A CITY GARDEN

By Sue Haigh

 

It was Monty Don’s article in the Observer that made her want to take a train to London. Fascinated, she had read the article over and over again. With the aid of a magnifying glass she studied the full-colour reproduction of the painting, now on exhibition in the Tate Modern. This was Patrick’s garden as she had known it when she first moved into her apartment, the same garden she has looked down into for forty years. Half her life-time.

Nadia Bean lives on the second floor of a tenement on the edge of Magdalen Green, at number eighty-seven – a sandstone palace with towers and a half-tiled close. High, curved windows look out over the Tay estuary and the sweep of the railway bridge and the long, empty beaches of Fife. At her gate, a brass plaque, worn with age and frequent polishing, tells passers-by that Nadia Bean, MSc, MBAP, FBPS, is a psychotherapist and that she sees patients by appointment only.
The week before, she had looked out from her kitchen window at the house and garden next door, quiet and lifeless since Patrick’s death, the upstairs studio silent, his easel still in the window. The bareness of the plum trees and the straggling bushes and unmown grass and the length of the shadows and the lateness of the year made her think of Patrick and other things she hadn’t thought about for a long time.
In the past few days she has twice thought she saw a woman walking slowly across the lawn in the late afternoon sun, hand-in-hand with a little girl, towards the stone wall that backs onto the mill-yard in Shepherd’s Loan. The two figures moved with a proprietorial confidence which told Nadia that things in the garden over the wall were about to change for good. A sudden tightness in her chest, an unexpected sense of urgency, made her feel it would be too late if she didn’t go soon. Just two days would be all the time she needed for a trip down to London; then she could see it again, the garden which spoke quietly to her of another world, before it went for ever.

It is Wednesday morning, a week later, and Nadia makes her way towards the railway station in a steady downpour, walking stick in hand, her shoulders hunched against the rain. Thunder-clouds have been hanging over Dundee since before first light and the smell of leaf mould and exhaust fumes hang in the late October air. Rows of gulls, clinging silently to the ridges of the high buildings, wait for the rain to stop so they can resume their raucous scavenging.
A treacherous slick of green lichen and damp leaves covers the pavements, dry since early in the month, forcing Nadia to put out a hand to steady herself against the high wall at the sloping curve in the road, where Magdalen Yard becomes Roseangle. Rain is dripping steadily down the neck of her ancient brown waterproof – half cape, half coat with sleeves – chilling her spine, whilst the sandals she wears all year round squelch out water at every step.

Up on the Perth Road, she sees the delicate glass-and-tile curve of the Frank Gehry arts centre; it reminds her of a light-house teetering on the edge of a cliff. The lights are already on, awaiting the installation of the next exhibition of the newest artists on the Scottish scene. Nadia loves exhibitions, especially paintings; but the great metal and rope concoctions that have pitched up at DCA recently, under its new young director, have left her dispirited. Mostly, they remind her of giant wooden gift-shop puzzles.
But, oh, when she thinks of Patrick – now Patrick was an artist you could understand; you could read his paintings as easily as you could read a book. But in his day the most publicity a young painter could expect would be at the annual diploma show, in the foyer of the local art college. Nadia herself had sat for him when she was in her late thirties, or maybe her early forties. He had often admired her long dark hair and once remarked that her brown eyes and high cheek-bones gave her an ‘air of detached exotic mystery’. During those quiet hours, whilst she stood at his studio window, gazing out at Magdalen Green and the river, he watched her every expression with an intensity she had at first found unnerving. After two or three sessions she had started, hesitantly to begin with, to tell him her story – the only time she ever spoke of Nadia Oniga, the girl born into a Jewish community in Roumania, close to that country’s northern border; the only time she told anyone that, after the Ceaçescu years, nothing remained of those Jewish communities, nor of her birthplace, Iaşi, nor of her family, nor of her history. Sometimes, she had rummaged in her pocket for a handkerchief, making him stop work for a moment.
Patrick called his portrait ‘Nadia Dreams of Home’. For weeks, perhaps months, the painting was on show in the art dealer’s window in Commercial Street. Passers-by would stop and examine at the dark-haired woman who was staring at something far beyond the familiar Tayside landscape. Nadia walked past the shop window often. Then, one day, it was gone.

At nine fifty-five, the GNER Aberdeen to London train screeches into the station. A few commuters get off and Nadia hauls herself awkwardly into the first carriage. Her hips ache from the effort of hurrying on the wet pavements and the struggle against the wind. She sits down and closes her eyes for a moment or two before taking off her soaking raincoat and folding it carefully on the seat beside her. The welcome heat of the carriage makes her head feel heavy after the chill rain. A young woman unwraps herself from several layers of coats and jackets and settles into the opposite corner. She switches on a small lap-top and Nadia opens her eyes at the trilling of Windows XP. She likes the technical noises young people make – sounds of life, promising the future. The girl takes out a mobile phone and bleeps through a list before stuffing an ear-piece into her left ear and tapping furiously at her keyboard.

