“Mrs Wiggan is short of jam, is she?”
“It’s from my aunt,” Ben faltered. “It’s a present for her stepdaughter, Jenny.”
“Ah, one of the Callow girls.”
“I work for Joseph Callow; he’s married to my aunt.”
“You’re not from these parts.”
It was a statement rather than a question, and Ben felt his muscles tighten with resentment. He felt branded by his past. Ridiculously he imagined this man could see it all – the squalid house where he’d grown up; his terror and shame in watching his mother suffer and never being able to protect her from his father’s rough hand. Now he was a grown man, but would he ever be able to make enough money to look after his mother and move her from the place that held such painful memories?
He opened his mouth to retort, but Mr Mott had caught sight of one of his journeymen who was gathering late-keeping fruit.
“Jamie! Mind you treat those pears with care!” he called out. “Better get a move on, the light’s going.”
“Yes, sir.” The lad hauled his basket away to the thatched fruit house.
Mr Mott handed the bottle of jam back to Ben and gestured toward the row of trees.
“Best crop of pears this year. Pity his Lordship is away; bottled ones won’t be the same.”
“Those are pears?” They bore no relation to the small, misshapen fruit that grew on the tree near the cottage.
Mr Mott paused for a long moment.
“Come and have a look.”
Ben followed him. They reached the row of fan-trained trees and Ben scrutinised a heavily laden branch, nearly pulling away from the wall with the weight of the fruit.
“What a colour!”
“Unusual flavour, as well,” Mr Mott said. “I expect you’d better get on. But come back any time. I’ll show you the glasshouse, if you like.”
Ben smiled, disbelieving, into the man’s weather-worn face.
“Tell Mrs Wiggan that the strawberries she wanted will be ready tomorrow.”
“What’s your name?”
“Ben Hanshaw, sir.”
“My name’s Mott. See you again.”
Ben broke into a trot as he left. He couldn’t wait to ask Jenny if she’d seen the garden and the magnificent glasshouse, yet he also wanted to keep the whole magical experience secret, for him alone to think about.
Mr Mott watched him go. He didn’t hear Jamie coming up behind him.
“Who was that, sir?”
“No-one. He just wandered in.”
Jamie looked into his boss’s face, knowing why he looked haunted. That young man had looked just like Tom. Jamie remembered Mr Mott’s son well, even though it had been seven years ago, the year he’d started at Farrington House as crock boy. Tom Mott had been kind to Jamie. He’d seemed like a grown man, so tall and impressive in his uniform, but when he didn’t come back from South Africa everyone said he’d been barely old enough for the Army. What a waste of a young life, they all said.
“He seemed interested in the garden, sir.”
“Is he a gardener, too?”
“No, but he’s got what it takes.”
“Will he be coming back?” Jamie looked at his feet, suddenly sorry that he’d phrased it that way.
“He might,” Mr Mott said slowly. “We’ll see.”