Epilogue: la vie en lavande
“Sometimes since I've been in the garden I've looked up through the trees at the sky and I have had a strange feeling of being happy as if something was pushing and drawing in my chest and making me breathe fast. Magic is always pushing and drawing and making things out of nothing. Everything is made out of magic, leaves and trees, flowers and birds, badgers and foxes and squirrels and people. So it must be all around us. In this garden - in all the places.”
― Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Secret Garden
Beneath the blue hills, Andrew climbed the steps to the terrace and found himself emerging out of his memory, finding himself back in the present.
He glanced down the garden. Everything was touched by a lilac hue, the morning sun burning away the night and the wildflowers swaying their colourful faces up to the sky. The air was fresh and filled with easy warmth and petrichor. A filmy veil of soft, spectral mist was siphoning away slowly, slowly, so the sun could catch on the trees and the path and the pool tucked into the greenery.
Andrew breathed in the silence, breathed out. This was the life he’d lived for twenty years – sun and flowers, bright mornings, furious storms. The curious pushing and drawing of the garden and its wild magic in his chest. The deep awareness of the turning year, the knowledge that the drawing down of summer heralded another ending – but that like the lavender they planted and harvested each year, people also wilted, fell, rooted and rose. All so one day they would again bloom.
The urn in his arms felt heavier than it ought – the weight of it nothing to do with metrics and everything to do with memory. Andrew sighed. He found a patch of sun and placed the vessel down. Brass clinked on stone and the sound chimed through Andrew’s skull, vivid as twenty-two years ago when Aaron wasn’t yet buried.
“That’s a big sigh,” said Neil from behind him. His voice was hoarse and when Andrew turned, Neil didn’t hesitate to come to meet him, to step into Andrew’s space so that his arms could loop around him, strong and protective and secure as ever. “I would have come with you, you know.” Neil mumbled into Andrew’s shoulder.
“You needed to sleep,” Andrew said.
Neil looked better today, but it had been a tough summer and a good night’s rest was the least of what would help.
In May, they’d realised a drought was coming and had to work hard to find extra ways to irrigate and nurture the fields as they struggled under the uncommonly hot sun.
In June, they received a missive from London, Mary Hatford was dead. She had sent a final message to her family but not to the son she abandoned in France. They still wanted to let Neil know, though the news had shaken him badly – until then, he’d still harboured some hope of maybe seeing her again, not to reconcile but to fully finish that chapter of his life. But such closure was denied Neil – there was no final reunion or a personal letter or even a postscript. He’d burrowed into Andrew’s embrace that night and shaken apart with pent-up loss, the long-harboured and forever-denied hope.
In July, more concern came from London as television screens filled with the news that Ichirou Moriyama was dead at 56 and suddenly the deal that once rescued Nathaniel and empowered the Hatfords was in jeopardy whilst America figured out who was next in line as the new ruler of the East Coast yakuza. There had been tense nights, with both of them wondering if one day a gun would be pointed at Neil’s temple, Andrew left to pick up the pieces of their life together without him. Jittery and frustrated, Neil’s nightmares recurred for the first time in years and Andrew found himself loathing to let him out of his sight. Fortunately, the call came. Turned out the USA had no interest in French flower farmers and the rest of the Hatfords were happy to continue their trade agreement with Noriko Moriyama, Ichirou’s eldest daughter and heir.
Then the lavender shimmered from green-silver to flushed purple. August had arrived. The harvest season was upon them with all the work that entailed. At fifty years old, Neil did a little less on the farm than he had when they met, but not much, and Andrew was out there to help wherever necessary.
But on one beautiful day – when the sky was blue as Neil’s stare – an ancient white and grey tabby lay herself down in a puddle of sunshine by the pool, closed her gold eyes and slipped out of this world. King died quietly and peacefully, having outlived Sir by three years. When Neil found her, he cradled her still body to his chest, buried his face in her sun-warmed fur and cried. He cried because his mother was dead and his life wasn’t over and the farm was still thriving and because this cat had seen him through all of those things – was there when Nathaniel Hatford was a nobody with nothing but a plot of dying land, a ruinous house, and a history carved out of pain and fear and loss. He cried because he needed to cry and because, like so many times before, it felt like King was looking out for him, watching over him like all those nights in the barn, creating a deliberate space for Neil to mourn.
