Authors: James Hamilton-Paterson
‘A roast field mouse – not a house mouse – is a splendid
for a hungry boy. It eats like a lark.’
– Frank Buckland
‘… simply can’t get them now for love or money …’
‘Hubie? Couldn’t have been him. Survived Arnhem in one piece but then went and fell off an alp.’
A child’s impression, maybe, would be clearest of such conversational fragments heard among the leaves and above the tinkle of water. Pellucid, seemingly without sense or context, they were mixed into the scrunch of pea gravel beneath polished shoes, the women’s scent (almost unobtainable: diplomatic bag), the heat. All these were vivid, the heat most of all. It was surely this which attracted people by night to the great structure glowing in a dark urban landscape. Such a child, late beyond bedtime for a treat, was granted a view of what adults liked doing when left to their own devices, of this place where they met.
She first saw it from far off, one of her wool mittens clasped in an adult hand, a cathedral of warmth in a cold city. She would remember a part of the Botanical Gardens as having been cleared for an allotment of sprawling potato plants and dank rows of beans. Elsewhere there seemed to have been some hacking about, probably in a search for firewood, with a tree or two felled entirely. She knew from afternoon walks wearing an itchy wool helmet with earflaps the ornamental
lake, silent and unstirring. Its golden carp, like the exotic waterfowl, had long been eaten. She knew the muddy water occluded by duckweed through which a few balding mallards had cracked their passageways. By night such familiar things were invisible. Almost everything became invisible save for the magic oasis at the gardens’ centre: the crystal pavilion domed and lobed like a Byzantine Taj Mahal, delicately girdered, its panes streaked with steam and plastered with leaves. Strange times to all except a child, to whom no times are strange. She wouldn’t have known to wonder why the gardens had not been completely laid waste. Why had the Palm House remained unsmashed, its plants undespoiled? Apparently some old man had worked throughout the war feeding shrubbery, dried beet pulp, railway sleepers into the furnaces which maintained a few hundred square yards of the tropics in the midst of freezing Europe.
This immense stove house was laid out like a church, a temple to nineteenth-century horticulture which followed instinctively some cruciform model: St Paul’s Cathedral in London, perhaps, or St Peter’s, Rome. The central area beneath the lantern (on whose summit an elaborate weathervane spun in the fitful maritime climate) housed the palms, the tallest of which was hunched up under the glass. It was to one particular transept off this central thicket that the night people came. For here it had been the gardener’s fancy to collect together only those tropical plants which bloomed at night. Recently the Society had decided to open the Palm House on Wednesday evenings between 6 and 9 pm and it had become a celebrated meeting place. People came to chat, to bury their faces in blossoms, to breathe scent. Perhaps it was the curator’s private quirk or maybe there really was a scientific theory which held that bright lighting would upset the nocturnal shrubs’ flowering patterns. At
any rate the electricity was never turned on. Instead, and adding greatly to the ecclesiastical aspect, candles were stuck in sconces among the fronds and branches. In this way the masses of plants were from most viewpoints gently backlit. Many a chapel-like bower lay buried deep in leaves with a candle burning at its centre.
Some nights nobody at all came. On others the Palm House presented the aspect of a cocktail party, something scarcely seen nowadays in this depleted city. Well-groomed people strolled the gravel chatting quietly or else met in knots, glasses in hand (for a few brought worn silver hip-flasks), idly fingering a spray of leathery leaves, their laughter filtering up with forbidden cigarette smoke to the traceries of ironwork far overhead. Especially this winter they arrived shrunken into their coats, many of the women in pre-war furs but clenched and pinched from their walk through rattling sleet. Once past the double set of doors and into the steady 27°C they began to expand, slowly, skin colour emerging in streaks as through a breaking bud. From the world they had left outside nothing penetrated except similar quiet refugees and their accompanying puffs of frigid air. The streets beyond the high seventeenth-century wall which bounded the gardens were largely deserted after dark, as if even now people could hardly break the habit of years of curfew. An occasional tram swayed past the wrought-iron gates but its electric groan was not audible within the Palm House. Nor were the distant mourning cries of ships as they gingerly negotiated the docks’ shallow approach, Polish freighters bringing coal.
