Prose Header

Beth’s Garden

by Joanna M. Weston

Part 1 appears
in this issue.

That evening Jimmy cut the grass under a cloudless sky; it didn’t rain.

For the next few days he fought his desire to be in Beth’s garden, to visit her. He trimmed the hedge to precise lines, he weeded assiduously.

He tried to look enthusiastic when, over breakfast, Father said, “It’s a good thing you have that job at in Nanaimo.”

“I’ll be home for a month or so.” Jimmy said and wondered why the idea weighed heavily in his mind.

“Very economical and sensible,” said Father, “and you will enjoy your mother’s cooking rather than cooking for yourself.”

“It’s wonderful to have you here, dear.” Mother smiled at him tenderly.

“Very helpful, too.” Father poured his second cup of coffee.

Jimmy went out, leaving his toast unfinished, and ran the country roads, away from the woods, away from the garden.

The herbs sang to him. His sleep swirled with dreams of flowers whose names whispered in his ears and wrote themselves on his eyelids: hyssop for sacrifice, stonecrop for tranquility, borage for bravery.

The garden called him and he feared to go there. His fear tangled with the knowledge that Father would hate that he knew, liked, and thought he understood Beth.

He started work at the lab and was busy with research during the day, with sports at lunch time or, occasionally, looking for an apartment for himself. Visions of the garden flicked across his mind at odd times: when he looked out of his bedroom window at night, as he peered through a microscope, as he cycled home. He would imagine the garden as fall closed in and laid frost on the ground. He bought himself a car, a beaten-up Toyota.

Memories of the garden receded to the back of his mind: research papers and experimental work dominated his life. Sometimes he would join friends to drink at the local bar where he drank too much, driving home carefully and falling into bed to dream of herbs dancing circles in sunlight.

At home, he became part of the morning routine, leaving after breakfast and returning in time for a sherry before dinner with his parents. He would often have a scotch after dinner, taking another to his bedroom and to drink in bed.

On the weekends Father wanted the grass cut or a fence mended, chores done. Jimmy would do whatever was needed. Once in a while he would slip away through the woods to lie and watch Beth’s garden. He didn’t go into it, the fascination lay in watching unseen while she tended plants or talked softly to someone from the village. Always she seemed attentive, patient, and gentle. He wanted to be there every day.

Father’s commands filled his time, stole his energy and will-power. Father almost smiled upon Jimmy that fall, frequently commented that this was a good job, one with prospects and a pension at the end.

One evening, nursing his after-dinner scotch and with Beth’s garden in his mind, Jimmy said, “I saw Beth Walpole today.”

“Stay away from her, James,” Father said, “she’s got no job, she’s a waster, no good to anyone.”

“Such a nice person though,” Mother said softly.

“Where’d you meet her?” Father asked, suddenly suspicious.

“Nowhere, but people speak well of her,” Mother said.

“Don’t go near her.” Father banged his fist on his knee. “There’s no future in knowing people like that.”

Jimmy said nothing but drank his scotch quickly. Later he slipped out of the house and went through the woods under bright moonlight, to stand in the shadows and look over the garden. It hummed through his dreams and underlay his working days.

He found work at the lab easy and Father’s pleasure in his job depressing. But Jimmy forced himself to enjoy what he did and, after a couple of months, he thought himself content though bored with the kind of tasks he was given. Father’s pleasure in Jimmy’s work gave him a sense of fitting into the world as he should which gave him some comfort.

Nevertheless he drank late some nights and found himself avoiding Father.

His work suffered: he began to leave experiments unfinished and muddled the results of another. He turned to cheap wine for comfort.

His friends became thoughtful and kind.

Once one of them pulled him aside to say, “Snap out of it, Jimmy.”

“Okay,” he said but reached for his glass.

Another offered herbal tea. A distant vision came to Jimmy, of butterflies in a sunlit garden, of herbs that called to him: ‘basil, chamomile, sage...’ He twisted in his chair, trying to grasp whatever it was about the garden, but it slid away. It was easier to drink, to blur the edges of his Father’s world.

