I never set out to help kill my son.
Even reading the words seems odd—like something you might see in a tabloid newspaper.
I was not the kind of person this happened to. Or at least, I thought I wasn’t. My life was a fairly structured one—an ordinary one, by modern standards. I had been married for almost thirty-seven years, I raised two children, I kept my career, helped out at the school, the PTA, and joined the bench once the children didn’t need me anymore.
I had been a magistrate for almost eleven years. I watched the whole of human life come through my court: the hopeless waifs who couldn’t get themselves together sufficiently even to make a court appointment on time; the repeat offenders; the angry, hard-faced young men and exhausted, debt-ridden mothers. It’s quite hard to stay calm and understanding when you see the same faces, the same mistakes made again and again. I could sometimes hear the impatience in my tone. It could be oddly dispiriting, the blank refusal of humankind to even attempt to function responsibly.
And our little town, despite the beauty of the castle, our many Grade II listed buildings, our picturesque country lanes, was far from immune to it. Our Regency Squares held cider-drinking teenagers; our thatched cottages muffled the sounds of husbands beating their wives and children. Sometimes I felt like King Canute, making vain pronouncements in the face of a tide of chaos and creeping devastation. But I loved my job. I did it because I believe in order, in a moral code. I believe that there is a right and a wrong, unfashionable as that view might be.
I got through the tougher days because of my garden. As the children grew it had become a bit of an obsession of mine. I could give you the Latin name of almost any plant you cared to point at. The funny thing was, I didn’t even do Latin at school—mine was a rather minor public school for girls where the focus was on cooking and embroidery, things that would help us become good wives—but the thing about those plant names is that they do stick in your head. I only ever needed to hear one once to remember it forever: Helleborus niger, Eremurus stenophyllus, Athyrium niponicum. I can repeat those with a fluency I never had at school.
They say you only really appreciate a garden once you reach a certain age, and I suppose there is a truth in that. It’s probably something to do with the great circle of life. There seems to be something miraculous about seeing the relentless optimism of new growth after the bleakness of winter, a kind of joy in the difference every year, the way nature chooses to show off different parts of the garden to its full advantage. There have been times—the times when my marriage proved to be somewhat more populated than I had anticipated—when it has been a refuge, times when it has been a joy.
There have even been times when it was, frankly, a pain. There is nothing more disappointing than creating a new border only to see it fail to flourish, or to watch a row of beautiful alliums destroyed overnight by some slimy culprit. But even when I complained about the time, the effort involved in caring for it, the way my joints protested an afternoon spent weeding, or my fingernails never looking quite clean, I loved it. I loved the sensual pleasures of being outside, the smell of it, the feel of the earth under my fingers, the satisfaction of seeing things living, glowing, captivated by their own temporary beauty.
After Will’s accident I didn’t garden for a year. It wasn’t just the time, although the endless hours spent at the hospital, the time spent to-ing and fro-ing in the car, the meetings—oh God, the meetings—took up so much of it. I took six months’ compassionate leave from work and there was still not enough of it.
It was that I could suddenly see no point. I paid a gardener to come and keep the garden tidy, and I don’t think I gave it anything but the most cursory of looks for the best part of a year.
It was only when we brought Will back home, once the annex was adapted and ready, that I could see a point in making it beautiful again. I needed to give my son something to look at. I needed to tell him, silently, that things might change, grow, or fail, but that life did go on. That we were all part of some great cycle, some pattern that it was only God’s purpose to understand. I couldn’t say that to him, of course—Will and I have never been able to say much to each other—but I wanted to show him. A silent promise, if you like, that there was a bigger picture, a brighter future.
Steven was poking at the log fire. He maneuvered the remaining half-burned logs expertly with a poker, sending glowing sparks up the chimney, then dropped a new log onto the middle. He stood back, as he always did, watching with quiet satisfaction as the flames took hold, and dusted his hands on his corduroy trousers. He turned as I entered the room. I held out a glass.