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Torfaen Tales

The Wilderness

It was all over between us. Five years of marriage, gone in one painful conversation. He had moved on, and I had been too busy with trivia to notice the signs.

I found myself another house. I couldn’t call it a home. Just a place I was renting until our home was sold. Part of me thought I should move to another town, possibly leave Wales altogether, but I couldn’t bring myself to take that step. This was my home town, not Huw’s, and I didn’t see why I should cut off my nose to spite my face.

I had no heart for decorating as I had in my own home. I left a lot of stuff still packed in boxes, piled haphazardly in the second bedroom. I couldn’t get a grip on the present, let alone make any sort of plans for the future. A future on my own, stretching painfully ahead into the mists of time.

I went to work and came home again like an automaton. They were pretty good in the library, they cut me some slack and didn’t ask intrusive questions.

“It will get easier with time, Mel,” said Carys sympathetically as she made me a cup of coffee.

“That’s easy for you to say,” I said flippantly, picking idly at some loose plastic trim on the table in the staff room.

“Look, it could happen to me, too,” replied Carys earnestly. “There’s no guarantee that any relationship will last.”

Ah, Carys. Her perfect life with her husband and four children in their rambling country home. How could she possibly understand? And here was I, back to Square One. No husband, no children, and banished from my home. Hey, let’s throw a pity party. I’ll bring the popcorn.

To hell with the popcorn. I decided to turn to drink. Anything to try and blot out the endless scenes replaying in my head. I bought a bottle of brandy, put on some music that didn’t remind me of Huw, and poured myself a large measure. And a couple more. Somehow the brandy blurred the edges, but I awoke on the sofa the following morning, crumpled and stale with a dull ache in my head to match the one in my heart.

Thankfully it was Saturday morning, and not my turn to work. I opened the French windows and ventured into the garden. If you could call it that: it was more like a jungle. The morning was quite mild for April, with a clear blue sky and sunshine advancing towards the cracked, mossy patio. The garden had probably been quite nice at some stage, but the shrubs and trees hadn’t been pruned, nothing had been tidied or dead-headed, and nettles and brambles had run riot through the whole mess. I made my way tentatively down the path, stepping over vicious runners of bramble and fending off dense overhead growth. Then something caught my eye. On my left, there was a little patch of bright green lawn bursting with dainty, pale yellow primroses. Untidy, overgrown grass sprouted up between the sturdy little plants. But they sat there in the shade, delicate yet defiant.

I decided to clear the area leading to the primroses so they could be seen more clearly. I had no garden tools so I headed for the hardware store, still in last night’s clothes with the taste of brandy stale on my breath, and yesterday’s eyeshadow and mascara smudged around my eyes. I didn’t care.

An hour or so later, dressed more appropriately and armed with secateurs, loppers, a saw, stout gloves and industrial strength refuse bags, I ventured back into the garden.

Feeling woozy with hunger after several hours’ work, I retreated back into the house in search of food. I made a cheese sandwich and took a chair out onto the patio. The sun was by this time high in the sky, blazing down on my head and shoulders as I munched and surveyed my efforts. It felt almost good.

But the garden was still a mess. There was not a lot to show for my hours of toil. However I was determined to make order out of chaos. Gardening was something I was good at - the garden at my former home bore testament to this. Granted, I hadn’t started with such a challenge, but I knew this was something I could do. I didn’t have any enthusiasm for paint or curtains, but there was something satisfying about hacking back brambles and sawing off branches that were in the way. As I worked, I thought of Huw in the arms of his new love. I swore and sobbed as I hacked and sawed, and at the end of the afternoon I felt drained but appeased. I gathered up my garden tools and plonked them on the kitchen bench. I poured myself a large brandy and sat on the patio as the last rays of sun moved westwards. In the afterglow my garden looked as though something was starting to happen. It remained to be seen whether it would look as good in the harsh light of the following morning.

