I didn’t make this; it was like this when I got here three years ago. A vacant lot, between two derelict terraced houses, that had grown wild. Waist-high grass, brambles and buddleia crawling up the houses’ walls. One end faces out to sea; the other one ends in a corrugated tin wall and a thicket of short trees.
It’s a grey morning and the sea’s gnashing at the pebble shore two hundred yards away. There’s a stiff, buffeting wind blowing in; yesterday it was loud enough to drown out the gunfire and explosions from inland, but not now. If look up beyond the treetops and the tin wall I can make out the smoke-smudges from the artillery. They’ll be here, tomorrow at the latest.
There’s some sort of watercourse here, in one corner: I don’t know if it’s bubbled up from a broken main or if it’s a little spring, but it hasn’t run dry yet and the water’s drinkable. There’s a hollow in the long-overgrown rubble floor that it drains into, forming a small pond before trickling down into the weeds and grass at the mouth of the vacant lot. Some of it makes it across the pavement and into the old drain, but most of it soaks into the pebbly soil.
None of this has been made to any kind of plan, and yet I find it beautiful. Can you understand that? There are moments in a place like this. It can be when you see a bright blue damselfly hovering above a flower, as bright and perfect as any jewel, or a fox cub trotting through the bushes at dusk. Watching the frogs who lived on the pond until last year. Coming out one morning to see a heron perched in the pond – all stillness grace and beauty, and the reason there aren’t any more frogs.
Or it can be something less substantial; a moment when you’re not really thinking or doing anything, where you just exist, you, in that place, in that moment, and you can’t tell where you end and the place, or the time of the day, or the breeze on your face or the faint far-off sounds around you, begin. Those moments, all of them, are tiny moments of beauty. Little gems. Gifts that you’ve received for no other reason than because you were here at the right time.
More than once, in the garden, on a summer evening or an autumn afternoon, a clear winter’s morning or a day in spring, I’ve breathed thank you to what gods or goddesses, singular or plural, might be listening, for moments like that.
I remember places like the garden from when I was young. Catching the bus to work, to one of any number of dead-end office jobs, and I’d see somewhere like this – next to a petrol station, or beside a pub, or taking up a gap between shops. Somewhere people didn’t, for the time being, have a use for, that Nature had taken back. I remember imagining their being portals to another world, another time – somewhere simpler, before we came along and screwed things up. Yes, I was young and naive. Most of us are, if any only for a little while.
One day when I had a week off, I remember going out to one of those places, going in and wandering through the Yorkshire fog grass, picking my way around the nettles and brambles. I imagined lying down and going to sleep, to wakes up somewhere where they didn’t have taxes or bills, mortgages or rents. Catch rabbits or trout from a stream. That kind of thing. But it wasn’t even comfortable enough to sit down there; I tried closing my eyes for a minute and then turning around, but it was still very much the world I’d left, apart from a couple of passers-by giving me funny looks. But there’d still been a moment there, one that had made the visit worthwhile.
I left; when I went back to work the following week and went past the place, it was gone. There were tin sheets up around it and the ground had been dug up for foundations and pipes, the trees uprooted. A place like that, a place like this, it doesn’t make any money. There’s no profit in leaving it as it is. I learned that day that all beauty, in this world, lives on borrowed time.
It’s been good to find a place like this. This street was abandoned long before I got here: I can’t remember why. Maybe they were going to knock it down and build over it, but the war interrupted. I was homeless by then, my own house many miles away and burned to ashes. Nobody else came, so I moved into one of the abandoned houses and I’ve been here ever since. There’s tinned food, and there are still fish sometimes. I’ve managed, anyway. Might have managed better somewhere else, or I might not. No way of knowing. I wasn’t interested in finding out. I had the garden, you see; I’d be lucky if anywhere I could find would.
If I’d found somewhere else, somewhere with more people, I can imagine what they’d say. They’d want me to rip up the weeds and grass and plant vegetables – carrots and swedes, onions, potatoes. Maybe some garlic, some herbs. After all, what do you want it for if you’re just going to leave it as it is?
And what kind of answer can you give, to anyone so blind they need to ask?
The guns sound a lot closer, all of a sudden. It won’t be long now. Sooner than I thought.
They’ll come, and they’ll wreck the garden; of course they will. A stray shell, an incendiary from a plane. Accidental. Collateral damage. Or on purpose; soldiers trash things because they’re there to be trashed.
I’ll get up in a minute and go into the house. There’s a rifle in there, wrapped up in a blanket. Not sure how many bullets I’ve got. Half a dozen? Maybe ten? Not much to put up a fight with, and yes, thank you, I know that it’ll be hopeless. But then, it always was. All beauty is on borrowed time, but perhaps I can buy the garden one minute more.
And if you have to ask why, there’s no answer I can give you that you’d understand.
Until then, I have the streamlet’s chuckle, the rustle of the grass and the gnash of the distant waves, and I am content.
The ground is surprisingly soft, if you know where to look. Good to lie down on.
“Thank you,” I say to who or whatever might be listening, and close my eyes.
Bonus story: In The Service Of The Queen