The garden was overgrown now, but I remember it when it was in its full glory. Aunt Harriet loved her garden and spent hours every day putting more plants in it, weeding it, chopping back shrubs that had grown too big and doing a twice weekly mow of the huge kidney shaped lawn so it was bowling green smooth, sometimes leaving two tone green stripes, sometimes checkered patterns in the wake of her mower.
As kids, Rob and I used to spend our school holidays with Aunt Harriet to enable our mum to carry on working. We loved it there in the country. Our little council house in London didn’t have much of a garden, and Mum never had time to do much in it. Anyway, we kids used to play football in it, so there was no place for pretty plants, only for the patchy grass which we wore down running around. That never needed mowing.
But Aunt Harriet’s garden was a joy to behold. We weren’t allowed to play football in it, of course, but there were plenty of other things we could do. The garden was not just a floral triumph, but also a shining example of our aunt and uncle’s self sufficiency.
The old stone house stood up high on a bank and to reach the back garden we had to go down several stone steps from the large paved courtyard area which filled the L shape that had been made by addition of a brick-built extension to the main house, for the kitchen, an outside toilet, coal cellar and an outhouse that was always kept locked. There was a well outside the back door, but it was always covered over by a heavy iron cover. Iron steps on the other side of the house led down to a basement below the house, but we were never allowed down there. Rob tried the door a few times, but it was always locked. I didn’t really want to go down there anyway, the tiny windows were dark and dirty and full of spiders’ webs, but we often heard our uncle down there, sawing away, making things. He made me a doll’s house once.
Beyond the laurel hedge at the back of my aunt’s immaculate garden lay a world of adventure for us city kids. Through an archway in the hedge lay a hundred feet or so of vegetables and fruit leading down to to the orchard right at the very end of the garden where there were pigs scrabbling around looking for apples, and chickens cooped up in a large pen on the right hand side. That was all my uncle’s domain. He would come home from work, as we supposed then or from wherever he had really been, eat his supper that Aunt Harriet had lovingly baked and then go out and spend an hour or so digging up potatoes, picking peas, beans, raspberries, gooseberries, rhubarb or whatever else was in season for our meals the next day. We kids would go and get the eggs first thing in the morning, there would be dozens.
The garden next door was equally long but totally unkempt and wild, at least so the the bit was that we could see beyond their ragged privet hedge near the house. We never saw anyone. I still to this day don’t know if there was anyone living there. We kids didn’t care. We used to use that garden to pretend we were in the jungle. We used to climb their neglected trees when no-one was looking and scrump their apples. I had real belly ache one day. Serves me right, I know.
There was always a plentiful supply of meat. My uncle saw to that. When she wasn’t tending her garden, my aunt used to be baking, She used to bake the most amazing hand-raised pork pies, and delicious chicken and ham pies. The whole village used to come to her door to buy them, along with the eggs we had collected. As a teenager I had always supposed my uncle used to kill his older pigs and chickens when we kids weren’t around, and replace them with piglets or chicks. The sows were always having litters, and I lost track of how many chickens there were. Did my mother once say my uncle was a butcher by trade? I know my grandfather had a butcher’s shop, so perhaps that’s where my aunt met my uncle.
Even having a bath at my aunt’s house was a different experience for us. There was no running hot water straight from the tap, as we had in London, although there was a tap of drinking water at the sink. No. We had to help Aunt Harriet operate an old iron pump to fill the old copper that my aunt used to boil her washing in which sat below the pump, where she half boiled it, then carried off the hot water, bucket by bucket, to the the tiny room next to the kitchen. That water from the well came out reddish brown. My aunt said it was rust from the pipes. It was very strange bathing in brown water in an old zinc bath, but we didn’t get stained by it.
They were happy days. Or so we remembered them. But now I wonder how could we have been so blind?
Our holidays in the country stopped abruptly when I was about fifteen. I wasn’t bothered by then of course, because I had “met boys” and didn’t want to stop my out of school activities. My grandmother was living with us by then, so she “looked after” us. It seemed a bit odd that my mother and grandmother never went to visit my aunt and uncle any more, but it was a bit of a treck for them in those days, as we either had to rely on my uncle coming to fetch us or we would go by train, or rather by tube and then by train, and my uncle would pick us up from the station.
Years later, after my grandmother died and my aunt and uncle did not attend the funeral, I did ask my mother whether she had seen my aunt Harriet, but she said that they had all fallen out years ago, and she had lost contact with her. I suppose I should have gone to visit her myself, but what with one thing or another I was always too busy, and in any case that would have been a bit disloyal to my mother. I don’t think I would have even known where exactly they lived, as we never left the house as kids, except to play in the garden.
My mother died a couple of years ago, and it fell to Rob and I to go through her things and sort out her estate, such as it was. Not much to sort out really, Mum had been very organised in later years and had prepared well for her inevitable death. What did surprise me though was that she had written a book. She had never published it, but the manuscript was there amongst her other effects, together with a note addressed to Rob and me:- “This is a true story. I could never have published it during my lifetime, as it would implicate my sister in all sorts of things. If I die before her, I am trusting you not to publish the book until after she dies. She is in a mental institution in ………”
I was curious and wanted to get reading as soon as possible, but we had to sort out my mother’s things quickly and hand her council flat keys back by the next week. However, I persuaded my brother to let me take the manuscript back home to read in bed. That night I took a warm drink to bed with me early, opened the manuscript and started to read.
Now I have finally managed to come to terms with the revelations in my mother’s book, our consequent actions and the ensuing police investigations, now I have stopped having nightmares about bodies in wells, bathing in brown sludgy water, eating pork pies and cannibalism, now my aunt has also died, sadly in the mental institution where she spent the last fifty odd years, and now my uncle is safely behind bars for the rest of his life, I had some bizarre gruesome desire to see again the scene of the heinous crimes and to see if the garden was as I remembered it.
The house was still cordoned off, but I squeezed down the side of the still unoccupied looking house next door to see the back of the house. The courtyard area had been dug up by the police so no, it was not at all how I remembered it. The garden is overgrown now.
Creative writing homework March/April 2015 using the prompt “The garden was overgrown now”
This is the prompt I have been waiting for! This could well be the
start and end of the book I have had buzzing around in my brain for years and years, based on what I know of my family history. With my imagination of what could have happened and what my mother told me, just before she died, actually did happen many, many years ago, I may not want to return to work for some time!