'I know Carl's not old,' Lady Waring said to me. 'But his wife's been having things to do with one of her drivers at the catering firm, which has really got to Carl and his gardening's slipping. And you would stay so well in with Lady Draven when she gets back if you've done some edging and planting. Just some of the simple work. You are living there rent-free.'
Leaving my full-time singing teaching job at the Guildford School of Acting in 1995, I moved into Lady Draven's house in Thorpeness. Just for her and her family to have the comfort of somebody being there at the top of the house if need be, and really only for the summer till I got myself fixed.
I stayed on into the autumn because, truth be told, I had nowhere else to go. I would never have stayed otherwise. Before I moved in Lady Draven was all footling laugh, dry-witted Manhattan, warning me to look round discreetly at the congregation in church for the Aldeburgh Festival Service, as these women had clearly all failed trying to be opera singers, or wives, or schizophrenics. She turned out to be banshee-shrieking, neurotic Bostonian, banging on the ceiling with her walking frame at five in the morning because people were coming for drinks in the evening and there were no lemons in the fruit bowl.
In late autumn, against doctor's orders - her leg ulcers looked like below-knee black death - Lady Draven flew to see her daughter in LA. She was carried off the plane in a screaming delirium and a flesh-eating disease was diagnosed; luckily contained in a small area behind her left knee.
I looked after her house in her five-month absence. Which seemed to really impress her friends Lady Waring and Lady Carter. There were a cleaner and two gardeners: Lawrence, who had been with Lady Draven man and boy, and Carl, whose wife was having things to do with one of her drivers. All I was doing was writing, practising ballet and singing and making good use of the account Lady Davies had opened for me at the Thorpeness Village Stores.
Lady Waring would call in.
'Here we are now,' she said, without preamble the first time, her six pelican chins breaking into their quaking routine. ''I was up this morning at six. Out in the garden saying hello to my flowers - they do miss one in the night. I don't get down to any serious weeding at that time, of course. I know that Dreenagh Forestier-Walker does. And Maimy. Even Boo has been known to bend then on occasion. I need to be fortified with copious amounts of tea and muesli before I start on anything so shin-punishing as all that.'
Smiling, I waited for her to get to the point or a punchline?
She talked me through her lettuce blight.
I smiled on. Surely...?
And problems with something called her prickly acacia.
What oozing, pustulent horror might that be?
Still, I smiled on.
She left. Finally. To tell Lady Carter that from the way I had stood among the honeysuckle gormlessly smiling at her, while she engaged me in lovely, encouraging chat, she thought I had to be autistic - or whatever one was allowed to call 'slow' these days.
In early January, calling in for the third time in a week, she said,
'With all that Lady Draven has been through, I couldn't bear to see her suffer the added horror of coming back to no marmalade in her outside larder. You must make some.'
I must. Maybe Lady Waring would leave me alone...
I armed myself with a recipe book that had been consulted to the point of resembling decayed mummy's bandages and made a shopping list.
The marmalade took two days. On day one I quartered the fruit and put it to soak in a bucket of water. On day two I sliced the fruit very finely, put the pith and pips in a pair of my old ballet tights, hung from the side of a gargantuan copper-bottomed pan. Then I watched for the water, sugar and ballet-tight clad doings to reach a rolling boil.
Actually, what was a rolling boil?
Oh, look, it was when the simmering mixture didn't bubble so much as roll.
After three or so prods at a blob of marmalade on a saucer chilled from the fridge I got the promised wrinkle, just like an octogenarian's foreskin. (I know, thank you for asking, because my mate Lincoln does Skype shows and has some clients with protected rent flats in Dolphin Square) I filled my fourteen aga-sterilised jars, attached the film discs with hair bands and went to bed.
I hardly slept.
Next morning, before even Dreenagh, Maimy or Boo would have been hoeing their phlox paniculata, I went down to the kitchen. I tilted one of the jars. No liquid ran into the lid. I felt like elves and shoemaker in one.
'Oh, you have looked after Lady Draven's house so well,' Lady Waring commented, putting yet another of the jars of marmalade into her basket to take away with her - no wonder she had the heart seizure in Lady Carter's pool and they needed the livestock winch to fish her out. 'And next, we all think, you should really help out in the garden.'
'But Lawrence is coming today.'
'Yes, and have you seen how old he is? When he stoops it's like a Cracker Jack firework going off.'
