It strikes me as a bit cheap on the part of the weather gods that we are only allowed one May in a calendar year. I love it so; the crisp new leaves bursting out of their buds, long, pink-tinged evenings, soft, mild light at dawn and dusk with vibrant blue skies in the bright stretch of the day. Just the right amount of heat. Yesterday was the first day that Mr Litlove and I could enjoy sitting outside in the garden. And so we did our yearly inventory, reclining on garden chairs with cups of tea, making our way around the borders plant by plant as if they were schoolchildren in class, deciding how each was coming along, whether they needed help and in what form.
My main worry was a philadelphus, a gorgeous version called Manteau d’Hermine, which had been squeezed on either side by some rather boisterous ferns (and this is the only definition of ‘leaning in’ that I will countenance). So I had my eye on that, and on Mr Litlove generally, who sheds his gentle, mild-mannered nature to turn rogue with a pair of clippers in his hand. Anything that looks as if it might commit the crime of ‘getting beyond itself’ risks a severe scalping despite all my pleading. And for the first time in my life, I thought to myself, my goodness how incredibly middle-aged we have become. Normally, on the inside, I feel about 17, but there I was, regarding plants I had seen grow from seedlings into this mature garden, and it seemed so long since it had been just a vision in our minds.
When we first moved into the house the garden was a long, thin, isosceles triangle whose only beauty was a large cherry tree, all too near to the back windows. One dank and chilly autumn day, Mr Litlove hired a rotavator and dug all the scrubby, weedy grass up, shoulders straining against the handles, wellies sinking in the mud. Early in the afternoon there was a power cut, and when he went into the kitchen, now shrouded in darkness, the kitchen clock still read half past two. Mr Litlove then congratulated himself on having finished the job with so much of the afternoon still ahead of him, and I felt quite confirmed in my belief that he was an undiagnosed dyslexic. It’s funny to think we hadn’t been married that long then, three or four years at that point. We bought a climbing rose, the luscious Mme Alfred Carrière with clotted cream blooms that blushed charmingly pink as they burst their buds. And in the supermarket, my son – then an angel-faced toddler with white-blonde hair and dark blue eyes – picked out a red rose he liked the look of. I didn’t hold out much hope for it, but both plants grew and flourished on the sunny south-facing wall.
Then we decided to have an extension on the house, and a garage and workshop at the far end of the plot. The garden shrank to a lop-sided square and the plants suffered. The cement mixer took up residence in the middle of a flowerbed, and bushes started to die mysteriously, until I put two and two together and stopped providing the builders with so much tea. We had to move the red rose and feared it had died, but the white fought gallantly against the chaos and flowered vigorously, scattering velvet petals over the garish headlines of The Sun that the workmen read in their breaks. Mr Litlove had his first stretch of unemployment, the difficult one, where we assured each other we would manage fine, while mentally totting up columns of figures in the restless small hours of the morning. We weren’t particularly fine at all, for I was beyond tired and working hard, both of us too aware that mine was the only incoming salary. And we didn’t like each other much, having swallowed all sorts of things we should have said in those anxious, frantic years of early parenting and new careers. Things were coming to a head, though we didn’t know it then. Instead, Mr Litlove used his time to lay a patio, and to pave the area outside the kitchen, and to construct a beautiful winding path in a herringbone pattern of grey brick.
Several years later, when Mr Litlove was made redundant for the second time, our lives had completely turned around. The crisis had passed and now I was off work too, the first of three years I would take out with chronic fatigue. I can remember the feel of the grey brick path beneath my bare feet as I ventured outside after months laid up indoors, still weak and unwell but silently comforted by the beauty of the flowers, the orange blossoms of the philadelphus, the dancing buds of the fuchsia, the bough of the white rose, heavy with unfurling flowers, that was big enough now to reach out to me from its spot on the back wall. And the red rose we feared lost was starting to grow again, its tentative feelers offering hope. This time around Mr Litlove painted the house. To the extent that I believe in past lives, I feel convinced he must once have been a Lord of the Manor. It would be such a perfect job for him, to have a whole estate to tend to, one that he would survey from the saddle of a fine black stallion, issuing grand orders about the guttering on his tenants’ cottages. He would have married a version of me, one whose nature would have led her, not to teach, but to strap on a bonnet and go visiting the sick and the poor. From whom I daresay Regency-me would have caught diptheria and died. So there is much to be said for the 21st century and having reached the era of self-indulgent middle age.
The last change in our garden was the arrival of Hermes – or Mercury, I never know which to call him. He stands on one leg as if he had just bowled a googly, though one arm is raised above his head with a beckoning finger (happily, the first), while his other hand holds a strange implement the size of a very large spatula, which I believe may be the Greco-Roman prophecy of a television ariel. He came from the grand and lovely garden of Mr Litlove’s grandparents, and I vividly recall his arrival in the back of a moving truck. Two men arrived with him, papers in hand. ‘One small garden statue – Mercury,’ one of them read. ‘I’m not sure ‘e made it intact, luv. Ever since Bury we’ve ‘eard somefink rolling around in the back.’ His mate tipped me a wink. ‘Makes you wonder what dropped orf.’ I confess I held my breath as they went to unload him, fearful of the ribaldry he might unleash in the delivery men, and so I was most relieved when the loose item in question turned out to be the television ariel, which has never quite sat right in his hand ever since.
And now here we were, all these years later, with our son grown, and the university behind me, but still together and (for me) in better health than I had been in pretty much all that time. ‘I can remember planning this garden,’ Mr Litlove told me, ‘imagining what it would look like as I sat here, or stood in the kitchen at the sink. And it looks very much as I hoped it would.’ And I thought of our entwined lives that had suffered their own versions of frost and drought, disease and blight, but were still growing strongly together. I would never have imagined the road we would take to get here, but yes, our life looked pretty much like I’d hoped it would. How beautiful, how precious, how terrifying that felt.