Jay Merill 

A Botanical Garden Movie

I am standing by the edge of the ornamental fish pond. Late Friday. The water isn’t spurting now. They must have shut down the mechanism.

After I say mechanism I think of my mother and the odd way she behaved when we used to come here. Which was quite a lot, or as she would have put it: regular as clockwork. By the time I was seven or eight I noticed there were certain phrases she loved to repeat. Saying Botanical Gardens out loud made her go all sparkly. She appeared to enjoy the words more than the place itself. In the actual environment she could come over quite sombre, in fact. If anything, she seemed depressed. This was all more than a little strange to me. I told myself I’d have to think it through, and I’ve been doing so ever since.

As soon as we arrived, she would act all organised and make straight for the cafeteria. I look across to where it used to stand before it was converted into a plant house. Once inside and sitting at a table, she’d become dreamy and remote as she flipped through the shiny pages of a film magazine she always brought along.  I can almost see her sipping her coffee in that way she did – even and steady. When she’d finished reading she would glance around the room, her eyes taking a critical look at the surrounding disarray. The crumbs on the table, smudges on the window glass, dust on the floor. Inevitably she would start to sigh. And on occasion, a strange whistling noise would flare out of her unpredictably, followed by a crispy cackle of a laugh.  Or she’d sometimes make these hen-like clucking sounds, expressing her disapproval.

What went on in my mother’s mind, I had no idea.  Still can’t really claim to know. I’m guessing now that she saw the Botanical Gardens as a kind of paradise – it fulfilled an entrenched desire for perfection.  Any little thing that went wrong put her in a mood, which happened more or less every time we came here, as there was generally something that wasn’t exactly as it should have been. Too much grit on the path, too much wind in the air making the flower petals fall; the grass was too dry or too wet, depending on the season. All these failings would have struck her as unfair; they challenged her pursuit of happiness. What she needed was a clear-cut image. Reality was always more of a disappointment than anything else.

I remember the way she looked when we were standing by the ornamental fish pond. On one particular day the water wasn’t gushing out as it was supposed to do. She frowned and stood there for a minute or two, muttering bitterly to herself. Her voice grew louder: ‘It’s a rotten mechanism,’ she finally shouted in disdain, waving her hand. And she looked up at the sky which was a greyish teal at a moment when I knew she badly needed it to be blue.

‘Botanical Gardens!’ she sang out unexpectedly in a bright and airy way and turned blithely in the direction of the cafeteria. It felt as though the words were able to carry through her ideal better than the place itself did. As though, assisted by them alone, she had managed to edit out all the defects present in the material world.


A swish of a noise makes me jump. The fountain is working again. My mother would have loved this moment. She was an avid cinema-goer, and what she craved more than anything was to be a movie star, ensconced; the movie happening all around her – flawless and protective – its cinematic clarity surpassing even words.

I smile, knowing that she would have been in her element right now. Water spurts wildly at the centre of the pond, then steadies into a continuous rhythm, while sunshine flames the sky.

Words by Jay Merill.

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