There is something other worldy about the things you see from a train window. Blurred with movement, splintered by sunlight or refracted in raindrops, they are fleeting tableaus and uncertain images which you can never be quite sure you’ve actually seen. Travelling in the early mornings adds to this. The world is still hungover from the night before and there are no humans around yet to clear up the evidence. I take the same journey every week, and I rarely see the same thing twice.
Or perhaps I do. Perhaps I see the exact same thing every morning, interpreted differently by my sleepy brain…
Either way, this is a series of stories each based on one thing I saw from a train window. Sometimes its very literal, other times it will probably be hard to see how the story relates to the item at all, but I promise you, it’ll be in there somewhere.
A small, tractor style lawn mower, abandoned in the middle of an empty golf course.
At first they don’t notice the gardener has gone. Which, in their defence, is perfectly reasonable considering they’d never noticed he was there in the first place. (There is actually some debate as to whether he was, in fact, a ‘he’). The lawn mower stands in the middle of one of the fields in the centre of the course, and it shines rather prettily in the sunlight. It looks very much as though someone has just left it, temporarily, while they went to get whatever it might be that gardeners employed to do the mowing might need to leave their post to get. (Nobody really knows). They shrug, if they consider it at all, and make their assumptions and shake their heads at the lack of professionalism, leaving mowers abandoned at this time of day, and directly in the line of sight of the seventh hole. Some of them mutter about the management of the place which has been going downhill and had been much better in some previous, unspecified, golden era, when golf courses were run like a tight ship that you could see your face in, and other assorted metaphors.
The club members eventually notice, as is so often the case with things which are notable only in their absence, because of the effect it has on the grass. Since the gardener’s departure it has grown under their feet. This analogy greatly amuses the club members’ various critics, (largely their wives) who repeat it over olives and gin and tonics in the club lounge. More to the point, it is throwing off their aim.
The owner notices because the members complain. He walks out to the field where the lawn mower stands, and he looks around, as though the departed gardener might reappear at any minute, despite having apparently been gone for a number of days. When no such gardener appears, he scratches his head, and stands a bit more. Then he goes back to the office to check the files.
Vaguely, he remembers a gardener. He can recall seeing a figure on the mower, riding obediently up and down in the evenings and the early hours, and perhaps – had that figure sometimes raised a hand in greeting? Maybe. The owner would probably not have responded. He doesn’t encourage familiarity with employees. He doesn’t recall an interview process, but that might be because the gardener had been in place for as long as he could remember. Which, as it turns out, doesn’t seem to be very long.
Irritated by the inconvenience, he gets his secretary to check the books. There is a regular payment which goes back as far as he has records, assigned simply to ‘gardening’. There is no name attached to it. The amount is very small. He briefly considers feeling guilty but decides against it. He’s not a charity. He’s got a business to run.
He could trace the account number, but it seems to have been paid in cash. An immigrant probably, he thinks. Or a benefits cheat. Typical. Allergic to hard work and an honest living. (He doesn’t consider his own tax domicile, which is surprisingly far from his house and his golf course). But he can’t help but admit that the lawns have, until this point, been perfect. Notably so, in fact. The course has been rather famous for it.
This fact, more than anything else, seems to annoy him. He is angry at the invisible gardener for disappearing. And for being irreplaceable.
He advertises for a replacement.
There are no immediate applications.
In the meantime, he goes out to move the mower. Half a (hot) hour later he returns without it. He’s gained a patch of nasty sunburn in the balding spot on the top of his head. The mower will start, will run its juddering engine and shake him about through the hot rubber seat until his teeth rattle. But he can’t seem to get it to actually move.
The owner calls an engineer. The engineer confirms that the engine is fine, but she can’t do anything other than run it in place. The owner contacts a second, more expensive engineer. This engineer is intrigued. It’s the funniest thing. The engine is fine. There is absolutely no reason why the mower will not move. The owner calls a whole team of engineers of varying prices and reputation. They scratch their heads, hike their trousers, hitch their shorts, try again. None of them can move the mower.
The grass grows higher.
The club members have now gained a small notoriety. They talk, importantly, about their recollections of the gardener. They are pressed to do so, by the interested friends and colleagues of local engineers and garages, and by the owner himself, who now very much wants to find this gardener. Though he cannot decide whether to hire him or punch him.
He doesn’t get a chance to do either.
