It is perfectly still here. You can hear the birds, it is summer now and everything, the hedgerows, clear-misted skies, and solid red brick buildings sit parked in their places. By the canal bridge, a pale blue Triumph Herald rests by the road, rusting in the sunshine and, nearer home, a woodpecker drills a lofty oak tree, beak on “difficult” setting. We stand by the fence and look toward the noise, ratatattat, ratatattat, and discuss the bird’s location. The cat trap hangs unused on the kitchen door, the veteran winter wood lying scratched beside it. Is it time to repaint it? Shall we remove the cat trap now that the cat is dead?
A ewe has produced twins: one black, one white. In the newspaper I read that “investment income surcharge” has been abolished. Outside, rain launders the landscape. The grass now looks greener than ever.
Looking from the top of the picture down to the bottom: Heaven, Cloud, Mist, Trees, Twin Silos, Hay, Fence, Ornamental Plant Holder, Lawn, Duck (1), Lawn, Duck (2), Window.
In the novel I am reading, it says, “I measured love by the extent of my jealousy.” In the sky, the clouds move and separate as if to some predetermined pattern. At this point, jealousy fades far into the distance, obscured by nature.
When we were young we were given allotments. One brother had a plot the size of a large billiard table, beside the garage. Another had a plot by the lawn. And I had a plot by the courtyard, bordered by a high red brick wall, which I was later to climb and inevitably fall from. Neither of my brothers was a keen gardener. The first left his plot to its own devices and christened it a “Weed Garden” and the second tended his on an intermittent basis. The attitude I took to my garden was one of sustained yet abstract fascination.
There were two trees in my garden. The first was called “May” and the second, “May Not.” For some reason as a child I was wont to hack away at the bark of “May Not.” When my mother saw what I was doing, she said, “You mustn’t do that. A tree is like a person.”
We pass by mustard fields, which spread like a woolen blanket from the asylum at the top of the hill. “I’ve never seen them so yellow before,” my father says, as they move out of sight, away from the car windows. On another road, a mile or so ahead, a man is making his way on foot toward our village. The sun is high overhead; it is midday. The man is unsteady on his feet. “He’s from Hatton,” my father says. And it must be true, for, as I glance into the rearview mirror, I can see that he is mentally unstable. Where is he going, then?
A woman in the neighborhood has killed herself. Why is it always the means of suicide that linger in the mind? The crack of a shotgun, the whiff of powder, and the dispersal of flesh fill my thoughts as the noise resounds in the May garden. The landscape then feels quieter for the explosion, a solemn epitaph perhaps for a member of the community who is gone forever; and a reminder to a clerk somewhere to alter the population statistics.
“Which is your favorite month?” my mother asks me as we stand in the snow. It is the beginning of the year and I immediately dismiss January as a contender. “Mine is May,” my mother continues, after a pause. “Yes, I think May is mine too,” I reply, thoughtfully.
In the pub I drink Flowers Bitter and meet a man who sleeps in his car. Afterward, I lie on the grass in the May garden and look up at the sky. Squadrons of silver-gray and droning bombers pass overhead en route from one distant country to another, each hold, each fuselage weighted down with war. In a moment they are gone and the sky is clear again. I have drunk too much beer and seen war instead of weather. Nevertheless, it might well rain later.
One of our neighbors is a patriot. He is also a radio ham. So it is that the Union Jack often flies from the radio mast set in his garden. His politics might be suspect but he is nevertheless an Englishman and his home, despite appearances, is his castle.
The firefighters’ motto springs to mind, the legacy of a recent trip abroad. SERVIR OU PÉRIR. How distant danger seems here in the May garden!
I have awoken at dawn today and am by the window, looking at the landscape. It is like an empty house; there are sheets of dew over the hedgerows to keep the dust off, and cobwebs on the broken stile. Around three inches above my condensed nose the early morning express charges south through the valley toward London. It’s starting to get light now.
Two pink vapor trails score the dawn sky. Who knows when the jets passed or where they went; and at what speed they flew?
Through the sound of birdsong, the vibrant hum of a lawnmower sets my eardrums in motion. The bin fills with cuttings and the smell of freshly mown grass reached my nostrils. One or two members of my family sit outside, on the terrace, drinking and talking. Could they be discussing the recent suicide, or my mother’s plan to expand the flock?
I am sitting outside on the Van Gogh chair, listening to the sounds of the birds. It is late. To my right, a bird makes a chirping sound. It is Saturday night, is that a mating call? I turn my head sharply and put my hand to my neck. No, I don’t think it’s sprained. I turn my head again, slowly, toward the sound of another bird and back again in response to yet another on my left. And so on. I get the impression there is either one very agile bird in the garden, or a large number of stationary ones.
