Authors: Catherine Czerkawska
Thomas had offered to pay me extra for my excursions into the countryside on his behalf but I was reluctant to take anything from him and he knew it. I think it was why he had suggested I attend his lectures. I was afraid of spoiling our friendship. We never felt like servant and master, but I had an inkling that if I allowed him to pay me, it would subtly alter something between us. Maybe I was wrong. Now that I have been in business for so many years, I can see that it is possible to have a good financial relationship with a man and yet be on friendly terms. But back then, it seemed that we were negotiating some precarious pathway, feeling our way into a friendship that was rare for both of us, and I wanted to do nothing to upset the balance between us.
That evening, with the sun slanting into the garden and my mind full of thoughts of Jenny, I watched Thomas lifting the plants, handling them carefully, sniffing here and there at some herb, rubbing a leaf between his fingers. I can close my eyes and I am back there. I am in my flesh as it was then, healthy and vigorous, with all my senses acutely aware and the blood of youth coursing through my veins.
In the distance, somebody was singing in a high, clear voice. It might have been a girl or a young lad, his voice unbroken. It was impossible to tell, but I remember a sudden awareness that the sound was immeasurably beautiful, enough to bring a tear to the eye. I think I was in that state of exhaustion that provokes
. Nearby, a few scholars were playing at a game of ball, laughing and calling to each other. The sounds seemed to echo off the old buildings in the warmth of the evening, making a canticle with the swallows that circled deliriously among the stones.
‘These are very good,’ he said. ‘But best put them away before they dry out. I wonder if we’ve got enough?’
‘To be honest with you, Doctor Brown,’ I said with emphasis, ‘I’ve lost count. And I’m very loath to go out again the day!’ I felt suddenly very tired but it was the thought of all I had to do, of all who relied on me, that exhausted me and not the walking I had
done that day. It was as much fatigue of the mind, I think, as the body. ‘How many students did you say?’
‘Thirty,’ he said, with a grin. ‘And I have no intention of
you out again the day. And I’ve told you before, my friends call me Thomas, Mr Lang.’
‘Aye, but what would Faculty say. The gardener
’ with the nabbery!’ Whisky always loosened my tongue. Afterwards I would look back on my own effrontery with
like shame, but it never seemed to bother him. He never seemed to think the worse of me for it.
‘Faculty wouldn’t approve,’ he said. ‘But what would Faculty know of plants or herbs and their uses?’
‘Or gardening for that matter!’
‘Which is why the professor is glad to have you lecturing in his stead. Otherwise he would have to make shift to do all this for himself.’
‘It’s true. Jeffray has no great love for botany.’
‘No, he’s a regular sawbones.’
Thomas regarded me narrowly. He already knew my feelings about dissection, the students and their professors who all seemed so ghoulishly attached to cutting up bodies in the name of science.
A necessary evil, Thomas called it, during our frequent debates on the subject. I remained unconvinced.
‘Each to his own,’ he said. ‘But they are never so glad of me that they will pay me. I get only what the students are prepared to give, you know.’
‘All teachers should be paid so!’
‘Then some of them would die in poverty.’
‘Much the same as the rest of us. But not you, I think. They would pay you readily enough. And besides, my heart bleeds for you.’ But I said that last under my breath. Sometimes, like now, when I was footsore and weary, I was possessed by rage at the
between us, at the fact that his idea of poverty was – for me at any rate – riches beyond the dreams of avarice. And because
I was relaxed and friendly with him, I felt at liberty to say so. Or almost.
‘What did you say?’
‘I said my heart fair bleeds for you!’
‘Ach, I’ll not quarrel with you!’
It was what he always said. He never would quarrel with me. Even at the bitter end of our friendship, I think he resolved that he would not quarrel with me.
‘Will you not?’
‘No. Not today or ever, William. But why are you so angry with me all of a sudden?’
‘I am not angry with you, but I was thinking that they should never have let the type foundry go ahead. And building it so close to the garden as well. And if Professor Jeffray was more interested in plants and less obsessed with anatomy …’
‘Printing must always take precedence over planting. In the college, at any rate.’
‘Aye, but if they are offering the young scholars botany lectures, they need plants. Thirty specimens of every plant on your syllabus? What do Faculty know of plants and their classification? What do they know of green and growing things, if it comes to that?’
