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The Young Gardener
at the Orsan Priory

Text e photographs
by Cristina Archinto

That day he emerged from his deep sleep without that annoying sound of the alarm clock, but he already knew that it was about to go on anyway; he could see the faint glow coming from the dormer window. He tried to relive his night dreams, but they had already dissolved, fled to who knows where. He placed his feet on the old wooden floor, even though it had recently been renovated, that pleasant creaking sound was still stuck to him. During the day, his footsteps would have been also heard downstairs, in the large bookshop where tourists went crazy for all those articles, from soap to essences, from jars to books. But at that time it was still closed.


He checked that there was water in the kettle and switched it on, while waiting he opened the curtains and checked the weather; fine even today, fortunately. There was also a small washbasin in one corner of the room. The actual bathroom was a shared one at the end of the corridor, but he was alone in the entire attic, a temporary solution that they had been kind enough to give him. The others, with different situations, were scattered around or in the village; he came from Paris. Who knows what the weather was like in Paris today, it was certainly starting to get cold.


Shortly afterwards he realised, as often happened to him, that he was lost in his thoughts, it was getting late, he had to hurry, the meeting in the room next to the tool room was about to begin. He ran downstairs in his working boots and overalls and shortly after his arrival Gilles, the head gardener, as affable as ever, handed out to everyone their day's tasks. Thirty years earlier Gilles had been entrusted with the thirteen hectares of abandoned monastery gardens in order to restore them to their former mediaeval splendour, a very hard job that he had loved from day one.


Nowadays, even though there were five of them, there was still a lot to do. The garden was large and there was also the matter of "replacing as much of the petrol of the machinery as possible with the sweat of one's muscles and forehead" as the boss recalled every morning. Pesticides were also banned, and one had to go to neighbours farms to retrieve the manure, a chore that often fell to him, the last one arrived. But it was right to start at the bottom. He had arrived there more by chance than by choice, and now he had to decide on his future, the day had come. "We'll talk later," Gilles told him at the end of the meeting, and he had no idea how to proceed with his life. But luckily, he still had a whole day to draw the conclusions.  

The gardens were organised around the central cloister, from where four alleys started, symbolising the four rivers of paradise. From here one had access to the numerous adjacent gardens such as the orchard with its ancient apple and pear trees, the courtyard with its vines and the garden of simples with its medicinal plants and the kitchen garden with its vegetables, and it was from there that one had to go to the labyrinth that had to be taken care of that morning, cut off the dried flowers and arrange the wooden weavings.


The garden was full of wooden structures, yes because for architects Lesot and Patrice Taravella, who had bet on the site in 1991 by renovating it, it was a way of emphasising the garden's mediaeval soul. Structures for seating, pergolas for vines or structures to support climbing roses, small crowns to support flowering plants, structures to raise vegetables or flowers made from interwoven chestnut branches, beautiful but in need of constant maintenance. But as St Jerome used to say, to escape from the dangers of idleness, one must devote oneself to crafts: "make baskets out of reeds and weave baskets out of wicker, hoe the earth and divide your vegetable garden into small equal squares", and this is what he had been doing for six months.


Passing through the vegetable garden he noticed that the vegetables were no longer as spectacular as at the beginning of summer, now it was time for the pumpkins, that beautiful orange, planted elsewhere in the garden. The roses had also faded, but passing through that arbour was always a thrill. He immediately set to work, knowing that soon the tourists would arrive and everything would become more difficult, not so much because of their always discreet and respectful presence, but because he would be barraged with questions. He didn't like questions, they would bring him back to school, paralysing him, even though he knew the answer perfectly well.


After a while he realised that he was hungry, of course he didn't drink the coffee then, too bad he also had those good cinnamon biscuits that the girl in charge of the bistro or tea room as they liked to call it, with natural juices and other delicacies, had given him. Fortunately it occurred to him that the day before he had passed the hand mower in the orchard and picked up an apple, a juicy Gros Jaune, and it had remained in his pocket; he would eat it after some hard work. So it was mid-morning. Sitting on that beautiful structure circled around the persimmon tree in the centre of the labyrinth he enjoyed his apple in the stillness, this was peace he reflected. Perhaps the same peace that Robert d'Arbrissel was seeking when in 1107 he decided to found this Priory of Notre Dame d'Orsan in central France at the mercy of war and violence. He was certainly a renewer of his times; in his new community he not only put an abbess, Pétronille de Chemillé, in charge, but welcomed adherents of all conditions and above all of both sexes, a rare occurrence in those days. A man who had left his mark and for years had many followers and pilgrims who came from all over the world to honour him and admire his monastery.

As for me, what did I want to do with my life, the boy wondered. Of course he missed Paris, gosh he missed it, hanging out in bistros with friends, going to the cinema, having no worries. Of course others like him had given up, moved elsewhere to study or work; every now and then he messaged someone.

Around noon, as he did every day, he made his way to the canteen, which was actually a room next to the kitchen normally used as a pantry, with a beautiful rustic wooden table, where every time the cook kneaded the dough for the quiche lorraine to be sold in the tea room, a layer of flour and water and a warm smell remained between the cracks in the wood. Meals were always light but nutritious, one certainly did not want to risk finding some gardener dozing in the shade of a beautiful tree.


In the afternoon he tended the flower garden, which was small but full. The flowers were all strictly medicinal or alternatively edible. At this time there were columbines which he liked a lot, certainly not for eating though; he also liked some dahlias with those melange colours and almost transparent textures.


Meanwhile time passed and he still had no idea what he was going to say to his boss, every time he leaned towards one decision the other presented itself stronger than ever. The moment came when the sun began to set and he walked doubtfully towards the warehouse to clean and arrange his tools.


As he arrived at the door he passed the young woman from the bistro, he thought of how beautiful she was and almost as shy as he was, plus she had that mysteriously tender air. It was at this time that, with a determination he did not know he had, he decided it was time, after months, to invite her out for a drink or something to eat. After listening attentively, she only replied with a smile, a wonderful smile that lit up the whole garden and also dispelled the fog about his future.


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