Sunday, 15 July 2012


The trees spelled out rude words.
Benson, Head Gardener for sixteen years, had had them pointed out to him when he was still the Junior Undergardener, and they'd made him snigger then.  Now, they were just a pain: he had to keep the topiary just so, and sneak into the main house and up to the roof to check that the words were clearly visible and the letters weren't distorted.  He didn't know if anyone in the House knew about the trees, or the study window that allowed you to see them as they were intended, and he was far too embarassed about what the trees said to ever ask.
He rubbed his lower back, which seemed to ache more hours of the day than not these days, and looked with a slightly rueful face at Hedges, the Junior Undergardener.  He was pretty certain that the lad had grown up without seeing any kind of plant at all for the first ten years of his life, and that he'd hired on the strength of his name.  Oh yes, Benson and Hedges the gardeners!, he could imagine Master Greytooth braying with his friends in one of their little parties up at the House.  Still, he couldn't go climbing the trees anymore himself, and Hedges was very keen on the power tools.  Possibly a little too keen, but the first finger he cut off would soon cure him of that kind of enthusiasm.
"Right, lad," said Benson, just about stifling a sigh.  Was it like this for Richards when he had to tell me about the trees? he suddenly wondered.  Do we always look on the new generation as a bunch of useless wasters who won't do a lick of work unless you beat them first?  "New job today, and it's an important one."
"You said that about watering the lawns," said Hedges.  He sounded sulky, and his eyes were cast down on the grass, probably hoping for snakes.
"I did, and that is important.  Unless you fancy being the one to explain why the lawns are brown and dead to the House?"  Hedges scuffed his feet in the grass and shoved his hands in his pockets.  "Of course, I'll have to explain it too, which is why I tell you first," said Benson, trying to get the message through, but Hedges was glaring at the grass hard enough to make it burst into flames.  "Oh bugger it," said Benson, fed up at last.  "Just do the bloody job and appreciate having someone who can tell you what needs to be done every morning.  Now come with me, we've got some breaking and entering to do."
Hedges lifted his head, a look of pure amazement dawning on his face.  If he'd shave that stupid bumfluff 'tache off,  thought Benson, he'd have half the girls in the village after him.  The spots don't help much, but they'll clear up when he's a bit older, and anyway, they make a lad try harder.  "You heard me," he said.  "Come on.  And make sure your shoes aren't muddy.  We don't want to leave footprints."
When Hedges discovered that they really were sneaking into the House his face lit up completely, and suddenly he was eager to listen and do whatever Benson told him.  Benson showed him the secret brick which could be pulled out of the wall, and the hole behind it that you had to slip your hand in and twist around until you found a gritty wire handle.  Hedges had it in no time flat, and the familiar clunk of the bolts sliding back brought a hint of a smile to Benson's face; all the more because he'd not had to use his own aching wrists to do it.  He pushed the narrow wooden door open, and then showed Hedges the tiny wedge that went just below the hinge.
"The door won't open from the inside," he whispered.  "If you let the door get closed on you, you'll have to wait till it's quiet and sneak out through the House, and that's pretty much only after dark.  So either only come here just before dusk, or get into the habit now."
They walked along the corridor and up the dusty back stairs, Benson pointing out the steps he knew creaked.  They still found two new creaky ones on the way up, and with each creak they paused and listened carefully.  The walls here were thin and it was easy to tell if other people were moving around on the other side of them.  At the top they were in darkness, and Benson groped on the wall in front of them until he found the shutter.  Drawing it aside allowed two very faint rays of light in, and he nudged Hedges to look closer.  The holes allowed Hedges to see the broad Picture Gallery, and the flight of stairs just opposite.  He kept looking for several minutes, and then his hand reached back to tap Benson on one side.
"All clear," he murmured, stepped backing from the holes.
"Handle's by your left-hand, lad," whispered Benson.  The handle turned and clicked, and a huge, heavy door swung out.  The two men stepped out and Benson quickly pushed the eight-foot painting that concealed the door back into place, and they ascended the stairs opposite.
"Is that for real?" Hedges looked slightly awed.  "We really just came up a secret passage and out a painting?"
"Aye," said Benson, who was concentrating on not tripping over.  These steps seemed steeper every time he came up here.  The study door should be on the left here... he paused, and stared.  The door was missing, another enormous painting in its place.  A picture of an execution, French Revolution by the look of it.  Was that...?
Memories surfaced, and he smiled.  The roof was always chilly, so maybe it would be better to show the lad the words as they were supposed to read.  He could always show him the roof next time.
"This way," he said softly.  "We'll do it properly next time, but this time you can see them the way he wanted them seen."
Benson pulled the boy in close to the painting to make them harder for anyone looking up the stairs to see, and ran his hand down the left-hand side.  At about waist height he found the rough spot on the frame, and put his palm against it and pushed up, hard.  It was stiff, not wanting to move at first, but then it clicked and the painting revolved on a central axel to let them into the Third Study.  Ignoring the leather armchairs, the bookcases, the globe of the world and the filing cabinets, Benson closed the door behind them and led the boy to the window.
"Look out there, and tell me what you see," he said, taking a vicarious pleasure in the look of surprise and mirth on Hedges' face as he began to read.

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