We ate from pale green plates on an oval table in a square dining room adjoining the kitchen and linked to it by a sliding door. The French windows that led from the dining room to the garden were often steamed up, blurring the view. A shaded lamp suspended above the table rose and fell smoothly when you pushed or pulled the little handle beneath the bulb.
My father’s seat at the head of the table faced the back garden, its lawns, trees and banks of flowering shrubs so bright in summer that they almost hurt your eyes.
Mum’s place was opposite Dad, but most of the time she was in the kitchen, where she prepared every morsel that passed our lips and washed every dish, cup, knife, fork and table napkin that we ever used. She even buttered our bread for us and decided whether or not our toast would have crusts: this was the custom of the time, and quite unremarkable. On the other hand, although we sat down together at the table, we rarely ate the same meal, which was not.
While my father ate a pork chop with boiled cabbage and new potatoes, my older sister Julia and I might have cold chicken and lettuce with salad cream, and my mother a pork pie, beetroot, of which she was particularly fond, and peas. Occasionally there was one element—perhaps the potatoes, peas or beans from the garden—that featured in all the meals, linking them tenuously together. But mostly there was not.
On the kitchen side of the table sat the oldest of us three girls, Julia—officially Juliette, but adamantly opposed to the name’s romantic implications. I, Hazel, named after a tree planted on the weekend of my birth, sat opposite her, my back against the heating vent in the living room wall. April, still a baby, was fed earlier and then “put down.”
Plates were handed out from the kitchen and my mother told us what was coming and who it was for. If your plate contained something you were known to like, then you were in her good books, and it was important to seem grateful even though fried eggs might be the last thing on earth you fancied at that particular moment. If you were given something you had even once shown the faintest dislike for, she was either punishing you, or reminding you that she could. We never argued over what we were given, though occasionally we attempted to exchange—beetroot for potato, sausage for chop. Mum said that what bothered her about this was the possibility of the tablecloth getting spoiled. Sometimes, unable to contain herself, she would pull the plates from our hands and perform the exchange herself, insisting that the entire meal was swapped so that you got three things you didn’t want along with the one you did: “Don’t fiddle about!” she said.
This was in suburbia, before the arrival of the avocado pear and again, the food itself: meat, pies, potatoes, boiled vegetables and rudimentary but very fresh salads from the garden, was, in name at least, ordinary. But there were many staple items which Mum had never learned to successfully make. Yorkshire Pudding was one, pastry another. These substances were different every time they appeared and could only be named from their context. Sometimes the Yorkshire Pudding resembled scrambled egg, at other times it was more like a large thick crisp. There was no way of predicting.
“What’s it like?” she’d ask. Neither I nor Julia answered, but my father had grown into the habit of considering the merits of whatever it was very carefully indeed and making a considered reply.
“I quite like the softness of it. I must say it goes extremely well with mustard.”
The reason for the inconsistency was simple. Despite her rigorousness in other areas of household management, such as cleaning and expenditure, Mum hated to be bound by measurements or recipes. She preferred to guess and she despised recipes for being so particular, so fussy about what they needed to be themselves. She simply wouldn’t accept it and gave them, as she gave us, what she thought they deserved.
About once a year something new would make its way into the repertoire.
“The custardy bit is nice,” Dad responded, cautiously, while we all watched him. “What is it called, then?”
It didn’t really matter what he said because if, and only if, my mother liked whatever it was, would she make it again. But of course it would not be the same next time round, not even remotely like.
I knew, from visits and from television, that this wasn’t the way other families did things. When grown-up guests came, I stared at my water glass as the plates were handed out.
“You and Michael have got pork,” I’d hear my Mum say, “but I’ve done a leg of lamb as well…” Occasionally, she might even offer startled guests a choice, as if we were in a restaurant, though we rarely went to them for she found the spectacle of our free choice hard to bear and having to be on the end of someone else’s cuisine more or less impossible.
“I’ve got three steaks, and the others can have shepherd’s pie. Now, which do you want?” Whatever they chose, Mum would extol the merits of the other thing, and make them change their minds. The guests hid their bewilderment behind stretched smiles and tended to leave soon after Mum had loudly undertaken the extensive washing up and brought out the coffee. Everyone got a cup, though those who asked for it black often found themselves with cream.
