The boy was brought in October to the manor because there seemed no other place for him to go. He was an orphan, he thought. At least, there had been no parent to claim him for as long as he could remember. He had lived with an elderly farmwife – large and coarse and peasant-shrewd – who knew how to support herself with a demanding voice and a disregard for laws she found inconvenient.
He hadn’t liked her, and never less than her last few years when she was weak and wheezing and stopped cleaning herself. Nearly all the work had fallen to him then, and when she died he was glad to be rid of her, though he never spoke this aloud. He might have, if anyone had asked him, but none did.
How he had been apprenticed to a gardener he wasn’t sure. An uncle, someone said, had gotten him the position. The boy hadn’t known he had an uncle, so perhaps it wasn’t true.
Still, there he was, picked up at the train station by a man with a sign, “Jacob Alistair Wood.” He wondered if his middle name really was Alistair, or that was just something they had been told to make him sound more impressive. Alistair. He had never seen it spelled out before, and committed the letters to memory. He was bundled into an old foreign car.
The gardener himself turned out to be an odd, faintly intimidating man; grayed, but not elderly; above middle height, with an adam’s apple and the smell of some ancient aftershave long out of fashion. He considered the boy seriously, nodded and said “good to have you. This’ll be home now.” He spoke briefly to the driver: “Leave his things in the hall and send him out. We’ll see about a room later.”
When Jacob caught up with the gardener a few minutes later, the man greeted him not at all, but described the growth and cycle of the shrub he was tending. He made a few precise clips, checked the bark for disease, explaining all the while, and handed the boy the shears. “Now you.”
“Sir, I’m not sure I understood it all. Could you say it again, sir?”
“Tell me what you heard.” The man said it in that expressionless voice, serious but without anger. Jacob told as much as he remembered, fearful, stuttering, trailing off into apologies.
“That’s most of it. Check just below the branch for discoloration.” He pointed to a short stretch of identical shrubs and walked off. Jacob leaped over quickly and began clipping timidly, afraid to cut – afraid not to. He breathed deeply to calm himself, without effect. Uncertainty was worse than rejection, the thought, though not in those words. To himself, he only asked questions that had no answers. “We’ll see about a room later” – did that mean he might not stay? But “This’ll be home now.” Did he mean it that way? Was he to have a room, or a place in a corner? Or in a shed?
Every hour or so the gardener would check up on Jacob, inspecting his work, commenting on it, then leading him to another task. The commenting unnerved the boy so greatly that he seemed to hear it only at a distance, observing himself and the man as if they had nothing to do with him. A bit lightheaded and forcing himself to remember the words, he stared at the man’s vest buttons. Irrelevantly, Jacob decided he liked the buttons but not the vest.
From others he had received mostly criticism, and so learned to criticize himself. Yet he was observant enough to realize that he was capable of handling tasks that boys his age were not often given, and when in the company of adults found that they sometimes knew less than he. Jacob was secretly proud that he estimated things – a distance, a length of time, a quantity of goods – better than anyone. But either way, he was constantly evaluating, pummeling himself when wrong, deeply gratified when right.
The gardener’s evaluation was like none of this: passionless, with neither praise nor condemnation. Even the raking, which he thought of as simple labor, measured only in quantity, came up for comment. “The smaller rake for this section” and “See how this moss rips up, but this’un doesn’t.” Not until spring did the boy come to see that his mistakes had badly damaged two of the shrubs. Today is was merely “those cuts will direct the growth here, where we want it.”