Two weeks ago, I was in my kitchen trying to open a tin of baked beans without a can-opener, when there was a knock at my door. As I opened the door to my shared student house, a 20-minute walk south of South Street, I met my neighbour Margaret for the first time.
No music was blaring, so it couldn’t be a noise complaint. In fact, sometimes Margaret’s game shows can prove a little loud for terrace row housing. Instead, Margaret politely asked me to move the bins in our front garden away from her sitting room window- the sight and smell of them had been bothering her. This seemed a perfectly reasonable request.
As I looked out over the front garden, scouting out new potential bin positions, I felt a little embarrassed. Ashamed, even. There was Margaret’s front garden (absolutely no euphemism intended), smirking at me in my periphery vision. It is immaculate. Its shrubbery sculpted by the hands of a gardening god, not a blade of grass nor pebble out of a place. Seasons don’t seem to affect Margaret’s front garden; come winter it will subvert the laws of nature. I assure you; no leaf shall fall, and no flower shall wilt in Margaret’s front garden.
Meanwhile, laid out in front me is the bleakest, most dejected front garden you will ever see. I wonder if T.S. Eliot somehow travelled forward in time, walked by our house, thought to himself ‘what a dump’, and ran home to write The Waste Land. If that were true, it would be the front garden’s greatest, and only, achievement. We have no grass and there is nothing that could pass as a plant. Instead, there are various ex-plants, plants that have ceased to be but are sticking around for the hell of it. Plants aside, the front garden doesn’t pass as a front garden. A rubbish dump? Yes. A toxic waste site? Maybe. A front garden? Definitely not. I could sense that Margaret agreed.
I went on to chat with her for five minutes or so and found out that she moved to her home in 1960 and has lived there ever since. She raised her children and brought her grandchildren there. It is, to use her words, her ‘forever-home’. She worries about what the university’s growing population means for streets like hers. My embarrassment quickly turned to guilt. I felt bad that I was spoiling her family’s special place, one dead shrub at a time.
After we had said our goodbyes and I had closed the door behind me I felt my heart sink a little. Why should Margaret have to sit in her front room and look at our dead plants and stinking rubbish bins? Or down the street, why should Doreen be treated to a view of weeds and tarpaulin? Or Nigel, or Frank or any name that fits this stereotype I’m peddling? After our conversation my beans on toast didn’t taste as good as they usually did. (For anyone who cares, it turns out we had always had a can-opener).
Quite a few of us students now live in more suburban parts of St Andrews. I know this because on my commute into town I recognise the all too familiar sight of bin-laden mud pits dotted amidst Gardens of Eden. I can’t be the only one noticing this.
Any day now I expect to find Margaret secretly popping over to plant bulbs and roll out grass. I’ll catch her crafting an Edward Scissorhands style ice sculpture or doing that weird animal hedge trimming from The Shining. She’ll stage some kind of miracle garden makeover whilst we’re out. Or maybe she’ll volunteer me and my housemates for one of those shows where they do it for you.
I wish I was more like Margaret, but I’m not. I’m Bel and I kill every houseplant I buy. Just this evening, I threw one away because no amount of water could possibly bring it back to life. It had actually turned black. Now that doesn’t seem right. And so, as much as it pains me to say, it’s me and the mud pit for the long haul. Wish me luck.