I loved to visit my own friends’ homes, where the contents of everyone’s plate looked identical (except that the men always had more), and if you said you liked something they gave you another helping and made sure to have it the next time you visited. My unusual enthusiasm at the table made me a sought after guest, but this entailed “having them back,” which was first an ordeal and then a revelation: I watched, mesmerized, as Sonia Brotherton slipped the whole of something wet and leathery, which Mum called Quiche into her shorts pocket. Occasionally I had considered refusing to eat this or that but it had always seemed more trouble than it was worth. Now the solution was apparent. On the way back to her house Sonia posted the quiche into a letterbox.
“Your Mum’s crazy, you know,” she said, matter-of-fact, wiping her hands on her tee shirt. I grinned, shrugged, suspecting that things were actually far worse than that, that we were all crazy, or if not, soon would be.
At Sonia’s home her mother sat us on stools in the kitchen and gave us each a little glass bowl of halved strawberries topped with a twist of whipped cream and sugar fine as dust; they tasted heavenly and I ate so slowly, savouring them, that she asked twice whether I was feeling all right.
The morning after this, I pushed my plate of baked beans (which Mum had told me needed using up) to one side.
“I don’t really fancy beans, Mum,” I said. “I’d rather have cornflakes.” Julia, opposite me, had those. Next to me, April, enthroned in her high chair, was smearing her face with mashed banana. My father had been served with All-Bran as well as beans on brown toast. My mother, opposite him at the far end of the table, was eating a piece of white toast topped with lemon curd. Her face slackened. She stopped chewing, and stood. I realized belatedly that Sonia Brotherton and I were not in the same position because she went home to somewhere else, whereas I lived here, but I had begun something fateful, and could only continue, and say, sick with adrenaline: “You can’t make me!”
I had no idea whether this was true. I had dressed for the occasion in a loose skirt with deep pockets. It would not work for beans, but I slipped my hands inside them for comfort as I spoke.
The truth was that sometimes my mother could make me eat and sometimes she couldn’t. But whether or not she could did not greatly matter because from that moment on, for many years to come, what did or did not go in my mouth was to be the entire focus of both our lives, and the only subject of our conversation:
“I don’t like it.”
“It’s what there is. It’s good for you.”
“I don’t want it.”
This interminable argument was largely ignored by the rest of the family. Julia, a decade older than me, was increasingly away from home. April benefitted from the lack of attention. My father did occasionally protest, setting down his cutlery to ask the space in front of him whether it was too much to ask that a man might eat in peace? Afterwards, he would be served for his next meal something he was known to abhor, such as cheese on toast or a semi-liquid omelette. He would often try to skip the meal after that.
“You’re giving your father indigestion!” my mother accused me.
I could not stop, and neither could she.
I grew hollow-limbed and paper-thin. There was no name for what was happening back then.
And in contrast to the hollowness inside me, I felt the weight and solidity of the house on Manor Close, its brick and tile and parquet, its accumulated wardrobes, bedsteads, sideboards, dining table and chairs bearing down, crushing me. I fled outdoors. Craving light and freedom, I paced intricate routes out through suburban streets, cycled out to the edges of the countryside, or lay on my back, hidden in the hedged area at the far end of the garden where roses grew in a circular bed. The air was threaded with rustlings and songs and gradually I began to see the birds as well as hear them. Chaffinches and blue-tits that skittered from twig to twig, screeching jays, bold robins, thrushes and blackbirds… I bought a bird-book and a sketchpad. The birds and their behaviours filled my mind and even worked their way into my dreams. I envied their lightness and the physical freedom they seemed to enjoy, how they fed and flocked and flew, all together, without argument.
Mum’s cheeks developed a high colour and at the same time fell, making her eyes seem to bulge. I learned later that she had two miscarriages during this time. Dad developed an ulcer. April went to play group, and began to have friends, but she still followed me everywhere because I was the only one left at home. Julia was in college, then working. Sometimes she brought a boyfriend home to lunch or dinner on the weekend. A guest meant that the struggle between me and my mother would become muted and underhand, though sometimes the guest would be asked his opinion:
“We have such trouble with Hazel and her food! Does that look like ‘too much’ to you, David?”
