Everything in the garden reminds me of Jenny. Her roses peep above the parapets of frost-rimed Box hedging, gilt outlines on the geometry I imposed. The roses are currently bare but the starkness appeals, and by some mad chance the gaps in the hedging almost work. I can see all the way to the Rockery at the end, and through to Jenny’s slope on one side and the fruit trees on the other. She was entirely right when she called me a fad gardener. It was one of those things that began as endearment, as gentle mockery, but over time became a sarcastic barb in the way things do if you let them. Whether you nurture to encourage, or treat to kill, roots can never be ignored, and neither of us bothered to tease out the roots of our decision to take on the garden at Lane End. Sometimes you just want to believe that wanting will be enough. I wonder if she was thinking the same thing as we stood there on that last morning. I wonder if she was thinking how empty her hands were, as I was mine, and how the last thing she’d do to remedy that would be to reach out to me. If I were honest I’d admit that it was doomed before it began, but we were so defeated by then it may as well have been winter.
The first time we saw Lane End was in December. Standing on the patio at the back of the house, we looked out over the long rectangle of land, bounded on all three sides by a red brick wall. Not a single shrub interrupted the neat carpet of frost-dusted grass within. The only feature in the whole garden was a pair – a coupling? – of foxes, mid-coitus, staring at us. They could have been statues they were so still, their yellow eyes full of benign insolence. What a strange moment it was. I felt affronted by it, by the brazenness of their being there in full ownership of our prospective space; I was embarrassed too at being such an obvious voyeur of this intimate moment. They didn’t care. It’s only our supposed intelligence that invests the act with such personality and emotion, such secrecy. I found Jenny’s fingers suddenly nestled in mine, and we grinned at each other like gauche teenagers. All at once the dog fox broke his stasis, withdrew and slunk away. The vixen stood there, vulnerable, with all the appearance of an abandoned bride, before she turned and fled, a rusty wave rippling into the distance.
It took us twenty minutes to walk through the rooms of the house, and fifteen of those were spent looking out of the upstairs windows at the back, constructing visions of summer. This would be our second chance, our fresh start. This would be where we’d bury the past.
There were things to sign, of course, arrangements to be made, and somehow they got done. Where we invested our time was in sitting together drawing up plan after plan for that pristine space. Jenny always favoured a more romantic style, soft and billowy, a sort of tamed wildness. My penchant at that time was for structure. She showed me cottage borders, and I countered with a knot garden; she offered me prairie drifts and I hemmed them with obelisks; she ventured a Persian Rose garden. I said dividing hedges would be needed. She said okay. We drew a line down the middle and set to pleasing ourselves.
We were in the garden the day after we moved in, poking canes into the ground, divvying up the space with lines of string. We joked, we smiled; we looked happy. We lived out of boxes, unpacking things only as it occurred to us we needed them. We ate Chinese out of cartons. We turned the two armchairs in the dining room to face the picture window and looked out on our new project. I didn’t notice at the time, but thinking back we never seemed to have anything to say when we were in the house.
There’s nothing like planting hedges to teach you how long a garden is. Every time I looked up Jenny was on to something different while I bent to digging yet another trench. I kept turning up little misshapen bulbs as I cut through the lawn. The first few I put to one side, but after the fifth or sixth spadeful I just turned each clod of earth out to the side and left them. When Jenny, taking a break after finishing whatever she was working on, came to check on my meagre progress she tutted and shook her head. She spent the next hour working her way through the line of turned earth, picking out all the little bulbs to replant on a slope on the other side of the garden.
After weeks of digging I’d developed something of a stoop. I took the unilateral decision to simplify the plan. I erased the diagonal intersections. I straightened my little zigzag flourishes. I even took out two sides of each square section, reducing the amount of hedging to the equivalent of those little sticky corners you use to put photos in an album. Jenny’s roses were already in place and she was busy replanting all the bulbs I’d turned up. She’d taken to wearing that knowing smile that came to irritate me so much so I deemed it only fair to have changed the plan without consulting her. Besides, I’d come to realise that the digging wouldn’t be the end of it. I’d have to come out here and cut all that hedging, regularly.
Weak winter sunshine covers the wall where the fruit trees stand, splayed as if in mock surprise at their state, or perhaps mine. The apples run sour, but it’s all those trees have yielded. My back, my arms, my eyes had had enough of Box green and I longed for something different. I looked at that bare, sun-soaked wall and thought about blossom, about how nice it would be to have our own supply of apples, pears, peaches even. When Jenny came over and asked me why I was leaving such large gaps between each plant, explained that it would take years for them to knit together, and incidentally what happened to the rest of the hedge I was supposed to be planting, it was all the excuse I needed. I huffed. I looked across the garden at her budding roses, at the bright crowds of herbaceous peonies, at the optimistic shoots from her slope of bulbs. I downed-tools. I drove to the local nursery. I hunted Elaine down and asked her to show me her peaches.
Elaine was a great kid, one of those young women who makes even a Nursery uniform look good. She used to sit at the till with a book in her hand reading between customers. She was reading a Paul Auster the first time I saw her. ‘Beware of men in their forties,’ I said, laughing. I discovered she had a withering way of looking at people. Naturally, I saw it as a challenge.
When the fruit trees arrived I found myself surprised at how small they were, dwarfed by the expanse of garden. They seemed larger at the nursery, fuller, more promising. Nonetheless I toted them with a sense of forced pride, telling Jenny the name of each as I passed, describing the untested flavour, weighing the expected bounty. I phoned Elaine, grinning to myself. She’d included a fifteen foot Yew which I hadn’t ordered. Of course I couldn’t accept this generous gift of hers, I explained, but maybe I could take her out to lunch instead. Jenny was busy finishing off the hedge planting so it was easy enough for me to slip away. It turned out Jenny had ordered the Yew, though Elaine accepted the lunch offer anyway.
