“I’m really not sure about this,” said Douglas MacMillan as he slowly walked down the line of potential new recruits. “Not sure about this at all.”
He shook his head, pausing in his pacing.
“What do you think, Jim?”
His assistant, a younger man with a mop of dark hair and kind eyes, gave his boss an amused glance.
“I think you should give them a chance, Mac,” he said. “We’ve lost more than half our gardeners already, and there are bound to be more that join up. We need them.”
“We had this conversation when we put the ad in the Times, Mac. You agreed. We’re lucky so many have turned up.”
Mac huffed in disapproval.
“I’m just not sure they’re up to the job,” he muttered. “Bunch of namby-pamby lady poets and maiden aunts.”
In the line, two of the recruits exchanged a look of solidarity—they were used to being underestimated by men—before standing to attention again as Mac continued his inspection. He paused by one of the women—tall and elegant, though a closer look would reveal her skirt had been mended many times and her coat was faded.
“What’s your name?” he barked.
The woman winced, just a little, at his sharp tone, then straightened up and looked him straight in the eye.
“Louisa Taylor,” she said.
“And you want to be a horticulturalist, do you? Fancy yourself as a gardener?”
“I’m already a gardener. But I’d like to work here, yes.”
Mac huffed again. “Gardener, eh? What do you grow?”
“Vegetables, mostly, at the moment. But flowers, too. I only have window boxes because my flat is very small.”
Mac nodded and the woman continued.
“I grew up in Kent,” she said. “On a hops farm. I understand plants.”
“Hops?” Mac’s gruff Scottish voice sounded grudgingly impressed. “Not easy.”
Behind him, Jim grinned again.
“He’ll come round eventually,” he said in a low voice to the youngest woman in the line. “Don’t worry.”
She smiled at him. “Promise?” she said quietly.
A kerfuffle at the other end of the line made them both look up. A disheveled young man joined the group. His cap was askew, one trouser leg was half-tucked into his sock and he was breathing heavily.
“Sorry I’m late,” he panted. “Went to the wrong gate, and then it was difficult finding somewhere to lock up my bicycle.”
Mac, looking relieved to see another male face, left his interrogation of Louisa Taylor and turned his attention to the man.
“What’s your name?”
“Bernard,” he said, still out of breath. “Bernie. Bernie Yorke.”
“Well, Bernard Bernie Yorke,” said Mac. “Do you have any horticulture experience?”
Bernie chuckled. “Good heavens, no,” he said. “None whatsoever. But I’m a fast learner, and I’m not frightened of hard work.”
“Good,” said Mac. “You’re in. Go and give Jim your details.”
The two women exchanged another glance and the younger woman, the one who’d been talking to Jim, raised an eyebrow. “Should have said your name was Louis, not Louisa,” she said quietly.
Louisa stifled a laugh. She already liked this rather wild-looking girl beside her and hoped they’d both be chosen to work at Kew.
“Louisa?” Mac said, making her jump.
“Not one of those Suffragettes, are you?”
Louise looked straight at him. “Absolutely not, sir.”
“Good,” said Mac. “They burned the tea pavilion, you know. And destroyed the orchid house. Terrible business.”
“I heard,” Louise said.
Behind her back, she curled her fingers round the little silver hammer brooch she wore and which she’d removed just before Mac had reached her.
“You’re in,” Mac said with a definite tinge of reluctance. “Give your details to Jim.”
As Louisa went to leave the line, the younger woman next to her caught her hand and pushed something into it. It was another tiny hammer brooch.
Louisa looked at her and the younger woman pushed a strand of red hair out of her face and smiled. Giving her the tiniest of nods, Louisa headed over to where Jim sat on a tree trunk, meticulously writing down the names and addresses of all the new recruits. Bernie stood to one side, biting his lip nervously.
While she waited her turn to give Jim her information, she watched Mac interrogate the other women.
“He’s not as bad as he seems,” Jim said, watching her watching. “He’s got a good heart.”
Louisa raised an eyebrow and Jim chuckled.
“You’ll see,” he said.
Over in the line, Mac had reached the redheaded girl.
“Name,” he barked.
“Ivy Adams,” she said.
Beside Louisa, Jim raised his head, his kind eyes fixed on Ivy.
