Monthly Archives: May 2007

This one’s from the heart.

lime, hornbeamLIME (is the British name) or linden leaves are heart-shaped and especially beautiful, most especially especially at this time of year. Just go and look at some, they’re everywhere.

In Norse and early Germanic religion, the linden was highly revered and associated with Freyja, the goddess of fertility, attraction and love. In Greek myth too (or just Ovid), it’s lovey-dovey because of the story of Baucis and Philemon. They were an old married couple who, although they were poor, showed kindness and hospitality to Zeus and Hermes (in disguise) and were rewarded by being granted their only wish: to be together forever, even in death. He was turned into an oak tree and she a lime, and there they stood, intertwined, in the deserted bog that was the ruin of their town (the gods had to destroy it because everyone else was too wicked, see).

The association with romance has continued through European art and literature, via people like Walther von der Vogelweide (scroll down – Unter der linden is the third one on that page) all the way down to Nick Cave. Aw.

Tilia platyphyllos (the large-leaved lime) is one of only about 30something trees native to Britain – only the south though, which is where I’m native to, too. It and its friend Tilia cordata and their hybrid Tilia x europaea are very frequently planted as ornamental trees, or shade trees in parks and gardens. The European thing is to have long lime-lined avenues, like Unter den Linden in Berlin and the gorgeous Frederiksberg Allé in København. It used to be a closed street, with gates, which only the King and his family (that’s Frederik) could use, but luckily for me it was opened to the public in 1863. I walked down there on September 14, 2006, which became one of the most unutterably beautiful days of my life.

Lime blossoms make a sweet and pleasant tea which has been used as a remedy for, among other things, headaches, indigestion, fever, liver disorders, anxiety and hysteria. The wood is soft and easily worked so it is favoured by carvers, including the most excellently-named Grinling Gibbons, and my uncle Roli who is totally ace and taught me about the Gibmeister, having just completed a degree in Ornamental Woodworking. The blossoms are also good for a light, delicate but beautifully flavoured honey. This tree is all about the prettiness.

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These could be the good old days.

The day of the red feathers

We were walking down to the shops one early evening at the start of May. We were on the street two down from ours, a quiet, broad street where there’s a school and some flats and a closed-down shop and a beautiful old building that used to be a church, when we saw the red feathers.

There were many, many of them everywhere – they’d been blown all along the pavements, sticking in the bushes and trees and weeds and cracks, in the ivy and in the gutter, bright, scarlet feathers between about 3 and 10cm long. They were the same kind you get in feather boas – it was as though someone had got one (or even two, the number of feathers there still were, maybe two had had a fight) and ripped it to shreds, floating, bright red, fluffy carnage in the middle of the street. That was something I noticed, there didn’t seem to be more on one side or at one end of the street; they were so spread out that you couldn’t tell where they’d started from, there didn’t seem to be an epicentre. Like rain.

I kept seeing the red feathers, fewer and farther between, whenever I was walking around our area for the next few weeks, it felt like whenever I’d look down I’d see one. The winds took them and scattered them, and the sun and rain bleached them – I think they must have been white and had been dyed to be so bright in the first place, and gradually they become more pink and pale, fading like bruises, until you wouldn’t realise they were the same ones unless you’d seen them all that day. The stems or stalks in the middle, the harder parts, the spines of the feathers, they stayed redder for longer but mostly they got broken.

It’s been three weeks now, or thereabouts, and I still see one or two around the place. The only ones left now are caught up in something, mostly wrapped around weeds or tangled into fences. I saw one today, straggly and faint, sadly clinging to a little clump of alyssum that was growing at the bottom of a doorstep. That made me realise that I hadn’t thought about alyssum in a long, long time; I remember a big carpet of it around the edges of flowerbeds and pots in the garden of my maternal grandparents, who, I realised when reading something Sarah had written yesterday, I don’t speak or write to enough. I have a lot of good memories of being a child in their garden; I told my grandmother this – I bought her a card with a botanical illustration of a passion flower on it because it reminded me of her and there – and, my mother told me, made her cry, but in a good way.

Alyssum, then – it’s simple and understated and I used to like the smallness of it and the scent, but mostly the name, I think. They called it sweet alyssum, or maybe that was the variety, and made a thing of how it sounded like ‘sweet Alice’. Perhaps that was what I thought it was or should be called, how I’d have spelled it if I didn’t know: alice-um. But I was always good at reading, and I always used to like reading seed packets and catalogues, so on the other hand perhaps I knew how to spell it before I knew what it was. That’s how I can spell all the flowers: helianthus, delphinium, hydrangea, even fuchsia, which I remember was one of the hardest but one I liked a lot so I had to learn. Mr Fothergill’s seed packets and Cicely Mary Barker’s flower fairies; between the two of them my horticultural literacy was assured.

