I was given my oddly spelled name because my father, a lover of poetry and a lifelong Republican, had a fondness for WB Yeats’ “Down by the Salley Gardens.” My dad was tone deaf, but my mother was a lover of music and the setting of this poem as a song by Benjamin Britten was a favourite of hers. As Irish readers will know, the salleys in Yeats’s garden are willows, the colloquialism salley, used in Ireland and Australia, where cricket bats are known as salleys, comes from the Latin salix. So in essence I am named Willow and for a time considered changing my name, because I liked the notion of being willowy and graceful. But in the end, I stuck with Salley, largely because of my godmother and her garden.
My mother, aged 21, was injured during a wartime bombing raid, in which she nearly died and was burned so badly in the ensuing fire that both her legs had to be amputated. After being treated in Roehampton hospital, she was offered a room in which to convalesce by the Gileses, who had never clapped eyes on her before, but were generous- hearted people, moved by the story of this young woman’s plight, and that was how Betsy Giles became my best-loved godmother. She gave me many gifts, but unquestionably her greatest gift was to plant in my heart an abiding love of gardens.
My parents were youthful Communists, and while they both later left the Communist Party, and became solid Labour supporters, my father always retained his Irish Republican sympathies. Although I was born in Liverpool and spent my first months in Stoke-on-Trent, where my father was warden at an adult education college, when he lost his job there, because of his communist sympathies, we moved into the Gileses house and from that time on, because of the source of my name I was known to my godparents as Miss Salley Gardens. Until she died, my godmother addressed her many letters to me under that name.
The Gileses had no children of their own and I became a kind of surrogate child to them. I fantasised that my “siblings” were the plants, which they tenderly cultivated in their lovely walled garden. There were three herbaceous borders, stocked with lavender, peonies, Canterbury Bells, Solomon’s Seal and lily-of-the-valley, and many other old-fashioned flowers surrounded the wide lawn, which included a wild area where aconites, snowdrops, and bluebells bloomed at different times of the year. One section of the garden was dedicated to raspberry canes, currant and gooseberry bushes and tangled blackberry brambles, which I used to make into strange potions while playing in the garden. I was given a patch of ground all my own, where I planted ornate marigolds and nasturtiums and love-in-a-mist, which makes a carpet of ethereal blue in summer and in winter produces papery globes of seed heads, which, sprayed with silver and gold, decorated our otherwise utilitarian Christmases. The bodies of the several pet guinea pigs and hamsters, who gave up their lives in my dubious care, fertilised the soil and my pet tortoise, Stumpy, was reliably to be found there, sunning himself in the parsley which I grew from seed, always first soaked in warm tea.
Although my parents, and later my little brother, lived in the upper part of the house, my bedroom was on the ground floor, which suited me as I loved my godmother, who never scolded me, dearly. My mother, no doubt because of her disability, could be sharp of tongue. My room where I practised ballet, looked out on to the garden. In particular, it looked out on to a tall white cherry tree with which I developed a mystical relationship.
Immediately outside the window was a rockery with, on one side, a wide, mossy wall. I would climb out of my window on to the top of this wall, where I had fashioned myself a cosy niche, where I would sit reading under the graceful branches of the cherry, which during the spring months showered benedictions of white petals upon me. Thanks to my name, and my dad, I was an early lover of poetry and, my back against the warm brick wall of the house, wrote many childish poems addressed to my special tree, with which I formed a kind of spiritual communion. Being the child of atheists, I had no experience of organised religion but children, I believe, have an innate spiritual inclination. I was perfectly sure that the tree was conscious and that tree sprites lived within its distinctive bark, and watching over me, assisting and promoting my creative efforts. One of the early traumas in my life was the fall of this tree in the great hurricane of 1957. I mourned its loss grievously for many weeks and months and a small part of me, I think, has never quite got over it.
When I was seven, I gave my godmother an almond tree. Of course, this was paid for by my parents, but it was I who thought of this present and chose the tree. I was a sickly child with a bad chest and spent many winters when London was still beset by smog in bed with bronchitis. My godmother, an early pioneer of health foods and vegetarianism, sent me to a dietician who prescribed no milk, no meat but plenty of nuts. As a result I lived for many years on a diet of fruit and nuts, and almonds were always my favourite. So, for my beloved godmother it had to be an almond tree.
Salley Almond, as the tree was immediately called, was recruited into my private pagan worship and, with the loss of my cherry tree became my portal into the “other world”. More publicly, she (it was always “she”) featured every year in Mr Giles’s birthday celebrations on May 6, when I would bedeck the branches of Salley Almond with paper decorations and ribbons and hide his presents in the surrounding grass. These presents were usually seeds, sweet pea or runner beans, often with spools of rough green garden twine, or gardening gloves.
My godmother Betsy’s birthday was in July and this was customarily celebrated with a garden picnic of cold chicken and salad, picked fresh from the long vegetable bed, which ran along one side of the garden walls. Pudding was raspberries picked from the raspberry canes on the other wall. Occasionally, maggots would be found in these and I recall screeching as I spotted one in my bowl and Giles saying, “Don’t fuss, girl, the maggot is only raspberry”.
When my parents finally bought their own home and we moved when I was aged 14, a certain magic went for a while out of my life. I was glad we had our own home but I never got over missing my first garden.
I had started on my latest novel, The Gardener, before we were all plunged into the horror of the pandemic and the subsequent lockdowns. But for me this became a kind of unlooked-for gift. I had taken a modest cottage in the country with a large and wild garden, not to escape lockdown but in order to write the book. I found working on the novel, while working on the garden, a quite remarkable piece of double nourishment. The garden nourished my book, while the book drew me to work in the garden. The old memories of the sprites and fairies which peopled my godmother’s garden came back to me and I found as the book progressed, they were silently infiltrating the story. I never intended it to happen but that is part of the magic of writing. Inner and outer worlds coalesce; old experiences revive and blossom, take on new shades and forms. And as I wrote, the deep love I bore for my godmother and the recollection of the nurturing love she had for me enveloped the book. Her wise, often eccentric words, informed one of the characters, so for me, lockdown became a kind of return to my childhood paradise.
Originally published in The Gloss Magazine November 2021