It’s been thirteen years since we lived there, but the house looks the same. Even the vertical blinds at the windows don’t look any different. The place has that half-familiar look, as remembered places do. A brick semi, with a small tarmac front yard surrounded by a perimeter of unruly shrubs liberally sprinkled with empty whisky and methadone bottles and syringes.
I know the streets were this busy when we lived here, but I seem to see all the traffic as if for the first time. Why did we choose to live somewhere so congested? But I know why, of course. It was the garden.
The street-front gives the passer-by no clue as to the possibility of a garden. But it was the garden of our dreams. It was because of the garden that for two years we put up with the ridiculously high crime-rate, the constant sense of insecurity, the dark gloomy house, and the heavy traffic.
In case you think I’m exaggerating the crime: the day we moved in, a guy down the street shot his wife in the street, then himself, right in front of their teenage daughters. I know that’s more of a family tragedy than a crime, but it didn’t bode well. Within two weeks we’d been burgled and had our car vandalised twice. Eggs and bottles were thrown at the house. My husband was on first-name terms with the local police officer by the end of the first month. We saw a woman thrown out of a moving car. Truly. We saw another woman repeatedly kicked and punched before she limped away, screaming profanities from a bleeding mouth. We found syringes, empty bottles and condoms scattered in our front yard regularly. We had a man stabbed literally on our doorstep as he leaned on the doorbell at eleven o’clock at night. We had the police come to the door and tell us to stay inside as they were after someone sheltering in our back yard (my precious garden!). Someone tried to snatch my money as I stood at the ATM putting my card away. Drunks were heaved almost senseless out of the pub to sleep the drink off on the pavement outside. My teenage daughter was followed home by two men who tried to grab her. Good thing we lived literally fifty yards from the bus stop where she’d got off. And that she had a good pair of lungs.
But the garden…Oh it was a slice of heaven. One hundred and thirty feet long, and thirty-odd feet wide. That’s huge by inner-city standards. The top twenty-five per cent, nearest the house, was a patio, unevenly paved, and populated with plants in pots. Tiny solar lamps indicated the edge of the patio and the start of the lawn. The lawn took up about fifty per cent of the garden, and was uneven and veined with ancient tree roots and edged by borders containing ugly plants behind even uglier mini-fencing. I know it’s not sounding great at the moment…
Dotted across the lawn and in the bottom twenty-five per cent of the garden were several old apple and pear trees, and a cheery tree. There were two small sheds, all but falling down, and an oval flower bed intruding into the top part of the lawn. The final section at the end of the garden was fenced off and badly overgrown. Paving slabs had been loosely laid, perhaps n an attempt to curb the growth of the weeds, but they presented a grave danger to ankles and toes as the slabs tipped up as soon as you stepped on them.
We gathered these slabs up into two stacks. Then we cut back the trees and shrubs to a tidy and manageable size. We dug up the weeds and created veggie patches and a herb garden. We filled tubs and pots with sunflowers and cosmos and anything that bees or butterflies might like. It was a secret, sunny spot, seemingly miles from the house and the noise of the road beyond, hidden away from prying eyes.
We often used to see a fox snoozing in the sunshine on top of the slab-stacks. Or at night, I’d hear a sound and look out to see three or four fox cubs chasing each other around the lawn or hopping back and forth over the plant pots and yapping at one another. I’m not one of those who believes wild animals are there to be shot or poisoned. I’m definitely a bleeding-heart liberal and proud to be so. My family and I derived great pleasure from watching the birds, the foxes, a squirrel, and some hedgehogs enjoying the amenities of our garden, drinking out of a plant saucer full of rainwater or foraging amongst the bushes.
Our neighbours on either side were very elderly and their gardens had been left untouched for years. The neighbour on the right-hand side had a World War II Anderson shelter at the bottom of her garden, and this was where the foxes lived. The neighbours’ gardens and ours created a little oasis of wildlife-friendly space in the city, and the wildlife seemed to be thriving there. I hope they never bulldoze that block.
The area had once been an orchard. The trees in our garden were donkeys’ years old, and our neighbours had a number of equally well-established fruit trees. The trees were huge, too, due to their great age. I’ve never seen fruit trees the size of woodland oak or beech trees. I suppose normally when orchard trees reach a certain age, they are replaced, to ensure maximum yield.
It was the kind of garden that made us strive to overcome all the other obstacles to living happily in that location in our attempt to create a home. It was the kind of garden you long to pick up and take with you.
That house was never a home, and we were so glad to leave it. But the garden belonged to another age, and another plane altogether. We still drive past the house regularly, the house itself so dimly remembered, and yet we continue to rave about the perfect little world hidden away behind it.