“Depends how hungry someone is I suppose,” the innocent boyfriend would say, looking cheerfully about the room.
My father would engage the young man in conversation.
“I hear you’re interested in history?” he might begin, and then ask, with false jocularity, “Who was it, now, who said, ‘History is a philosophy from examples’?”
“I’m not sure…” the boyfriend would reply, chewing perplexedly on his Yorkshire pudding, whilst Dad carefully loaded a fork with meat and greens, glanced up, judged the length of the pause.
“Dionysius of Halicarnassus, 30-7 BC,” he would eventually pronounce, then fill his mouth with the loaded forkful and say nothing more for the duration of the meal. He kept the Oxford Book of Quotations in the garden shed and prepared carefully each time a new boyfriend was invited. But Julia was no fool and soon learned to avoid bringing the conventional or over-sensitive to our table, which now included April, a very messy eater prone to offering guests morsels from her plate. Julia took to strong men, humourists, louts who weren’t interested in anything and so could not be humiliated, or, alternatively, men with such monolithic confidence in themselves that nothing could shatter it. She also took to miniskirts, and on one occasion wore a transparent blouse to Sunday Lunch.
My parents ignored this, but I, placed next to April and opposite Julia and the current boyfriend (who was of the arrogant type—a thin, monosyllabic artist), stared intently through the film of white chiffon. I hadn’t really seen nipples before, and hers, in our unheated dining room, were large as loganberries. I could not take my eyes away.
Looking at them, I somehow knew that one day my life would be something bigger than whether I could get away without eating my supper or not. One day I too would have breasts, though I wasn’t sure whether they should be as large, as absolutely round and moulded-looking as my sister’s. At the neck of the blouse was a white ruff, and above it, her face, flushed from the wine, was made up with dark eyeliner and silver on the lids. She had the same silver on her nails and had taken to eating everything with just a fork. She was nothing like the angry, jealous girl who had accused me of being mum’s favourite and, to punish me, removed the tree-house ladder, leaving me stranded.
Hopefully, once I too left, I would be nothing like me. I would go to university and become a scientist. I would travel the world and see exotic birds. One day, however distant, I would never have to sit at this table again, nor look at the apple green cloth with the lacy holes in it, nor the pale green wallpaper nor out at the even greener garden beyond the French windows, full of birds I could not quite see because of the condensation and because my mother blocked my view. One day, I would recover my appetite. I would eat in restaurants. I would eat interesting, pretty-looking food that fitted its name: iced pear sabayon, ceviche, oeufs en cocotte, mousellines de poisson, soupe au pistou, roast carp with peppers, quail’s egg salad, daube à la provencale, iced borscht with cumin, veal blanquette, blinis, pasta alla carbonara, blackcurrant kissel, cinnamon cheesecake, coeur à la crème—all of it, and more…. I would sit in a muted atmosphere of whispers and clinking glass, while a fan whirred away above my head and a tall waiter stood patiently beside me while I, very slowly, made up my mind.
Julia’s eyes met mine and I became the loganberries: I blushed purple-red. Back in tree-house days, she would have said something to embarrass me. Now, she smiled.
I, the baby, April, sometimes known as “Ape,” hardly knew my eldest sister, Julia, and although I desperately wanted to love Hazel, she ignored me and cared only for birds. She won prizes for her bird drawings, which she did in a firm outline, head pointing to the left, and then filled in with watercolour. Beneath, she printed the common and proper names, the season, and a sign for male or female, and signed her name, Hazel Seymour. When she used drawing pins to display these drawings on the walls of her room, turning them into a vista as over-populated as a summer beach, my mother did not punish her for ruining the walls, though she scolded me for laughing at Hazel when she stuck her head between the railings of Palmerston Park to watch the mandarin ducks. The fire brigade had to come and saw her free.
