The summer grass prickled through my cotton top and then gave under our weight. His body stretched the length of me; his fingers climbing, one by one, over my ribs. This slope of grass, bordering the rose garden, which we’d chosen, was exactly body-length.
For the head gardener of old, his waistcoat unbuttoned, had directed the earth to be moved to such a place at such an angle to create this shelter for the roses. His hands had sculpted in the air the comfortable gift-of-age girth of his wife’s roundness, smoothing out the sharp surprise of the jutting hip bones of her youth to form this slope-now perfectly pitched, into which we sank.
The rose garden behind us was a flounce of colour in the otherwise green and grey-walled garden of the big house which now held no trace of the hovels that had been swept away. The walls had risen around the scrapped field, ten feet, more, until only the labourers’ soil-smeared domestic dramas marred the parody – ours but the latest.
Although my lover lived only a short walk across the city, he did not know the garden. After his friends had cajoled him into saying the words and I’d mumbled something in turn, they had decreed us boyfriend and girlfriend. We hung out, held hands and had even graduated to his mother chasing us out of his bedroom mid-afternoon, back downstairs, where an eye could be kept on us. After the appropriate time had elapsed I’d chosen to share the garden with him.
In our innocence we believed ourselves to have arrived here whole unlike the crumbling statue standing in the dry fountain bed. For this garden was peopled with statutes of goddesses which had been cast whole, for ease and economy, then defaced with hammers and blows to mimic decay.
In this colonised field, long abandoned by the lords and ladies who had slunk, with shabby dignity, home to foreign England, backed now on all sides by high houses, we all but lost sight of the world. A world we thought we had left behind when we had passed through the narrow gate in the cut stone wall in the rear car park of Dublin’s national concert hall beside the industrial bins. Inside, the rose scents tangling with the creeping vegetation conspired in our concealment.
The man who had first shown me the gate had been here long before me. He had been here at my age now when, for a brief period, the greens became theatres for the soft radicalism of the outer edge of the wave of student riots that shook from the heart of Paris ‘68. At the back of the university, where the great house used to stand, on this lover’s slope, he’d gathered with sapling boys, beards half-formed, who had raised their voices to describe the world that was possible using big words about the big matters of rights, and workers, and justice.
And when a girl had stood on the upturned Seville oranges box to speak instead of frights and labour and necessity the hum of the crowd grew as the men’s patronage frayed.
So the roses muttered at the edges all summer long, scrabbling at the pedestals of men, plotting trips on trains with illicit prophylactics joyously flung from windows to sully the pristine air of Catholic Ireland. And so it came that in 1971 condoms dropped, like thunderous blessings, amongst the dry words of revolution.
The roses wiped down the dust of words from the aprons of their deeds and the university had grown up and moved to the suburbs, abandoning the garden of follies to the snubs of the offices and elites.
And now here we green lovers were on this perfect slope. His teeth, bared porcelain, ripped a thin strip off the top of the silver foil square. Our two hearts noisy as he shifted letting the air pass between our slick bodies for a moment; and as we kissed and ground the evening gradually settling about our ivy idle.
The chill after the heat of the sun in this forgetting garden touched our skin where clothes were hitched, unbuttoned, askew. We reluctantly righted ourselves. Hand in hand we strolled to the gate, our murmurings, falling petals on the gravel path. But the gate was locked.
Circling the garden we looked for release, our time was up. Noise reached us, over the wall, from one of those back gardens. The Bowling Green’s banks, rising up, shortened the distance to the wall’s apex. We leapt and, fingers curling, wedged our chins on top of the wall to see. A party, a cocktail party, a wedding reception perhaps, glass-gleaming effervescence amongst the party frocks and smart suits, be-gloved silver tray handlers and colourful dolly mixture allsorts of sandwiches, crackers and salty what-nots.
Letting go the wall, nails gathering the debris scrapped from the old masonry, we looked at each other. We committed.
He laced his fingers and I stepped up, mounting the wall. With me safely up, he stepped back and took a running jump and arms straining and legs cycling the wall, he made it up beside me. Astride between the garden and this spectacle, unarmoured for the occasion, we did not hesitate. It was not a choice. Without a glance behind us we slid down the wall into the back garden and began to wind our way between the guests and gladiola.
No one spoke to us. We did not pause to explain ourselves. We passed like ghosts amongst the finery. Unsanctioned and unregistered, tracing our way along the paving stones, we found the back door. The click of our feet on the clay tiles of the servant’s hall, a claxon, until, mounting the fourth step of the return, they sank into the deep carpet muffling our passing like a fresh fall of snow conceals all agitation. Beneath the regard of the polished side tables, we reached the heavy front door and out, out, down the worn granite steps and gasping, we emerged into St. Stephen’s Green.
And when, firmly and gently, he’d said we were over, as a man he explained he had a world to occupy, I must understand, he was too young to be walled in, not now, not yet, not by me – I did not flinch. Because between us, on that slope where our bodies had first met, had not been the tomes of justice, equality and utopia, rather, it was a slip of rubber that had been flung from the 10:55 train from Belfast to Dublin in 1971; a journey that had its bloody origins in a lost garden, on a bank, manmade, to shelter the roses.