The Garden at the End of the World
by Marie Marshall
“You ought to get that garden seen to. Tidied up a bit.”
I can remember hearing that said to an elderly person I visited once, when I was a child. I loved visiting the elderly. I loved especially obtaining permission to go and wash my hands, so that I had an excuse to explore as much of their house as lay on the route between the back parlour and the bathroom. I used to dare myself to open a door and look in – perhaps to a bedroom, a spare bedroom with cases and boxes stacked, a bed with a flat, level, chenille spread that looked as though it hadn’t been disturbed for years, a wardrobe with a mirror in which I could glimpse the fur coat or the bathrobe that hung on the back of the door I had just opened. I might treat myself to a frisson of fear, fancying that the movement of that coat or that robe was due not to my opening the door but to some animation of its own; or I might simply wonder when last it had been worn, and when it had moved due to the whim and will of the once-young, now-elderly person downstairs, or to that of a dead loved- or hated-one. I might, if I felt brave, walk as quietly as I could, wary of the telltale creak of old floorboards, into the room to see whether any of those repositories of the silent past – the boxes, the cases, the wardrobe – would open. Once or twice I dared to brush my hand against the black suits with shiny lapels, the gowns, to make them sway, to see them in my mind at some cocktail party or dance. I even wondered what it would be like to put on one of these man-size suits or woman-size dresses, whether I would feel weighed down and small in them, or whether I would be possessed by the dancing gentleman or lady who had worn them.
Downstairs their might be a front parlour, cold and undisturbed save for the ticking of a clock or the buzzing of a forlorn bluebottle at the window. I would look at a sea-green collection of glass paperweights with their bubbling patterns of ferns and fronds blown into them, a painting of a harbor, a fragile case of Murano figures, a row of framed photographs with their anonymous faces looking out of, and at, a world that had long gone. I would search the photographs for any resemblance to the elderly house-owner, wondering if I would recognise the eyes of a bridegroom or a bride, or the cheekbones and curve of the mouth of someone in a uniform cap. If the front parlour was curtained I would never draw back the drapes, I would let the room sleep. I would, however, press my face to any chink that allowed in the green light of the garden beyond…
Everywhere in an elderly person’s house was still and cold. The kitchen, where the tap dripped, smelled of hard water and the day before’s cooking. The dark hall always had angles and shadows, the plaster head of a jester leering from the wall, a painting where a patch of threatening sky lowered over top-burdened trees and the figures suggested in a bottom corner were too small before nature’s enormity. A door I passed by on an earlier visit might turn out to be a broom cupboard, and the handle of an antique vacuum cleaner might tumble out to fall against me with a clatter.
“What are you doing?” such might be the words called to me from deeper in the house, or “You took your time!” when I arrived in the back parlour. But more often nothing would be said.
If I had found houseplants my absence would have been stretched out longer. On finding an Aspidistra or a Meyer lemon, a Clivia or a Kalanchoe, or a Christmas cactus, I would use my fingertips and my lips to navigate and explore it. I would dare to move a pot slightly so that a plant would face more towards the echoing greenery outside; I would gently lift a vine of trailing Hedera and reposition it, draping it over a chair-arm or along the narrow top of a folding table. I would whisper to it – just a gentle hiss of breath in harmony with the leaves’ rustle as they caught and brushed against a man-made surface – I trained myself to feel the slight trembling of each plant, convinced myself that it was the beating of some life-force, or a coded language. I would whisper back, “I know, sister. I know.”
I liked the silence of the elderly people I visited. Grown-ups in their prime might have taken it for vacancy. I took it for serenity, and equated it with the silence and serenity of their houseplants. Outside the French window, through which an elderly person gazed, there was always a garden that was more ocean-scape than domestic. The little light that fell on the elderly face would have the green of the laurel or the rhododendron that pressed close to the window, the green of the overgrown grass and the dandelion leaves, the green of the moss-covered York-stone flags, the green of the trees beyond. The elderly person was a submariner to me, looking longingly at the emerald light, wishing to be part of it, the only reminder of their life on the surface being a dancing little rainbow when the shifting sun caught an imperfection in the glass. Where other children would have become bored and restless, would have mithered for a glass of orange squash or a jeely piece or to go out and play or to go home, I sat, and loved to sit, as long as the elderly person was content to have me there, content to have me share their closeness to the unruly garden, to the ocean-scape that formed a barrier between them and the noise and bustle of the world beyond. If the window was open, and the breeze that came to us did so in the same measure as the movements of the leaves, so much the better – we would both be alive to that other world, the garden world, we would share but say nothing.
