Stella wandered barefoot around her Mum's rose garden as if it were a maze, dodging the fierce prickles on the stalks which reached as high as her head. Collecting petals to soak in water, she was sure only to take those which had fallen from their buds. Every rose is precious and should be enjoyed in nature, reminded her Mum who sat painstakingly deadheading the shrubs and weeding the soil. She was listening to her radio, content in the soft midday sun of an early summer's day.
Stella cannot remember a time before nature was her haven, her place of peace and healing. It was a big part of her life before she met her husband and the father of her two children. She was bedazzled by Nick's humour and rugged good looks, blind to his deeply restless soul –and perhaps subconsciously drawn to it.
Even in those early blissful days of romance, she would always find time to herself to wander the streets of Edinburgh's grander districts admiring the gardens hidden behind imposing hedges and impenetrably high gates. These days were often rounded off in the city's majestic Botanic Gardens where she would immerse herself in the glory of ancient oaks and rare exotics. Nick rarely joined her on these trips. He chose to stay at home watching his beloved football team cruise to another defeat while dousing his sorrows with a large case of beer. And, for so long, she was happy with this arrangement. All needs were met, and no-one was too concerned by the distance slowly growing between them.
"You know that you might actually benefit from a walk in the woods now and then?" She would lightly tempt him, still harbouring visions of moulding him into the soul mate she desperately needed him to be.
"And you might benefit from sitting still and sharing your beloved's joy of football but I'm not going to force it on you."
The first few years of married life were full of chaos. The initial joy of becoming parents quickly gave way to the painful realisation that life in the driving seat of a young family requires stability and putting your own needs second. It quickly became apparent that Stella could adjust to a life where surviving the tough times was as necessary as the moments of reckless fun. Nick, on the other hand, could not.
"I tried Stella, please remember to tell them that at least. Then they might not hate me quite so much. You're just a better parent than me. I don't have the tools for this." Those were the last abrupt and painful words she heard before Nick calmly walked out on his family, leaving his wife and two young boys to navigate a life without him.
I have two choices, acknowledged Stella quietly to herself.
One is to pick myself up and face our future head-on. One foot in front of the other. The other choice is probably not worth considering.
"Mum, I need to get a solid, reliable office job that fits around the kids' school hours and pays as much as possible so that I can pay the bills."
Stella's Mum's heart broke a little as she heard these words from the daughter who was once so full of dreams. Dreams about starting her own landscape gardening business and employing young people who were struggling to find their place in life. They would help her bring gardens back to their full glory and find self-worth in the sense of achievement.
"Just promise me you won't lose sight of what makes you happy too Stella." There was a real urgency in her mother's voice. It was as if she knew that Stella's deepest happiness depended on her following this guidance. "Your children will learn from that, in the long run, Stella." The truth behind her mother's words were neatly evident from the joy Stella had inherited for the natural world and in her instinctive nurturing capabilities, putting others and her natural environment first without conscious thought.
"It's quite something, isn't it?" Stella was knocked out of her daydream as she stood staring into the garden of one of the huge houses overlooking Barnton Golf Course, nestled among some of Scotland's most eye wateringly expensive real estate.
"Oh, hi – sorry – just daydreaming." Stella was slightly embarrassed at being caught hovering outside the gates of a stranger's home but pleased to be caught in the act by a man with a soft welcoming smile behind some rather wayward facial hair. He was dressed for outdoor work and was lifting some powerful-looking garden tools from the boot of his van. He had the air of someone who was more comfortable with trees than people and she was almost immediately drawn to his aura of quiet calm.
"Looks like you're doing a good job there. I hope the owner appreciates your efforts."
Always first with the compliments, Stella knew just how much work went into keeping a large garden looking its best. She also could not escape the sad acceptance that, often, those who are rich enough to live in these houses probably have precious little time to appreciate them.
"So do I! He's getting on now though and barely makes it outside. Pretends to be disinterested in my updates on the overgrown Magnolias or the nesting sparrows but I occasionally catch him staring out his front window as I work. I'm Sam by the way. "
"Hi Sam. I'm Stella. The local garden stalker – just making the most of my work lunch hour with some harmless lingering!"
