• 17 Feb - 23 Feb, 2024
  • Mag The Weekly
  • Fiction

I chose this place to live, believing that I would find anonymity among those who did not care if the plaster and glass and paintwork of rented houses splintered and decayed, who were not reproached by gardens gone to seed and rotting sofas. In that hope, as in most things, I was proved wrong. People in the shops, who are living their real lives, even if you aren’t, soon start to recognize you. These are blowzy houses divided into new conversions that generate ancient dust, and next door’s great gorgeous crimson full-blown roses pouring over the Russian vine and honeysuckle that holds up the fence, unpruned like my own friable yellow, pink-tinged roses, are persistent reminders that the gardens were loved once.
Usually, I say inside trying to forget that thee is a summer going on out there, but tonight, at eight o’clock on a July evening, I am watching swifts flying in the transparent space between the treetops and roofs, and a vaporous blue white-clouded sky. I have cut back rosemary and lemon balm to make a space for a chair and my arms and hands, scented from their aromatic work, are tingling with stings and scratches and the invasive tiny barbs of borage. It is a narrow London garden, where plants must grow tall or sprawling to survive, philadelphus, forsythia and pyracanthus. Pheasant berry seeds itself every-where, leaving dead canes where it cannot stand the competition, that rattle and creak. One of the cats, tired fleaping, and pouncing on falling foliage and exploring exposed secret places, jumps onto my lap and settles there, and I see that the summer has tinged her almost sage-green ears ginger, and I feel a stillness of spirit and an intimation of a sensual, visual intensity that I thought I had lost for ever. It is as if I am in that airy insubstantial zone where the birds are flying, between the past and the future.

‘Been doing a spot of ethic cleansing, I see’.

It is my upstairs neighbour, leaning out of the window, the author of several unpublished novels of the depilatory school, about whose manuscripts I am sometimes called upon to dissemble in my capacity as an English teacher. I have a copy of the latest in my possession now.

‘You’ve ruined my view,’ she says, activating a yelping police siren, thudding music and barbecue smoke beaded with burned fat.

‘Sorry. How’s the work going, Jaz?’

The chopped and broken branches are wilting in heaps under the bushes. The cat disappears.

‘For goodness sake. In no other profession is one called on to account for oneself a thousand times a day by every Tom, Dick and Harry’.

‘Sorry. Rather poor taste though, your remark about ethnic cleansing’.

Truth to tell, a need to escape the television news as well as restlessness has brought me outside.

‘Sense of humour failure?’ asks Jaz. ‘Well, you’ve got to laugh, haven’t you, or else…’ Her voice tails off, and rallies. ‘Tell you what, April, I’ve got a couple of cold beers in the fridge. I’ll bring them down.’

I don’t want Jaz in the garden, which technically belongs to me as tenant of the downstairs flat, and I see now, dully, that it looks mangled and bereft. I don’t want a cold beer. I was born into the licensed trade, and a brief forth of happiness, bursting in bubbles, evanescent as elderflowers, is the last thing I want, but the bitter-sweet smell of moist green hops that stain the fingers comes to me, from wiry bines entwining in the rafters of a saloon bar or the rood screen of the church at Harvest festival, and I almost glimpse the gate, far away and cloudy, that leads into the orchard before you come to the hop gardens.

The only access to this garden is through my flat and Jaz is banging on my door. ‘So, you’re on holiday now, you jammy so-and-so’.

She sprawls, in shorts and vest, on the chair, sucking beer through a wedge of lemon rammed into the bottle’s neck, while I drop a cushion onto what had once been a little lawn.

‘Cheers’, she says, in her delusion of youth, ‘I should’ve gone into teaching a writer doesn’t have holidays. Still, you know what they say, those who can do, et cetera, et cetera.’

And there are those who can neither write nor teach. Her shoulders, arms and cleavage are so moist that I feel like a bundle of dry elder sticks, snappy and hollow, and I think of our camp, where a spring welled up under the roots of an elder tree.

