I wasn’t born in the city, have only lived here for the past 10 years, since I left gardening college and came to work at the Royal Horticultural Society. But what is love if not instant recognition? A moment of being truly equal to something. What I recognized in this place, from the moment I arrived here, was something within myself that I didn’t even know was there. Something under the skin, in the blood. A pulse of familiarity. The wild, lovely clutter of London. Small streets that twisted like rivers. Austere stone cathedrals. The fast, muddy muscle of the Thames, holding the city apart from itself; the tension of that moving gap, palpable, felt. I have leaned over the stone balustrade of the Embankment in the dark, the true dark now of the blackouts when even starlight is an act of treachery. In blacked-out London, people, once familiar with the city, bump along the streets, fumbling from building to building as though blind. But I have stood beside the Thames and felt it there, twining beneath my feet like a root.
But this is what can no longer be trusted. Every day the landscape is radically altered. Houses become holes. Solids become spaces. Anything can disappear overnight. How can love survive this fact?
The streets are almost empty. I look up as we drive along the Vauxhall Bridge Road and from between two buildings I see a flicker of green that leads to Vincent Square and the stone face of the Royal Horticultural Society looking down into the Westminster Play Ground. Only yesterday I was there in my life, hurrying back from lunch with Roy Peake. At the corner of the square a Canadian solider said goodbye to his girl. “So long, sweetheart.” I liked the jaunty ring of it. I had been walking up the steps of the Royal Horticultural Society, listening to Roy Peake prattle on about his “unknown pear.” I think he is secretly hoping he won’t be able to identify it so he can name it after himself. Peake’s Pear. I have to admit it does sound right. Certain. The stumble of p’s like two perfect, companionable, musical notes.
Peake’s Pear. I was thinking this, treading the grey stone steps back to my office, when the voice called from along the square with such confidence I turned right around. I am always envious of confidence. This is why I was first drawn to Roy Peake. He spoke so passionately one day about old local apples, standing in my office doorway, holding an ‘Orange Goff’ in one hand and a ‘Pigeon’s Heart’ in the other. This was back when his interests were more varied, before the eternal days of the “unknown pear.”
Can words go straight to the heart? Is this possible? Can words be as direct as the scent of roses? A man calls from the street corner and I turn my head to the voice as I would turn to the fragrance of a climbing rose, tangled through an arbour.
I have said my farewells to my fellow boarders at Mrs. Royce’s house on Denbigh Street. I have said my farewells and felt nothing. In the two years I lived there I did not befriend any of them, and even though Mr. Gregory tried to make me like him, I never did. Besides those I worked with, I have no one else to say goodbye too; but now, as I drive away from where I’ve lived, I feel unbearably sad. There is the street where a magnificent cherry tree grows. I will miss it flowering this year. I will likely never see it again.
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From The Lost Garden. Published by HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. Copyright 2002 by Helen Humphreys. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers Ltd.