The Roof Garden


She was born in the mountains. Clean cold air and long silences, the soft rasp and snap of native grass beneath bare feet. Fog caught in fading tendrils between curves of sandstone. Everywhere, the comforting presence of trees, the piercing scent of eucalyptus, the murmur of wind in dense leaves. This is home. A child, she runs careless through thick undergrowth, becoming lost for hours in dim groves of green and grey where sunlight falls in dappled streaks, returning scratched and bruised but strangely elated to the too-tame embrace of her parents’ weatherboard house. There is a joyful wildness in her young eyes and limbs; her skinny shins grass-stained, fingernails cracked and blackened, fine fair hair tangled like cobwebs.

Plate 72 from Ernst Haeckel’s  Kunstformen der Natur  (1904)

Plate 72 from Ernst Haeckel’s Kunstformen der Natur (1904)

Later, a young woman searching for work, her first weeks in the city are blurred disorientation and panic. The sky is smaller here, trapped between the harsh geometries of crowded towers. Strangers with shuttered faces breathe carbon monoxide and cigarette smoke and stare through her. The noise of machinery in motion, of choking engine and shattered glass, fills her ears. And there are no trees. There are anaemic parks- small strangled squares of faded grass and grimy pine-chips; but no soaring lofty canopies, just stunted shrubbery and dead birds. She walks barefoot and cautious, her toes seeking the weeds that struggle between concrete blocks, finding only grit and ash. The colour vanishes from her cheeks. She ties her hair back as it pales under fluorescent lights. New lines around her mouth and eyes, an unwelcome awkwardness in her movements.

Then she discovers the roof garden. Her apartment block is a blank slab of cement, sinking under its own weight. Her fellow tenants are grey and diffident, muttering behind closed doors and avoiding her gaze. But one of them, once, must have felt as she does: why else would a greenhouse perch between air-conditioning ducts and broken tiles, like moss on cold rock? The glass walls are cracked, and weeds overrun the beds, but there is real brownblack soil here, and the furtive flashes of yellow and blue flowers. And somehow, a withered fruit tree clings to the far corner, roots coiling in silent desperation through thin earth. She almost weeps to see it. There is work to do. Over the next months she digs with bare hands. Fertiliser spooned lovingly around hungry shoots. Young plants carried cradled up narrow stairs. Gradually greenery spills from behind the glass, vines trailing from the gutters, flowers rendering vents vivid with explosions of colour, fruit hanging healthy from low branches. She makes a warm dim verdant place for herself, nearer the sky. 


She loses her job. She is distracted, arriving late and leaving early. Dirt under her fingernails, smudges on her cheeks and forehead, loosened hair in its old familiar knots about her shoulders. They do not know what to make of her, this child of open spaces with rich mud in crescents on her knees. She does not complain, departs without looking back. The garden has grown in her absence and grows further. Stairwells fill with the heady scent of jasmine; fern fronds fringe the depths of elevator shafts. The stained carpet in the hallways replaced by soft moss. Lichen eating pallid paint off walls, small scurrying things in the green shadows. Alone, secure in the roof garden, she sees life awaken beneath the city streets. Concrete cracked by swelling roots. Birds returning to roost in abandoned tenements. Ivy swallowing buildings whole. And trees, patient and powerful, breaking bricks, marching in slow silent strides down empty streets. The city is a garden; the garden, a city. She leaves on naked soles cushioned by new grass.