Hazel was thin, fine-boned, with red cheeks and small but glistening brown eyes. When she wasn’t talking about birds, she was silent, or absent. She sat for hours in the garden, motionless and bundled in sweaters, her field guide, notebook and pencil at the ready. Occasionally there was a yellowhammer or a bullfinch, though mostly she just noted common birds like chaffinches and robins, in all their ages and stages. Her ears, tuned to their calls, filtered out our voices.
She argued constantly with my mother over coming in for dinner or lunch, and not eating when she did. She made me feel terrible for eating chicken and always being hungry. She was saving her pocket money for binoculars. When she grew up she would be an ornithologist.
Hazel loved birds and I, unable to break through, but unwilling to give up, observed this passion of hers. I saw that love could not be done by halves. Nor was it rational, or fair. It demanded dedication, as did its opposite, hate. Our mother hated germs and fought them daylong. They had to be prevented from getting in our mouths or noses and the important thing was not to touch either of these places, but in case we forgot, we had to wash our hands with amber-coloured see-through soap to kill them. Germs came out of your bottom and crept through the paper as you wiped yourself. All of us were chronically constipated. Germs were in the grass, so we always wore shoes outdoors. By the back step stood a little bowl of milky disinfectant and a scrubbing brush for us to clean the soles. My parents shared a passion for the garden, and Mum donned gardening gloves for the simplest outdoor task, then afterwards rinsed them and left them to dry outside. The rest of us were supposed to do the same, but forgot.
Anything new that came indoors was washed straight away, even if it was sealed in plastic. Daily Mum scoured the kitchen with bleach, including the walls. Animals were prime carriers of germs, due to sniffing themselves, and so naturally none were allowed in. In our house, things you touched were nearly always damp from just having been wiped.
I was dreamy. Hazel was clever and did very well at school. I learned from her that germs were also what made you have a baby. They came from the man and got in the woman if she wasn’t careful. Also, she said, I was an accident, by which I understood some failure on the cleaning front. She always got top marks. Mr. Leaper told my mother she was a born scientist and could easily go to university. Everyone encouraged her.
Dad was for years designing Hazel a cat-proof bird table, though he never completed it. He often didn’t finish things, and the shed was full of abandoned projects, but perhaps in this case it was also because in his heart he felt creatures should be kept in their place—which was the farmyard or on the dinner plate—and because he loved the garden and hated both pigeons, which might use the bird table if he actually finished it—and cats and dogs. One passion necessitates or modifies another. He covered the raspberries and peas in fine green net, and the garden was kept dog-proof by tall fences and barbed wire threaded through the hedges. But there was nothing you could do about cats except chase them.
Hazel disliked cats too, but hated even more the disturbance caused by chasing them. At mealtimes, she kept her notepad by her plate. She craned her neck and fixed her eyes on what she could see of the garden, and I in turn watched her as she counted and marked, occasionally picking at her food, a morsel here, a morsel there. I began to think that when she grew up she would become not an ornithologist but an actual bird. I wanted her to fly away. I was jealous, something else that can’t be done by halves.
The green woodpecker was an astonishing bird, with ringed eyes and a red patch on its head, like a skullcap. It was shivering and had a broken wing and Hazel had found it in a hedge, wrapped it in her cardigan and carried it home. She wanted to bring it in. I stood beside my mother on the threshold, and waited to see what would happen. Mum’s face was tight, her lips sealed, her breath held against the germ-laden air. She wiped her hands up and down on her apron. I watched as Hazel’s dark eyes sought my mother’s pale grey ones and tugged at them, half pleading, half imperious.
“Picus Viridus,” she announced, “I want to keep it in my room—” adding, “I can make it better. A scientific experiment.” My mother’s hands fell still. None of us breathed.
“I suppose so,” she replied, “if you wipe it down.”
How very much my mother loved Hazel—even more than she hated germs! I watched my sister wipe the green woodpecker gently with disinfectant, and then carry it up to her room.
