It was Doctor Sweet’s final project: an honesty garden.
He transformed an old Royal Mail pillar box into a receptacle for donations that visitors might wish to make. To deposit notes or coins, one had to put a hand into the wide black mouth of the box, rather like a guilty tourist approaching the Bocca Della Verita, Rome's great Mouth of Truth. The parallel was deliberately engineered on Doctor Sweet's part; he had wanted to capture the sense of a test to be passed for those who walked through his work - should they consider themselves worthy to tread his manicured lawns, to sniff his buddleias? He liked the thought of the pillar box giving them pause, but, as he watched from between the grapevines of his greenhouse, so many of them did not even seem to see the bright red box, or the polite sign asking them to contribute. And he was not surprised so much as disappointed.
Still, he wanted people to find peace in his garden, whether they helped with the upkeep or not. He had placed many iron benches, with swooping backs and curling arms, in the places where he envisaged people would like to sit, and he painted each bench a different colour. Every day those benches filled with regular and occasional visitors.
The white bench, only a few feet from the entrance, overlooked Lunaria Annua, the tall flowers known as Honesty, and the red bench he placed in the midst of the roses. The blue belonged under the willows, with a view down to the bullrushes and lily pads, where the Koi Carp swam and the Moor hens peeped out of their nests. The orange bench sat up on the hill, where a wilderness of wild flowers crowded around its feet, Centauria Cyanus and Papaver Rhoes; the purple bench reclined between the hibiscus and the hydrangeas. The pink lived in the orchard, where the cherry boughs bent their branches to meet it.
And then there was the yellow bench.
The girl sat on the yellow bench every Tuesday and Thursday, and spent the hour between one and two in his Japanese Water Garden. She never paid any money in to the Mouth of Truth. Paying to sit amid his blooms was, he thought, beneath her.
Yes, unrequited love, how pathetic, how common for a man his age to want a girl her age. Doctor Sweet bored himself with his fantasies of leaving an orchid on the yellow bench for her to find, a Phalaenopsis Aphrodite as pale as her skin, or maybe lilies as delicate as the swoop of her shoulders in her cream blouse as she bent her head to tap into her mobile phone at a frighteningly proficient speed. He had no intention of ever acting on his fantasies. He found reasons to loiter in the Japanese Garden while she was there, but never once attempted even a smile in her direction, and she ignored him as befitted a girl that age. Doctor Sweet had come to the conclusion that the young believed an unleapable chasm divided them from the previous generations; it was only with hindsight that the chasm became a mere crack in the soil, stepped over lightly and without much in the way of thought.
Because of this, he respected the girl for never once glancing at him. In return he tried and nearly succeeded in not looking at her. He thought of this as an unspoken agreement.
It was she who broke their contract, one Tuesday, when the Firebush berries had just begun to turn from red to black. He had his back to her, and was wondering whether to cut back the bamboo early this year, when she spoke.
'Have you worked here long?' she said.
He took his time turning around. She held a cardboard cup between both hands, and half a croissant lay on a paper bag beside her. She was framed by the Wisteria; it was a perfect moment.
'For thirty years,' he said. 'Since it opened.'
'So you know the man who owns it, then?'
'What made him build all this? Does he really like plants that much?'
Doctor Sweet imagined how this conversation could unfold. He would pretend to be a mere gardener, and every Tuesday and Thursday she would warm to him a little more, thinking of him as a casual confidante. And he would tell her of his life, deep secrets, and all the while she would think they were not his, and it would be a guilty pleasure, like a daffodil pinched from a neighbour's garden. How ridiculous it would all be.
'I'm the owner,' he said. 'I'm Doctor Sweet.'
'Oh. Right.' She sipped her drink. 'I didn't realise you still did the gardening.'
'I've always loved to grow things. From when I was a little boy. My mother gave me a packet of sunflower seeds. Have you ever grown sunflowers?'
'I grew a broad bean once. In school. It died.'
'Then you didn't give it enough love,' he said. 'That, or you forgot to water it.'
