There were two Misses Coles: Miss Lynette and Miss Lorraine. According to Sidney, who was their gardener before me, Miss Lynette was briefly Mrs Haysham. But the marriage was rather short lived. It seems that Mr Haysham, an up-and-coming solicitor, preferred the company of handsome young men. 'I reckon he just had his eye on Miss Lynette's money,' Sidney said. 'Probably thought that he could have it both ways. But apparently not.' Less than a year after their (local) society wedding, Miss Lynette was back living with Miss Lorraine and back to being Miss Coles.
The Misses Coles' father, Henry Longman Coles, had once owned most of the land on which Staverly Park is now built. I remember my grandfather muttering that it was perhaps the poorest land in all of southern England. 'Not even good for growing asparagus,' he said. 'What with the stones in the ground and the salt in the air ....' But it turned out to be just perfect for about three-and-a-half thousand houses, two schools, an industrial estate, and a major shopping centre.
After Henry Coles sold 'the poorest land in all of southern England', he took some of the proceeds and built an appropriately-impressive mansion on a three acre plot on a small rise overlooking the river. Unfortunately, he and his family had only lived in their new house for a couple of years when Mr and Mrs Coles took a trip to Florida. It was there that they had the misfortune to be killed when a high-speed boat which they had chartered slammed into a partly submerge shipping container. At the time of their parents' untimely demise, the Misses Coles were in their early 20s. By the time I became the Misses Coles' gardener, Miss Lynette must have been about 40, and Miss Lorraine a couple of years younger.
Why the unmarried sisters had continued to live in a house big enough for a family of 12 was something that I never quite understood. But they did. Miss Lorraine attended to the house and supervised my care of the gardens; and Miss Lynette produced a seemingly-endless stream of highly-saleable artworks, mainly paintings.
Even though Miss Lorraine was the younger of the two sisters, it was she who kept the family and the estate connected to the local community. Miss Lorraine had what my mother called 'a sweet demeanour'. Miss Lynette, on the other hand, was quite distant, quite standoffish, and you always got the feeling that she was just slightly irritated. Although what she had to be irritated about was something else that was beyond me. With the income from their father's investments, and the revenue from the sale of Miss Lynette's artworks, the ladies seemed to enjoy a pretty enviable lifestyle.
I was clipping the box hedge that separates the vegetable garden from the upper lawn when Miss Lorraine came to tell me that she was going out to Australia for three weeks. 'My aunt -- who is also my godmother -- is turning 70,' she said. 'Three score years and ten. Even in this day and age, quite an achievement. It's certainly a milestone that deserves to be celebrated.'
'And Miss Lynette?'
'She has a solo show up in London. At the Pickbourne Gallery. She may or may not actually go to the opening, but she likes to be "on hand", as it were. So, no, she will not be coming on this occasion.' Miss Lorraine handed me a folded piece of paper. 'I have drawn up a list of things that you might like to consider attending to in my absence. But it's just a suggestion, you understand. I think that we are fast reaching the point where you know the garden and its needs almost as well as I do. Perhaps better.' And she smiled.
When I arrived for work the next morning, the Misses Coles were just leaving for the airport, Miss Lynette driving Miss Lorraine in her Volvo Estate. Miss Lorraine smiled and waved; Miss Lynette frowned and concentrated on the road ahead.
I finished off trimming the box hedge and, as I started to rake up the clippings, it began to rain. At first, the rain was quite light, just drizzle really. It was not even worth getting my jacket out. But by the time I had finished tidying up it had turned into proper rain. Fortunately, there were plenty of things for me to do inside the greenhouse.
I was still working in the greenhouse when, shortly before three o'clock, Miss Lynette arrived carrying two mugs of tea. 'My sister said that I should bring you tea. Milk and one sugar.'
'The sugar's optional,' I said. 'But thank you.'
'She will be on her way by now,' Miss Lynette said, looking up towards the sky. 'It's quite a long way to Australia.'
'Yes. Any further, and you start coming back again.'
She frowned and then nodded. 'Yes. I suppose so.' And she made a little circling movement with her out-stretched forefinger as though she was tracing a path around an imaginary globe.
