The Rain Garden by Joanna Campbell

The Rain Garden

by Joanna Campbell                                                            

I am creating a garden from rain. My hands, steeped in glossy soil, are digging to the core of the world. A spangled worm twists, unhurried, around a clod of earth, working without searching, hoping to avoid thrushes’ beaks and the thrust of gardeners’ spades. Not enough brain for thinking at all. Only for living.

I plunge my hands in again.

Damp earth flies up, spattering my list, but the blurred words still shine.

I wrote it the night after the baby came, all the steps I must take in thick pencil like a column of flattened flies on the page.

I watched Lily’s face in between the words, leaning over the crib to hear the rapid newness of her breath, feel its warmth in my ear. I laid my palm on the perfect round of her head, the damp softness of her spring-rain hair. After months unripe, unseeing, helical and water-logged, Lily emerged from my distended shape, a fresh-minted creation, like a smooth, risen scone from a clump of dough.

The list took shape in minutes, not months. The work it entails will take longer and the results of the toil yet more time after that. But with one patient step at a time, I will create a garden from rain.

I crouch on the ground, daunted, and pick up the worm, letting it curl in my palm. Afraid? Or basking in earthy heat? Probably both at once, the same as me.

Listening to Lily’s breathing, I set to work again. The worm channels its way into the darkness, descending forever into the gingerbread soil. This earth lives, moves and breathes with me and Lily, thickening and deepening for miles beneath the turf you laid last summer.

                                                                   *

Slice by slice, you unfurled your living carpet, and it grew, brick-like, in the manner of a horizontal, living wall. I remember, as you trod and toed the spongey slices of turf into place, your foot slipped from the edges, unable to locate the centre, so many times.

“There. One lawn,” you said, unrolling the final piece, blind from the sweat seeping into your eyes. I had to help you to align it, casting a smear of resentment over the clarity of your gratitude.

The lawn dried in the sun-weighted breeze and never lapped a drop of rain. The drought parched even the patio into a crazed stone desert. We lay on the brief coolness of the sofa until our skin clung, melting the leather. We drank beer to conserve the water in the taps and squirmed together in the swelter of the night.

When September brought frantic skeins of rain, we vowed never to waste a drop again. We reused our baths, stepping into each other’s pool of deflated foam. As I eased myself in, my skin dissolving into your shed cells, we watched the slow water close over my hip bones to meet in the centre of my body.

After a downpour we looked out of the window, our lips close enough to taste the glass, and listened to the drip-feed from roof to patio; from path to brittle turf. Steady enough, surely, to revive the sandy matted garden we had created? The late sun, bright and showy like a clown at a stagnant party, formed a rainbow cascade. We stepped outside to stand beneath its arc, to revive.

While torrents blurred our bedroom window, we created our baby, ready for spring. I hot-housed the spreading life inside me. But the lawn refused to recover.

In spring, we said, all will be well.

But your hand on my powerful belly felt like paper.

As I became lard, you faded. I felt as if you had rolled me in a blanket woven with your own fibre. The baby flourished, a sweet, fat seed in a pod.

I began to waste water. Long oily baths to keep my skin intact. Tall glasses of mint cordial for heartburn. Taps left pouring, rinsing the custardy brushes that painted the nursery pale-yellow.

The lawn changed from emerald to ochre within weeks. But you lost your colour in far less.

Trees crouched in vicious gales that hurried winter to its finale. I wanted you to stroke my skin, tight now around our child, a tense coating that no swerve of the wind could shift. But by March you were too weak to eat; by April too tired to sip. You hunched on the garden chair, reluctant to linger, unable to leave. When you dozed, I sat in the car on the drive, where you couldn’t hear me cry.

Ona good day, you ordered sedge-grasses. You fashioned an unfinished garden in a notebook. It looked dry and weak on the page, all wavering lines and faint measurements.

When you finished the drawing, the pencil slipped from behind your ear. I kissed the tender nape of your neck, in the pattern of creases. It didn’t hurt there. My breath moistened it, kept you alive a little longer. My finger charted its byways while you slept.

We struggled out for a day. I pushed your wheelchair up and down the straight lines of a botanical garden. But you were not sitting in it.

With you bone-weary in the passenger seat, I fought the wretched contraption to make it unfold, grappling with wheels that refused to budge, compressed and clinging to the folded seat. When I flung it down the rattle sounded final. I kicked it, then sank onto the edge of the open boot and watched the blustery drizzle thrash the passers-by, even though I had chosen a day with a bright outlook.

When the rain eased, a well-shaven man, scented with sandalwood, walked by with a flute of champagne. He would have struggled too, he said, had he borne the same burden as me.

