Flowers Are Prettier When They Grow Wild
Some people find reading hard. They can’t finish a book in one month, one year, if at all. Some people, and Jonathan knew these people and he liked them, didn’t read any books at all, wearing it like a badge of honour. It wasn’t a problem he had. So, when he saw the collection in the hotel library he was glad. He picked out two and put one in his suitcase.
He was first in the garden apart from the gardener. Empty spaces were rare these days—there was always some person who wanted a piece of your time or your day, to bother you somehow. You were never alone. That’s why he came here. It was quiet here and he couldn’t hear engines. In London, you could always hear engines.
Cleaners were cleaning in the hotel. He could see them through bay windows. They carried buckets, mops and linen towels and were scrubbing and whispering in Portuguese. Their manager told them to be quiet because of the guests but he could still hear them.
He sat on a bench, reading pages slowly. He read for three hours and didn’t look up.
At noon, the gardener cut some weeds. Then, a woman, white streak in her hair, limping, sat down next to him.
‘Have you been here long?’
‘No’, he said. ‘Five minutes’.
She had a friendly, wrinkly face. Perhaps fifty.
‘I’m Catherine’, she said.
He folded his page and told her his name. She smiled.
‘What brings you here, Jonathan?’
She pulled a cigarette from her handbag and lit it with one hand. She’d done this before. Red lipstick circled orange tip.
‘I come for peace and quiet. And the garden. The garden here is famous. Lots of people come for the garden’.
She motioned to the man in the corner. He was out of earshot. ‘He certainly does a wonderous job’, she said. ‘I agree with you. I keep delphiniums in my room. They make the place smell nice.’
This piqued his interest. ‘You live here?’
‘For now. I like the hotel. No-one can find you because no-one stays long enough to remember’. She dragged her cigarette. ‘Do you want one?’
‘No. I don’t smoke. It’s not good for my lung cancer’.
She laughed. ‘We all have lung cancer, darling’. She paused for a second. ‘It can’t do much harm now, can it?’
‘No, I guess not. I don’t want it. I don’t like the taste’.
This answer seemed to satisfy her, more than the stuff about lung cancer. She stood up, wishing him ‘good day’ and walked inside, no trace of a limp.
The twilight was grey and then charcoal and then black. He couldn’t read anymore so he went inside and closed his bedroom curtains, waiting for sleep, if it ever came.
One family – an aristocratic family – had owned the hotel since the seventeenth century, since the days of William of Orange and Queen Mary. This was normal in the country. Every first son hung from the walls in the lobby, each face changing from those before it, as time and culture and medicine separated generation from generation.
In Jonathan’s suite, there was an old sword on the mantlepiece, rusting in its scabbard, with explanatory laminated paper. The sword killed a Dutch cavalry general in the Battle of Reading, who was now buried in the churchyard of St Giles’ Church.
Since meeting Catherine on the bench, every morning before going out into the garden, he would masturbate whilst staring at the sword. He wasn’t really sure why he did this. He’d lost any virile, irrepressible sexual attraction. These things happen with age. He hadn’t yearned for anyone since his wife’s death, twenty years ago. He was too fragile for onerous physical activity and his lungs emptied quickly. His bones were weak, too.
Yet, onanism was habitual. Like brushing teeth. He’d done it every day, for his whole life. He performed the ritual mechanically and cleaned up with premium hotel tissue paper, unpicking the sticky between his wrinkly skin. When he was done, he showered and emptied the shampoo bottles and shower gel bottles, scrubbing every part of his hairless skin. His body was bald and his head was bald, as if everything had given up on warmth. He was so old now he didn’t need warmth.
Every two or three days, she would sit down on the bench next to him. They would talk about flowers and the hotel and the countryside. He found out about her life and people she loved and people she liked.
‘I was a banker’, she said, fiddling with her brooch. ‘I was the most successful saleswoman in the City and everyone knew my name’.
‘Why did you leave?’
‘I loved my manager and I hated my husband. My husband was a prick. He’s dead now. I cried when he died. I slept with my manager and he wanted me gone. He saw me as a threat, to his family, to his job, to his prestige. This restaurant – it’s in Liverpool Street – threw me out because I was drunk. I’d taken clients out for networking. The restaurant-owner threw me out after I drank three bottles of wine and sniffed in the toilets. The next day, my manager called me into his office and fired me. He said my behaviour was unacceptable and I agreed. I packed my things and left’.
‘Do you miss banking?’
‘Yes and no. The City is draining. It takes your whole life. By the end, I felt like I couldn’t breathe’.
‘What do you do now?’
‘I have a business. A life-drawing business. Twice or three times a week, at the town hall, nine or ten people draw models in their natural form. We have young and old people. You would be good at it. But – I can tell – it’s not your thing’.
‘No, not really’. He crossed his legs. ‘It sounds good though. Sounds like it’s working’.
