Monday, April 4, 2011


It has been exactly a year since we moved into the flat by the wood. Last year, summer was upon us before we’d settled in, so we hadn’t a chance, it seemed, to indulge in the neighbourhood’s rituals of spring. It was all we could do to tame the lawn, left unmowed too long, never mind beginning a garden or putting out window boxes.

This year, though, we have time to take it in spring in this Salzburg neighbourhood: The faint green veil cast over the budding trees, the white clouds of blossom cloaking the magnolias and, especially, the bursts of brilliant yellow forsythia against the greening fields.

Here at the flat, we’re preparing for summer. We’ve been turning the plot in the corner of the garden. Last weekend I put seeds in containers – for coriander (cilantro), basil and leeks – and set them in front of a window in the sun. And Saturday, we picked up small containers of geraniums for the window boxes.

Strictly speaking, I suppose, these are not window boxes. Jacob, the craftsman who built this house, and whose ghost, I say, still haunts us, was not one to do things the pedestrian way. The window boxes that go with this flat don’t sit in front of windows, for a start. They slip into the curved ovoid openings in the otherwise solid balustrade that surrounds our first-story veranda.

Nor are they, strictly speaking, boxes. Rather, Jacob replicated the convex-concave silhouette of the openings (like a double-ended ogee turned on its side) in custom-made copper containers, four of them, that slide into the slots. Last summer, we left the slots empty; the oddly shaped copper containers sat in a heap on the patio below. This year the spirit moved me – was it Jacob’s petulant silence? – to fill them.

As usual, Jacob knew what he was about: The boxes, with their green leaves filtering the light through the gaps in the balustrade, soften the starkness of the veranda wall. Soon, I hope, scarlet and coral geraniums, accented by electric blue lobelia, will tumble down its pale stucco-and-stone surface.

The flower boxes in place, I swept up the litter on the veranda and scrubbed the stone tiles, clearing the evidence of using the veranda and balustrade as a bird feeding table all winter. All that remained of the bird feed were a few green nets with the last of the seed-and-suet balls, now reduced to tumble-sized lumps. I rearranged them as they hung from the bars that cross in front of the flower box slots. They would be gone soon, I reasoned, as yellow-and-blue tits, with their white-and-black striped heads, flitted boldly to the boxes and away. I will miss them, I realised. In the solitary days in front of this computer, I have grown used to watching the tits and blackbirds, robins and nuthatches, even the odd woodpeaker, come and go.

I wondered, too, about the bold black squirrel that has come regularly to the food. As the weather warmed and the supply of seed dwindled, I realised he, like the birds, would have to resume foraging on his own. I wondered out loud about this.

‘Are you nuts?’ asked Himself. ‘There’s a whole wood right there!’

He’s right, of course. The squirrel, with its quivering intelligence and quick boldness, can get along without us.

Still, this morning, it was with amusement mingled with sadness I watched the fat brown-black squirrel move along the top of the balustrade, stopping now and again to peer over the edge. He looked left, he looked right. No seed nets – the birds finished them off yesterday afternoon. He stared upward at the post from which one had been suspended last week. Nothing.

He put his nose to the stone, as if he could inhale any crumb of seed or bread that might be left. His long black ears twitched as he scoured the floor. What could possibly be left, I wondered, after my sweeping and scrubbing Saturday?

‘Poor little chap,’ said Himself, who was shaving, when I told him.

‘I hope you mean that,’ said I.

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