Everybody can remember, vaguely, that they might have seen the gardener. But no one can quite agree what he looks like. (Or she. At least one person is adamant it is a woman.) Several talk of a hat of some kind, habitually worn, but the hat itself morphs quite incredibly from cowboy to flat cap to baseball cap to wide brimmed straw hat trimmed with gold, (though the last was from one of the members’ boys, who is nine and quite possibly making it up). A large number agree that the hair was brown, but there are just enough detractors who swear it was blonde or bald. The gardener is alternately obese, curvaceous, scrawny and slight. Is a man or a woman or possibly a troll. (That too, from the nine year old, and his friends at the school, who also posit that it might be a ghost).
The latter suggestion gains some traction, even from the wider, more adult audiences, when the owner admits that he’s combed through the files (or at least got his secretary to comb through the files, and afterward, his wife, just to be sure) and he can’t find a name or any identifying details for the gardener anywhere. This is explained away largely by the more rational reflection that the owner is not known for his strict observation of employment practices and vetting procedures.
The golf course, its gardener and its owner, previously remarked upon only by the few who frequented it, have become rather more widely known. Accounts as to why the mysterious gardener might have left his work so suddenly pepper the air in pubs and gym classes, and colour the grey tarmac of the school playgrounds where the parents wait for their equally interested offspring. There is a small flurry of excitement when it is revealed that the disappearance of the gardener had coincided with the theft of a member’s purse. This, however, is swiftly dampened by the purse owner’s re-discovery of it in some bushes near the carpark. In general, there are two competing areas of consensus. One is that the worker was simply lazy and unreliable, and always had been, and that you can’t get good labour since Brexit, since the pandemic, since the benefits system, since immigrants were allowed to ‘just walk into England’, or since millennials started to eat avocado toast. The other is that the owner pays too little, requires too much, and is generally a miserly old scrooge who doesn’t even provide his workers with standard issue sunhats.
None of this encourages applications for the job.
The owner increases the wages offered by a small margin and at some financial peril because he is rapidly losing custom. He had been hoping to sell the entire venture with the intention of retiring comfortably abroad, thus making good, finally, on his tax domicile. Now potential buyers are growing skittish. They want to know the reason for the recent depletion of members. They want to visit the course and he’s running out of excuses to keep them away. In the meantime, the grass is too long and he can’t explain the continued presence of the mower, or the strange contradiction implied by the coexistence of those two problems.
The manager buys a new mower and continues to seek somebody to drive it. The rumours grow a little more inventive, fuelled partly by the single potential replacement gardener having purportedly taken one look at the previous mower, turned white as a sheet (in some of the more dramatic retellings) and declared “no way mate, I’m not touching this”. This may also have been related to the pay and conditions and not the original mower at all, but by this point truth is of little importance and entertainment value rules.
The manager starts to mow the grass himself. It’s hot, petrol-reeking work and the hours are unsociable. Furthermore, he finds he isn’t very good at it. The work is more skilled than he had previously anticipated and he struggles to get the lines straight and to navigate the slopes and the edges where the grass meets the carefully orchestrated boundaries of the sand banks, the rhododendron beds and the river. Try as he might, the lawns are ragged and patchy. He doesn’t seem to get better at it. Worse, the field, with the original mower still in it, seems to grow faster than the others. No matter how many times he drives his new mower over it, within hours it’s long and daisy covered, waving at him in the mocking wind.
He sets his teeth and, for a while, he continues to do this. Riding doggedly on the new mower every day across his property, pausing only to stop in the field where the abandoned mower still sits, proudly reflecting sunshine from its shiny red surfaces, and kick it as viciously and as hard as he can. It remains undented. His back aches from sitting and his hands tremble with the vibrations of the motor for a full hour after he finishes each day. He has a limp and a plaster over the toe of one foot for reasons he will not admit.
The sale falls through. An unpopular golf course with dwindling customers and one unusable field in the centre of the course, containing an obstacle, is not a great purchase. The owner tries to hire a crane or some similar vehicle to remove the hated abandoned mower, but has to give up on the idea because there is not sufficient access for a heavy vehicle, which would, in any case, tear up the course even further. A plaster appears on his other foot for similarly unexplained reasons.
Rumours and stories about the gardener and the mower grow and, for a short while, curiosity fuels an upsurge in custom. At least for those who can afford it. There is speculation about the mower itself and its provenance. There are whispers that the gardener and the mower arrived together and began the work without invitation, which is only encouraged by the fact that the owner himself can’t find any paperwork for the purchase of the mower, which in turn feeds even more creative explanations.
That both gardener and mower are magic.
That the mower is cursed.
That the gardener was a ghost or a convict or a serial killer or never existed.
There is even a wild, rather drunken story, heavily inspired by a popular horror film, which proposes that both the gardener, and the club members who had seen him, were all in fact ghosts, though the teller is generally considered to be unreliable and the story widely and loudly derided for being a steaming pile of nonsense and full of holes.
