Oh, Quex Gardens is a strange and hidden gem. To be honest, it wasn’t even on my original list of gardens to visit and yet it ended up being the one that most haunted my dreams. Normally I read up about every garden before I visit, but this time I had no idea what to expect. I wandered around on my own and tried to capture the emotion – there was something about it that felt strangely wounded. I couldn’t help but see strange shaped trees and plants looking for somewhere else to go…
And yet, this was strange because there was also the most amazing feeling of peace.
So when I went into the house and read one of the leaflets, I knew exactly what I wanted to write about. During the first World War, Quex was turned into a military hospital. Expecting a smallish contingent of British soldiers, the family – the Cotton-Powells – were surprised to greet instead a large number of non-English speaking Belgian soldiers. However, they coped, not least by turning some of the rooms in Major Powell-Cotton’s extraordinary museum of stuffed African animals into dormitories. I can just imagine the soldiers reactions when they woke up! It seems that the gardens were used for recovery by the soldiers, not least by eating the good food from the vegetable gardens which caused the war office to complain at one point that the hospital was feeding its patients too many calories! The story of one of the soldiers pricked my imagination – this was a boy called Camille who had lost his voice through shock, regaining it only when he went home at the end of the war.
This is his song – as I’ve imagined it. Obviously I’ve taken huge liberties with the story, not least with the ‘Australian’. I knew there was an Australian novelist who volunteered as an auxillary during the time Camille was there, but I found no record that she could do hand-stands!
1. Camille’s Song
You could speak if you want to, but it’s like this. Stuck in your heart, the words, when they should flow through your veins. You don’t have the words for what you’ve seen, even the letters that make up the words are weapons because if such things exist then they could happen again. Dam. Age. Damn this age of ours.
It’s true the enemy must be a boy like you, who dreams at night of a father’s hand over his on the spade, or a mother’s private smile as she hands him the first ripe tomato to smell and then, go on, no one is looking, to taste. It’s true the enemy was once a boy for whom the very word, Africa, spelt adventure but he’s also your friend who faints the first morning when the screen is pulled back and he sees he’s been sleeping next to a lion. He’s next to you now as you stare at the animals during Major Percy Cotton-Powell’s show-and-tell, he’s your friend painting the backdrop for a giraffe to walk across from photographs and stories, he’s your friend gambling over cards in the evening, climbing up to the tower with you, arguing over which of Major Percy Cotton-Powell’s collection of cannons would fire the furthest, blushing as he’s caught staring a little too long at Major Percy Cotton-Powell’s wife. He’s the one who wants a future too.
In-ger-land. Kut. They catch you one morning, your hand on the bark of a tree. St-uck. But what they don’t know is you can feel the sap rising, how the tree is drawing its own strength from the earth. Trreee. You shake your head, put your hand up to pull a leaf down, point to the edges as clumsily cut as a child might do. Oak. You nod. Oak. Grass. Bud. Flower. Weed. They think they’re just teaching you English, but you know the truth. You are building a wall of words inside, a shell to keep you safe until.
Australia. You’ve looked it up on an old map in the museum. And one day you’re walking beside her as she wheels the medicine trolley round the wards when she suddenly takes off. Gee-whiz!, and she’s through the door and over the patio and out on to the lawn. The wheels making marks like directions on the grass, and you’re following because you like the idea of creating a new map. The space in my country, she says, you can just breathe it in. Sometimes I just need air, and then shockingly, surprisingly, she folds herself over to stand on her hands, a waterfall of white petticoat, a glimpse that shudders you down to your feet until you’re not sure you’re not upside down either. But then she’s upright, and somehow you are too. Ah, she says, as she moulds herself back to the medicine trolley and leaves you so smoothly, you’d swear she was moving on wheels too if you hadn’t have seen… surely you did see. Ah, she says over her shoulder, old Earbash might not talk but he can sigh, And before you know it, you laugh. Then you remember.
Fresh air and brisk walks, Major Powell-Cotton says. Good food and kindness, Mrs Hannah Powell-Cotton says. Clean bandages and rest, the nurses say. Hard work and a clean mind, your mother always said. But you, still you say nothing.
And then one day, you look around and see things as they are. There are no soldiers creeping through the woods.
No blood or tears in the grass.
And the trees aren’t caged.
No bark leaks poison.
Chimneys are just there to heat the greenhouses and to nurture the plants.
And that’s how you know the news. Even before Major Powell-Cotton comes across the lawn to find you, and each cheer you hear echoing through the space behind him is like a series of flags being hoisted. Home, you whisper, and you don’t care that no one hears because the word bangs round your head until you wonder if all of the Quex canons have been fired at the same time. You’re off. Home. Home. Home.