It was raining when I awoke on Sunday morning. The garden was dull and sodden in the grey light, but it certainly looked as though I was making a difference. The primrose-studded lawn was now clearly visible. I still had a long battle ahead to beat the brambles back into submission, and it was the thought of the rain nourishing them to grow again that drove me back into my gardening clothes and on with the task.

The rain eased by lunchtime. The garden steamed gently in watery sunlight as I suddenly noticed buds on the apple trees. The promise of flowers and fruit - what a delight! My heart leapt, something it hadn’t done in years. Maybe Huw had been right. He hadn’t made my heart skip a beat for as long as I could remember. Perhaps our relationship had become boring and routine. But how pathetic and sad was it that gardening could stir my heart to such an extent?

By Sunday night I reckoned I’d cleared at least a quarter of the garden. I decided not to bag up the surplus plant matter. Cutting it up into manageable pieces was just too tiresome. There was an area over to the left by the wall where I could pile it all up for a bonfire. Then I cleaned my tools and put them away in the shed. My back ached, but it was a good ache. I ran a hot bath and luxuriated in some bath oil that Mum had given me for Christmas. I ‘phoned for a pizza and ate it while watching the ten o’clock news with a friendly glass of brandy. Then I went to bed and slept better than I had done in living memory.

The following week I cursed the early onset of darkness. I was eager to continue work in the garden, but after I got home from the library there was not much time left before it became too dark for me to see what I was doing. I was constantly discovering new treasures: a cluster of wood anemones behind the shed, a rockery that was crumbling but showed potential, and a flint-studded path which curved away behind the holly tree. The garden was full of little quirks, and I wondered who was responsible. It was just a smallish town garden, but now that I was uncovering the hard landscaping aspects I could see that it had been quite cleverly designed to make the most of the space available.

At last, the weekend, and still not yet my turn to work a Saturday. The day dawned clear and promising, and I climbed eagerly out of bed about eight despite a considerable intake of brandy on Friday night. As I ate my toast on the patio I cast a critical eye over my work. The apple trees needed some of the lower branches removed to open up the view, so I set to work with a vengeance. I didn’t even notice that I wasn’t thinking of Huw.

Just after lunch I made a Major Discovery. It was in the middle of the garden, about two-thirds of the way towards the rear wall, a stick-like figure encrusted with moss. I reeled backwards and literally stopped breathing for a few seconds. At first I panicked, thinking it was a skeleton. Then logic kicked in. A skeleton, standing up? With no bones visible? No, it was a sculpture, a work of art. It was shrouded in ivy and brambles. Even though I was wearing stout gloves I could feel the thorns spiking my hands, and the brambles ripped at my shirt as though trying to avoid being beaten into submission. I snipped steadily with the secateurs, disarming the spiky stems. I ripped away tendrils of ivy which left a disfiguring residue like a scabby disease on skin that was already dark and mummified. I tapped the sculpture with my secateurs and it gave a satisfying metallic clang. Bronze, possibly, but whatever it was, it was very weathered and discoloured.

Having released the figure from capture, I worked on clearing the surrounding area. The statue was fixed into a circular plinth of stone, and when I stood back and half-closed my eyes to the devastation beyond I could appreciate how the statue would have enhanced the garden and given it an element of sophistication over and above its neighbours.

The slender figure had its emaciated arms enfolded around its body, and with a jolt I realised that it was clutching a smaller figure to its chest. A baby. Something poignant kick-started my biological clock with a thousand volt jolt, and tears sprang from my eyes. Huw had always shied away from the question of children. It occurred to me that perhaps he had always felt he didn’t want to become that deeply involved.

As I continued hacking and clearing over days which turned into weeks, the apple trees unfurled their blooms. The evenings began to stretch out as April gave way to May, and the weather became mild and uplifting. I was existing in a bubble, but it was a light, floating existence with no dark clouds.

I contacted the agent from whom I had rented the house, eager to know more about the history of the garden. The house was obviously Victorian in origin, but the statue seemed far more modern. I had a time-waster of a conversation with the receptionist who clearly could not comprehend why anyone would be interested in who had designed a garden.

