The garden where time crumbled to dust


                                                                                                                       by Frank Roger


            "Harry," Vanessa called out, "I think it's still going on," but the wind, feeble as it was, carried away her words to where her husband couldn't possibly hear them. She sighed, and tried to ignore the fatigue her body was suffering from her short walk in the garden. If even this short a walk was already too much for her... Did this mean her condition was getting worse? And could this in its turn mean a change was manifesting itself...?

            She shook her head, as if trying to shake off the conflicting emotions that disturbed her peace of mind. Anger, hopelessness, uncertainty. And, she'd better admit it, her failure to understand. The strict and total impossibility to know what on earth was happening to them. She just had to talk to Harry about it, regardless of what he was up to at this moment.

            Slowly she walked down the gravel path to the patio where Harry was always sitting. No doubt he had dozed off again. His waking moments seemed to be growing ever more scarce. If this went on she would be truly alone soon, accompanied by a perennial sleeper. Unfortunately she knew of no way to stop this process. With unsettling intensity, the realisation dawned on her: what did this evolution mean, and what did the very fact that there was an evolution mean? It was simply mind-boggling. She just had to talk to Harry about it, right now, even if this meant raising him from his slumber. On the other hand, she had never been so bold as to disturb his sleep in recent times. It seemed so unwise. Who knew what the consequences of such a desperate act might be?

            "Harry? Are you awake?" Her voice, already brittle with age, trembled with concern. Maybe she shouldn't wake him. She had only done so a few times, and that was so long ago she couldn't even remember the last instance. It had turned out to spoil his temper, his appetite, his entire day.

            To her relief she noticed she had worried in vain : Harry had just been raised from his "short afternoon nap" as he preferred to call it in a natural way, and now looked at her with barely focussed eyes.

            "Yes, of course I'm awake," he said, and reached out for his cup of tea beside him on the table. He brought the cup to his lips and took a sip, then gently put the cup back down.

            "It's still hot," he said approvingly. "You see? I can't have dozed off for a long time. How else could my tea still be hot?" He looked her triumphantly in the eyes, a faint smile creasing his lips.

            "You're obviously right," she said after a moment's hesitation, not without difficulty. Would he never understand? Would he ever do so much as notice? Wouldn't he ever listen to what she had been trying to explain to him on so many occasions? Maybe it would be wiser to give up altogether, but he took the initiative out of her hands now by saying, "You wanted to tell me something, darling?"

            She sighed. "Yes," she said, her voice as steady as she could muster, "there's something I'd like to draw your attention to. I've been keeping an eye on the flowers, Harry, and I've noticed something strange, something unsettling."

            Harry closed his eyes, and for a moment she feared he had gone back to sleep. But then she heard him murmur, "Oh no, not again. Do we have to go through all that again?"

            "Harry, please. I have this feeling it's of tremendous importance."

            "Well, all right then, darling. I'm listening. Please tell me what you have discovered." She could read the expression on his face: weariness, because he was convinced these discussions were leading nowhere, courteous acceptance of her insistence to let him know about her findings, resignation at the inevitability of all this.

            "Everything in the garden has stopped growing for a considerable stretch of time by now. The grass, the flowers, the trees. They all stay the way they are. It's as though time has come to a standstill. I had noticed before how it all seemed to be slowing down, but now it appears to have stopped altogether. I don't understand it, Harry."

            "But darling, there's no need to worry. How many times do I have to tell you that it's all in your mind? Everything's just fine. It's all perfectly normal. Why don't you take it easy, sit down and have a cup of tea?"

            He poured the two cups full of tea, set the pot back down with a deep sigh of satisfaction. He closed his eyes and whispered, "Oh darling, if only you knew how much I cherish these peaceful moments we have here." He didn't reopen his eyes, and after a while his slow and regular breathing told her he had gone back to sleep. Vanessa left her tea untouched, went inside the house, and wandered aimlessly through room after room, all drenched in silence.

