Earth to Earth – August 2002

4th August 2002

Dear Mum,

I thought that after so many years of waking in this house I knew all its sounds; the tell-tale midnight creak of the eleventh stair, the spiky jangle of the door handle with attitude and knobs on that sometimes chooses to turn the wrong way, the other-world moans of Grampa and his cramp in the night… when he was still alive, of course…

But this morning, after too many days of grey silence, I woke to a new sound. A bit like the rush of rain – but without the damp echoes – and besides, the sun was pushing the curtains open single-handedly. I had to get out of bed before I could name it.

The huge eucalyptus – more elephantine than you will never forget – was going wild, flailing its arms to some strange music the rest of the scene didn’t hear. The back yard – sheltered from the sun-drenched southerly gale by the house – was still, and the startling sky held no clouds to back up Beaufort. And all around fell a sparkling rain of parched, silver leaves, streaming like mad stardust from the waving, eucalypsoing hands.

I love that tree – not just because you grew it from a seed – but because it breaks the rules. But then so did you. Mention eucalyptus in polite gardening circles and you get predictable advice… don’t plant them near houses, walls or drains, cut them back regularly to keep the leaves young and pretty… and shoot koalas on sight. But you? Well, you planted it in the first pleat of earth that skirts the house, let it grow – wilfully near waste pipes – and would willingly have bought Pedigree Gum from your pension to supplement the diet of any passing marsupial.

eucalyptus 2

And as its matured of course, it changed. It put away the chubby, round-eyed foliage of youth and donned lean leather gloves, developing that gawky, gangly look of adolescence around the time I would have killed for it. Then it reached for the sky, its branches elbowed in unlikely double-jointed contortions, its hitherto unremarkable bark starting to shine and then slough in tides of curly slate.

I think it must have either seen Fantasia in its youth, or it’s a dancer by nature; a gentle waltz in the lightest waft, sultry tangos when stirred and samba-salsa-rumbas on days like today. Ballerina-like, it has long since folded its trunk round the iron barré provided for support at its base, and in its crazier moods looks as if only that tenuous grip prevents it mazurka-ing down the path. What can one do on such a glorious day but go dance with it?

Well tie things up for a start. The backyard might have been in the doldrums, but once you rounded the bay of nobilis, the surge of the wind hit home, crashing potato gwrishg (I believe the English say haulms) into the troughs of trenches and whipping the Shirley sisters for wearing scarlet petticoats.

shine

But could I find the string? Of course I couldn’t. A miserable roll of white parcel cord sat in the drawer, but the fact that I could picture the glorious fat new ball of green twine I’d put somewhere safe only made me yearn for it more. And yes, I did look properly, and yes, if you were here, I know you’d look and find it exactly where you said it was… Lots of things are lost these days.

Green string, for me, holds the same sort of pleasure as clean sheets, or a small, crisp paper bag of freshly sharpened soft pencils. It’s the antithesis of orange binder twine, so beloved by dad and second only in his plant lashing preferences to stout electrical cable. And so it was that I recently spent a day like any good daughter of Greenham, wire cutter in hand and apologising for centuries of patriarchy that still bound feet. Do you remember Dad building the Cruise Missile in the quarry?

But more of that another day. Today I needed string. Pleasing string. So what did I do? Well I soon gave up on the white cord and green marker pen idea – it just smelled WRONG -and then, perhaps consequentially, decided to go round everything I’d already staked this year, snipping off the ends. Two inches here and six inches there left by previous profligate tying – it quickly spaghettied. I could hear you laughing then as I spent the best part of an hour sitting on the picnic bench tying them all together – and whilst tying I contemplated the urban myth concerning a neatly labelled jam jar found in a loft. It allegedly bore the inscription ‘pieces of string too short to keep’.

So anyway I started with the bonariensis besom – theoretically not needing staking but in fact now lurching at launch angle – happy with my string and couldn’t care less-ish that the six bamboos were all different heights. But standing back, I was amazed by the aesthetic. With the organ-pipe bamboos dropping by chance in a regular spiral around the plant, they became almost sculptural.

The dainty but tall verbascum took three attempts to get right. Bamboo-bound by its flowering spikes it looked dead, bereft of the natural movement that brings life to a garden, but anchored at half mast to a short stake of aluminium… perfect.

