My dad left school at fifteen, had worked in factories ever since, but because of his garden, he was the most learned person anyone in our neighbourhood knew. The Latin name of every charge would appear on little sticks dug into the soil, close by each stalk or cluster of seeds, but were soon hidden by the foliage that grew up and over them, the secret heart of each plant. It was these I loved first. To me, it seemed that they were magical words, the spell that could unlock a force from the tiniest brown speck so that in the summer there were flowers and things to eat, and in time, an apple tree. That tree was a pip in my palm when I started primary school.
‘Malus domestica,’ my father said, laying it on my outstretched hand, suggesting that we plant it together, first in a small brown plastic pot from Woolworths, then when it grew, in the bed, by the hut where our old dog was buried. For some reason it never really had apples on it, but it was a lovely tree. Perhaps West Scotland council estates were short on apple trees and the bees too tired to travel far enough to carry pollen to its flowers but we never seemed to mind.
My first rose came later, a Blue Moon, a Tantau rose, my father said, created by a man of that name, in the year of my birth, 1964. I chose it myself. My mum and I went shopping and in the aisles of Woolworths I saw a brown twig wrapped in a photograph. It showed a rose that was the colour of the lilac fairy’s dress in Sleeping Beauty. My dad and I planted it together and in the summer there were large, soft blooms, that fulfilled all my imaginings of a tutu.
Beyond the roses and the rockery, with the heather that reminded us of holiday trips to the highlands, our estate lay: concrete grey, prefabricated and stone chipped. Some neighbours were in prison more than they were out of it and there were frequent sectarian fights. The front lawn was communal, stretched along the whole street, unfenced, a place where fights could erupt; serious ones that occasionally left splattered blood and broken bottles strewn across the green.
There were two rows of houses that faced each other, with the council-tended lawn in front and a concrete path that ran between them. My father would have loved to take the grass in front of our window and make another garden, but it wasn’t ours to tend. So instead the grass grew long and weedy and was irregularly trimmed. On Friday nights, the old man across the road, Mr Murray, would get drunk. Music boomed out of his wide open, living room window and even in the rain – and we have a lot of rain in Lanarkshire – he’d dance out on that grass, as if with an imaginary partner, to Sidney Devine or Jim Reeves or Tom Jones. He was often in his pyjamas, and with some other kids, I would watch from the close that led to the secret beauties of my back garden and see if we could get a glimpse of his genitals when his pyjama bottoms flapped open. Mr Murray’s soundtrack, from Gentleman Jim to those sentimental Scottish songs of his youth, filtered through the close on summer’s evenings when we played among the greenery and became the soundtrack to my games, the music of the garden. Even now, certain songs can take me there, but I wonder now what brought Mr Murray to that tumble-down life and wish I had shown less childish unkindness and more concern. Once a year at the time of the Orange Walk, someone would knock our door and ask my mum and dad if they could put banners across the communal front grass, directly outside our window. We weren’t Roman Catholic so the assumption was that it would be OK. It wasn’t; my parents said no. Then when the pope visited Scotland and some other neighbours thought that because they hadn’t allowed the Lodge banners, they might not mind some green ones. My dad turned them away too.
‘Don’t want anything to do with religion of any kind,’ was what he said to me. ‘Creeds are made by men to make them fight and follow each other.’ Yet still the fights after the marches and the parades played out in front of us, once even spilling through the close and knocking down the old wooden fence that marked the entry to our place. My dad shouted then, pushed them back out through the close, with his big steel-worker’s hands.
In his garden, it seemed to me, my dad was at a prayer of his own choosing. With the litany of flowers came the naming of birds. My mum fed cheese to the blackbirds, seeds to the finches, and in winter went out in the snow to break the ice that formed over the big basin of water she kept outside for them to drink from.
