I WAS sitting with my friend Melanie in a quiet corner of the park the other day; we had a picnic, our children were playing together in blissful harmony, and the sun was shining in a most un-English way. This bit of the park is fenced off and dog-free, tucked away behind a hedge and surprisingly verdant. It is called, for some unknown reason, the Philosopher's Garden; and perhaps the ghost of a ruminative Victorian gentleman still wanders there, prodding the picnickers into discussing the meaning of life. Anyway, there we were, sprawled on the grass, and talking about the nature of happiness, which is not something we normally contemplate on a weekday afternoon. (The conversation more often goes like this. Me, peevishly: "Look at my legs. I'm sure I'm getting varicose veins." Melanie, comfortingly: "Poor you, why don't you..." Child, shrilly: "Mummy, come quick, I fell over and dropped my lolly!")
But for once all the children were profitably engaged elsewhere, which was doubtless one of the reasons for the contentment that had settled upon us, like the unexpected warmth of that early summer's day. And we had other reasons to be cheerful: apparently healthy children; generally loving husbands; relatively pleasant houses. Life wasn't perfect - and it would never be, in the real world that we inhabit where children are sometimes ill and marriages occasionally fraught - but for the time being it was fine, just like the weather.
The next day, the sun continued to shine, and we went to visit another friend who lives in a large house up on the hill, with one of the most glorious gardens imaginable. Again, the children frolicked together in various states of undress while we ate lemon cake on the lawn and admired the remarkably beautiful borders and the lush climbing plants that covered the stone walls. You could not see any sign of the city beyond: the walls were too high, though not quite high enough to conceal entirely the neighbour's garden, which was even more extensive, and with its very own swimming pool.
I examined my conscience, and much to my surprise it was not completely blotted with the green stain of jealousy. Our friend who inhabits the house on the hill is so exceptionally nice - so very deserving, in fact - that it seems fitting that she should now live there. (Her garden becomes her.)
This may be why I was gripped with a frenzy of self-improvement when we returned home that night. My house was, frankly, slovenly; and the garden even worse. The plants were drooping through lack of water, and weeds sprouted in the lawn and choked what I loosely term the flower-beds, though few flowers are able to flourish there at present. When the children were in bed, I washed the dishes and polished the furniture and hoovered the floors. (How can so many mildewed biscuit crumbs be gathered under one sofa?) Then I went outside and watered the plants and swept the patio and thought about mowing the grass, but this seemed inconsiderate, given that it was now approaching midnight. I decided to tackle the rest of the garden in the morning, and went back into the house, only to be struck by the peculiar dustiness of the umbrella plant that lurks in the corner of our living-room. Luckily, my sister had been similarly struck the week before, and had therefore given me a pot of "Leaf Shine Wipes". So I got out the wipes, and started on the plant, which is well over 6ft high.
By 1am, the plant was still two-thirds dusty, and I was tiring of all this virtuous cleaning; quite apart from anything else, the wipes were giving my hands a strange warty rash. I went to bed, and dreamt of opening a door in my house which led to a hitherto undiscovered room which was empty, spacious and light, with views over a secret, Edenic rose garden. (It seems a shamefully obvious dream, I know, but at least its simplicity saves on potential therapy bills; though gardens may, like everything else, have some genitally-related Freudian double meaning.
The following morning I rang my friend Elaine, who had also visited the house on the hill; she, too, had been sweeping and mowing well into the night. Then I rang Melanie, who confessed to have risen at 7am to start tending her garden. The local ghost of the Victorian philosopher would have been heartened by all this self-improvement ("The rich man in his castle,/ the poor man at his gate,/ and me, Elaine and Melanie/ weeding without a break...")
I'm not quite sure if there are any lasting results to be had from this surge of activity: in my garden, at least, the grass may be trimmed, but the blackflies are now rampant. It's rather like reading a book which tells you how to have thin thighs in 10 days, or transform your love life overnight (or both at the same time, if you work really hard): you're filled with initial enthusiasm, but it soon peters out unless you have superhuman energy and staying power (in which case you wouldn't be reading a self-help book in the first place).
It didn't take long (less than 12 hours, in fact) before I'd given up on domesticity, both indoors and outside, and was on the phone to Melanie again. "How's your garden?" she said.
I explained about the plague of blackfly, and then repeated the "everything is fine, really" litany, and finally launched into some smug waffle about how part of growing up was learning to accept that idylls exist only in the head.
"There's no such thing as the perfect house," I said, "or the perfect child or the perfect body or the perfect marriage or the perfect garden or the - "
"Oh yes there is," interrupted Melanie, with unusual certainty. "There is the perfect garden."
"Where?" I said.
"The garden next door to where we were yesterday," she said. "The one with the swimming pool. That's the perfect garden." And though I hate to admit it, I think she was probably right: because the grass is greener from a distance, particularly when glimpsed from the other side of a high stone wall. !
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