Lysimachia ‘fire cracker’ was a complete flop in the creative tying stakes. I trussed it up several times then cut it loose again, losing vital inches of string through indecision before concluding that pyrotechnics and bondage do not mix. Oh that patch looks lovely now – amongst its maroon foliage and canary bells the white edged hosta blooms for focus, with laid back catmint, various Veronicas, dear Caryopteris and soft spiders of Centaurea being anything but blue at its fringes. They’re cheered, no doubt, by Knautia macedonica’s dark magenta pincushions, whilst Potentilla ‘Gloire de Nancy’ sprawlingly punctuates the cool sophistication with full stops of pure sunset. Above, clematis ‘Princess of Wales’ clutches the old stump of the golden elder, shrouding and reflecting the sapphire sea below. Can you see it? Please?

knautia alone

It’s funny, since you died a lot of kind people have said kind things about how kind it was that you were in hospital. ‘Just imagine,’ they say, ‘if she’d had the heart attack alone in the garden’. I shut up, kind of thinking it would have been your kind of kind death; to have died already in your heaven.

I’m reminded of your grim grip on the handrail that last time you made it up from the quarry; how slowly you climbed the steps and then cried with more than physical pain, as if knowing you’d just left something precious forever. But you also left something precious forever for me mum; not just a dry imprint on stone, but a living, vibrant legacy which will change but always be rooted in you…

Seeking kitchen roll in the quarry shed to dab at a welling burst of facial incontinence, I immediately catch sight of a brand new ball of green garden twine. You found it for me after all…

Thank you

August 11th

My home is marked by my family. More comfy chair than country seat, for three generations our genes have helixed creaks up and down its stairs, sanding ingrained timbers smooth with our fingertips and patiently worn footsteps in unrelenting slate slabs.

Unsurprisingly the hollow in the step leading to the garden is far deeper than the one bridging our world with the street outside. Over eighty years, fourteen determined blood-tied feet have toddled, hopped, jumped, skipped, trudged, run and strolled over this stone; more than enough to make it yield.

back-step

And it’s not just been depressed by familiar feet. Whatever visitors’ reason for calling, once across the threshold, escape from Alcatraz would be simpler than leaving Stalag Nous without ‘seeing the garden’. It’s tradition… ritual even. And so it is that relatives, neighbours, friends, builders, plumbers, telephone, coal, milk, tango and paraffin men, door-to-door-sales people, vets, doctors, district nurses and even ambulance crews have all been lead down the garden path over the years.

Exemptions extend only to carol singers (on grounds of darkness) and anyone suspected of wanting to talk religion at length – apart from ministers and vicars of course, who can be relied upon not to overstay their welcome and to keep conversation to matters parochial. Actually I broke that rule recently by sharing both my view of matters spiritual and the sea with a very nice young Jehovah’s Witness who was, I suspect, so bemused by the former that he made his retreat as quickly as he could…

Anyway the perambulatory custom sunk in quickly in my childhood, but it took me a little longer to establish quite how much rested on the potent point of its fulcrum. In my mother’s eyes, whether you were subsequently hugged to the bosom of the family or alternatively damned beyond redemption revolved solely around your reaction. Most people fared quite well with their polite comments about the top garden, with its traditional cottagey mix. It was the view over the quarry that was used to sort the sheep from the goats.

top garden

It’s not at all obvious to the unsuspecting that the quarry exists. Its wooden door somehow blends into nothingness until your attention is actively drawn to it, by which time it’s open and too late. One minute there’s a mad old lady grinning wickedly and incomprehensibly at your respectful enthusiasm for her marguerites, the next she’s drawing a bolt and saying innocently ‘yes it is a nice garden isn’t it… we like it… oh and by the way, just have a peep down here before you go…’

People’s reactions can be summed up simply by saying that mum ended up liking almost everyone immensely. And it was not difficult. Neither photograph nor words can describe the sheer shock factor of what lies behind the door.

It’s as if the chief designer of coastlines had mellowed with age – been persuaded to lay aside his childhood abacus devil’s causeway, minimalist white cliffs and over-frilly fjords – to produce a small, love-filled masterplace.

