The garden next door had a tree. It leaned over the lawn toward the veranda of the house and almost touched its wooden pillars. Its heart-shaped leaves cast a fluttering light and sometimes its leaves fell on the lawn. Their green was different from the small leaves of a vine trained along the veranda pillars, different from the glossy privet of the thick hedge and different from the dusty leaves of the wattle outside my bedroom window. When I stood in the space between our house and the brick wall of the house next door, I could imagine a tree on my side too.
The garden next door looked as though no one ever came into it but sometimes I saw the old woman who lived next door wandering there. She used to wear a purple robe over pink underwear and shouted at the gardener for not cutting the grass.
Our garden had a low wall leaving it open to the street like most gardens in our area. Its flowers straggled all over each other, nasturtiums, petunias, dahlias, geraniums and two roses. Near the gate, some violets perishing in the sun and glare produced five or six flowers a year. Weeds grew thick in the dark mouth of the space between my window and the brick wall of the garden next door. Only the weed wattle grew in the space itself. In the corner between my parents’ bay window and our shiny red veranda grew a pink oleander but its poisonous leaves did not take a dapple like the leaves next door.
Down the road, an oak grew out of the concrete pavement. Its scrawny branches looked unkempt among the silvery telephone poles and tram stops and every year people lopped its branches clear of electric wires overhead. I once saw a horse standing next to that oak.
No tree grew in our backyard. The large part was paved with concrete, the smaller lay bare. Sometimes my brother and I planted peas and radishes in the bare earth. Mostly we left it for the sun to stare at. On V-E day I planted a flag we’d been given at school, not knowing what else to do with it. I tried to think about the War and looked up into the sky to see whether it would ever end, but it just went on and on, blue.
My bedroom had once been a dressing room and on Saturday mornings I would sit in the niche between inbuilt wardrobes to read in the sunshine. If I stretched my hand carefully past the burglar-proofing I could touch the sinewy trunk of our tree. Sometimes I saw the woman next door, tottering a bit. She leaned on the wire gate opening to the street to look at passers-by. Passengers on the trams used to notice her, bright in the gap of her dark hedge. She lived alone. One of her sons was Up North with the army. Another had married a gentile, I think, and wasn’t allowed to visit her.
She never changed out of the purple robe but she sometimes wore a red wig. She wasn’t frightening, like a witch. She was too bright and did not seem much more strange than other grownups. There was nothing interesting about Mrs Goldberg. But to this day fairyland is to the right like her garden and has its green, enclosed silence and sunlit dapple.
One afternoon I went down the dark space outside my window to lie on the stones and look up at the leaves of our straggling wattle. I tried to imagine I was in England, in a forest or on a lawn under a tree. I wasn’t successful. The ground was too hard and I worried whether people in the street could see me. It was too awkward trying to be like people in books. Most of my life seemed dull but in the world of books even things dull in the world I knew seemed to weigh more like cakes soaked in honey.
After Mrs Goldberg’s son was killed Up North she used to shout even more at the gardener and shake her fists at him, so shrill the whole block could hear. ‘Johannes! Johannes!’ When he appeared words gushed from her, Yiddish, English, Zulu, Afrikaans, pell-mell. He hadn’t cut the grass. She would show him how herself and kneeled down to tear up weeds with her trembling hands. Sometimes she tore the wig off her head and stamped on it. Sometimes she turned away from the stupid black kaffir, crying and went into the house.
My mother invited her to visit on the eves of festivals but she felt strange, she apologised and didn’t know what to say to people.
We moved from Spenser Street soon after the War. My mother didn’t want to live in a house any more. She didn’t feel houses were safe. Mrs Goldberg next door had been found hacked to death with an ordinary kitchen axe.
She’d been lying in her blood among the spattered walls, dust settling on the hardened pools, for more than a week. The gardener confessed as soon as he was arrested but he had been away visiting his family in Zululand and there was no case against him. His lawyers argued he hadn’t understood the policeman who questioned him. His only European language was Mrs Goldberg’s English-Yiddish-Afrikaans. The police ruled out robbery. The little money in the house had not been disturbed. After a few days, the murder disappeared from the newspapers.
My parents were shocked but then they forgot about it. So did I. When I passed through Spenser Street I hardly remembered I had lived in one of its shabby villas dwindling under the glaring sun. Someone had chopped down the wattle to stop its roots creeping into the foundations.