The Gardener’s Daughter
He scratched the earth, meticulously plucking errant strands of green, removing the undisciplined growth that had strayed from his ordered lines. His arms and face and neck stained so dark by his labours that you could not tell if the blackness had leached from the soil or if he was merely charred by the sun. I was the gardener’s daughter.
Mother would pack us lunch in his stainless steel lunch pail with sandwiches carefully wrapped in waxed paper and washed fruit. She would slip her ivory-handled fruit knife into its fine red sheath and place it there as well. After we ate our sandwiches, he would carve an apple or a peach, spiraling the peel into one long twist of unwanted skin. I loved to watch him preparing our fruit and waited for him to pass me moist wedges on the small knife blade. This ritual was never spoken of and it remains the solitary tender memory I have of my father.
It is the house where he worked that I visit in my dreams, the rooms as familiar to me as was my childhood home. Designed by a Japanese architect, it was a flat-roofed building with ornate bronze doors and gardens filled with rare grasses and no flowers. The curated serenity settled upon its inhabitants with soothing stillness, both outside and inside. Drawers filled with embroidered silk slippers were kept at the entrance. The muffled quiet imposed tranquility as we padded on cushioned rugs through minimalist rooms filled with exquisite treasure.
A large wall of glass formed the entire south face, two stories high, its expanse broken only by a simple iron balcony that sprawled across the back of the house leading to a staircase which twisted elegantly down to the terrace. Everything was integrated seamlessly, including the maid who only ever whispered and wore a kimono when guests were present.
The house was filled with tiny mysteries: a bar hidden by sliding panels, a service corridor with secret accesses, the servant’s staircase concealed in the kitchen, the diminutive maid’s quarters in the basement, disguised by a waterfall and koi pond, the dumb waiter and, most wonderful of all, the private hallway lit by spot lights and security lighting, with steel doors and alarms at either end. It housed the famous and not to be talked about painting collection. This small gallery snaked from the kitchen through to the main foyer in the centre of the house — running parallel to the dining room. The entrances were carefully disguised to disappear. Only a discrete button, hidden in the millwork, could trigger the opening levers.
This space housed the beginnings of what has become an important art collection. I studied the works intently, hands clasped behind my back, trying to interpret the brush strokes, the use of colour, and the details that made these paintings extraordinary. I was in awe of them and knew that my access was forbidden. I determined to appreciate the opportunity by absorbing all of the wonder in them. I reflect back on my seven year-old self and attempt to calculate such precociousness. Even now, I am surprised by how perfectly I remember the pattern of a horse’s breath delicately streaked on the canvas, and the particular colour of red used in a wagon crossing a stream.
There was a boy. Heir to the fortune and family name. Occasionally, I was summoned to play with him. Once only, we decided to stray to the edge of the grounds where a sandbox and swing set were situated on a lowered terrace adjacent to an encroaching ravine. The adults came flapping and screaming after us – and I was chastised for putting him at risk of kidnapping. I did not yet know that word and could not understand the panic we had innocently triggered. I remember crying with the shame of it, of having been yelled at for something unclear, and for being held solely responsible for something in which I had not acted alone.
My father, meanwhile, enacted double duty, his dirt-smudged overalls and boots quickly replaced by the navy jacket and cap he wore when driving the family. The car, like everything else, was kept in constant readiness for their use. His duality was expressed in other ways. He was the careful subservient; respectful, vigilant when wiping his feet and scrubbing his hands, and given to speaking in quiet deferential tones. The family and the maid called to him when there was trouble with the pool, or the sink or if something needed fixing but always, in that house, he was even-tempered and patient.
Our lives were all precariously disrupted when my father’s employers were drawn to Europe to further their investments. All of us were to be uprooted and travel with them to their new estate. It was a generous offer and my parents deliberated its merits. Having fled Europe in the post-war recession, my father was unwilling to return to a social structure strictly defined by class. And so the family left and we stayed, and my father made himself indispensible to the new home owners.
I was not sought after as a playmate for the new family. I was now freed to pursue my own friends and summer entertainments. I set for myself a series of tasks that I imagined would help me to better understand a world I had only glimpsed. I read the dictionary and learned a new word each week. I travelled on the subway and explored unfamiliar neighbourhoods. I stalked the local library and borrowed books by authors I had never heard of. I continued this practice throughout my adolescence and during my years at university.
From time to time, I read about the boy I once played with. I wonder if he remembers romping through the grounds with me, exploring the underground pool works, running through the service tunnel, holding hands in the picture gallery? I think not. I was invisible.
This story is a work of fiction. All the characters and situations portrayed in this story are fictitious and any resemblances to persons living or dead is purely coincidental.