I was told, once, that the meaning of the word paradise is a walled garden. In fact, paradise is a garden whose seasons change with the surfacing of a memory, the faint yearning of a time long gone. And so, in the high blaze of summer, I might open my scarred back door to admit the scent of apples and wood smoke. I can walk then, on a path painted gold with burnished leaves and feel myself enfolded by the expectant intimacy of autumn. Wearied by the gloomy frigidity of too many winter days, I might sense the promise of spring germinating beyond the door. I can strip my claustrophobic layers at the threshold, and slip out with airy steps, onto a lawn peppered with purple crocuses, in the dappled shade of branches jewelled with waxy buds.
The gift of paradise came unannounced at the far end of loss, my companion, my friends, and my health, all stripped away. Not in the brutal, quick fashion of tragedy, but as in the steady drip of a leaking tap, an almost imperceptible draining away of the precious resources of a life. When you get to my age, it’s expected that one by one the people who populated and made interesting your life, will disappear, finally and forever, leaving little pockets of emptiness like bare patches of soil. Like cut flowers, which I’ve never been fond of, the memories blaze intensely for a short period, before wrinkling and withering into a mixed up imprint of what they once were. We found ourselves, my lover and I, in a fragile world, a world decreasing year on year, month on month, until our circle was like a fairy ring on the lawn, a fragile chain of glossy mushrooms within which we might live and dance and enjoy, but never strike out again into the blossoming forest.
My garden changes with the seasons, though not in the manner of any other garden. The landscape alters, not only in the sense of the usual life cycle of plants dying off to be resurrected in spring. My autumn garden is a different place altogether from that of winter or summer. They are different shapes, these four gardens, different sizes, with vastly different foliage and distinct paths to take. And each of them is a world away from the very ordinary patch of lawn and shrubs that is my usual garden. The only constant is the wall, crumbling and mottled with age, which enfolds it, whatever the season.
My companion of half a century slipped quietly away following an unobtrusive and undetected illness. It’s possible that the grief grows inside you, in a strange, arcane way, when you’ve been that close to someone for so long. To manifest itself in a cancer or some other hideous disease – the ugliness of your misery and loneliness taking form. Or perhaps some part of you, the part that is empty or split open by the lack of them, simply needs something to fill the void. Anyway, I wasn’t the only one on my ward riding on the coat tails of a recent loss. I came out scraped clean, not only of a peppering of mutated cells, but also a portion of my bowel and a large measure of my strength.
In the ringing pauses between home helps and meals on wheels, I began to sense a new companion. The glimpse of a silky tail disappearing into the hallway teased me for a while, until I put it down to my medication. But in the absence of company, I could sometimes hear the soft clicking of claws on the floorboards. Occasionally, I intuited a presence on the mat in front of the fire, but when I looked, there was always, of course, nothing there. And perhaps the miracle of my garden wasn’t so unannounced after all, because it began to occur to me that this presence was familiar. Washing the meagre crockery of my lunchtime snack in the sun-filled kitchen, I began to think of her, our beloved first cat. We called her ‘Tiger’, though her coat contained myriad elements of gold and grey and black. I thought of how much the shadow-cat, as I’d begun to think of it, reminded me of her, and this led me to think of Tiger’s favourite season – autumn, when she would sit in the garden for hours, hunting leaves as they fell from the sycamore tree.
I dismissed the recollection with a smile, before unlocking the back door to dispose of a few crumbs for the birds. At first, I noticed only that a shadow must have crossed the sun, for I suddenly shivered in my summer vest. But when I looked up, the shower of crumbs was like magic dust against an altered landscape. My garden was no longer my garden. In the moments between my crossing from the kitchen window, to opening the back door, the small patch of suburban garden had been replaced by an enchanted slice of New England. Patches of insipid sky were visible between a lace of blazing branches. The floor was a carpet of golds and russets, dotted with emeralds. And what’s more, my garden had grown. A leaf-cluttered path meandered into the trees, and the end of it wasn’t visible. What could I do, except slam shut the door?
It’s wrong to say that my garden – or more properly, gardens – never changes. Each season contains new delights, things I hadn’t noticed on my previous visit. Yet each one is a moment frozen in time. It’s always snowing in my winter garden. In spring, the first crocuses are always in bloom. Autumn always brings the fall of leaves. Every one is a memory of what I’ve loved most about the season.
