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Wyndham Hall

by
Lorna Roberts

John Inglis was a brilliant gardener. Everything he touched seemed to flourish. Even in my unspectacular grounds, John kept everything neat and tidy. We were treated to beautiful shows during the Spring and Summer with chrysanthemums, dahlias, lilies and irises all blooming. The effect was like a still fireworks display. The colours leapt out at you. Nothing extraordinary had ever happened in the garden of Wyndham Hall until the Summer of 1951.  One morning we found a hole in the glass of the large greenhouse like a cricket ball had gone through but there was nothing to find inside. Whether it was related to the meteor shower the night before, I do not know. More likely youths playing raucously. A month later, John he came to the door of the big house, cap in hand, excited. His rosy cheeks glowed and his eyes had that unforgettable twinkle…

            “We’ve got a lovely specimen growing in the greenhouse, Mr McLeod. Thing is, I’ve no idea where it’s come from. It wasn’t there last year and I’ve no record of what it could be.”

            He brought me outside to show me. Next to the purple azalea was a leafy pink trumpet the colour of a silk ballet slipper. It was about a foot tall. The leaves were shiny and the petals looked like delicate cotton. Moreover, it had a delicious, sweet smell like strong strawberries. It seemed to want to pull you closer.

            “Well, you’re to be commended. It looks fabulous, John,” I said. Our Open Gardens Day will be a brilliant success with it.” And with that, I returned to the house to leave John to his work.

            Over the next month, the mystery plant kept growing and growing until its trumpet was the size of a very large vase. John had done all he could to identify the plant- consulted encyclopaedias in our library, phoned experts- but it remained a wonderful mystery. However, I was pulled out of my reverie when our beloved moggy, Hercules, disappeared. He was a bold cat, always getting into scrapes so we weren’t too worried at first. But as time passed, we had to accept that our house cat wasn’t coming back. That would prove not to be our first tragedy of the season. Several weeks later, our dachshund, Boris, who was out loose in our grounds also disappeared. We thought at first he’d escaped and got hit by a car but no. We searched for rabbit holes in case he had gotten stuck. Still nothing. John hunted high and low for him but there was no trace. The day of the Open Garden loomed. It was an annual event in our village and one we’d taken part in for over twenty years. John’s hard work had made it a success every time.

            We had a steady stream of visitors that day. It was a beautiful, warm Summer’s day. All was going brilliantly until we heard a commotion from outside the house, in the garden.

            A woman was distraught and being comforted by her husband.

            “Where’s Annie? We’ve lost Annie!” the woman said.

            “What’s wrong?” I asked.

            “My daughter, Annie! She’s three years old. She was running around the garden until she wasn’t. Someone must have taken her.”

            A massive search of the grounds ensued. In the pond. Behind the out houses. But no child was found.

            “We need to call in the police,” I said. John was more reluctant. He didn’t trust them and was hesitant at the thought of them going through his precious garden with sticks and heavy boots. But as time wore on, there was still so sign of the little girl. The police arrived quickly, complete with blue flashing lights. One team quickly went to the garden to start an official search. Another took John and I aside for questioning.

            “When did you last see the little girl?” the sergeant asked

            “I haven’t seen her at all- we’ve had a few children running around. I couldn’t pick her out,” I said.

            “I saw a little one in the greenhouse a few hours ago but that was it,” said John.

            “PC Gilmour!” the sergeant yelled. “Focus around the greenhouse.”

            We could see the team of police officers congregate outside before one opened the door and three or four disappeared inside. John winced. About ten minutes later, they emerged from the greenhouse. There was a commotion and the sergeant was called over to speak to the group. He returned to us a minute later.

            “They’ve found a child’s shoe in the greenhouse but nothing else. John Inglis, I’m arresting you on suspicion of causing harm to Annie Wilson.” At that, he produced a pair of handcuffs and instructed John to turn around so they could be applied.

            John looked ashen faced. He could barely speak.

            “B- but you can’t arrest John,” I protested. “He was around the garden all day.”

            “Exactly,” said the officer. “He had the opportunity.”

            “But you don’t have a motive. John would never hurt anybody. All that matters is his garden.”

            “Precisely. What if that little girl had been running through his flowers and he got angry. Maybe he accidentally hurt her, then panicked? None of this looks good for you, Mr Inglis.” At that, the cuffs were locked and John was led away to the waiting police van and put inside.

            It was a tense twenty four hours but John was eventually released on bail. He looked shocked to the core to have been subject to the police’s questioning. He was just a gardener after all. I offered him time off but all he wanted to do was find peace in the garden. Unfortunately, the garden was off limits while the police conducted further searches so he was eventually persuaded to go home. A few days later, all charges were dropped, no further evidence could be found and the police widened their focus to encompass known paedophiles in the area of whom, John, was not one. John looked happier to be back when I saw him with a wheelbarrow the next week.

