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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 visible existence.

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 romance and magnetic glamour.

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 thieving possums.

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