"Lovely to meet you, Stella. Do you want a proper look around? He won't notice. His carer is in at the moment, so he'll be flirting with her instead!"
Stella was unsure. She'd always been desperate to walk through the hallowed gates of this property and explore the endless paths, lawns, and flower beds that she imagined lay within but she wasn't sure that an invitation from the hired gardener counted as official permission. It was too good an opportunity to pass up though and as close to living on the edge as her life was likely to take her.
"Do you think you could bail me out of jail in time to pick up my children from school if I get caught trespassing?". Stella was enjoying the light-hearted exchange and toying with the notion that she may not have completely forgotten how to flirt either.
The garden outside Stella's maisonette in Edinburgh's lively Comley Bank area could best be described as compact but she was proud of every last corner of it and lovingly cared for every living thing in it like an extension of her own family. As she walked tentatively around this immense yet exclusive outdoor playground she was both struck with awe at the smells and sounds that surrounded her and struck with the sense of missed opportunity that such a space was not alive with the sounds of children playing or dogs barking.
Stella drank in every moment of her time in this beautiful secret garden, pausing under a Birch tree that stood proudly in the bottom of the front garden, looking down on all other shrubbery like the family patriarch. Sam led her around the nature pond which was hidden near the herb garden, emanating a gentle and rhythmic trickle from the waterfall that had etched its own path in the surrounding rockery over the years. Nothing in the garden looked out of place or artificial. Stella could not escape the feeling that someone had a personal connection with this space, perhaps before Sam had been hired to keep it looking its best.
"Was it big enough for a football pitch Mum?"
"Probably, but there were way too many windows to break Paul, and they were the expensive kind!"
Stella's children were 14 and 12 years old and at a stage where they thought they didn't need her so much, but she was still the glue that put them back together if they had a bad day. She was also still the voice telling them to do their homework before they met their friends or charged up the games console.
"Did you break in over the hedge to nick something for your 150th window box Mum?"
"No, a very nice gentleman who was working on the lawn gave me a guided tour." As the words left her mouth, she realised that she had walked headfirst into another wind-up opportunity which her young offspring seemed to revel in.
"Ooooo, was he a very nice gentleman mum? Did you compare notes on your winning sunflowers?!" mocked Paul, her eldest son, who had just discovered his own wicked sense of humour.
"Well no, but he did offer me a job! Turns out he needs a little extra help around the property as it is a bit of a year-round job. Apparently, the owner has agreed to him having an apprentice of sorts."
"And when exactly are you going to fit this in around your day job and keeping us fed and happy?" asked Paul.
He was always ready to remind her of her primary purpose in life as chef and taxi driver to two busy teenagers. Her youngest, Simon, was still her baby. And he knew it. There was nothing she would not do for these children and, somewhere along the line, she had lost a little bit of herself.
But here she was, almost by accident, presented with the chance to pursue a little bit of her dream, and Stella was determined not to let it slip through her fingers.
"I'll find time. I'll work my hours around your weekend football commitments and ask Granny to keep an eye on you for a few hours. It's not like you don't know where the fridge is!"
The hours that Stella spent at the big house in Barnton were, apart from time with her children, some of the happiest of her week. She met Sam there after dropping her children at football and arranged for her mum to pick them up after.
"I'm so delighted you've found something for yourself Stella," enthused her Mum, genuinely lifted by seeing her daughter pursue her own passions for the first time in many years.
In these precious few hours, she immersed herself in the wonder of this secret garden, playing her small part in maintaining the undisputed botanical king of the road, and soon she had lost sight of whether it was the garden or Sam's company that she was enjoying the most.
"Does it not make you sad that this garden could offer so much to other people?" she would ask Sam as he worked tirelessly on turning the ground over before the summer brought its usual riot of weeds."
