Six months ago the old school was knocked down. Carla smiled every day at the sun that now reached her windows.
Her house was a back-to-back. Dense terrace housing with all surplus space sacrificed to the needs of the mill. Houses squished together with no back streets, no gardens and a back wall shared with the house behind.
Sharing Carla’s back wall were a family she didn’t know but often heard. Intimate neighbours just one brick away from her sitting room. She knew they had a baby and an older child called Jack. She’d tried to meet them once. She walked to the end of her street, along the side of the terrace and back along the street behind her, but she wasn’t sure which house was theirs.
Carla’s front door led straight onto the pavement and then there was the road and a brick wall. The old Victorian school used to be on the other side of the wall but the buildings had been empty as long as Carla could remember.
Carla’s mum said they used to hold evening classes such as yoga and pottery for posh folks. She told of one couple looking across and saying their house looked just like Coronation Street.
The evening classes were cut. The old school sagged. For a while Carla and the other kids reinvigorated the old tarmac playground with life. Breaking the Victorian rules by playing together despite the engraved stone arches attempting to keep boys and girls separate.
It didn’t take long for spoilsports to complain to the council with fake concern for children’s safety. Razor wire appeared on walls, padlocks on gates and cameras on telegraph poles. Several children cut themselves.
The battle between council and children carried on for many years. Eventually the council won. Not by building better barriers but by the slow tide of time. Children grew older and weren’t replaced. The houses had never been suitable for children. Carla felt sorry for her back wall neighbours.
The old school became more decrepit. The sound of play gave way to the silence of teenage drug taking. Discarded needles replaced sweet wrappers and the do-gooders chased the council to do something.
Everything changed a last summer. Padlocks were removed and gates forced open. Curtains twitched and rumours raced along the terrace streets. What would the old school be used for?
Machines broke their way through its heart, flattened its walls and raked the ground level. Terrace talk speculated on what would replace it. A new school. More houses. A doctor’s surgery. An old people’s home. A supermarket. A go-kart race track.
It took months for local residents surrounding the empty square to work through the five stages of grief. They’d been through denial – surely something was going to replace the school; anger – at the council for doing nothing; bargaining – to try and get the council to do something; depression – that nothing was happening and finally acceptance. The school was gone and nothing was replacing it.
Carla looked out of her window at the emptiness. A sofa had arrived in the far corner. How had someone managed to dump that? The walls were over two meters high.
She smiled at the thought of sitting on the sunny sofa. The sun that had always been blocked out of her life by the shadows of the four-storey school. Her mother would have enjoyed the new sunshine.
Carla wondered what came after the five stages of grief. Acceptance didn’t seem enough. She’d accepted that her mother had gone. Her bed removed from the sitting room along with all the medical paraphernalia. Only the smell lingered. Carla wasn’t sure it was real, but it was there, in her nose every time she stepped through her front door despite candles and fragrance dispensers. She’d even tried baking the smell away without success, although the cookies were a welcome bonus.
She now accepted the smell. More than that; she welcomed it. Every time she entered her house she’d take a deep breath and call out a greeting to her mum.
It was colder outside than she expected. The sunshine had fooled her. She almost went back for her hat and scarf but nipping to the shop would only take a few minutes.
Carla passed a small entranceway through the school wall. It had originally been the gateway to the caretaker’s house. An iron gate blocked the entrance and nettles were a more effective barrier than any that the council had tried.
Carla heard a mewing noise and saw a white kitten in the gateway.
“Where’s your mum, little thing?”
Carla held out her hand and made encouraging noises. The kitten moved towards her but then retreated.
“It’s ok. I won’t hurt you.”
Carla knelt down and rubbed her fingers together. The kitten was fascinated but wary and came no closer. After ten minutes the cold forced Carla to stand and rub her hands together. The kitten disappeared into the nettles.
The local shop sold everything and soon Carla was back at the gate pushing a saucer of kitten food as far into the old school as possible. The gate moved as she leant on it. She was surprised how easily it opened. She carefully pushed through the nettles.