Shortly after this, I won two goldfish in a fair and brought them home in a plastic bag, my heart swollen, my stomach brimful and fragile like the bag. It was, I knew, some kind of test. But as I stood on the tiled doorstep, I felt my eyes sliding away from my mother’s, even as I tried to magic her the way Hazel had. Fish were not animals, I insisted and besides, it was only fair. I wanted to have the fish in a tank in my bedroom, like my sister and her green woodpecker. But, Mum insisted in return, it was not the same. The fish were not sick, and no one said I was a born scientist. Also, it was difficult to see how to wipe them.
“I’ll ask your father if you can keep them in the garden,” she decided.
Underneath the red-leaved tree my father called Prunus a tank was covered with wire that went right over the top and down the sides and was then tucked in under some old bricks. This was to stop cats, and foxes. The foxes came at night. You heard them shriek to each other and you might catch sight of them trotting up the path if the moon was out. Sometimes I dreamed of the foxes, pawing and nosing at the bricks that held the mesh on the tank in place. I dreamed of finding an empty tank and two white skeletons, sucked clean, on the bright green lawn. I loved my fish. I didn’t draw them. I just looked.
Hazel’s room became a bird hospital. It had a sign on the door: “Birds: Do Not Disturb,” and a large bowl of milky disinfectant outside. The patients, finches and thrushes, blackbirds, even storm gulls, were arranged in shoebox rows. Broken limbs were set with splints and sticking plaster. Diets were prescribed and administered. She served them pipettes of milk-soaked bread, live worms. Some birds lived. Those who died were buried in their shoebox in the back right-hand corner of the garden, a shady corner where nothing but ground ivy would grow. Hazel, busy with her avian hospital, forgave my mother for her cooking, and began to eat again. She became kinder to me, too.
Occasionally I was allowed to enter the bird hospital, leaving behind me the dust-free carpets, gleaming mouldings and wiped fixtures of the rest of the house. In Hazel’s room the sills were dull with dust, the carpet peppered with crumbs. Rimed saucers and jars of desiccated worms stood on the bedside table, and the counterpane was blobbed and streaked with droppings. I held the birds, wrapped in cloth, while Hazel bathed their eyes or tapped at their beaks with the pipette until they opened wide. She still drew. The pictures now showed birds in all sorts of positions—preening, nestled together, poised at take-off or landing, pointing both right and left.
The room was dark, to keep the birds calm and help them to forget about flying. But when they began to eat better, to peck and flap and flutter about, the curtains would be opened and the windows flung wide. Perhaps immediately, perhaps days later, the bird would suddenly hop to the sill, then soar into the sky. You could tell when it had happened because afterwards Hazel’s eyes glistened with satisfaction, as if, I thought to myself, she had laid an egg. She was doing biology at school by then, and did indeed eventually go on to university—an education that finally enabled her to refute our mother’s belief that all germs were necessarily bad.
I still went to see my fish in the garden every day. I lay on my stomach and stared at them as they wove between the weeds, sucked their food from the water’s skin or simply hung suspended in a kind of fishy sleep. Time stretched and shrunk and passed. Inside, in a row on my bed, I had animal toys. A panda bear, an owl, a kangaroo, a lion, all with button eyes. I almost loved them but I knew there was a difference between the living and the stuffed, between wonder and comfort. Between humans and animals, animals and birds, between birds and fish, which lived where people couldn’t even breathe. They had only glass to hold them from a poisonous world. Maybe it was cruel to keep them, but now I could not be without their swimming gold and their sudden, swivelling eyes. Looking at them was somehow looking inside me, at a part I didn’t understand, a secret and a miracle. It must, I thought, be the same for Hazel with her birds. I forgave her. I reasoned that if she was right about my mother’s accident with the germs, then she was one as well.
That winter, it snowed and my fish tank froze overnight to a solid block of white ice. I trudged through the snow to visit it every day, as people visit graves. Dumb with reproach, I refused to allow it to be disposed of. When the thaw came, I watched the ice melt day by day, revealing a small golden glow at the very heart. I felt sadder and sadder, as if I was melting too. And then, as I watched, the two fish moved, slowly at first, as if waking from a long, cold dream.