At the end of November the lab director gave Jimmy a month’s notice.

He said nothing at home, believing that he would be reinstated if he worked hard. He continued to drink, then would rush from the house in the morning without breakfast and with a hasty “goodbye” to his parents, arriving heavy-eyed at the lab.

The lab closed for Christmas and Jimmy knew he would have to tell Father that he’d lost his job. He wished he didn’t have to go home, that he had his own place where he could drink in peace. The day began and ended with the flask in his pocket.

He drank heavily at the Christmas lab party, staggering out into the cold, rainy night. He pushed away the thought of seeing Father. He sat on the curbside and brooded on his misfortunes. The job wasn’t good enough for him, he would easily find another. He would find an apartment and be able to live independently. The hazy thoughts swam in his head until he shivered, realized he was cold and wet, and got into his car.

The drive home blurred as he sipped from the flask of whisky held between his thighs. He focused on the centre line and kept to the speed limit. The house was dark and uninviting when he stopped in the driveway and got out, leaving the keys in the ignition but shutting the car door. He swayed and took and a deep breath.

“I’m home, Father, dear Father,” he said to the cold night. “And I doubt that you’ll be pleased with me.”

The porch light went on and the front door opened.

“Jimmy, you’re late,” Mother said, coming out in her house-coat.

Jimmy burst into tears and, tall as he was, clung to her. She held and rocked him until his father spoke behind them.

“Very touching, James, but let your Mother come in before she catches a cold.”

Jimmy strangled a sob and let go of Mother. He sniffed as he followed her into the house.

Father wrinkled his nose. “Have you been drinking? While driving?”

“Coursh not, Father,” Jimmy said.


“Would you like some tea, Jimmy?” Mother asked.

He shook his head. “Jus’ bed, Mother.”

Mother wrung her hands, misty-eyed as she looked at him up and down. “So good to have you home for Christmas, dear.”

Jimmy went upstairs to his room. He waited until his parents had gone to bed then snuck downstairs, filled his flask from the decanter in the dining room, and went back to his bedroom.

For two days nothing was said. Jimmy drank in his room, or went for long walks, flask in hand. He smiled distantly, saw the world without seeing it, and drank steadily. The news of his job-loss stuck in his throat: he didn’t tell Father.

On the third evening Father decided to have whisky instead of his usual sherry before dinner. He went to the dining room.

He came back to the living room, red-faced, decanter in hand, and stared at Jimmy.

“So this is where it all ends, eh? In a bottle?”

Jimmy shrank into his chair.

“A good education, and a good job, being poured into a bottle of my scotch whisky!”

“I’ve lost my job.” The words erupted from Jimmy beyond his volition.

He cringed, watching a vein throb in Father’s temple.

Father put the bottle on a side table with a shaking hand. Then he roared. “Young wastrel... unmitigated selfish drunken oaf... You don’t drink in my house, you don’t drink alcohol ever again. You’re a thief and a drunk. Get out! Get out of my house.”

Mother shrieked, “No, he’s our son, this is his home.” She burst into tears.

“He’s a thief, a no-good lout, and no son of mine. Get out.”

Jimmy stumbled to the door, hearing Mother wailing, “Let me go, let me go, he’s my Jimmy,” in the sitting room behind him.

He went out of the house into rain and wind. The front door banged shut behind him. He leant against the wall, slithered to the ground and sat, soaked to the skin within minutes. He put his head on his knees and wept, for himself, for the past and the future.

At last, he scrubbed his eyes with the back of his hands, found a handkerchief in his pocket and blew his nose. He shivered deeply, great convulsive tremors that rocked his body. He struggled to his feet, clung to the porch pillar, and wondered what to do. The idea of going back into the house terrified him: he couldn’t face Father again. He longed for the warmth of his bedroom, and for a drink.

