Missing Little Louie
I had a terrible row with my daughter when I decided to go to London in early March for some meetings. She told me that if we went to the crowded city we would be endangering ourselves. I tried assuring her that I would take all necessary precautions – washing hands, using hand sanitisers, upgrading to 1st class and avoiding the underground, but she wasn’t convinced and hung up saying we would probably ‘die’. I thought she was being dramatic and over cautious. Things seemed to move at an accelerated rate after that and in mid-March the familiar world around us came to a standstill. Life changed. A new rhythm set in. No more train journeys, visiting cafes, libraries, theatres, cinemas – things we had taken for granted now belonged to an impossible past.
For almost a year, my week had been built round looking after my grandson, Louie, and we had a lovely time as he slept for long hours on my shoulder, started crawling everywhere and then cruising, climbing onto the sofa; I could never look away as he was an intrepid explorer. He told me, with perfectly intelligible words like ‘ta ta’ and ‘ba ba’, about his three pigeon friends who came frequently to see him on the balcony. I looked forward to witnessing him taking his first steps.
We started self-isolating from 16 March and Louie started walking on 17 March. My daughter was super excited and so was I. Then I remembered, I couldn’t drive to their flat to see the toddler in action as our daughter needed shielding. I had to be happy instead with videos of him climbing over the arm of the sofa – the difficult side – like a Tenzing Norgay practising early to be ready to conquer Everest, scrambling down backwards to repeat the clutch-lift-clamber-tumble manoeuvre innumerable times or watch him opening his little mouth like a spring fledgling for his mum’s tasty pasty meals.
In between Louie video entertainment, I read, wrote, cleaned and discovered the joy of following YouTube videos of recipes of delicious Bengali sweets. I baked layered cakes — mum’s recipes — and trotted round the globe (metaphorically) sampling pad thai, massaman curry, spaghetti carbonara, borsch, goulash, lamb tagine, stuffed aubergines, and always came back to my two ‘homes’ in simple fare like baked salmon, mince and tatties, salmon shorshe (mustard) or cauliflower dalna (untranslatable).
Initially we took walks in our wee garden, something we had never done before. My husband called it our prison yard. I called it our survival circuit. I realised how loyal our spring bulbs were and how abundant their colours. Our finches and tits watched us incredulous from the hedge and one lady blackbird flew down on the lawn looking for scattered seeds from the bird feeder, undeterred by our circumambulations. Louie’s first birthday was coming up and we had been ordering and accumulating several 12-18 months clothes for him. After lockdown we got Amazon to deliver his birthday toys directly to their flat. But the clothes were needed so we decided to take them before his birthday and leave them at their door so that they could open everything 48 hours later ‘safely’.
When they opened the door, he was in his mum’s arms. He immediately put out his arms to me and my daughter said, ‘would you like to give him a hug?’ And that was it. Louie put his little plump arms round my neck, swung into my arms, rubbed noses like a sweet Eskimo, rested his cheek against mine and then put his head on my shoulder and wouldn’t be put down. We all felt like criminals as ‘it wasn’t allowed’. That was when I realized I shouldn’t go around to our daughter’s on any pretext — not even with cooked dishes they loved. Louie’s affectionate welcome was something I would find irresistible and inexorably painful to ignore.
We moved to FaceTime instead and he still recognised us on that small screen. Clever boy! And now it was his turn to entertain us. He played his birthday drum, read his books to us in Louie language, cooed about his pigeon friends and tap danced. We are now regaled with videos of him doing sit ups with his Dad and flamenco-ing with his mum. He has become inordinately useful as he empties their washing machine and picks up specks from the floor and eats them, augmenting my daughter’s spotless regime.
We have left our prison yard-garden and started going for walks in parks and golf courses. And all this time Louie has walked in the flat in his bare feet. Recently they drove to a friend’s farm and sent us photos of little Louie — tiny and fresh amidst tall lush grass, jubilant as he had won a battle, refusing to wear shoes and feeling the solid earth beneath his adventurous feet.
