William gathered the gladioli first, making sure to cut long stems and choose ones that weren't quite open yet, just being touched with colour at the base. They were only just coming into flower, but the cutting beds had just been made his especial domain, and he was pleased to be able to provide such good blooms at the very beginning of their season. He laid them in his basket and let the morning sun warm his back. He wasn't going to complain about this task; he'd been digging fresh compost and manure into the vegetable beds for the last three days, so a bath and an order to deck the public rooms for the arrival of the family was a welcome change.
He hummed as he added some English daisies, some primroses and freesias and other spring flowers. Some of the rooms needed smaller arrangements, and he wasn't going to waste this opportunity to stay away from the fertiliser. The family would only be here for the weekend, but if the head gardener was going to let him escape from the backbreaking labour of late spring just to cut and arrange some flowers, he wasn't going to argue or hurry. Well, the gardener had told him to hurry, and to be out of the house before any of them arrived, but he was pretty sure he could stretch the task to an entire morning.
The inside of the house was nearly ready, and William made sure to scrub his shoes on the mat at the kitchen entrance. No point getting his ears boxed by the maids - at least, not for having dirty shoes. He collected the vases from the main rooms and made them up in the conservatory. It was warm in there, and there was a door back out to the garden if he needed something else. The gladioli filled the taller vases like a collection of spring umbrellas and walking sticks, giving one a sense of the outdoors and the sweet joys of warmer days. William appreciated the colour and vigour of the arrangements.
He'd been to London a few times, mostly passing through, on his way to and from the Front. Once, when he was already at home on sick leave and had been sent to bring his brother home, he'd just had time to visit the botanical gardens at Kew while he waitedl. He'd stopped and watched one of the gardeners there coax an arrangement out of some of the most exotic flowers William had ever seen - he didn't even know the name of half of them - and all at once he'd seen the difference in an arrangement made on purpose, to one made at random. It was the simple facts of life, but made deliberate in form and artful in function. It was the one good memory he held of that time, and he kept it close. His brother had only just made it home, William had been sent back to the Front, but now William made small posies for his grave and wondered what deliberation he was putting into that work. He put that thought aside and concentrated on the flowers.
He dimly heard a car pull into the driveway as he put the last vases into their rooms. He returned to the conservatory to clear up the remaining blooms and his secateurs, happy that he was done just in time. He used the back passages to go back and forth to the kitchens, letting the house open itself to its owners. He spent more time in it than they did, but he was just a gardener, and not even the head gardener at that, though he supposed he might be one day.
He made one last trip back to the conservatory to gather up the remaining blooms. They made a fair armful still, and he wondered if he'd be able to carry them all. The door opened as he contemplated it, and he recognised Mr Thomas, the son of the house, followed by another man, a stranger. It had been some time since he'd seen Mr Thomas, and William's first thought was that he looked tired. Then Mr Thomas looked full at him.
"James?" he asked. He passed his hand over his face, and William saw that he was shaking. "James, they told me-"
William didn't wait for him to finish the sentence. He knew who Mr Thomas thought he was. "I'm William," he said.
The man who had followed Mr Thomas let his hand rest on his shoulder and looked at William in a manner half-dubious, half-challenging. It was a supportive gesture, almost possessive, and William had seen that sort of closeness before, and recognised the challenge. He had no interest in the secrets of others, though. The aftermath of the war had not been easy, and he saw no reason to say that someone's relief from their own particular nightmares was wrong. Here he was, buried in the garden in the countryside, and just holding his own at bay sometimes.
"James spoke of you," William said, not sure what the appropriate thing to do was. Surely he should leave, or be dismissed, but Mr Thomas looked at him then, and there was that lonely, hungry expression that William had seen on his brother's face before he died. Young as he'd been still, just eighteen for all he'd been six months at the Front already, and wounded to boot, he'd not really understood what his brother had meant, just the desperation he had to say it. He'd sent his mother to bed the night that James had died, and had held his brother's feeble, claw-like hand, and made promise after promise. Of how Mr Thomas was coming soon. Of how much he loved James. Of how he'd look after him, just as James had looked after him and carried him to safety. He understood more now, though, and looking at Mr Thomas's face was the other half of what James had tried to tell him in increasingly painful fragments. No, Mr Thomas and his friend had nothing to fear from him.
"He loved you," William said, not bothering to prevaricate or drag anything out. If there was one thing he'd learned, from the hard cold of trying to make ends meet in the winters to the sweet beginnings of spring and the abundance of autumn, it was that life was simple, but we dressed it up in complicated forms and made it hard. Saying something plainly didn't make it hurt less, but it deliberate in form, and let the art of the feeling come through clearly. He didn't know how James had loved Mr Thomas, much less how that love had been reciprocated or expressed, and he didn't really want to imagine it. He didn't have to. He just had to accept it, and, if he could, look for the beauty in that simple fact. "He would have done it all again," he said. "James would have."
"I would have done it for him," Mr Thomas said. William just nodded. He didn't doubt it. He couldn't even bring himself to wish that it had happened the other way. Loss, unfairness, grief, these were all facts that wouldn't change, like the sharpness of a spring frost, or the inconvenience of summer rain - predictable in existence, but always unexpected in practice.
"He was glad," said William. "He would have been glad to see you again, alive and well."
Mr Thomas's shoulders sagged, and his friend's hand tightened on him. William was sure that only his presence was stopping him from gathering Mr Thomas close to him, to do whatever it was until the shaking and the pain receded. He nodded to them both again and gathered up his flowers, just fitting them in his arms. The gladioli were for strength and faithfulness, the daisies for true love and secrets, while the primroses were for young love. William thought again of the way James's hand had clung to his, and looked at Mr Thomas straightening himself up and pulling back on whatever mask it was he wore to hide, and he knew they'd all of them seen and done things that no honest man should ever have to. That was just something else to accept. If he'd come through relatively unscathed, well, the devil was in the relatively, and it was all just luck and hope, when it came down to it.
"If you'd like to come out to the garden later, I'd be pleased to show you how it goes on," William said. He wasn't quite sure what he was offering, but it didn't much matter. He thought of his brother's hand clinging to his again. Anything he could do to help lift Mr Thomas up would be a good thing.
"Yes," said Mr Thomas. "I should let you go. But I would love to see the gardens. There is something so hopeful about them, isn't there?"
William just smiled. Hopeful, yes, with their small triumphs of germination and flowering and seasonal ebbs and flows. It was exactly the right word.