But I grew up. So did the apple tree, and my teenage self came home late, went round to the back gate quietly, lifting the latch and replacing it, taking my boy by the hand, to hide, beneath its branches and leaves, from the long, light nights of home. We kissed there, a boy I thought I loved but did not, with the smell of night scented stock, my father’s beloved Matthiola bicornis, in my nostrils, and petals from the pale pink climbing rose that climbed over the shed, tangled in my long, unruly hair.
There was still violence, sectarian gangs mostly. The Estate was a dangerous place; there were knifings, assaults and terrible stories of another neighbour who did unspeakable things and went to prison only to reappear dressed in full combat gear with a small knife he brandished when he had finished his bottles of cheap whisky or Buckfast wine. I was a strange kid on the Estate who liked books and writing and whose best friend wore weird clothes and make-up, even though he was a boy when boys were not supposed to do that kind of thing; we were fair game for bullies and the garden was our refuge as well as my trysting place.
The steel works closed down men were paid off – all the men in my street, literally. Only some women, like my mum who was a home help, worked at all. My dad gardened, kept his self respect by answering the endless questions from neighbours who sought his advice on how to grow their own tatties or turnips or blackcurrants for jam. There were fewer flowers in our own beds but lots of berries, carrots and cabbages, other brassica, and the concomitant battle against slugs. Those slugs were the government that my father hated. They were his last cheerless foreman and our worst neighbours. My dad, the gentlest of men, waged war on those fat slimy globules. Then there were the snails that glistened on leaves, leaving trails that, once dried in all too rare sunlight, looked like the thin skin from the onions we grew behind the rockery. There was an onslaught of greenfly too. Although we were well into our teens by that time, my best friend and I went to the nearby wasteland and gathered jars of ladybirds, brought them back to my dad and offered them to him, a sign of solidarity. We were saying we would stand together in the fight, in these terrible times, when he had no job, but worked in the garden, creating more and more ingenious ways to use a space that was far too small for his talent and ambition.
I left home in my late teens. I hated everything about the town I grew up in except my family and my oldest friend. When I visited, the garden no longer seemed a focal point of my life because there was always so much to do in a short time. At some point my parents were moved by the council, offered a house on one of the old estates – quiet, rather regal crescents of solid stone semis and terraces, much coveted by council tenants in the region. They were delighted of course. There would be no more fights on the lawn – the new one had a front garden all of its own – and no more music from all night parties. The old estates were sedate, filled with older people who’d earned their place by good behaviour and patience on ‘the list’.
This, the second garden of my memory, was huge, front and back. I saw my dad’s face light up at the thought of what he might grow, of how everyone might take pleasure as they passed. This would not be a secret garden but a display of everything he’d learned. He grew pussy willows, salix caprea, roses of every shade, camellias, lilac, lavender, lupins, blood-red sunflowers, acanthus, and in the spring one whole bed was filled with Scottish, not Spanish, bluebells. After three years, no one walked by our house without commenting on the garden. Dad won a prize from the council and kept it on the mantelpiece, a small piece of wood with a metal plaque to show for years and years of trial and error and the shelves of gardening books that sat row after row at the sides of our mock-plastic log fireplace. When he was ill, the garden became a longed-for respite that he just wasn’t well enough to manage, and my husband would visit and dig with him, trying to help with the heavy work so he could still enjoy what he loved most.
My father is dead now. That first, secret garden has been covered with decking by the family that now live in our old house. But on my patio, just a little concrete square that juts out from the ex-council flat where I live with my husband, there is a riot of colour. And beneath the greenery and the thorns and the flowers, hide neatly Latin-tagged stems. London living does not afford us a garden and yet, as each springtime comes and passes, I put my hands into compost, taken from Wickes and Homebase plastic bags, and fill pots and trays and baskets, even an old Belfast sink, with every scent, shape and hue from my childhood. Over and over again, despite my father’s absence, I remember those two gardens and what he taught me there.
Image by Steve Cadman
Lorna Gibb’s story ‘The Two Gardens’ was the winner of Granta’s Garden Memoir competition.