“Do you know her?” Louisa was intrigued by his interest.
“She’s some girl,” he said. “Some girl.”
Ivy was small and wiry, with that unkempt red hair that kept whipping across her face as the breeze took it.
With an exasperated sigh, she gathered her locks up in her tiny hands, twisted, and tucked it into itself.
“Sorry,” she said. “It’s so annoying. I’d like to cut it all off one day. What was you saying?”
Louisa thought Mac would react badly to Ivy’s inattention but, to her surprise, he smiled indulgently.
“You’re Paddy Adams’s oldest,” he said.
Ivy smiled. “S’right.”
“How’s your dad?”
She shrugged. “Times are tough.”
Mac looked sad. “He didn’t want to come here? I’d give him a job any day of the week. Knowledge he has of flowers is second to none.”
“Her dad worked at Columbia Road,” Jim told Louisa. She looked at him, curiously. How did he know that? “One of the best flower sellers down there, until . . .”
“He’s drinking,” Ivy said, abruptly. “Too much. And we ain’t seen him properly for weeks. You know what he’s like. You don’t want him here, sir.”
“Shame,” said Mac.
“He taught me everything.”
Mac looked her up and down. “You might have the knowledge, but you’re tiny. You’re not built for physical work.”
“I’m small, but I’m strong as an ox,” she said. “Give me a chance and I’ll prove it.”
“I don’t know, Ivy.”
“Please,” she said. “For my dad?”
There was a pause. Louisa silently urged Mac to give Ivy the chance she obviously wanted so desperately.
“Fine,” he said eventually. “But if it’s too much, you tell me?”
“I will,” she said. “Thank you, sir.”
“That’s my girl,” breathed Jim next to Louisa. Ahh, so they did know each other? Interesting.
Ivy appeared at Bernie’s elbow.
“I’m in,” she said happily. “One of the team.”
Jim gave her a beaming smile. “You did well.”
“Do you want my details?”
He showed her the form he was filling in with a stubby pencil. “Already wrote them down. See?”
A shadow drifted across Ivy’s face, just for a second, and then vanished. She gazed at Jim and the pair seemed to lose sight of everyone else for a moment. Louisa felt a tiny stab of envy remembering how lovely it once was to have someone look at her that way. Before things changed, of course. She pushed her shoulders back. She was far better off alone.
“Ahem,” Bernie said, clearing his throat and interrupting Ivy and Jim’s moment. “I was just wondering what will happen now?”
Jim blinked, as though he’d forgotten where he was for a second.
“Mac,” he called. “What now?”
Mac looked over. “Give them a tour,” he said. “Show them the palm house, and the temperate house first, I reckon. Then maybe take them over to the magnolias.”
Jim grinned. “Right then,” he said. “Follow me.”
Obediently, Bernie, Louisa and Ivy fell into line behind him. Bernie began quizzing Jim about the plants they were passing, and Jim answered even the silliest questions good-naturedly.
“I’m glad we’re going to get to work together,” said Ivy to Louisa as they walked. “I think we’ve got a lot in common.”
Realizing what she meant, Louisa dug around in the pocket of her coat for her brooch and held it out to her.
“Here,” she said.
Ivy took it and pinned it on the underside of her lapel. Louisa followed her lead and the two women nodded to each other.
“I’ve never seen you before,” Louisa said.
Ivy shook her head. “Nor me, you. Do you live nearby?”
Ivy rolled her eyes. “Hackney,” she said.
“That’s quite a journey.”
The young woman nodded. “Worth it, though. I spend a lot of time round the Gardens. Always have done, since I was little. ’Cause of my dad and that.”
“That how you know Jim?” Louisa asked.
Ivy flushed. “S’pose,” she said. “Are you still going to meetings?”
With the change of subject, it was clear Ivy wasn’t going to give anything else away about her and Jim. Amused at her reaction, Louisa decided to let it lie for now.
“Not really,” she said. “We’ve all but stopped over in Wandsworth. Mrs. Pankhurst doesn’t want anything interfering with the war effort.”
“Us, too,” Ivy agreed. “Nothing going on.”
“I miss it.”
Louisa grinned at her, thrilled that someone understood.
“Me, too,” she admitted. “So much. I miss the meetings and the women and the friendships. And I have to confess, I miss the thrill of the action, too.”
