Caught by the River

Shadows & Reflections: Martha Sprackland

Martha Sprackland | 2nd January 2016

Shadows and Reflections: the annual collection of postings where Caught by the River’s contributors and friends take a look back on the events that have shaped the past twelve months. Today it’s the turn of Martha Sprackland:

In January I got married and moved north of the river, into a damp basement flat near the Caledonian Road. The electricity is operated by stacks of cards bought from the estate agent down the road, the kitchen lino seeps brackish, suspiciously cadaverous water, all our shoes grew a fuzz of turquoise mould on the shelf in the porch. The first night we slept next to the ticking, thudding boiler cupboard I cried myself to sleep, exhausted, mainly, but also trying desperately to convince my stuttering brain that the apparatus wasn’t leaking fumes or on the brink of a blowout. It’s been a funny year. We’ve both been, at various points, unemployed or half-employed, barely making rent, and my anxiety has seethed and foamed away underneath it all like a subterranean river, making everything twice as effortful as it needs to be. I’ve had panic attacks in shoe shops, airports, anti-austerity rallies, pub toilets, on the swings in a park, in the back seat of a taxi, in bed in the dead of night. I’ve worried my way through restaurant meals (choosing food makes me anxious), the veg aisle during the weekly shop (multiples of things make me anxious), a walk down Brick Lane (strong smells make me anxious) and Tube journeys (that’s a real hoot – crowds, loud noises, strong smells, confined spaces, travelling at speed, social strangeness, and frightening words in scaremongering newspaper articles all make me anxious).

What’s kept me from the screaming ab-dabs has been the unexpected sanctuary that came with the house. In London, you don’t expect much for your money – certainly not for ours – but the last-minute place Patrick found with just days to go before the wedding, the place of last resort, almost, yielded something lifesaving: a garden. I had forgotten how much it matters. A bleak, tinfoil-scattered square of builders’ rubble and broken glass, completely colonised by green alkanet and inhabited only (apart from the toads – I’ll write about them another time) by a straggling, unhappy-looking buddleia and a pair of limp suburban shrubs, it didn’t promise much, but I don’t know what I would’ve done without it. We cleared the rubbish, sowed grass, gave the buddleia some love. We planted heather and mint and asteraceae – whatever we could pick up cheap – and half-inched a stack of wooden pallets from behind the station to build a rickety sort of decking. We lived outside, in the summer, the flat a cool, dark underpass transporting us through from the street to the garden.

In that garden I’ve slept off hangovers, read whole books in one go, written and lounged and eaten and danced and got very drunk. We met Alex, Kit and Jim, the boys upstairs who, for eight months shared the garden with us; they would take their guitars out there for hours to write sea shanties, and together we would all drink homemade gooseberry gin and eat tofu stir-fry. I miss them.

Nasturtium and herbs copy

One of the greatest joys has been eating what we grow: bright orange cherry tomatoes, rosemary, mint in abundance. The masses of small purple grapes on a vine growing in a canopy across the steps down to our kitchen, blocking out all the light. A little handful of blackberries outside the bedroom window. The elderflower the boys upstairs made into cordial. The hops I made into some seriously disgusting tea. The four tiny, nibbled-at potatoes I dug up a bit late. Most of all, the nasturtium (literally, ‘nose-tweaker’ – isn’t that brilliant?), which I’ve fallen in love with. Bounding, exuberant, the seeds once sown seem to spring immediately towards the light, the new plants tumbling their pale, fleshy stems across the earth, sprawling over the gravel path and lolling like a drunk person onto the shoulder of its neighbours. Every bit of it edible, it tastes a bit like grassy horseradish, and is thought to promote red blood cell formation, as well as boasting the highest level of blindness-preventing lutein of any plant. The flowers are a palette of scarlet, turmeric, tangerine, blood, like concentrated sunlight; ‘unto the backe part doth hange a taile or spurre, such as hath the Larkes heele’, as John Gerard had it, describing the little barb of nectar at the back. The leaves hold a single globe of rain or dew in the middle of their palm each morning. The seeds are incredible – three-lobed, science-fiction, the colour of a Brimstone butterfly – I’m still using up the masses of them I pickled like capers in peppered vinegar, as well as the rich emerald pesto I made of the leaves and stems. However much I pick and take it seems never to diminish, renewing itself overnight, holding out its little handful of water and displaying a new flush of reds and yellows.

It’s a world away from the aggro and zoom. It’s reminded me how essential being close to growing things is, the real stuff of life. I read an article in the Graun a few years ago, maybe someone savvy can track it down for me again, on the effect urban living has on the brain, on the amygdalae, the little pair of almond-shapes in the limbic system responsible for emotion and stress. Well, you’re telling me, I thought, wrestling a tremor of panic because the article had used the word ‘brain’ and that, of course, makes me anxious. Since moving to London I’ve been worse, increasingly frustrated by the limits my own (I’ll steel myself) brain imposes on my day-to-day life. But I’ve learnt a few tricks, now. I cross roads to walk through handkerchief-sized ‘parks’, and pause for a minute to look closely at an interesting bark fungus on a tree or get a noseful of a heady bloom hanging over the pavement (see how I managed to weasel around the cliché, there?).

I like the city, I like its noise and energy and glitter. But it’s not always kind. It helped me, in 2015, to sit among the plants in my garden which are endlessly breaking themselves open, moving upwards and outwards, relentless, ignoring the chrome-and-glass jungle of the City and the deep bass hum of vehicles under everything. Their growth and purpose and insolence bolstered me in the depths of my alienation and anxiety, and sent me back out into the city renewed, with a bit of that nasturtium-defiance with which they greeted me each morning, confidently, a little pearl of water on each leaf and all the noisy flowers rioting.

Twitter: @mj_sprackland

Martha will be reading her poetry at the Caught by the River Social Club, Bush Hall, London on Sunday 28 February. Buy tickets here.