Saturday, June 02, 2007


It is strange to go back to the place where I grew up. Shadows of trees slide across the grass: the silver birch I remember being little taller than a man now towers above the roof of houses, and apple trees, although still small, have the gnarled and twisted look of something old.

The greenhouse is empty, the borders at the bottom about to explode with their own small flames. 'What a pity you'll miss the clematis,' my mother says. 'flowers as big as plates.'

But I like the way green lies on green and how the small lilac flowers polka-dot the border and I remember the place where my horse chestnut tree grew: how the hard shiny conker I planted in a pot one autumn a few months later sprouted a slender stem and then a single broad five-fingered leaf. And then each year grew; green stem giving way to brown trunk, taller and taller, until about five years ago it had outgrown its transplanted place in the border and had to be removed - and I never did find out if it was red-blossomed or white.

It was mud when we came here: clay furrowed with tractor tyres and mysterious pieces of blue-and-white pottery I used to collect and try to piece together. Gradually my parents carved it into different levels, built walls and banks, raised borders, dug ponds, levelled and added sand and soil to improve the drainage, planted grass seeds and chased away birds - and one year, I remember, it was so dry they bought a sprinkler that languorously sprayed cold water back and forth over the young delicate grass - and, to our noisy happiness, us.

One brother played with knives here; taking it in turns with a red-haired boy called Geoffrey to balance the tip of a great long blade on a knee and flick it to see where it would land; while the other brother played with a friend called Simon, the two of them dressed in khaki, hidden in the grass, shooting at each other with sticks with the high-pitched imitation of a machine gun.

Once we had a small white tent pegged into the ground, and many times a rectangular paddling pool with corner seats in which I proved to myself that it was true what I'd heard - most animals including the school guinea pig could swim (with frantic furious movements) when I dropped him in over the side. Another time I noticed that wasps had made a hole in the ground, and later dug to find something like a white paper lantern of empty hexagonal cells. And it was here that, as a toddler, Hodmandod Minor persisted in following my mother's cat, reaching out for its tail, and ignoring all calls to come back, only to retreat a few minutes later examining quite quietly and with some puzzlement the red weals of claws upon his arm.

I remember badminton games in the evening and the curious ability of gnats to spin around each other and yet remain exactly where they were in a diffuse living cloud; and the smell of my father's red tomatoes in the greenhouse - the door opening and the damp heat slamming into my face like something more substantial than air.

Then I remember one of my brothers peering through a hole in the fence to watch the lodger of a neighbour sunbathe in the nude and the time I saw the wife of a member of the seventies pop group Showaddywaddy arrange their costumes along the line - pastel and day-glo colours like the feathers of too-exotic birds - and I remember a wedding: my brother's marriage to Yasmin, almost the last time we were all together, his turquoise waistcoat matching her turquoise sari and the little turquoise flowers in icing on the cake.

Now the only exotic colours are my mother's palms and shrubs. 'You should see it now,' she tells me on the phone.

And now I have. Each year it grows more splendid and impressive.


Anonymous Susan said...

This is just lovely, Clare! Reading your essay, I found myself beaming with pure joy.

Sun Jun 03, 02:14:00 am  
Blogger Lee said...

Yes, I agree with Susan, a lovely piece - and you observe, remember, and describe the small details so well, like those gnats. And I enjoy the photos of your parents, though less so those of the garden - sheer envy of its perfection, instead of the chaos and mad riot of weeds which confront me every time I step out the door.

Sun Jun 03, 06:13:00 am  
Blogger derek said...

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submissions close at the end of june.

Sun Jun 03, 06:15:00 am  
Blogger Jan said...

A beautiful piece, Clare.
I hope your parents and your sons read this; it's family history and it's family present and it's also immensely moving.

Sun Jun 03, 09:27:00 am  
Anonymous clare said...

Thanks very much for reading...maybe one day I shall post pictures of my garden - a jumble of weeds and overgrown grass. The opposite of my mother's in almost every respect.

Sun Jun 03, 11:32:00 am  
Anonymous Maxine said...

Lovely post, as ever, Clare.

Sun Jun 03, 06:23:00 pm  
Blogger chiefbiscuit said...

Beautiful evocation of childhood, summer, time and all the senses involved in remembering. Just lovely - thank you Clare. (Beautiful photos too - what a marvellous garden.) I was amused to read your early scientific experiments!

Tue Jun 05, 10:45:00 am  

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