Who were these people? Grandees, mainly, or what nowadays passed for them. Diplomats, a few aristocrats (rumpled as from years in exile living out of trunks), celebrated bohemians, professionals. In short, the only people other than criminals who had the confidence to move about after dark. Leon noticed how
quickly they had regained their poise even though their ranks had thinned, as if their expensive clothes were overalls and the traumas and dishonours of the past years no more than a light soot which could be brushed off with a few gestures.
(Not quite all, of course. Hubie and the rest had signally failed to make it back from the camps and battles and glaciers.)
On such nights Leon lurked as the genie in this enchanted forest. He was on duty, the terms of his employment required it. When it came to nine o’clock he alone could announce the time, ring a little bronze bell and lock up. Besides, he lived here and behaved like someone in his own house. His battledress trousers, stained at the knees with mould, had been stolen from a retreating army. On his bare feet were perished rubber galoshes, the unintended legacy of a German staff officer who had been suspended by his ankles from a balcony, his hair a black wick dripping blood in curlicues on the pavement below. In these galoshes Leon moved noiselessly along the winding paths toting his wand of office, a thick-barrelled brass spraygun polished bright with daily use. Carrying this had begun as a nervous habit, something to occupy his hands while he … well, what, exactly? The Society, in the voice of Dr Anselmus, wouldn’t say. ‘Remain on duty. Make sure, you know …’ But make sure of what? It was hard to imagine a diplomat absentmindedly carving his initials on the venerable trunk of a cycad, or a magistrate’s wife setting fire to an aerial fern. He was left to saunter, to circulate without giving the impression of actually policing this steamy patch of jungle. He spent much of his time fetching and steadying the several pairs of light step ladders for visitors who wanted to climb up and sniff blossoms out of reach.
There was wide acknowledgement that he was a genius. He alone could make anything grow. (It was claimed that, piqued
by a challenge, he had once thrust a yellow cane walking stick into the soil and within a fortnight the whangee had sprouted a pair of tiny leaves and had since turned into a stand of bamboo. Such saintly apocrypha were just the thing for recovering from a global overdose of reality.) Only Leon could have kept all these wonderful plants alive through the terrible years. He was surely quite uneducated yet he knew the names of everything, even in Latin. It was further said and believed that he was a healer, a herbalist, a homeopath, an accomplished witch, a satanist who conducted the sorts of voodoo ritual appropriate to the jungle. What, for example, had he done in the war? How had he avoided conscription?
All of this caused night society to make way for him with a complicated respect as he moved about his paths and alleys with his syringe, frowning at leaves and sniffing at soils. He listened to gossip while extravagant rumour reached him from behind screens of foliage. His aloof, Delphic aspect produced its own delightful frisson. Like a mongrel or a holy man he transcended the usual social distinctions. Night after night his big pale ears were privy to intrigue, scandal, corruptions and amours. The rationing scams, the bombed-out property deals; where nylon stockings and perfume might be had, undyed petrol or a ton or two of good coal.
Meanwhile, who was this fabled princess, constantly on the point of arriving, whose least mention excited such interest? She was beautiful, that much Leon had observed for himself. She was the wife of some Eastern ambassador – Burmese? Laotian? Bornean? – and turned up from time to time at these nocturnal gatherings accompanied not by her husband but by a dark, unsmiling equerry whose polished head was always respectfully inclined but who threw glances up and out like tarnished knives. And who was
everyone wanted to know. Bodyguard? Lover? Chaperon? Perhaps an elder brother, fierce
and protective? They did look alike, though of course all sorts of Easterners looked awfully similar. Interest and speculation coagulated about her, much encouraged by an enigmatic quality she diffused like scent (as to that, she seemed only ever to wear the faintest trace of Lancôme’s ‘Cuir’). This enigma had nothing to do with the alleged inscrutability of Easterners, for an eager observer – and there were many – would notice subtle shadows pass over her features like codicils to the conventional grimaces of pleasure and interest which diplomats learn as weanlings. Often when her attention was not engaged it slanted off to one edge, drawn upwardly with an abstracted sadness. There would, they thought, be much for her to be sad about, stuck in a cold northern clime in a crisis of food shortages, petrol rationing and power cuts, thousands of miles away from the lush shores which hid, in her admirers’ fantasy, her native domain. (On paper, had they tried to draw it, her envisioned palace would have turned out part pagoda and part Aztec temple.) Nor did the enigma depend on her being uncommunicative. She spoke excellent French and, if not voluble, was capable of flashes of surprisingly malicious wit. This, unexpected in a diplomat’s wife, was hugely charming. Her escort, then, was probably not an interpreter.
