Returning to the garden after more than half a century, I became a lost ghost, slipping into a childhood skin in search of a long vanished place. Gone was the ancient ash tree inside whose hollow trunk I lay curled like a dormouse. Nothing remained, not even a rotted stump, or a faint scar on the earth to show where it had stood.
Gone was the secret wren’s nest; the witchy, green smelling elder that provided bows and arrows - and magic whistles for calling up the wind. Gone was Grandma’s beloved lilac, under which lily of the valley thrust forth its fragrant spears in spring. Gone were the gnarled old apple trees whose pink and white blossom danced us into summer and whose fruit scented the loft all through the long dark days of winter. And gone too was the damson tree, my horse that I galloped across the plains of the Wild West with two guns slung in holsters around my skinny hips.
I strolled among wonderful flower beds in plenty, but they were different and the winding paths I had dashed along were vanished. The arbour too, with its sprays of pink climbing roses and plentiful supply of metal staples to fire from a catapult. The green house had been doomed as soon as we moved in – after the horror of the first cricket ball loudly crashing through a glass pane, we worked our way deliberately through the rest for sheer badness. But there was not the faintest trace of its foundations.
Where was the old zinc dolly tub? The iron pots and pans, black with age, in which we brewed our earthy potions? Where were the fragments of painted pottery and the broken stems of the white clay pipes, smoked centuries before outside the farm-house door?
The rhubarb patch where I lay under the vast green canopy of leaves, shaking with suppressed giggles as my brother hunted for me in vain had vanished too. The old stone seat by the pear tree was now part of next door’s garden – a dividing fence had sprung up through which my child self cycled merrily without even pausing. Even the gently sloping lawn, where long ago, no longer able to run with the others, I sank to my hands and knees and realised, with a cold wave of dread that yes, children do die. Sometimes.
Inside the house I walked through walls. New doors had appeared which led me unexpectedly into familiar rooms. My father’s study. The old stable - now a living room. Back in my childhood it was a musty, derelict coal house, with a dangerous loft that we were strictly forbidden to enter. We stole up the ladder and peeped in, of course, but we never ventured onto the rotting rafters.
The battle axe proof back door from 1600 was still there like an old friend, but no longer painted a jolly, bright red: someone had stripped it back to the original bare oak. The uneven stone flags of the kitchen floor, so endlessly and angrily washed by Grandma, had been replaced by modern flooring. Just as well really – it would probably stop the ants trooping up through the cracks and helping themselves to marmalade.
The mice I had secretly fed with crumbs had also left, along with the rats – or maybe the resident cats had eaten them? But I expect the spiders were still lurking, concealed safely in corners and crannies. The huge sandstone slabs that once had cooled the milk in the dairy underneath the house were probably reincarnated as part of the new patio outside. My brother’s bedroom had morphed into a bathroom and in mine I found no trace of the childhood ghost of myself who lay awake wide eyed, listening to the far wild call of the curlew on her way home from the sea, or the strange heavy footsteps that tramped slowly over to the window and back again to the door.
We cannot go back. Our life is a journey and this place both is - and is not - the place that I knew. I am – and am not – that long-lost child. I am of long-lived stock, but Grandma is long dead and even my parents have vanished finally into the void. Others will come and call it home - for a while. They will change things, put their own stamp upon it. But the lost garden is still there, somewhere, under the dream-like layers of the fleeting present, hidden in the boundless universe of my mind.