Queen Helen of Sparta in the Secret Garden.
This is a little story and it grows out of the progression of life and the
storehouse of memories acquired throughout the years.
It is a simple tale and it is real, not a fiction, although at the end
I wonder if perhaps I have embellished it with some of my own fancies.
In any event, let us proceed and may you The Reader be the judge.
Have you ever had cause to halt in your daily progression; the flurry
of chores and pressures that assail us all, to reflect for a few
moments on things that are just memories in the past? Sentimental
things: be they only photographs flipped through in careworn albums, or
maybe keepsakes or old, treasured trinkets and everyday items such as
the the object resting here on my desk.
It is a tiny, open, rectangular wooden box, made from small segments of
three-ply and Masonite, not much larger than the palm of my hand. It
contains a single bulldog clip, a pencil sharpener, an eraser, a box of
postage stamps, a needle and twine of thread, some ball-point refills,
and the Thread of Life leading back to my Father.
Because this childish, crude, tiny wooden box was the last thing my
Father ever made. It and the worn belt I often wear and his old jacket
are all that remain of the man who was my Father.
Yes, there are still photos, mostly black and white and a few coloured
ones, but now after more than twenty years since his death, little else
remains. Nothing written, nothing personal, with the exception of his
silver and gold wrist watches. Both of them have come to me and are
still worn on special occasions.
However, this story is not about my father. It is about a man and a woman
that I never really knew.
And it is not about their lives as individuals, as people who can be
defined by their names and where they led their early lives. It is
about the events, or at least those fragments that I can reconstruct,
of the last years and months of those two lives.
In their end, is a beginning and an ending to my tale.
Come with me, back some thirty-five years, to Nineteen Seventy-One.
That was the year my wife and I first moved into a rented house on the
corner of a quiet street in the suburb of Ashburton, in Melbourne,
Australia. We lived there for seven years, and during that time, being
newly-weds and young and involved with all things that occupied young
people, we were, to some extent, unmindful of the elderly people living
in the tiny cottage-house beside us.
It was our big, male marmalade-coloured cat Bobby, who first triggered
our curiosity as to the nature of our neighbours. When Bobby came home
drenched, across the dividing fence, one late summer afternoon, I
wondered what kind of mischief he had managed to get himself into.
At that time both Maria and I were so involved with our careers and
life-style and the caring for our home and garden that we had never
introduced ourselves to our neighbours. They were simply the old couple
who lived next door.
As it turned out, 'next door' was a world that neither Maria or I could
have imagined in such suburban surroundings.
During the passing months, when we were both working in our garden or
simply taking our ease with a glass of wine and admiring our handiwork,
the old man and woman would sometimes be out in their own little front
garden: tending, fussing and tidying. We seldom spoke, just a nod and a
kindly smile were all that passed between us. Nothing more. We never
even exchanged names.
But there were times, one of which was quite extraordinary to me, when
I got to see the old man in action.
On that particular bright and frosty morning, I was on my way to work
down the path to our front gate, when I observed him thirty or forty
feet, as I guessed it, in the air on a rickety ladder, burning dead
growth out of a tall pencil-pine with a blowtorch.
I had never seen anything like it before: a little old man, high atop a
tree, searing the living daylights out of its offending branches and
shaping it to his design.
Only later did I learn that this fellow had retired after many years of
labour working in the Melbourne Botanical Gardens.
Bobby the cat was to lead us further. Often he would appear over the
back fence, seemingly satisfied in the sleek way that only cats have
after sunning themselves in a place that is secluded and comfortable
throughout an entire afternoon.
The cottage of our neighbours was small, the garden at the front was
compact and filled to bursting with all kinds of plants, trees and
flowers; but the rear garden was another world. And into this world,
Bobby led us. The land behind the house was long: narrow as normal
house properties were, but double length, and from my vantage point
over the fence, filled with a riot of plants and trees that overgrew
the many ancient sheds and pathways that I could see.
When the elderly lady died, her husband lost his way.
Just weeks later he too fell ill, and not long after was taken away to
die, isolated in hospital.
Had he been stricken by some sudden terrible sickness?
Or was it simply that he had lost all reason to go on living?
