I am in the Tyrone Guthrie Centre in Annaghmakerrig again this week, doing a final round of edits on the first draft of my new novel before I have to submit it to my editor.
I am usually quite antisocial when I am here, deliberately focusing all my attention on the project at hand, but for some reason, this morning I have been drawn to having a conversation with another resident over breakfast.
She is German, a newspaper columnist who is working on a non-fiction book, and she is telling me about a series of articles she’s written about the art of gift-giving.
The column she is currently working on is about the gifts that used to be sent between West Berlin and East Berlin, the parcels full of chocolate and coffee and washing powder, and the distinctive aroma that this mixture of items would create.
The people of East Berlin still talk about that, she said, the precise scent that would rise from the package as they opened it. Smell is so evocative of memory, isn’t it, she says to me.
I go for a walk every day when I am in Annaghmakerrig. Sometimes to the lake, to stand at its shores and watch the dapple of sunlight, the reflection of the surrounding trees on the water, the swans swimming past me, majestic and proud.
But today, for some reason, I am drawn towards the gardens. I walk past a mini maze, a table and chairs in cast iron, and I wander towards the rose bushes. The pink and red roses are beautifully fragrant but it is the yellow flowers that stop me in my tracks. I press my nose against their centre, inhaling deeply, my hands shaking.
For I am transported to the garden Over Home, my grandmother’s garden. I see her, on her knees and her hands digging deep into the soil, her face content. Another day, a sunny one this time, and she sitting on an old wooden bench outside the front door.
She is in summer clothes, linen trousers and cream sandals, a white bucket hat on her head. Her legs are outstretched, her face upturned to the sun. She is relaxing, for once. This was where she was happiest, you see, in that garden. A patch of grass, divided in two by a stone path, lined with the most exquisite roses in pinks and reds, and of course, yellow. A towering monkey puzzle tree on either side.
I realise that every garden I’ve written about in novels that are set in Ireland — Asking For it, Almost Love, the new book I’m working on — have been exact replicas of her garden. The narrow path leading down to a rusting gate, the roses blooming, the sun filtering through the monkey trees.
When I think of a garden, I don’t picture the one outside the bungalow in Inchydoney, or the beautiful one in my parents’ home in Clonakilty, no. To me a garden can only be my grandmother’s garden. I think of her for she was home.
I stand in Annaghmakerrig, surrounded by those yellow roses, and I realise the German columnist is correct about the evocative power of smell. I start to cry because I wish I could phone my grandmother and tell her about these roses, about all the fictional gardens that I have named in her honour, and I feel my inability to do so like a physical ache, a bruise beneath my chest bone.
She tended to those roses so lovingly for almost 60 years, and what will happen to them now? Will they see another summer? Are they blossoming as I write this, or are they withering away without her clever fingers to coax them towards the light?
I phone my boyfriend, tears in my voice, and he tells me it’s OK, that we will have rose bushes in our own house one day. But I don’t know how to tend them, I say. I never asked her how. That night in bed, although I am tired, I am struggling to fall asleep.
Suddenly, I am thinking of an old coffee shop called Jake’s in Bandon shopping centre, sitting there with my sister, mother, and grandmother, eating chocolate eclairs and drinking tea. We would go to the library afterwards, for even though I was not a member of that branch and couldn’t borrow books there, I still liked to be among them, running my fingertips along their spines, feeling the power of the stories crackling within.
My mind skips, and I am back Over Home and the house is full of light and people and chat, the evening tea being laid on the table — slices of homemade soda bread with butter and jam, cups of milky tea — all family members accounted for.
There have been no deaths yet, not at that point, my uncles are there, Granddad, and my grandmother is sitting in her usual place at the top of the table, the matriarch, our true North. I remember feeling safe.
And I know then what this pain this, this heavy sadness that I have carried with me since she died last January. It is not just the loss of her, although that is fierce, but it is the loss of childhood too. The sense that something is broken, and that it cannot be fixed. I turn over in the bed. I fall asleep that night, and I dream of a rose garden.
Louise O’ Neill is the author of Only Ever Yours, Asking For It, Almost Love, and The Surface Breaks
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