The Garden Path
Their faces grew leathery, tanned, blotched; their eyes saw distance well but not things that were close up. They stopped reading and spent more and more time in their garden, which soon became the only subject of their conversations. Dad, completely bald, wore a brown corduroy cap to protect him from the sun. Mum’s hair, always unmanageable, now thinning and unevenly mixed between grey and white, surrounded her face in tufts and wisps. She abandoned her fortnightly visits to the hairdresser: the style would be lost as soon as a bit of wind touched her. “Besides, Juliette,” she said, “who sees us?”
I saw them often because I lived the nearest. Single again, I had ended up in a warehouse conversion forty minutes’ drive away. My flat was on the third floor, and had a tiny balcony with space for two wrought iron chairs and a matching table, upon which sat the series of ill-fated potted geraniums that Mum persisted in giving me. I had secure parking and there was a gym in the basement. I liked it a lot.
“Gardening is far better than artificial exercise,” Mum told me. “Remember how Alex Rawlings suddenly went kaput, even after all those hours he spent sweating on that stationery bike of his. Though hygiene is very important too, of course.”
First light would find my father, in his dressing gown, rubber gardening shoes and thick-rimmed spectacles, inspecting the roses for aphids, or, if it had rained overnight, checking the level in the water butts. He would feel how the peaches espaliered on the south wall held to their stalks, and carefully pick any that were ripe. Slowly, he would crouch down and tug the beginnings of a dandelion from the lawn. An hour later they both sat, dressed in loose trousers and old cotton shirts, in the small summerhouse my father had erected during the second year of his retirement. This was the time to drink strong tea and decide what the day’s work would be.
I had to admit that both they and the garden were thriving, and yet adding more beds, more work, more commitment, was an odd thing to do at their age, counterintuitive.
“Things take a bit longer than they used to,” Dad admitted, “but we have so much more time now that we’re no longer responsible for anything else.”
“Cooking is far simpler for just the two of us,” Mum pointed out.
They took to travelling abroad in winter and returned with lists. They smuggled seeds, bulbs or cuttings, the root ends wrapped in damp tissue paper and bits of plastic bag. The rest of the year they stayed at home. Even so, I learned never to phone them in the daytime. They would be at the Far End, as it was called, kneeling to weed the circular rose bed, or in the Front Patch, or ventilating the compost heaps, or raking leaves. On a chilly evening, they’d be out wrapping delicate shrubs to save them from the frost, or carrying pots into the conservatory they had added at the back of the house.
“It’s wonderful,” my father told me, “to have the opportunity to be completely taken over.”
Several years passed this way and then, at the end of the supper I cooked in my flat to celebrate the tenth anniversary of his retirement, he leaned forward and said, “Julia, I don’t like to bring this up, but suppose that one day we can’t manage the garden properly?”
“We couldn’t bear to see it neglected,” Mum added, and helped herself to more supermarket raspberries and cream, despite having earlier complained that they were tasteless.
They told me the familiar story of how they, she in her twenties, he thirty, just married, had moved into a large flat in London. A Victorian building, with high ceilings and huge windows, it overlooked a park and all around were gardens. From behind their windows my parents watched the first post-war summer erupt into bloom. They knew they were lucky to have so much space in the midst of an accommodation shortage, yet they watched other people all around them digging and planting and were surprised to find themselves discontented. The landlady downstairs had a garden, and Mum was given permission to hang her laundry in it twice a week, but only that. She could not sit there, she could not so much as scratch the earth or plant a single seed…. And so my mother discovered that she wanted a garden—not just a small, city plot, but a real garden—that she yearned for it more than anything else. Soon, it was the same for my father.
They moved to a new suburb. The land surrounding the brand new house—the would-be garden—had once been the grounds of a manor house, and was now a mass of nettles, mud and broken brick. They bought a wheelbarrow, tools, grass seed, gardening books and pamphlets outlining the correct way to dig. They carted the rubble away bit by bit, laid paths, mapped out borders, planted trees. Almost co-incidentally, or even, perhaps, accidentally, I was born. By the time I was a toddler, labour in the garden was strictly divided. My father dug, sprayed, dealt with trees, hedges and vegetables, spread manure, mowed the lawn and had complete control of the vegetable plot. My mother, who had special gardening outfits and rituals to do with shoes and gloves, harvested, weeded the non-vegetable areas, pruned, and patted in bedding plants.