The shadow crossed Ivy’s face again and was gone in a flash.
“Mostly why I wanted to come and work here,” she said. “So I could make some friends and feel useful again. Useful on my own terms, I mean. Not just doing what my dad tells me to do.”
They were approaching the palm house. Its huge windows sparkled in the weak sunlight and Louisa felt a rush of excitement. Oh, to be given the chance to work here, in the most wonderful gardens in the world. She was lucky.
Impulsively, she looped her arm through Ivy’s. The younger woman froze at first, then relaxed.
“Are you nervous?” Ivy said.
Louisa shrugged. “Nervous and excited, I suppose.” She paused. “I’ve had a few ups and downs these last couple of years. More downs than ups, really. This feels like a new beginning for me.”
“‘New beginning,’” Ivy echoed. “I like that. Maybe it could be one for me, too.”
“Tsk, you’re a baby. Why would you need a new beginning?” Louisa chuckled. But that shadow wafted over Ivy’s eyes once more and the younger woman shuddered.
“I reckon everyone could do with starting over, once in a while,” she said mildly, gazing up at the palm house. “Shall we go in?”
Louisa nodded, and arm in arm, the two women followed Bernie and Jim into the palm house.
Louisa was exhausted when she finally made it home to her tiny basement flat in Wandsworth after her first day at Kew. Exhausted, but happy. She hadn’t realized quite how much she had missed being outdoors.
As she crossed the threshold, though, her good mood wavered for a second as she saw the letter lying on the mat.
“Oh, Ma,” she whispered as she bent down to pick it up. She looked at the envelope for a second or two. Her mother had written every week since Louisa left Kent, half a year ago. Louisa hadn’t opened any of the letters. She didn’t want to know what her mother had to say, because she wasn’t sure she could ever forgive her for not supporting Louisa when she needed her most.
Louisa breathed in deeply, a long, shuddery breath. More importantly, if she wrote back, then that would confirm to everyone where she was. She’d given her address to her brother, Matthew, but she’d never expected him to share it with their parents—and if he’d told them where she was, who knew if he’d told anyone else? If he’d let it slip to Reg that she was in Wandsworth . . . She shivered at the idea of her husband finding her, remembering the hatred she’d seen in his eyes when he told her she was his forever.
Shaking her head to get rid of the unwelcome memory she dropped her mother’s letter, unopened, into the wastepaper basket, feeling a wave of exhaustion. All she wanted to do was curl up in bed with a book, but she was completely filthy, she realized. So, instead, she peeled off her dirty skirt and stockings and banged her muddy boots together outside the door. Then, while she heated up water for a bath, she put on her dressing gown and wandered out into her little yard to look at her plants.
Her flat had its own entrance, with cast-iron stairs leading down from the street. And on either side of the steps, and outside her front window, was a small paved area. Some people in the other basement flats hung washing out in their little outdoor yard, but Louisa’s was full of plants.
She’d been telling the truth to Mac. She did grow a lot of fruit and vegetables. She had lettuces in a window box, and peas growing up a pole. She had a pot where the tomatoes jostled for space, their sharp scent filling the evening air. She touched the leaves gently and admired the little green spheres that would soon turn red in the sunshine. She would get a good crop and she was pleased that she’d managed to grow so much so soon.
Next to the tomatoes he had strawberries in another pot, which were flourishing too.
There were a few sunflowers that were growing tall and strong, reaching up to the iron railings that edged the street. She hoped they would grow so tall that she would eventually be able to see them as she walked home, their large sunny faces welcoming her back to her house. And there were pots full of color—begonias and petunias and geraniums all blooming in the June sunshine.
Growing the plants had made Louisa feel at home when she’d first arrived in gray, wintery London all those months ago. She loved the anonymity of the big city and how she blended in with crowds of people—it made her feel safe from Reg to be among so many others—but she missed the outdoors and the feeling of the earth between her fingers. Growing her plants gave her a taste of Kent while still keeping her away. It was the best of both worlds, she thought. Or rather, a way of making the best of a situation that she’d never imagined she’d find herself in.
She pottered about happily for a few minutes, watering the pots that were dry, and picking a few of the strawberries, warm from the sun, and popping them into her mouth. Then she went back inside and filled the bath and sank gratefully into the water.