Andrew felt it too – the grief – vivid as the world, abstract as art, familiar and uncanny all at once.
Loss was funny like that. No two times were the same and what looked the smallest, least significant thing was often the one that caused the biggest hurt, the deepest fissures. Broken hearts never fully healed, the cracks never totally sealed up – and from time to time they split open again like broken knuckles on a clenched fist. Because of a song that came on the radio or a smell carried on a stranger’s shadow or a birthday that should have been celebrated or an anniversary that never happened.
But that was also how the dead kept living, carried in the chests of those still breathing. Andrew knew it. Neil knew it. That didn’t stop it from hurting.
In the morning sun, Andrew wrapped his arms around Neil, kissed his forehead, kissed his nose and his cheeks, stroked a hand down his arm from shoulder to wrist and tucked him close. He cradled Neil’s skull, tangled his fingers in Neil’s curls – paler with age, rose gold and brass rather than vivid red, yet still so painfully beautiful.
“Shall we take her down to the flowers?” Andrew asked, mouth close to Neil’s ears, words low.
Neil nodded into his shoulder but didn’t draw away. His hands were loose on Andrew’s hips – tips of his thumbs soothing small circles over the bone and muscle.
“Je t’aime,” Neil’s lips whispered against Andrew’s throat.
But Andrew heard them.
He loved Neil too, told him so with gestures and actions and yes sometimes with words. Familiarity didn’t stop them from leaving a quicksilver trickle of heat under his skin.
They took their time pulling apart, Andrew keeping a light grip on the back of Neil’s neck, letting Neil take what comfort he needed before stepping away but not out of reach. There was a breath when Neil’s fingers looked ready to find their way back to Andrew’s skin, but he resisted and they collected King in her urn, taking her down the steps, down the path and left into the little sunken garden that Neil and Andrew built over two decades ago when Andrew returned from America to stay.
The idea had been Neil’s – to create a space for Aaron in the garden – but it was Andrew who extended the path and found a place surrounded by trees, digging five feet into the ground and creating a circular stone garden, lined by an abundance of flowers that blossomed throughout the year: there was summer’s gladioli for strength and integrity, spring’s pink carnations for remembrance, autumn’s periwinkle and forget-me-nots, and always the lush, heady scent of rosemary and lavender. On one side sat a low, curved bench, on the other, a wall with a shrine-line groove cut into its side. Into the stone were carved the small words: semper memoria, and an urn of glossy terracotta sat inscribed with Aaron’s name.
Aaron wasn’t inside though.
When Katelyn and Andrew decided to disinter Aaron’s body and cremate him, they also chose to bring him to France, to scatter him over the lavender fields that he'd yearned to visit once upon a time.
Still, the urn remained, safe and loved in a place designed purely for remembering – and the family slowly refilled it with mementoes to the legacy Aaron left behind. There was a ring and a dried flower, a half dozen crayon pictures scrawled by a child’s hand, and a photo of Katelyn and Erin together, grinning, with a mouth half emptied of teeth. Actually, there were quite a few photos from everyone – from Nicky and Erik, whose adopted son wanted to be a doctor; from the Foxes, who ran marathons for addiction awareness and campaigned for better regulation of opioids; and from Neil and Andrew, who knew they’d have never met if not for Aaron.
Today, however, they carried King, queen of the bastide, towards her final resting place – a little nook that she had loved in the sunken garden because it caught sunlight all day long (and because Sir was there already).
They lingered at the memorial, shoulders brushing and silent. After a while, Andrew lit a cigarette and offered another to Neil. Neil lent into him, a familiar weight that Andrew was only too happy to hold up.
“King,” Andrew said when his cigarette was finished and Neil’s burnt down to the filter. “She was a good cat and she never let me sleep in when she thought she needed to be fed.”
