Making the jump
A year ago, in July 2020, the bank was a desert and the sheds were roofless. We were living in a weird hinterland – that stretch of time between life as we had known it and whatever lay ahead. Back then, between waves and lockdowns, we were limiting our interactions and travel, mindful of what might be coming next. This July, as we head towards the lifting of restrictions, we are navigating the tightrope of risk and reward as a third wave looms, with predictions of a spike in death rates, the collapse of the NHS and a further lockdown by summer’s end.
The garden doesn’t know any of this though, the scorched-earth bank has become a wild prairie, clicking with grasshoppers and crickets and seedheads popping in the hot July sun. The swallows have found the ledge in the newly roofed shed and hatched a clutch of four spotted eggs so that, going to fetch a rake one morning, I am greeted by a row of beady black eyes. Four hatchlings perch on the trellis, streaked now with black and white trails of guano, preparing for the jump.
The parents come down to call them out, before flying back up to perch on the chimney stack, burbling encouragement. I shut the cat in the house and she repays me by peeing in the shower – her own dirty protest. Gradually the fledglings take off and the sky above our heads fills with swirls of forked flight. In the evening they return to the trellis and I count them in, always glad when four pairs of eyes look back. They practice flying in a triangle between the roof box, the trellis and their nest, until, growing more confident, they take to the sky to fly circuits over the roof, dipping into the space in the courtyard. At night I peek into the shed to see them looking out from their nest. The house feels more itself with their return, more complete.
The beds and borders, after months of wet and warmth, are burgeoning, a riot of pinks, purples and oranges. In the orchard sweeps of fox and cubs pair with devil’s hawkbit to make iced lolly coloured drifts among the long grass. On the lawn in the walled garden white clover patches buzz with bees and the two swathes of white yarrow, left unmown, vibrate with striped hoverflies, helping to keep aphids in check. The hedgehog is struggling to keep up with the slugs this year; I’m hoping that frogs and newts will soon find the pond and lend him a hand.
We sit on the roof in the evening as the sun goes down and watch the swallows fill the sky, mobbing the cat who comes, stretching, to sit with us. Tired of our attention, she bristles, spotting something twitching in the undergrowth. She moves off with a slink. “Cat.” I say. And she stops dead, moving artlessly to grooming her belly, as if this was her plan all along.
When we moved here, a few months before the pandemic hit, we were hopeful of parties, family visits, of friends descending in the summer. We all know how that one goes. Recently, for better or worse though, we hosted our first gathering in the garden, bringing together, after an inordinately long wait, the people who have become a creative family to us since we made the move from West Devon to Exeter.
A party is a performance, I realise, one in which we each play our roles; there are the performers, the jesters, the chorus, the audience, the compere. And this garden, with its different levels and rooms – walled, wild, wooded and redstoned, feels like a stage. There are costumes, sets, music, lights. People arrive clutching bottles and plates of food. When they arrive, Rory and Rebecca find me on the pavement outside the house, shouting down directions for Gosses Cottages to a bemused Yodel driver on the road. “It’s a responsibility that comes with the house”, I tell them, laughing. Rebecca is holding a sparkly tray of mint and broad bean canapes, Rory a pot the colour of the sea planted with a chinese money plant. Tim has made samosas, crispy and spiced, Harula has brought baklava and Jake and Elizabeth have brought rocky roads and antique pink gladiolis tied with raffia. We are pleased to be together, that the sun is shining, but there is an air of apprehension too; can we remember how to do this?
Rory notices a photo of a family group on the stairs and asks me about it. I tell him about my grandmother and her siblings and their parents, Mary and Jack. I tell him that Mary was a nurse and opera singer, Jack a lay preacher and liberal councillor, that they lived, for years, in Walham Grove in Fulham, hosting ‘at home’s’ on Sunday evenings, a weekly gathering of artists, writers, dancers and poets. I tell him of my Grandma’s disappointment when I didn’t recognise the autographs shed collected from guests in her prized autograph book; Stephen Spender, W H Auden, G K Chesterton, Christopher Isherwood, Rupert Doone, Robert Medley, Hillaire Belloc. Rory says he often wonders how much of our behaviours are inherited and I suddenly realise what he means. We were a similar assembly, gathered around our second-hand, sunken, badly painted table – not quite the mediterranean idyll I’d been aiming to recreate, but good enough.
Harula sends us a message the next day which says, ‘I haven’t relaxed and laughed and played and hugged and eaten and connected and taken in the view like that for I don’t know how long.’ It had felt good to be together and to make new plans.
My favourite bits are always the after party – the sitting round the fire in the dark, candles and fairy lights flickering, the confessional confidences of the breakfast table, feeling that everything is done, the performance over. And, I love the clearing up. There is something meditative about the collecting of glasses, scraping of plates, replaying the little vignettes of the night, feeling the contentment of a houseful, of beds and sofas filled with people you love. I still felt slightly drunk with it by breakfast – the house was happy, and so was I. And it was so good to share the house and garden, to hear people’s reflections of our new home after such prolonged isolation. “It’s a happy house”, people told us.
The night before, as I watched high spirited play veer ominously towards the fire, I realised that for people to be able to take risks, to let their guard down, or become vulnerable, it was necessary to have a support system to rely on (in this case potentially sober people like healthcare workers and ambulance drivers). To let go, to allow people to catch you is an act of faith, it requires, on a subconscious level, a degree of trust. We need to know that this is the default, that we have a health service, a welfare state, as well as communities of friends, families and neighbours, to catch us when we fall, to enable us to make flights – as the fledgling swallows had done, as Glen and I did when we moved away – when we need or have to.