I have remembered all this recently, though my childhood visits are decades in the past and I myself am not too far away from the age of those whom I visited. Well, let’s say I am closer to them than I am to my vanished childhood. It may well be that the envy I once had for the elderly’s serenity and solitude brought me to this house in which I now sit.
There is a loch that suits the metaphor ‘an arm of the sea’. To the south of it sits an equivalent arm of land, one of the more westerly of Scotland. The two arms stretch out, as though willing to embrace, but blindly missing each other. On that ness, on the shore of that loch, sits my house. The brae behind it is close enough to shelter it from the gales that sweep in from the South-west, but low enough to allow sunlight. The higher hills on the other side of the loch often break the winter weather from the North. The loch itself traps the warmth of the Gulf Stream. It is an ideal place for a garden.
It is all the more ideal by there being little chance of a visitor by land. The nearest track peters out half a mile away. A few visitors come, or rather did come, by boat. The temperate conditions here mean that exotics thrived – a marvel this far north – and that drew a handful of tourists to the little jetty. I never minded too much their wandering round the garden’s sparse gravel paths, well to the front of the house, so long as they did not wander too close and disturb my privacy. There was a tin nailed to a fence-post for their donations as they left, and Alastair who owned the little motor-launch that came up from the Lochmore Hotel would regularly leave me a cut of his fares. But Alastair was old, and when he died no one took on his business. If I needed word from the world, or supplies of something, I had a rowing boat of my own which I could scull down to Lochmore. But if living in this house with its garden has taught me anything it is that I don’t need much from the outside world. If I have needs at all.
It really is remarkable how the garden has repaid me for allowing it to be wild. I have learned, sometimes by trial and error, what fruit, what berry, what exotic nut or seed can be eaten; what sap can be tapped and distilled; what leaf or shoot is palatable and nourishing. The garden has allowed me to take sparingly, to re-seed, to re-plant and to husband what I do not need, spreading it to rot down and feed. Every day has been one of learning and coping, and I have become lean, also – I like to think – wise and serene like the elderly folk I knew in the past. I became self-sufficient, or rather the garden and I became sufficient to each other.
It came as a shock, then, when I heard a loud “Hullo?” from outside. I thought I might have been dreaming, or heard the limb of a tree creaking, or the bellow of a stag and mistaken it for a human voice. But no, there was someone here.
Robertson, he said his name was. A reporter from Glasgow. I didn’t ask how he had reached my seclusion. How he had breached it.
“I am right,” he said. “It is you. You know, people have been saying for years that you had died. You left all your fame – maybe notoriety is a better word, eh? – you left all that behind you and disappeared. My, my, this really is the end of the world out here!”
“It is about as remote as one can be on the mainland.”
“Your house is difficult to spot,” he said.
“So much the better.”
“I mean,” he went on, “it’s pretty much camouflaged by the ivy or whatever growing up the outside – that green against the green of the trees and bushes. I gather you haven’t been seen at Lochmore for some time. How have you been living?”