Hanging from a branch, rather stupidly, is the monkey nut sock, waving in the breeze idly. It is made of red nylon and there are no nuts in it. If I close one eye and look at it from the right angle, and if the wind happens to catch it from the right direction, and if the wind is indeed strong enough, and if I am not distracted, it looks as though the midday flight from Birmingham to Amsterdam is flying straight into it. The chances of this happening are very slight, however, and for the most part I just watch the netted outline of the sock as it plays with the outlines of passing clouds.
It is not May (in fact there is still snow at the ends of the fields) but I catch a glimpse of something that startles me. HATTON MAN DIES FUMES THEORY reads the placard outside a local newsagent. How far theory is from practice!
I am sitting on the Van Gogh chair. It is a Sunday morning and I have a novel on my lap. I look around for a moment, at the flowers and the trees. Why is it that I can name only a few of them, the red and yellow ones by the fence? I open the book and start the job of reading. The words are put together well. I listen to them carefully, hearing my voice pass from one to another as my eyes have done in the garden. Writing and gardening have little in common, but reading a good novel in a good garden is a cathartic experience.
I come across a fire-hydrant marker, which reminds me of the crosses commemorating the deaths of Resistance heroes in France. “… Sont tombés dans le champ de l’honneur …” and “… gravement blessés par les Allemands …” By means of association, the firefighters’ motto, SERVIR OU PÉRIR, takes on a different meaning. I ask myself whether patriotism alone could drive me to acts of violence in this enchanted landscape.
The horse in the paddock runs about furiously. A mare cannot be far away. One of the ewes is still in lamb, which is strange. The gestation period for a sheep is five months and she hasn’t seen Alexander, the ram, since last October. Sometimes there is no accounting for nature.
In May, one can only dream of winter, of the reflections of snowflakes, shadowy dots thrown by overhead streetlight onto the smooth layer of whiteness that lies about. We tread in it, walking in our sleep, and our shoe size is left for some shoemaker to stare at after our passing. The cold grips us and we plod on, into the night.
A cousin pays a visit. He has brought some music and some jokes with him, all neatly packed in a tartan holdall. Before long, he is playing Chopin on the grand piano. I sit on the Van Gogh chair, watching and listening. The telephone rings and I go to it. “This is Market Research. What kind of lager do you drink?” inquires a voice.
I awake to the sound of birds this May morning. They are in conversation. It occurs to me that they could be discussing something important. In the distance, I can hear a rooster. Cockadoo… cockadoo … cockadoo … Is he bored? Or does he have a speech impediment?
During a walk, I pass through a village. In the garden of a small cottage is a washing line, its hinged branches pressed against the aluminium trunk in the manner of a Christmas tree tied for traveling. In this position, it resembles modern sculpture. I imagine a visitor to the cottage mentioning this to the occupants one day. I also imagine such an allusion baffling them. Everything has its place and the idea that an aluminium washing line might be suggestive of something strange is not to their liking. I move on, perturbed by my thoughts.
On Duck Pond Lane, the one that leads away from the pub, is a windmill. It is homemade, a telegraph pole with four vanes made of sections of corrugated iron, rusted pieces with crinkled edges pointing emphatically in different directions, away from the dented motor car hubcap that serves as its axle. Despite the fairly strong breeze, which ripples the skirts of the hedges and bullies the uncut grass at the roadside, and despite the fact that the windmill itself does not appear to be leashed, the wheel is perfectly still. It is only the bird-shaped weather vane, atop the old Elizabethan silo that dances, disorientated in the wind.
The wind! The wind pushes everything around, rattling the windows and shaking the branches of the trees in the manner of an irate father. It is heard and it is felt, but, of course, is only seen by its effect.
The old Elizabethan silo has an S-shaped iron support running through it. So has the railway bridge. These fine constructions have worked for hundreds of years. They are architecture’s old age pensioners, they outlive us all; will they ever die?
The shepherd pays a visit. His two dogs lie in the garden, awaiting instructions as their master discusses matters in hand with my mother on the terrace. I sit on the Van Gogh chair near the kitchen door, my novel before me. At such times, it is hard not to feel at one with nature.
The train that takes me to the country is called “Comet” and the one that takes me back to the city, the “Thomas of Effingham.” I could never treat the country in the same way that I do the city. If familiarity breeds contempt, then I doubt I could ever stoop to familiarity in my feelings towards nature. But what I really want to know is who Thomas of Effingham is.