‘That’s what I like about you, Will,’ he said. ‘Never let the uncertain truth get in the way of a good sound prejudice.’
He had taken to shortening my name sometimes, a gesture of familiarity and affection. I was ‘Will’ to nobody but him, not even my mother, nor ever have been since, not to a single soul.
‘What’s uncertain about it?’
‘The truth is that we probably need both. Gardens and books. And anatomy. We need that too. We dissect plants so why not the human body? Which is, after all, only another growing thing. Whiles, a very green and growing thing.’
I thought he was making mock of me, but gently, as was always his way.
I stared at him, thinking that we would never agree on this point. He was right, of course. I could see that. I can see it now. But
I could never feel it, in my heart, in my blood and bones, and that was the trouble. I repacked my bag and handed it over to him. He would store the plants in cool, damp conditions until his lecture, the following day, and give me back the bag for my next expedition.
I brushed the earth from my hands.
‘Aye, but which bodies?’ I asked. ‘Which bodies do you cut apart?’
‘Whichever you can get, I suppose,’ he said, light-heartedly.
I thought it best to change the subject then, too tired to think of further arguments, so I said only, ‘I helped a lassie take a swarm of bees today!’ Besides, Jenny had been on my mind. I wanted to talk about her, the way you do when you like somebody, and I thought that I should not mention her to my mother. Not yet.
‘Did you?’ he asked with interest. ‘And was she bonny?’
‘Well I thocht so. She was standing there with her skep and the swarm was, oh it was a muckle big swarm, hanging in the hedge like this great … you could hear it … like this creature, this living creature just hanging there. And she was tall and slender as a birk, barefoot and all. I cut the branch for her. It’s mair of a problem when they’re clustering on a fence post or at least that’s what she was telling me.’
‘I don’t think I’ve ever taken a swarm myself.’ He was really interested now, not just humouring me.
‘Have ye no? Well I expect you’ve aye got a body to do it for you. Some gardener or other!’
‘And how many swarms have you taken yourself, Will?’
He was determined to ignore my contrariness. Determined to keep his temper.
I started to laugh, in spite of myself. ‘None! And that’s the truth. My father used to do it, and I would watch him.’
‘Did you get stung today?’
‘Aye. Just the once.’ I held out my finger to him.
‘The lassie said that when she’s stung, it never even hurts her. She cannae feel it!’
interesting,’ he said.
‘It’s a blessing for her.’
‘But I mean as a doctor I find that interesting. Why should that be, I wonder?’
‘Some folk get very ill.’
‘I know. I’ve seen a man die from a single bee sting. He swelled up and couldn’t breathe and there was nothing to be done and so he died. And yet you tell me your lassie never feels a thing?’
‘She says she likes bees and the bees like her fine.’
‘Well, maybe love is the answer, William.’
‘You can tell where they’ve been,’ I ventured. ‘The bees. That’s what she tell’t me and she’s right. I have seen it myself without being aware of what I was looking at.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘What flowers they’ve been at. You can see it on them, whether they’ve been at the meadowsweet, or the heather, which is much darker, or the balsam that makes them look like wee white ghosts, flittin’ about.’
He was staring at me in the twilight, and I had the strangest sense that he was holding his breath. Then I heard him give a little sigh.
‘I didn’t know that. Or at least I never thought about it until today.’
‘Me neither. Whiles it just needs a body to point something out to you and then it all falls into place!’
‘Aye, William. It does.’
Even in the gathering dusk, I could see that he was looking at me with affection and an intermingling of pride. It was the way my mother sometimes used to look at me. Or my father, when he thought I couldn’t see him watching me.
‘She said if you’re feart of them, they sense it. Maybe they can smell it on you. You have to tell them, ken? You have to tell them a’ things. Births, weddings, deaths, you have to let the bees know about them. And she’s right for I tell’t them when my father died. My mother said I had to. I felt like a great gowk daein’ it, for the
hives were all silent, but I tell’t them all the same.’
Unexpectedly, he slipped his arm around my shoulders. It was as strong, as muscular as my own, not like the arm of a gentleman, but more like the arm of a man who works hard for his living.
‘You miss your father, don’t you?’
‘Aye, I miss him. Why would I no’? It’s been a hard row to hoe for us since he died.’
For answer, he steered me back to the more pleasant topic of Jenny Caddas and her beehives. ‘So you took the swarm?’
