Authors: Catherine Czerkawska
“A powerful story about love and obligation… a persuasive novel, very well written.” J
“Moving, poetic and quietly provocative.”
“Heart-warming, realistic and page-turning.” L
“Beautiful – lyrical and sensual by turns.” H
‘A compelling read, with a satisfying blend of history, nature and romance.’ A
‘Wuthering Heights in modern dress… an involving, beautifully written book.’ S
‘It’s not just a cracking read, it’s a genuinely powerful one, and … a great love story.’ D
‘A heart-stirring and heartening novel that explores the possibility of healing and moving forward, that celebrates second chances and rejects second best.’ H
RICE OF A
‘Czerkawska’s script is blisteringly eloquent. She is particularly brilliant on gentrification and the heritage industry’ J
‘This is not just a good novel. This, I contend, is a great novel. It is a beautiful, elegant, at times elegiac, expression and exploration of betrayal. C
In loving memory of Julian Czerkawski
for Alan, with love
‘The gard’ners year is a circle as their labour, never at an end.’
The Scots Gard’ner
, John Reid, 1683
Bookes (Courteous Reader) may rightly be compared to Gardens; wherein, let the painfull Gardiner expresse neuer so much care and diligent
; yet among the very fairest, sweetest, and freshest Flowers, as also Plants of most precious Vertue; ill fauoring and stinking Weeds, fit for no vse but the fire or mucke-hill, will spring and sprout up. So fareth it with Bookes of the very best quality, let the Author bee neuer so indulgent, and the Printer vigilant: yet both may misse their ayme, by the escape of Errors and Mistakes, either in sense or matter. If then the best Bookes cannot be free from this common infirmity; blame not this, of farre lighter argument, wherein thy courtesie may helpe vs both.’
Florio’s translation of Boccaccio’s
The first time I saw Jenny Caddas, she was taking a swarm of bees. It was late June of 1802 and I remember that it was warm, which is not always the case at that time of year in Scotland. Sometimes the frost can still nip your nose and your freshly planted seedlings even on a June morning. But not that day. That day the sun beat down on my unprotected head. I had come away without my hat, so anxious was I to be out of the town, away from the college. The bees hung in a small tree, a dark, dense shadow, a single mind, full of their own narrow purpose. You could hear them. You could almost feel them like a vibration in the air. She had the skep in one hand and a short-handled brush in the other, and she was
them, fearlessly, without veil or gloves, while her wee sister looked on from the cottage door with her thumb in her mouth and a doll that was nothing more than a moppet, a vaguely
bundle of rags, clutched in her other hand.
‘Will I help you?’ I called, on impulse, and she turned,
from the work by my voice, but her head still inclining towards the drowsy swarm. They mustn’t be allowed to escape. But you never knew when they would fly, suddenly purposeful, heading towards their new home.
‘They send out scouts,’ my father had once told me. ‘Looking for a suitable place. You have to take them before the scouts come back. Before they know where they’re going.’
The lass looked me up and down, assessing me swiftly, and nodded. ‘Alright then,’ she said, so I put my bag down in the long grass at her gate and went forward, although it was my father who had always taken the bees when I was a lad, and – as he was fond of commenting – I myself who had eaten the honey. But I must have observed him as closely in this as in everything else because, although I was feart of the stings, it came easily enough to me, and I was stung only the once. Besides, she knew what she was doing, and I did as I was told, which was to slice off the branch, gently and carefully, with the knife I always carried for taking cuttings or sawing through difficult roots. The swarm was too intent on their queen so that in a moment, before they knew what was happening to them, they were imprisoned in the basket, and she was
the remainder after them, which they didn’t seem to mind at all. Then she swatted a few stragglers away from her face, shaking her head, and her hair flew out in flaxen strands. She was a pretty enough lass of about my own age, but – and I distinctly remember thinking this as well – her hair was a marvel.
She sorted the bees first, introducing them to their new home, talking to them, settling them with her voice, which was low and musical when she spoke to them, and then she came back to me.
‘Were you stung?’ she asked briskly. Not so low, nor so
. It was plain to me that she was more fond of the bees than of lads like myself.
‘Only my finger.’ I was sucking at my hand, tasting the salt of my own sweat on it. Bee stings are sore, though, and I could feel it spreading up through my arm, a wave of poison in my blood.
