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Authors: Catherine Czerkawska

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BOOK: The Physic Garden
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My poor mother, however, was no Mistress Adams. She was so bemused by the sudden death of my father that she could say nothing but, ‘if you say so, son!’ which was certainly the wrong answer, because I knew as much about the business of being an apothecary as I knew about the subject of women, love and
marriage
in those days, and that was precious little. But then, we are all full of wild and unrealistic aspirations at that time of life. It would be a poor world if the young did not have their dreams. Anything seemed possible to me, and I was too foolish to realise that my mother was still stunned by her twin bereavements.

I mourned my father with a sorrow that frequently took me by surprise, took the breath from me. Sometimes when I was digging in the garden, I would fancy that he was standing just behind me. I would turn round, expecting to see him, and find nothing but empty air where he should have been.

‘Put your back into it, son,’ he would have said. I could almost hear him say it. Then the grief that dogged me would seize me by the throat, and I could feel the tears start behind my eyes.

I felt that the most fitting tribute to his memory would be for me to make the best of things for his widow and my brothers and sisters. Pursuing my dream of financial independence for all of us, I forged on with the apothecary plan. When a moneylender came
to our door, I let myself be persuaded into borrowing a sum of five pounds, to lay down as rent on the proposed apothecary shop, to fit it out and buy in some supplies. They have an uncanny ability to sniff out need, and this man had, no doubt, heard of my father’s untimely death.

‘Young man,’ he said. ‘You’ll not regret it. And I wish you every success with your new venture!’ he added, as he walked away, no doubt sniggering up his sleeve at my naivety.

It was not a clever move. I was very foolish. I thought I knew everything about life, but I had not the smallest measure of
wisdom
. Not at that time.

After the death of my father and my infant sister, I threw myself into the work that had killed him with renewed vigour, out of a sort of defiance against fate itself. I moved earth, cleaned out the Molendinar, took down the old stone bridge and did some work on the new one. There was rebuilding and planting up of the banks of the burn to be done with such plants as would spread and bring some stability. I hoped that if I could convince the authorities of my capabilities, then – although I was only eighteen years old – they might agree to make me gardener in his stead.

It was at about this time that Thomas Brown singled me out for his particular friendship. He had always been disposed to be kindly to me. I had begun to collect specimens for him during the
previous
spring and summer. But now I saw a very great deal of him as he walked about the gardens, even at times when the weather was particularly inclement. He didn’t seem to mind. There were days when, had I not been engaged on all kinds of renovations, hefting stones like a convict, I would most certainly have been indoors, toasting my toes beside the fire, but Thomas seemed impervious to cold, rain, sleet or even the occasional flurry of snow.

He was a very striking man. He would stride along with the air of having his head in the clouds. He had a rather stern face, which belied his essential good nature. He had curly hair,
which he tied back with a ribbon, and grey eyes that he
sometimes
felt the need to strengthen with a pair of round spectacles that sat somewhat incongruously on his nose. He was slender, but gave the impression of a certain vigour and capability. His hands, when you looked more closely at them, were something like the hands of a working man: strong and a wee thing
calloused
and freckled. He was nothing like most of the
professors
who would wander about the college gardens, deep in scholarly thoughts, as though they were not quite of this world. Nothing like the professor who had called me a perpetual motion machine, and excused me a beating because of it. There was a fey look about some of them. I thought they hardly even noticed me but it was not in the way the nabbery would
deliberately
ignore you because you were one of the lower orders. No, it was more that their minds were so wholly elsewhere that they saw nothing: not the young scholars who regularly created mayhem among the trees and flowers, not us gardeners who were always trying to curb their excesses without seeming to insult them, not even the sight of a pretty maid would have disturbed them in the middle of their cogitations. Except that Thomas Brown was nothing like that. You got the feeling that Thomas noticed everything.

He always passed the time of day with me and stopped to watch me working, but there came an afternoon when there was a woeful, thin sleet, borne on a snell wind which battered it into our frozen faces, and on that day, he watched for a while and passed a few
pleasantries
, and then he came up to me and offered me a silver flask.

‘Here,’ he said, holding it out to me.

‘What’s this?’

I squinted up at him, my face stinging, my eyes watering. It was such an extraordinary occurrence that I thought he wanted me to do something for him, that he was giving me orders of some kind. I didn’t realise at first that he was actually giving me his flask.

‘Drink it and see!’ he said.

I put the flask to my numb lips and swallowed. I remember the
intense shock of it to this very day. There was an explosion of peat smoke, spring water, seaweed and honeysuckle in my mouth – my first taste of a good whisky from the islands.

