excerpt: The Apothecary’s Garden

An excerpt from the novel. Tom begins to explore Hilary’s overgrown physic garden.

Rhododendron nipponicumThere was a stone terrace of sorts just outside the back door, with steps against the wall leading down to the left. Plants that probably should have remained shrubs had grown tall here, right up against the tower’s feet, with gnarly branches looming aggressively towards the doorway, reaching even over Tom’s head. Hilary had only ever ventured out here once before, and had very soon retreated back inside.

Tom, however, seemed undaunted. In fact, he seemed positively cheerful. “Well, this won’t do, will it? I’m glad you said that about being ruthless, because this lot will have to go.”

Hilary managed to say something fervent about his undying gratitude.

“In the meantime, I’m going to see how far I can work my way through from the bottom of the steps,” he announced. “There might be a relatively open area in there.”

“You’ll be careful, won’t you … ?” Though Hilary was at a loss to describe what he feared might happen. Perhaps he was imagining that Tom would get stuck as if in a briar patch, and Hilary wouldn’t be able to follow him in and bring him back out again.

“Of course I’ll be careful,” Tom reassured him with a grin. “I’ll start clearing a path, if it’s any use, but what I’ll definitely do is cut back some of those bushes right up against the paved area there. You should at least be able to see out!”

“Oh!” said Hilary, not knowing what he’d ever done to deserve this. It was true that the kitchen and living area at the back of the tower were rather dark rooms, even though they faced to the south; sometimes he didn’t even bother drawing the curtains in the morning. The idea of getting some more light into his home was wonderful. “Thank you, Tom.”

“Don’t mention it!” Another wink as the young man reached the bottom of the steps – and then with a twist and a wriggle, Tom disappeared into the dark foliage.

Hilary took a breath and held it, his heart picking up an extra beat in every moment that he couldn’t see or hear or somehow sense Tom’s presence.

“Interesting!” came a muffled exclamation at last.

Hilary relaxed a little. “What’s that? What have you found?”

“Think I can make a path through here –” There was a bit of determined rustling, and then a satisfied breath. It seemed that Tom had emerged on the other side. “Oh, Mr Kent! This is –”

“This is what?” he prompted after a moment, raising his voice a little.

“This is lovely. It’s just lovely! Look, I’m going to cut these shrubs back so you can get through.” Tom’s voice seemed to float around a little closer, as if he were circling round to near where Hilary waited on the terrace. “I think they’re mostly rhododendrons gone wild. Old Thaddeus wouldn’t have planted these … To be honest, we’ll probably need to get rid of them altogether, but for now I’ll cut them right back – severely. But it’s too early to make decisions that we can’t undo, you know?”

“It’s perfectly all right!” Hilary called in response. “Do whatever you think best.”

“All right! I’ll make sure to save the wood, too. We’ll be able to use it for other things.”

“Is there anything I can do … ?” he asked, feeling rather useless.

Tom’s voice drifted back from where he must have first emerged. “Cup o’ tea is gonna be very welcome, if you don’t mind!”

“Right.” And as industrious sawing noises began, Hilary headed back inside to put the kettle on.

By the time Tom reappeared to stand by the kitchen table, the tea was growing cool, but he refused to let Hilary make a fresh pot. Instead, Tom took the opportunity to drink down two cupfuls very quickly, and then said, “Come on, I’ve got something to show you.”

Hilary was perfectly happy to follow the young man out the door again, and down the back steps. Tom had cut back enough of the shrubs to form a man–sized tunnel into the garden.

“D’you see?” Tom said, pointing into where the branches were thickest. “You can cut away just about everything, except the primary branches. There’s usually two or three of them at the heart of the thing. You can cut them right down, too, without doing the plant any harm. Though it might take a year or two to flower properly again.”

“I don’t mind about that,” Hilary assured him.

“There’ll be plenty of foliage in the meantime. Careful where you step,” Tom said, reaching to take Hilary’s hand, and then backing away before him to help lead him through. Hilary had a sense of light around Tom’s tall lean silhouette – and then they emerged.

“Oh!” Hilary cried in surprise. The garden was wild and overgrown, of course, but there was something elementally beautiful about it, and there was a feeling of openness and space that he hadn’t expected at all. “Oh, Tom! Thank you.”

“Well, don’t thank me yet,” Tom said, watching him with a smile. “A lot of this is gonna have to go. All that ivy, for a start …”

Ivy covered almost everything in a vibrant dark green, through which an assortment of living and dead plants struggled. Further down towards the river, the ivy created a canopy across what seemed to be a double row of trees.

“It’s almost like a magical glade down there,” Hilary said.

“It is, isn’t it?”

“I hardly had the first idea … My bedroom window looks over the garden, but it’s the same thick glass as downstairs, almost opaque in places. I think it might be rusted shut, because I haven’t been able to open it at all.”

“We’ll both have plenty to discover, then. It’s probably good timing, too; I think we’re seeing it at its best. But the ivy’s just going to kill everything else, and eventually it will even destroy the garden walls if you let it go. You don’t want that, do you … ? Or do you?”

“No, I agree it has to go. But the trees …”

“They should be all right. I think they’re all oaks. Pretty sturdy, anyway, and they look okay from here. Once they’re left to their own devices, hopefully you’ll get the same kind of shade from their leaves as from the ivy. You’ll have a lovely walk down to the river, that’s all your own!”

“At the moment,” Hilary observed, “it looks like the walk would go on forever.” It must be some trickery caused by the greenery, but the large tunnel formed by the trees under the ivy seemed to continue on far beyond where he knew it must come to an end. “Can we walk down there now?”

Tom laughed happily at his eagerness. “Not yet. I don’t think it would be wise to yet. And you’d better be careful if you come out here exploring. There is – or was – an old water feature running down the middle there, with a pond up here near the tower. If it’s still there, it’s all hidden under debris now, and if you go tumbling into that, you might be in trouble. You’re pretty isolated out here, aren’t you?”

“Yes. Yes, I am.”

“Apart from which, physic gardens always had a separate section for poisonous plants, the ones they grew for medicine. I have no idea where that would be, if it wasn’t all destroyed years ago, but any protective fencing or whatever will be pretty flimsy by now. You don’t want to go accidentally walking into all that either.”

Hilary had turned to look at his young friend. “You must promise me you’ll be careful, too, Tom. You won’t be reckless.”

“I promise,” the fellow easily agreed. “What I thought,” he continued blithely on, “was that I’d fetch you a chair from the kitchen, and you can sit out here and watch while I cut back some more of those rhododendrons. Then at least you’ll be able to look out over the garden from your back door.”


“We’ll leave the rest for now – see how they’re planted all along the foot of the tower? If you want to keep them, we can prune them properly later.”

“You’re very good to me,” Hilary said.

“Oh, but I have ulterior motives,” Tom reminded him with another wink.

  • The image of the rhododendrom was taken by Qwert1234, and was sourced on Wikimedia Commons.