His skill echoes not from the curvaceous folds of natural harbour, nor his patient glacial planeing of valley floor, but is shouted instead by his creation of theatre. Multi-layered backdrops of sky, sea, mountain, peninsula, estuary, ancient woodland, field and finally quarry hang implausibly in vertical space. The effect is an unnervingly two dimensional wall of beauty. He stands by your side as you blink bewildered, conducting the harmony whilst infinite lighting effects play out before you. Your eye is limited only by the edge of the world, and yet here all horizons seem within reach.

quarry - autumn view

What mum enjoyed most, then, what not what people said, but the moment’s silence before they said anything. And it was this vicarious pleasure-sharing that compelled the garden tour, rather than a need for affirmation of her gardening skills. If people could share her love of place, she could find a loving place for them in her life.

People say nice things about the garden anyway. It seems to flow naturally.

One of the praises frequently sung is amazement that three, two – and now just one – person is responsible for what must seems like considerable hard labour to any less besotted by the soil. I sometimes stir the embers of such glowing comments by emphasising that I am only here at weekends, just to make my halo reflect a little brighter in their eyes, but mostly I use it as an excuse for all the things that don’t get done. I’m lying anyway, for Tom testosterones the lawns and hedges, and I’m also mostly helped through the year by a triplicacy of female associates.

I think of them as my resident Fates – virgin, mother and femme fatale – necessary companions throughout my life. For as my kin have marked and claimed this place, so it has marked and claimed me.

The weird sisters simply come and go with the territory. This is my fate and I accept it. Lives flash and thrash before drowning men, but this woman submerged will surround herself with flowers and surrender to the flow, Ophelia in her underworld of the quarry.

Tom says I need a line or two here ‘just to avoid confusion – in case people assume the sisters are real…’ I raise an eyebrow and smile.

The first arrives in late January, around about the time that the sun beams wanly at the days’ determination to lengthen. Energy comes bursting in through the back door without knocking. She doesn’t need to; she’s a resurgent young friend who requires no introduction or apology for absence. No time for niceties or tea – grasping me by my would-be greenfingers, she leads me out into the vital, trembling air.

She gasps at every exclamation mark of foliage poking defiance through the soil, peers green into snowdrops and echoes the swelling buds by yelling back in excitement. She races, thuds, gallops, sings out of tune, loves yellow, can jump; she is promise.

crocus-2

I was unsurprised to find she had dyed her hair lilac this spring ‘to harmonise with the crocuses’, she giggled seriously, and I joined in. She stopped in her tracks briefly when she heard mum was dead and frowned, but then went on in her own sweet way – and what can you do but follow?

Come quick March, she races me to my polythene greenhouse morning and night, cooing over emerging babies, worrying at those still hibernating, glowing with seed fever. She sits chattering whilst I plant, re-pot and repent, apologising with the fervour of the born-again to specimens long past revival. ‘Scratch a bit off with your nail,’ she whispers… if it’s green it’s still alive. It usually isn’t, but I leave it be for the sake of her faith.

She adores planting seeds – apart from the disciplined straight rows of the vegetables – and was enchanted with the dream of a moonlight garden. In fact it reached the point in April where she’d thrust a torch in my hand if I got home late, demanding I accompany her to the garden ‘just to see what was coming up’. Not that she needs my company to enjoy herself – one night I found her spinning on her heels in the thick, montana-soaked almond air, a single blossom of camellia grasped in each outstretched hand.

Her contagious company would be welcome all summer, but she stays just long enough to reckon the columbine can-can, counting the proportion of aquilegia blooms to developing seed heads. Then when the latter horny green tulips exceed the former by two-to-one, she leaves.

aquilegia 3

Her successor never arrives immediately; there’s always a week of two of lonely respite before she knocks. But when she does she’s always the same – a picture of plump felicitude, companionable, fecund, waxy and warm. She invariably brings a child or two with her – but this year there were four. Blonde headed toddling twins who squabbled continually, an older, serious looking girl of nine or ten and a tiny baby, mostly invisible in the folds of her cloak.

We hug, allowing me to scent Richelieu roses in her hair and dizzy catmint in the damp-woven hem of her skirt. And once again I reproach her for not having arrived earlier – the deutzia was SO pretty last week – oh and the amelanchier SNOWED this year!

This year, though, she wasn’t the same at all. I’d never seen her angry before, but she cursed that mum was dead. ‘Some people leave too soon,’ she snapped, ‘and your mother was one of them. She still had life to share’. Then she coloured as if shocked by her own words, hugged me hard, and went to sit where I did that first night – at the top of the steps, looking out to sea with tear-bound eyes. Her face was set to pain, and come darkness the sea lashed back, blasting the land for being the barer of such low tidings.