He grinned at me and nodded. ‘Go on. Take another swig. It’ll put a bit of life in you. Colour in your cheeks. You look so cold, William.’

‘That’s because I
am
cold. But this is very good.’

‘Oh I know.’

‘Where does it come from?’

‘Ask no questions and you’ll be told no lies.’ He sat down on a low wall, close beside where I was working in all the sleet,
huddled
his blue wool coat around him and took a swig from the flask himself. It struck me that he didn’t even wipe the bottle before he put it to his lips and that small gesture of complicity touched me.

‘Actually,’ he continued, ‘one of my students is island born. He comes from the Isle of Islay, out in the west, and he brings this elixir to Glasgow with him. To remind himself of home, I expect. He calls it the water of life. “Can I give you a wee sensation of the water of life, Doctor Brown?” he said to me, once. The next time he went home he brought me rather more than a sensation. Afterwards, I found out that the name of his house means the Place of the Still in his own highland tongue.’

Thomas Brown was so free and easy with me that it was
impossible
to feel embarrassed with him and yet it was not an everyday occurrence for one of the professors to be sitting on a wall
conversing
with a gardener and sharing a drink with him. No, it was not an everyday occurrence at all.

‘Tell me,’ he said. ‘William. I may call you William?’

‘Aye. That’s my name.’ In my surprise, I think I must have
spoken
brusquely, but he ignored my rudeness.

‘And you must call me Thomas. Will you do that?’

‘If that’s what you wish.’

‘I do. I was very sorry to hear about your father. You should have sent for me when he fell ill.’

‘I would have, but when he came to himself he would have none of it, and we didn’t dare disobey him.’

‘It must have been a great shock for you and your mother.’

‘It was a great shock for all of us. He was a good man.’

‘And a fine gardener.’

‘Aye, he was that too.’

He stood up briefly and held out his hand to me. I shook hands with him in return, aware that my own were very grimy, as they had been the first time we met, when I was a lad of sixteen. Once again, he didn’t appear to notice, or to mind if he did.

Then he offered me the flask again and when I had finished, he took another pull for himself. The spirit was coursing through my blood like a spell, warming my limbs, and making my head swim. I was not at all used to strong drink. My mother wouldn’t have it in the house for any save medicinal purposes. Perhaps it was the spirit which made me suddenly so free and easy with him, so
lacking
in my habitual diffidence.

‘A drop of that every day would banish the winter for sure,’ I told him. ‘And how are things with you, sir?’ I added, feeling that some politeness was expected of me.

‘Things are going very well indeed,’ he said.

I nodded. I knew all about him. The students loved him. I would hear them complaining and grumbling about this or that professor, but of Thomas Brown, after his last series of lectures, I had heard nought but good.

‘I think at least some of my success is down to you and your knowledge in the field,’ he continued. ‘Tell me, William, have they offered you the position of college gardener yet?’

I was surprised that he even knew of my situation.

‘No. Not yet. I’ve been working as hard as I can, completing all the work that my father started, but they haven’t made up their minds yet.’

‘Well they should. They won’t find another man here with such knowledge.’

‘I’m only completing what my father began, sir.’

‘Maybe I can write to them on your behalf.’

‘Would you do that?’

‘Aye. I don’t see why not. Though it would be better if I
persuaded
Jeffray to do it instead. He has far more influence than I do. I’ll see what he says.’

‘Thank-you, sir.’

‘Don’t
sir
me so much. Thomas. My name is Thomas just. And that’s what you must call me. But tell me, what would you do if you had a free hand here?’

I didn’t hesitate. ‘Plant more trees,’ I said. I stood upright and eased my aching back. The sleety rain had stopped and a blink of watery, winter sunlight was filtering into the garden. He smiled at me. He had a smile that would have raised the dead. Even, I think, Matthew Clydesdale.

‘Ah,’ he said. ‘A man after my own heart then?’

‘How come?’

‘A man who loves trees as much as I do.’ He swept his arm around about, encompassing the expanse of the college garden. ‘Not enough planting, Thomas. We could remedy that, between us. You and me. What would you say to placing a big order for trees? A grand new planting. Where would you go for them?’

‘McAslan and Austin,’ I said, without hesitation. They were nurserymen and the best in town. They knew their business. That was what my father had always said and he had been right.

‘Yes. I know them. My father – when he built the new house – he bought a fine selection of trees from them. And what would you buy, William?’

