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Authors: Kristina Carlson

Mr Darwin's Gardener

BOOK: Mr Darwin's Gardener
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MEIKE ZIERVOGEL
PEIRENE PRESS

This is Peirene's most poetic book yet. A tale of God, grief and talking chickens. Like Dylan Thomas in
Under Milk Wood
, Carlson evokes the voices of an entire village, and, through them, the spirit of the age. This is no page-turner, but a story to be inhabited, to be savoured slowly.

 

 

Should not the multitude of words be answered?

and should a man full of talk be justified?

…

For vain man would be wise,

though man be born like a wild ass's colt.

Zophar Speaks to Job,
JOB
11:2, 11:12

Edwin lopes along the road, picking his nose.

Jackdaws caw in the steeple:

grey morning! grey day! grey village! grey people!

the man's loping! like a dog! big dog! heavy paws! long muzzle!

the woman's flinging grain! to the chickens! the chickens, chickens, chickens! destined for the pot!

ha ha! ha ha!

sparrows! bells in the bushes! the big bells will soon ring out!

hark! hark! in! out! in! out!

into the church and back again!

 

Hannah Hamilton looks out of the window.

Thomas Davies is walking past. A big man, shoulders stooped, head bowed, he stares at mud and puddles.

Coffee scalds the roof of my mouth. No need to go to church. Being old, I am spared all that. No one asks for my views on God, and as for what He thinks of me: not an inkling.

The way Thomas walks, he cannot see beyond his toes. He looks at the right shoe and then at the left shoe. One is always in front of the other. Just walk and you will know which is right, right or left.

In my wheelchair I roll easily to the stove. No need to dwell on rightness. Sarah takes great pains to make sure that curtains and cushions and ornaments are
comme il faut
. She says
commilfoh
. Sarah offers me comfort merely because I am old, ah and oh, and then her look drills a hole in my head as if to make it leak what she thirsts to know. She is terribly nosy.

Shoo, shoo! Off the table, mog! Being a cat, it pays no heed, of course.

Thomas Davies strides along the road. I feel sorry for him because his wife died and the children are not quite right. I can guess what he is mulling over. You can see the heaviness of his head in the way he carries himself.

He is thinking of death.

Perhaps he plans to take the children with him. Then there would be no one left behind to grieve.

I know that death is not what a suicide really wants; in fact, he wants his old life back. But you cannot reverse time as if it were a horse. As I grow older and older, I begin to forget things. Evil deeds disappear, and the good ones fade after five minutes.

Sarah is adjusting her bonnet, umbrella, hair and
expression
to make them fit for church. With advancing years, she has started leading even God by the nose. Before, she did not care twopence for Him; now, if she is beating a feather duvet and five bits of fluff fly into the air, she fancies the heavenly troops are on the march. As long as the service lasts, I shall have peace, thank the Lord. No sign now of anyone on the road.

 

Jennifer Kenny is folding clean sheets on the kitchen table, even though it is Sunday. She looks out of the window. Thomas Davies, the gardener whose wife died, strides along
the road. I took soup and bread to the house of mourning but he merely stared darkly and grunted something – not even a dog would have understood. I do not know what the wife died of. A dark, taciturn woman, she went before her time. I use all available weapons in my fight against unfair death, from clean balls of cotton wool and iodine and suture and Beecham's Pills to onion milk, chicken soup and sugared tea. I often lose, though. As a last resort, one must open the windows and get some fresh air – when someone reaches the corpse stage, for instance.

I shake the bottle and sprinkle lavender water on to the fabric. I roll the sheets up tight, I put the iron on the stove to heat, I go to the window. It is drizzling outside and there is no one to be seen on the road.

The hot iron hisses on the white fabric. Godlessness does not evaporate in church; rather, it thickens when there is a crowd.

 

Chickens cluck in Bailey's yard:

jack-daws rabb-le grey-coats think they are bet-ter than ver-ger and vic-ar when the bell tolls the who-ole crowd dis-per-ses all souls burst out soot fla-kes.

 

Sparrows in the holm oak chirp:

he-heaven and ear-earth belong to the li-little ones the li-little ones will see Go-god who is hi-hidden from the gre-great ones small be-bells ti-tinkle in the ear from
mor-morning
till eve-evening he who has e-ears let him li-listen but tho-those who bl-blow their own trum-trumpets like
ja-jackdaws
and chi-chickens do not he-hear tweet-twit-tweet.