On the second day of her visit, whilst I laboured to repair the damage caused by her nightmare, she became businesslike, unpacking yards of decent mourning cloud from her suitcase and wreathing it around the sky, where I knew it would hang for the duration of her visit.

grey skies

In fact I got quite irritated by her after a while. Usually we work well together – her pointing out that this and that needs pruning, or niggling me to weed or feed regularly, whilst she wanders around with the children, weaving daisy chains, or genteelly pulling a groundsel sprig or two before they throw their seed to the wind. I may complain quietly at times, when her chiding and my tiredness clash, but between us we get things done.

This year though she spent most of her visit sitting in the rain, which emptied unrelenting around her. The garden just got greener and greener, as though a nitrogen bomb had ground-burst, whilst buds wedged their umbrellas shut and rotted in spite.

The nights were the worst though – her keening cut them with the chill of stone, stunting the annuals and yellowing the beans. And I’d prepared such a snug bed for them too; home-made leaf mould, compost and water-retaining gel all stirred into the deep cauldron of their trench – maddeningly and back-breakingly dug through the poles I’d already erected….

I remember at the time feeling various dead relatives looking on, trying to wipe disbelief from their faces as I prodded and poked between the bamboos. But it was such a labour-intensive edifice, necessary for the summer storms which can raze wan wigwams with a single manic snore. Since my father died, I’d lost successive years of bean crops due to impotent erections so this year I’d spent hours constructing a support even he would have applauded, albeit tethered with a mad macramé of beloved green string rather than orange baler twine. To dismantle would simply be a further waste of precious weekend, and my baby would-beans were elbowing to get out of the greenhouse. But come madam’s icy deluge they just jaundiced, not even bothering to wave as they drowned.

Whilst the vegetables turned to ratatouille, the quarry – partially shaded in the best of summers – rocketed in search of the sun. Gardening there became reminiscent of the African Queen (sadly with drama queen Hepburn rather than Bogart for company), with machete and mosquito net becoming the sason’s ‘must have’ garden accessories and rain-swollen slugs taking on a remarkably leech-like look.

snail2

Her children became wilder too, drowning woodlice in overflowing water buts and playing hide-and-shriek amongst the arching fern fronds, shooting arrows of anxiety at me with every scream.

In the end I pleaded with her to take her miserable brood and falling damp elsewhere, but week after week she went on – precipitation by day, pernicious cold by night. When her time came, then, we parted coolly. I trust we will both be in better humour next year.

And now my last – and favourite – companion is here. Sarah, who arrives each year in wrinkled mid July, pushing a battered old shopping trolley full of cats, paints, wool and elastoplast, like some aged refugee from Blue Peter. I suspect the straw hat she wears is more ornamental than functional, for every year she seems slightly more sun-touched than she did the last.

One of Sarah’s first annual actions is to take the same revolting ball of muddy pink wool and crochet brash panicles which she glues overnight to innocent Spirea goldflame. This poor, innocuous, boringly reliable shrub, which in calmer months provides an angular yellow egg-cup for an ovate topiary of glossy euonymus, is suddenly transformed into a brazen transgressor of any dress code known to mankind. If it had an ankle, it would flaunt a chain. Year after year then, I take scissors and snip them off again. But this lady’s not for turning. As soon as my guard is down, the hook is busy once more. Or perhaps she simply prepares them earlier?

I desist from direct action because I know that soon she will turn to finer work; with the first chill touch of Autumn’s blue fingers, she will start, once more, to croon to our spiders… ‘poor little things – such thin, spindly legs…’ And so begins her mission, her withered digits twisting lace bobbins to fashion more substantial webs for precious assorted arachnids. Spectacular structures hitherto only tangible to the cheek suddenly garland the dark spaces between boughs, dew-spangled banners, streamers of silk… I am trapped by their beauty.

web 2

Her painting becomes more delicate as  the season progresses too; each July I hide her tin of matt mustard and each August she finds it, slapping an uniform wash over every inch of green. Then, as if longing for contrast, she adds a good measure of brown to the ferns. The result is to turn long sunny days into monochrome dazzles of nauseous olive, making me as bilious as my surroundings.

I breathe a sigh of relief then when, come September, she turns her attention to the trees, adding first a blush glaze to the ripening apples and then the glow of sunset to the leaves.