‘What would I buy? What would I
not
buy, given a free hand? A huge variety. New kinds of trees as well. I mean new for this garden. My father was a conventional man in many ways, as were they all, all those old gardeners. Limes, beeches, elms, poplars and thorns. He saw no further than that. They are fine trees in their way …’

‘But you would have it different?’

‘Oh yes. Those and more. I love trees. But I think I would purchase something that might grow more quickly, as well as all of those.’

‘Such as?’

‘Flowering cherries for the springtime, maybe the guilderose as well and larches.’

‘Oh aye, there would have to be larches. Are you fond of larches, William?’

‘I love the larch and the way it moves! The way it sways and the beauty of it even in the winter. And the shapes it makes in the sky.’

‘It seems you are a poet when it comes to trees, William!’ He was looking at me with a hint of a smile at my enthusiasm, but I could see that he was not mocking me, although I could not read his expression. ‘And what more?’ he asked.

‘Weeping willows and hollies. I think we need more hollies here.’

‘But they are not swift growing.’

‘No. But the birds are glad of them in winter. And besides, they brighten the place up at a dreich time of year.’

‘Ah!’ he nodded, understanding. ‘And you don’t mind the birds taking shelter in the garden, William?’

‘No. They rid the place of so many unwanted visitors, slugs and snails and the like, that I rather think they should be
encouraged
. It was my father’s opinion too, although there were many who disagreed with him.’

‘Go on. What else? Have you anything more exotic in mind?’

‘Why yes. I would plant dogwood, the service tree, and the
turkey
oak. But there are other trees and shrubs from the Americas which I have seen in the nursery at McAslan and Austin. Trees to make your mouth water. The wayfaring tree that some call the
hobblebush
is so beautiful. And the sugar maple and the cockspur thorn.’

‘You know your trees it seems. And all their magical names.’

‘I know my plants too, but I love trees best of all growing things. Especially those that we know will long outlast us. I like the idea of living things that were here for many hundreds of years before us and will be here for many hundreds of years after.’

It has often been my thought that there is a kind of immortality in the planting of trees, and I may have had an inkling of that sort
even then, although I couldn’t have put it into so many words for him on that day.

He drew out the flask again and we took another dram, the two of us. There were three professors walking by, deep in
conversation
, three corbies all dressed in black, and they cast a suspicious, sideways glance at us but Thomas ignored them. Who could blame them for their curiosity? It was an uncommon sight, not just that a professor and a gardener should be speaking together on equal terms but that they should be sharing a nip of whisky from a flask. That was unheard of.

He said, ‘There is a yew, at Fortingall near Aberfeldy. I have seen it, William, and it is – to me, at any rate – one of the great wonders of the world. It is as old, they say, as Jesus Christ himself, and it looks it too. They have propped it up, much as one must support a venerable old man. And there are limbs on it that seem more stone than bark. More petrified than living tissue. I was never so taken with anything in my life. I could only think what memories must lie buried deep within every tiny part of it, if one could only find a way of accessing them, but perhaps in doing so one would only kill the tree and that would be unthinkable.’

‘Aye it would.’

‘I should like for you to see it some day. I think you would feel the same.’

‘I think I would.’

* * *

I have never yet seen that tree, although I have seen two of them in the gardens of Kelburn Castle, down in Ayrshire, which are said to be very old. But not as ancient as the Fortingall Yew. In fact, this is the first time I have thought about it in many a long year. It occurs to me to wonder if – old and venerable as I am myself, a living fossil of times past – I might yet be able to make the journey north and view it. It would be a difficult journey to be sure, but I am still fit and well for my age, and one of my sons might be persuaded
to accompany me. I think it would be a pilgrimage of sorts, but would I be doing it for myself or for Thomas? I can’t say.

‘How many trees do you think it would take to renew this sorry place?’ Thomas asked.

‘The physic garden or the whole garden?’

‘Oh, the whole garden, for I fear the physic garden may already be beyond redemption! Don’t you agree with me?’

‘It may be so. Well then, it would need some twelve dozen of trees and flowering shrubs to make a difference. So much money. But it would make a difference you know. And I think the
professors
would be glad to see them.’

‘It would gladden my heart, certainly. I’ll tell you what, William,’ he said, getting to his feet, ‘Will you make out an order for McAslan and Austin? Can you do that?’

I thought he was asking me did I have the skill of writing again. I bridled with indignation and said, ‘Sir, of course. You know that I learned reading and writing when I was a lad. My father made sure of it. And when you give me a list of plants, do I not read it as well as any scholar?’

BOOK: The Physic Garden
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