            The entire house felt cold, as if nobody had lived here for a long time. Yet there were no signs of neglect or poor housekeeping, not even a thin layer of dust covering exposed surfaces. The house was deprived of human warmth simply because it had actually been empty for a long time. There was just the two of them, and Harry had been in his chair on the patio for too long to remember, whereas she had been in the garden, keeping a watchful eye on it, enjoying its atmosphere, and basking in its breathtaking splendour.

            Carefully she walked up the flight of stairs leading to the bedroom. She cringed at the slight creaking of the stairs. Even a faint sound like this seemed to shatter the deep silence. The bedroom appeared to be even quieter and more devoid of life than the rest of the house. She felt a mixture of shame and embarrassment for disturbing the serenity as she crossed the room to the window, gently pulled aside the heavy curtains and gazed out at the garden below. Her eyes gradually lost focus and she barely noticed what she was looking at as recollections came flooding back of how it had all evolved this way.

            It had been a very slow process - so slow she had not been aware of it at first. It had started when Harry had retired and all of the daily routines and pressures could be discarded. Rising early had no longer been required. Regular hours had become unnecessary. At last they'd had the time and the freedom to sit back and enjoy the days as they came. Slowly they lost contact with the world outside - and to be quite honest, at the time neither of them really cared. Society had been changing so quickly, at a pace they had always found hard to keep up with. The moment it had no longer been necessary to match its pace, they had been all too glad to let the reins slip from their fingers. Soon it had become impossible to catch up with society at large.

            As they grew older, the chasm between the two of them and the rest of the world grew wider. It might have been different if they'd had any children. But, sadly enough, that was not the case, and now it was of course too late to rectify that situation. So their lives seemed to slow down. There were ever fewer matters to lend a sense of activity to their days. The housekeeping chores were attended to by a cleaning woman once a week - in recent times she also did all the shopping.

            Harry spent more and more time on the patio, reading and drinking tea. As time passed, the quantities of tea increased, and his reading material dwindled away. She had spent more and more of her time in the garden. Time went by - only it passed ever more slowly, until she had discovered it had by now ground to a virtual standstill.

            She couldn't remember the last time the cleaning woman had come - although it wasn't apparent from the condition of the house. Harry seemed to be frozen in his favourite time of the day. He took a nap in his chair on the patio, sipping his tea every now and then. Tea-time now stretched into infinity. And in her garden nothing ever grew or changed anymore. Each time she talked to Harry about it he had replied she merely imagined things were wrong. It was all in her mind, he kept saying. He relied on his tea as conclusive evidence, as it didn't cool down, so the eternity she had lived through was in reality obviously but a few moments. It was no use indicating the flaw in his logic. By the time she had explained that the hot tea was part of their surroundings which were now frozen in time, he had usually gone back to sleep. But then she couldn't rule out the possibility that he was right. If, as he claimed, it was all in her mind, then how could she possibly determine the true nature of things?

            Of course, there was always the garden. She clearly had not imagined what she had discovered there. But was there a way to convince him of her findings? Was there any undeniable proof for her theory? If only she could bring him to go along with her in the garden, see for himself how…

            She shook her head, as if waking up from a maddeningly bizarre daydream. She refocused her eyes, and saw what she had been staring at, however unseeing.

            The garden! She had been standing here looking out over it for a number of minutes, and only now she realised perhaps she'd better go down and take a walk in her garden, just to check if everything was all right. Maybe the lawn needed to be mown, some dead leaves had to be removed, the hedge needed cutting or some other task might have to be carried out.

            All the recollections swept at once from her mind, she crossed the bedroom, descended the stairs and walked straight into the garden, inhaling the invigorating late afternoon air. At first glance everything appeared to be perfectly normal, but then she noticed with rising concern that there hadn't been the slightest of changes since her previous visit. Flowers that were about to spring into full bloom were still in that state of their metamorphosis. A broken, dying leaf about to drop to the ground was still poised exactly in that position. And these cases weren't exceptional. A closer inspection taught her that this was the general state of affairs. Her garden was no longer subject to change, to the passing of time. This could only mean...

            She would have to talk to Harry about this.



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