‘Mum! David’s kicked the ball into the tulips!’
Spring 1965. I am seven. And a bit of a snitch.
Upstairs, a curtain is scraped back and Mum appears, wagging finger completely at odds with the twinkle in her eyes. David gets away with murder now. Which is very annoying to my seven-year-old self. But just a few months earlier he had been in hospital, and doubtless my mother wouldn’t have minded if he’d flattened the daffodils, narcissus and everything else besides. The previous autumn, David had watched from his wheelchair as she’d snuggled a cluster of bulbs into the soil, chatting to him all the while.
Now, two operations later, David is back to his normal nine-year-old self, and my parents’ relief floats through the house like a warm summer breeze.
Summer 1968. David is twelve, I am ten, and the dreaded visit from the rag-and-bone man approaches, heralded as usual by the appearance of Mum’s wellies and a steel bucket. Were you to visit the London street where we lived today, you would not witness what comes next. Even if a mobile recycling facility dragged by a horse and cart were to time-travel inexplicably to the present, my mother would be mown down in an instant if she attempted what follows. But this is the 1960s; passing cars are infrequent even at this time of day and so my mother, fearless and determined as ever, is under starter’s orders. Of course, it’s not the rag-and-bone man she’s after. It’s his horse.
David and I are mortified. Next door, Philip and Andrew will taunt us for days, shouting across the fence, ‘Your mum likes horse poo!’
‘Do you have to, Mum?’ we whine.
‘You like my homemade strawberry ice cream, don’t you?’ my mother replies. We nod, not making the connection. Then the penny drops. ‘We ate strawberries with horse poo on?’ we whisper, aghast.
She’s by the front gate now. Whether the sight of my mother provides the horse with the cue it needed I will never know, but today she is again rewarded with a heap of steaming manure dropped obligingly onto the tarmac; for my mother, the rag-and-bone man was more valued for what he brought than what he took away.
But she was right. Her strawberries were magnificent, as indeed was all the produce she grew. Carrots buried beneath fountains of green fronds, beetroots nudging cheekily out of the soil like builders’ bottoms, clusters of blackcurrants as luxurious as a barmaid’s earrings… Everything she grew rewarded the care she gave them by growing their hearts out, summer after summer.
Spring 1973. I am fifteen, and I am being bullied at school. Arriving home, exhausted from the effort of holding back tears all day, I find my mother cross-legged on a blanket under the apple tree, her nose in a book. It’s a warm day, but breezy, and blossoms cascade around her, dabbing the lawn with fingernails of the palest pink. At the sight of my stricken face, she leaps up. She already knows what’s wrong. I’ve spent the last two weeks begging her and Dad not to go up to the school.
‘Sit there,’ she commands, vanishing into the kitchen.
I lie down on the blanket. The dog flops down beside me, pawing at me to play with his ears, and I can’t help but smile. My mother returns with a plate of toast.
‘Eat up,’ she says. ‘And then tell me all about it.’
And I do.
Later, as we fold away the blanket, gather up the cups and plates, my mother cuts a few sprigs of forsythia to take up to the house.
‘Why do you love gardening so much, Mum?’ I ask.
‘Because whenever I’m feeling overwhelmed, I come out here, and somehow everything’s alright again,’ she replies. ‘It gives you perspective, a garden.’ She indicates a cloud of creamy blooms by the gate. ‘See that camellia over there? It looks pretty sorry for itself in the colder months but it’s back every spring, looking gorgeous again. It’s reassuring, knowing nothing stays the same. Change is the only thing we can rely on, Susie. Always remember that.’
And I will.
Summer 1974. David is eighteen, and he’s brought his new girlfriend home for Sunday lunch.
‘Nice to meet you, Abigail,’ my father says. ‘David’s mother is likely to give you a tour of the garden. I hope you don’t mind…’
My mother is already bounding down the stairs.
‘Abi, it’s lovely to meet you. Let me take you round the garden.’
‘Sorry,’ David apologises. ‘She does this to everyone.’
