The Gardener Repents

He drove south and east from the graveyard with a slight frown. He was aware of my surveillance; but then, he was always aware. To him I was a headache. He dismissed me.

I followed him in silence, admiring how well he drove: so fluent already, after missing so much time; only sporadic moments of awkwardness changing gear. His concentration, the slight frown when he corrected a mistake, painted me pure green. I was jealous of the gearstick, of his teacher, of everything he'd learned and done without me.

After an hour or so, the traffic stopped. A glum-looking copper, saturated from head to foot, diverted us westward. I noted, with intense amusement, that he was wearing a fluorescent yellow woolly hat embroidered with the legend "Police". They had so little dignity nowadays.

The landscape became wilder. The hills were lined with ranks of young trees in their rabbit-guards, like matchstick soldiers marching into battle. I sympathised with the mathematician who had planted them. Gardening is a frustrating art: too gentle, too subtle, too slow.

I was a blacksmith of humans, not a gardener. I preferred chunks of metal; simple things. One heats them, beats them. They break; one can fix them. They wear out; one can always get more.

I changed my mind, not realising, in my lack of experience with care and cultivation, that there are times when one can't change one's mind.

An ambulance at the bottom of a cliff. He knows it's not sincere.

A vermillion feed bucket glowed amid the limestone like a beacon. Various motley sheep scampered away from the noise of his car, flouncing their red backsides at us; Gryffindor tup, I thought with grim good humour. They were swaddled immediately in mist, in the thick, dour clag that choked the hills. The rain smashed in bursts into the windscreen, as if an invisible bystander were trying to douse the car with buckets. A British Christmas is always a blue Christmas.

I watched him, my Platonic half, my Helen, my miracle of biological ingenuity; my beauteous creature whose skin I needed to feel slipping over mine, whose hair should be mine to stroke, whose torso was soft and comfortable and whose eyes, ah! his eyes!

The light appeared, incredible, the kind of dream one longs to die in; and we drove into it.

He was obviously familiar with the abbey. He drove in through the correct entrance, had change to pay the machine; he stopped precisely between the logs that delineated the parking spaces, and extracted a plethora of coats and scarves from the boot. He dressed himself in so many layers that it should have been funny; he ended up in a German army greatcoat, with a red scarf peeping out at his throat, and his face buried so far into it he was invisible from the nose down.

I wanted to snort in laughter, but his hair was sticking up out of the scarf, wilder than ever in the wind and rain, and all I wanted to do, ever, was touch it.

The path down to the abbey was well-kept cream gravel. He stamped along under the shadowy trees, head down and scruffy as ever, yet somehow not pathetic; and god knows I'd been waiting and praying for all this time, "Let him be pathetic. Let him be ugly, so that I can be free. Give me the relief of letting go, of knowing I'll never love." You'd think I'd have learnt, by now.

Round a corner and the abbey came into view, startlingly imposing in its ruin. He stopped suddenly, looked up at a high mossy crag for no ostensible reason; a grey squirrel made its way through the branches amid much clashmaclavers, its tail typically seeming more intelligent than the animal itself.

He was smiling; I could tell from his eyes and cheeks, although his mouth was hidden beneath the scarf. I wanted to break something.

He walked easily through the ruin, across the beautiful green lawn where the abbey floor had once been. He obviously knew where he was going, although he dawdled peacefully in the deep gorges between the broken walls; eventually, as I watched, he walked into a small, stone box at the bottom of an immensely high tower. He stood motionless for some time staring straight up towards the apex, his neck bent straight back with that beautiful suppleness he'd always possessed; then he lay down on his back in the wet grass, spreadagled like a dead man, and did nothing.

After some time I grew curious. The tower looked well enough from the outside, but I slipped inside his mind, wanting to know what he saw. If he felt the tickle, he didn't respond in any way. I was no longer surprised. We both gazed up through the tower as though it were some monstrous telescope.

Dark, knobbly sandstone, heavily adorned with moss, ferns and slime, rose above us to an inconceivable height, astonishingly beyond the parameters of any normal building; and that was just the first level of the abbey. Beyond that, the tower rose again, and again, and finally terminated in a pale blue circle like the eye of God.

He lay there and lay there, in hieroglyphic silence, with no movement apart from blinks. His face looked fat with gravity, and I grasped helplessly at this straw of ugliness and sank with a glug as I fell in love with him for the thousandth time; no derision was possible, only a fierce urge to defend him against hypothetical foes.

("You've never loved anyone," he had said suspiciously.

As I kissed him I said, "I am making up for lost time.")

Our time escaped blankly, and I braced myself against the now familiar sting of helpless frustration. I sneaked into his head again. Inadequate. I needed to talk to him; if he'd just come out of his sodden reverie and act like a human being, before the light went completely and he needed a torch to find his way back to the car...

Multiple footsteps approached, accompanied by chatting voices, laughter, and the obnoxious shrieks of young children. He didn't move at all. Mercifully, they passed by on the other side of the nave and left him undisturbed, so it was I alone who watched curiously as the mass of little candle flames bobbed off into the dark.

Shortly afterwards, his eyes opened abruptly as organised hooting issued from the other end of the abbey:

Oh, the holly bears a berry, as black as the coal,

And Mary bore Jesus, who died for us all.

And Mary bore Jesus Christ, our saviour for to be,

And the first tree in the greenwood, it was the holly.

He appeared to find this pleasant, as he got uncertainly to his feet and, after unwinding his scarf and brushing slugs out of it, loped off towards the choir. Once the candle flames came into view he stopped and stared, head tilted and mouth slightly open. He made no attempt to move closer.

Right. This was my chance. While he was in this relatively romantic mood, entranced by the combination of darkness, music and crotchlings, I would materialise nearby, walk up behind him and asseverate quietly, "I've missed you, you know." I put the materialisation part into practice and began to walk quietly towards him, and then the bloody choir, against all expectation in an age of mass-marketed American Christmas theme tunes, began singing Coventry Carol.

Lully, thou little tiny child,

Baba, lully, lullay.

O sisters too, how may we do

For to preserve this day,

This poor youngling for whom we sing

Baba lully, lullay?

Herod the king in his raging

Ordered he hath this day

His men of might, in his own sight,

All children young to slay.

Then woe is me, poor child, for thee,

And ever morn and day

For this parting, ne'er say nor sing

Baba, lully, lullay.

His face temporarily acquired an expression of the deepest shock, as if his mother had just appeared in front of him and shouted "Your bedroom is a tip, young man, go upstairs and tidy it this instant". This was bad. Worse was its replacement, as he swallowed visibly, then tightened his jaw until the muscles stood out on his cheeks like golf balls; his lips vanished, and I wondered listlessly how someone could look so attractive while doing that.

The hope of approaching him folded itself back up like a Christmas card and returned to its envelope for another year.

I turned to leave him there, but found I couldn't bring myself to do so. I couldn't leave him, could I? Couldn't leave him there in the dark, alone. In front of him were lights, and children, and singing; but behind him were crags, and ruins, and the ghosts of Cromwell and Henry VIII coming to smash this place to bits for no reason, decades of experts' work shattered for the sake of a fanatical dogma and a promiscuous megalomaniac.

Yes, nurturance is a difficult art; possibly, for me, too difficult; and too late. There are times when one can't change one's mind.

Perhaps this compromise, this inactivity, is the best thing I can do for him now.

I stood in the cloisters, a fake monk in black robes; and lingered, watching him watch.