Her legs ached from the physical work—she was out of practice after spending the last few months working behind the counter in a shop—and she was more tired than she’d been since she’d come to London, but she was content. Possibly the most content she’d felt since, well, since all the trouble.
She closed her eyes as the memories flooded back. Of the fear she felt when Reg would come home. Would he be in a good mood or a bad one? Would he want to kiss and cuddle her, or would one wrong word from her send her sprawling to the floor as he took out his anger on her?
Under the water, she let her hand drift down to her flat stomach. Her belly would never swell with pregnancy, thanks to Reg’s punches. She still felt vaguely unsettled after receiving her mother’s letter, but for the first time she found she could think about her past without feeling so utterly wretched.
“I’ve done it,” she murmured to herself. “I’ve built myself a new life just as I dreamed.”
She smiled as she started to scrub the mud from under her fingernails. It hadn’t been easy—a nighttime flit from Kent, and the first train into London in the morning with the milk. Hiding out in one of the luggage compartments in case she was spotted and word got back to Reg. And then the sheer, terrifying size of London. And the noise. And the people.
But she’d found first this little flat, and then her job in a hat shop. Her Suffragette friends in Kent—a whole bunch of women who felt the same helplessness and frustration that she did and who’d helped her more than they could ever know—had put her in touch with like-minded women nearby.
She stood up, water dripping, and reached for a towel. Thinking of her friends in the Suffragettes made her think of Ivy. Ivy, with her wild hair, the glint in her eye, and her hammer brooch hidden in her fist. Ivy who seemed tough but whose voice had shaken when she talked about her father, and who looked so desperately hopeful when Mac was questioning her.
Louisa nodded to herself as she dried her legs and put on her nightgown. She felt a pull toward the unkempt teenager and she thought Ivy had felt it too. As though they were two lost souls who’d found each other. Perhaps, she thought, there was more than one way to be a mother.
Across London, in Hackney, Ivy was thinking about Louisa, too, as she dragged a comb through her straggly hair and tried to tame it into some sort of twist.
“Why do you need to go?”
She turned and grinned at Jim, who was sitting on the single bed in the room she shared with her younger sister.
“I need to go to a meeting and you just need to go,” she said “Ma will be back soon, with the littl’uns. She can’t see you here.”
Jim looked sulky. “We’ve not done anything wrong.”
“I know that, and you know that, but what do you reckon she’ll think if she sees you in my bedroom, eh? She’s not going to think you’ve been teaching me about plants. It’ll be straight to birds and bees, for her filthy mind.”
Jim chuckled. “Fair enough.”
He slid off the bed and stood up, stretching his arms above his head like a cat. “Where’s your dad?”
Ivy shrugged. “Not seen hide nor hair of him for weeks. Might turn up, might not.”
Not wanting to think about her father, or the tiredness that was obvious on her mother’s skinny face, Ivy turned her attention to her hair again, groaning as she tried in vain to make it look neat, and then pinned on her hammer brooch.
“She was nice, weren’t she? Louisa?”
Jim had finished his stretching. “They were all nice, I reckoned.”
Ivy thought for a minute. “What about Mac?”
“Told you, his bark’s worse than his bite. Once he sees you all getting on with it, he’ll come round. We need you, Ivy.”
He came over to where she stood, looking in the blotchy mirror, and wrapped his strong arms round her.
“I need you,” he said. He kissed her neck and she shivered with pleasure as he ran a hand down her back. But she pulled away as he tried to stroke her bare arm.
“Jim, give it a rest,” she said affectionately, reaching for her jacket and pulling it on over the arm he’d touched. “You need to go.”
“Oh, all right, I know when I’m not wanted,” he teased. “Maybe I’ll join up. Would you miss me.”
Ivy felt a lurch of fear at his jokes.
“Please don’t,” she said, serious all of a sudden. “Please don’t. Not even when you’re eighteen. I couldn’t bear it. You’re all I have.”
Jim kissed her very gently on her lips. “Let’s see what happens, shall we? No point worrying about it now.”
Ivy bit her lip, still fretting, then caught a glimpse of the time on the clock on the mantelpiece.
“It’s after seven,” she said in horror. “Go, Jim!”
