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Sport 20: Autumn 1998

Patricia Lawson — The Monk in the Garden

page 116

Patricia Lawson

The Monk in the Garden

The ‘For Sale’ notice had been knocked askew. I had to straighten it before I could push open the iron gate in the solid macrocarpa hedge. The bolts ground back with a grating whine but oddly the gate slammed behind me. That did it. I sat down on the garden seat to consider the pictures spilling from my memory, like cards from a pack—

Three elderly women grouped as for a family photograph, a dim figure in the background. A glass of blackcurrant juice, thickly red. A capped iron pipe on a mossy lawn. Figures draped in filmy white, floating against a dense green hedge and a monk, hooded in brown sackcloth in the shadow of a garden shed.

What the hell! It was this house. I'd been here before. I stood up and then sat down again. Deal with the images, before the old memories blur even more…

The women. One is called Sadie. She is the smallest and the plumpest. She has a little cushion of fat under her chin and freckles on her hands. Her hair is faded red at the tips. Next is Enid. Her hair is solid grey and combed tightly back to a hard little bun. She has dark eyes like raisins in her pale face. And then there is Win. She has the kindest eyes, a faded blue, and her hair fluffs from her bun like new fur. Who is that there and not there in the background? It is a man but I can't remember him clearly.

‘Go on, Win, get her some juice. You'll have to make some, Stella. It's very cleansing and full of vitamin C.’ Enid nods firmly at my mother who nudges me to take the proffered glass.

My eyes water and I gag at sweet and sour on lips and tongue and throat. It is so red it is almost black and I think of blood and splutter as I put the glass down.

‘Drink it up.’ Enid pushes the glass towards me again and they all nod, even my mother.

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I sip and swallow, sip and swallow. The taste catches at the back of my nose as I breathe.

‘Carrot juice is good too, Stella, and spinach.’

My mother listens carefully as Enid instructs, clasping her knotted fingers together, tapping them on the table in front of her. ‘And only whole-grain.’

I look out of the window, little panes like blocks. There is a gravel path trimmed with smooth white stones and the hedge is wide and strong and green, like a wall. I am sure I could walk on it.

‘The body is like a temple,’ Enid says. ‘It must be kept clean and aired and full of beautiful things.’

My mother's eyes are wide and her cheeks are pink but her hands are cool when I reach for them and they don't respond to my grasp.

‘They are all around us, the spirits, but we can only see them when we are in a fit condition—when we have made ourselves ready.’ Enid's eyes flash as she speaks and I duck my head.

‘About a week wasn't it, Win, on nothing but juices?’

Win lies back in her chair. Her pale eyes are full of light and she breathes deeply. ‘And the music—’

Her voice is very quiet. I have to lean forward to hear.

‘No meat, eh, Enid?’ Sadie's voice is gruff. ‘Only what the animals give us.’

‘What do they give us?’ My voice is sharp with surprise. I think of presents wrapped and tied. They all look at me and I gulp, swallowing the last of the thick juice.

‘Milk and eggs, child.’ Enid's eyes bore into mine.

‘I am frightened of cows.’

‘But you must nurture animals and ask them and never take more than you need.’

I remember bacon sizzling in the pan and lower and my head in case she can read my thoughts.

‘I saw them.’ Win's hands rest on the arm of her chair. ‘White and light against the hedge and they sang—high and clear.’ Her fingers move as if she is playing the notes on a piano. ‘Such sweet, hopeful sounds—like angel voices!’

‘A fairy choir.’ My mother's fingers touch Win's and they smile.

‘It's the spiritual quality of purity which puts us in touch—’

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A beam of sunlight flicks on the hedge like a torch and I draw in my breath. There they are, flimsy robes gently swirl—feathers in the wind. I want to get closer, touch them. I tip-toe out of the room.

No one calls me back. The air is cool on my hot face. I can see clearly each separate thing—the hard white round stones confining the path, each twig and green squiggle of the packed hedge, but no matter how hard I stare, no diaphanous figures floating by.

Moss is thick round the back of the house and the trees have dark leaves. I see a short pipe, rusty red and green poking up from the ground. It has a rounded cap with a narrow flange. I run my hands over it. It feels cold and slightly slimy.

‘Have you ever seen anything that looks like that, maybe on your father or brother?’

He is quite tall and his hair fizzes on his head in tiny curls. His name is Seth. His face is pink but his hands, hovering over the front of his trousers, look pale. I am surprised by the white laces in his brown shoes.

‘Have they told you yet about the trolls lurking in their fairy garden?’

There is just enough room to run past him.