‘Come in,’ she said ‘I have something will sort that.’
She shooed her sister away like somebody shooing a hen, and the wean moved down the garden, skipping and hopping every few steps, but slowly, dreamily, engaged in some world of her own. It was always the way of it with that lassie, as dark and mild as her sister was fair and bold. Head in the clouds, Jenny would say, and it was true enough.
I went inside, into a room that was a kitchen and parlour all
in one, with a fire in the grate, a well-swept floor and a couple of larch chairs. There was a big spinning wheel – a walking wheel they call them, where you stand up and move back and forth with the yarn – and box beds in the wall with cheerful woollen
covering them, tucked in very tight and smooth. I can picture all this, even now, and the moon-faced clock, wagging friendly at the wall, its slow tick tock in the background, the simple wooden dresser with a row of spice drawers along the back and a few best blue and white plates and dishes standing on the top of it.
I remember it because it was so much like our own house, except that this was much neater and cleaner and there was the smell of grasses and green things about it, and that was what attracted me. It smelled like home only better. She had bunches of herbs and flowers from the garden hung about the room to dry. Some of them must have been there since the previous
while some were freshly picked. The astringent scent of them filled the place. There was lavender, catmint and callamint,
and pennyroyal, rosemary and yarrow, meadowsweet, ladies’ bedstraw and bitter wormwood and all kinds of other plants that I could name, all of them, and I daresay I could name them still if I took my time and gathered my thoughts and my memories about me.
She sat me down in a comfortable chair with a faded
cushion in it. Later, I found out it was her father’s special seat. Then she fetched vinegar on a clean rag and bathed the wound, which was getting angry now, for all that I had nipped out the sting with my teeth. Bees sacrifice themselves when they sting you, which perhaps explains why you are more likely to be stung by a wasp, which can sting and go on stinging, once, twice, thrice in the same place, than by the poor bee who does it only
. Then she brought down a pot of some dark brown
from the top of the big press in the corner and dabbed it on the wound. It smelled most fiercely of beeswax and she said it was of the bees’ own making, but it would take the fire out of all
, burns and stings and scalds alike, and she was right, because
it was wonderfully soothing, although it stained my skin yellow where she dabbed it on.
Then it was time for introductions, a little later than is
thought polite. She told me her name was Jenny Caddas and she lived with her father, Alexander, who was a weaver. There was a handloom in the weaving shop to one side of the cottage. That was where he worked, he and a lad called Gilbert whose job it was to wind the wool onto the pirns for him. A dreamer who was aye getting things into a fankle, she told me, scathingly. Alexander was away in town on business, collecting the raw materials for his trade, and he had taken the lad with him to do the fetching and carrying. Her mother was dead, so there was just herself and her wee sister, Anna, and the man of the house, Sandy Caddas. Gilbert lived nearby and came in to work for his master each day. I told her that my name was William Lang and I was a gardener.
‘Are you looking for work?’ she asked, obviously wondering what I was doing wandering the lanes in the warmth of a June afternoon, and at that I remembered my bag and leapt up to find it. It was still where I had left it, in the long grass outside her gate. She was curious to know what was in it, so I showed her all the specimens. They were much like the things she had drying in her own kitchen, but more of them: valerian, nightshade,
, scurvy grass, thistle and so on, wrapped up in damp linen to keep them fresh. I found that she could name them as well as myself. She knew the Scots, not the Latin names right enough, though she knew a few of those too, which surprised me
. I told her what I did and where I did it and who for, and I think she was impressed, because she must have thought me very young for such a position. I wanted her to know that I was not too young to be the college gardener in the great town of Glasgow.
I had a feeling of pride in myself and my own
but fleetingly wondered why it should matter what I said of myself when I was in the house of a country lass merely, and her opinions counted for nothing. I was, it has to be admitted, a wee thing brash back then. It also has to be said in her favour that she
ignored my presumption and treated me very kindly for a
stranger who had come into her kitchen and proceeded to brag about himself.
She gave me a drink of ale and a piece of oatcake with honey spread on it and then she called her sister.
‘Anna! You’d best have something to eat.’
