By Brindley Hallam Dennis
It must be ten years ago now; thereabouts. It was the harshest winter we’d had for years, except for the one immediately before; or was it the one just after? There were two of them, one after the other, with snow that fell thick and lay for weeks; with frost that capped the pools and hung from the gutters and the eaves till the sparkling white had turned as rust brown as it was iron hard. Even the lake froze over, and in the mornings, just after I’d arrived at work, I’d watch the first boat of the day ice-break its way, sending from its bows slow motion waves that lifted and crackled in the sharp still air and crisped into perfect stillness, as if suddenly a film had been brought to a halt, though the boat would, almost literally, plough on. And circling cracks such as you might find on a window pane not quite broken, would spread out and set like sugar-work into the white-grey surface.
It was a part-time job on the minimum wage, two days a week, but I liked the work out there in the garden, looking down on the water. Besides, I needed the money and I got a good breakfast too for the house staff looked after me and were there even when no guests were staying.
We were two miles up the valley from the main hotel, but that was far enough to tell the difference where weather was concerned that winter, those winters. It got so bad that once or twice they ferried us up in the four by four and we left our vehicles on the main car-park. There was always something for the house staff to do, always something for me, if I played my cards right.
There was the garden furniture to sand down and re-stain for the wood, wire-brush and repaint for the metal. I’d eek out those jobs over the whole season, saving them for days when it was too bitterly cold or too rough to be outside. There were days when you could feel the air contract, feel it close in around you as the temperature dropped, and water droplets hanging from the little branches and the leaves would crystallize into globules of ice.
On bright days when the sun blazed and the sky was blue, the sheet-ice lake sparkled, and the mountains really did look like iced cakes. I’d work outside then. There was always the quarter mile drive up from the road to keep clear. Sometimes it could be knee deep in crunchy snow. And there would be a tight turning circle at the bottom, by the road, where the gates made their own angel-wings.
At six pound forty-nine an hour, or thereabouts, I still felt that it was mine. I knew that ground better than anyone else; knew where the fell wall was poised for a thaw that would bring twelve feet of it crashing down in the spring; knew where the crocuses and the primulas would appear. I knew where the insomniac red squirrel would run along the top of that dry-stone wall to get my feeders, and where the crows perched, waiting for the chance to break in and steal the nuts. I waited each Christmas for the snowdrops to show: a long procession of green robed acolytes, their white hoods not yet visible, winding along the hedgerow and spilling out onto the grass beneath the ornamental trees. There was a robin that fed from my hand until winter took him.
It was a fellside garden: steeply sloped, rhododendrons and laurel, ferns and bracken pushing their way in when my back was turned, old sycamore and pine marking its internal boundaries. Buzzards and kestrels would dog-fight the crows for mastery of the air above.
The owner visited several times a year. He had a couple of dozen similar assets, but said ours was his favourite. Celebrities came to stay: film stars, musicians, TV personalities, politicians not yet disgraced, has-beens and fat cats of one sort, or another. Some would chat, and perhaps bluff an offer to help out, trusting you to decline. Mostly, the owner would stay at the main building, but every now then he’d bring a little entourage for afternoon teas or private conferences in our big old dining room with its walk-in fireplace.
He paid such a visit during one of those winters. I can’t remember which, but it was a bright day and I was digging out the hard-packed snow half-way up the drive when the manager drove up. I walked down to where he waited at the gates. He looked up the drive and said, “Can I be a pain?”
“I have every faith,” I told him. When he’d recovered, he told me that the owner would be on his way in half an hour and expected to park up at the house. “Can you clear it in time?”
I could, but I made a point of taking a long panoramic look before I said, “I’ll do my best.”
The owner and his entourage ensconced themselves in the big room and I was called to bring in logs for that fire. He was on his knees in front of it. Twisted and scorched newspapers and broken sticks lay in the grate. Some of the sticks were charred. Spent matches littered the hearth. There was a smudge of soot on his cheek, and on that Armani cuff too I think.
“Do you know how to light a fire?”
I nearly laughed. He was a multi-millionaire.
“Yes,” I said. “I do.”
Shortly after that I moved on. My old boss sold the house to someone who quite literally had the slope on which I used to garden removed. Perhaps only I know what has gone.
Brindley Hallam Dennis lives on the edge of England where he writes occasional plays, poetry, and essays. His writing has been published and performed. He blogs at www.Bhdandme.wordpress.com
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