He enjoyed her sudden smile. 'Yeah,' she said. 'So what type of garden is this?'
'A Japanese Water Garden. I spent a few years in Japan, working at the Sento Gosho. It's a garden in Kyoto, built for Emperor Go-Mizunoo's retirement.'
'Is he important?'
'He was.' Doctor Sweet brushed at the knees of his trousers.
'Did he die?'
'Yes, but he retired in the year 1630 so he wasn't exactly a close friend. Although I felt I knew him. From tending his garden. A garden tells you all you need to know about a person. Do you like it?'
She put down the cup and frowned at him. 'Like what?'
'It's lovely.' She flapped her hand around her face; perhaps an insect had flown too close. 'I like this bit the best. It's very relaxing, after all morning in the office. I'm trying to save up for university.'
'What will you study?'
'I don't know yet. How come you studied to be a Doctor and then gave it all up for plants, then?'
'I'm not a Doctor of Medicine. I took a PhD in Botany at the University of Hawaii. I won a scholarship.' He thought of the rising volcanoes and the waves as large and strong as Koa trees; he had never tired of watching them. And the women, wearing hibiscus blossoms in their hair. If they wore it behind their right ear, they were looking for company, and he had always been happy to oblige.
The Koa trees were nearly gone now, he had read in National Geographic. Cut down to make surfboards and souvenirs.
'Maybe I should study plants,' she said.
'Oh, I think you'd know by now if that was your calling.'
'Yeah. I'm more of an animal person. So where else have you been?'
'Oh, all over.' He didn't want to list them, like reading out a menu, for her to pick her favourites. He found he didn't want to tell her of the way the strident pink flowers of the Himalayan Balsam exploded, spraying its seed far and wide across the mountains. Or the vast calm he had felt in the presence of the Gingko tree, the largest and oldest fruit-bearing tree in the world, that had been planted by a prince in the tenth century and lived on in the grounds of the Yogamunsa temple in Korea. Edelweiss, the silver stars in the Alps, the intertwining stems of spotted beebalm in the Bayou, delicate creamy Arctic poppies growing amidst the rocks of Greenland in summer: these would, he decided, be experiences she couldn't understand. It would be a waste of his breath to tell her.
She looked away, picked up her mobile phone, and started to tap. Doctor Sweet moved on without saying goodbye. As he made his way to the greenhouse and started to pot tomato seeds, he thought of how he hated the fact that it didn't matter what the girl was actually like, as a person, so much as what she had come to represent. She was not particularly interesting to talk to, and she had no grace in her manner, no appealing character trait to hang his fantasies upon. All she had was a resemblance to a girl he had once spent time with, while working on tulip crossbreeding in the Keukenhof Gardens. He hadn't thought himself particularly in love with anything but the silky fields of tulips, stretching so far, intense blocks of colour; he had spent the nights with Utte simply because he was young, and virile. He hadn't even said goodbye to her when he received word that his funding had come through to collect plant specimens in South America with his old University professor. But now he wanted Utte, and tulips, once more. Not tulips he could grow now. He wanted the ones he had abandoned back then.
The girl's hour was up. She appeared on the path in front of the greenhouse. He watched her walk slowly to the Mouth of Truth, and this time she placed her hands on it, both of them, and stared into the black slot. Through the windows he saw her dig into her small leather handbag and take out a wallet; she opened it, selected some coins, and pushed them through the slot.
Doctor Sweet looked up; overhead the grapevines were twisting and curling around the iron beams of the greenhouse. Down by the blue bench, the dragonflies would be darting across the pond and the carp would be swimming close to the surface, opening and closing their mouths, making swirls in the water. It was impossible not to be content, when one remembered what was here, and how it had been built, through time and patience and all the experiences that living brings.
He wondered if the girl would come again on Thursday. It was not his main thought. For all the plants and trees and flowers of the world, for all he had seen and done and tended with his hands throughout his long and multicoloured life, he saved his thoughts.