He gave me the glass to hold safe while he flicked the lever. The concertina mechanism sprang upright in fewer seconds than it took for the effervescence to subside.

“Watch where you wheel this,” he said. “Avoid the claggy areas. Plenty of good paths though. The rose garden is lovely. Nice wide walkways. Terrific scent. He’ll at least be able to breathe it all in.” He spoke as if breathing was all you had left.

The man marched on, tipping his trilby to ladies in summery frocks, waving aside my thanks in that way gentlemen have. Politely dismissive, as if the moment held no meaning. He might mention it to his wife later:

“Had to help out a damsel in distress today. Poor soul. Expecting, she was. Any time now, I should say.”

You were hunched over in the passenger seat. How would I know if your heart was still beating?

Families teemed, cars crunched on the gravel. A silver band tuned up and starlings shrieked on the verges. Life was rocking the car the way an anxious mother jiggles a pram and I couldn’t hear one man’s breath.

“John, are you all right? I’ve got things ready.”

My voice hung there. A forgotten apple core lay in the ash-tray, reeking of wet car picnics from childhood, of abandoned school-bags rediscovered at the end of summer.

You stirred. Stiff, only half-awake, you opened your eyes to the rain-rinsed world, the wind whipping it full of air. Crowds floated in pastel clothes, shining hair and flying feet, making their way to the glorious flowers under that wide spring sky. They were going to live forever.

You saw the chair waiting and said I should look round alone. Collect ideas. Take everything in. “Absorb it,” you said. To come all this way and drive straight home would be a shame. You would sit just as you were, with your tube of soft mints and the leaflet that explained the different sections of the garden.

It felt like leaving a child gripping a present on a strange doorstep, on the threshold of a new friend’s party, hoping a smiling mother in full skirt and soft shoes would open the door.

I didn’t know how to collapse the chair, so I pushed it along, my right-angled turns sharp at first, as if the chair were pulling me. I inspected the shrubbery, the greenhouses and ornamental ponds, their stone fish spouting fountains from pouted lips, as if a shadow of me had unfolded itself and was pre-set for pushing and turning and striding along.

Then I saw the rain garden.

I consulted the printed information in the way you would have done and discovered I could scoop a deep basin of earth out of our garden and plant it with the right vegetation to absorb rainwater and with it, the mingled debris that fell from roofs and gathered on paths that would otherwise pollute streams and ponds.

I could make sense of the words. They had moisture and growth, hard toil and hope bound in them, inky seams of nourishment nosing through parched ground.

I read them to you, the invisible man in the wheelchair. You approved. They were the first words I had absorbed for a long while. Even last month’s ‘all is well, the scan shows the baby is fine’ had squirmed away like slippery fish.

‘A rain garden is a beautiful statement,’ the leaflet told me. Of what? Of the gardener’s eco-awareness? Of the grace of cotton-grass? Of the glorious diversion of miraculous, wonderful water? I had no idea. And I didn’t care about statements.

I went to the shop and bought sedge, yellow flag and water-chestnut corms, filling the chair with them and rolling my tender cargo along with care and precision. I passed the man who had helped me. His smile showed no surprise that you were not there. I smiled back. I smiled down at my trembling ranks of leaves, quaking regiments of stems.

Three days later, I buttressed you in my arms for the last time, your head resting on the mound of your patient, waiting child. There was time to say goodbye. The tiny writhing limbs, untiring, and the small sturdy heartbeat pounding in your ear, permeated and sealed your last moment.

Hours later, my waters ruptured. Lily emerged that night with ease, making me gasp and cry and laugh as the moon spilled silver light across the hospital bed and stippled the empty chair.

                                                                   *

While she sleeps beneath her blankets in the shade of a birch, I dig my bowl of earth. My list is blistered with bullet points.

Plan, plot, stake, string, dig.

During lulls, I cradle Lily, listening to her thirsty gulps. My milk becomes her life, her reason for waking. Her quenched body, full and heavy in my arms, becomes mine.

Level, plant, mulch.

Fattened worms change direction as my spade encounters their course through the soil. The bright string I tie between stakes to help measure the right depth, turns my damp fingers bottle-green.

Light June rain is falling. The coffee-grounds in my cup turn to sludge and my list to pulp. Ants teem. Sticks swell.

I work on.

Way above, an aeroplane leaves a thin trail that vanishes before dusk. Way below, my fork strikes fossils. I unearth them with care for an older Lily to trace with her finger. As the sky deepens to indigo, I shelter with my child under the silver-birch, allowing a raindrop offered by a new leaf to alight, quivering with moon, on her hand

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