Over the winter, we hacked through curtains of Ivy and Mile-A-Minute all over the garden; hauling rubble sacks full out to the dump every couple of weeks; and were rescued when none of our kit was up to the job by friends who, invited for lunch, brought a chainsaw along. Although the creepers will, like the Terminator, definitely be back (Ivy, like cockroaches and brambles, is likely to survive any apocalypse and just needs a scrap of root or runner to spring into life), for now the garden is charging into Spring, getting the best out of the water and light without the competition.
What’s underneath is a garden that someone had clearly put a lot of thought into, and loved, for a long time. Between the old shrubs (some of them unruly and due a massive haircut), bulbs and perennials are appearing and flowering, starting with snowdrops and crocus, then tulips, now irises. It even has a colour scheme (mostly yellow and blue). It reminds me most of a garden my grandmother had, although luckily without the big lawns my grandad seemed to spend half his time mowing and edging. Even though there is a lot to be done, it is worth it to have such a beautiful place to sit among the flowers and wonder what’s coming next.
The ancient, crooked pear tree, which looked on its last legs just months ago, has been covered in blossom and now tiny fruits are forming. I hate pears, and there will be plagues of wasps, but it’s good to see the old thing has some life in it yet. And I have been invited to show work at a tiny exhibition that against all the odds is back on for July, so I had probably better get on and do some…
One of my grandmas worked at a Cambridge College – if I ever knew exactly what she did there, I have long forgotten; but it involved a uniform with a blue nylon housecoat, so probably not the Dean. I remember going there with her sometimes in the summer holidays, fidgeting impatiently among the dark oak pigeonholes in the Porters’ Lodge or reading comics on the riverbank.
When my aunt got married one summer, the wedding reception was held in the Old Hall: more oak panelling, some florid Victorian wallpaper, a minstrels’ gallery and stained glass. As a bridesmaid, I was corralled into a flounced peach-flowered dress, hair nailed in place with a hundred stabbing hairpins. But after the service and the speeches, and the interminable photographs, the party got properly started and I skulked away unnoticed to sit alone in the warm stone cloisters on a perfect July afternoon. Bees were buzzing in the pale pink roses, with their backdrop of supernaturally perfect lawns. For half an hour or so in a long, manic and noisy day I was superbly content, sat on the worn stone flags with my pinching new shoes hidden under a bush, eating trifle, watching the flickering shadows of people walking down the street on the other side of the college gates.
Eventually I was dragged back for the dancing and the fetching of drinks for an assortment of half-known relatives, and I don’t think I ever went back there afterwards.
It’s fair to wonder if there is any point to writing about this, I’m hardly sure myself. Maybe it’s just filler, one more attempt to justify this tired and half-hearted vanity project. Or perhaps it’s pulling the random good bits out of the strata of life for a change, instead of the failures, fears and regrets; dusting them down and seeing them still bright, for all that they were unlooked for and unremarked.
Not being keen on cowboy adventures or thrillers about outwitting the SS, as I child I read a lot of sci-fi, because that was the other option on the bookshelves at home. It was mostly the shiny-metal high concept science fiction of the fifties and early sixties: robots, space stations and time travel. Comic books in disguise, made more serious and respectable by the lack of pictures.
In memory, most of it is blurred into one amorphous mass, the heroes and their trusty spaceships; the strange new worlds and alien creatures; new-frontier colonialism stuff with paper-thin characterisation that would pass an afternoon and occasionally as an aside explain what a Lagrange Point is or suchlike.
Isaac Asimov, early adopter of the genre’s boom in post-war America, beloved of the techbros then and now, considered by others problematic in person and on the page, featured heavily in the collection, and I must have read a lot of his work at various points. What I remember is an obscure short story: 2340 AD – a cheery little number commissioned by one of the many magazines he wrote for, about the last pet-owner on Earth, compelled to euthanise the final few non-human animals left alive, in the pursuit of perfect balance and social harmony.
It’s a nonsense, of course – we’ll be toast before we have managed to chop down half of the biodiversity tree we don’t even realise we’re sitting on, let alone get down to a single tortoise and a few rodents. But it rings true in the relentless force that societies are willing to exert to in search of conformity, even when it is a disadvantage to the whole, not just the one. The committee will meet, and listen to what it likes and misremember what it doesn’t, make a desert, and call it peace.
Moving house, like Hemingway’s description of bankruptcy, happened in two ways: gradually, and then suddenly.
Months of clearing and cleaning, trawling through listings and u-turning on unfamiliar roads, offering eye-watering amounts of money for houses of dubious charm and utility and then being rejected eventually gave way to the dim purgatory of conveyancing. People earning more in an hour than I do in a week endlessly requesting paperwork already sent, chivvying calls from Estate Agents, buyers fretting deadlines. After a small ice-age of it, with failure a constant possibility, we had six days to sift and pack fifteen years worth of stuff, frantically sign up removals and cattery, scrape and scrub until our hands were raw, make so many trips to the dump they knew us by name.
The last frenetic two days moving in resembled nothing more that some harrowing incident in a packaging factory, and twenty miles worth of climbing stairs; and now we live somewhere we have never been before, among strangers. A month in and the smartly-painted old house has revealed a rotten window-frame , plumbing with faulty valves and the demise of the washing machine.
I still can’t get the muscle memory to turn off the right lights in the kitchen, or reliably not stumble on the random steps and stairs. The cats roam their unfamiliar territory, fascinated by the fireplaces and odd corners; fighting on the stairs at night. My eldest has gone to university hundreds of miles away, a crash course in adulting after eighteen months of confinement and shrunken opportunities. The other goes pragmatically to a new school, and we go on working at home, although thankfully no longer rammed elbow to elbow at the same table. In the shed at the bottom of the garden, in a tangle of bikes and camping chairs and tools sit boxes of all my paints and brushes, waiting for the Spring.