The Gardener

Exclusive summer reading by the bestselling writer of Living With Teenagers.

She was married, he was divorced, but only just. The day they met, he told her later, was a bad day, he was raw and sad. As for her, well, she felt as if something had slammed its brakes down, preventing her from moving forward - in her own self, in her life, in anything. It wasn't the marriage's fault, but still she felt as stuck in it as any person could possibly be. She didn't tell him that, though. She didn't tell anyone that. The fact felt dangerous, something she had barely dared articulate, even to herself.

He sat, that first February morning, in a slant of chilly sunshine in the drawing room and she pretended to talk about what she wanted from her garden, but in fact she was finding it hard to think straight. She'd never been able to see into a stranger with such sudden clarity. She could see the boy he had been and the old man he would one day become. Both visions filled her with tenderness.

The sun lit up his hair and picked out the grey that might not have shown in another light. His eyes, she saw, were dark - almost black. His teeth were not at all perfect, slightly crooked even. She noted, with a lick of pleasure, that he had the beginnings of a double chin.

Suddenly much too aware of her sour, city clothes, she tried to tell him what she wanted. A red brick wall, baked by the sun! A bank of lavender so profuse and sturdy that a cat could hunker down and hide in its shade. She wanted a lilac tree, a rambling rose, a pergola, some kind of romantic plant that would scramble all over it and throw its perfume into the air and need a bit of lazy pruning (she liked the idea of herself with secateurs and a trug).

She wanted honesty, dahlias, foxgloves - if they would grow? - and orange wallflowers, because they reminded her of the happy city parks of her childhood. And a wigwam of bubblegum and lilac sweet peas, and maybe some scarlet-petalled runner beans, but more for the flowers than the beans themselves ("My husband doesn't really like beans," she said). And she felt herself take a little breath.

In essence - and she could feel her cheeks burning as she struggled to locate the least embarrassing words - she wanted her own
perfectly quiet and safe domain, a place she could go to sit, to think, to cry.

“To cry?"

It had slipped out. She looked at him as if it was his fault.

“Look at this place." She indicated the solid bricks of her home piled all around her. "Don't you see that I have absolutely nowhere where
I can go?"

She knew how it sounded and she waited for him to ask her what on earth was wrong with the house. Instead, he glanced down at the piece of squared paper on which he'd already made some smudgy pencil marks. He sighed.

“Some of what you describe is easy," he told her at last. "Other parts will take a little time."

“How much time?" (The big thing about her, her husband always said, was her impatience.)

He put down his pencil.

“You can't hurry gardens," he said. "Not the sort that you want. And to be honest, that's what's good about them. They don't care what you think. They grow in their own time."

She looked at him carefully. Why had no one told her this? Forgetting for a moment to check herself, she asked him if he had any children.

“No," he said. "Have you?"

She hesitated a tiny moment, then she just said it. She was surprised at herself. It was something she hadn't said aloud in a long time. She was touched to see that he looked genuinely sad and shocked.

Her husband was very good about the garden. She promised him it wouldn't cost an arm and a leg, that she was really only commissioning a plan, some ideas and expertise, that she hoped to carry out most of the work herself. But she was also grateful that he questioned none of it. When she tried to thank him, he told her not to be silly. Hadn't he always tried
to give her what she wanted? Yes, she told him truthfully, he had.

She knew anyway that he was glad she'd found something to put her heart into. He came out of the house to find her - pink and sweaty in her oldest clothes - wheelbarrowing muck across the lawn and he smiled. "First time in two years I've seen you looking so busy and happy."

Two years. That was the closest he ever came to talking about it, the thing that had happened to them. Two years. Was it really only two years? Or: was it already two years? She didn't know how long she expected it to be.

Grief had stretched and twisted time. Every day, she waited for it to snap back. Two years. All she knew was that she tried with all her heart not to hate him. She tried to be a good and patient person, a good gardener.

Actually, maybe she was a good gardener. Certainly she was beginning to know what she was doing. She was paying attention, starting to learn about the mysterious rhythms of growth. Already she was a very different person from the one she'd been in winter - steadier, slower, more patient. She knew you couldn't just conjure a tree or a climber or a bank of lavender out of nowhere. You had to get the structure right first, prepare the soil.

“Your plants are only ever going to be as good as your soil," he had told her on that first Febtuary day, and she had listened, intent and
rapt. As if someone had just accidentally - or, perhaps, on purpose - spilled out the brightest, best-kept secret of life.

Her soil was going to be good. Aerated, plumped up with plenty of organic matter, ready to nourish the pale ghosts of roots that, in her dead-of-night dreams, were already snaking down into the dark, dark earth.

They'd met in winter and now it was summer. Every time he came round, he brought her something from his own garden: seedlings he'd raised, perennials he'd divided, cuttings that he'd somehow magicked into root - for it still astonished her that you could slice a limb from a parent and have it create its own robust little life.

In turn, she gave him - nothing. Or at least it sometimes felt that way. All she did, all she had to do, was relax and let herself out, a bit at
a time, a slow and steady unravelling just like the twine that spooled from her pocket as she walked around tying up the sweet peas (which had now been sown, grown, climbed, twined, bloomed in a bright haze of sweetness, just exactly as he had promised).