“I get by.” I explained to him as sketchily as I could how the garden sustained me, how we sustained each other, how the garden produces nourishment to last me all year long. He wanted to know whether that was all; he doubted that anyone could live a purely vegetarian lifestyle on that basis alone. I confessed to him that, no, one couldn’t, and that I had foraged the loch shore for shellfish, being careful to leave more than I take – my principle whether it be fruit, fish, or flesh. “Some time ago I took down the fence that surrounded the garden. I destroyed – nullified – the boundary between the cultivated and the natural. Broom and heather and fern penetrated the garden. Hardy azaleas and apples and strawberries colonised the wild. I let my jetty rot, fall, and be covered with seaweed. I let my maritime exotics explore the shore on their own. Once a deer fell, just outside my back door, and I had a season of meat, before the garden overgrew what was left of it.” Beyond that, I confessed, I relied upon the tumble of the wild garden through my French window – the apples, wild raspberries and blackberries, beech nuts, nettles for soup, the mushrooms that could be eaten without harm, though some brought fierce dreams to me.
“You always had a unique way of seeing the world, with or without hallucinogens,” said Robertson, with a mocking grin. I began to hate him. “What was it exactly you did, again? What was it lost you your place and your reputation in the world…”
“I disremember,” I said, but he ignored me.
“The ethics of your experiments were questionable, to say the least. The ‘science’…” I could hear the quotation marks around that word as he spoke it. He said it again. “The ‘science’ was roundly contested, disputed, denounced as pseudo-science. The fact that your assistants didn’t know what you were doing until it was to late. The unexplained…”
The unexplained what? Did Robertson ever finish that sentence? In any case, what could there be to explain? How could I, how can I, express that deep, vein-deep, consciousness-deep connection between the plant world and the human that my theories had proposed and my experiments had explored? Robertson had cited ethics – I know, I know, the debatable area between the hunger for knowledge and the morality of how to satisfy it has always been a dense and contradictory jungle. But this had been much more than knowledge – my grail had been the essence of being, the marriage feast of nature, the triumph of sap and blood! The child-me had born the adult-me, the person who was part mystic, part scientist, the person who dared, who reached out…
How long is it since Robertson came here? I don’t know. I have ceased to ask what time is, anyway, or to consider the ticking of a clock when seasons are the only real and relevant measure of time – and they circle round and round, again and again, in a garden where the end of the world is its beginning, and the beginning its end. Robertson never left, of course. He sits opposite me, where he sat when his last sentence trailed away, and when his last breath failed. I can make out his eye-sockets, where new foliage has grown through. I can see the shape of his shoulders, his thighs, his knees under the waterfall of green that has seemed to flow through the French windows, left standing open to the garden since before his coming. What stopped his words, his breath, the flowing of that red, oh-so-human sap in his limbs? The blood-metal of my rusty secateurs that are lying beside my chair? The purity of the sap in the cup that has fallen beside his? The stifling of nature’s motes and spores borne by an insistent breeze through the open window? “I disremember, I disremember,” I repeat to myself in a whisper; and the garden whispers back to me.
Somewhere in the house there was a muffled and distant crash – how long ago was that? – which I thought was probably the old chimney, weighed down with creeper and rocking in a stronger-than-usual gust, falling through the roof. No matter. What could it matter?
It is as I said – I leave, or give back, more than I take from nature, from the garden. And now I give to it my childhood memories, the look, the feel, the name of the precious houseplants that exist only in my head. I give the Red Shamrock, the Crassula ovata and the Sago palm, the Lemon Cypress and the Dracaena Marginata, the Peace Lily and the Rhapsis excelsia. I give the knowledge I uncovered as an explorer of the symbiosis of plant and human. I leave it all here, giving it all back to secrecy to this garden at the end of the world. Is there a beginning in this end?
Is there? I do not know, I do not know. The tumble of nature has blown in dry leaves, husks, dandelion parachutes and Spinning Jennies, dust and scents, grey light and emerald green. It has ceased to give me sustenance. But there is no more need for sustenance, there is only need to give back to the genius loci of the garden. The Green Man? Mother Nature? Whatever. It has been a mystery, it has always been a mystery, but now I hear the wind, I hear the rattle of those dead leaves, I hear the sigh of leaf against evergreen leaf and the answering echo from the ruined cave of my house. And at last I understand the language, I hear with utmost clarity what is being said. There is a torque of ivy pinning my wrist to the chair arm, but why would I want to move? A tendril – at last, at last! – brushes my cheek. It is the touch of a lover.
©Marie Marshall 2018