            “Mr McLeod. Horrible business with the little girl, you know. But I didn’t have anything to do with it.”

            “I know. I know you, John. You wouldn’t hurt a fly unless it was bothering your plants.”

            John laughs. “You should see that pink trumpet now, Mr McLeod. It’s massive. Like something from the Botanic Gardens, only they don’t know what it is either. Someone’s coming down next week to take a look.”

            We both wandered towards to greenhouse but even before you reached its exterior, the smell of sugar and strawberries hit you like a strong soap. John opened the door and there it was, towering above all the other plants. Majestic. It’s developed veins that ran up the main tube were blood red, like interior structure developing  to hold up its now considerable size. Now it was head height, and I’m not a small man, I peered some-way down the trumpet where it seemed there was some kind of pink sludge at the bottom. “It’s certainly something,” I said. ”I’ll leave you to it, John,” I opened the door of the greenhouse and started the walk back up the small hillock to the house.

            Several days passed uneventfully. Until the morning the doorbell rang at nine. A rosy cheeked young man with auburn hair stood at the door wearing a botanical garden fleece, jeans and heavy work boots.

            “Thank you for coming,” I said. I ushered him into the formal sitting room and indicated he could sit on the old sofa. “I’m sorry, John’s not here yet. He’s been excited about your visit all week. I’m sure he’ll arrive any minute.”

            “No problem,” said the young botanist. “Thanks for the invite. As I said, I’m Christopher, and I’m here to try and identify this plant of yours. I need to take some pictures and measurements.”

            “Super. If you want to follow me out, I’ll take you to it now.”

            So the pair of us left the house and wandered down the hill. Christopher was quite taken with the grounds and I felt a sense of pride.

            “It’s just in here,” I said, opening the greenhouse’s white metal door like a showman to his audience.

            “Oh, wow. You can smell it from here.” said Christopher.

            “Mmmm. There it is.”

            Christopher was drawn as if by tractor beam towards the largest plant in the space.

            “Amazing. Quite extraordinary!” He hovered around, hands outstretched but hesitating to touch it. He tentatively touched the leaves with the delicacy of a doctor conducting an examination on a nervous patient. He caressed the length of the trumpet. Breathing in the heady smell.

            “Well, it’s not dissimilar to a Sarracenia leucophylla or white trumpet pitcher plant but at a much larger scale. Or maybe a Amorphophallus titanum or corpse flower except this has a much nicer scent.”

             I looked around anxiously. John should be here. This has been his passion project since her discovered it.

             “I’ll just get some data.” Christopher pulled out his camera and started taking photographs. Then, putting it away, he undertook a series of measurements from every angle. When he finished, he stood back from the plant as much as the cramped conditions of the greenhouse allowed and put his hands on his hips. He was staring at the plant, drinking it in.

             “Do you have any plans for it?” he asks.

             “Not that I’m aware of.”

             “Well, the botanical garden would love to take it off your hands, if you’d consider it.”

             “Of course. Be my guest”

             “Brilliant. Thanks very much. I’ll just nip back to the van and grab a few things.” So I waited as Christopher disappeared for about five minutes before returning with a small trolley and a spade.

              It was then I spotted John’s familiar cap lying on the ground. How strange that he would have left it just lying around on the ground. Christopher proceeded to dig it up- the roots were surprisingly long- and then the pair of us had to work together to wrestle it out of the ground as the weight of the plant belied it’s appearance. Christopher wrangled it onto the trolley, we tied it down with bungee cord and then he wheeled it out the door, towards the driveway in front of the house where he was parked. I followed.

            “Well, thank you for your help,” I said. “It’s just a pity John couldn’t be here. It’s odd he hasn’t phoned to say he was arriving late. I hope he’s not ill.”

            “No, thank you. It’s a great specimen. We’ll be able to do more work on identifying it back at our labs.”

            And with that he slammed the doors of the van shut and climbed into the driver’s seat. The engine revved and he drove down the driveway and out onto the road and out of sight. John didn’t show up that day, or any day after that. After twenty four hours, I called the police. They checked his house and, after forcing entry, found it looking normal but with no sign of John. Their working theory is that he did have something to do with the disappearance of little Annie and had gone on the run.

             I mourn the missing of my great companion and his green fingers. I hope he’s able to keep contributing to the betterment of plant life wherever he may now be.

Lorna Roberts is a writer from Perth, Scotland (not the one in Australia). She has been published online twice before some years ago. She loves sci-fi, especially The Day of the Triffids which she watched when she was far too young and has haunted her ever since.

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