Maria and I spent a Sunday afternoon, without permission, exploring the
rear garden. Or, should I say correctly, gardens. The world that we
encountered was more than we could possibly have expected. This was
Melbourne, and yet Monstera Deliciosa were ripening against the
north-facing walls of the house. (Monstera is a tropical philodendron,
a fruiting variety suited to the northern climes of New South Wales and
further up into Queensland.)
And at the furthest end of the world where we stood, without being able
to see our own house roof or any other roof just meters away, stood
Banana trees. Trees that should not, could not, be growing fruit. And
yet these were.
In that hazy, late afternoon, we wandered amidst a tangle of climbing,
riotous, creepers; fernery's, arbours, alcoves; across tiny paths over
ponds where silvery fish glided, and we marvelled at the secret work of
a man and his wife and the garden they had created. There were sheds
and covered lean-to storage areas everywhere, and they were filled with
all the old, and ancient, rusted tools of a long-time gardener whose
last work was where he lived his final days.
When the time came and the family of these two deceased people arrived
to break up their home and sell it off, they made contact with us. As
it turned out, a daughter lived not very far away, and it was she who
invited us to help ourselves to anything stored outside before
everything was gathered up and sent off to the tip.
That was when I decided to take one last journey into the wonderful
garden legacy of our old neighbours. Most of the tools and implements
had been removed, and none of them would have, in any event, been of
use to us. Of the shrubs and trees, almost all were too well
established to transplant, and neither Maria or I would have had the
heart to uproot them. In the open lean-to adjoining the house I came
upon the remainder of what was to be thrown away. Mostly it was only
fit for the rubbish-tip: worn-out wiring, irons, toasters, jugs, an
ancient valve radio, mouldy electric blankets.
Sitting on a broken packing case, I sifted through all the National
Geographic and gardening publications of the past, the women's
magazines and paperback romance novels, the annuals and children's
books, and then my gaze fell upon a single tome pushed between the
stacks. It was spineless and mouldy.
Its covers were beginning to disintegrate, suffering further from the
It was a copy of Homer's Iliad. This was a book I had read years
before. A favourite. A classic. A book given to me in paperback form by
a young man who was leaving Melbourne to seek his fortunes in Sydney
and so was divesting himself of various possessions.
However, this was no ordinary copy of Homer's great work. This was an
1805 edition, translated from the Greek by Alexander Pope, and scrawled
in pencil on the inside cover was a name; C.H. Macdonald. The book
itself was in dreadful condition and is still to this day. It rests
before me as I work at the keyboard. I have intended for all these
years that I will take it to a book binder and see if it is possible to
re-bind, but up until now have kept putting it off, partly because
other things kept taking up my attention and because the book seems
none the worse since it came to me.
I say 'came to me,' and I think perhaps that chance or fate might have
played a part, or perhaps that is the way things sometimes work, or
The book is most likely too badly damaged to be of any worth. What is
of worth is a roughly octagonal portrait, cut from some larger picture,
buried within its pages.
It is a sepia of a young woman, the dark band about her short-cropped
hair and her lips have been coloured. Her youthful face is oval and
open, her gaze stares away to the left. About her shoulder there are
the curly wisps of some light-coloured material. It is a photo that, I
guess, has its origins somewhere late in the Nineteen-twenties.
Hers is not the face that once, millennia ago, might have launched a
thousand ships, and yet I wonder to this day whether she was, in C. H.
Macdonald's own mind, (If MacDonald was indeed his name and not that of
someone earlier who owned the book.) his Queen Helen of Sparta, later
to become the famous Helen of Troy.
All of this is just so much guesswork and supposition. I have nothing but
the tattered book and the sepia photograph for clues.
What I do know is that the old man who once lived next door to us was a
wonderful gardener, that he and his wife lived their lives together
until their end, and that he kept this ancient tome amongst their final
So this little story comes to a conclusion, although as I indicated
earlier, it is left for you The Reader to make of it what you will.
Again I say to you that here is an example of the tiny particles and
seemingly unimportant details of lives once lived, thence over and
Almost forgotten, but not quite. Not yet. Not by me. Not as long as I am
in possession of the book and the sepia photograph.
Eventually though, in however many years from now, none of this will be
of moment. The Storehouse of Memories that belong in my own mind will
Perhaps the book will survive.
But none to come in the future will ever be aware of those who once
possessed it and of the hands through which it and the photo within