Carla was shocked by the splash of golden yellow stitched along the bottom of the wall. Daffodils stretched up through the nettles. From her window she couldn’t see this side of the wall so never knew they were here. Carla searched but didn’t find the kitten. She left the saucer of food and returned home.
Next morning Carla headed out with more kitten food, gloves and nettle proof jeans, without trendy holes in the legs. The food in the saucer had gone but there was no sign of the kitten.
Carla started removing nettles to give the daffodils space to show off. It became a routine. Every morning and evening she would sneak through the gate, add more food to the saucer and clear nettles and brambles from the border. A mound of dying nettles and assorted weeds grew on the tarmac playground.
Near the end of the border Carla noticed a lovely smell. She tracked it to a small flowering plant. The next plant also smelt. She crushed a few leaves in her hand. The aroma was familiar.
It was Christmas. It was the smell of stuffing. She remembered last Christmas. Her mum was too unwell to cook so shouted instructions from her bed on how to make stuffing.
Later that day Carla used the library to discover that the plants she had found were thyme and sage. Rosemary was next. And there were chives, and oregano. It was a whole herb patch that must have been planted by the last caretaker.
“Hello,” said the woman. “Are you the gardener?”
“Me?” said Carla.
“Don’t worry. I think it’s great what you are doing.”
The woman disappeared stepped from the pavement through her front door. Carla entered the garden and looked up at the woman’s house. The woman waved from the first floor window.
Carla realised that the windows on three sides of the square had a clear view of what she was doing. Only the terrace on her side couldn’t see the border she was clearing. Carla switched to the side border. One that she would be able to see from her window. It was a harder to clear. There were more brambles and very few plants to keep.
“Do you want these? For the garden.”
Carla looked at the plants the man was holding.
“Begonias,” he said. “I got them down the supermarket and thought you could plant them.”
“Thank you,” said Carla.
She took the plants and added them to the border. The next day the man brought a plant with tiny white flowers that he said was called Sweet Alison.
“Why don’t you come and plant them yourself?”
“Can I?” said the man. “I always wanted a garden but…”
He gestured to the surrounding back-to-back houses. “Me and the missus couldn’t afford anything else. She was called Alison. That’s why I bought them.”
Carla passed the man a spade. He asked where to plant the flowers and Carla said he could choose his own spot. She saw him looking up to his windows and choosing carefully.
The next day Robert, the man, called to Carla. “Do you mind if Mary comes and sees the garden?”
Mary lived in the bottom corner of the square where she couldn’t see into the garden.
“We should do something in the middle,” said Carla. “Where everyone can see it.”
In the middle of the square buddleia bushes had forced their way through gaps in the tarmac, poppies had seeded in cracks and foxgloves provided landing pads for bees.
“How can we plant in this?” said Mary
“I can bring a pickaxe,” said Robert. “And I can get my neighbour to help.”
Neighbours and the pickaxe quickly unearthed a patch of rubble strewn soil. Within a week twenty people were enlarging the patch and planting a diverse range of plants, from potatoes to petunia. Some thrived and some died.
Other people watched from their windows with disapproval and a few days later a new padlock on the gate blocked the entrance.
“But what about the kitten?” said Carla.
“What kitten?” said Robert.
“There was a kitten. I put food out for it every day. I’ve never seen it again but the food gets eaten.”
“Hrmm. Wait here. I’ll be back.”
A few minutes later Robert returned with another man.
“John. This is Carla, the gardener.”
“Hi Carla. Robert says you need a hand.”
Robert opened his coat and pulled out some very large bolt cutters. A minute later the padlock was removed and the gardeners moved back into the square. The garden grew bigger, taller and more colourful.
“Can we plant trees?” asked a woman called Mandy. “I’d love to grow apples.”
Two days later Mandy arrived with eight apple saplings. The school where she worked had planted a community orchard and had trees left over.
“Don’t worry love,” said Mandy the next day. “We can always plant some more. And some of these might survive if we replant them.”
Carla doubted it would work but helped Mandy replant the trees that had been pulled up during the night. She wasn’t sure there was much point. The vandals would only come back. She left the garden early and headed home.
