Equal MeasureMemories of a Garden
Many years ago, under the blank windows of a pebble-dashed courtyard, my sister and I traded angry hisses — conscious of the many sleeping heads above and of a house infinitely grander than our own. My drunken jealousy of the bearded gardener who had preferred my sister mixed with the angst of hidden sexuality, while her confused annoyance quickly escalated as I refused to hand over the key to our shared room. By this point the darkest part of the night had passed, but the imperceptible light only emphasised the dinginess of the building’s pitted facades. After an interminable standoff, a well-timed grab denied me the key; unable to face this new indignity, I stumbled out of the old stable yard, past the 17th century mansion, and into the garden.
Hot embarrassment flushed my cheeks as — indulging in my own Three Colours fantasy — I pushed angry knuckles through ivy to scrape on rough stone. The pain of this foolish gesture helped drain any remaining adrenaline, which was rapidly replaced by a mortified need to sleep. A misplaced pride kept me searching along the parterres in that particular stillness before dawn, accompanied only by the recriminating crunch of gravel. Aimless steps followed the path, edged by the low contours of clipped box, which led to an elaborate gate, set into a tall bay hedge and partly gilded to highlight the decorative initials of our hosts. This gate was flanked by two classical figures — one male, one female — recessed into the bay, their surfaces foxed by lichen. Too ignorant to decipher their symbolism, I found little more than indifference in their vacant expressions.
The heavy gate pushed open with a squeal of protest that flew off across the exposed lawns. Creeping into the relative seclusion of this outdoor theatre, the stepped bank seemed as good a spot as any to rest. But the air had forgotten its warmth, and lying on the hard ground, my shirt was soon sodden by the fast-forming dew, which hindered any shivering attempts at sleep. Despite myself, a surprising calm descended — a calm that comes with total resignation to an unbearable situation.
When André Le Nôtre created the formal gardens at Versailles that inspired this garden, he hoped to express mankind’s — in particular Louis XIV’s — dominion over nature. These were gardens intended to impress with their self-assured grandeur. At that moment, the broad paths mocked my solitude and the mature Lebanon cedars reduced my self-perception to dwarfish proportions. Away from the theatre, a low mist clung to the two long ponds which reached back towards the main house. Hours earlier these waters had reflected the busy white and blue of passing clouds, but were now shrouded in diffuse grey. Beyond, the stern outline of the granite mansion seemed an unlikely source of relief, and in gentle delirium I continued deeper into the garden.
By now the gloam was enough to see by, but the spaces between the high hedges were still plunged in shadow. The silhouetted canopies of Turkey oaks stretched out against the brightening sky as I turned through an opening onto a large round pond encircled by a dense beech wall — two trees deep — that had secluded this spot for more than two centuries. Sitting awkwardly on the lip of this pond I inspected the raw knuckles of my right hand while the fingertips of my left explored the stone’s scaly patina. Across the pond, expectant water lily buds were held just above a congested mat of glossy foliage. The dark cluster of bulrushes and diminutive herons that formed the fountain’s central motif seemed incongruous without the play of water to enliven its metallic form — as did the redundant stone cherubs that lay languidly among the lily pads.
Heading away from the house, a series of angled walks bled out into a mixed woodland of mature beech and oak, with two stately Mediterranean holm oaks marking the point of departure to this managed wilderness. The rising chorus of birdsong gave purpose to my meanderings, but these were stopped short by the lifeless body of an Egyptian goose, high above in the stag-headed crown of an ancient oak. It hung from a dead branch, its wings outstretched in the inverted cruciform of St Peter. Shocking, but all the better to appreciate its colourful plumage — accented by the sun’s first rays.
Unable to comprehend this macabre sight, I turned back hoping that some early riser might have opened the door. However, before I could test my sister’s patience in the stable yard, I noticed one of the windows to the large conservatory, attached to the main house, was open. Paint flaked free as the window rattled up in its frame, but on crawling through, after the softness of the morning, the hard black and white of the marble floor had the unsettling effect of a Bridget Riley painting. Whereas outside the garden had begun to wake, this conservatory held a dead stillness made heavy by various life-size mythic statues frozen in motion.
Once more I lay down, this time on a wooden bench, but the oppressive atmosphere forced me to move. Tempted by a retreat to the garden — now bathed in the light of early morning — but torn by a need for rest, I stole past the statues and opened the interior door to the main house. Within moments the apocalyptic wail of an alarm was reverberating off every wall. Recalling the reproachful gaze that met this skinny 15-year-old, dew-damp and sleep deprived, shames me to this day, but the memory of that early morning garden will always bring me joy in equal measure. •