Busy with their plants, they let ten years slip by before they had Hazel, and another seven before April. Each of us only briefly intersected with the others and grew up more or less separately, and then, one by one, we left. I was the first to leave Manor Close, but after a spell in the Midlands, then Brussels, I came back to the southeast for work. Hazel spent years travelling and then eventually settled on a hillside in Cumbria: wonderful views, great birds, and just about as far north as is possible to go whilst remaining in the country. April, the freest of us all, outdid her by crossing the Atlantic.
They both had families, whereas I’ve done better at jobs than at long-term relationships. I was middle-aged, free of dependents, close and available—and there, in my glittering and scarcely-used kitchen sat my parents, my admittedly difficult parents, who had become two sweet old people wanting me to help them with their garden.
They studied each other across the table, conspiratorial.
“So why not get someone in to cut the lawn and trim the hedges?” I suggested. They could afford help. If they were unwilling to pay, I would.
“Oh,” my father said, “I’ve seen those chaps. Butchers. Not one of them does a proper job.”
“The garden is a personal, well, a family thing—”
“There must be someone,” I said. “Lots of people have their grass cut.” I collected the bowls, racked them in my dishwasher.
“Really, we’d rather move than see someone mess it up.”
“We wondered,” Dad began, “if it came to it, whether you’d be able…” He let the sentence trail. Mum, I knew, had set him up for this, for the fantasy of me spending my weekends on my knees, grovelling in the undergrowth according to their directions.
“I love the garden,” I said, drying my hands. “But you know I’ve never really liked gardening. Maybe you could somehow simplify it.
“Simplify?” Mum said, her eyes very bright. “I remember how you used to be jealous of the garden,” she added.
It was true. My parents never seemed to want to play. They spent entire weekends kneeling, collecting debris in mounds, preparing seedbeds or disinfecting the greenhouse. At the end of the day they would walk around, examining each other’s work, and then, after a cold supper, they fell asleep in their armchairs. Then it was the week again, with everyone back to work or school.
They gave me a small area of garden, offered me surplus plants and cuttings to put in as I chose, along with endless advice. I tried, but it did not interest me. Plants did not talk. They took ages to take, even longer to get big; they were prone to rot, insect invasion, desiccation, wilt. My fingers were clumsy. Pretending to tend the soil, I lost myself in hopes for buried treasure or Roman remains, and for a brother or a sister. I collected worms, kept them in flowerpots, forgot to water them, wept when I found the brittle remains.
Eventually they reclaimed my patch. I resolved that when I left home I would live somewhere as far away from greenery as possible, and not visit much. Though actually, during my second divorce, out of desperation I stayed with my parents for an entire fortnight.
“Sit in the garden, dear,” Mum had said, then. “Look at those azaleas! They will do you good.” The colours were very intense and I understood that it was the very best she could think of, but stayed resolutely in the living room, with the curtains drawn over the picture windows, the telephone to one side of me, a box of tissues to the other.
So, no, the garden could not be simplified, and I would not say yes. My father put his hand over my mother’s. I switched on the dishwasher, brewed some decaf. If they did have to move, my parents explained as they drank it, their swollen hands dwarfing my delicate silver-rimmed cups, they weren’t sure how they would feel about having a smaller garden, about having to start all over again.
It was all unimaginable. Even in my home, where they had been many times before, they looked out of place. The pair of them sat side-by-side, apple-cheeked, windswept, like two peasants who had strayed into a smart café.
“Maybe it would be best to have no garden at all,” my father said, not meaning it.
“It hasn’t happened yet,” I told them, and poured us each a small brandy. My hand shook a little, but they didn’t see. We drank to their garden,, and that night I dreamt of it gone wild, its fences collapsed and lawns neglected, the shrubbery rampant, the flowerbeds thick with weeds and shaded by huge shaggy trees.
I reported all this to Hazel and April. We fretted for a week or two, but found no answers and abandoned the conversation.
