Laura White

Where I Can’t Be

The place my imagination goes as I quietly reflect during these strange times of lockdown is my mum’s garden in the Worcestershire countryside. It is not just the location, but this place at a particular time of the year in particular company that focuses my mind. It is a late spring/early summer day just me and my mum pottering around the garden together. I have always gone back home throughout my entire life whenever I wanted. My parents created a home that was always available to myself and my sister. Whether I was at college homesick or having difficult times I could always go home where I felt instant love and security. So, given these extraordinary times not been able to go to the place that has always been available to me feels very strange, and has given me a new perspective of where I grew up and of which I have regularly visited until these past few months. I was due to visit my mum at the end of March not having visited since Christmas, but of course that was cancelled, so it’s now a long time since I was there – nearly four and half months.

This entire location where I grew up and where my mum still lives – house, yard, garden, terrace and outbuildings, and beyond the perimeters – fields, hills, woodlands and river, all have this association for me, but it is the garden in particular that I find myself thinking about the most right now, maybe because I don’t have a garden here in London, but I think this urge to be in this particular location right now runs deeper. My mum’s garden is stunning especially late spring into summer, when flowers are blooming and plants have not lost their spring time greenness.

My mum built the garden from scratch when myself, my sister and my parents moved there 51 years ago (I was one years old and my sister four). She has planted every bush, tree and flowering plant, designed and dug out all flowerbeds, created seated areas and garden pond. My dad passed away three years ago and even during this tragic and sad time my mum never once abandoned this space, always tending to its green needs even when it took so much effort! I realise the reason why this place is so much in my mind right now is not only because it is a beautiful place particularly at this time of the year, taking my imagination off when the reality of living through a pandemic becomes too much for my brain to handle, but its particular association to my mum. When I am home if I am honest I enjoy most the walks I take on my own in the surrounding landscape. I savour the quietness and the opportunity to spend time observing details – grass shoots, tree bark, bluebells, birds, insects and animals. I usually find a fallen log to sit on, then wait a while and watch nature slowly move towards me – a rabbit, squirrel and even sometimes a muntjac (a small deer) which are quite rare to see. For a moment I am invisible and unthreatening to them, until I get up from my log and quickly everything flees.

But now it is not those idyllic walks I crave for but mum in her garden. I have become acutely aware of the limited time I have to physically experience this place with my mum with her getting older. So not only does it make me value the times I have already had in this place with her, and those times I hope and imagine I will have in the future, but the need to make sure that these experiences are fixed in my memory bank as firmly as possible so not to forget them, especially when there will be a time that I will have to solely rely on these memories to connect to this unique environment and situation.

I am sitting on the bench in the middle of the garden facing a small pagoda crowded with flowering plants – phlox’s and delphiniums where a bird feeder hang. My mum has just filled it with seeds and the birds come swarming in as soon as she moves away – blue tits, robin, gathering of wagtails and then a nervous woodpecker. I know there are hundreds more birds around as the noise of twittering in the bush behind me is full on, and also the bushes are twitching and vibrating with bird activity. Mum’s three Norfolk terries run around the garden disappearing occasionally under a bush seeking out mice and rats. There is a rat (one of the nice brown fluffy country versions) that I spot running from its hide out under a large yew bush to underneath the bird feeder, to grab food that has fallen onto the paving stones. This sends the dogs crazy with excitement. It is not unusual for one of them to kill one of these rodents or when things go a bit wrong (for the dog!) to get bitten on the nose. Being brought up in the country one has a very different relationship to rats than in the city, these fluffy brown coated creatures are less threatening animals to those I have encountered in the city, and if you observe them carefully they are quite beautiful. I can hear you saying – ‘No way!’ Yes, alright I’m still not a fan of rats but a country rat is much more acceptable than a big scary city one.

It is so calm where I am sitting, it puts all the madness of London life into perspective very quickly for me. There are smells coming from all directions travelling on the breeze – plants at different stages of growth with different scents and a general freshness in the air. I get up from the garden seat and walk around with my mum smelling all the different early summer roses and comparing them. My mum knows all the official names of her plants. One of the roses is called ‘Laura,’ which I love not just because of having the same name as me but the fact my mum chose it because of its name. We walk around together and sit in different parts of the garden, watching and talking about what we can see, smell and hear. “Wow that plant has grown!” “Yes, it is doing really well this year. Must be the mild winter we have had and that rain we had last week.”

The smells and the sounds of my mum’s garden I miss. In fact it is these two sensory experiences that I can recall with the most clarity. I’m writing this in my living room, door slightly a jar on to my balcony where I can hear traffic and police sirens on nearby Dalston Junction in the East End of London. I can block out the urban sounds and I am right there in my mum’s garden listening to the birds, my mum’s voice, the scuffling of dog activity and smells of all those fresh sweet plants. I question whether the memory is better than actually being there – and the answer is ‘No’ – I want to be there with my mum and the dogs, and I feel sad I can’t. There have been times I have sat in my mum’s garden unhappy and rather wanting to be somewhere else, but even then, its constructed natural beauty has overridden any external feelings – family frictions, anxieties back in London, problems at work. This environment cuts right through all the shit and never fails to overwhelm me shutting out the bad stuff and connecting me to my mum and to nature, which I feel cruelly denied right now.

This lockdown is revealing so much about how I feel about things I would usually take for granted. It has been a profound and reflective period that has made me appreciate so many things I did before lockdown – visiting exhibitions, eating in restaurants, coffee in cafes, friends for dinner, holidays in Italy and those days in the garden with my mum. It also puts into perspective what things are important and those that are less so. There are people I have not missed at all and others I crave to see – clarity of what I really value and what is just life’s padding. Spending time with my mum in the place she loves most is definitely not padding, but sits at my very core, and I wait patiently for that moment I can return.