Technically, I suppose that both Misses Coles were my employer; but because Miss Lorraine managed the house and gardens, I seldom exchanged more than a few words with Miss Lynette. In the two years that I had been working for them, I don't suppose that we had exchanged more than a couple of hundred words.
'Have you been to Australia?' Miss Lynette asked.
I said that I hadn't. I told her that I had been to France and to Spain, but that was about it.
'A lot of young people do go though,' she said in a tone of voice that suggested that she didn't entirely approve. 'I wonder why. The prospect of an endless summer? Do you think that's the attraction?'
'I suppose so. The weather. The beaches. The sport.'
'Our aunt lives in a place called Gold Coast.' (She pronounced Gold Coast with equal emphasis on each of the two words.) 'I'm not sure whether it is named Gold Coast because it is a source of gold, or as an evocation of golden weather, that endless summer thing again. I hope that my sister won't find it too hot.'
An old school friend had moved to the Gold Coast where he was the concierge for a multi-storied apartment building. He said that the heat could be very trying during the summer months. But I didn't mention this to Miss Lynette. 'I gather it's a little like the Costas,' I said.
Again, she nodded. 'Fish and chips and English beer.'
'Well, maybe fish and chips. But the beer's probably Australian. They make quite a lot of their own.'
'And what will you be doing tomorrow,' Miss Lynette asked.
'Depends a bit on the weather. This rain looks as if it might have set in. But that's OK. There are still lots of things that I can be doing in here.'
She frowned slightly and looked me up and down. 'Hmm. Well, if you don't have anything urgent to do, I think I would like to paint you.'
My first reaction was to ask: What colour? But I didn't. I just sort of laughed. Nervously. 'Me?'
'Yes. But don't worry; you won't have to do anything. Just sit there. Stand there. I haven't really decided yet.'
A couple of weeks after I had started working for the Misses Coles, Miss Lynette had an exhibition at the local library. There must have been about 25 paintings and I thought that they were very good -- not that I really know too much about art.
Mostly they were paintings of the countryside. Fields of stubble. Trees. Snow drifts. And lots of interesting clouds. There were also several paintings of the river, and some of the sea shore. Some of the paintings had people in them -- farmers, fishermen, kids, that sort of thing. But when you looked closely, the people were just dabs and splodges of paint. It was very clever the way that she could just make a mark and when you looked at it you thought that you were looking at a scarf or a jumper or someone's hair blowing in the wind.
When I arrived at the greenhouse the next morning, Miss Lynette was already there. She had set up an easel and beside it there was a small folding table with paints and an earthenware pot with brushes and some other stuff.
She seemed impatient. 'No, don't take your jacket off,' she said. 'Just go and stand by the bench -- where you were working yesterday.'
I walked over to the potting bench. 'Here?'
'Yes,' she said. 'Oh ... yes ... and good morning. I should have said that, shouldn't I?'
Raindrops were running off my yellow oilskin jacket and dripping onto my boots, but I tried to stand still.
'And you can relax,' she said. 'It's a painting, not a photograph. You were right, weren't you? About the rain. It does seem to have set in.'
I nodded. But then immediately realised that I probably should not have moved my head. 'Yes,' I said. 'Although I expect that it will clear later today.'
For the next half an hour or so, Miss Lynette painted away, rapidly, frowning, mainly talking to herself, but occasionally tossing a question or statement in my direction. And then, suddenly, she was cleaning her brushes and putting the caps back on the various tubes of paint.
'Right. Yes. Thank you. You can move now,' she said.
'Is that it?'
'Well ... it'll need a bit more work back in the studio,' she said. 'But for now ....'
'May I have a look?'
'Umm ... yes. I suppose so,' she said.
What Miss Lynette had managed to do in a little over half an hour was quite remarkable. The white-painted timber frame of the greenhouse stood out against the bronze-grey sky like the sun-bleached bones of a long-dead animal in a TV nature documentary. And even though the multitude of plants were only sketched with squiggles of greens and greys and ochres, it was possible to distinguish between the lettuces and the capsicums, the geraniums and the courgettes. But what was most remarkable was my yellow jacket. A smudge of brown, another smudge of lime green, a dash of yellow, a squiggle of blue-black, and a couple of dots of almost-white, and you could see the beads of rain glistening as they ran off the glossy plasticised fabric. Miss Lynette certainly knew what she was doing.