She though obviously does not share my sense of the aesthetic, for no sooner is the last leaf painted than she grabs up her shears and begins to work her way around the trees, clicking away  like a manic Geiger counter. First she cuts the fruit and then the leaves,  severing her way to autumn before calling up equinoxial infantry gales as her parting shot, urging them to snipe any remnants from the grasp of the branches.

And then she cuts her ties with me, and rides off into the All Souls moon, sometimes on and sometimes off her trolley.

leaf-fall-victoria-gardens

Why is she my favourite? Well perhaps because her altered and altering view on life gives me new perspective. With her loose in the garden I know there’s nothing much I can do this year again and can sit guiltlessly amongst the flowers, spend less time weeding and more time beaming at anything that has managed to thrive in spite of me. I can read about gardening and whisper promises of ‘next year’.

But it’s Sarah’s promises which hold me her prisoner; her assurance that age may wither but that customs needn’t stale – indeed they offer, she whispers, infinite variety. With Sarah for company, the ritual walks down the garden will continue. I can grow old ungracefully here; throw wild tea-parties in storm force conditions and lure visitors to the top of the steps with savage cucumber sandwiches.

And beyond old age, I have no great faith – just hopes and hunches – but Sarah tells me she can darn souls, webbing the bleak holes of loss together again with bits of string and elastoplast, closing hopeless distance with twist of orange binder twine. So I’ll trust her too to know when I’ve had enough – to sense weariness in my bones and appreciate the longing for freedom-lost. To know that the heavy wait of winter for energy’s return is sometimes just too lonely, too dank and hopeless to contemplate and to one day gather me with her when she goes.

She cuts the ties that bind, and binds the cuts that have bled too long – and with her company and her crochet, I’ll be fine.

August 18th

Dear Mum,

I know it sounds awful but I’ve had some amazing times since you died.

If it helps, there have been terrible times too – needling grief, dank bleakness – spells of such monstrous emptiness I’ve had to either keep breathing or implode.

But wrapped between, blanketing the cold year with comforting trims of silk, have been moments of hugely magnified appreciation; new found astonishment at the beauty in life, amazement at familiar colours, scents and textures so enhanced they demand your senses.

Scientists, I’m sure, would nod reassuringly (probably in German accents) and classify it as a ‘perfectly normal reaction’. They would point to the shock of bereavement; adrenalin sharpening nerves, honing senses und so on und so on…

The explanation I’ve grasped though lies more in the forced realisation death brings: that all is transient; the tissue-gloss poppy ready to disintegrate with a sneeze, the sweet odour of Lathyrus starting to creep away the moment a stem is severed from the plant.

Never again will the sun spread its smile over the horizon quite as it did yesterday, nor the same breath of air soothe your brow. New dawns refrain from singing the same chorus, and in the midst of all things passing, we grip life, holding the certainty of our own demise at bay with demands of today and hopes for tomorrow.

How fortunate we mostly are not to know the number of our days. Imagine the pain of realising you hear the robin’s soft winter song for the last time, or the poignancy of the absolute rose of summer.

rose - cream

Aeschylus, the father of Greek tragedy, bore that very curse.

He, like you, died on his birthday. The difference is some ill-tempered old oracle had told him he would snuff it along with his candles; pass on with the-parcel…

The cause of his death, she predicted, would be a house falling on him, but she failed to supply the year. He coped by taking to the hills on each of his natal days – for what dwelling could possibly kill him there? – and between birthdays, almost shrugged off the burden of the dread pronouncement. ‘The future you shall know when it has come; before then, forget it’, he wrote.

What he hadn’t bargained for though were lammergeirs; sweet vultures of the Arcadian countryside. They feast on the parts other beaks cannot reach by dropping bleached bones onto rocks from airborne heights. The resultant impact shatters the crunchy coating outside to reveal the soft-centre marrowbone inside…mmm.

Now it just so happened that a particularly advanced lammergeir was celebrating Aeschylus’ birthday by experimenting with the evolutionary ladder. ‘What will happen,’ it thought, ‘if I swap colours? What if I pick up that brown thing there that looks like a stone, fly to a great height, and drop it onto that white thing over there that looks like a skull?’ So it did, and did for Aeschylus at the same time, dropping a tortoise – complete with its bijou mobile home – onto his bald head, glinting in the Mediterranean sunshine.