His timidity didn’t fade entirely – he refused to entertain the idea of being a model – but he agreed, three weeks later, to attend Catherine’s life drawing class. It was held in a disused barn, with a naked forty-year old plumber perched upon a haystack. His body was not too dissimilar to Jonathan’s thirty years ago. The plumber’s skin sagged slightly, though his forearms and biceps were toned from decades of manual labour, and his eyelids crinkled at the edges. They were happy crinkles – probably from laughing with other plumbers – and his mouth set, naturally, at a smile.
Jonathan’s drawing looked something between a smudge and a blob. Catherine said, ‘that’s terrible, dear, really terrible’, and demonstrated the art of shading, applying pressure and disapplying it, so that shadows fell on the plumber’s thighs and knees. He erased bits here and there but it didn’t help. Teaching arthritic hands how to draw is like teaching a legless man how to play football. It doesn’t much help.
The sessions became a weekly event, something he looked forward to. They would break up the monotony of reading and counting birds in the hotel garden. Drawing soothed him and Catherine’s instruction acted as a kind of therapy. He entered a trance, an uninterrupted flow, where he was totally focused on the task at hand. It was something he missed from his professional life, when he wrote judgments before presenting at court. He would sit in his chambers for hours, playing with one word or another, analysing the arguments of queen’s counsel and his fellow justices, and reading aloud, listening to the pace and tenor of his words, building to the crux of his decision, until he was happy and everything made sense. He’d send the manuscript to his clerk for immediate transcription. And there it was: his words, forever imprinted into law.
She asked him to dinner after one of her classes. He said yes and afterwards thought he should have said no. But secretly he was glad he said yes. He considered cancelling but didn’t cancel.
He wore a white flannel shirt and some chinos. They went to a fish restaurant.
‘Thank you for agreeing to come’, she said. ‘I know this must be hard for you’.
‘I’m comfortable now. It’s been a long time. She would be seventy-five today, actually’.
Catherine raised her glass. They toasted his dead wife.
‘You haven’t told me. How did it happen?’
‘Throat cancer. Much nastier than mine. It was slow and by the end she couldn’t speak’.
The waiter, as they often do, disturbed their silence. Jonathan was grateful this time because he didn’t like speaking about his wife. The waiter served slow-cooked tilapia with sun-dried tomatoes, tarragon and spicy crushed potatoes. They drank red wine from Italy. They finished a bottle and then ordered another.
‘You know so much about me’, she said. ‘Tell me something about you. What did you do? For a job?’
‘I was a lawyer by trade’.
‘Oh really? Solicitor or barrister?’
‘Neither. Well – word of a lie – I was a barrister, some time ago. But, for most of my career, I was a judge’.
Her glass touched her lips. She put it down.
‘You were a judge? I’ve known you all these weeks and you were a judge the whole time? Why didn’t you mention it?’
‘I didn’t think it worth mentioning’.
‘It’s always worth mentioning, Jonathan. You were a judge? Amazing. I believe you. Which division were you in?’
‘I did lots of things. But mainly criminal. Old Bailey cases. Crown Court cases. All sorts of things’.
‘I can’t believe I’m having dinner with a judge’. She hadn’t touched her tilapia. He drank some more wine. ‘When did you retire? Don’t they make you retire?’
‘They make you retire at seventy. But I didn’t retire. I left when I was fifty-seven’.
‘Why did you leave?’
‘Something went wrong. I made a mistake. I never told anyone but I knew I made a mistake and so I left’.
‘What was it? What was the mistake?’
‘I don’t want to say. You will think ill of me’.
‘I won’t. Nothing could do that. You can tell me’.
‘I haven’t told anyone before. Not my son nor my daughter. I didn’t even tell my wife’.
‘You can tell me Jonathan’. She leaned forward. ‘We met at a hotel. I don’t know anyone you know. This is safe’.
‘I don’t know if I can tell you. You will think ill of me’.
‘I won’t. I promise I won’t’.
So, he told her and when they finished talking the restaurant was empty and the waiter implored them for the bill because he wanted to go home. Jonathan told her about the man named Daniel Parker sentenced to twenty six years in Belmarsh Prison – Daniel Parker who the state declared innocent last month by way of Court of Appeal, after losing a quarter of his life – Daniel Parker, who received compensation – scanty, inadequate compensation – scarcely the waiter’s annual salary – on account of endemic failures within the justice system and the judiciary – endemic failures in the judge, who must have had other things on his mind, such was the inadequacy of his instruction, egging the jury this way and that – the judge who had personal circumstances and failed in his duty as a public servant – the judge who left this poor man to rot for nigh-on three decades and didn’t say anything because it was too embarrassing and it would take effort and commitment and heart.
‘That’s why I’m here’, he told Catherine. ‘I’m waiting for this man. I must speak to him. I must explain. I must apologise’.