Sometimes, the seasons surprise me. Unlocked as they are by recollections of other times, I can usually predict what will greet me on the other side of the door. Thus, a recollection of a summer spent with my lover transports me to a luscious garden of heady fragrance, tinged with salty air. Surreal topiary jostles with roses, succulents and plum-leaved shrubs. Palm leaves clatter like rain above me, and in the middle of this garden, I can rest on a tiled bench beside a fountain’s tumbling waters.
But sometimes, I have a yearning without knowing why. Perhaps an unacknowledged memory. Perhaps a forgotten dream. Then, I will open the door expecting only my ordinary garden, to be astounded by a charmed one.
The first time I opened and closed the door on the autumn garden, I spent some time walking between the kitchen window – which showed only the everyday view – and the closed door. It was a hallucination, I told myself, a result of my pills or my trauma. Never having experienced a hallucination, I couldn’t confirm whether they all felt, sounded and smelled so real. But since I didn’t strike myself as insane, it could be the only explanation. Having pinched myself, I opened the door, and a scorched leaf fluttered into the kitchen. The leaf felt real. When I closed my hand upon it, it crumbled, sending a dusting of shattered foliage to the floor. I left the door open and sat at the kitchen table, watching the leaves spinning in the wind. I shivered, as the same wind breezed into my kitchen.
It was the flicker of tail that did it. Just the impression of Tiger, disappearing among the trees. I followed. My feet rustled on the path. I kicked up leaves and they did what they were supposed to do. Up ahead, the sound of Tiger’s feet, crunching softly as she hunted leaves. There was even that special autumn feeling, when you can sense the year turning, an end to summer’s frivolity for the reward of cosy nights before the fire, pondering what has been and what is yet to come. Somewhere, a fire was burning. I found an old stone bench, laced with moss and lichen, and I sat and absorbed the season.
Hallucination or not, I treasured that interlude of autumn in the height of summer. It was an enchanted gift, most likely never to be repeated. As it happened, it would be repeated, and be joined by other intervals just as miraculous. A few months on and I had a full complement of seasons at my disposal. I discovered that I had only to dust off an appropriate recollection, lovingly recreating it with all my senses, for the season, and the garden, to change.
It wasn’t difficult, for the seasons create a sentient background to our lives in a country where the changes are so obvious. The year is mapped out by them, each celebration, and each activity dependent on changes in the weather. I experimented, creating summer out of winter, spring from autumn. I could conjure each particular garden within the very season I was creating too, winter out of winter, summer out of summer, knowing the difference nevertheless by the altered landscape. I explored each garden in detail, wanting to be able to recall them, should this magic come to an end.
Instinctively, I knew that I must keep the enchantment to myself. As the years go on, the calls to move me somewhere that I can be looked after grow more insistent. I have no children, no remaining family to relieve the burden on the authorities. They want me out of the way, in a place where every day is the same and the seasons barely exist. I won’t make it easy for them by talking about seasons out of season. Instead, I simply smile when someone notices the handful of golden leaves on my summer table.
More and more it is winter now. Though August blazes outside, I have a pile of thick sweaters nearby, next to my Wellington boots. Often, I think about the lover who went before me, in the dark of winter, and often, I unlock the door to find a landscape softened by snow. I crunch into the snow, boots creaking on the path. It is always a virgin landscape, thick soft flakes mounded on a handful of naked trees. There is a small pond in the centre of the garden, always misted with ice, and a number of covered arbours, where I can take shelter from the fat wafers of snow.
My winter garden is the plainest of them all, cold and bare and washed out. Only a handful of red berries draw the eye into colour. Nevertheless, it is my favourite garden. It gives me space to remember everything that has gone before. At dusk, fairy lights lace the trees with pinpricks of light, like a canopy of stars.
I never see Tiger in this garden. Only a scattering of paw prints, silver-grey patterns in the snow. But I think, when the time comes, and I’m weary of the seasons changing, I will settle into one of the arbours, a soft rug over my knees. At last, I will see her trotting towards me, shaking her head to rid her whiskers of snow. She will jump lightly onto my lap and settle there, arching her back to the caress of my hand. Her purrs will lull me into a deeper sleep, in this last garden, where, perhaps, the seeds of another, unseen, lie slumbering.
This story won fourth prize in the National Association of Writer’s Groups open short story competition 2012.