A small smile lifted the corners of Neil’s mouth. “She always knew how to ask for attention and pretend it wasn’t for her, but for us. She was a champion mouser. She gave the best hugs and made the best of all nine lives.”
“She lost at least three of them trying to eat a cheeseboard.”
“And the rest of them putting up with Sir.”
“She was a purr-fect friend.”
“Did you really just make a pun at a funeral?”
“Got to add the fun, don’t we?”
Neil laughed and rested his head on Andrew’s shoulder, arm coming around his waist. “She was perfect.”
Andrew carded his fingers through Neil’s hair. It had been a tough summer, but they’d weathered better and worse, just like they’d promised in front of friends and family twenty years ago.
“I’m glad she’ll be here for the party, that she’s home now.” Neil said. He tilted his chin in an obvious invitation for a kiss, to which Andrew obliged. It was brief, almost chaste. Neil sighed and Andrew could feel how his shoulders eased, his spine loosening. Saying goodbye hurt and was freeing in its own way.
“Honestly, I’m just glad she won’t be able to vomit up blue cheese this time. Now come on, I want a croissant before we hang up the lights.”
“You mean before I hang up the lights.”
“Well you did decide to brag about being taller.”
“Fifteen years ago, Drew.”
“The punishment has to fit the crime.”
“But it’s also true!”
“And for that, another five years will be added to your sentence. Come on.” Andrew tugged on Neil’s belt loops. “Croissants. Coffee. And if you’re nice, I’ll come supervise the ladder whilst you climb it.”
The moon was ripening in the sky.
Twilight hung like a blanket, draping the world in deepest blue.
The evening was warm and full of chatter, laughter, a myriad of jokes and clinking glasses, gentle mockery and sly asides.
Neil had outdone himself, and Andrew didn’t think it was bragging to tell everyone as much. The garden glittered with a thousand fairy lights around the trees, large glass lanterns flickered along the path, and the underwater lights left the pool glowing deep blue. Inside the little grotto, a multicoloured feast had been laid out full of delicacies and home-fare – thin, crispy socca; salads full of tomatoes that popped in your mouth and peppers so sweet they sang; parma ham and melon and olives and tuna tartar and an abundance of fresh fish baked to perfection; courgette flower fritters and petits farcis overspilling their fillings; crusty bread with tapenade; pissaladière and a and tarte tatin made with Hatford Honey. Pride prickled in Andrew’s stomach, seeing everyone drinking and eating, the smells of the garden and the cuisine in fragrant harmony.
Coming down from the house with more wine for the ice buckets, he let his eyes wander over the mismatched group of people – it shouldn’t work, yet somehow Neil drew them all in, made them welcome, fed them and teased them and ensured everyone was included. These days, their summer party included three generations of Foxes and farmhands, ranging from Erin who was just starting her second year at Palmetto, all the way through to Wymack, who may have passed the baton to Dan but still kept a careful watch over his team of misfits and misfortunates. Andrew placed one bottle down and popped the other, offering refills to those nearby before seeking glimpse of Neil.
He didn’t have to look far.
Lit up by the water lights, Neil chattered away with Allison and Erin, wine glass tipping dangerously as he gesticulated and laughed. The three of them together were menaces. They had braided flowers into everyone’s hair when they arrived – even making flower crowns for those whose hair was too short. Matt now sported a garland of asparagus fern and alstroemeria; Kevin’s hair was woven through with bellflowers and Jeremy’s curls twisted around a crown of dark lisianthus. Jean and Eduard matched with bright spider flowers that contrasted against their hair, even now peppered through with grey.
Only Neil, he thought. Only Neil could make all of us, including Kevin bloody Day’s terrible thruple, wear a bouquet in their hair. Ridiculous flower boy.
From across the pool, Erin caught his eye and grinned. She was all Katelyn except for her smile. Andrew’s hand flicked to his own coronal – a wreath of lavender and olive leaves and brightly coloured aster that paired with the plaits worn by Katelyn and Erin – then gave her a thumbs up. She raised her rose and laughed before being recaptured by whatever anecdote Allison was telling.