A young, wannabe investigative-journalist-cum-influencer makes a vlog about it. She posits that the gardener was killed through some criminal negligence and hints, with a professional subtlety, that the mower itself might actually be haunted. It goes viral. It launches her career.
After that the mild curiosity spreads its wings and takes flight, replaced by a spreading infamy and a kind of public obsession. With it go the last of the paying customers, replaced by trespassers, reporters and thrill seekers. A spirit reader visits the mower and collapses dramatically, clutching at his chest and proclaiming it “too much…just too much, I can’t stand it” and refusing to talk about what he has ‘seen’ other than to issue dire warnings against going anywhere near it, which of course increases the number of people who visit.
Teenagers dare each other to ‘ride’ the mower, or to camp out in the field beside it for the night. The mower appears in countless breathless, juddery Tik Tok and YouTube videos, in which the narrator recounts a sudden, terrible feeling of cold, or hears a sonorous, disembodied voice. The latter usually invites the videographer to “come play with me” or warns them away and is easily traced back to a sound effect taken from some film clip or video game. In one moderately more imaginative account it informs the viewer in sinister tones that the mower is a machine “for cutting things down”, before being drowned out by the panting exertions and veering camera work of the fleeing ‘experienced ghost hunter’, who is apparently rather uncomfortable with finding a ghost.
Co-ordinates matching the spot crop up with surprising regularity on the Randonautica app and a commensurate number of new vlogs and videos circulate. Some of these are inevitably hoaxes and the more elaborate of these leave their ‘props’ around the mower, so that there is soon a growing collection of spooky drawings, headless dolls and unidentified ‘blood spots’ in the vicinity. This further fuels the more paranormal rumours and simultaneously obscures the original story until there are few who remember, or have interest in remembering, the gardener whose disappearance began it all. Where he or she is remembered they are no longer the gardener but have become ‘The Gardener’, a menacing metaphor for social inequality, a symbol of vengeance, or a portent of death, depending on the rememberer and his or her audience. Cameras are set up on the site overnight and various strange shadowy figures are captured appearing to approach the mower, which might be other worldly creatures, or which might be the camera owner and their friends dressed up as other worldly creatures – or which might just be deer.
This is not conducive to running a successful golf course. The owner shuts it down and closes the club house. A new golf course, owned by a competitor, opens a little further down the road. The owner sells the land, but he’s just a little too late and it doesn’t fetch nearly as much as it might have done at the height of its fame, because he has held out for more profit and underestimated how quickly these things are blown through the tunnels of social interest. He leaves for a slightly more modest retirement than planned and he takes with him a stress ulcer and a bewildered uncertainty as to what, in fact, has actually happened.
The land is bought by a property developer who specialise in affordable housing. It becomes vibrant and noisy, and the old club house becomes a pub, which becomes a community. The field with the mower is deemed unsuitable for building for reasons which no one quite seems sure of, and it remains empty, designated eventually as a wildlife area of deliberate neglect. The spooky drawings and blood spots and headless dolls disintegrate, feeding the earth with a strange and dark knowledge of its fabricated history. They are replaced with weeds and wildflowers and fox holes and, because it is not only plants and animals that are wild, with empty beer bottles and crisp packets and condoms overnight. Every now and then they are joined by some discarded underwear, tight boxers or damp, lacy, bras or knickers – though there never seems to be a matching set. The earth absorbs it all and creates its own narrative. And the grass grows long.
The pub changes hands and renames itself ‘The Old Mower’, and the new manager digs out a few of the old rumours for a plaque on the wall, to add interest. A photograph of the mower, taken recently and looking anything but old, is printed in ‘aged’ sepia tones to accompany it.
The years drift by. Only the mower is unchanged. Still standing, proudly, in the wildflower field, it remains un-rusted, polished even. Gleaming in the sunlight, shiny in the rain.
People notice this, uneasily. They recall a few of the old stories. Nobody remembers the gardener. The mower is a ghost site. Is a wildlife haven. Is a terrible waste. Is a romantic assignation. Is a piece of trash.
But there is something about it. Everybody agrees. As though the mower has only been left temporarily. As though the driver might pop back at any minute.
And for some reason no one can quite put their finger on, they don’t want to be there when he (or she) does.
This series of short stories is inspired by an idea suggested by Harry Smith, who alongside his lovely fiancé and my friece (niece who is very much also my friend), are among my favourite people to spend time with. I promised him commission if I ever make any money from these stories…I’ll make good on it, but he may be waiting a while…