54 - The Texan and the Gardener
The man sitting astride the tall, well groomed black stallion, its croup and quarters gleaming, said with a long Texas drawl, “why’d you cut your grass so much? Yo’always seem to be cutting your grass. Is it necessary?”
Thomas Dalton, a tall, strong, wispy man, his forearms sinewy like an old gnarled, twisted oak looked up from his push mower with a whimsical expression stencilled on his strongly structured features and replied, “it’s a strange thing you know. When I casually run my lawn mower over this stretch of turf it gets shorter as is witnessed by the deposit in the collection contraption.”
The Texan, looking every bit the western cowboy, was at shoulder height above the high Purbeck stone wall that fronted Thomas’s garden. A pristine white Stetson with silver band was pulled down shading his eyes from the blazing noon sun partially obscuring his face but Thomas could see the large Roman nose sitting in the centre of an impressive bone structure giving the suspicion that this was what many would call a proper man. The Texan released the reins from his right hand and twiddled the black onyx stallion Bolo slide that secured his white string tie under the collar of his grey, frill edged shirt. An action of habit signifying thought while he carefully replied, “that so. I can see your meaning. The stripes are impressive though I’m no expert on garden grass. I deal in Texas grass for dry range. No cutting required except by bovine teeth.”
The wall was high, an engineered retaining wall maybe nine feet above the narrow lane at this point. Behind the wall the land sloped steeply upwards in a series of terraces towards the summit of the hill overlooking a wide valley of meadows and woodland to the sea. Almost level with the top of the wall was the small section of lawn being tended.
Thomas stopped mowing, slowly pushed his long wavy blond hair from his face and, feeling a strange affinity for such a curious character, walked over to the low stone capped parapet some two feet above the lawn - just enough height to provide protection from misadventure. He lifted his foot, placed an ancient worn leather boot on a capping stone with his chin resting on the closed knuckles of his hand, his elbow on his bent knee and looked down the couple of feet into the upturned face. “It’s the Webb’s Witch. Six whirling razor sharp blades does the trick. Neatly clips the grass and slings it in the front box all in one seamlessly efficient movement. A wonder of grass related technology. It was my Grandfather’s. His in 1930 and one of the first made. So I’m told. It’s been with the house ever since.”
“A Webb’s Witch eh. That’s a new one on me. Sounds kind of spooky but effective nonetheless. I do like the stripes. They add a degree of decadence. Your garden’s a doozy and no mistake. The colours and textures are astounding. I’m a fan of everything lush, green and beautiful. Comes from only seeing a dusty range. I ride by most days. Unlike the walking folk I get a panoramic view, a whole different perspective of the world. And your garden of course. I can see over the wall. My name’s Delany Ricks and I live down yonder in the cream coloured cottage. Most just call me Ricks.”
Thomas stood up straight and stretched his back with a slight arching, flexing his shoulders before resuming his favourite talking to people over the wall position. “Get this kind of dull ache after a bit of work. The back needs a good shaking out now and then. Essential to ease the discomfort. I’ve seen you passing of course. You’re quite hard to miss with the striking picture you make. That cottage, well it’s quite a large house really, belonged to old Fanny White. Been there for years. I assume you acquired it recently when she moved on to a smaller place.”
“Yup. She’s a sweet old biddy and no mistake. Would like a look see round your yard sometime if that’ll suit.”
“Come in now if you want. You can park your friend there.Tie him to the iron gate. He’ll reach the verge grass from there.”
Ricks gripped the rope-burned horn of a work-worn western saddle and dismounted. His equally distressed, hand-tooled, silver tipped, McCreedy and Schreiber boots with faded Levi jeans tucked in completed a scene incongruous within an idyllic English setting.
The six foot tall cast iron gate with intricately detailed design opened to reveal a flight of weathered stone steps leading to a raised terrace sandwiched between the open French doors of a large imposing sitting room surrounded by the scarlet flowers of an in-bloom Campsis trumpet vine and the small section of lawn with Thomas smiling a welcome.