So I thought I’d try the neighbours, and I struck gold on the first attempt. Prior to knocking on the door, I had no idea who lived on my left. All I had heard was a distant radio from time to time, and I hadn’t caught so much as a glimpse of the inhabitant. Not that I had been particularly interested.

A small, elderly lady answered the door. She blinked up at me, shielding her eyes with a wrinkled hand.

“Hello, I’m Melanie, your new next-door neighbour. I’m sorry I haven’t introduced myself sooner but I’ve been a bit busy.”

“Pleased to meet you, dear. My name is Mildred. Would you like to come in?”

I followed her into the kitchen and accepted a cup of tea. Mildred made things easy for me, I didn’t even have to broach the subject of my interest.

“I see you’ve been very busy in the garden, dear. You’re doing a great job.”

“I’ve been enjoying myself.” I replied, surprised to find this was true. “It’s quite an unusual garden. For a start, there’s this statue …”

Mildred smiled. “Ah, that was Rhodri‘s doing. Rhodri is a sculptor. He still owns your house, but he took a job teaching in Scotland and decided rather than sell, he’d get tenants in. That was about three years ago. It was his wife, Caroline, who designed the garden. She did all the work herself. Rhodri modelled the statue on Caroline and their daughter Emma, both of whom were sadly killed in a car accident. That’s why Rhodri went up to Scotland. A fresh start, you see.”

Mildred clearly liked to chat. From time to time over the next hour or so I lost the plot a little as my thoughts kept drifting back to the sad story of Caroline, Emma and Rhodri. Eventually I thanked Mildred for the tea and took my leave. In the dying rays of the afternoon sun I took a tour of the garden and saw it with different eyes now I knew more. I placed my hand on Caroline’s shoulder, and silently hoped that she approved of my work.

Somehow I had dreaded reaching the back wall of the garden, signifying that my work was done. And on yet another bright and sunny Saturday afternoon I upended the last wheelbarrow-load of refuse onto the pile that I would burn when all the matter had dried sufficiently. I flopped into my chair on the patio and surveyed the result: job done. But could you ever declare work complete on a garden? Answers on a postcard: no. A garden is a living, changing thing. A living testament to Caroline’s vision and effort, no doubt altered slightly by my remedial work. But Caroline’s creation would need my input to prevent the garden running wild again. I still had a purpose to my existence.

Most importantly for me, I now felt more ready to move forward into the next stage of my life. I was still short on ideas, but I felt a more calm sense of acceptance that my marriage was over. That it had been a place to pause for a few years, but not my final destination. I could now look back on my life with Huw, appreciate the good bits, but learn from the bad bits and hopefully not go back there. My consumption of brandy was reducing steadily: another good sign. Carys had commented only a few days before that I seemed brighter these days.

I was getting things back into perspective: it seemed Carys’s life was not all that idyllic after all. Her perfect husband had got in a bit of a muddle and owed quite a lot to the Inland Revenue, and their boiler had chosen that moment to break down. And her angelic children were riddled with head lice. Whereas I had hardly a care in the world. If my boiler were to break down it would be my landlord’s problem. I was managing comfortably on my own salary, even putting a little by each month now that the brandy consumption was falling. And perhaps children were more bother than they were worth. The garden was my baby for now, something to nurture and glory in.

By Karenne Griffin

Last Modified on: 05-11-2015

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06/10/2018 - 17/11/2018
Having recently returned to the UK after living in New Zealand for ten years, Claire has been experimenting with new techniques. She has been working with a variety of techniques and marrying metals together to create wearable sculptures or as she likes to call them wearable "Sketches", like little mini contemporary paintings

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Almost half a million men enlisted in the first two months of The Great War, however recruitment soon fell dramatically and conscription was introduced in January 1916.Most single men from the ages of 18 to 41 were liable to be called up for service and by the end of war over five million British men had served.

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Katharina create timeless vessels for contemporary interiors. Each piece is individually made from porcelain on the potter's wheel. Naïve, spontaneous pencil strokes, graphic simple patterns that create movement and direction.
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