‘Penny for ‘em, you’re staring into space again, and it’s most disconcerting.’

‘Where? Where miles away?’

‘Oh, in Stonebridge, the village where I grew up. In the fifties.’

‘That drab, grey and repressive decade. Thank goodness I was a child of the sixties.’

‘It wasn’t grey. That’s not how I remember it at all.’ It was politically, intellectually and artistically exciting. I see the Iron Curtain, as I saw it then, rusting corrugated iron hung with white convolvulus.

It was the time that coloured everything for me, that set my weakness for the gawdy and tawdry and ephemeral, for the veined gold and silver paper from cigarette packets. Today, my favourite restaurant in London is a little Greek-Cypriot place with lace curtains, hanging spider plants and fairy-lights.

‘Oh come on, don’t give me that Festival of Britain stuff, and don’t forget I did my thesis on 50s children’s books. By the way, April, most people have gooseberry bushes in their gardens but you’ve got a gooseberry tree. You’d better watch out, you might find a very tall baby under it one day.’

The gooseberry is a poor skinny thing, some nine feet tall with leaves turning red, which bears no fruit.

‘So, what plans for the hols?’

All my postponed dread of the school year’s ending engulfs me. Empty days. Hot pavements blobbed with spit and melting chewing gun. The walk down to the shops and back. The little park with its fountain, and loneliness sitting beside me on a bench.

‘Actually, I’m going down to Stonebridge tomorrow, and I may stay the night. I’ve been meaning to ask you if you’d feed the cast.’ My heart starts racing as I speak.

‘Of course I will,’ Jaz says. ‘If I’m around,’ knowing, as I did, that she would be. ‘Got family there, or will you be staying with friends?’

‘No. My parents are both dead, and my brother’s in London.’

After a time you can say quite levelly and conversationally, ‘my parents are both dead,’ and yet ‘dead’ is stamped in black letters on the air, like newsprint. Lightly spoken words come back to me, from a summer afternoon, and hurt, like a piece of grit sticky with melting tar.

Two children are walking barefoot up a gravelly road, a girl of ten holding her baby brother’s hand, and a woman, passing with her shopping basket, calls out, ‘My, Peter, those are smart shorts!’ Her voice, as bright as nasturtiums, and his orange-bordered new green shorts, lodge in my memory, for ever, and will probably come to me through mists of senility, pointlessly evoking a summer’s day, when I am slumped sightless and speechless in a vinyl chair in some geriatric day-room waiting to die.

A black mongrel, Trixie, comes scraping along on her haunches downhill towards us and, overtaking her, runs the Jack Russel, Nip. I know now that Trixie was a misshapen old dog and is dragging herself on her bottom like that, grinning or grimacing, because she has worms, but then I loved animals with the physical passion that little girls feel, and I knew all the dog sin the village by name.

Nip and Trixie belong to old Mr Annett whose legs bow outwards in an almost perfect arch above his wellingtons, so that you think he would fall over if he took them off. I see him carrying a bucket of crayfish home from the river one evening, treading down with a contemptuous boot the tripwire which Ruby and I have stretched across the road. Ruby Richards. Ruby Richards, the Rising Sun, Stonebridge, Kent.

‘So where will you stay?’ Jaz sounds impatient and a bit envious. ‘Some bijou B and B?’

‘No. I’ll be staying with my oldest friend Ruby at the Rising Sun. We’ve known each other since we were eight.’ It isn’t true that I shall stay there, but then I spend my life dealing with fiction of one sort or another.

‘Ruby at the Rising Sun. You’ve got two songs there.’

‘Neither is appropriate,’ I say before she can burst into song, regretting having given her the names that flash fire from a Woolworth’s ring and a sharp edge bracelet made from the gold seal of a jar of fish paste. ‘Actually there are others, but you couldn’t be expected to remember the Hit Parade of 1953.’

