Between the ages of nine and eighteen I lived with my parents in a leafy road in a nice house and played with the kids from our road and the road round the corner. My friend Hugh’s sister Anna went to school with Rosemary who lived opposite their house with her parents who were quite old and grey and dour. The father was a bank manager. Rosemary didn’t come out to play much and when she did she was hesitant and awkward. Hugh and I paid her little attention.

Some years later I had been commissioned to write a feature film for television but they never made it but that’s not why I mentioned it. My parents were away for the summer so I returned to my schoolboy home and used the small room at the front upstairs that used to be the railway room as a study. I had a view across our front garden to the house opposite which was partially obscured by tall evergreens and firs. I had gathered from my mother that when Rosemary’s parents had died they left the house to Rosemary so she sold it, moved out from round the corner and bought the one opposite our house. It was a similar size to her childhood house and had a long garden.

I thought it was odd that someone would wish to live so close to their childhood home. My mother told me that Rosemary did not have a job but did quite a lot of work in her garden. It was clear she must have inherited quite a sizeable sum from her funless parents. My mother also said that the adult Rosemary was painfully shy but also, on occasion, very chatty. My mother was also very chatty, a skill she had honed in the course of entertaining the scientist colleagues who would visit our house from time to time as they passed through the country.

Eiry, my mother, would greet Rosemary cheerily in the street and sometimes they would stop to chat. Eventually, and I’m not sure quite how this came about, Rosemary would come to our door and ring on the bell and Eiry would answer and invite Rosemary in. Rosemary would always decline but seemed happy to chat, standing in the porch while my mother stood on the doorstep.

This was the situation I found when I returned after several years to my old bedroom and the railway room and set up my typewriter on a table and looked out over to Rosemary’s new house – the house that was new to me because years ago she used to live round the corner.

The trees were by this time, of course, taller and thicker than they’d been when I was living at home and going to school. And I hadn’t spoken to Rosemary for over twenty years. I knew she liked to chat and I kept my eye on the house in case she came out.

One day I spotted her working in the front garden. I went downstairs and walked onto the lawn on my side, pretending to inspect things. When she looked up I called out ‘Rosemary! Hello! It’s David!’ I wasn’t sure just how disinclined to socialise she might be. Would she scuttle back into the dark house? No. She greeted me pleasantly and told me that Eiry had told her I’d be working in the family home. We marvelled at how much time had passed and that we were meeting again and how were we and what was I doing and I didn’t ask what she was doing because I knew she didn’t work and to press beyond that didn’t seem right.

She was in her early forties like me, probably the same age, in fact. Her hair was straight to her shoulders and cut with a fringe. She wore a heavy pullover, a long full skirt and wellington boots. We chatted for a while. I wondered what the inside of her large house was like but I was sure I would never find out. It would have been nice to invite her over for a cup of tea but that too felt presumptuous.

I thought her life must have been strange and lonely – shaped by girlhood incarceration with her severe, unbending parents until they died at which point perhaps she had little spirit left with which to try again for a lost youth. I didn’t even know how long she had been in the new house although, on reflection, this would have been easy to ask compared with the array of straightforwardly nosey enquiries I was steadily stockpiling.

In these leafy streets not every house is pleasant. Not, at least, to the eye of one who in his youth was puzzled and fascinated by the ones with gravel front gardens delineated by lengths of black-painted diamond-spiked chain suspended between sets of creosoted fence posts. And there were, it soon became apparent, two sorts of trees you could grow in such a front garden. There were the trees of life, which shed their leaves consonant with the seasons, variously presenting buds, flowers, young leaves, full leaves in crown array, those leaves going golden or going brown and falling, bare wet branches, bark, boles, stumps, the fists of pollard, even sightly cankers.

And then there were the trees of death and shadow, that towered and towered, the yews with their red jelly bumbo berries, the spruce, the leylandii, all with dense sticks, not a sound, no nests, utterly unclimbable, if you trim them they retaliate with the scorched look, if you put your hand in them it comes back smeared with black dust or damp paste, they stop you looking at the lace curtains even if these are not obscured with poisonous clattery laurel.

