The cottage itself was quite small but its garden seemed vast to me then, and rich in possibilities. We’d moved there when I was a little more than a year old, I believe, at the mid-point of the 20th century; and since I have no recollection of the place where we had previously lived, this was where my sentient experience began; in this garden, in a small, moral town whose inhabitants lived conservatively and parochially; safe and separated from the wider world.
The garden, in my earliest recollection, had already been divided into quarters, like a Parisian arrondissement. There was a path that ran the length of the space, from the back door of the cottage to the high stone wall that separated our territory from that of the much grander house beyond. Occasionally, when I was older, I would claw my way up the wall, finding tiny finger and toeholds in the rough-hewn stones till I was able to peer over the top at what seemed to be a mansion by comparison, with its gravel forecourt behind a wrought iron gate. We never knew the people who lived there. Even in that small town, there were divisions.
Half way up the garden, the central path bisected a hedge, whose transverse line completed the creation of the quadrants; and for reasons I never discovered and did not question at the time, the whole garden was elevated some four feet or so above the plane on which the cottage itself stood, so that five stone steps were required to reach it from our back door.
Each of the four quadrants was devoted to its own purpose. Opposite the kitchen window, in the fore quadrant, my father had planted flowers, small ones at the front and taller ones, progressively, towards the hedge at the back. From spring to autumn, this gave my mother something pleasant to look at as she went about her chores in the kitchen. But in winter, it was a bleak aspect, often blanketed in snow. Each year, my mother and I would search for the first sign of the crocuses poking their tiny green shoots through the frost-hardened soil, signalling the end of winter. And I remembered the excitement we shared as the white crocus blossoms burst open and life began again.
Behind the flowers, beyond the hedge, my father had planted fruit-bearing shrubs and trees: strawberries, raspberries, blackcurrants, rhubarb and apples. When my cousin, who was older than me, came to stay, the two of us would sneak up to the fruit garden and feast on the berries, protected from view by the hedge that grew taller every year, just as we did. And when my father asked us if we had been eating his berries we’d lie to him innocently, as if we would ever do such a thing, with the stains of the berry juice still on our shirts.
The garden was separated from those of the cottages on either side by paling fences – what Americans call picket fences – only ours were stained dark with creosote to protect them from woodworm and the ravages of the Scottish climate. Every year, I’d help my father give the fences a new coat of the stuff – an eye-watering, skin-stinging liquid whose sharp pungent smell I can still imagine in my nostrils, attacking us with the acuity of an army of hedgehogs, a phalanx of Roman centurions bristling with spears, a rain of pin-tipped arrows at bloody Hastings, so powerful was it. Strangely, I never creosoted anything since, yet I still remember it as though it had only happened yesterday.
The far quadrant, opposite the fruit garden, was dedicated to root crops: potatoes, carrots, turnips and beetroot; plus lettuce, cabbage and the like. Together, at the start of each growing season, we would dig the furrows and fertilise the soil; and then, when the time was right, we’d plant the seeds and water them. Fertilising required going to a nearby farm and getting Hessian bags filled with cow manure, which we’d fold into the soil with large garden forks. The smell was atrocious and sometimes made us gag; another reason why the fruit and vegetables had been banished to the back half of the garden, beyond the hedge. Occasionally, we’d fertilise the flowerbeds too but less generously and very carefully, wearing gloves to protect our hands. And we were on strict orders from my mother to take off our boots and scrub them thoroughly, and wash our hands, before entering the house. I remember, the way she treated us both like children made me smile at the time and feel a kind of complicity with my father, a closeness that we didn’t always share; and the thought of it now still brings a smile to my face, all these years later.
The final quadrant of the garden, close to the cottage and across the path from the flower garden served as a drying green, comprising a patch of grass on which some previous occupant had erected four metal posts to form a square from which clotheslines were hung. The grass extended some way beyond the square on all sides and was finally bordered by flowers. Although drying clothes was its primary function, “the green” as we called it, also served as a recreational area since the front of the cottage opened directly onto the street and therefore had no garden at all. In the summer evenings, once the washing had been taken in, we would sometimes sit out on the green, and we even had picnics there, just for the fun of it.
