"Untitled" (Pembroke Gardens)

Leaves have fallen like dust on the bowling green: the gardener whips them into a cloud with his mower like a rag on a mahogany bookshelf. They swoop tentatively into the mist, and finding themselves immiscible fall back down away from the pile. The one who will see to them is not yet at work, though I have seen him at work on other days. A petrol-burning Zephyrus, he chases panicking petals into the compost-heap like a restless sheepdog. Perhaps it was him at the café, walking away with three cans of Coca-Cola in gloves and wellies and a football hat as I went up for coffee five minutes after opening. The radio played hollow in the bar, while a woman in a college shirt scorched the milk with a blank face. She complimented my coat. I fasten again the top button, which has slipped. I see myself a solider in an army blanket, a Soviet in furs on the tundra. I have folded a thick pleat like the samples of cloth at a tailor’s shop. Sometimes I wrap it as if it’s double-breasted, but it lacks the double-breasted buttons and falls open again. A woman or a soldier could wear a belt around the waist. I adjust the half-knot in my scarf. My palms are warm and pillowed from the coffee-cup, the backs of my hands rigid and greying against the cold, going a dead grey unlike the rich grey of the mist. The mist borrows from indigo; in places takes on the subtleties of the trees behind, the evergreen and the browning deciduous.

A sudden voice turns the stone corner. She tilts her head to press the phone to a blushing cheek. Her coat is woollen like mine, but a sharp, shaped fit. It is bright red. For a moment she disappears behind a hedge, the voice behind the grumbling of the mower. Then she appears at my side, swings herself onto the next bench, throws one leg over the other. She rests a long heel on the stone and dangles the other in the air. She stretches the fingers in one knitted glove, plays with gestures out of time with the pattern of her speech. “No, no, no.” These are long, American noes. Canadian? “I don’t think we can start--” She exhales with an unvoiced whistle; the mist like a startled eavesdropper cartwheels back. I fix my gaze on the pattern of Ivy on the opposite façade. It mocks in its spontaneous meandering the grid of windows, regular as a palace or a prison. It shades the indulgent ornamentation, conspicuously made of brick. It trickles down to where the gardener is leaning out on his mower like a sailor on the rigging of a racing yacht. Having turned a tight corner, he cuts the motor.

The fresh silence is popped by a landing heel. The girl stands and leaves. Her voice blows away with the squeaking of trodden dewy dirt. I take a long sip. It recalls the bitter cup I had drunk in the lecture theatre, slouched between one who ate sweets from a scrunching bag and one who had fallen asleep. This cup is not bitter. It is a savoury clarification. Though my forehead is still tight with the blackboard, each drop of landing mist loosens it. Each slow blink against the muted green is as a gulp of water to the parched nomad. The smell of grass rinses away stale rainwater and esterified sweets.

I hear a gruff word. The gardeners have gathered behind; they light cigarettes with earthy hands. One has parked a wheelbarrow full of the bulbs of flowers. Another tosses a trowel in the other hand as he smokes. They fume as if round a campfire, but do not shiver, though they are not. They are warm from the dragging of rakes and hauling of branches. Though their voices are warm too from calls for a sapling here, a pavestone there, there is no campfire song. I imagine a gardener with earth on his face who turns to me and says, “I am just the gardener, but I was a fellow, once. I had a post, once.” Across the green, a man with grey hair combed back steps with caution onto the turf, as if onto a frozen lake. There is, indeed, a cover of frost. He pads a swaying line until far enough in, he seems satisfied, that were he to hear a crack he would be past hope. He interleaves his fingers behind his back and stretches, his neck extended to the sky. My gaze rises with his. The lapels of his tweed coat part. I search for the wisps of clouds in a plain sheet of lucent grey.

Strikes now with a shock the library bell. I feel the clapper deep inside. Every blade of grass is jolted in its sway. As the buffed, reflective chime falls back, the don checks a wristwatch and makes for a corner with quick strides. The gardeners disperse. Already I am making my way along an instinctive route, for I have a lecture now. I pass the café, where the girl in the red coat is sitting with a coffee-cup like mine, still on the phone. The mower starts, and begins again to part its wake through the leaves.