As she entered her house she took a deep breath and realised that the smell was different. The room smelt of the garden. Seedlings hugged the windowsill. Plants overwhelmed the fireplace. The smell of her mum had gone. She so wanted her mum. She wanted to be held and told everything was going to be alright.
The fact that her mum was gone didn’t stop Carla telling her about the garden, the neighbours and the vandals.
“Mum,” said Carla. “It’s not fair. Why did they do it?”
Mum would have put the kettle on and brought her tea and asked her what was bothering her.
“I’m not having it,” said Carla. “I’m not letting them spoil everything.”
The tent didn’t cost much and it wasn’t dark in the square at night with so many street lights nearby. It was much colder than she expected and Carla was about to head home when she heard a noise. Something was eating from the saucer. It wasn’t the kitten. It was a hedgehog. She’d never seen one before.
A noise woke her. It was light. As she opened the tent she saw a fox, which quickly slipped away across the square and under the main gate.
Carla was cold and hungry but there was a new padlock trapping her in the square. She tried the main gates but as usual these were padlocked shut and had anti climb paint liberally applied. She could see where the fox had slipped under the gate. As a child she could have done the same.
“Hi Carla,” said Robert.
“Oh Robert. I’m stuck. There’s a padlock on the side gate.”
Robert came across the road and stopped to read a notice on the gate.
“It’s the council. They’re saying no one is allowed on this site and anyone on it will be prosecuted.”
“Why? It’s not like we’re doing any harm is it.”
“Bugger. It says here that they are going to remove all items illegally on the site. I bet that means the garden.”
“They can’t do that.”
“So what are we going to do?”
“I’m staying right here. I’m going to sleep in the garden to make sure they can’t destroy it.”
“You can’t do that. Where will you sleep?”
Carla pointed. “I’ve got a tent.”
“You can’t call that a tent. You can’t sleep in that. First drop of rain and you’ll be soaked. No. If you are going to do this you’ll need to do it properly. Are you serious?”
Carla took a deep breath and the garden smelt the same as her house. This was her place. She wasn’t giving it up.
“Deadly serious. The only way they are getting me out is over my dead body.”
“Right you wait there. I’ll get things sorted.”
“You couldn’t bring me an apple or something to eat could you?”
Robert didn’t return but spread the word and Carla was soon feasting on hot buttered toast, bananas, apples, tuna sandwiches and caramel shortbread with a flask of coffee and a flask of hot chocolate.
By evening she also had a proper tent, a sleeping mat, a sleeping bag, camping table, chairs, and a lamp. Erecting the tent had provided hours of entertainment for the whole neighbourhood. Robert shouted instructions which Carla tried to follow to the amusement of the audience watching from many windows.
By nightfall there were two padlocks on each gate. One from the council and one from the neighbours. The neighbour’s padlocks looked stronger and so it proved. The neighbours were stronger than the council.
Carla was supported to live on the site and was never left on her own. At least two neighbours were always with her. It was easy enough to climb a well placed ladder and the council were incapable of patrolling four sides of the square at once.
Carla’s garden grew larger, more colourful and more fruitful. Her story spread and soon expert helpers arrived with tools, techniques, surveys and arguments to delay, and ultimately stop the council from dismantling what the community had built.
After a year of camping Carla finally left her temporary home safe in the knowledge that the community had won and the ground was now theirs to take care of.
She opened the door to her house. She’d only been back for toilet breaks and to water the plants. Now she was here to stay. She took a deep breath and it smelt sweeter than any she had known. A sense of pride floated on the air and settled contentedly on Carla’s shoulders.
Carla went to her bedroom window and looked out over the colourful expanse. A recent newspaper article had compared it to the garden at Giverny. Robert had showed Carla a picture of Monet’s garden. It made her want to build a bigger pond.
She smiled. The view was perfect. Robert looked up from the garden and waved. Mary waved back.
Maybe it wasn’t perfect yet. They really didn’t need the walls separating the homes from the garden.
Robert pointed to a white patch. Mary thought it was Sweet Alison but then it moved. The kitten looked up at her, seemed to nod its head and with one jump disappeared into the bushes never to be seen again.