There were no cars, no people, just sunshine and me on my bike. I wasn’t surprised, though. Wasn’t anything really. I was just there, on what seemed like a track, more or less. Not a road, a track. It wove between hedges, past vineyards with their parallel rows of plants. In fact, it was the same one that I took to and from school every day. But I wasn’t just noticing the absence of cars and people; I was actually wondering why I was there. I didn’t remember leaving school. It was a Friday, I think, and usually, on Fridays, I’d chat with colleagues for a while, hang around in the staff room, but today, or even recently, there’d been no transition. Lessons, the usual English conversation classes, didn’t even feel like a memory because somehow they hadn’t actually happened.
The track wasn’t the same, either. The surface was as rough and clattery as ever, the same mixture of gravel and bits of loose sandy stuff that were perfect for pétanque but not great for slim tyres. But it somehow wasn’t right, didn’t seem familiar. In fact, as I gradually realised, it wasn’t even going in the right direction. Usually, after just over a kilometre, I’d jump off and turn to wheel the bike left through the gate to the old Presbytère we’d rented for the year’s exchange. But there was no gate, no Presbytère. Never mind. Today that seemed normal.
And the longer I rode on, the more convinced I was that I’d somehow made a wrong turn or just taken a totally unfamiliar track and had no idea where I was going. But I still wanted to go wherever it was. At least, I think so. And I was right because, at the end of a long, steep, freewheeling descent, with no scary Tour de France curves to frighten me, I arrived in a typical but unfamiliar market place with stalls selling vegetables, wine, bread, cheeses and the usual items of casual clothing.
I propped my bike behind one of the stalls, hiding it next to the stall owner’s Deux Chevaux, and joined the crowds. I suppose, basically, I just wanted to find out where I was. Strangely, even though I’d never seen the place in my life, I knew it was called ‘Digne’, but no-one spoke to me. I was pretty sure I was trying to ask them questions, but they all moved around me, ignoring me – not from rudeness, not even keeping their distance, but just going on doing their thing, as if I weren’t actually there.
In the end, after standing around a bit aimlessly but not really bothered, just looking, I went back for my bike. There was nothing there. It had gone. It was the same stall. I hadn’t looked behind the wrong one. But there was nothing except the Deux Chevaux, so I just accepted that I no longer had a bike. I also had no wallet or money. This wasn’t a sudden realisation; it was just that my circumstances had changed, and my disorientation or orientation, whichever it was, wasn’t remotely surprising.
Then I noticed a big man with whiteish-grey hair and moustache, wearing the traditional smock and pants of a paysan from that part of the Midi. He was watching me with a big smile on his face. He pushed himself away from the wall against which he was leaning, beckoned to me and walked through the seemingly unseeing crowds towards a tiny sort of shack. Grateful that at last someone seemed to be acknowledging that I was there, wherever ‘there’ was, I followed him, pushed through the door after him and was immediately engulfed in the crowd which filled the place. He shouted something incomprehensible in which I distinguished only the word ’ensemble’, then he was gone again.
I had no idea where because, cheek by jowl as we were in the stuffy interior, I suddenly felt a shaking and the unmistakable ‘thwock, thwock, thwock’ of rotor blades turning. I had no reference points, no way of getting home, or even knowing where ‘home’ was, no bike, no money. But suddenly it didn’t matter. No-one else in the interior seemed to be bothered by the noise. Jammed together, they laughed and chatted away, the air around them thick with garlic and Gauloises.
And we were flying. So I stopped worrying. And the man with the white hair and moustache was somehow right beside me again, his smile still broad, and he said, ‘Tu vois, mon ami? The ‘me’ always comes back’.