She did not know him at all, and yet she knew him, had known him from that first day. When he was there, she questioned nothing. But when he was gone, she sometimes found it hard to picture his face. Sometimes, his absences made her panic. And then, just when she thought she might never see him again - that he might not even be real - there he suddenly was: so very definitely there.

One day when he turned up, she'd been crying all morning and no amount of cold water on her face could disguise the fact. She apologised, told him she was in no mood to talk. She didn't even offer to make him tea. She waited for him to go.

He didn't go. Instead, they sat together on the bench at the bottom by the compost heap and watched next door's cat give itself a dust bath and she leaned back and closed her cried-out eyes and listened as he told her about his family and the things they'd gone through - his mother's long illness, his grandfather who'd made violins, the hard grey-stone village where he'd gone to school.

He told her about all the different places he'd lived, the story of his marriage and how it had come apart and the sadness and shame it had caused him. He told her huge things that she'd never heard from anyone before - things that might have felt shocking if she'd heard them from anyone else. And some small and silly things that would have made her smile if she'd been in a better mood (that did, in fact, make her smile, much later, when she let herself think about them properly again).

When he'd finished, she opened her eyes and gazed at her two hands as if she'd never seen them before. Hugged herself.

He smiled.

“What?" he said. "What are you thinking?"

She took a breath. Could she even say it? She couldn't escape the familiar curve of his cheek, the bare width of his wrist. Her heart would
not keep still. She felt herself blush.

After he'd gone, she sat there alone on the bench for a long time, wondering what would have happened if she'd been able to say it - the thing that was on her mind.

“It makes me want to touch you," is what she'd wanted to say. "It's beginning to feel so strange, to sit here and know all of these things about you and not reach out and put my hands in yours, my face against yours, my body against yours."

Something else strange: as the garden burst more and more strongly into life, as May and June passed and July flamed through the borders - sweet rocket, verbena, nicotiana, poppies, lupins, love-in-a-mist - she began finally to feel equipped to tackle what had to be done in the house, what should have been tackled some time ago.

Her child's room.

She just walked in there one bright, hot morning and pulled up the blinds, blinking a moment at the dust that hung and sparkled
on the air, breathing in the longed-for smell of clothes and warm skin and hair and lost hope and unchanging emptiness, and began to sort everything out.

Boxes and bags. Decisions and action.

It was easier than she'd imagined. Or else she'd grown stronger. She did not want to think about which one it was.

She did not weep or break down as she'd worried she might. She did not allow herself to linger over anything. She did not become paralysed when confronted with the sweet, remembered objects that her child had known and touched. She just kept what she knew would one day feel special to her, conserved the bits and pieces that her child had loved, the things that she knew that she, too, would one day be able to cherish, even laugh about. And she chucked the rest.

The boxes went into the loft. Three black bin bags to the charity shop.

When she'd finished, she went straight into the garden and grabbed her hoe and worked through the weeds that were already poking their green demon heads among the carrots and shallots. And when she'd done that, she got into her car and drove to the street where she knew he lived and she banged on his door and fell into his arms.

His face when he opened the door and saw her standing there: dust on her cheeks, soil in her fingernails, tears falling down her cheeks.
“I did it," she said.

It said everything about what she felt about him that he didn't ask her what it was, that he asked her nothing, that he just took her into
his arms, that he knew enough to know she'd come to him.

They married the following spring, as soon as her divorce came through. She would have liked to have been able to say her husband was good about it, that he, more than anyone, had understood how much of their lives had fallen away from underneath them, how unsteady it had felt to live above a void.

But no, he was furious. He hated her. He felt betrayed, cheated, demolished. He'd had little real interest in the garden but he had, at least, imagined it would keep her glued to him. And, to be fair, so had she - at first. But the more she understood about growing things, the more she longed to lie in the arms of someone who really knew her. Your plants are only ever going to be as good as your soil. Such a relief, then, to put down roots and meet with no harsh resistance, to encounter only sustenance, sweetness, nourishment and love.

He asked her again and again - and on and off for the rest of their lives, because it was something he seemed to believe and even delight in - what had made her do it, what had made her come?

“Come?"

“To me. I had no idea you liked me that much."

“Liked you? But I loved you!"

She curled against him - slooped her leg over his thigh, kissed his shoulder, the warmth behind his ear. The sweet places that, as they aged, she expected to love even more.

“All right," he said. "But why?"

“I don't know," she said.

“Come on," he said, and his fingers dipped inside her till she gasped. "Tell me."

She laughed. She had no reason but she knew he needed a reason.

So she gave him one, she made it up, though even as she spoke the words aloud she knew that they were true:

“You asked me about my child," she said.

He said nothing. His arms tightened around her.

“You asked me and you let me talk and you listened and you were sad. With me and for me. You were sad. You let me be sad."

She took a big breath and shut her eyes.

“And I loved you for it," she said. "I needed that so badly.

“You've no idea how much I needed someone to ask me that question and let me tell them the answer."

And that was all. She had nothing else to say.

But as they lay there together in that long silence, she found herself back there, wandering through her old garden - her beloved garden, fallen into ruin now, untended, ignored by her ex-husband who would soon be putting the house on the market.

And she walked through the long, wet grass and saw how bravely it had endured a winter of wind and rain and neglect, how the borders had almost been choked by couch grass and bind­weed, how dandelions and nettles had sprung up everywhere, how every little plant she'd nurtured was now just a tangled ghost of itself, but how, despite all of that, the soil was still full of the life she had put into it.