My grandmother called it ‘syringa’, a shrub with hauntingly fragrant white flowers which marks midsummer. It seems to be more widely named now as ‘mock orange’ but whatever it is called, its scent takes me to other times and places.
It takes me to a house in London’s Middlesex fringe, as it was then, built during the ribbon development of the 1930s, to which my mother and I moved in 1941. The house was on the side of a hill. The ground floor in the front looked out on to a main road and bus stop. In the back, the ground floor became the first floor and looked down in to the garden. The spare space below the house was used as a cellar for some and an air raid shelter for most.
We sat on the balcony overlooking the garden. My grandma, with her accent from the depths of rural Essex, tempered by a time in Victoria’s London ‘in service’, called it the ‘belcony’. I remember my ears picking that up.
From the ground below, up to the wall of the balcony, a syringa shrub grew. That’s when I first encountered its evocative, yearning scent – and that is what I recalled today, as I wandered in my garden and stooped again to recover the fragrance of our own flowers.
Next to the the shrub there grew a climbing rose, deep red, which also reached the rim of the balcony. I don’t think that had a scent. At the feet of these two shrubs there was a patch of mint. And half the garden was filled with an apple tree and a pear tree, both of which produced enormous fruit, the pears sweet, the apples for cooking.
So there I am in 1941. We had moved, because of Plymouth bombs which destroyed my father’s factory – and because he expected imminent call-up, to London, free then of the blitz, but where the flying bombs would eventually fall. I had left Devonshire. It was to become an image, only an image, for me in adulthood, of paradise.
Most families we knew then visited the cinema at least once a week and virtually all my schoolmates attended ‘Saturday morning flicks’. For some reason that was not part of our family life.
We did go once to the local Odeon, during the war, to see a black and white film with Mickey Rooney in it. I remember his name. I also remember the darkness in the local Odeon. And I remember the shattering headache with which I went out from there, back into the sun.
Wandering on the bypass last night, as I usually do, in the evening light, and looking out over the fields – and thinking of the sea from which we are far, while still reaching to the beauty which was there and then, I thought I might be seeing another image of paradise.
And I wondered whether we might find it one day, after stepping out from the dark cinema of our lives.