“Thomas Dalton but people around here just call me Tom. Gardener Tom to be precise. Easily distinguished from three other Toms in the village.” And, holding out his hand, “nice to meet you Ricks.”
Ricks, as accustomed with Texas manners, removed his hat releasing his long wavy blond hair then, taking the outstretched hand in a firm grip, said, “so, this is a big old lump of real estate you have here. Seems all neat and tidily laid out. I can see it all disappearing up the hill to that piece of woodland.”
Tom, always keen to extol the virtues of his garden especially to such a keen outsider, eagerly replied, “there are five levels each with a small lawn area, terraces and flower beds. The formal garden that you see extends up to the woodland and over there to the summer house where that gate leads into a wild garden and up into the trees and rhododendron walks. The woods thin out towards the top giving a magnificent panorama.”
“A heap of work has gone into construction with all the paths, steps and those small walls. That front wall must have been a massive undertaking to hold back all this hillside.”
“My grandfather laid this out in the 1920’s. Bought a small, old cottage. That bit. Built in the 1500’s and wrapped around all the extra parts. He was a “gay young thing” roared his way through the twenties with free abandonment. Tall, strong with long, wavy blond hair, a trait within our family and a personality to wilt the ladies by all accounts. Came from a “moneyed” family and inherited a pile at a young age. Spent most of it building this place and on endless parties. Created rumours and legends that still fuel local imagination.”
Walking over the lawn and up five wide stone steps with Mexican fleabane daisies growing profusely in the joints, to another small section of grass and a spring fed lilly pond the pink and white flowers setting off the dark green pads. Gold and white carp adding movement and colour.
“There’s an aquifer at the top of the hill formed within an old flint quarry feeding springs that appear randomly over the hillside. This pond is fed via a smaller one on the next level where spring water accumulates. An overflow pipe directs water down here. You’ll notice the walls are all built with flint. The hillside is full of it. There are wells that tap the aquifer. They are always full and refill quickly as water is used. One supplied the house until mains water was connected and one used for watering the garden, both wide and at least thirty feet deep. The garden was my grandfather’s passion. He immersed himself in it when he was not unabashedly enjoying life of course. All the large trees and shrubs date back to that time. My father carried on the task and I followed, of course.”
Thomas stooped to remove some debris from the pond while Ricks walked up the next set of steps and was standing on a wide terrace situated slightly below a main pathway dissecting the width of the garden.
“This is a smart spot,” he said, “with that large section of flat lawn below.”
“That’s where the jazz band played. All the parties were outside in the summer. Lunchtime until late evening and very raucous drunken affairs. I’ve photos showing scenes of the band in full swing and the guests, on the lawn there, the flappers wearing their short, flamboyant dresses dancing with the guys, their dress shirt sleeves rolled up, garish bow ties and baggy trousers. A cap. Some are wearing a newsboy’s cap. And a waistcoat. It all looks outrageous. The pictures are so professional that the place seems alive. To be there must have been spectacular. And the drink. Champagne everywhere and the cocktails.... Waiters strolling around filling glasses and trays of food. It’s all there to be seen. I’ll show you. My grandfather certainly knew how to live.”
Ricks said, “Sounds just like my kind of thing. Looks like the garden was built for it. Ever wonder ‘bout that?”
“I’m sure it was. My grandfather probably designed this part of the garden with that in mind. This terrace is like a stage. The photos I have span a few years. The band is the same though. Definitely a recurring theme. There’s about ten of them. All the usual components with a Bix Beiderbecke type of cornet player out front with a girl. Slim, young and beautiful. A singer with a ukulele. They were American. Came over to tour Europe but got obsessed with the London scene playing hotels and nightclubs but coming here for all those special occasions.”
“Why would they keep coming here?”
“I think my grandmother knew the singer but also there was a liaison between her and my grandfather. I’m not sure when my grandmother discovered this but she did and it didn't end well. The house has passed down the generations along with all the stories so I know much of what went on.”