The moral?  Well presumably seize the day, for you never know what might befall you…

stained glass 4

The trouble is this morning, I feel like the day’s seized me. I’m hypersensitive again, only through the after effects of grapes, not grief, and have a tortoise-sized headache to show for it. Unfortunately I can’t quite get the hang of retracting my neck…

Not that that helped Flash much, did it? Do you remember that day we all assumed from the distant crunching that the dog had dug up a bone? I still think of it as proof that tortoises have no vocal cords…

Anyway alcohol, unlike angst, enhances without beautifying – or at least its aftermath does. And here I am in the admonishing glare of my moonlight garden; trying to pick a bunch of flowers for the neighbours we got drunk with last night – quietly. The August sun is beating me for wanton inebriation and the hot breeze whips up a queasy sea of self-sown feverfew and marguerites.

The nasturchins meanwhile are visually screaming for their breakfast and what I pray might be the last seagull ever screeches the same message in close proximity, contrapuntal descant provided by a couple of buzzards yowling as they circle overhead. I trust they are buzzards anyway, and their talons look empty from here…

Just as well then that it’s a soothing silver bunch of flowers I’m after, to mark the anniversary of the same.

nigella-5

I’ll leave picking the Artemisia until last. It may look cool, but its muggy scent with redolence of absinthe is just too evocative of recent sins. Echinops then, minding my fingers, its steely medieval maces fit to macerate bone; this plant takes no prisoners. Minding my fingers too carefully as it happens, and in so doing, completely missing the rather fine specimen of Urtica growing at its base. Ouch. A stinging nettle by any other name still bites as deep.

I stare bemused at the sea holly. What have I done to displease it so? It has sunshine, it has well drained soil, it has sea breezes; it has sulked. A single, surly rosette of leaves sits unmoving at its base, more reminiscent of off-colour lettuce than Eryngium.

And to say base is somewhat inaccurate, for it implies something higher up. But where the spikes should be there is nothing. Poof! Miss Wilmot’s ghost has evaporated into thin air, leaving just her footprint. I resolve to show it a lavishly illustrated magazine article on sea hollies. And if that fails, I’ll enlarge the smug photos and paste them onto cardboard for next year.

Perversely I’m glad the Santolina hasn’t flowered. I love it best when bare, its refractal stems forming a weird reef of coral, antlers held afloat in the depths of its warm musk. It’s just a few months old though, so I shan’t cut any yet, leaving it instead to repel all known moths in the garden. Felted rods of Helichrysum petiolare complete the silvers then – and what a miserable bunch they make! Happy anniversary! I present you with a bunch of the finest grey!!!

So what to add? Well cupid’s dart both for symbolism and the fish-silver scales of its floral nether regions. Nether regions?!  I resolve to check if the sea holly magazine also has a basic article on ‘flower parts for beginners’! I can manage roots, petal, stem and leaf, but beyond those get vague about more detailed or reproductive bits. I remember from biology lessons that in theory there are stigma, stamens and styles but know neither how to relate them to the plant in front of me, nor whether assorted bits are female or male. I suspect though that if they’re smaller in real life than they’re said to be, they’re probably male…

cupid's dart pair

And the flowers of not-quite-autumn seem designed to confuse me further. No, no that teasel’s covered in hundreds of tiny flowers…and that’s a BRACT, not a flower! SEPALS not PETALS! I actually came across ‘tepals’ in a book the other day and am still trying to find out if it was a misprint. No wonder my head hurts. ‘Serves you right’ I can hear you say.

Suddenly, shouting… Arthur has emerged next door sounding improbably cheerful. He wants to know does red wine – to which he is unaccustomed – always leave you feeling so well the next morning?  I suspect he just hasn’t quite felt the effects yet. He also wants to know if I mind him cutting back some of our mutual hedge on their side? I reply, quietly, in the negative to both questions.

My opinion on the latter shifts rapidly when he starts up his chain saw… I had visions of a gentle snip here and there, a little judicious thinning, secat-euring on the side of caution. What I have before me is a man possessed of an extremely dangerous implement, setting about my hedge with permission to chop and a blood alcohol content that could probably power the saw if his petrol ran out.

I listen as the devout Baptist begins to sing the ‘Lumberjack Song’ from Monty Python in time to the sweeping cuts. I look at the whirling sunflowers, the startled jackdaws flying overhead … I remember the self-portrait of Van Gough with the bandages, and suddenly feel duty bound to shout… even if it hurts. ‘Hang on Arthur! ARTHUR!’ – but even with both ears he is hard of hearing, and between the revving of the saw, the creaking of the sap-bath going on at its blade, and his musical confession to the wish to don drag, I stand little chance.

