ESSAY Jo MazelisNWR Issue 107
The Girl in Red BootsPhoto for Illustrative Purposes Only
In order to write autobiography, unless one has been a regular diary keeper, one needs clues; solid objects that become the route into memory and through that the route into another younger and more innocent version of the self. Thus here I begin with a series of concrete though seemingly disconnected and banal objects; a pair of red boots, a clump of swaying and alien pampas grass and a 1940s bungalow with an unusually long front garden.
It strikes me that these three objects hold important clues to this story, not just in the sense that they were real and still exist in the remembered past, but also that each symbolizes a vital part of the story and these are what spring to mind first. But it is only in the process of setting this down on paper that their importance is illuminated for me.
Firstly the pampas grass. This is what I will call the lure. Why? Because at the time of these events, this was still a fairly unusual garden plant. It is 1970 or thereabouts, and despite the patina of false memories layered onto the 60s and 70s, many of the changes associated with the period had not yet come about. Forget platform shoes, Habitat and free love: most of the world, or rather the specific world of the UK, was still, for the most part, morally, aesthetically and emotionally still caught up in the postwar mores and conservative attitudes of the Forties and Fifties.
Most gardens had lawns, roses, straight rows of tulips, hydrangea bushes, lavender and hollyhocks, so the pampas grass stood out. It was six feet tall and reed-like, and the seed heads were long and thick and white and flaming, reminiscent of an ostrich boa or a white llama’s fur. It seemed exotic in a particular way, and thus drew attention to the bungalow at the other end of the garden. To merely say that the front garden was unusually long does not quite express how different it was. While some old terraced houses in the area had no front gardens at all with the door leading directly onto the pavement, and others had an almost symbolic six to ten feet of garden, the standard for the majority of the detached and semi-detached family homes built in the Twenties, Thirties and Forties possessed front lawns of perhaps fifteen to twenty-five feet. But, for some reason, on this particular street the area at the front of the houses was at least double that, with drives and expanses of lawn that stretched to fifty or perhaps sixty feet, and this space was decorative rather than functional. One did not see washing lines or children’s swing-sets or potting sheds or greenhouses sullying the lush greenness or the regimented flower beds. Nor, for that matter, did anyone dare to use this valuable land for the cultivation of vegetables or fruit. The gardens were just there; long aprons of grandeur that emphasized the houses’ splendid isolation from the street. Not that the houses themselves were particularly grand, these were not Georgian or Victorian villas set in their own grounds with high gates and long curving drives. Houses like that existed in the area, but they possessed a real singularity. Many had high stone walls that set them further apart and were inhabited still by the real crachach, descendents of the upper classes who had first built these houses or others who had achieved status and success in their various professions: judges and doctors and others of that ilk.
Rather the houses on this street were like others in the neighbourhood, boasting two or perhaps three living rooms downstairs and as many bedrooms on the upper floor. They had bay or bow windows, stained glass detailing on the front door and also perhaps the stair window, and elements of Mock Tudor or Arts and Craft decoration both inside and out.
The bungalow that sat at the end of the rolling lawn beyond the pampas grass had probably been built slightly later than the other houses, though its style was not greatly dissimilar; it didn’t scream modernity, except in its lopped off one story squatness, and the garden, with the exception of the swaying screen of pampas grass, was as well tended and flower filled as any other.
I do not suggest when I call the pampas grass a ‘lure’ that it was intended that way; rather, it caught my eye and my interest and it puzzled me somewhat. I cannot say I remember thinking this exactly, but there was a degree of judgment in my thinking – was this a good or bad plant to have in one’s garden? It looked impressive and it moved in the slightest breeze in a pleasing and hypnotic way, but if it was good, why didn’t other people grow it? And if it was bad, just what was it that made it bad? Was it poisonous? Or perhaps uncontrollable like the similarly exotic looking Japanese knotweed? And if the latter, why was the owner of this garden so brazenly different from his or her neighbours?
So the lure was fascination and incomprehension. Perhaps this was akin to finding a cottage constructed entirely from sweets and candies, pink and red and yellow, dripping with shiny stickiness in the middle of an otherwise deserted and dark wood.
Finally, the last of these prompts is the pair of red boots which were, of course, mine and were in the context of the age and my understanding a fashion item but in terms of symbolism as significant as the red shoes in the Grimm’s fairy tale or likewise, Little Red Riding Hood’s scarlet cloak. To further add to this unsettling coincidence, this narrative took its distinctive and malevolent turn while I was on my way to my grandmother’s house. I write this, and grow convinced that the reader must surely think I am embroidering this account, adding details either deliberately in the way a writer of fiction must. Or more worryingly accidentally; my corrupt imagination spinning details as vivid and troubling as in any false memory syndrome...
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