Tuesday, 11 November 2014
My mother's garden is cold and quiet, the lawns pearled with moisture, trees gaunt and naked against a colourless sky. It is the Autumn of the year of my father's death and the opaque air of November clings to my skin like a shroud. A will to dormancy takes hold.
Yet I must prevail against grief and seasonal inertia, for I have a promise to keep, and a task to undertake. My mother is away, and I have vowed that in her absence I will transplant her much loved peonies, from a position that they have occupied for many years, to a different site further along the flowerbed, thus liberating them from the encompassing shade of a vigorous laurel, beneath which they are at present suffering.
I gather tools, and survey the bed. Against the dark, leaf littered earth show clusters of small pink points; the ruby of emerging peony buds, arranged in optimistic groups, signalling the closure of one year, the opening of the next.
The plants are well established; I remember them from my childhood, recall my amazement each year at the magical unfurling of the tight drumstick bud, and the gradual emergence of the bounteous head of glistening petals; the miracle of life and growth made gloriously manifest.
The black cat, Minos, joins me, pressing against my legs, as I stand uncertain on the path, daunted by the prospect of the endeavour ahead of me, and almost regretting my promise, glad that my mother is not present to witness my nervousness. For peonies are sensitive, resentful of disturbance; I am anxious that the move might kill them. Besides which, I do not know how to move them; I do not know what they are like underground, and, the realisation coming upon me in an uncomfortable wave of self disapprobation, have neglected to research the project.
I bend down to caress the cat, whose jet coat gleams softly in the dullness of the day. When he steps away from me, pacing delicately across the damp earth of the flowerbed, I take the light fork, the one with long, slender tines, and sink it down into the clinging soil, remove it, and sink it again and again, at different points around the first plant. I am thankful that the buds are showing; it gives me an idea of where to dig. I begin levering the fork carefully against what I presume to be the root ball. But peonies do not have a root ball. Their heady glory eventually emerges from discrete brown tubers, deep beneath the surface of the soil. The rending of earth and plant fills my ears, causing me acute distress. I clench my teeth, and insert the fork more deeply, hoping to loosen the soil sufficiently to burrow my hand underneath the plant, and thus free it. The earth is chill and heavy, sticky and unresponsive; I struggle to work my fingers beneath the tubers in order to lift the plant in it's entirety. The peony appears in fragments. I have shorn some of the tubers in two; their ravaged surfaces are the rich yellow of butternut squash. I shed tears, knowing that I must repeat the whole process at least half a dozen times. I am overwhelmed by a sense of inadequacy, and pity for the plant whose quiet incubation I am so ruthlessly disrupting. I set the damaged tubers upon the earth, in the place where they are to be replanted, and begin to excavate the next. I now know how deeply I must engage the fork; understand something of the peony's habit of growth.
Prying the peonies from the ground, deciding on their fresh positions, and replanting them, occupies me for the whole of the day. The cat, as if sensing my discomfiture, remains with me for much of the time, taking advantage of pauses to request attention, slipping away on business of his own when I resume digging, A robin trills bouyantly above my head, from the sequestered haven of the laurel. I take some heart from the presence of both.
At last I have unearthed each peony, and laid it on the bed where I shall replant it. I reflect bitterly upon my lack of skill, and sensitivity with regard to the plants; to my anguished eyes, the scene before me resembles one of carnage. Numbed with cold, and the dread feeling that I may have ruined the plants beyond recovery, I begin to bury each tuber well underground, leaving the vulnerable bud just above the surface, as I had seen them that morning. I realise that I am mouthing apologies to them as I do so. The day closes upon my labour with grey finality. I collect the tools, clean the earth from the tines of the fork, and replace all in my mother's shed. Later, I sit motionless indoors beside the fire, both cats faithful at my feet, blind to all else but the dancing flames in the grate.
On subsequent visits to my mother I return anxiously to the bed where the peonies have been transplanted, hoping to see movement in the tight red tips of the new season's buds, taking comfort in the still vibrant, vital colour, the absence of decay.
As the season wears on, it becomes evident that the peonies have not only survived, they are flourishing. Over time, the glossy carmine spears miraculously extend, opening into hands of shining leaves. Compact flower buds centre each span. There seem to be many more than I planted; each fragmented plant has spawned another, much as the broom of the sorcerer's appentice multiplied when chopped into pieces. In May, the first glowing, satiny petals open to the sun, and the blooms release the rich, exotic scent so evocative of my youth. As she does each year, my mother cuts several in commemoration of the birth of my sister's eldest son, born at peony time, taking her a luxuriant bouquet from the garden in which my self and sisters played as children, and work as adults; our domestic Eden and safe harbourage, site of childish secrets and adventure. For my mother, it is the only place on earth where she finds a fleeting solace from grief, where entrenched in the perpetual cycle of rebirth and replenishment, she experiences some ease of mind, some relief from the loneliness of life without my father.