too large, it appeared to him like the broken body of a bird. He took out a pen and a folded envelope.
Well, he scribbled, I should either start digging, or start building a fire before it rains.
The sun was high over the trees, and the magpies were clattering their loud chatter. Row upon row of brassicas, alliums, carrots stood proudly, full of life, full of potential.