The back verandah was too open to the wind, so he went to the garden shed, found an old sack and Mother’s gardening jacket, and huddled in a corner against a pile of old newspapers.

He drifted in and out of sleep, shivering, afraid, wondering what to do. He longed for a place beyond the reach of Father’s anger but he must find a job. He had heard of one in a lab near Victoria which would take him out of Father’s reach. Once there he would stop drinking. He would get back into baseball and hockey, get fit again. He would pick up with friends from university; they would help him.

An uneasy peace settled within him. He dozed and woke shivering. But he knew what he must do and the certainty that Father would be pleased if he turned his life around overlaid his apprehensions.

The shed rocked in gusts of wind, rain rattled on the single window. He ached with cold and hunger. He dozed again and dreamed of Beth’s garden and heard flowers singing. The sound brought him, trembling, to his feet in the cold grey light of morning. The wind whistled between the boards of the shed. There were no flowers here. His head pounded. He wanted a drink but that was unattainable.

The door of the shed whipped out of his hand as he opened it. A storm pummeled the countryside. Branches broke and spun across the landscape. A tree fell nearby.

In Beth’s garden he would be safe. But he couldn’t go there, he must return to the world of jobs and security. But, through the storm, he heard the garden’s call, an imperative of distress that echoed his own torment. He tossed Mother’s old coat aside.

He ran, stumbling across the lawn through rain and wind, thrusting through the hedge, his hair snagged and dragged by twigs. He pulled free and lurched, scratched and cut, across the field. Beth’s garden called him.

Trees bent and shrieked about him, their branches flailing in repeated gusts. One branch struck his head, another whipped his body. Jimmy blundered on, half-blinded by tears he wouldn’t admit. The garden needed him, and he needed the garden, needed to be there, safe, secure. He had to get there. He tripped over a log, fell head long, lay gasping, and heard a branch crack behind him. Perhaps Father was chasing him? Terror spurred him on.

The wind howled above him, rain fell. He got up and staggered on.

He blundered into Beth’s garden and heard the sharp clang of a gate behind him. But Beth’s garden had no gate.

Jimmy looked behind him and saw only the woods. He reached out and touched an invisible wall. He felt up and down, right and left, running his hand over a smooth, glassy barrier that he couldn’t see. He leaned on it, but it didn’t bend, break, or soften. It didn’t matter, he was in Beth’s garden.

The garden: he looked round. The vegetables had been cleared except for roots that would winter in the soil. He circled the cabin, seeing what needed to be staked, pruned, or cleared, and stopped at the herb garden.

“So, it’s Jimmy McKinly!” Beth spoke behind him.

He turned. She looked ancient, her clothes torn, hair straggling wet and unbraided on her shoulders. She breathed in small wheezy gasps. He was about to ask if he could do something for her, when she asked, “What do you want, Jimmy McKinly?”

“I want....” he stopped, looked around, and felt certainty within him. He spoke forcefully, “I want the garden.”

“What about the Orgs?”

Jimmy shrugged. “They’ll manage.”

“You want to stay?”


Beth smiled, a rictus of lips and eyes. “Then this, this garden, is yours.”

“What do you mean?”

“You’re the next keeper,” Beth said, “I’ve been the keeper, now it’s you.”

“The keeper?” Jimmy struggled for understanding while wanting to go down on his knees amongst the plants.

“The keeper takes over from the one who is finished, is dying... and stays.”

“How long do I stay?” Jimmy asked.

“Until the next one comes.”

Jimmy stared into her faded eyes. “How long is that?”

“More than twenty years ago I came... in my sixties... so I’ve not had time for much. You’ll stay... look after the garden... and the people.”

“The people?”

“Those who come for healing. That’s what the keeper does... looks after them... and the garden.”

“Goodbye,” she said, turned and walked down the path that led to the village. As from a great distance Jimmy heard an invisible gate shut behind her.

He focused on the garden, his kingdom.

Copyright © 2011 by Joanna M. Weston

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