I try to catch his eye, but there’s still – at this point – enough hedge left to form a visually impenetrable barrier between us. And then suddenly there isn’t. A tree falls – he looms into view – but he’s just not looking. I wave. I wave and wave again. Finally he looks up from his work, grins and waves back and returns to his massacre (mascara?)

And so I am forced to either stand and witness the annihilation of a valuable wind break – at the hands of a friend – or return to picking flowers for him.

aconite

He is a friend though – a true one. He drove ninety miles to bring you a bunch of your favourite fresias (or friesians as he calls them) on your last birthday and got there just too late. And he and Marilyn fed us curry the night of your funeral, along with enough alcohol to blunt sadness and beckon sleep. You can forgive a lot for that.

So telling myself I knew all those new shrubs would come in handy one day when I bought them, I resolve to make the best of a bad bunch.

The Lavatera ‘Mont Blanc’ is at its worst right now, so that’s no use. What the packet fails to tell you about the ‘fine, architectural seedheads’ is that to get there, it goes through a revoltingly slimy interlude reminiscent of a toddler with a permanently runny nose on a cold mountainside. Speaking of which, the Helenium’s cold is drying up, but it still looks rather fine; a sort of rich brown-burnished gold. Wrong colour though – they’ll have to get through another twenty five years of wedded bliss for that.

It’s been liberating and exciting this year to grow more flowers in the top garden; to give the things that need full sun luxurious loungers by the pool. You’d love it; things that have ailed and then died for want of light in the past now throw their heads in the air and sing halleluiah -and they’ll have even more sun now – thanks to Arthur…

Ah! Agapanthus! That will do nicely! I love the way its umbels periscope through the borders, ready to strike, like something out of War of the Worlds, and its powder blue will take the chill off some of the colder silvers in the bunch. And Perovskia, a must, even if it hasn’t bloomed quite as spectacularly since it lost its glasshouse shelter. For a Russian sage it sure likes its warmth.

agapanthus in sunlight

Do you remember when we first came across it at the nursery at Abereiddy? We managed a simultaneous ‘Ooh! What’s that?’ and proceeded to clear her stock. It might be a good way of limiting my plant buying actually; to force myself to only take home plants with that ‘ooh’ factor, but then a garden full of only ‘oohs’ would produce few ‘ah-s’, and I want both!

Clematis ‘Petit Faucon’ is another definite ooh though, with its dark good looks and wry, twisted smile. It looks perfect scrambling through the Spirea ‘Goldflame’ at the moment, even if I’d  meant it to scramble in the opposite direction, and has been busy layering itself this year too – a fact I discovered quite literally by accident when making my way to the compost heap only to be trip-wired by the darling savage shrub. It’s seedheads would be fabulous for the bunch I’m picking, but trying to find a decent length of stem is impossible, so it’s saved from beheading due to shortness of neck. Clematis ‘Grand Lammergeir’ would be another matter I’m sure… pass the chainsaw, Arthur…

Well by now the bunch looks complete, but there’s still something missing; for what’s the first thing people do when you hand them flowers? Bury their noses in them as if through some reflex. In fact I always think there’s something two-dimensional about scentless posies; the difference between a bunch and a bouquet.

And yet what to add? Acidanthera’s perfume would be perfect but the red eyes a little ruby, Mami Cwmduhaul’s roses too blush, and ditto the clove pinks… Dianthus Haytor would do nicely, but the name seems wrong for a bunch based on love… Nocturnal white Nicotiana then, shrivelled as a vampire at the moment, but ready to open minutes after being brought inside. And a few white sweet peas; losing scent from the moment they’re cut perhaps, but more exquisite for their transience.

sweetpea

Suddenly the saw stops and the silence is deafening. I can see from Arthur’s face that the wrath of grapes has finally come home to roost, along with several tortoise-toting lammergeir. ARTHUR! I shout (loudly) ‘Give these to Marilyn – and a happy anniversary to you both!’

With all my love

P.S. That was unkind of you mother. I KNOW he made a mess of your hedge, but I was still bemused when we came across the two of them sat miserably on the verge by their car… Apparently the timer belt snapped… just as they were passing the cemetery…

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