Friday, April 01, 2005

Little details 

It seems to be the norm nowadays to move house every few years. Or at least a few times during a lifetime. But sixty years ago, things were different – life was slower, society was more stable; moreover houses were cheaper, so it was easier to afford a home you’d grow into. For over fifty years, my parents lived in the same house that they had bought when they got married; three children were born there, grew up, and one by one left to start homes of their own; eventually then the house became too big for my parents needs and they moved into a bungalow – the only time since leaving their own parents’ homes that they’d moved house.

So it was that my childhood was marked by a strong sense of permanence and stability, and over the years the minute details of that house and garden became deeply embedded in my memory. The garden particularly; I have an odd collection of mental snapshots of trivial little details: a particular pattern of cracks in the concrete path, flaking rust on the frame of the swing made from angle iron from the old Morrison air-raid shelter; the cracked and faded green paintwork on the garage door that had long since lost it’s gloss; the delicate variation of shades in a pink and blue hydrangea; a low, curving wall of granite blocks with steps leading down into a sunken area that always filled with water after heavy rain.

(This is the only photo I could find - the snow must have made it special and therefore worthy, to an eight-year-old, of photographing)

Of course, over the years there were changes; one such was when we turfed over an area that had been the vegetable patch during the Second World War. Just around the corner from us, a big old house was being demolished to make way for blocks of flats. It had once had beautiful gardens and the lawn had so far escaped being torn up by the demolition plant, so one Saturday when the site was free of workmen, my Dad and I went over there armed with spades and pulling my soap-box cart with a large board on top to recover some of the turf (we didn’t have a car then). I was intrigued at this – Dad always took such a firm moral stand, but clearly he didn’t consider this to be theft since the grass couldn’t really be said to belong to anyone any more. I forget how many trips it took, but we got enough to cover a sizeable area. You couldn’t do that now, of course – building sites are deemed to be too dangerous and have high wire mesh fences or wooden hoardings around them. But back then, we were free to roam, and no-one came to any serious harm.

But I digress. I was talking about changes…

The garden as it was when I first became aware of it was what I always thought of as the true garden, as though it had been created thus, complete with it’s cracked concrete paths and sometimes rickety fences; the changes always seemed to take something away, and they always remained changes, even after many years. Somewhere buried underneath them lay the bones of the garden that first grew into my consciousness, hidden under new turf and crazy paving.

Some changes could be almost shocking – like when the exterior doors and window-frames of the house were repainted pale yellow and white, instead of being the once-bright, now-faded mid-green I’d always known. It never seemed quite the same house after that; the old green-painted house no longer existed except in memory. It had been taken away and replaced with this new yellow-and-white house. It might have looked the same, but it wasn’t.

So to the present. I’ve been at home today, working (some of the time); since everything I needed to do today could be done on a laptop, why spend 2 – 3 hours travelling only to sit alone in a dismal office? So I sat on the garden bench in the sun enjoying my lunch, and looking around realised that the tiny details of this garden have become as fixed in my memory as those details of that garden in which I grew up. It’s the little imperfections that lodge in the mind and make it unique, make it ours. Tufts of grass growing out of a crack in the concrete patio, moss on the shed roof, dark stains of damp lichen around the base of the pots around the patio’s edge. No longer fresh and new – it’s showing the wrinkles of age. It has Character.

Funnily enough though, unlike that childhood garden where the original was what was real and the changes only moved away from it, hiding my familiar garden, here it’s the other way around – it’s the present that is real, and the past has been evolving, building towards this point. Before, when we first moved in, it was someone else’s garden. Over the years, almost every part has been remodelled in some way; we’ve made it ours.

Now, 19 years of allowing the details of this garden to sink their roots deep within us has made this very much our garden. It’s part of us, and we’re part of it. With the possibility looming ahead (currently about 50-50) of losing my job and consequently having to move, I’ll miss it if we have to go.

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