'Carl's not old. He's in on Monday.'
Lady Waring then made the comment about Carl's wife and her driver.
I helped out in the garden. Edging and turning over soil. I got a bit carried away with the soil-turning and started on another bed without asking Lawrence. I pulled up some onions. They were daffodil bulbs. Lawrence said we'd pot them for the house and say it had been planned all along.
Some twenty years later Lady Waring, Lady Davies and Lawrence are dead, Lady Carter is housebound, Carl's wife is with somebody retired from the packaging department and the garden where I pulled up the daffodil bulbs is a Louis Champain.
'My parents have a big garden, in Reydon, near Southwold, and mum's an avid gardener.' Taking notes during Louis's interview, I was trying not to let it get to me that he probably wasn't even born when I turned soil in Lady Draven's garden. 'Actually, I'd say that mum's obsessed. She goes to show gardens and always talks her way into getting cuttings. Even at Chelsea.'
Like Mrs Norris in Mansfield Park coming back from Sotherton - I stood out as long as I could, till the tears almost came into her eyes - with cuttings, four pheasants eggs and a cream cheese.
'My folks' garden is what I'd call a traditional English garden: big herbaceous borders, fruit and veg and an orchard. Mum's quite scatty so the garden's wild.' He grins. 'It's by no means a well regimented garden. At first I just helped out, mucking about, really, but then when I got serious - I would have been about fifteen or sixteen by now - mum taught me a hell of a lot. The complete basics. What to prune at certain times. Actually, it was how to plant a plant. Really that basic. Different types of soils. Plant identification.'
Daffodil bulbs and onions are impossible to tell apart, he tells me.
'GCSE's would have been happening around the time I got serious about gardening. I didn't think I'd do it as a job at the time. I was doing design.'
'I had a place at Brunel. Then I took a year out, went travelling, pissed around. Needed some money so I started doing bits and pieces of gardening. That turned into me deferring my place at Brunel to make more money. I did garden maintenance at first. Then step by step I took on bigger things, as people asked. Small fencing jobs or paving - not designing as yet, but pushing into the design aspect. Then I started advising clients on ideas for their gardens, and set up Champain Landscapes when I was eighteen. I know what I like and push people to have the more high-end contemporary stuff. I still get my hands dirty, though I two people working for me, but I'm concentrating more and more on the design aspect. I give clients two plans for their gardens - one sensible and one more high-end and interesting. Nine times out of ten they go for the cheaper option. Very annoying when people have their sensible hats on and you want to do something amazing, but it's their money.'
In the late Lady Draven's garden he has laid slate paving stones, reclaimed railway sleepers and installed Champain bespoke garden furniture.
'Just now I'm putting the gardens to bed for the winter. Amazingly stuff is till growing this late, but it's coming to an end now. In terms of maintenance, you do all those things you simply can't do earlier in the year - enriching soil and planning your design features. Autumn has to be my favourite season. The rush has passed by now and it's really the time for the gardener to be methodical. You can get into your workshop and sort your tools out. I'm currently extending my workshop so I can fit another vehicle in there and store aggregates, sleepers and paving stones in bulk. Not forgetting, of course, that you have to get out there into the garden and cut stuff back and put properly rotted compost in the gaps. People so often forget to do that. It'll help the plants already in there, and it's prep for new additions. I tell clients: be methodical. But, then, I'm a bit OCD anyway.'
'People panic about stuff dying and then any hope of them being methodical goes right out of the [greenhouse...lol] window. I tell them: you have to do something really bad to completely ruin a garden. Which certain of my clients seem to take as a direct challenge. Not watering. Not enriching the soil. Trotting off to gardening centres and bulk-buying a load of plants that have pretty flowers but that are totally the wrong plants for their garden's aspect.'
'I suppose I'm focussed on playing this percentage game with finding my niche just now. Hoping for those clients who are really interested in their garden looking the very best it can and not just being purely functional. I need to see a Champain show-garden pushed on through all four seasons. Get more of a handle on what are fantastic plants but that are also a pain in the arse to grow. The problem with round here, Suffolk, is that so many of the homes are second homes, so the owners are not that interested in making an amazing garden. I'd need to do what some other local traders are doing and make London contacts.'
Louis plans, keeps his tools and shifts aggregates during the season he loves most for its weather and colours.
...and in heaven it is always autumn.
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