“So, twenty years, huh?” Wymack held out his glass and Andrew refilled it. “Happy anniversary.”
“Isn’t this above your paygrade?” Andrew said in a drawl. His tone was blank, his face expressionless.
“Eh, cut that shit out, everyone here knows you know how to smile like an actual human being.” Wymack followed Andrew’s gaze back across the pool. “I’m glad you found that one, god knows you deserve each other.”
Andrew let the corners of his mouth twitch up. “You say that every year.”
“And every year it’s still true – you really trying to call me out on this?”
“No,” Andrew said. How could he when he woke up to Neil and thought the same thing every day?
He turned his attention fully to Wymack. When Neil had suggested a party that first summer before Andrew returned to finish his contract in Denver, the first call he’d made had been to Wymack.
Not Bee. Not Kevin. Not Renee.
Because Palmetto was the first second chance Andrew had ever had and Wymack had gifted him those five years – to pull his life and his family together, to learn that he was worth something, to realise that there was a reason for survival – even though Andrew was kicking and screaming (metaphorically because on the outside he was all stabby knives and silence). There was no one who deserved to know that Andrew was moving to France than the coach who’d taken a punt on a nightmare like him in the first place. Who’d believed in him. Who’d never given up on him, despite the stolen whiskey and shattered windows and a team that never quite knew if the Monsters were in or out.
The man was old now – hair white, face weathered by time, body stooped where his bad hip necessitated the use of a stick – yet nothing about him was any less fearsome than when Andrew first met him. His eyes were still sharp. His arms still thick with muscle. His heart still loyal to every lost cause that crossed his path.
Andrew raised his wine. “We did good, didn’t we?”
Wymack clinked his glass against Andrew’s. “We did. You did. Never would have thought when I met you that this was where we’d be and don’t tell Kevin I said it, but I’m fucking glad you chose this over exy.”
“How many times did he complain on the flight over?”
“Oh, just a couple dozen. It’s down from last year though, so that’s a blessing. Still thinks you should be trying to spearhead the sport in France, yada yada, you know Kevin.”
“You’d think coaching Court would be enough for him without worrying about me.”
“But think of the international tours, Minyard. Think of the tours.”
Conspiratorial smiles were shared. They drank. The wine was refreshingly cold. Andrew lit a cigarette and Wymack accepted a light for the cigar that had become another tradition at these parties. Comfortable silence descended as the two of them watched their friends and family, content to be happy next to them rather than mingle into the mix.
This was their family. The one Wymack started. That Andrew chose.
All of them were engrossed in that certain type of conversation only heard when slightly drunk, when every word spoken became surreal and loud, full of humour and threat and significance, deep significance.
Abby and Bee sat heads together with their feet in the pool – since Betsy married Neil’s steward, Alphonse, the two women had stayed in touch as much as possible but it was nothing like being together on night’s like this.
Renee wore a dress so rainbow bright it dazzled and Nicky was fawning over it for the umpteenth time whilst Erik smiled benignly at his side. Dan was catching up with Katelyn and her new partner, a German anaesthesiologist and young widower with a child a few years younger than Erin. Matt and Jeremy were comparing notes on their teams, whilst Jean and Kevin were talking to Eduard and his current beau – it was something of a running joke now how the younger Moreau brought a different boyfriend every year.
Several of the younger kids (who were really almost adults at this point but what did that matter, they were kids) hovered around the food table – Kevin’s boy looked as besotted as ever with Allison’s daughter and Andrew absently wondered what the odds were these days on Tobias and Ashleigh finally hooking up.
The garden felt full as the night’s sky – and yet the warmth of the summer and the brightness of the chatter couldn’t stop Andrew from feeling the weight of the empty spaces, the absent friends.
Blowing a series of smoke rings one after the other, Wymack let out a gruff sigh. “Nights like tonight, I’m sorry we didn’t all make it.”
