by Juliet Bates
Lying on my desk is a photograph taken in 1969. I am two years old, overweight and happy, and I am running along the drive that leads to our house. In the distance is the garden, the grass far taller than a toddler, and the shrubs and cedars looming like long shadows. It was this garden that, for the next eight years, was my world. Apart from school and the occasional trips to Darlington or Newcastle, I lived in the garden and each corner of it seemed to possess a different quality, a distinct personality. At one end was a damp dark plantation of Christmas trees, the soil was so rich they always grew. On the other side, along the entire wall, was an elderly green house with a floor of patterned tiles, and behind the house was the beginning of an orchard of Cox’s Orange Pippins and Bramleys. There was a bell shaped weeping willow tree in the centre of the garden whose branches you could push away like a curtain and then you could hide inside, there was a cherry tree with a swing, and at the top of the garden, in the wall, was a locked door, arched and with woodwork the colour of a ghost. If I peered through the keyhole I saw a new garden, like the secret garden I had read about, something overgrown and special. Later, when I began to explore further, I discovered this secret garden from the other side of the wall and I remember my disappointment, for without the key-shaped frame it was merely a coppice of straggly silver birch and holly bushes.
Our garden had been a garden for a century or more. It had once been the vegetable garden to a large house which had been demolished in the twenties. Our house, which was built on top of the Victorian asparagus beds, was only a few years old when we arrived. It was a white stucco bungalow, banal and a little ugly. Strangely, however, on dark nights it was the house, not the garden with its tall trees and high walls, that frightened me the most. The corridor that led to my bedroom seemed impossibly long and I knew that I would be followed if I crept along there in the dark to find my parents. Sometimes my mother complained of peculiar noises coming from the walk in wardrobes, and there was a dampness that hung about the third bedroom that never disappeared even in the heat of the summer.
My experiences of those spaces, the garden and the house, were heightened, rendered more exciting or sinister by the books that I read. The books suggested adventures or encounters, the possibility of time travel or finding buried treasure or meeting a ghost, and I was certain that these things would happen in my house and my garden.
I was lucky, I grew up in the seventies with Kaye Webb’s Puffin Book Club, I wore my black and silver Puffin badge on the lapel of my coat and every month I received a copy of the Puffin Post. On Saturdays my mother took me to Dressers on High Row in Darlington and upstairs in the children’s department I was encouraged to choose a book. In those days a paperback cost thirty pence, but the bindings and the pages have lasted numerous re-readings. I still have Ballet Shoes, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, Stig of the Dump and many more. I learned a lot from the books I read, sometimes I think I learned more from them than I did from my teachers. In the Little House on The Prairie books I discovered America with its bears and wolves, maple syrup and patchwork quilts. From Kate Seredy’s, The Good Master, I learned about the Hungarian plain and mirages and riding . The Sue Barton nursing series helped me realise that I did not want to become a nurse, these books still form the basis of my knowledge about medicine. Later, I learned about the war from Esther Herzog, Judith Kerr and Nina Bawden. Perhaps it’s a cliché to say that the characters who inhabited these novels were my friends, but as an only child it was good to have Laura Ingalls or Petrova Fossil around, some one to play with some to talk to at night when the lights are out.
My favourite book, then and now, is Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce, if you haven’t read it borrow or buy a copy, it’s worth it. Tom’s Midnight Garden is a sophisticated novel, a novel about time travel, although we are never sure who does the traveling. For me, it is the novel’s subtleties and ambiguities that makes it a book which can be read by adults as well as children. The characters have real personalities – Tom is frustrated and bored, Hattie is vain and lonely – and the story touches on complex ideas. It is about hope, adventure, youth and old age, and the specialness of a particular place. The ending is beautiful, it still makes me cry.
I left my garden when I was ten years old, in 1977, the year of the Silver Jubilee, the year of change. I have distinct memories of that year. On my last day at primary school I remember coming home clutching a mug with a picture of the Queen’s head on it and a stainless steel spoon with her profile pressed into the top of the handle, engraved on the back was “Made in Sheffield”. That last summer before we left, the dog died. He was older than me, more like a brother than a dog, he always used to let me share his dog biscuits and the occasional bone. The vet took his body away in the back of his car. It was a red car, I remember. We left the house in the autumn and (here is my second cliché) things were never the same. We moved away, I started a new school which I hated, but the books were still there, in fact they became more important. I still read them all, not just for nostalgia’s sake but for the stories they relate, and they still enthral me.