One day, John Smith simply appeared. He walked onto the premises, picked up a shovel, and set to work in the vegetable garden. He said not a word. The Benedictine sisters were understandably startled. The abbess, however, counseled them firmly, "Let him be. If he had a home, he would surely be there rather than here." And that was all there was to it.
The situation was strange, indeed. John Smith worked. He did not attend mass. He did not even speak unless spoken to, which was a rare occurrence in and of itself. The nuns continued to be warily accepting. The girls enrolled at Kylemore all gave him a wide berth… save one.
"Where are you from?" little Anne asked him one afternoon as he weeded the kitchen flower boxes.
He looked up, his gaze moving from her flour-dusted apron to her rolled-up blouse sleeves. "You should go mind the bread," he advised gruffly.
"It's raising," she informed him and then doggedly insisted, "Are you from Dublin?"
"No, another place."
"Is it pretty?" she wanted to know.
"It's nice enough, I suppose."
"So why are you here?"
"It's nicer here."
That answer seemed straightforward and, for the moment, Anne was satisfied. But, a few weeks later, as John Smith was repairing the hinges on the old door to the cellar, there she was again with more questions.
"Why did you come here?" she began after a chipper "Good morning, Mister Smith!"
He answered, "To watch things grow."
"Like a groundskeeper?"
"Yes. A groundskeeper."
"You stayed so you could be a groundskeeper?"
He squinted at the hinge he was oiling.
"You could be a groundskeeper anywhere," Anne pointed out astutely.
"You could be a little girl anywhere," he countered.
She pouted in thought as she wandered off and, with a firm nudge from the abbess, back to her studies.
For over a year, whenever Anne's path crossed John Smith's, she would stop and interview him. He never grew cross with her despite the personal nature of her questions, never told her to leave him be or ignored her. He would continue on with his task, answering her inquiries succinctly.
"Do you believe in God?" she inquired abruptly one winter day.
John was clearing the snow off of the path leading from the abbey to the chapel. It was an arduous task and he had much to do before morning mass. He did not shoo her away or shush her. Instead, he said, "I believe in good things."
"So, since God is good, you must believe in Him," she announced, clearly pleased with herself.
"So I must," he agreed with a fierce frown.
"Where is your family?"
For the first time since Anne had taken an interest in him, John Smith stopped working. He looked up at the looming clouds. "With God," he replied.
And then he looked at her.
That morning, after mass had been concluded, the abbess lingered in the chapel. There, in the far back corner, John Smith sat.
She settled beside him on the cold, wooden bench and finally asked a question of her own, "Will you never tell her?"
"My family is with God," he repeated hoarsely. "I'm just the groundskeeper."
And then he got up and went to turn down the lamps.
The abbess saw John Smith and Anne talking together many times over the years, always as he cared for the grounds. Even after she had taken her vows and begun her own work within the abbey, Anne always made time for John Smith, the groundskeeper and the father she would never know.
. . . . .
Notes: Yes, Kylemore Abbey is a real place and I've been there. In fact, the idea for this story jumped into my head as I was taking a shuttle bus from the abbey to its nearby Victorian gardens. I thought to myself, "Why would a man drive a bus on the same 7-kilometer road, three times an hour, all day long, every day? How monotonous is that?" And then, suddenly, there John Smith and Anne were, ready to speak. Someday, I hope to turn this into a novella, but we shall see.
Extras: There's art that goes with The Groundskeeper of Kylemore Abbey. To see the cover art (which is a photograph of Kylemore Abbey taken by yours truly), check out my homepage. Thanks!