Episode 11: Walking in a Ghostly Garden.

‘The Orange Tree’ by Josephine Trotter. In the author’s own collection.

In Seeking Clemency Caroline Tremain, returning to the Georgian manor where she lived when she was young, goes into the walled garden at the rear of the old house. Although it’s now a veritable jungle, she remembers it very clearly as it had been in her grandmother’s day:

‘The roses, pink and white and delicate, added to the overall impression that she had employed a potter, an expert in fine porcelain, to create a work of art of which a lady would approve. There’d been a hedge of double whites. Borders of the rounded damasks. And growing over by the shrubs…’

All of a sudden, her mind goes blank. She can no longer see the garden in the state that she remembers, but another image of it. ‘The same garden, but with different flowers in it. Brilliant colours. Lots of reds. Begonias and red-hot pokers. Stonecrop. Mallow. Dahlias. The recollection of each flower was every bit as clear to me as the water from the well. Star-shaped blooms and trumpet shapes. I saw them all from memory.’

She is, although she doesn’t know it, walking in a ghostly garden, as I once did myself in a very different setting. Opposite the National Botanical Gardens in Cape Town, on the corner of Rhodes Avenue and Kirstenbosch Drive, is a small Anglican church. Adjacent to it is a long stretch of un-occupied land. People go there to walk their dogs. Walking across it myself one day, I noticed that small flowers were growing in clumps at regular intervals. Unlike the sweet-smelling scarlet ericas, wild gardenias, cycads and proteas which flourished on the other side of the road, they were the kind of flowers which grow in suburban gardens: white anemones, red, yellow and orange pigs’ ears, bachelor’s buttons and Goldilocks.

Odd… Or, rather, sad as I soon found out because those cultivated flowers are all that’s left of the homes of the Cape Coloured families who were forced to re-locate to other parts of the Cape under apartheid in the ‘60s. Their houses were destroyed but down the road, in Newlands’ Village, similar cottages are still standing: valuable because of their proximity to the city, they were snapped up by opportunistic developers, superficially renovated and sold off to yuppie buyers. In contrast, the poor prices that the ‘non-whites’ got for their homes did not allow them to purchase equivalent mortgage-free houses. Only the gardens that they planted remain – a floral testimony to the ruthless destruction of a community and a unique way of life.

The ghosts of those gardens remained in my mind as the ghost of another garden remains in that of Caroline Tremain in Seeking Clemency. ‘Red. That dream. That image of a different garden. All the flowers had been red… The night sky was as grey as charcoal but a red sheen, like a gaping wound, was running across its belly… Red was the colour of danger… The night and the fiery arc and the volatile lake seemed united in a chorus of warning…telling me to run. To go before it was too late…‘ It was all a long way from my own walk in the Cape. But that’s how ideas take root and grow in an author’s mind.

Next week: The Ghosts Who Lived in the Black Townships.