He had been unaware of the presence of anybody else in the garden, but now he heard a voice, and he turned round, startled. It was a man in a set of brown overalls, ripped at the knees. He was carrying a gardening fork.
“I’m worried about that,” the man said, nodding in the direction of the garlic plants. “Some of them seem to have rust.”
He followed the man’s gaze. It was the yellowed plants that concerned him.
The man nodded. “There’s not much you can do – other than to cut off the affected parts. Then you hope that you’ve nipped it in the bud. Otherwise—”
“Otherwise, it takes over, and the whole plant gets it. It’s not a complete disaster, of course. You still get a good enough crop, and the garlic will taste just as good. But the bulbs won’t be as large.”
The man stepped forward. “Let me show you.” He bent down to uproot one of the yellowed plants. It came away easily, the bulb surrounded by earth that he brushed away with his bare hands. “See?”
He twisted the exposed bulb away from the shoots and showed it to Bruce. “Not bad,” he said. “But it would have been almost twice the size if it weren’t for the rust. Such a shame. The abbot likes his garlic. I don’t like giving him these smaller bulbs – not that he ever complains. They don’t, you know. These monks don’t complain about anything.”
Bruce smiled. “I imagine that’s true.”
The man gave him a quizzical look. “You’re on retreat?” he asked. “Or just visiting?”
Bruce hesitated. He was not sure of his exact status, and so he said, “Visitor. Maybe more.”
The man’s stare became more intense. “Maybe more? Thinking longer term then?”
Bruce did not want to presume. “Perhaps,” he said. “I wanted to experience it.”
The man nodded. “I’m Jimmy, by the way.”
Bruce introduced himself, and then asked, “You’re not one of the brothers, then?”
Jimmy laughed. “Heavens, no. I have a wife down there.” He tossed his head in the direction of Elgin. “They don’t take you if you have a wife in the background. But they do let you help, which is what I do. I’ve been helping them in this garden for twelve years now – ever since I left the RAF.”
Bruce raised an eyebrow. “You were a pilot?”
Jimmy shook his head. “Military police. The RAF has people like me to look after their planes and keep order about the place. That’s what I did.” He paused. “And then I developed a bit of arthritis and they offered me ill-health retirement. I took it and decided to stay in the area – I was at Lossiemouth, you see – just up the road. There’s a base there.”
“So now you help the brothers?”
Jimmy smiled. “Are you a Catholic, Bruce?”
Bruce shook his head. “No. But they don’t seem to mind. In fact, they didn’t ask me.”
“They don’t,” said Jimmy. “They’re very . . . what’s the word? Ecumenical, I think. They’re very open. They have all sorts of people coming to stay here. People who don’t believe in anything. Everyone.”
“It’s all the same, I suppose,” said Bruce. “It’s all about the same feeling, don’t you think? Even those who don’t believe in anything, may still feel that there’s something . . . not to believe in.”
Jimmy smiled. “I’ll have to think about that, but maybe you’re right. In my case, I just came round here one day – to see the place – and I found myself talking to one of the monks. He was a very nice man – he went down to England a few years ago, to a house they have there – and he showed me the gardens and said that they found it a bit hard to keep them going in the state they’d like them to be in, and one thing led to another. I offered to come and give them a hand, and I’ve been doing it since then. These are good men, Bruce, and I was glad that I was able to help them. They don’t ask for much.”
“I don’t imagine they do,” agreed Bruce. He thought of the breakfast he was yet to have. It would be light, they said.
Jimmy dusted the last traces of soil from the garlic bulb. He held it up and began to peel off the outer skin. “You’ll see that it’s healthy inside. Look. See? Beautiful.”
He prised out a single clove, removing the papery skin surrounding it. “There. Inside. Isn’t it miraculous?”
Bruce looked at the small bulb of ivory.
“I never get over the miracle,” said Jimmy. “Each time I pick something. Beans. Apples. Chard. Garlic. Anything that grows is a miracle in its way. Or a mystery, perhaps.”
“Plant genetics,” said Bruce.
Jimmy shook his head. “Oh yes, plant genetics. But if you look at plant genetics, you’re only taking it back one level. And then can’t you find yourself saying exactly the same thing? Saying that it’s a miracle?”
“I don’t know if that helps,” said Bruce.
“Perhaps not,” said Jimmy. “But that’s what I still think. I look up at night – on a clear night – and I see stars that go on and on. And I think of how we’re a tiny, insignificant little dot in a universe that’s only one of millions of universes. And then I look down at the earth we stand upon and think how small it is, and how . . . how beautiful. And I think: how can we possibly be fighting one another, when we’re just so small and insignificant, and I can find no answer to that, and so I come back here and plant things and make them grow because . . . because that’s what you have to do if you don’t know any of the answers to the big questions.” He paused. “You ever read Albert Camus? He said something like that, you know. He put it better than I do, of course . . .” Jimmy laughed. “But then he was French, you see.” He paused again. “Il faut cultiver son jardin.”
He looked at Bruce. “Of course, that was Voltaire.”
Then he stopped, and looked at Bruce with sudden concern. “You’re crying.”
Bruce wiped at his eyes. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s onions that make you cry, you know, not garlic.”
“I know. I know.”© Alexander McCall Smith, 2022. Love in a Time of Bertie (Scotland Street Volume 15) is in bookshops now. The Enigma of Garlic will be published in November by Polygon, price £17.99