They do say that the sense of smell is the most evocative of all. Never mind the other senses – a scent can take you back into the past with pinpoint accuracy. For me it is the smell of tomatoes. Not of them cooking, but that bitter-green scent of tomatoes on the vine; the whole plant, not just the fruit. This scent is the earliest instance of awareness of plants that I can recall.
I was four years old when we moved into the house. It was a cavernous more-or-less arts and crafts terraced building – once the seaside home of rich Victorians – with a large rectangular garden. And that garden, neglected for quite a while, was full of tomato plants. As I remember, allowing for my four-year-old perspective, they seemed to have seeded themselves everywhere. Not only in the vegetable patch at the rear, but all through the borders, into the lawn, and along the gravel path at the side of the house; they were even down in the dark depths of the grating covered lights to the cellar windows. And all of them were heavy with deep-red fruit. Doubled over with the weight, and begging to be relieved of it.
I was provided with a little basket and told to go and pick. I had never picked a fruit before, and it was a whole new, oddly-scented world for a little girl. I would put both hands round a tomato, feel the weight of it, its shiny surface; I quickly learned that the darkest and heaviest were the ripest. Some were so ripe they fell as I touched them and burst open, splattering seeds and juice on my socks and sandals. Were these the first seeds I was ever aware of? Quite possibly. I got a ticking off for the mess, and you don’t forget that.
Both the supply of tomatoes, and the garden itself, seemed endless. There were mature trees – a horse chestnut (smooth grey bark), elms, four in a row (rough bark) and apples (surrounded by gooseberry bushes so I couldn’t reach the bark). I found my way to them, and round them, one by one, in my search for unharvested tomatoes. I ran my fingers along the bricks of the garden wall; six foot tall, it was, a shelter both from the seaside winds and the outside world. This was a garden that had once promised great things, I guess; been expensively planted, enjoyed. But now it was in its dotage, plants elderly and ailing, purpose in life largely lost.
All the same, that battered garden with its rough path, untended grass and nature on the loose – not just the tomatoes – became my world that early autumn. I observed blackbirds searching in the grass for worms, came to know their chucky calls. I learned how easily a snail’s shell could be broken and shed tears when I was told I had unwittingly committed murder. I pushed my fingers into the rich damp soil, hauled out a handful and tried eating it (please don’t tell my mother). Nature was my happy hunting ground, full of intrigue for a child whose parents were too much engaged in shifting furniture and cleaning up a rackety old place to enquire too closely into what their daughter was doing. It was a safe garden, my mother said. High walls, big solid gate. No kid could get out. And so I wandered at will.
There came a time, of course, when the supply of tomatoes did run out, when there were no more tomato sandwiches for tea, and my basket was taken away. The year had turned, as it must. But I had begun a life-long love affair with nature in that dishevelled garden.
In the spring there were new scents to learn. The lost and found odour of daffodils – there had been a mass of spring bulbs lying in wait in the borders – and the cloying smell of the violets that grew in one place only, under a wobbly, half-dead ornamental hawthorn. And of course, there was grass. Mown grass, that is. I loved it so much I would throw myself face-first into the heap of clippings and come out with a green nose when I was hauled away by an adult.
In summer there were madonna lilies – so tall I couldn’t reach them, but as cut flowers I could acquire a yellow pollen-covered nose by climbing on a chair and getting close enough to breathe in the scent. I seemed to have a nose of many colours that year. And then there was the dryad’s saddle fungus that grew on one of the elms. It was cut down as ‘unhealthy’ for the tree and I played with it, eagerly exploring the clammy texture of the fruit-body, and adding its strange sour-milk smell to my gallery of scent. Adults around me may have discriminated between good and bad, clean and dirty, weed and flower, but everything in the garden was perfect, to me.
Sadly, childhood cannot last forever. When I was twelve, we moved on. The garden that had been the centre of my world for so long was left behind. I struggled to accept the fact that I was no longer allowed in. We hadn’t moved far, and I would walk over and look through a chink in the gate (I knew where all the gaps were) just to see if all was well, and remember when it was my garden. I tried the latch once or twice in sheer disbelief that entry was barred. I found it securely bolted.
The garden plot was large and in common with so many others it was eventually sold for development. Everything was grubbed up, the trees felled, the old familiar wall demolished. Within months a neat modern house stood on my garden, its front door occupying the exact site of one of our apple trees. Neat modern plants had taken the place of the old elms I had so much loved. So real, so solid, as I had thought – and yet so easily destroyed. That peaceful, sheltered, safe place where I had learned my first flowers, identified my first birds, was unrecognisable. Obliterated.
Still, I can bring it back, the ghost of that first garden of mine, any time I like. All I need do to work this little miracle is open a pack of tomatoes on the vine – open it and breathe in that long-remembered bitter smell. In that simple action my garden and everything it taught me lives again; trees, flowers, nature at large, all contained in the scent of a tomato plant. I eat a lot of tomatoes, so the garden is with me most days. They do say, don’t they, that the sense of smell is the most evocative of all.
Written for a garden writing competition a year or two ago. Needless to say, it didn’t win!