The child came drifting in, still in her own world, but took the sticky bannock anyway and crammed most of it into her mouth, clutching the makeshift doll in her other hand while the crumbs fell to the floor. A daring hen – seeing them through the open door – took the chance of an unanticipated meal and pecked them up. Anna eyed the hen with pleasure, while she chewed the remainder. Jenny Caddas shooed the bird outside and then looked at me over the top of the wee one’s head, more mother than sister. She gave that broad smile she had, raising her eyebrows and
at me, and I saw the way her teeth were very white and her eyes lit up with the smile as well. The hair, the flaxen hair, was still a wonder to behold.
‘She is a trial to me,’ she observed. ‘For she has little interest in food, unless it be sweet and can just be held in her hand.’
‘She doesn’t look ill fed to me.’
‘Small thanks to anyone but her sister.’
Anna stared from one to the other of us, finished chewing her bannock and skipped off into the garden in pursuit of the hen.
Jenny Caddas refilled my cup. She seemed disposed to be friendly. Perhaps she was glad of the unexpected interruption to her day. She wore a plain, blue, Indian cotton dress, very much patched and mended, and I remember she had wrapped a good woven shawl around her shoulders, although the day was warm and it kept slipping down, but perhaps the shawl was meant to disguise the poverty of the dress. She told me later it was not her best, but her working dress. Her feet were bare and dusty. There were two patches of sweat under her arms, because she had been stalking the swarm and exerting herself. There was a faint scent of it off her, not unpleasant, just the scent of activity. And she said,
‘Well thank-you for all your help, kind sir.’
I asked her, did she ever get stung herself, not because I really wanted to know, but because – what with the ale and the honey and the sight of such a bonny lass – I didn’t want to have to walk out of the house. I didn’t want to get on with the work I had been sent to do, the work of collecting plant specimens for the students of botany, for the young gentlemen of the college. She said no, not very often, and when she did she hardly felt it.
‘Is that true?’
‘That’s the way of it, William.’ (How pleasant it was to hear her say my name like that!) ‘You either get worse, much worse, so that even a single sting will make you ill and might even kill you, or you get so much better that the stings are nothing at all, but like midgie bites just.’
‘Aye well, this one feels much worse than a midgie bite,’ I told her, holding out my poor, injured finger to her. It was throbbing away for all the tincture she had put on it.
She said, ‘What more can I do for it? Are you expecting a kiss? Like my wee sister?’ She smiled and blushed at what she had just said, and it was the bonniest thing to see.
She was one of those lassies who laughs often. She couldn’t seem to help making light of all kinds of things. She liked fine to please
. She looking at me with shining eyes, as though at that moment everything, myself included, was a cause for laughter. Which it was for her, then. It pains me still to think of it, how the whole world was a cause for laughter with her, and how maybe that very innocence played its part in the events that followed. She was not ignorant, you must understand that. Never ignorant. She had more knowledge of plants and the remedies that could be made from them than most of the young gentlemen for whom I had been sent to gather specimens. Women generally did; it was the auld wives who knew about plants and their health-giving properties. But as for Jenny, there was an innocence about her, as though she aye expected the best of people. A lack of suspicion. I see the same thing in my grand-daughter, and it would break your heart, so it would.
I was twenty and I thought I had never seen such a fine lassie in all my born days. When I think about it now, more than fifty years later, I would say that she was still the loveliest thing I ever laid eyes on, worn gown and all, and that thought sits heavily on my heart, like a pain in my chest, like a pain deep inside me. I should not have begun with Jenny you see. I should not have begun there. I should have started the tale elsewhere and earlier. But I wanted to write about her, the way you want to talk about what you love. Loved. I wanted to bring her to life in words the way I would once have made seeds, bulbs, roots and tubers grow into plants, the way a few green shoots could grow and stretch out and blossom, the way affection grows and blossoms, although you never see it happening, no matter how closely you try to follow the
All the same, I should have started the tale earlier. Perhaps I should have begun by telling you about my father, Robert Lang, who had been college gardener for many years, since I was just a lad. Or with myself, who loved green and growing things even as a boy. Or with Thomas Brown, who had come to teach botany at the college, a few years before I met Jenny.
But I think that would have been the hardest beginning of all. So instead, here I am, telling you about Jenny Caddas and her swarm of bees, the way she smelled of sweat and honey, and how her hair flew about her head and caught the light, a tangle of flax in the sunshine.