But they are already halfway down the path, my mother pointing out her display of dahlias, their neat pom-poms of flame red and yellow resplendent in the sunshine, then elegant spires of purple delphiniums, then a drift of orange California poppies that surge over the rockery wall like fans at a rock concert. It’s almost as if she’s introducing Abi to the extended family.
As it turns out, Abi’s mother is a gardener, so she is more than able to hold her own.
‘I think Abi’s a hit,’ David says, relieved.
Late summer, 1986. I am twenty-eight. Three days ago, I was engaged to be married. Suddenly, I am not. He has left, and I am heartbroken. I can’t be in the flat for another minute. I pick up the phone.
She’s already got the chairs out when I arrive. Evening sunshine streaks the lawn; the dog is splayed out by the pond, felled by the sultry August heat.
‘I’m so pleased with my buddleia,’ my mother says eventually, pointing to a mass of lilac blooms. ‘It seems to like that spot. It’s taken a bit of nurturing but look at it now.’
She seems to sense I can’t speak just yet.
‘And look at that fuchsia. Had to cut it right back in April. But it’s resilient. You’d never believe that it could recover and be so beautiful. But there it is.’
‘Oh Mum,’ I blurt out. ‘It hurts so much.’
‘I know,’ she replies. ‘Drink your tea, and tell me all about it.’
And I do.
Later, as the sun slides away behind the house, my mother enfolds me in a hug, then gets up.
‘I’d better feed the dog,’ she says. ‘Come up when you’re ready.’ I sit in the silence, dew furring the lawn. Up in the house, my parents are chatting through the day’s events. Crockery clatters, a tap is turned on. Then the living room curtains are scraped shut and the darkness wraps around me.
And suddenly I know there’s nowhere I’d rather be than in the house with Mum and Dad, and I go up the path to join them.
Spring, 2008. I am fifty. The tulips are blooming; the very first bluebells congregate under the cherry tree. From my parents’ bedroom window, the trees are washed with the vivid green of new growth. My father sits vigil at my mother’s bedside as she sleeps, her hair a wisp of silver-grey cloud on the pillow. A vase of spring flowers sits on the dresser, picked by my father that morning.
‘Go and make yourself some breakfast,’ I whisper. Reluctantly, he goes.
I pick up a book and stare at the page, taking nothing in.
My brother will be here by this evening, flying in from France with Lysette and the girls. Patrick will arrive later with our boys.
My mother wakes. ‘Hello, sweetheart.’
‘How are you feeling, Mum?’
‘I’ve been better,’ she replies, attempting a smile.
‘The garden’s looking lovely,’ I say. ‘Dad’s done wonders keeping it up for you. You’ll be able to pick up right where you left off, you’ll see.’
She looks wryly at my pathetic attempts to dissemble.
‘Has he cut the honeysuckle back?’ she asks.
‘I’ll ask him,’ I say, knowing perfectly well my poor Dad has just about managed to look after Mum and himself these past few months.
Her eyes settle on the vase.
‘Bring that over, would you?’ She pulls herself up, rearranging the daffodils and narcissus, handing me one or two stems to discard.
‘That’s better,’ she says, resting back at last. The flowers seem freshened and revitalised, somehow. It’s such a gift, isn’t it, green fingers. I haven’t got it, but two of her grandchildren have, much to her delight.
I take her slender hand in mine.
‘You know, after my family, that garden’s been my world,’ she says, eventually.
‘Ours too, Mum,’ I say, fighting back tears.
‘I’d so love to see how everything’s getting on.’ I offer to try and get her to the window.
‘I don’t think I can manage that. But you take a look, Susie.’
‘I could take a video on my phone if you like,’ I say.
‘No, it won’t be the same. I want us to see it together. Tell me what you see. If you don’t know the name of anything, just describe it. Don’t leave anything out.’
‘Don’t cry, sweetheart,’ she says. ‘Just go and look out of the window. Spring is such a beautiful time of year. We’ll take a tour of the garden, just like we used to. Start over by the pond. Take a really good look at everything. Take in all that beautiful colour and light. And then tell me all about it.’
And I do.
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