While the other three quadrants, metaphorically, represented work to me then, the green, represented adventure. Being an only child, play involved inventing stories, re-enacting battles and exploring the worlds of my imagination. I’d drag toys from their boxes and set them up in elaborate scenarios requiring hours of meticulous preparation. In the scaled down world of toy soldiers, the grass became a jungle, impenetrable and filled with ferocious animals and other dangers; or a soccer field where spectacular goals were scored between the posts of the washing lines to the ecstatic cheers of imaginary crowds; and to the consternation of my mother if the washing was still on the line.
When I grew older, my father dug up a small area at the edge of the green near the hedge and gave it to me as my own garden, to plant whatever I wanted and tend for myself. For reasons that I still can’t explain, however, my first use of the plot was an attempt to dig my way to China. As far as I can remember I had never met anyone from China, or anyone who had even been there, so I have no idea what attracted me to such a faraway place. But needless to say, when my father came home from work and found a gaping hole where the plot had been, my journey to the Orient was brought abruptly to a halt.
Another way I found of escaping the confines of the garden was to climb to the roof of the cottage. This was made easy by the fact that the garden was elevated in relation to the plane on which the cottage stood and there was a “lean-to” garden shed abutting the cottage, whose slanted roof reached down to the green on one side and up to the beginning of the roof of the cottage on the other; so one could easily walk from the green, up the shed roof, and up the cottage roof, to the very top and look out over the town towards the North Sea. Sometimes, I could see, with the aid of binoculars my uncle had given me on one of his visits with my cousin, small cargo ships plying along the coast. Once, I saw a contingent of naval vessels comprising cruisers, battleships and a carrier, heading for the naval base at Invergordon and I was so excited that I could hardly wait for my father to come home to tell him about it. Unfortunately, my father took a rather dim view of my roof climbing exploits and placed this impromptu lookout off-limits from that time foward.
Although I had already been in school for several years by then and had made some friends, the garden had always been a place that I thought of as a private and personal sanctuary. I never invited anyone from school to play with me there; and for the most part, the only other child with whom I had shared it was my cousin, who lived far away and visited infrequently. Then, one day, Tommy and his sister appeared at the door with their bright blonde hair and Nordic good looks. They were the children of a woman who had recently started work in my father’s shop and they came to our house after school to wait for their mother to finish work. Tommy was the same age as me, but smaller, thinner and hyperactive; while his sister, Jane, was two years older; tall and poised and indifferent. In fact, I didn’t like them all that much at first. Tommy always wanted to take charge and do things his way; and Jane was aloof, not wanting to play with toy soldiers and trucks and the like. But over the next few months, my attitude towards them changed. When Jane would energetically perform cartwheels on the green, her arms and legs spinning through the air like a whirling starfish, the toy soldiers and trucks seemed less interesting all of a sudden and I began to look forward to her visits. Yet the same time, I had the feeling that there was something thrillingly illicit about this strange, new pleasure I was experiencing; although I couldn’t understand why Jane, who was older and must have been aware of what she was doing, seemed bent on encouraging me to transgress by persisting in her exhibitions. And as the cartwheels evolved into statuesque handstands, all calves and knees and thighs and all points north – now pointing south – and my interest in the toys and other childish games continued to wane, I began to realise that there was a greater world out there, with a multitude of enticements to savour. And as I looked around at the four-posted green, and the fat verdant hedge and the high stone wall that wasn’t quite as high any more, and the dark, smelly fences separating us from our neighbours and the dung-filled rows of vegetables and the bushes burgeoning with unpicked berries and the flowers performing their annual pageant before the unattended kitchen window, I came to realise that my beloved pleasure garden, despite all that it had meant to me when I was younger, was now: Eden no more.