Wilkie

In troubled times like ours, various strangers have taken to turning up on our doorstep in the country, men with an often desperate air about them. They want to install double glazing, pave pathways, wash cars or windows, do anything as long as it gives them a job. One day last year there came a tap at our door, a timid scrabbling sound, and there stood the skinniest man we had ever seen. He had noticed the garden as he passed by, he said. It was quite a wilderness and he could deal with it. He brought this out in a gasp.

We liked our garden the way it was, a leafy, informal place that shaped itself in a tangle of fuchsias and honeysuckle, larkspur and primroses, twisting pathways that vanished under violets and thyme into a copse where bluebells and foxgloves spread. We were sorry, we told him. We had never had a gardener and didn't really want one.

He went off down the path, a scrawny figure in a greasy coat and tattered slouch hat. There was a droop to his shoulders as if this rejection, the final closing of a door, was unendurable, and all at once we couldn't bear it, either. He seemed in his small person to stand for all the millions of unemployed who longed for work and were turned away. We called him back. ''Don't go!'' Perhaps he could do some light digging for a day or two - that day or two was to lengthen itself into a season. His face lit up.

''I'm as strong as a lion,'' he declared, looking more of a starveling weasel. ''I can tackle that wilderness.''

The first time we called him in for a hot drink he started up, trembling. Perhaps we were going to tell him to go. He refused to come farther than the back door. Gradually, marvelously, a kind of camaraderie was established between us.

He accepted a meal, a seat at the fireside, he accepted us. With increasing self-confidence he began to tell us about the people who lived up the stair of his damp, overcrowded tenement. As he talked we realized that Wilkie - we never knew if this was his Christian or his surname - was in his own way a poet.

He had a use of Scots words with haunting cadences, a power of description that sometimes sent a cold shudder down our spines. He opened out dark visions of a world where we had the good fortune not to be born. We came almost to know feckless, blackeyed Dan with his debts and his wheedlings and promises of jobs in his scrapyard. Big Archie, who sat endlessly brooding over the shame of being made redundant. Stray dogs and cats prowled, rats scavenged, while the misfits and misbegotten struggled to survive the sorrows that life inflicted on them.

''How do you stick it, Wilkie?'' we would ask.

''You have to dree your dule,'' he would reply simply. Dule was sorrow, to dree was to endure, and Wilkie did. The hardships of his life were a fash and a taigle, misfortunes were mishanters. He had a certain scared expression when he spoke of nameless terrors, the gurlie-whirkies, a word that crawled like an insect over our skin.

As a gardener Wilkie was a locust. He dug up our favorite flowers. ''Weeds!'' he exclaimed, blithely tossing lupines and peonies onto the compost heap. He planted groundsel, tended convolvulus and rosebay willow herb as if they were prize roses. He lifted up handfuls of earth, gathered heaps of fresh-mown grass and sniffed at them as if breathing in blessedness, banishing grime and soot from his lungs.

At first, as he straightened crooked paths and lopped off overhanging branches, we would say tentatively, fearing to hurt his feelings or dampen his enthusiasm, ''Don't bother with that, Wilkie.'' He took this as a challenge to prove his lionlike strength and created even greater havoc.

Everything in the garden was a revelation to him. When the robin sat on his spade or perched on his shoulder, he had a wonderful smile. ''You're not feart of me, Robbie!'' He talked to it, marveled at its song, and began to whistle or sing to himself as he worked. ''My luv is like a red, red rose,'' he sang, or ''A wee bird cam' to my ha' door ....'' When one day a fox darted through the shrubbery, he rushed to tell us. ''Come and see! What's the wee red beastie? A fox! It's a regular zoo here!''

Summer turned to fall, green leaves to gold, there was a dry whirring in the grass, the first frosts came and little curling white mists. The robin changed his tune and swallows gathered in the eaves.

Our garden hardly knew itself, with neat beds and trimmed trees. The October air swirled with silvery winged willow herb seeds and dandelion clocks. In the midst of it all stood Wilkie, beaming, as if in paradise. ''I'm becoming a real countryman,'' he said.

It was one autumn day that he told us, a little uneasily, how feckless Dan had been wheedling him about a job in the scrapyard. ''I'll let you know if I take it on,'' he said. He never did. We could hardly expect a letter from Wilkie , and certainly not a phone call. He walked out of our lives that October afternoon, with a golden harvest moon rising and barn owls hooting in the woods. He set off down our country lane, waving back to us, a diminutive creature in his greasy coat and battered hat.

We would never have believed how much we would miss him, his tales of the tenement and its extraordinary inhabitants who were his close companions. We had become accustomed to his wry humor, his stoical acceptance of his weird, or fate. We hoped that Dan would not let him down, that the terrified look on his thin face at mention of the gurliewhirkies would never return.

Our defoliated garden was empty without him. He left behind in it echoes of his songs and his long conversations with the robin that always began: ''And how are you the morn, Robbie?'' We had perhaps given him some happiness, at least our garden had. He for his part had shown us how to thole the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune with fortitude and humor. We kept hoping that one day we might hear again a scratching at the door and find our little locust standing there, ready to transform a wilderness single-handed.

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