It’s hard to imagine as I sit curled in the armchair by the window, contemplating a chai tea to warm up, that these photographs were only taken last Saturday, in what may well have been the last of the August sun. I spent what felt like hours lingering among the coneflowers and tomato plants, staying outside long after my grandparents had gone back inside. I could hear their laughter through the open window as I took photograph after photograph of the dahlias striving towards the sky, trying to capture their height and essence of the sublime. I laughed too, for it was one of those fleeting moments where one feels rooted in the present moment, consumed by joy in the here and now. This was Saturday afternoon in Fred’s little garden on the fringes of northwest London.
I recently heard the words spoken “For what is joy if it is not recorded?” and the sentence made my heart quicken and flutter. For what is joy if it is not recorded, and what – the speaker went on – is love if it is not shared? So though I might ordinarily file these photographs away, wondering why on earth anyone else would want to see photos of my grandad’s patch on a ordinary summer noon, that adage made me think. I want to document that hazy, lazy afternoon.
I love my grandfather’s garden and he loves it too. It’s his pride and joy, and beautiful in and of itself. But I also love it for all that it represents. Gardens are like that – such good metaphors, a novelist’s dream. For his garden represents so much about him: his persistence and precision, his way of doing things just so. His wartime thriftiness, nurturing cuttings from anything he finds, growing beauties from seed. His kindness, for I always leave with pockets weighed down by tomatoes and, sometimes, a seedling or two of my own to care for. His garden represents his good cheer, I like to think, in its riot of colour. There’s no colour scheme or grand plan – just what he likes, where he likes it. (Penstemon! Dahlias! Four varieties of tomato!) “Just a little bit, every day,” he tells me, that’s the secret of the prettiest gardens. And I think of that often, in gardening, and elsewhere: just a little, every day, and you’ll get there, whatever you’re aiming at.
My grandfather is 86 and I like to think his garden is what keeps him young. It brings him so much joy, and my grandma too – something pretty to look at while I’m washing the dishes, she says. He’s growing me a hydrangea from a cutting in the shed, and sends me home with pocketfuls of tomatoes whenever I visit. It is always the first thing we do when I turn up to say hello – a turn around the garden, yes? Look at these busy lizzies! Aren’t the roses doing well? There’s rhubarb with stems as thick as a wrist, pink as bubblegum, and bonsai trees in china dishes as old as my twenty-three-year-old sister, dogged saplings rescued from underneath oak trees in the park when we were young. Joy, right here, in the buttered light cascading between green. Something magical, otherworldly, in the most ordinary suburb. That’s the spell of gardens, really. Casting wonder in the most unlikely of places. And this, here, is my joy recorded.