They finished the bottle of wine. Kitchen staff, impatient for freedom, cleared the plates and cups and glasses, clattering and joking in the kitchen in a language Jonathan couldn’t understand. It wasn’t Portuguese. She paid and gave a big tip, praising the waiter and stroking the young man’s hand.
When he got back to his room and kissed Catherine goodbye, his head swam from all the alcohol. He drank two litres of water from a jug and wrapped fresh sheets about his legs, cocooned between soft linen and safe from the horrors of the past.
Jonathan didn’t get hangovers. It was an oddity of the ageing process – tired bones, hairless heads and atrophied muscles – that the advantages of early youth return and reassert themselves. He rose at seven and drank some orange juice from the mini bar. He went downstairs. He’d agreed to meet Catherine in for breakfast.
The lobby was busy. Cleaners, some of whom he recognised, washed the floor. A red throb blotched the carpet. He spoke to the manager and asked what all the fuss was about.
‘Someone cut their knee. A woman’.
‘Really?’ he said. ‘Is she ok?’
‘Oh yes, she’s fine. There was a lot of blood and there’s a nasty stain in the carpet. The sons won’t be happy’. The manager motioned to the portraits. ‘But she’s healthy, which is the main thing’.
‘Where is she?’
‘She left. Checked out. She had an early flight for Baltimore. Something about a life-drawing class – she’s got funding at a school over there. She was anxious because she thought she’d miss her flight. But she got away in time. Thank God’.
‘What did she look like?’
‘She had brown hair. Shoulder length. Streak of white’.
‘Thank God she’s ok’, he said, walking to the buffet and piling scrambled eggs on toast and scraping one of his slices with strawberry jam.
There was a starling in the garden. For once, his book couldn’t keep his attention. He found Dostoevsky’s subject matter – his stories – gripping, but his language was distant, vacant, lost in the modifications of his translator. It was like listening to a song in a foreign language without knowing the words.
The starling had an orange belly and purple-blue coverts descending into a black tail. It perched on a branch and bounced up and down, trilling and squawking. It looked like a lost prisoner – conditioned by extended incarceration – who’d somehow escaped and forgotten how to use the roads and pathways.
‘It’s a beautiful bird, don’t you think?’, said the gardener.
‘Oh yes. Tremendous belly. I’ve never seen a starling with such an orange belly’.
‘He likes this garden. He never leaves. He could fly away if he wanted but he doesn’t because he likes it here’.
Jonathan asked the gardener how long he’d been a gardener.
‘About two years. It’s a good job, really. They give me a lot of freedom. I don’t use weed killer or fertiliser. Flowers are prettier when they grow wild, you see’.
‘Yes, I can imagine’.
He passed him cowslips and purple crocuses. He asked Jonathan his name and Jonathan told him.
The gardener smiled. ‘I’m Daniel. Nice to meet you Jonathan’.
A small brown smudge flew across the sky and Daniel ran after it. His arms flailed when he ran like elastic bands flapping in the wind.
‘It’s a hummingbird hawkmoth’, he said, opening his palms to delicate, vibrating wings. ‘They’re really rare. A real treat’.
Jonathan passed admiration but thought it looked like any other moth.
‘Which book are you reading?’ Daniel said.
‘It’s called Crime and Punishment. It’s Russian. Way too long’.
Daniel’s face, upturned and gleeful, reminded Jonathan of a popular theory amongst his fellow judges. They claimed defendants couldn’t recognise judges without their court attire. Unrecognisable without robes, casting-hoods and horsehair wigs. It wasn’t surprising: this was, after all – Jonathan reminded them – the point. Wigs were designed to hide syphilis. You didn’t want everyone knowing you were a sexual deviant. It would undermine faith in the law and we didn’t need any more of that.
‘I’ve seen you reading. You read a lot, don’t you?’
‘A fair bit. It keeps me sane’.
Daniel asked him if he’d seen the garden. Jonathan said he’d like to. There were half-a-dozen bamboo shoots, fifteen feet long, and Daniel explained they were from China and specifically requested by the owner.
‘There was a woman with you? She had white in her hair. Dyed I think?’
‘She was nice. We chatted and I gave her flowers’.
‘Yes, she liked those’.
He grabbed bamboo. ‘Where is she now?’
‘She’s gone to Baltimore. There’s an art school there. She runs her own art company and they’ve offered her some finance’.
‘That’s good’, he said. ‘People should do what they want to do’.
Daniel pulled a trowel from his cargo trousers and turned over the soil, feeding seeds into the earth and pressing with his thick, tough hands. Jonathan waited patiently – thinking the least he could do was wait – but the gardener didn’t look up again, eventually standing up and brushing down his knees. Daniel twisted and tore delphiniums from the soil next to the bamboo and sighed, walking inside the glasshouse where there were black-and-white drawings and hand-made plant pots bathing under spring sunshine.