They say Lady Jessamine walks in the garden. I’ve seen a shadow weave in and out of the clipped yew hedges late on a winter’s afternoon. I’ve heard footsteps behind me on the gravel when I knew I was alone, felt a touch on my shoulder as I swept the last of autumn’s leaves and turned to see only empty lawn. Perhaps it was her. But maybe there was only a skulking fox, the settling of a stone, a twig blown on a November wind. In the dark days of winter it’s easy to fall into imaginings. The whirling leaves, the morning mists, a dampness the weak sun never quite dispels, these things play games with my mind.
She came here expecting to die. Her son, twisted in body and bitter in mind, lorded it over the family home, not willing to spare even a room for her in that vast mansion once it all belonged to him. It didn’t matter that Her Ladyship was infected with the same disease that killed her husband. She came worn out by the quarrels and scandals, the legal wrangles, the greedy fingers that wouldn’t be satisfied.
Oh, I’d not paint her blameless. She’d had her own ambitions, her scurrilous plans, had sent rumours running when it suited her, back in her younger days. It’s all there in her journals. Some say she got what she deserved, but there are always those who’ll judge a kettle black. In any case, it was only her daughter-in-law’s fear of further scandal that let Lady Jessamine keep Greystones.
I remember the day she first arrived, her black coat pulled tightly around her, her scarf flapping loose in the wind, her boots crunching the gravel. I can still see the way she held her chin up as the car drove away. That, too, was a day in November.
Visitors are rare at this time of year. I don’t miss them. In summer they spill off the paths and tread bare patches in the grass, poke among the borders, and sprawl on the lawns as if they owned the place. I grit my teeth and smile, telling myself that without them there’d be no one to pay my salary. Come the first cold winds, they leave it all to me. I watch the frosts strip away the ephemera of summer, leaving only blackened waste for me to cart away. Days pass and I speak to no one. But the birds lose their shyness. Blue tits hang like acrobats from the suet balls I tie on bare branches, blackbirds and thrushes come shuffling through the leaves, a robin perches on my digging spade.
I wander through the maze sometimes. Like the yew hedges that divide the gardens and the high brick walls that bound them, the maze ages but doesn’t change. It’s no gentle place. The walls are holly, hard clipped, prickly, the pathways narrow. Even I, who know the way so well, have to move carefully. At the centre lies a tiny lawn, and at its heart a circular pool, stone-edged and lichen-crusted. That’s where I found her one late November morning, the water bitterly cold, her fingers blue.
She went there often. There’s a plaque that says as much, put up by those arrogant men in suits who think they own the place nowadays, think they know all about her because the notes in their briefcases tell them the wheres and whens of her life, as if that was all that mattered. Like seeing the trunk of the tree but not knowing how the life flows up and outwards, in and downwards, not seeing the interchange of earth and air, of chlorophyll and nitrogen. Fools. At least they don’t come often. And when they do, I know very well how to be subservient and polite.
The trees are quiet now, sleepy, turned within. Winter bares the bones. Months will pass before the buds start to swell, longer still before the trees talk to me again. Until then I have the journals for company, the ones I took from her room that morning I found her slumped on that cold, unforgiving stone, an empty glass vial in her hand,
I buried the vial among the roots of the wisteria that climbs up the west wall of the house. I didn’t intend to keep the journals at first. I only meant to remove that final page from the one left open on her writing table, the entry that shook its fist at fate, then chose quick release over helpless frailty. Why see her banished to some cold hillside beyond the churchyard grounds when I had a way to intercede? But as I leafed through earlier pages, it came to me that I didn’t want some stranger’s fingers tracing her copperplate handwriting, nor a stranger’s mind sifting and sorting through her thoughts.
Everyone knew her heart was failing. No one questioned the tale I told. Before I die, I’ll burn the journals and no one ever will.
Kristi Ross’s articles on art, culture, travel and the environment have appeared in various magazines, newspapers and books, but fiction is a new direction. Her first fictional story has been selected for an Australian anthology due out later this year. She and her two cats live in a patch of tropical jungle surrounded by birds, butterflies and loudmouth frogs.
© 2022, Kristi Ross