I take five laps of the garden every day. It’s built on a rubbish heap, which is why the grass is dry and lifeless after a week or two with no rain. But above, the trees are slowly turning from the young, almost translucent green of spring into the thicker, lusher, opaque green of summer. The wind whips up the dusty pollen as I shield my eyes, and I hear the endless interruptions of the city breaking through. The whirr of motors: four-wheeled to the east and outboard to the west. But here in our urban oasis, there’s a sleepy stillness.
Before the lockdown, I was usually the only one here. My neighbours – the fifty or so people living in the apartments overlooking the garden – moved in full of joyful anticipation about the prospect of their own city garden. But after a few weeks most had reverted to old habits: the terrace on a Friday night, the playground in the park that their children’s friends meet at, the to-do list of work and school and gym that leaves no time for aimless outdoor pursuits.
Now, though, things are different. Without their gyms and their playgrounds, the neighbours are emerging from their homes into the garden like caterpillars from their cocoons. There’s an unspoken claiming of territory, a staking of ground: the wooden picnic benches covered in tablecloths by eleven in the morning remind me of holidaymakers laying down towels on sun loungers by the pool. They’re wary of each other at first: polite nods and barely audible greetings – as though acknowledging the other’s presence is tantamount to inhaling the much talked-about droplets. But as time has gone on I’ve seen them exchanging barbecue tips or sharing the occasional bottle of wine. Moments of restrained intimacy.
I, on the other hand, like to keep to myself. The stiffness in my joints is easily mistaken for the aches that they say accompany the virus. At least, that’s the excuse I make for steering clear of the others. But at my core I know that this is something more sinister – it’s a pain that pre-dates whatever situation we’re in now. The doctor sent me for tests, which ruled out various tumours but left us none the wiser. Then more tests followed, my body prodded and poked and peered into. The results were due in mid-March, but of course that appointment was cancelled. There’s an irony here that’s not lost on me: the “vulnerable” who we’re all trying to protect are the very same people who can’t get a diagnosis – let alone treatment – while the virus continues its silent march.
7 May 2020
I take my camera into the garden today. It’s the golden hour – sunlight slanting through the trees – and I want to capture the pink decay of the fallen blossom, the brazen blue forget-me-nots poking up through the brown moss that’s taken over the lawn. But the picture comes out hazy, like the Instamatic images of forty years ago. For a decade already I’ve hated the harsh definition of modern technology – depicting the deepening of my lines and the darkening of my age spots with unwavering honesty. But now that I look into the lens as a magnifying glass – honing in on the variegated petals and the yellow dust on the stamen – I can’t keep the camera still enough for a close-up. It’s not the first time that my body’s betrayed me. I’ll have to trust my memory instead, I tell myself, wondering how long I can rely on that either.
I try hard not to resent the youth of the Garden People, all their faculties still intact. The couple with their Big Green Egg are lying on a cheerfully printed picnic blanket, their hair intertwined, giggling over some TikTok video or other. They offer me a bright hello and an exotic-looking snack that I’ve never heard of – I politely decline, and then regret it immediately afterwards. Theirs was a nice gesture but I struggle to express gratitude, especially when I’m battling resentment. I solace myself by trying to imagine the fight they might have had that morning: the clipped passive aggression of two people in the same four walls for weeks on end. Perhaps it’s not so bad to be alone.
20 May 2020
On the news today they say something about “other medical appointments will shortly be resumed”. I call the doctor, anxiety hammering on my chest – as fearful about getting my appointment as not getting it. He says next month it’s cancer, the month after it’s heart disease. Those of us with the slow, plodding, degenerative complaints will have to wait up to three months. I sigh with relief as much as frustration as I creak my way down the stairs to the garden.
The Italian boy is here this evening. He says he works for Nike but I don’t see how he can possibly be old enough. His skin looks suddenly smooth, like it’s just graduated from the puss-filled teenage phase, with a light fuzz on his top lip that he’s tried and failed to take a razor to. Despite myself, I imagine touching the damp warmth of his chest beneath his smoky sports shirt. It’s been 25 years, but I still miss the thrilling shiver of skin on skin. I shake my head to banish the image – I’m almost old enough to be his grandmother.
As the heat of the day subsides and his friends drift off one by one, the boy approaches me with a cheap plastic cup. “A Sardinian liqueur,” he says: “would you like to try it?” The drink looks like cough syrup and smells like turpentine, but I gulp it down. The liquid burns and reminds me I’m alive – the doctor told me I shouldn’t drink, so a thimbleful of Italian moonshine feels like a small act of defiance. The aftertaste is medicinal and aniseed-y (I’ve always hated liquorice) but the boy means well and he gives me a slanted smile. For a moment I feel like a girl again.
31 May 2020
We have gardeners, of course – it’s a communal space. But some of us also have little plots of land: allotments on which to grow our own vegetables or herbs or flowers. The growing – the nurturing of life – gives us single women (and perhaps the men too) a sense of contribution. Or perhaps it’s just something to do on a Sunday afternoon. After this morning’s laps (they took me twenty-two minutes today – longer than yesterday), I stop at my patch of earth on my way back into the building. A weed shoots out from under my sweet peas, grown rangy through neglect, and I stoop to pull it out. But my knees give way and I find myself, a protective palm to the ground, wondering how I’m going to get up again.
The lady with the little dog is (mercifully) working in the allotment next to mine. Her face registers a split-second dilemma: which is more dangerous – the fall or the getting too close? But she’s quickly got an awkward grip under my armpit, restoring me to my feet. She’s a small woman, I notice now, wondering at her strength before I realise I’m not exactly as sturdy as I used to be. I mutter my thanks as she bends down to finish off the offending weed that started all this, offering to help me out with the allotment in the future. I’m bristling at her pity, calculating how to respond, when we both notice her dog lifting his leg in the direction of my sweet pea plant. She shoots me an apologetic look, and I laugh and figure we’re even.
4 June 2020
It’s grey today – a rare rainy day in an otherwise endless spring. It’s tempting to skip my daily laps, but I also know the aching only gets worse the less I move. The grass looks grateful for the weather, but the trees are lacklustre and the Garden People stay away, shuttered in their apartments. As I pull on my raincoat, I realise I’m going to miss them – their offerings of foreign food and strange liqueurs, their pity masked as kindness. My hand is on the doorknob when the phone rings. I pick up warily, not recognising the number.
“Good morning, Mrs Williams?”
“We have your test results back.”