I took myself for a lakeside walk around Virginia Waters today. I'd gone, because it was a glorious, early summer's day, with the sun beaming hard through the ozone hole above England. I paid no mind to the dangers of UV exposure; my body ached for, craved the warmth. Because I'd gone there really, to thaw a frozen, broken heart.
Early in marriage, in the days of infants underfoot, we used to come with pushchairs, lukewarm baby food, a ton of economy sized wetwipes and the kitchen sink - for a family outing, so we could struggle with young offspring in front of different scenery. After I'd shovelled in the last of the baby macaroni cheese from its jar, hoping and praying that it wouldn't find its way back out into the fresh open air, I'd pack up the rest of our fast food picnic and poise the buggies ready for a jaunt round the lake. Just as they called burning food a barbecue, husbands and fathers liked to instruct their young about birds, rocks and vegetation they knew nothing of, and call it an educational walk. But it provided the best excuse for a holiday of my mind: I needed the space, far from the confines of late night breast feeds, early morning school runs and whatever else makes up a life in the day of a domestic engineer; especially from that prison cell of the psyche trapped in a twenty four/seven cycle of give, give, and give some more. I couldn't wait to move, at a brisker pace than toddler speed, between the endless blue above and the tickle below of green green grass against sandalled feet.
Our meanderings inevitably took us up to the gate that said "Heather Gardens; please keep dogs on a leash." I"ve always thought they needed to add toddlers also. We first chanced upon this spot long before the children came along. Hopeless city folks that we were, and 'bloody foreigners' at that, I didn't even know what heather really looked like. But we'd strung along after the cognoscenti who seemed hell bent on pushing through those gates. It was a bit of a bun fight to get in that November, but we elbowed our way through just to see what the fuss was all about. Sure enough, it turned out to be a best kept secret, well worth a walk through.
Glory, is all I can say to describe the spot. For some reason the air in that enclosure seemed more still; the light more intense. And glory was in the tiny blooms: the sight of a million dots of hot pink and blush white against a deep, dark, everest green, their miniature faces beaming up in cheeky grins at you from every corner - was a feast to the eyes and guaranteed to turn the head. But the true joy was the fragrance. Punchy, mustardy and medicinal almost, hence a balm - it palpably affected the body rhythm and soothed the soul. You'd notice how people breathed deeper, walked slower. Since then I've always followed my nose, literally, to these gardens - to regain the sensations of that first visit: to track down the momentary solace of that quiet corner, greedily gulping, inhaling all of its pungent repose, and exhaling my worldly woes in exchange. Inevitably I would re-emerge as though post confession: purged, reinvented.
Life took its subsequent turns and tumbles. Now decades, a broken marriage, and a lost love affair later, I returned on a whim. Once again I was looking to break out from the self-imposed, solitary confinement of home on a sun bleached day. I couldn't lick my wounds any more, had cried too many tears. I badly needed to get away; I needed - absolution. I had no clue where to go, but for some reason drove out of town towards Egham. Not much had altered, sleeker parking machines, and a higher charge. But soon I found myself ambling down a half remembered sand path against the curve of the lake, dodging wet dogs and other people's ice cream covered infants. Been there, done that, I secretly smiled to myself.
I strode past the totem pole, stacked heads all looking out for...trouble? help? land? Surely some of them should look the other way. Someone should always look the other way to see what it is that comes to stab you in the back. I got distracted by the remnants of fading azalea explosions, it being May afterall; but paused to ponder nevertheless, the tragedy of their wilting lilacs, pinks and vermillions, a thousand fallen petals lying dead at my feet. It felt like a floral tribute to Miss Haversham, a flowery lament of lost dreams and bygone splendour. Then suddenly, an old friend appeared round the bend, the worn wooden gate and that sign: "Heather Gardens", beckoning me with a "Come in, come in, and remember!"
My senses did a double take and leapt in expectation and remembrance. Softly I lifted the rusty iron clasp and tiptoed in, as though entering church. It was as before, hushed, bathed in regal noonday sun. Like a rabbit just out of its warren, I sniffed the air tentatively. Nothing, but a trace of the distant pines mingled with early decay of azalea. I hardened my focus on the pews of heather either side of the aisle of low mown grass that I was standing on; there were no blooms! And no healing perfume to anoint my wounded heart. The penny dropped: it was neither March nor November, when heather blossoms and seduces.
If anyone was watching they would have seen me slump visibly. Determined for this not to be further daylight robbery of cherished memories, I picked up my feet and wandered aimlessly from bush to bush, noting deliberately how each had still the semblance of stately demeanour, despite their lack of scent. Hidden in the boughs, the same unseen birds witness my crestfallenness and called out their strange one note dirges, like broken records. High above, the same blue sky canopied over to embalm me in my grief. And overarching all this, the same hard sun burned down on my panicked heart, as it always had when life was sweeter than this.
It is always, isn't it, a matter of timing. Our paths crossed, when I was still in bloom. I was heady with the scent of a woman in her prime, at the height of her true colours and aglow with all her glory. He must have breathed me in then, hungry for an infilling of the hope and brightness I was exuding. To somehow mask his sorrows, soothe his wounds in life. He was in a dark place of hurt and it was just so convenient that I was - available. Like a flower opening itself up in the sun to a honey bee, careless of his foraging and forgetful of the fact that he was merely on a hunt, I was blinded for a season by amorous ministrations and did not see the depth of his unplumbed pain. Could it be that when I gazed deep into his hollow eyes, like Narcissus, I was actually mesmerised by the lure of my own reflection? So we danced for a while, lulled by the warmth of lazy, hazy summer nonchalance, laying aside any thoughts of the autumn that would follow, and the wintry days of lack.
But with the fullness of the season, as my bloom faded and all my glory was spent, I could no longer sustain his needs or retain his affections. Just as I started to trust another again, he ran out of steam. Passion dulled, conversations turned vapid. As he left me, he sent my soul into another indeterminate term of arrested animation. Autumn hibernation begins; but I am no longer sure that I could reawaken once more to languid summers in the sun.
Today, I revisited old haunts to regain lost ground. But I only recaptured a death and not those reeling days of passion, of splendour in the grass, the ecstasy of being alive and in love. Standing in the blaze and sultry seduction of summer's burn, I looked behind to see what was coming and found myself heeding the thought of another winter, and shuddered.
Timing, as they say, is everything.