'Is it ... is it OK?' she asked.
I just shook my head in disbelief. 'Amazing,' I said. 'Up close, it just looks like ... well, it doesn't really look like anything. But when you step back, it suddenly all comes together. I don't know how you do it.'
'Lots of practice,' she said. 'Lots and lots of practice. Many years of practice.'
Towards the end of the morning, the rain eased off (as I had expected). And by the time I had had my sandwiches at lunchtime the rain had stopped altogether. There was even a bit of sunshine. The lawns were still too wet to mow without the risk of causing surface damage. But, with the ground soft, it was the ideal opportunity to do a bit of hand-weeding.
I was just finishing off the west herbaceous border when Miss Lynette arrived with a couple of mugs of tea. 'You were right,' she said. 'The rain stopped.'
'It always seems to -- eventually,' I said. 'How is your painting?'
'Umm ... I'm reasonably happy with it. You could come and have a look. If you want to. See what you think. Come over to the house before you leave.' The final bit felt more like an instruction than an invitation.
'Thank you,' I said. 'Yes. Thank you.'
After we had finished our tea, Miss Lynette went back to the house, and I went and got a wheelbarrow and started gathering up the pulled weeds.
At about 4:30 I started to clean up, wiping down the tools, hosing out the wheelbarrow, and putting everything away for the night. And then just after five o'clock I was knocking on the back door of the big house. At first, there was no reply. I knocked again, slightly louder this time. And soon after that, Miss Lynette stuck her head out from an upstairs window. 'Come in,' she said. 'The door's not locked. At least it shouldn't be.'
I turned the handle, opened the door, and, after slipping off my boots, went into the kitchen.
'Upstairs,' Miss Lynette called out.
I had only ever been into the kitchen, so I had no idea where the stairs were, but I followed the sound of her voice and found myself at the foot of a narrow staircase. Miss Lynette was standing at the top.
'Oh, good,' she said. 'You found the right ones. I should have mentioned, there are three lots of stairs. On the original plans, the architect marked these as "the servants' stairs".' And she suddenly laughed. 'It's a pity that we don't have any servants.'
I should mention at this stage that Miss Lynette, who earlier in the day had been wearing jeans and an oversized plaid work shirt, was now wearing a dark pink towelling bathrobe. 'If it's not a good time, I could come back,' I said.
Miss Lynette frowned, and then glanced down at her bathrobe. 'Oh. No. It's fine,' she said. 'I just took the opportunity to take a quick bath. Come on up.'
I climbed the stairs and then followed Miss Lynette along a broad passage and into what I expect was originally intended to be a bedroom.
'My studio,' she said.
I immediately recognised the room from one of the paintings in the exhibition Miss Lynette had had at the library.
Opposite the door, there were two tall windows that looked out in a northerly direction towards the scruffy group of trees that Miss Lynette and Miss Lorraine jokingly referred to as The Wild Wood. To one side of the windows there was a large artist's easel. There was a table beside the easel, and on the table there were several large jars filled with paint brushes ranging in size from tiny all the way up to the sort of brush that a house painter might use.
Around the walls there must have been 40 or 50 canvases -- in various states of finish -- some looking out into the room, others with their faces to the wall. There were also several small tables and an odd assortment of chairs. Each of the small tables and each of the chairs seemed to have some unusual object sitting on it -- an old fashioned woven-wicker fisherman's basket; a sheep's skull; a large chunk of tree bark covered in lichen.
The picture which Miss Lynette had started painting in the greenhouse was sitting on the easel.
'Well?' Miss Lynette asked.
'Excellent. I mean ... I don't really know too much about paintings ... but, yes, excellent. That's just how it feels.'
Miss Lynette nodded. 'Good. Yes. I think I'm pretty pleased with it too.'
The break in the weather was rather short-lived. When I arrived for work the following morning, it was once again raining. I still had a few chores left to do in the greenhouse, so that's where I started.
By about ten o'clock, I had done pretty much everything that I could do and I was wondering if I should call it a day when Miss Lynette arrived. She was, as usual, frowning. 'Are you busy?' she said.
'Not really,' I told her. 'I've pretty much done everything that I can.'
'I need some help. While it's still raining.'
