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Chapter I. — “The Garden Where One is Merely in Life”

page 13

Chapter I.
“The Garden Where One is Merely in Life”

it was ages and ages ago, in war days, as a matter of fact. They were publishing in England gift books, a Queen Mary's one, her Majesty very sumptuous in coronation robes of sapphire velvet on the frontispiece, a King Albert one, because everybody loved the late King of the Belgians, and the Blinded Soldiers' and Sailors' one, which was mine. I remember sitting curled up in front of a fire whose small black soot-demons flew like gnats from a dark-gulleted chimney, reading a story about a little boy who was, oddly enough, called Booley. He kept wanting the most unlikely things: first some red currant jam, then a king's crown, then a beautiful smiling waxen lady in a glass case, a lady with very golden curls and the softest smile in the world. Someone, an officious guardian-angel sort of person, eventually turned up with a little package labelled “Keys for Booley.” When he opened the cupboard where the red currant jam was, it didn't taste at all well, as it had been locked up a few centuries too long. And the King's crown (he had the key to that also) was too heavy, and when he opened the case where the waxen lady was, she still lay there, but she had stopped smiling. Then the guardian-angel person relented and came back with a last little key, and this was labelled, “the key to the Garden Where You Are Merely In Life.” Booley opened the garden door, and there was everything, page 14 even the red currant jam, which I suppose he had grown out of wanting until he found how delicious it really tasted when fresh. Presumably he lived happily ever after: at all events, he was in his garden, so it was really his own fault if he didn't.

It's a rather odd thing, but journalism — or writing, if as nine out of ten young New Zealanders do, you enter the newspaper world hoping more to make a name for yourself than simply to be a £10 a week peg in a £4 a week hole—is exactly like that.

The things you want most to do, the things that look like triumph from afar off, you are given keys to: and in retrospect, you are more or less disappointed with them all. Then you're given the last key, I daresay it's imagination alloyed with a sense of humour, and you find, in the least likely places, at least a glimpse of everything you ever wanted.

Newspaper office — that should be like Philip Gibbs' “Street of Adventure” structure, shouldn't it? Something very much alive and on the alert, a heart kept beating by arteries of knowledge: I suppose the new recruit's picture of it is more or less influenced by the plate-glass, many-desked, telephone-slamming Hells so frequently depicted in American talkies.

Actually — you're high up, far above the grey streets and their mists and their little silver arrows of rain. Sometimes you haven't any window at all, because the favourite thing, in most newspaper offices, is to divide all spare floor-space up into rabbit hutches with compartments just a little sounder than cardboard. If you have a window, it's a tiny one. If you have a radiator, its cord is too short and you can only warm the most distant sectors of your limbs. If you have a telephone, somebody downstairs, usually a printer or a manager, is cursing fluently on the wire whenever you most wish to use it.

In the file room, where papers of the early days page 15 are slowly turning into the yellow that speaks of old age if not of reverence, there's a rustling. This means rats. Rats may leave sinking ships, that's quite possible, but no earthquake nor other calamity would induce them to quit newspaper offices; they are much to comfortable. Printer's ink becomes a mania with them, and they grow to enormous size, and are no doubt very well-informed as regards the world's affairs.… Rustle, rustle, rustle, out there in the darkness, whilst in your own little lighted cubbyhole, you bang the keys of a vicious-looking typewriter of ancient mode, and wish to God that somebody would invent new adjectives for describing society brides: I mean, new printable adjectives.

In one such office, the walls are covered with the photographs, mostly very faded, of hundreds and hundreds of "oldtimers." They wear beards and whiskers, have been read for anything up to fifty years' time—and how they watch you, from the walls! Perched on a high cupboard is a skull. It was the extremely personal belonging of a Bohemian artist sort of fellow, whose death and subsequent bestowal were apparently a bit irregular.

Somebody says "Come along out and have a cup of tea." In Wellington there's one little all-night restaurant, Clewer's, where tea and toast seemed to have become a sort of journalistic habit. Auckland has a "literary corner" in a small teashop, too. Almost impossible to describe — the warmth and friendliness and the talking of "shop," none but the dull avoid the talking of "shop"—which goes on at such corners. More than anything, it's like the sudden lighting up of a darkened stage in a pantomime. All the little harlequin figures begin to move in a light that is warmth as well just illumination.

Your "beautiful wax lady": perhaps, if you're both feminine and unsophisticated (even since the war I have met some very young New Zealanders page 16 who contrive to be both for awhile) you have illusions concerning garden parties, dances, what we describe as "the social whirl." (The clichés of social journalism reminds me with horrible vividness of the smile of artificial dentures.) Attend a few of the same, and you discover that there could only be one thing worse than going to such forays to write about them: it would be going there to take them in grim earnest, to become an inevitable part of the scenery.

And yet: there's an old house of wood, white-painted, shaded rather darkly with trees. Floppy-eared cocker spaniels, most sociable and wise and funny of all dogdom, accept their place in the sun here as a matter of course.… In a tree by a little dark pool sits a morepork, blinking at you out of cynical amber eyes. There are real cedars of Lebanon, sad-coloured, low-growing trees, and there's a tiny fountain. That is all—except such a charm and such a grace that it's like an indwelling spirit in this old house.

Another old house, a country one this time. Through the cool glades of its grounds you catch glimpses of arum lilies, cream-petalled, and the light makes great golden shafts among the pine trees. Yellow banksia roses tumble over the shabby white-painted walls, which could quite well do with another coat of paint (only they're much nicer as they are.) The banksia roses curtain into darkness the low verandah where people are chatting together. Suddenly there's a vividness in the air, and round the corner into clear sunshine comes the horses and their riders, the girls astride mostly, tweed-habited, a bright glimpse of hunting pink as the huntsman passes, a laughing confusion, the note of a horn, youth that is somehow very beautiful.

How slight they are, the notes of music, colour-tones of youth and deeper, softer tones of hospitality and grace. And how odd it is that not so much the frost-blackened nights and sullen grey mornings of page 17 a dull year in a dull New Zealand town should last, but just one thing: a memory of an orchard, all the cherry-trees in blossom, and the only thing on earth whiter than that fragile snow the moon-light resting upon it.

That is the garden where you are merely in Life.