“Night’s like tonight, I don’t know if I am,” Andrew began, swallowed, didn’t say anything for a moment. Every day there was a hole in the world that he found himself walking around. But nights like tonight, it felt like Aaron was so close, just out of sight, like if Andrew turned fast enough he’d be there stealing feta from the beetroot or snaffling the last of the socca. “But I miss him like hell every day.”
Eventually Wymack went to join Abby with a bottle of wine to top up in hand.
Spotting that Andrew was alone, Neil came to join him. He was light on his feet, the weight of the last few weeks lifted for now. His eyes were luminous in the half light and Andrew tipped his face to meet Neil’s mouth as soon as he was within kissing distance.
“Wymack thinks you lucked out having me around for twenty years,” said Andrew.
“Hm, did he now?” Neil said, smiling against his mouth.
“More or less.”
Neil’s lips parted beneath his with a sigh like the sea: welcoming, soft, hinting at danger. Andrew’s thumb found Neil’s pulse in his throat, felt it skip. Neil’s tongue piercing rolled over Andrew’s lower lip, made him hiss and pull away.
“You know if you do that again I’ll have to take you to the barns right now and deal with this.”
Neil’s mouth quirked. “Ooo the barns, that’s an upgrade from last year.”
“Last year Erin nearly caught me fucking you into a tree.”
Kissing him quiet, Neil shifted to nip at Andrew’s chin, the juncture of his jaw and his throat. Andrew’s fists clenched in Neil’s collar. It was thin linen, loose and almost sheer. It made him look like something out of a romance novel – billowing shirt, those legs Andrew would never tire of watching, his stupidly pretty face.
Sometimes Andrew still hated how something so simple, something that should be so ordinary, twisted the inside of his chest and snatched away his breath the way kissing Neil did. Sometimes he wanted to deny any of it was real because he was certain it would one day be snatched away; others he bargained with every god from every pantheon to let him keep this. On occasion, he sank back into the dark, cold, numb exhaustion of depression and he would open his eyes to see Neil and barely be able to respond. Mostly, however, he woke to find Neil softened by sleep on the pillow beside him, his hand beneath it – during the night the sheets would have pooled around Neil’s waist, leaving the curve of his back exposed, the dimples above his ass just visible. A sight that would ruin anyone.
And always, Andrew knew that this was it – his everything – his wildest fever dream come true.
“Happy china anniversary, mon coeur,” Neil said. His knuckles brushed along Andrew’s cheek, their fingers twining, gold bands clinking on ring fingers. He dragged their joined hands to his mouth, pressed a kiss to Andrew’s palm.
Andrew’s breath hitched in his throat. The man was a fucking menace and Andrew couldn’t believe he called him husband.
Wymack’s knowing eyes followed them as Andrew led Neil away from the party on the pretence of more wine even though they had two in the bucket, already waiting.
Yet as Andrew led, something caught in his peripheral vision – a shimmer at the corner of his eye.
Instinctively, he turned towards it, squinting.
For a second, he thought he imagined it – the shape flickering between the trees, the shadows and lights that looked so much like a person.
“Love?” Neil said in question.
Andrew tugged him close so their bodies were pressed close and warm. He pointed.
The sounds of the party receded.
The fairy lights danced through the trees.
The night beyond lay dark as pitch.
And a figure walked between the trees, leaving dewy prints in the grass. Moonlight shone straight through him, through his body and face and smile. For he was smiling – there was the unmistakable curve to the ghostly lips.
For the span of a heartbeat - as the party swelled and sighed behind them, as a wave of lavender glissaded through on the breeze, as Andrew and Neil breathed in and out - memory was in the moonlight. Memory became a resurrection.
Neil’s fingers tightened around Andrew’s as the ghost turned, smile widening, hand raising just like it had on the day the twins graduated.
A cloud passed over the moon. Darkness swallowed them. The spirit vanished.
Andrew waited for loss to devour him, for the shame of surviving sorrow.
But only the shadows and soft focus of the evening settled back across his eyes - the lavender wind whispering over the hills and the sound of happy voices bubbling in the air. Neil’s hand was solid in his, his body lean and slotted against him.
He knew he was home - and so was Aaron.