It’s a beautiful summer day in the garden. At least, it’s beautiful if you’re just walking around, as opposed to hefting a spade, trying to get through the hard-packed earth and corral the dust of weeks without proper rain. The Gardener stops to swear (mostly) inwardly at yet another sow thistle they hadn’t spotted, grabbing a fork to dislodge the interloper. They don’t immediately see the young girl who has stopped in the shade of the enormous cedars to admire the view back across the lawn, sun-warmed stone glowing against verdant grass and a sky lifted straight out of a painting. It’s a view the Gardener knows well; it’s one of their favourites too.
The Girl stands still just long enough for the Gardener to notice, the spike-leaved, yellow-flowered foe relegated to the bucket on the ground along with the scraps of chickweed that fall victim to the hoe that they now wield. The Gardener’s pace slows a moment, lightly opening up the space for the kind of conversation that they have had with visitors time and time again, and then stops altogether when the Girl turns round and their eyes meet. A tiny jolt of familiarity flickers at the sight of the small, impish face that is all at odds with the slight tension it holds and the serious, solemn, grey-blue eyes. Eyes far too old for, what, a twelve-year-old?
“It’s a lovely view, isn’t it?” The Gardener knows the Girl will not notice the recovery as they roll out their standard opener in the absence of everything they want to say that they can’t say just yet. Perhaps ever.
The smaller face creases for a moment, its enjoyment of the view under unexpected scrutiny and the right answer to the question eluding them. “I like the trees. But there aren’t enough flowers really – my granny’s lawn is full of little ones and they’re really pretty. This is a bit boring.”
“Understandable. Between you and me, I agree. My own lawn has all sorts in it and it makes it so much the prettier”, The Gardener says with an attempt at a conspiratorial twinkle, feeling foolish as they realise they lack the years to pull it off.
There is the sort of silence in which the Gardener might usually take the cue to begin working again and letting the visitor go on with their day. But sometimes, the silence is not done yet, hanging like a humid day waiting to let the air coalesce into rain.
“Are you a gardener?”
“Yes, I am.”
“Do you do anything other than pull up weeds?”
A soft chuckle. The Gardener doesn’t really know how to answer. The technical answer is yes, but the Girl has struck on one of the great frustrations of the job, and tapped into the Gardener’s thoughts of just a minute ago. Hopefully not too many of the unrepeatable ones, they thought drily.
“Today, no. Other days, though, we do all sorts. We plant stuff in the beds you can see over there, we grow stuff in the glasshouse, cut hedges into strange shapes, it’s quite fun really.” As if this last will convince the Girl at this point; they know full well that time isn’t there yet.
“Is it hard work?”
“Yes, it is. But it’s worth it, don’t you think? When it all looks as lovely as this, it’s a really beautiful place to work. Do you think you’d like to do it?”
The involuntary quirk of mild disgust almost makes the Gardener laugh out loud with appreciation and familiarity. Of course, they mused, she doesn’t know yet. “No. I’m a musician. I like looking at gardens, but I want to play in orchestras and go all over the world.”
“That sounds really fun! I played music when I was a kid too, orchestras are the best aren’t they?” The Gardener always feels ridiculous and stilted talking to children, and this one in particular, trying to curb the overwhelming familiarity into something that can be exchanged over a flowerbed within the constraints of uniform and position.
The Girl’s whole face brightens into a radiant smile that catches the Gardener off-guard; they forgot that smile existed, had ever existed, and it pierced something painful in the recesses of their memory.
“What did you play?”
“Me too! Who’s your favourite composer? I really like Tchaikovsky.”
“Tough one, that. Sibelius for me, I think – I loved Finlandia and the Karelia Suite, and I studied him at university.”
Here we go. Let’s see how this one plays out.
“University? Do you have to go to university to be a gardener?” The missing step of logic in the Girl’s head is written across her face, knowing that it doesn’t all quite add up for her yet. It will be a long time before it does.
“No, you don’t. I studied music at university, and then I realised that I wanted to be a gardener afterwards.” A hopelessly simplified story, of course, but truthful nonetheless.
A thoughtful, cheek-chewing pause. “I don’t want to do anything but music. Why did you give it up?”
This question has haunted the Gardener a long time, and they dread the moment when this little scrap of a human has to begin grappling with it. Everything she has ahead of her and doesn’t know, that the Gardener cannot tell her either for sake of cruelty or good sense. There are no shortcuts on this sort of thing. It doesn’t work like that. She doesn’t yet know she’s not a she, she doesn’t know that her lurking suspicions about herself are true, or that she’ll be fighting them for nearly a decade more before anyone tells her what’s going on. She has no idea the ways in which she will be hurt and recover, the strength she will develop out of need, and hone time and time again. The strength she already has, even if she is later surprised by its existence.
A question about music becomes a question about everything, as it always would for this child and for this adult. The Gardener feels every one of their 28 years twice, and is grateful for the hoe for something to lean on with the sheer burden of it. It is not a burden they can place on this wee girl. Life will do that for her.
“I don’t think I’ve given it up. But sometimes, you can do a thing too much.” Carefully, carefully. “The things we love don’t always work out the way we think they will. I found out I loved plants and being outside, and I do music for fun.” Was that alright? Light enough? Careful enough?
“I can’t imagine doing that. I want to do music for the rest of my life.” Her eyes are shining, eagerness brimming over and consuming her whole form, electric with excitement about a life she can’t even begin to imagine yet. The fact that she hasn’t changed her mind is good, in a way. It doesn’t happen now.
The Gardener laughs softly, but with a tinge of bitterness that they hope goes over the Girl’s head. “If you love it, you’ve got to go for it.” The only reason I am not damned for saying this is because I know it wouldn’t make a difference anyway.
A call comes across the lawn, the relaxed tone of a parent more concerned that their child is bothering people than where said child is. The Girl looks back and throws one last, impish smile over her shoulder as she remembers her manners long enough to say “Thank you! It was nice to meet you.”
The Gardener tries to reply, but their “you too” falls into the ever-increasing gap between them. Taking up the hoe once more, the Gardener ponders.
The little Girl has no idea who the Gardener is. Hat, sunglasses, and childish obliviousness to the idea that she might have seen her own future have hidden their identity. All for the best, of course. The dread of those oncoming years ripples through them again, the helplessness of not being able to warn their former self what is coming, the terrible knowledge of what will happen to this small, sun-drenched child in order to become the Gardener.
Still, the Gardener smiles. A smile that was once and is still impish, eyes still solemn, but somehow less so for having seen the solemnity in the Girl, and a sense of childish optimism bubbling up from a long-ago memory of hope and better times. For there is a certain joy in clearing sow thistles and chickweed, kicking up dust and breaking through hard pans of sun-baked soil that they have learned to love, and that the Girl has to look forward to one day.
The Gardener just hopes that it will be worth it.
This story came about on the back of my response to a tweet someone posted where they asked what we thought our twelve-year-old selves would say to our 2020 selves. The question grabbed me, and suddenly I had a draft of this story without really knowing how I got there. I am indebted to my friends Tom, Sol, and Jubal for their kind words and constructive feedback that allowed this story to make it out into the world. I’ve not tried writing fiction seriously for over a decade, but this was fun, so maybe I’ll do more? I don’t know.