“The Fremontodendron is doing well,” Dad said one time over the small whiskies, which we often drank when I came to visit, after dusk, always, unless I wanted to help. Even at that hour, it was obligatory to take a tour and indeed the flowers seemed particularly beautiful in the blue half-light, their colours glowing in a deep, mysterious way.
“That’s lovely,” I said, “that one with the white flowers and the scent.”
“Abelia Triflora,” he told me. “You gave us that for our last anniversary.”
“Show her the Dendromecon!” Mum called from the patio.
Their vocabularies still increased daily. I could not keep up.
Time went on passing, but all the signs were that they were immortal, that this was their June. They would reach midsummer—and then just continue. The days would not diminish, instead, they would lengthen until there was no night left. The plants would grow huge and my father and mother, wrinkled, copper-brown, would move from towering bush to bursting border carrying their forks and spades, their bits of twine and secateurs, dwarfed by what they grew. It would all just go on for ever until the dahlias were as big as houses and they were as small as ants, just part of the thing they had made. I see now that this was denial, of course, but in the year when my mother turned seventy-nine and my father eighty-four, they were still strong and the garden had never looked so good.
I bought them a cell phone. Mostly of course, they forgot, or took it out, then lost it in the shrubbery and had to call it from their landline and walk around the garden, listening. I hunted down a gardening apron with a special Velcro pocket to keep the phone in. When the accident happened, Mum was wearing it and had the phone with her. She was able to call the ambulance quickly, but twenty-five minutes later, it still had not arrived. She called me. I was in a departmental meeting but they put her through: Dad had fallen from a ladder when pulling bindweed from the yew hedge at the back. She had been watering the patio and had heard nothing, but sensing that something was wrong, went to look, and found him on the ground.
“It’s his leg. His hip—Juliette, I called half an hour ago!” she cried, “They haven’t come!”
I called the ambulance again, and drove as fast as I could to Manor Close. The sprinkler was full on in the middle of the front lawn, throwing water into the bright air. I ran through the side gate, under its arch of wisteria, past the peach tree heavy with fruit and straight up the path to the hedge. The ladder was there on the grass, and next to it, the cell phone. They had gone. To St Mary’s or the General? I called both hospitals, each of which said they would call me right back to confirm whether or not my father had been admitted.
Long minutes passed. It was my fault. No, it was not. Not exactly. This damn garden, I remember thinking. Still my phone did not ring and I did not know where to go or what to do. I walked out on to the brick patio, bordered by beds of delphiniums, aquilegia and digitalis. The sound of bees was everywhere, and it
grew particularly loud as I approached the massive Buddlejia globosa which they had planted only a few years ago. There was a bee on almost every spherical bloom and a thick, distracting smell.
If my call wasn’t returned in the next five minutes, I told myself, I would set off for St Mary’s (indeed, it turned out that my father was there, alive, and eventually able to come home). Meanwhile, I walked up the garden path. To the right, Clematis florida ‘Seiboldii’ grew around what once had been my childhood swing and the patch of ground that had been mine, no longer shaded, was home to a regiment of bearded irises, fierce violet against the almost unnaturally green lawn. Beyond, I could see beds of azaleas and the rowan tree, and beyond that the dark yew hedge itself. Just in front of that stood huge laburnum, which had come to my shoulder when I was a girl and now towered thirty feet above my head. To the left was the vegetable patch, now much reduced but still backed by the espaliered pear trees, all different varieties, arranged in sequence of their time of fruiting with the earliest nearest to the house. The soil was a rich, chocolate brown. Leaves thrust and shimmered in an infinite variety of flagrant and subtle greens; birds poured out their songs, and insects flitted and drifted through the warm, moist air.
Just before my phone rang, I noticed a dandelion, its flowers on the verge of opening, at the edge of the lawn. Before I knew it (and as if someone other than me was willing it), I hitched up my skirt, crouched down, thrust my fingers into the soil, and tugged. The taproot broke and my fingers burrowed deeper, grasped it again and eased out the pale, grubby thing. The mouldy smell of disturbed soil and the intricate scents of pollen and chlorophyll blended into an irresistible cocktail of sweetness and decay.