My mother is playing the piano. One long curl has escaped from the clasp at the back of her head. It is dark and sleek. She is so pretty. Win pats the seat on the sofa beside her. ‘Stella is a wonderful pianist.’ she whispers as I sit down. ‘I could listen to her play all day and all night.’

I would like to cuddle up in the big bed with my mother.

‘You are too restless,’ she says.

The sheets on my narrow stretcher are white and stiff and the lace edging the pillow scratches my skin.

‘It is lovely.’ says my mother, ‘so clean.’

Grapefruit, bright yellow on the white plate, tart and cold. But no sugar and two glasses of water before I can eat!

‘ Washes your body out,’ says Enid.

The oatmeal biscuit is dry and saltless.

‘Grains, fruit and vegetables need no additives.’ Sadie's voice is deep and close to my ear.

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‘Godliness, purity and abstinence are all one.’ Seth's voice comes from the shadows. They both sound as if they are repeating a lesson.

‘You make it seem terribly rigorous.’ laughs my mother. The gold band of her wedding ring gleams and twists through the water in her glass. ‘I feel so free and light and full of music—I can ignore my body and think!’

I have found a place in the sun with a small white cat. A splotch of ginger fur covers one eye, one ear and half its nose. A two-faced cat, I think, proud of my own joke.

‘Don't put your face near that cat. You never know where it's been.’

I didn't hear Enid come. They all walk quietly in this house. I straighten up.

‘Your mother says that you are a good reader.’

She has no eyelashes, just pink rims.

‘What are you staring at child?’

‘Your beads.’ I focus on the string of chunky shapes hanging almost to her waist.

‘These are agates.’ She bends forward and I smell camphor as I duck to avoid the swinging stones. ‘Not beads!’

I feel a spray of spittle on my chin.

‘You must learn the difference between paltry frippery and nature's gifts.’

The book she hands me is Pilgrim's Progress and it too smells of camphor and sweet old dust. Where can I go?

Win is brushing my mother's hair. I am so hungry. There is a basket of apples on the kitchen bench. They are red and wizened. I stuff two up each sleeve of my jumper and, clutching the book to hide tell-tale bumps, scurry outside. I feel sneaky and daring at the same time. I avoid the lawn with the strangely capped pipe. The cat brushes, purring, against my legs and then runs, tail up, through currant bushes. I follow. Next to the glasshouse is a ladder leaning against the hedge. Up there I'll be free from prying eyes.

The sun is warm and I sink into a hollow that feels more like wire pot-scrubs than leaves, and, resting my head against a branch, gobble the apples, skin and core.

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I become weary of Christian as he struggles with his pack through his terrible journey and leave him in the ‘Slough of Despond’, whatever that is. Below me is the glasshouse. I look through the roof to a room at the back. The glass walls are boarded up all the way round and the light comes through the roof and air through the vent propped open with a pole. There is a bed, with two grey blankets folded neatly at the foot, a table and chair and a radio. I crane forward and draw back as I hear voices and the door opens. It is Sadie and Seth. It is wicked to spy but I am stuck until they go. Just one more peep.

They have brown paper bags and big sticky buns. My mouth waters. Seth has his hand down Sadie's dress. Is he looking for crumbs?

The soup tastes strange, thick and green.

‘Parsley and fennel. Full of iron.’ Enid ladles the last from the pot. I am grateful for the chunks of potato and carrot.

‘There used to be a monastery on this site, a long time ago. Win has heard them chanting sometimes. She is sensitive to spiritual things.’

Enid looks at Win with pride.

The wind rushes and bangs and branches scratch on the roof. I am cold in my bed. ‘Mum I want to go home.’

The curtains whip round her as she tugs at the window. ‘Oh look!’ Her eyes are big and she draws in her breath. I scramble for the light.

‘No, no. Leave it. Look! I must tell Win. I've seen a monk!’

Clouds scud over the moon and there, in the flickering shadows beneath the hedge, is a tall cloaked figure. A long robe, like a blanket, sweeps the ground and the head is a dark hollow under the hood. I brush aside my mother's limp hands and as the window bangs shut the monk melts into the shadows, trailing white threads from dark feet, and is gone.

I climb into her bed and cling to her back, burying my nose in her hair.

‘When, Mum? When?’

‘Your father comes for us tomorrow.’ She sighs.

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I close my eyes and think of toast and raspberry jam and roast potatoes and gravy.

The gate resisted me as I pulled it open again, and then sprang shut like a trap. Another memory flipped into place: a grey blanket, folded, and white laces trailing from dark, brown shoes.