Sam could see the wheels of her mind working overtime as she lost herself in exploration of the vast rockeries tidying up the remnants of the last Spring flowers as they fell into the earth to lie dormant for another year.
"What is going on in that head of yours Stella?"
She wasn't used to being asked this question by anyone other than her mum who could read her like a book, even as she approached her 80th birthday. And it felt good to be asked.
"It's a long shot, I realise, but I have always dreamt of finding somewhere to build a kind of retreat for disadvantaged young people to come and learn about nature. It makes me sad that so many city kids grow up not even knowing how carrots are grown or how beautiful a Japanese Maple Tree looks in late summer."
"What if we were to ask permission to open these gates to some of these young impressionable minds, just for a few hours a week? Wouldn't it give him something more interesting to watch from his front window?"
Stella could not escape the memories of endless summers spent in her own family garden where she and her Mum pottered about until they were both a bit sunburnt. Filthy and tired, they would collapse on the garden bench and look out on their day's work with a glass of cold lemonade in hand.
By this point, Stella was lost in her own happy memories and was unaware of the hypnotic effect that she was having on Sam. She was fast becoming the highlight of his week too and she had absolutely no idea.
"Well, if anyone can make gardening cool for young people, it would be you," he said.
"Perhaps I can ask him, Stella. I'll pick my moment and just say that some crazy lady wants to open his multi-million-pound mansion as an outdoor youth club to keep wayward teenagers off the streets."
"Mmm, I think you might need to work on your sales pitch," said Stella, resigning herself to the unlikely chance of this ambition coming to pass.
Over the next few weeks, Stella would stay as long as she could at the house, even when the work was done and the light was beginning to fade. She would sit with Sam in the greenhouse for just a few moments and sometimes watch as he popped in to the main house to chat to its elusive owner briefly before emerging with a small brown envelope with Stella's wages and, presumably his own.
On very rare occasions, Stella would get the odd wave and half-smile from him as he sat in his large leather armchair with a tartan blanket for warmth and what looked like a small whisky decanter on his side table.
She found the image quite sad. For all his wealth and empire, there was something empty in his eyes that made her question his life before it came to this. She rarely saw any visitors at the house and wondered about his own family and where they might be.
"I've got to leave earlier today Sam," she said one late Saturday afternoon. "Mum can't keep the boys long and I still don't trust them on their own in the house – even for an hour or two."
"Before you go, I'm afraid I've got good news and bad."
Stella's heart sank. She knew this blissful chapter in her life couldn't last forever. She had immersed herself in every single moment of it, knowing that the moment would come where Sam had to move on to a new job or the work would stop for the winter.
But could it be something worse? Stella tormented herself with questions. Is he going to tell me that we can't work together anymore because he has a wife that he hadn't mentioned who is insanely jealous of our friendship?
"I've spoken to the boss about your idea."
"Oh no, he hated it – wants me off the property before I come up with any other similar nonsense?"
"No Stella, this is the good news. He was sceptical at first but when I told him that the project would be managed by a truly remarkable person who had an immense knowledge of gardening and compassion for young people he started to soften a bit."
Stella's heart jumped a beat as Sam's words swirled in her head. Then she saw something in him for the first time. He was nervous and struggling to look her in the face.
"But…. I think the thing that really swung it for him was when I told him that he had to say yes because it was the vision and dream of the amazing woman who his son was falling in love with."
"His…what? You're his son?"
How could she have missed this? Stella felt at once ridiculous and even more in awe of a man who had no interest in being anything other than the gardener that she thought he was. An outsider to this world of privilege, just like her.
There were tears in Stella's eyes by now as she took his hand softly. Sam lifted his head to be met by the same captivating smile he saw that first day outside the gates of his father's house.
"I'm struggling to see the bad news here Sam?" Stella knew that she could not feel this much happiness for herself in one day.
"I'm afraid his agreement comes with a catch. The old man has insisted on meeting you properly so he can try to put you off getting involved with his wayward son."
"Not much chance of that," muttered Stella as she sped off to collect her boys, with butterflies in her tummy that reminded her of a very long time ago.