 

Thomas Davies walks to Down House even though it is Sunday. He is Mr Darwin's gardener. Mr Darwin is a
famous personage who receives visitors from London and all over the world.

Nothing will grow in the shade of a dense old spruce. But Mr Darwin is a tree that spreads light, Thomas Davies thinks. A wheelbarrow lies overturned on the lawn. Thomas lifts it up by the handles and pushes it to the holm-oak hedge. A thrush, wings folded, lies on the ground there. Thomas bends down and lifts the bird on to his palm but he feels only his own pulse. The speckled head hangs, beak ajar, on bloodied fibres. The bird is dead, though the feathered body is still warm. Thomas guesses that the thrush was prey to the young ginger tom. The cat does not eat birds, it just practises killing.

The air smells of soil, rotting leaves and smoke. Low pressure makes the smoke from the house's chimneys glide along the roof. In the grey light, cabbage and lettuce heads glow green. Thomas does not work on Sundays, but where would he rather go? Home is stifling, though he does love the children. He walks along the road and on the hills and in the garden quite as if he were able to stride faster than thoughts. You can forget the need to live if there is something else to do.

A shadow flits across one of the dark windowpanes of Down House and Thomas is startled. He straightens up, shoves his hands into his pockets and strolls to the back gate. Herbs and cabbages grow in a bed where Mr Darwin once cultivated yellow toadflax. The villagers thought it was a mere weed, and of course dahlias and asters are more beautiful, though the nature of beauty is mysterious. By the footpath grow hazel, alders, elms, birches, hornbeams, privet, dogwood and holm oak. Mr Darwin had them planted decades ago. Thomas turns and wanders across the meadow. When the heels of his boots
sink into the wet earth, the smell of mould wafts out of the long flattened grass.

Thomas stops on the gentle slope of a hill. Big, heavy raindrops fall. He lifts his face and stretches his arms straight out. Water drips from the brim of his hat on to his neck and in through his coat collar. He grimaces; he neither laughs nor cries. He remembers Gwyn's face. Before her death, her features shrivelled up, small, yellow and wrinkled. Thomas stands on the slope, his mouth open, but his cry rings out only in his head: Let me out! Help! He gulps, coughs, shakes himself. Drops fly off the woollen cloth in all directions. Shut up! Have some sense! The bells of St Mary's Church ring. You can seek help from heaven, because it is the only place with no people. Raindrops keep falling. Each drop carries the sound of the bells, and the soil sucks in the echo.

The congregation sits in pews and the jackdaws caw in the steeple.

We smell of wet dog. The rain drenched us. We are cold but singing warms us. The hymn rises up to the roof. God lives above the roof, amen.

We saw Thomas Davies on the hill. He works in Mr Darwin's garden.

An atheist and a lunatic, he stood alone in the field, water whipping his face.

A godless pit pony wandering in the dark, he hails from Wales.

Does the heathen think he can avoid getting wet outside? Did the Devil give him an umbrella, or bat's wings?

Perhaps Thomas imagines he can control the rain. He thinks he is higher than God. He has his head in the clouds.

The hard church pew is not easy on the bum. If you are poor, you don't get to be fat; there are no fat and lean years but merely lean ones. Lean are a poor man's sheep and cows, and his children, too. But a rich man grows weeds for his amusement, as did Mr Darwin, who earned money and fame!

Weeds are the stuff of parables, as in the Bible. God had a hell of a job weeding out rushes, thistles and couch grass. And shrines set up by pagans in honour of false gods.

Now the name of godlessness is science.

The Lord destroyed the shrines. We believe that He still walks the fields of infidels and decimates weeds with a glowing sickle before they shed their seeds all over the world.

Science and Wisdom indeed. They are blurring what has been crystal clear since the Day of Creation,

light above waters, his might and power and glory, amen.

When we pray, we clasp our hands together. We join the two sides of our being. Between our palms there is a roof for God even if we are not in church.

We pity Thomas Davies for perhaps catching his death in the rain,

pity is a thread of heaven's mercy in a human,

for all God's creatures have hearts on the left side of their breasts, though I am not sure about fish and snakes and lizards. Thomas's wife died, and the daughter, now eleven, was not right from birth, and the son, aged six, is small and frail and strange and no good at fighting.

We took soup and bread and succour to Thomas when Gwyneth died three years ago, but Thomas had smashed up his wife's bed with an axe. He was burning timber and clothes in the yard of the house. The bonfire spat out sparks and acrid smoke. The children were sooty-faced, and the little boy was stoking the fire with a branch.