Those long sunny days that I remember in their garden being small, the school holidays, I would be with my brother and sometimes my cousins. Or on weekends in London, in the magnificent garden of my dad’s great-grandmother, a warm and tiny woman. She died when I was thirteen and she was ninety-seven. Her garden was tidy, almost formal, but if you knew where to look, which of course we did, it was bursting with life and more importantly fruit; apples, plums, gooseberries, redcurrants, and most wonderfully a mulberry tree. Me and my brother and my other cousins this time, my London Jewish ones. We’d stuff ourselves with mulberries, plump, dark and intense, and she’d warn us that we’d get tummy aches but mostly we just got sticky purple juice everywhere. It was before I ever had a sister; a sister with a flower name or otherwise. I wonder if there was a time when I would think about flowers, or leaves, and not feel even just a tiny bit sad. A time before loss, I suppose. I wonder if anybody does, or can.

At times like these I think it’s strange how symbolism doesn’t work on things outside of your head; it’s strange the difference in accountability between the imaginary and the real. If I’d dreamed all this, the story of the red feathers and the spring alyssum, you’d say that everything meant something; perhaps the feathers were some metaphor for… K, or time, and the red was because of my phobia that I’d been thinking and worrying about, and the fading was because of me worrying about being trapped in my job, and so on and so forth. Everything would have its place, everything its reason. But I didn’t dream it, it just happened one day in the street, and so it doesn’t have all that neat translation or explanation, it doesn’t have to be reasonable or reasoned with.

I didn’t mean this to be sad.

A shell is nicer when there’s somebody to show it to as well.

One rainy night in Edinburgh:

I met K tonight, for what she calls in her inviting text ‘post-work brunch (?) like proper grown-ups’. After the ‘brunch’ (at Biblos in a comfy corner sofa), we moved on to Sandy Bell’s, where I’d never been before but, being situated in the middle of student-pubs-ville, have been drunk within a few yards of its doors scores of times. It’s really refreshingly unstudenty; we bought our pints and snuggled in to a wobbly little table that’s almost in its own tiny room, deep-pinkly walled on three sides away from the world. I don’t need to write what we talked about, that is for us and nobody else and it wouldn’t get across how much it means, how much she means, there’s no way that words ever could, no way that I ever could, no way that writing this will, but I do it anyway – I’m trying, struggling to catch it and put my fingers on it, to hold on to something that can never be held on to. I just don’t want future-me to forget this, this night and this time in my life, this girl who is so much more than a girl, this remarkable one, so wise and so beautiful, this… little human being who is everything. As always I’m struck by the frequency and accuracy of her knowing exactly what I mean when I can’t express it, and by knowing what she means before she does; she never fails to amaze me. As always I love her on the surface, as well, I love her eyes and her beauty and her speech and her idioms, so close to the ones that anyone else would use but with her own Finnish twists; ‘but it just slips through your hands, all this time’, she laments. I want to never let her slip through my hands. At the same time I know that she won’t be here for ever, and whatever happens I will always be so, so lucky to have known her.

At the pub there was a little loose group of musicians sitting around a nearby table and playing unpretentious folk music, looking as though they were doing it for themselves and for the fun of it rather than for the benefit of the few people who politely, quietly clapped at the end of songs: playing, not performing. A plain-looking, middle-aged woman sat with them and sang one song, in a voice so lovely that it stopped me in mid-sentence to gaze at her as though by watching her I could work out where it was coming from. Her voice was like driftwood or sea-glass, something weathered, worn and softened by time and elements, only to become more and more beautiful. A man was playing what looked like a little tiny guitar, but with decorative little curlicues on the corners of the body and the top bit where the tuning pegs go, which gave it a delightfully organic look as though he’d just found it growing like that and plucked it one day, perhaps at the top of a magic beanstalk. Actually what it reminded me most of was this little fellow, even if that is pretty geeky. Afterwards we went out and stood under an archway to shelter from that very Edinburgh type of rain that seems so light and fine but makes you very wet very quickly, while she smoked. Behind her there was a very pretty old switch that said ‘FIRE SWITCH’ but all the letters were peeling off and higgledy-piggledy. The switches were bright blue, like her hair. (What do those things do, anyway?) We talked about friendship. I wanted to take her hands, her elegant porcelain hands, half-hidden in loose turquoise fingerless warmers like extra sleeves, and never let go.

These words are to remind me. I want to keep moments, keep things that can never be kept and have already gone. I take photographs sometimes. Today I write this down instead. It’s like a sigh.
Snowflakes on my tongue, rain in her eyelashes, post-coital sweat on his skin, sand in your shoes, wind in our hair: things that can never be kept. Time with her, her voice, her gaze, her laugh: things that can never be kept. This feeling, or more accurately all these feelings, including but not limited to devotion, relief, awe, tenderness, peace: things I hope to feel again.