Every third house bore some of these blights, even those of families with kids. Parents in those days, of course, were much older. They were crouched and stooped and spoke unclearly. Sometimes it got to the kids and closed them down, as with Rosemary, but for several of them, mostly brothers and sisters, they were merely constrained in their efforts at socialising. Glen and Raine, for example, were rarely seen but this may have been a class problem informed by parental disdain for playing in the street. The street was every bit as good as the garden and a close second to the fields and streams five minutes away at the town’s edge.

When I say class, we were all middle class round there but you had snooty, chummy, irascible, genial, loony and from a kid point of view as analysed later by the same kid grown up at least two of these might as well have been class distinctions. Not loony because loonies had their own unstratified class and, down our road, they pretty much left you alone without giving you attitude. Dotty Dennis, for example, found young boys pleasing and would have liked them to play in his shed, he said, but young boys were not taken with the notion and regarded the frail septuagenarian, who actually did wear a dirty macintosh, with unwavering disdain.

The most mysterious house, owned by the Lethbridges, was barely visible from the road, being surrounded on three sides by dense, tangled undergrowth that occupied, on one side, an area as large as the house itself. It was possible, therefore, to make Colonel Fawcett-like forays from the corner of the Lethbridge Jungle adjacent to the Orbells’ American-style unfenced front lawn, straight into the heart of darkness strangled by plants whose name I never knew and to this day do not. They weren’t exotic, just your everyday roamers, randomers and vagrants that must be closely surveilled if they are not to choke proper garden flora. But the clambering here was of the highest standard and one of the few times in my life that I have been surrounded on all sides with no room to turn by bushes. As we cracked and snapped our way down we glimpsed the Lethbridge house from time to time through the knotted vines and ducked down into the shadows. Their rooms contained furniture, appliances, washing up liquid and so forth but we never glimpsed any members of the family. They had a car which was sometimes parked on the gravel sometimes not. We saw no kids. We thrust our way right alongside the house, on into the untamed reaches of the lower garden, finally breaking through the final hedge into the playing field that stretched across to the railway lines carrying trains to Liverpool Street, Kings Cross and Bedford.

I never saw Rosemary’s back garden when I was a boy, partly because I didn’t want to look. It would have been easy to peer into it from the playing field – it was right next to the Orbell’s on the other side – but there was something not forbidding so much as unappetising about those cross-hatched glooms. I could also have walked round to the cul de sac at the back of Rosemary’s new house and made my way to the hedge there to see if her gardening style had moved on from her parents’ sombre planting. It would be hard to do this casually, however.

I spotted Rosemary in her front garden again and waved. She came to her gate in her usual outfit plus gardening gloves. We started to chat from either side of the road, how was my writing going, how was the garden. Somehow we moved on to what we were reading. This was clearly a subject not suited to discussion in slightly raised voices. Rosemary crossed the road. I moved forward to my gate. She was keen on thrillers, it turned out. American. Hardboiled. Noir. Dime, even.

My ascription to my neighbour of a taste for Trollope or Mrs Gaskell, neither of whom I had ever read and was therefore employing, albeit in my imaginings, speciously, was crumbling at speed. Woolrich – had I? McCoy is good. I recalled The Deadly Percheron. Had she? Oh yes, she loved Bardin. Then one of us brought up The Name of the Rose. Rosemary had enjoyed it but then there had always been much more experiment with thrillers and crime novels in Europe. The Erasers? Well, no, I hadn’t got round to that but I did like Jealousy.

Rosemary said she would bring some books over if I was interested. That would be great. Most of mine are in London I’m afraid.

The next day Rosemary came all the way to the front door and rang the bell. She had about five books with her. One was ‘Catastrophe – the Strange Stories of Dino Buzzati’. Another was Cornell Woolrich’s noir thriller ‘Deadline at Dawn’. I read most of them before I had to go back to London. I haven’t seen Rosemary for maybe thirty years. I’ve gone back to my home town now and again and strolled down my old street and hoped I might see Rosemary in her front garden. I didn’t like to knock in order to find out if she was in. This seemed a bit presumptuous.

Essays
Undomain