‘Aye and we took it back to the bee bole in the wall and when it was set there, she took me indoors and put this remedy on my sting and gave me an oatie bannock with honey on it. She’s a bonny lass.’
‘So I gather.’
‘We were talking for a long time. But her wee sister was there. It was alright. There was naethin’ wrang in it.’
‘I never thought there would be. I’d trust you anywhere, William. And with anybody. What about her parents?’
‘Her mother’s deid. Her faither’s a weaver and he was away on business. She’s Jenny Caddas, and you should have seen her hair. It’s that bonny. As pale as flax.’
‘She seems to have made a deep impression on you, Will!’
We sat in silence for a moment.
‘And will you be seeing her again?’
‘Aye well, I thought I might pay her a visit. Now and again. If I have plants to find.’
‘Then I’d best send you off hunting for more specimens!’
‘Aye, maybe you should.’
I had the inclination to talk about her and go on talking about her. You’ll know the feeling yourself. When you find somebody that takes your fancy, you want to spread the word. It’s like
inside you that aye wants to come bursting out and there’s a strange comfort in saying their name aloud. Jenny, I wanted to say. Jenny Caddas. Oh it was not that she was any great beauty, in spite
of the lint-white hair, but she had the right face, the right face for me. I think Thomas understood me well enough.
‘So what does she do, this Jenny Caddas,’ he asked me. ‘Beyond keeping house for her father and minding her wee sister? Or is that work enough for a lass?’
‘The cottage was full of bundles of herbs, drying. She knew what was what. She kent the names as well as myself. Not the Latin names, though she had a few of those. But the good old Scots names. She kent them all.’
‘Not mutchwort and dog’s bedstraw then?’
‘No!’ I started to laugh.
What Thomas did not know of the old Scots names he would ask me or, occasionally when he was lecturing, make up on the spot. He had confessed to this when I expressed my complete ignorance of a ‘wee white flower called mutchwort’ and another named ‘dog’s bedstraw’.
‘I invented them on the spur of the moment,’ he said. ‘I just could not help myself. Sheer devilment. Did you see how
they copied the names out? Not a single one of them, although they all have a fine conceit of themselves as scholars, not one has thought to question me. Only you, my friend. Only you!’
When I had seen Jenny’s herbs and heard her speak about them, the thought had crossed my mind that she might be able to help with the apothecary shop. It seemed a wild idea when I hardly knew her and, on reflection, I was sure that her father would never permit such a thing, but all the same, I added it to the heap of dreams and daydreams with which I beguiled my days and leavened my nights. Always a dreamer, you see, and at least some of those dreams have become a reality for me, even if others have been dashed under my feet.
‘She sounds like a clever lass. Intelligence is a rare thing in any woman, let alone a lassie with flaxen hair!’
‘You’re mocking me. And her.’
‘Only in the kindest way, Will.’
‘Well, I’ll allow I was smitten with her.’
‘So it seems!’
I knew that I should be getting home to my mother. She would be fretting about me. She did not like me going on these
to the countryside. She had not set foot out of Glasgow for many years. I think she had some idea that I was going off to strange foreign parts and that I might be set upon by footpads and robbers. Well, it was a possibility, though God knows what she thought they might rob me of, since I never carried anything with me save a piece of bread and cheese, my leather bag of
, my pieces of linen and the knife that I used for cutting them. They were doomed to disappointment if they thought they were going to get rich by robbing me. But my mother confessed that she worried about me until I was safe back home again, as though I had been a child, like my brothers. I was more in danger from the auld wives with their besoms, who seemed to want to sweep me away from their doorsteps, than I ever was from thieves and highwaymen.
Thomas stood up to go but then clapped his hand to his pocket and said, ‘I almost forgot. I have a gift for you!’
‘A gift? For me?’ I could not hide my surprise.
‘Aye. A man of my acquaintance had this for sale, and since it made me think of you, I thought I would buy it for you.’
He handed it to me. I was so astonished that he should think of giving me something that I almost dropped it. The parcel was loosely done up in cloth and I unwrapped it. It was an old book. Even then I could see that it was very old. I found out later that it was written more than a hundred years earlier. If I have an
of books about me now, I am still something of a rarity in that respect and back then, the only book which was ever to be found in the houses of the poor was the Holy Bible, with
a separate New Testament for taking to the kirk on a Sunday.