When a man sets up new false gods for himself such as Science and the Doctrine of Evolution, he mocks our Lord, Creator of everything, and so he is punished,

we must warn our fellow men of the rocks of sin, and shine more brightly than the lamps of the wise virgins.

Like the Eddystone Lighthouse.

Thomas rejected our help, grimacing and laughing. The smoke made us cough and we ran away. The freshly baked wheat loaf fell out of the cloth and rolled into the
ditch; and when we drank tea and spoke about the Word and the bread of life, we found many verses on the matter, for Christ is the bread of life.

Though we did feel like laughing when we saw a loaf weighing several pounds roll into the ditch, like a wheel come off a cart.

The brightness of Jesus warns Christians of the rocks of sin.

But Davies's fire was a blasphemous satanic bonfire; and we have heard that in India a widow is burned alive with her husband's corpse.

And on many coasts, like the one between Rhossili and Port Eynon, false fires were lit to lead ships astray in the dark. That is like a parable for Davies's case.

Still we marvel, because the village women say the bed was solid oak and beautifully crafted, worth who knows how many guineas. And a fire burned out in the open will not even warm a bedchamber.

 

We look after idiots when they know themselves to be idiots, such as Edwin, who bellows and dribbles. But what can we do with the madness of the big wide world, when it is disguised as wisdom? It is incurable.

Not even van Helmont's trick of immersing a patient's head in a tub of water for the duration of the Miserere can help.

A papist trick, perhaps, but who knows, maybe effective.

The sacrifices of God

are a broken spirit:

a broken and a contrite heart,

O God, thou wilt not despise.

But excessive cleverness that turns into lunacy flies in the face of God.

And the smoke of the gardener's bonfire crawled along the earth like the smoke of Cain's sacrificial fire.

A man should not fawn upon those greater than himself, although we do want to stay on good terms with everyone and keep village life harmonious.

Mr Darwin himself is, after all, a mild and pleasant gentleman who has travelled round the world and written fat books, and he is familiar with lords and famous Londoners and foreigners, although I do not recall their names.

And he has a shower in the bathroom of his house; water comes out of it at the turn of a tap, as if out of a watering can.

The family has many children, too, although Mary Eleanor died while still a babe in arms, Charles Waring before the age of two and Anne Elizabeth at the age of ten. The death of the children was no doubt a source of great sorrow to Mr Darwin; and that is a grief many of us have had to bear.

He is on good terms with our vicar, Innes.

But his books lend support to those who want to deny the existence of God. Thomas Davies is bound to be one of them, amen.

 

It is freezing. Our legs are numb, we have cramp in our thighs. The church is cold even in hot weather. There is a stench at the best of times. And now it is November, and raining. Wet clothes and breath. Although I am not a papist, I can see incense has its advantages; it covers more secular smells.

We have had rain after the hot spell; the blood of our Lord Jesus Christ has been shed for our sakes. Too much rain at the wrong time, though – the hay is going mouldy.

We know that a tomato will not grow into a potato even if it has been planted in a potato field. But if a tomato does not have enough humus and decent manure, it will not grow big and sweet and juicy even during the best of summers. Everyone knows that, not least a gardener. Soil affects a plant.

And we think that Thomas Davies has ended up in the wrong patch because he is not able to
understand
Mr Darwin's writings properly. They have had no impact whatsoever on us ordinary members of the congregation.

We are not bad people. We are not perfect either.

We love our families and houses and jobs and land and the Queen, God bless her.

Her husband died ages ago and she was not allowed to go to the funeral, even though she is the monarch. In matters of the heart she is presumably like other women, unable to control her weeping.

We do not always love God, but we do still fear Him. We fear the vengeance of God, and that of masters and owners. Sickness poverty madness and death.

Man withers without love.

None of us wants anything bad to happen to our own children, although it often does. And if a child dies it is God's will, but if a child is sick in body or soul it is a terrible punishment, perhaps worse than death.

I wonder what crime Thomas Davies committed that he suffers in this life.

Is God's forgiveness not large enough to embrace an atheist and his son – not God's son, that is, but Thomas's – given the daughter has been defective since birth, and will never reach adulthood? Her body will develop, but her mind and reason will remain childlike.

John Davies fell over in the school playground one day, and there was quarrelling and bawling and fighting. Beth said that the Other Bailey's son William had pushed him on purpose. William said he had not touched him, not at all. John said nothing. But why would a six-year-old fall over in a playground with no stones or tree stumps?