“Come with me.”
“I can’t, you know that. I’ve got to go to the meeting.”
“I think you love those women more than me.”
She grinned at him, and shoved him in the direction of the window.
“They’re my family,” she said. “Go.”
With a cheeky wink, Jim threw one long leg over the window ledge.
“See you tomorrow,” he said. “At work.”
Then he clambered down the trellis on the side of the house and disappeared, just in the nick of time, because downstairs Ivy heard the sound of her mother and younger siblings arriving home.
She thought for a second about going down, greeting them, helping Ma with bedtime and telling her about her new job. Then she thought of the endless questions from the littl’uns, the haunted look in Ma’s eyes as she slumped on a chair, aching with fatigue, and changed her mind. Today had been perfect, she thought. Getting the chance to work with Jim at her most favorite place in London and having the opportunity to make amends for what she had done. Meeting Louisa, too, had been fun—and funny Bernie with the glasses and his mop of hair. She didn’t want anything to spoil that now.
She hitched her skirt up, and clambered over the windowsill and out into the street, just as Jim had done.
Bernie took his glasses off and laid them on his bedside table. He wasn’t shortsighted. In fact, he didn’t need spectacles at all—the ones he wore had clear glass lenses. He had picked them up at a gentleman’s outfitters store when he bought a new hat, in the hope that people who saw he wore glasses wouldn’t question why he hadn’t yet joined up.
He heard his landlady, Mrs. Spencer, moving around downstairs, cooking dinner, and nodded. She’d never asked why he was still in England when hundreds of men were fighting in the trenches in France and Belgium, so it was obviously working.
But for how long? he wondered, picking up today’s newspaper. There was talk of the government introducing a new law to force all men to join up and Bernie did not want to go to war.
It wasn’t that he was a coward, though of course the very thought of the brutality of war made his blood run cold. But rather, he was a Quaker. A pacifist. He firmly believed that nothing good would come from this war and he didn’t want to be a part of it. He sighed, looking at the newspaper once more. But what would he do if the law was passed and he was forced to enlist? He had no idea.
“Dinner will be in ten minutes,” Mrs. Spencer called up the stairs. She was a rather fearsome woman whose husband had enlisted almost as soon as war had been declared. She was passionate about supporting the troops and spent her time knitting socks for soldiers and raising money for war bonds. Her two sullen children were dragged along to her efforts collecting tinned food for refugees, or gifts for the troops on a weekly basis.
“I’ll be right there,” he called back. He picked up his glasses and put them back on.
He was hoping his work at Kew would be considered essential, should the conscription bill be passed. That was largely why he’d applied. He’d thought, briefly, about going back to teaching but just the thought broke him out in a cold sweat. He’d found peace within himself, after the torment of everything that had happened with Vivienne—a music teacher at his old school—though it had taken a long time for him to get over the humiliation he’d suffered when she’d turned down his proposal so cruelly. And so publicly.
He felt his shoulders hunching as he remembered the cold realization that Vivienne had merely been playing with his feelings, as a cat played with a mouse. Using him as a source of help with lesson planning, of paying for theater tickets, drinks and dinners, and more often than not of hard cash. And all the while laughing at him behind his back—and, as it turned out, to his face. It had been a dark time for him.
No, he wasn’t sure his mind would recover if he had to go back to the classroom. But he didn’t have the skills or knowledge to take up any other work that could help him avoid conscription. Then he’d seen the advert in the back of the Times for Kew and thought it could be the answer to his prayers.
Today, though, had been hard work for a man like him, unaccustomed as he was to physical labor. He looked at the blisters on his palm in mild disgust, hoping he’d toughen up before too long. He’d felt out of his depth and—unusual for him—a bit stupid, listening to the apprentice gardener, Jim, explain what they should be doing in the herbaceous border.
Still, if there was one thing Bernie was good at, it was learning. He scanned the bookshelves lining his room and found what he was looking for—a copy of a book called A Year in My Garden. His mother, who’d been a keen gardener before arthritis twisted her hands, had passed it to him but he’d never had much cause to read it before now.
Nodding in satisfaction, he laid it on his chair to read after dinner. He wasn’t beaten yet.
Copyright © 2021 by Posy Lovell. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.