‘Hmm. Going back to your roots.’ She, a damp fungus grown from a spore blown onto London plaster and I, a brittler accretion but as rootless, sit on in silence. I know, from picking up the post from the hall in the mornings, that Jaz has a mother in Northumbria who thinks her daughter’s name is Janette. That jaunty z is but a wedge of lemon stuck into a bottle of beer.

‘So what do you think of it so far? My opus?’

My silence on the subject has forced Jaz to enquire about her manuscript, The Cruelty of Red Vans, which lies half-heartedly half-read on my desk. I like the title and I tell her so. I can see how red vans could be cruel, always bringing presents and mail-order goodies to other houses and delivering returned manuscripts in jiffy bags to hers, and pulling away from kerbs beside pillar boxes to tell you you have missed the post, if you had any letters to send. Something prompts me to speak honestly for once.

‘Let me give you a little Tippex, dear,’ I begin.

‘What?’ She is affronted.

‘Sorry. Lapsis lingae. A little tip, I meant to ay. Try writing about nine people for a change, pretty people, people who at least aspire to being good: a touch less solipsism, a bit more fiction…

‘Bloody teachers!’ Jaz is a mutinous schoolgirl about to snatch back a poorly marked essay.

‘I myself keep a journal. I have for years, in which I write down something good, however small or trivial, about each day. Look at those hydranges flowers, for example, how they float, each flower on its tiny stalk, so delicately on the dusk, or the stars.’ My words sound as prissy as my Liberty Print shirt-waist dress.

‘Dreary municipal flowers. Light pollution. You can’t see any stars nowadays. There aren’t any.’

In fact, we are quite high up here, and you can see the stars quite clearly, not strewn like seeds or pollen as in the country sky perhaps or as bright, but they are there.

‘Keep a journal!’ says Jaz. ‘Nice people! Stars! Get a life, Miss Harlency.’

Oh, I’ve got a life. I’ve got my work, and I go our sometimes, and fly home again, a bittern without a mate booming over the desolate fens, sitting on the tube with my nose in a book. A lone peewit. Possibly dustbin day is more of an event for me than it might be for some, but I have visitors; sometimes in the evening the doorbell rings and it’s a delivery boy, with a pizza for somebody else in the house. ‘You’ve got the wrong bell,’ I tell him. ‘It’s not for me. I ordered the dust and ashes special, with extra acrimony.’

When at last we go inside, followed by both the cats, my calm kitchen gives a moment’s reassurance, then out of the blue comesmy grammar school geography teacher Miss Tarrantine, who must have been about the age I am now, closing an ancient blue reptilian eyelid in a monstrous wink as she tells us, I’ve had my moments, you know!’ We nearly died.

As I leave in the morning, while the cats’ little faces are busy in their bowls, a red van pulls up at the kerb and postie climbs out holding a brown package. I had vowed never to have another cat after my last one died but when a colleague brought these two into the staff room in a basket I succumbed, intending them to be workaday cats, Tibby and Tabby, independent creatures with a talent to amuse when it suited me. However, the little swine have ways and means of getting their claws into your heart, and their fur is graduated like the coloured sands of Alum Bay, like pencil sharpenings.

July is purple and green and white in the railway banks as the train leaves London behind. The first time we made this journey, Betty, Percy and I, was in a smoking compartment with leather straps to let the windows up and down, and string-mesh luggage racks and framed photographs of seaside resorts on the walls; buddleia and willowherb burned on glittering bomb sites and white convolvulus rambled everywhere. I was never a particularly balletic or acrobatic child, but sometimes when I was happy I could see another self slip from my body and run leaping and doing cartwheels, somersaulting through the air beside me. I almost glimpse her now, running along an undulating hedge and telegraph poles’ tightropes,

as we travel, our journey so pathetically short and yet its destination so far away as to have made it inconceivable until now.
to be continued...