Taxus Baccata. It stood in the centre of the garden and watched us like a sentinel, surrounded by a ring of Rosa Rugosa. Jenny got Ben, next door’s son, to help her plant it. If I’d been braver I would have hit him, when the moment came. Rugby, rowing, half my age; some regrets you just grimace and shoulder. It was there every time I turned around, looming like a great warning finger. I shuffled my fruit trees over to the wall and left the two of them to get on with planting the hedging.
A heron stands at the edge of the rockery, pale and stark like a cemetery statue, watching itself in the pond’s frozen mirror. That place feels a little like a burial. For all we put into the garden, the Rockery is where I dumped everything we took out. The garden looked as though it had been attacked by over-zealous, oversized moles. Piles of earth lay dotted where the roses, the hedges or the trees had been planted. In a fit of post-lunch helpfulness (with Elaine’s delicate giggle still rippling through my mind) I offered to scoop it all up and wheel it down to the far wall, next to the remnants of a small out-building. A rectangle in the grass, it was like a crime scene chalk outline in stone. By Autumn it had become my mumbling place.
Ben seemed to be ever-present, following Jenny’s lead, doing what she asked. Theirs were the laughs, the jokes. The sight of Ben realigning my yet-to-be-planted fruit trees was too much of an encroachment. Jenny stood in the middle of the garden, squinting, thumb raised like a painter as she twitched her hand this way or that, directing him. He was sparkly-eyed and obedient. I said something about going to dig a grave for Ben, then laughed to try and soften the sharpness of it, make it sound like a joke. In a fit of energy I started attacking the ground around the outline.
It looked like a large grave too, once I’d wrenched all the footings out of the ground: eight feet long, four feet wide and almost four feet deep. The Rockery became a Rockery by chance, all the hardcore flung up there on top of the earth pile. But what to do with the hole I’d made? I thought to ask Jenny, but she and Ben were sipping tea and admiring their positional handiwork. That’s when I thought of a pond. Why not? People have drowned in far less. I wondered if Elaine sold pond liners.
In the centre of the garden the Yew tree glowers, a dark, admonishing finger, an obelisk, a memorial. I once went through a mercifully short-lived Topiary phase. In all these fads I can only ever see the wondrous finished article. I’m all for the instant gratification. But when faced with the work required to reach that inspirational place I hesitate; it’s the worst kind of cowardice, that self-serving fear of failure that guarantees its own end.
As the early autumn frosts arrived and cat-ice gathered in the margins of my pond the heavy work tailed off. Jenny found this and that to titivate or tidy, smiling her way round the garden, and I watched my fruitless trees and twiddled my thumbs. I found any and every excuse I could muster to nip to the nursery. The garden became littered with useless things that seemed indispensable in Elaine’s presence; that seemed so vital, so affirming when I bought them. Swallowed by our silent garden, they became base metal, clodded earth, mere vegetation in my guilty hands.
On that last day the traffic was so heavy around the nursery Elaine decided to walk the last half mile back after lunch. I was late getting home, but arrived just in time to see Ben leaving with his hedge-strimmer in his hand. He actually smirked at me as he left. In the back garden I joined Jenny on the patio and stared, open-mouthed at the transformed Yew Tree. Our exchange at that moment is etched on my memory.
‘What have you done?’ I said.
‘There’s your topiary,’ she said. Her voice was devoid of inflection.
‘But it’s a giant...’
‘Phallus Impudicus. It’s a Stinkhorn.’
We gazed at the thing. It stood twelve feet tall, resplendent with indecency, the top of the tree delicately domed, the line of the cap clearly defined, the column neatly tapered all the way up. I caught myself admiring Ben’s artistry with a strimmer and flushed with anger.
‘I’m leaving you.’
I think it was the most we’d spoken at one time in weeks, and we used up all the air around us. It was the last time we physically spoke to each other, rather than through intermediaries.
What I am left with is an imperfect thing, all my hesitations come to fruition. I have faced up to the fact that wanting is not enough, that it’s just ignoring what you don’t want to accept. It was a dream. I know that, but it’s still too close to be able to view it through indulgent eyes. Even after all this time I feel too stupid in its presence; I feel too guilty in the shadow of that mushroom.
Winter grips the garden again now and it strikes me that a garden in winter is unbearably sad. It’s an act of faith when there is nothing to do but gaze at it; you must believe in the care that you afforded, the attention you paid to the roots of these things. You can only watch and trust that it will flourish again. If you doubt your husbandry skills, as I’ve come to doubt mine, it may already be less than dormant. I let the Yew grow out. It took a full year before I could tease it into a simpler shape. Through the course of that year it certainly teased me, the form filling out, that dome shape becoming more and more swollen. I can still picture it in the formal cone that’s there now, like a former self glimpsed in the mirror, threatening to rear its head. There is one thing in the garden that I don’t fret over. I know without doubt that Jenny’s slope of Common Spotted Orchids will come through; those little jewels I was so ready to throw away. This is, after all, their home. It’s the gardeners who are the passing fads, not the plants.
The empty chair next to me is turned to the window still. That, and the solemn, lonely fox I sometimes glimpse, even the Yew remind me I’ve not the right, but it’s Jenny I miss come winter.
About the Author: Van Demal lives and writes in London. His short stories can be found in the Ex-Pat Writers Anthology, Foreign Flavours, at www.doorditch.co.uk or on Etherbooks for mobile platforms (http://catalog.etherbooks.com/Authors/730).
Image: Golden 55
Image: Golden 55