It turned out that Miss Lynette wanted to go and make a painting of a clump of ancient trees known locally as The Elders. 'I want to get the feeling of them huddled together against the wind and rain, with blurry strips of their sparse foliage reflected in the long puddles of the ploughed field in front of them.'
'Yeah, that sounds interesting. But how can I help?'
'I bought a little tent thing that gives me a bit of protection and stops the raining washing the paint off the canvas as fast as I apply it; but I need some help to put it up and to secure it against the wind.'
'Lead the way,' I said.
'If we get everything into the car, we can drive as far as Penton Bridge, and then it's just a short walk to where I think I need to be.'
I followed her back to the house where we loaded everything into her ageing Volvo and headed off for Penton Bridge. From there, it was indeed only a short walk through the willows that lined the river at that point, and we were where she thought she needed to be.
I could immediately see why she needed help with her tent. The willows had offered some protection; not a lot, but some. However, once we were out of the willows, the wind was ferocious. With some difficulty, we pitched the cube-shaped shelter and guyed it as securely as we could. We left the front and one side open, and Miss Lynette quickly went to work.
It was fascinating to watch. To my eyes, the scene was one of greyish trees against a greyish sky. Even the ploughed field in the foreground had a greyish tinge to it. But the first colour that Miss Lynette put down was a patch of rich, dark yellow. Beyond the yellow, she scrubbed in large areas of deep indigo blue, the colour of new jeans, and then, almost before she had finished that, she began roughly painting over most of the blue and the yellow with a soft muddy colour, occasionally throwing in a few streaks of dirty white. In a matter of minutes, she had created a stormy, cloud-filled sky with the low autumn sun trying to break through. It was magic.
Within an hour or so, Miss Lynette had done all that she needed to do. The scene that had at first seemed so drab had been captured with both verity and delightful hints of unexpected colour. 'The rest can be done in the studio,' Miss Lynette said.
We waited a few minutes more for the last of the wet paint to become touch dry and then we packed up and took everything back to the car. It wasn't until we had stowed the tent and the rest of her equipment, and got ourselves into the car, that we realised just how wet we had managed to get. 'Oh, well,' Miss Lynette said, 'at least the canvas stayed reasonably dry.' And, for the second time in as many days, she actually smiled.
As we drove back to the house, Miss Lynette asked me how I had got into gardening. 'You clearly have a talent for it.'
'Thank you,' I said. 'I guess it was really because I didn't like school. It wasn't that I was bad at school, I just found it boring. And so when my mother's brother offered me an apprenticeship at his nursery, I jumped at the chance. Basically, I worked at the nursery from Wednesday through to Sunday, and then on Mondays and Tuesdays I went to college to study for a Diploma in Horticulture.'
'You weren't tempted to stay in the nursery business?'
'I probably would have, but my uncle was a better nurseryman than he was a businessmen. Not long after I got my diploma, he had to sell the business. I didn't really get on with the new owners, so I took a job in the parks department at the council while I worked out what to do next. And then your job came up.'
Miss Lynette nodded, but said nothing.
'Do you mind if I ask how you became an artist?' I said.
'Lots and lots of practice,' she said. 'Lots of practice. Although I suppose my story's not that different from yours. School and I didn't get along very well. I found it difficult to make friends. I find that you do sometimes. The only subject that I really enjoyed was art. I wasn't bad at any of the other subjects; I just didn't enjoy them.
'My parents never expected me to do anything other than marry a solicitor or an investment banker or someone like that, and I managed to convince them -- my parents, that is -- that art school would be a harmless little diversion between school and marriage. Unfortunately, I didn't particularly enjoy art school either. It was a bit like school all over again. I did just enough to get my degree, and spent every spare moment trying to develop my own way of painting, my own way of saying things on canvas.'
I thought that Miss Lynette was about to say something else, so I nodded but said nothing.
'I don't know if you know, but I did marry a solicitor,' she said. 'Although my parents had died by then. They were killed in a boating accident. In Florida. Unfortunately, the marriage was not a great success. I don't think that I have very good judgement when it comes to people.'
Back at the house, Miss Lynette took her painting and the rest of her kit up to her studio, and I spread out the tent, the folding stools, and the other bits and pieces to dry in the spacious garage.
I was just thinking about what to do next when Miss Lynette appeared. 'You need to get out of those wet clothes,' she said.