“That must be a great attribute. My past is hazy. I’m a lost soul searching for his roots. My mother passed when I was very young, following my grandmother into an early grave. I know virtually nothing about them other than what I’ve been able to glean from my father. When my mother died I was taken in by his family although he was mostly absent. I was brought up on a ranch, punching cows and chewing dust. All I have are two pictures. My mother dolled up standing next to a very dapper dude - my father. And then my mother with my grandmother with her shoulder length hair waving in the wind and blowing in her eyes. I’ve come here looking for clues. My grandmother was a singer and worked for a few years in England. My father specifically mentioned here, this house as being significant. It has notoriety. There must be a connection.”
While Ricks was speaking Tom was looking at him, studying him in detail and detecting a familiarity, an uncanny resemblance. “It must be difficult not knowing things that you yearn to understand. I’ll get the photo albums. You might be interested.”
While Tom walked down to the house Ricks strolled to the top of the garden, just below the start of the woodland, taking in the magnificent vista and admiring the vast collection of mature shrubs, perennials and specimen trees, visually balanced, a perfect structure of form and colour. It was evident this was a much loved and tended garden formed over time by the dedication of three generations of passionate gardeners. He stopped in the top corner standing next to a gently curved wooden bench and a raised, rusted iron manhole. He was pondering its function when Tom returned.
“Here’s the photographs. Sit here and we’ll go through them.”
Tom began flicking through the pages describing the scenes and pointing out his grandfather. When he came to the pictures of the jazz band Ricks said, “there, that’s my grandmother. The singer. That’s her I’m sure of it. She looks just like she does in the photo I have. It all fits. Except I don’t understand how I come into all this. Why did my grandmother return to The States? My mother was born a few months after her return so she must have been conceived here. What do you know about the singer?”
“I know her name was Daisy and she came here regularly with the band of course. I think my grandmother might have met her, seen her performing perhaps and booked her band for their grand opening party. I also know she was the cause of a spectacular argument one night after a party had broken up. The day had been warm and sunny but early evening the weather turned and it started to rain. The party prematurely ended. My grandmother went to the house but my grandfather was not there so she went searching for him. She might have been suspicious. It was twilight with torrential rain but she found him. In the summer house. There was enough light for her to see him, well his silhouette, through the windows. He was with her, Daisy, and they were... well you know. My grandmother left and confronted him much later. When they were alone. There was a tremendous row.”
Ricks was fiddling with his bolo slide, thinking out loud, “Daisy is my grandmother I’m certain of that. Seemingly involved with your grandfather. Was your grandfather… What do you think? Are we related? What would we be? Cousins or something?”
“I suppose we might be. I think my grandfather and Daisy must have been lovers for quite a time. And I seem to remember there was talk of other questions. Things that made the situation worse. I had always thought it was because my grandmother had an affection for Daisy but it could have been because Daisy was expecting your mother and my grandmother had somehow found out.”
“What became of your grandmother?”
“Well that’s the thing. There was a blazing row and the story goes my grandmother stormed out. Left home never to be seen again. It was of course a scandal, all around the village and has been the source of local gossip for nearly a hundred years.”
“No one knew what became of her? Was that not suspicious?”
“I don’t really know. The circumstances are vague. I only know she was not seen again. She just disappeared, maybe back to her family wherever they were. I’m not sure. She may have had nobody. Who knows. I’ve never really known much about her. My father was brought up by my grandfather and all the stories are centred around him. Anyway nothing was said at the time so I assume there wasn’t anything sinister.”
They both were silent, deep in thought trying to understand the consequences of their conversation. They were sitting next to the manhole- the cover to a well, The thirty foot deep well that provided water for the garden during dry spells. The well that refilled quickly. That never emptied. That had never revealed what mysteries might lay secreted at the bottom, buried in the silt accumulation of nearly a century.