NIGHT IN THE GARDEN
As night falls I love to photograph the garden. It is a natural extension of my
fascination with Vilhelm Hammershøi's paintings and the
secret lives of rooms.
But unlike an empty interior, where time proceeds in infinitesimal increments
(although dust does silently accumulate, spiders spin and scuttle, soot drifts
down the chimneys) the night garden, though secretive, has a more volatile and
A brisk breeze shakes the fat pink flowers of the Pierre de Ronsard rose on its
wrought iron pillar. The blooms, a clutch of ball-gowned beauties, are
vulnerable, for by late spring they are many-frilled and a
prolonged rain shower will waterlog them until they rot. Under bright sunlight
they can appear washed out, but they love the night for its coolth, and for the
chance to glimmer. Known as the poet's rose, at dusk they are all sugary
The blackbird that has raised a brood in the hedge outside my study settles
more deeply into the cup of the nest. Night-coloured but for legs and beak,
having built wisely the little bird is not much affected by wind and rain. As
darkness falls, feathers fluff, but with an enviable talent for uni-hemispheric
slow-wave sleep (the ability to sleep with one half of the brain while the
other half remains alert) there is no need to shut those sharp bright eyes.
As night deepens, slugs emerge from their daytime sleeping places. They make
their slow, silvery way to the choicest seedlings, the black cornflowers and
hollyhocks, and then at the last moment veer blindly towards the beer trap -- a
shallow pie dish with a non-stick surface filled to the brim with West End
Draught. Drawn by the scent of hops and barley, or perhaps in need of
alcoholic stimulation (for a slug's life must thud with dullness) they hover
for a moment on the edge and then glide into the foamy depths. Even before
first light the diligent blackbird will find them, nicely marinated, and pick
them out for her breakfast.
Worse things than slugs move around the night garden. Possums thump across the
rooftops and skim fences, intent on stripping and killing my beautiful old plum
tree. I have not yet found the equivalent of the beer trap for them, but when I
do I will show no mercy. I have offered fruit, but they threw it back at me and
continue to devour plum leaves.
A neighbour's cat stalks rats and mice. On her pedestal beside the quince tree,
the dark-winged angel watches over all. It is not yet warm enough for crickets
but I look forward to their creaking song, which heralds summer.
Standing in the darkened garden, I think of Jean Rhys and the outsider
characters with which she populated her novels. I think especially of the
exotic garden on the Coulibri Estate in
Wide Sargasso Sea,
its green light and
overgrown paths, its tree of life that had gone wild. And I wonder whether this
is the inevitable vantage point for most writers - a darkened pocket of
pavement or garden, on the outside looking in, examining and drawing on their
own lives and the lives of others.
Lighted windows at dusk have a universal pull. Who does not love to stroll
along a street in the early evening before the curtains are drawn? It enables a
detached yet intimate collision with unknown lives – like examining a
cross-section of some exotic fruit, cut and mounted on a glass slide. And in
the instant we are privy to it we gather fragments - the corner of a table, a
bookcase, a hand offering a tray on which stands a teacup and a sandwich. We
interpret them to make a story for the room's inhabitants, and this is the
allure of the lighted window - the way it compels us to become storytellers.
In patrolling my garden at night with a camera, I inevitably turn to my own
lighted windows. Always they appear both familiar and strange, with everything
lit but at a slight remove. I study them with the same rapt attention I turn on
the windows of strangers. What do I see there, I wonder. Or, what is it
possible to see that I do not already know?
Perhaps I hope to surprise some part of my life that I do not understand. I
might see my younger self there, combing her hair, or holding a tray on which
stands a beautiful and familiar teacup. At the very least I might divine why
the objects in the room have chosen me for their guardian, or why I have
settled upon them as mute companions.
The lamp beside the front door spills yellow light over the verandah tiles and
over the chairs where I sit to think and read, to watch the comings and goings
of the birds and to talk over cups of tea. Behind the window glass is the chair
where I sit to write about the tiny kingdom of my garden. The lamp that burns
there has a
pink shade and was handmade by my mother. As I look in, I think how heaven
might consist of sitting in that chair under the pink lamp for ever -- with a
view of roses, my notebook and fountain pen to hand, and a
bottomless cup of scalding black tea.
At the sight of my own glowing windows I am filled with gratitude for their
familiarity, albeit ever so slightly strange when viewed from this angle.
Most of all I am grateful for the comfort and protection they promise in a
world grown wilder and more dangerous than Rhys's Coulibri, a world more
filled with predators than the darkest night garden, with all its slugs and rats and