August and the garden burns with colour. There is a fine show of dahlias: the vibrant vermilion of Bishop of Llandaff, exquisite Clair de Lune with its lemon yellow outer petals and paler inner segments, and the pastel baby pom pom, which always touches his heart. One of his favourite asters is out, a mass of lavender blue; it makes a cool contrast to the hotter shades. Claude walks down the main path, stepping over the carpet of nasturtiums, yellow, red and orange. They sprawl, they creep, invade space wherever they can, clamber over other plants, but he loves their good-natured growing. It is impossible to feel down hearted on a morning such as this, full of activity, demanding his attention.
‘Lovely aren’t they, m’sieur?’ Breuil has come to stand beside him and together the two men share this vision, explosion of colour, array of varieties.
‘No sign of any aphids,’ Claude remarks with satisfaction. ‘Remember last year, the trouble we had. It broke my heart to see the damage those little beasts did.’
‘Ah, you can thank young Michel for that.’
‘Michel? Didn’t know he was an expert on pest control.’
‘You’d be surprised. He’s come up with a wonderful solution, something his father uses on the farm.’
Claude thinks back to the last conversation he had with the young man. Gardening seemed to be the last thing on his mind, boy wanted to travel, he’d said.
‘Saponaria,’ Breuil is saying. ‘Natural and most effective.’
‘The highly invasive rock plant, hmm.’
‘Yes, but that’s the beauty of it. You always have a plentiful supply. What you do is mix up the leaves, or roots for that matter, with water. Sieve to obtain the liquid and
then spray it on the plants.’
‘And it works?’
‘You can see for yourself. Not an aphid in sight, the soapy water kills them.’
Claude beams at the unblemished pompom, its bright cherry red centre, and thinks of Michel with new respect.
‘So you’re pleased with him, are you?’
‘It’s like this: he was eager at the start, interested to learn and he picked things up quickly. I told you myself how promising he was.’
‘And you don’t say those things lightly,’ Claude smiles.
‘I have my standards, m’sieur.’ As if to demonstrate, he leans over and nips off a couple of fading flowers.
‘I know you do and very admirable they are.’
‘Thank you. As I say, he promised well but then, some weeks ago, he began to appear distracted, forgetful. I had to pull him up on several things left undone. I was beginning to think…’ he shrugs. ‘Ah well, as it turns out…’
‘He seems to have come to his senses?’ Claude suggests.
‘Good, I like the young man. He has had the strength to rebel against his family’s wishes.’ Claude remembers the brush he had with Michel’s father when he had the first small pond dug: all that nonsense about his ‘strange plants’ and how they might poison the water. ‘Old man Duval is something of a tyrant. It can’t have been easy for him.’
A breeze stirs the cosmos and sets them aquiver like pale pink and white butterflies.
‘I think he has the makings of a good gardener. Encourage him all you can, Breuil. We’ll none of us be around forever.’
How impossible it seems, to leave all this beauty and step into the void, he has no time for religious hopes of a life hereafter. Nature in all its variety uplifts his soul, astonishes so that the mind is entirely filled with the experience and is the experience. This is the nearest he comes to worship. That time on Belle Isle as he watched the mountainous waves rise and fall, dash themselves furiously against steep cliffs, toss the spray high into the air, what ecstasy to see that sea in fury. Desolation when it calmed too quickly. He sees himself dressed in oilskins, the wind trying to snatch his palette and brushes from his hand, sea soaked, tempest battered in the grip of the sublime. Terror on the edge of beauty. It is foolish to allow himself to think of extinction when he has work to do, important work. Probably my crowning achievement, he tells himself sternly as he leaves Breuil and goes in search of Michel.
He enters the water garden and goes to stand on the Japanese bridge, gazing down into the water where clouds are reflected, so that above and below, sky and water commingle. Near the edge of the pond, the light is dim and the muted surface of the water reflects the dense curtain of foliage that shades its rim. His mind shifts and meditates on the changing light and colour, how he will capture it, how he will present his concept of water without horizon or bank.
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