After a few minutes Nadia loses interest and her thoughts turn again to Patrick’s garden. It was neat and well-kept when she first arrived in Magdalen Green. Sometimes, she would see him working out there. Not gardening – it was his wife who kept the garden – but painting. On sunny days, even in winter, she would bring out the washing, and hang out great white sheets to flap like the wings of gigantic birds. Patrick’s small daughter would climb into her mother’s laundry basket and clip the pegs round the edge, fencing herself in, whilst their dog scrabbled madly in the flower-beds laid out by the previous owner. The simple, universal act, the hanging out of sheets, watching them billow into the wind, straining at the line, as if they wanted to be somewhere else, took Nadia down distant roads in her memory.

The garden is different now, neglected. More natural, Patrick would have said. A bit like Nadia’s own life, lately. There is no washing-line these days; the posts stand forlorn and unused at the corners of what was once a lawn, now chest-high in wild flowers and grasses when spring arrives. No sheets to blow in the evening sunshine. The little girl grew up and left the garden long ago. Patrick’s wife died, then Patrick. These days, the gravel paths are scarcely visible beneath a thick blanket of weeds. Only the plum-trees are unchanged; but no-one harvests the August crop now; the purple fruits rot in the long grass, inhabited by swarms of wasps. The mill, across in Shepherd’s Loan, is still there, now transformed into luxury apartments.

The gentle rocking movement of the train between York and Peterborough and the soft, regular tap-tapping of computer keys lull Nadia into a half-sleep. Her mother is singing a song in Roumanian as she pegs out the washing in the garden in Iasi. Nadia Oniga plays with her dog at her mother’s feet. She hears the flamenco-like rawness of Elisabeth’s voice and feels the damp sheets as they blow against her face. The train is hurrying the Onigas out of Iaşi, their escape the start of a terrifying journey across Europe, often on foot. An image of her father floats into her dream – Litzu Oniga, a graduate in ophthalmic surgery is selling spectacle frames on the street in a Toronto winter, barely surviving his new poverty in the New World.
By the time she was sixteen her parents’ constant yearnings were an unbearable irritation to Nadia; the Carpathian Mountains, the forests of Transylvania, childhood holidays on the Black Sea, Mangalia and Constantia formed the backbone of their daily talk. She saw how they missed the dark sands of Mamaia and wished they wouldn’t drone on about a past which, as far as Nadia was concerned, might as well not have happened.

On the London train, Nadia feels again the inexpressible lightening of her soul, the wild bird beating her wings in her own sky, which she felt when her parents had finally accepted that they would never return to a country she could hardly remember and a language she could no longer speak. At the University of Montreal she met and fell in with, and then married – a Scottish Jungian psychoanalyst, Harry Bean. Harry’s death at the age of forty-eight was a secret, guilty relief – a guilt she had confessed only to Patrick in the quietness of the hours they had spent together in his studio. She told him how, by the time they moved to Dundee, Harry already been in the habit of taking a bottle of the ‘Craythur’ to his morning clinic, then in a white terraced town house at the smart end of Windsor Street. She wondered aloud how it was that his patients did not detect the slight but constant slurring of Harry’s words and the redness of his eyes.
‘My dear Nadia, they did notice. Believe me, they did.’
She misses Patrick.

By four o’clock the light is already fading. The young woman with the lap-top leans across and shakes Nadia’s arm gently, nodding towards the platform as the train pulls into King’s Cross.
Nadia is hungry, but there’ll be time to eat later. She tells the taxi-driver to let her out at St Paul’s. A fine, soaking drizzle has begun to fall and a cold breeze makes her shiver as she walks slowly towards the river-bank and the Millennium Bridge – a swaying cat’s cradle strung out across the Thames, so delicate it could take off like a giant winged insect, shaking its human parasites into the dark water below. Not a crossing to be undertaken lightly. Not a bridge for the despairing or the foolhardy. No parapets to lean over or to make a desperate leap from. The concrete tower of the Tate looms above a trembling filigree of silver birches on the South Bank.
The foyer is quiet as she looks down briefly into the Turbine Hall. People are lying on the floor, like tiny, distant ants, looking up into the mirror far above their heads, like part of the exhibit. She heads for the escalator. The signpost on the first floor tells her that the Art of the Garden Exhibition is due to finish today, at seven o’clock.
Suddenly, it’s in front of her, just as it was. Patrick’s garden, with his wife and the child and the dog and the sheets on the line and the shadows on the grass and the bare plum trees, just as if they had all been waiting for her to arrive, to come home. She swallows hard, feeling in her pocket for a handkerchief; but, in the end, she doesn’t cry.
This is what she has come to see. She thinks about Monty Don’s Observer article. Didn’t he know that this was a morning scene? Had he assumed that no-one would put out washing in the evening? Didn’t he know that the house faces south, across the estuary and that the shadows on the lawn come from the late afternoon sun? And did he know that the Victorian house which is casting the shadow was bought for a knock-down price in 1939, located in an area designated as unsafe in war-time? Patrick himself had told her that.
Nadia rummages in her handbag for her reading glasses and peers at the plaque beside the painting. It reads:

‘A City Garden’ by James McIntosh Patrick, 1911-1998.

A young woman is leaning against the wall in a corner of the otherwise empty room. Silently, she walks across to Nadia and stands behind her.
‘Do you like it?’ she almost whispers. It’s Dundee. According to the catalogue, it’s one of the most important urban landscapes on exhibition in Britain today,
Nadia turns her head towards the voice. She sees the woman’s long dark hair, flowing down over her shoulders and back. She smiles and watches the lights shimmer on a distant northern river in dreaming brown eyes.