We moved house when I was eleven. We left behind the comfortable, antiseptic house on a ‘private development’ (my mother would not allow the use of the word ‘estate’) on the edge of a Sussex town and took up residence in a ramshackle old shell with a huge garden in a deeply wooded nowhere full of rhododendrons and rising damp.
I missed my friends, the kids I’d played out with in the street, riding bikes and yelling and making dens in the copse down the road. Our new neighbourhood had no other kids. It was fairly short of neighbours generally. As I look back I can recall those endless trees and bushes, with the occasional enticing, narrow driveway leading (presumably) to a house or two.
However, as new arrivals, we were invited to ‘take tea’ with Miss Roberts, who lived down one of the drives across the road and along a bit. That event changed the course of my life.
Miss Roberts was, I guess, roughly my present age when I met her – sixties. She had eyes that missed nothing and was unashamedly summing us up. My mother, of course, was doing the same to her. Neither was impressed with the other. To me, though, Miss Roberts offered a glimpse of how life could be, if only one dared to let it.
My mother commented that we’d bought the house because of the garden. Mum loved gardening. She fearlessly cut lines and ovals into the turf and planted up successions of neatly arranged and carefully coordinated groups of bedding plants, heathers and conifers. She’d already begun to wage war on the bracken-filled wasteland behind our new home.
“Ah, if you’re a gardener, you must come and see mine,” smiled Miss Roberts, and she lead us into a billowing, crazy, clashing mass of colour and texture. A tiny stream wound its way through the overhanging plants. A rough path moved towards then away from the water, crossing it once with a miniature bridge.
“Goodness, it must be a great deal of work,” ventured my mother. Had we lived a generation earlier, she’d probably have had a fit of the vapours at this point.
“It’s the most beautiful garden in the world!” I announced, my voice almost breaking with passion, and Miss Roberts took note.
Indoors once again, she asked me about my interests.
“She’s always got her head in a book,” my dad replied, on my behalf. My avid reading was something of an embarrassment to my parents. They possessed books, plenty of them – books on golf and cars, gardening and cooking and my mother read some historical fiction of the nicer (pronounced ‘nacer’) kind.
“So you enjoy fiction?” Miss Roberts said. “So do I. While I pour your parents another cup of tea, why don’t you climb those steps and turn left at the top. See what you think of that.”
She lived in a chalet bungalow. The steps were something between a ladder and a staircase, leading to two attic rooms. One was her bedroom. The one I’d been directed to, though, was something more wonderful than I could have imagined – an entire room lined from top to bottom with books. Paradise!
I can imagine, now, Miss Roberts’ delight and my parents’ consternation as my gasps of pleasure and excitement echoed down the stairs to them. I settled with a copy of HG Wells’ The Time Machine on my lap. Imagine being eleven years old and first encountering the following words:
“any real body must have extension in FOUR directions: it must have Length, Breadth, Thickness, and – Duration. … THERE IS NO DIFFERENCE BETWEEN TIME AND ANY OF THE OTHER THREE DIMENSIONS OF SPACE EXCEPT THAT OUR CONSCIOUSNESS MOVES ALONG IT.”
When the second cups of tea had been duly drained, it was judged the appropriate time to leave. My mother was appalled by my lack of social etiquette as I begged loudly to be allowed to stay longer. Smoothly, Miss Roberts intervened.
“Why don’t you take the book with you?” she smiled. “You can bring it back when you’ve finished – and why not swap it for another? You can treat my book room as your own private library.”
Loudly – to drown out my parents’ polite, ‘Oh we couldn’t possibly..’ mutterings – I thanked her profusely and said that would be wonderful.
So, despite my mother’s disapproval, began my frequent visits to Miss Roberts. I worked my way through HG Wells, Edgar Allan Poe, EM Forster and George Eliot among many others. We sat in her magical garden sipping home-made elderflower champagne and – ever so gently – Miss Roberts opened my mind to thoughts and ideas my parents would never have encouraged, or probably even imagined.
I owe so much of who I am today to the sweet subversion of those conversations. I have tried, in my turn, to carry on Miss Roberts’ legacy by performing the same role in the lives of several of the children and young people I’ve encountered throughout my life – and continue to do so…