A good few of the Palm House’s visitors, Leon knew, spoke little or no French. He himself knew only the odd word, which but made his great secret more piquant. This secret was that occasionally the princess would come all alone during the day and spend an hour among the plants with him. Then her demeanour was different, more a private face, he liked to think, unafraid of being earnest and studentlike. For she was very young and wanted to know things. She came to learn, took notes in alien scribbles, never resorted to French. She was seldom difficult to understand except when trying to pronounce certain of the plants’ Latin names. So far as he could tell none of the
‘night people’ – as he thought of these temporarily dispossessed dining-and-nightclub denizens, these stymied opera-goers – none of them knew of their liaison. And yet to have such a secret in a glasshouse … It was this which enabled him to saunter among them, brass spraygun loosely held, meeting their brittle pleasantries with an icebreaker’s prow, acting the oracle to queries about compost.
‘No smoking,’ he abjured the Italian chargé-d’affaires. With a certain frozen patience this man detached his cigarette from its long ebony holder and made gestures of disposal with it at arm’s length while tucking the holder away inside his jacket. This had been carved to his own design in Abyssinia, oval rather than round so as to fit Egyptian cigarettes. Leon retrieved from a ledge a disgusting jar holding half a gallon of mahogany-coloured liquid in which floated like dead cockroaches the unravelling butts of sundry cigarettes and cigars. To this he added the chargé’s. It vanished with a hiss. ‘Smoking damages the plants. Anyway, what’s the use of coming here for the night blooms if you drown them in tobacco smoke? It makes no sense.’ Clearly expecting no reply he turned away with his jar.
It was to his own circle of friends as much as to this fanatical gardener’s back that the chargé said, ‘Personally, I come here to get warm. It’s the only warm place in this city, possibly in the entire country.’ There was laughter. These little tyrannies did much for Leon’s reputation. The smokers themselves quite liked public admonishment and the surrender of cigarettes which, God knew, were hard enough to get even on the black market. There was something reassuringly nannyish about his grumpy reproof, and to have suffered one of these acts of confiscation had its own cachet. Just now the episode was forgotten as there came the far-off squeal of the outer door, followed by that of the inner. Faces peered around fronds.
What, then, was it this sealed figure brought in with her, apart from salt and gulls (the North Sea’s freezing breath trapped in fur) and a dusting of snowflakes instantly turned by the heat into dewbeads supported by hairs? Not just a token of the exotic but a waft of days which recent history seemed to have declared dead. Into these shrunk and bitten times stepped the princess with her reminder that stylishness starts in the heart and may, nurtured, expand outwards into fantasy, intrigue, and powerful worldly gestures. This impression was strangely mixed with concealed disdain – concealed because quite unknown to those whose respect before this creature’s beauty also crudely said: ‘You’ve unfortunately caught us rather on the hop, my dear. At any other times than these we could have shown you what civilisation means, since we’re its inventors and representatives. Unluckily it will be a few years yet before we can get the treasures of Europe back on display: the Beethovens, Bachs, Rembrandts; the scholarship, technology, social progress, good taste and the rest. For now, to mark the oddness of this temporal hiccup, we’ll agree to meet by night in a greenhouse and make rather too much fuss over the golden emissaries of outer darkness.’ Or something of the sort, while the golden emissaries crunched their way towards them, candle-flames bending to their passage, the princess smiling a general shy greeting while her equerry slewed his gazes from shuttered slots.