I don't understand turning the other cheek. If you don't stand up for yourself you have only yourself to blame.

I feel sorry for the skinny little boy.

A godless person lacks a soul, like a grasshopper or a water snake.

If Thomas had been able to stay on at school, would he have become a minister or a doctor? If the money had not run out when his father died in the accident in Merthyr Tydfil? The company paid compensation, but not enough, and so life never got off to a proper start.

Or maybe it was lack of faith that led him to study horticulture before getting married and moving to our village.

I suppose God does not sort through children. If their parents were weighed up, how many healthy, sane ones would be found in this village?

The godless revolt, like the angel Lucifer, who plunged from the light into a dark mineshaft. And so a Christian hangs on to the handle of God's mercy; one day it will raise him up to the joy of heaven.

 

Who knows what that trunk will yield when the handle is raised and the lid opens? Whatever it is has most likely rotted with the warmth of its own goodness!

 

The verger opens the church doors. The smell shoots out: bean farts, rotten teeth, skin and hair and wet woollen
clothes. Poverty, mingled with the aromas of the swells: talcum, starch and eau de cologne. The smell of the service evaporates in the rain. Innes the vicar draws air into his lungs as he stops at the top of the steps to greet the church folk. God bless you.

A theologian keeps company with Saintliness,
Godliness
and Spirituality, but in a congregation a minister gets people, flesh and blood.

May the Lord be with my spirit, and my body, too.

The church is narrow and dark. Jackdaws fly in and out of the steeple. The top of the tower looks like a bishop's mitre.

Rosemary Rowe is close to tears. Let the clergyman say what he will: in church the soul heats up and thaws. Martha Bailey keeps nodding and smiling at Eileen Faine, though madam's face is as sour as an unemptied chamber pot.

Alice Faine gathers her skirts, walks slowly. Thoughts may fly, but let shoes stick to the road and a woman to her place. If only I were to hear the voice of God some day, and not always Mother's.

Don't laugh here, Harry Rowe says to himself. How like a turkey Eileen Faine contrives to look. The woman's haughtiness remains unbending, though her beauty withers in the mirror. Madam stretches her neck and tosses her head like a young girl, fingering the hair at her temples. She still tries to pluck admiring glances like flowers, but her basket remains empty. The urge to laugh goes, the fancy for a beer takes its place.

I'm a good Christian and I say flesh is flesh and blood is blood. They do not change into anything else, however many times a bell tinkles in the Pope's church. Like when I sell steak and knuckles and bacon and ham: flesh is flesh and blood is blood.

Mr Faine said transubstantiation in a butcher's shop would be a strange thing indeed.

Good day, good day, damnably wet! Stuart Wilkes raises his hat. The spirit cannot heat a church! I saw a picture of a church heater in the paper: a big iron dustbin, looked like, with pipes extending out to the walls. This was in a wooden church in the north, where the temperature drops to below zero. But here, conservatism is as deeply embedded as a splinter in a thumb. The church is horrified by the thought that it is redundant in the great renovation of mankind, which sees the hereafter being built into the here and now. No need to seek the way and the truth when one is building railways and consuming electricity, which, like the spirit, is invisible.

Good day, God bless!

Henry Faine takes his wife's arm. If I die before Eileen, she will wear black for one year and one month as a widow; and then, in half-mourning, grey, lavender and mauve. She will find complete comfort in buying fabrics, employing a seamstress, undergoing fittings and looking in the mirror.

Harrison, the poor, skinny horseman, is freezing in his thin coat. The soul fails to rise, like a soufflé with
insufficient
egg. The Communion does not fill the stomach. The spirit, in a body, is nothing but a whistle into the mouth of an empty bottle.

Padded Farmer Marchand says to Henry Faine that the matter of the talent is well put in the Bible. The story applies to any business, for nobody buries money in the ground, though Prodigal Sons cry for pottage, having first buried the talents in the soil and then sold the land for a song.

The smith says to James Bailey: Let's buy plump Buddha statues in all sizes, from tiny to massive, made of brass
and silver and gold; modest ones for humble abodes and jewel-encrusted ones for manor houses and castles. Or let's buy savage gods from India with lots of hands. We'll import various sizes of them, too, and for different tastes. They'll sell well and be good for decorating mantelpieces.

People are tired of crucifixes; a new fashion is called for.

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