Ten Weeks That Shook The Garden
Before the lockdown, I was only dimly aware I had a garden. It was a place I walked through to get to my house. I noticed when an overgrown shrub snapped into my face, or a nettle stung my arms when I reached down to pick up the dog’s ball. I thought it was a statement as to how glamorous my life was. Tidy-garden people would see it and think: Wow, she’s having way more fun than me. I’ve got no time to have fun because I have to clip the hedge again with nail scissors. That’s how arrogant I was. But since lockdown I’ve seen the light.
It began with that first week of blind panic. The world was out of control, but at least we could get rid of the twelve foot leylandii hedge. It came down in three frenzied days and I was exhausted – but I looked at the news and went straight into the garden again. I began to attack the back slope, where I’d planted shrubs years ago and forgot to weed it. My first manoeuvre was basic. I plopped myself down and began clearing an arm’s length radius of stones and weeds. I didn’t let myself look at the vast amount of work yet to do. I daydreamed instead, or stopped to stare at some plant or rock or bird. Even a worm was worth a gander. Every time I discovered a nursery-bought shrub, I felt like one of the Navy Seals who rescued those football boys from a Thai cave. Once I found the dried-up remains of a defeated azalea, but didn’t let myself get emotional. No time for that in the face of the enemy. It took three weeks, but by the end the slope was mine.
By now, six weeks into lockdown, I ached all the time. My hands were hardened and covered in small cuts, and my face was sunburned. Everywhere I looked, I saw tasks needing to be done. I found some old paint in the shed and painted one fence. It looked so good, I painted all the fences. Then I used wire cutters to remove the field fence, which was beyond repair. I cleaned up all the containers containing dead plants and planted sunflower, nasturtium and marigold seeds. Then some geranium plants, just in case the seeds didn’t grow. I’d no compost, but did the best I could by raking over the soil – which I discovered was clay-based – and adding rabbit poop and grass cuttings.
Oh, I was the smuggest gardener on the planet by now. A born-again, completely obnoxious. My husband was in the garden too, in his own version of displacement activity. He levelled some ground for a greenhouse, cleared the gravel paths of weeds, created a patio where before there’d been chaos. His most impressive achievement was a drystone wall on my slope. Every night when we got up from the sofa to go to bed, we sounded like we were dying.
I ran out of garden and began on land that wasn’t mine – the strip of field by our fence. I heaped up all the branches and rubbish I’d tossed there and burned them. Noticed some self-seeded trees and shrubs, and oh look – wouldn’t that be a nice place for a bench? I tore out the nettles and docks, planted foxgloves, primroses, forget me nots. Then I made a bench with a plank and stones, and a path to the bench by stomping on the grass.
All along, I’d been excavating things. A Sesame Street Ernie, driving his little red car. A Mickey Mouse watch, stopped at 3:12. A Britain’s tractor, the tiny driver now headless. A single cross country ski. How did I lose a ski in a garden? That’s how messy it was.
Now, when I wake up, I go out and sit on my new bench, admire the view before I start fussing over the slow-growing sunflowers, and crowing over the quick-growing nasturtiums. Sometimes a marigold seedling reveals itself as a weed. Or a dead hydrangea sends out a green shoot. Yesterday, walking past the apple trees, I was hit by a cloud of sweetness. Wait a minute, apple blossoms smell? Then I noticed a steady drone. Bees were hovering over the blossoms, settling on one, then scooting over to another. I thought of chocolates at Christmas, how I kept drifting to them and taking nibbles on and off all day, resulting in a soporific sluggish happiness.
The writer Elizabeth Taylor lived almost all her life in a small village, yet wrote with the kind of perceptiveness and worldliness one would expect of a Londoner. Which debunks the myth that urbanity necessarily leads to keen observations of human behaviour. Now I’m a gardener, it’s obvious that every place is a microcosm of bigger places. If I’m quiet enough and open enough, everything can be found right here.
You might also like:
Penny Hancock speaks with John Greening about discovering dark inner places as a crime writer, inhabiting different characters, real-life story inspirations and her writing approaches and motivations.