The garden of the rose villa had been advertised as ‘a hectare of possibility,’ but in reality the builder had used the plot as a burial site for construction detritus, although neither Henry nor his wife noticed initially or perhaps they didn’t want to see.
He and Maria stood on the balcony of their new house and surveyed the early spring pastels of the Roman countryside. While she chattered about everything she wanted to do, he inwardly reassured himself about the wisdom of the purchase. It had been the right decision. The bluish umbrella pines and cypress scattered over softly greening hills contrasted deliciously with the geometry of distant vineyards—exactly the landscape he’d imagined when they decided to move from England to Rome. Besides, Maria was more at ease in her own country now, happier expressing herself in her mother tongue, and he was well rid of the depressing English climate, especially during that prolonged winter of discontent. How fortunate that the teaching post at the international school had turned into the better-paid bursar position. Of course, he’d have to corral Maria towards practical next steps, but not too firmly—she was carrying their sixth child, due shortly. Her last month was often tricky.
‘I want flowers, the most beautiful flowers, and sweet peaches for the children,’ she was saying, in her arms-waving impassioned way, but he’d already spotted jagged shards and scraps of rusted pipe among the new grass.
‘Before planting, there’s work to be done,’ he said, squeezing her hand. ‘The children shouldn’t play out there until we’ve cleared the debris.’ He’d do that during the upcoming half-term school holidays. He would.
She inhaled sharply, as if suddenly appreciating the magnitude of their undertaking, then seemed to collect herself. ‘We’ll work together, and the children will help us.’
‘I’d rather you didn’t go out there just yet,’ he said. ‘There are snakes, I’ve seen them,’ although it was only one diaphanous shedded skin he’d seen, lying gracefully in a curl by the gate.
‘Are you sure?’
‘Probably just grass snakes,’ he said, but she didn’t appear to be listening as she gazed beyond the rough remnants of tufo blocks and tangles of wire mingling with convolvulus, beyond the green plasticated fence and the town of Formello, perhaps beyond time itself.
She fixed her eyes on him and declared, ‘Our garden will be amazing.’
‘Of course it will,’ Henry replied.
But closer inspection of the land revealed a danger of discarded bottles and tins, and that the putrid smells occasionally wafting towards the house were actually due to the remains of months of construction workers’ lunches dumped there. For goodness’ sake. The builder was summoned, duly scolded, and made to dredge and reseed the entire plot. Over the next months, the family unpacked their many boxes and welcomed their new baby to the world.
Trini, Gian, Alex, Bella, Polly and Gabe, all healthy, all good, a miracle really. Henry bought a larger table for the kitchen—their old one was no longer fit for purpose.
Summer began and the sun shone on the new lawn. Life might have continued blissfully had it not been for the next-door neighbour. As they took coffee on the balcony, the smiling neighbor said without warning, ‘There’s a tomb in your garden.’
Maria blanched and crossed herself. ‘Ma che dice—what are you saying?’ Those close to her knew of her mortal fear of death but, considering her prodigious ability to generate life, they accepted this sensibility made sense for her, although it would have bordered on insanity in anyone else. Henry mentioned pressing commitments and after the neighbour’s hasty departure, Maria stated categorically that the person was a stupido who’d never again be welcomed in her home.
To change the subject, Henry suggested buying a climbing frame for the children to play with in the garden.
‘If we plant trees now, we’ll have peaches and figs next summer,’ Maria replied, baby in arms.
‘Figs?’ Henry asked. She’d never said anything about figs. When tears threatened, he postponed the climbing frame and took his wife to the plant nursery located where the rural Via Formellese joined the suburban Via Cassia, not a large nursery but bountiful. He was quickly satisfied by the selection of seeds and seedlings, but Maria took her time walking between the saplings stuck in their rough sacking balls, along the rows of trees labelled peaches, pears, and apricots. Henry waited as she lingered among flowering bushes and perennials. ‘So many different kinds, it’s hard to choose,’ she said.
While Henry had helped in the English garden of his childhood, he suspected that different rules applied to growing things in Rome and, since his wife had little experience with plants aside from watering window boxes, they agreed to seek advice on what might be best for their land. The nursery said they’d send over their most experienced man.
On his head a handkerchief knotted at each corner, the rest of him wearing a string vest, serviceable corduroys and rubber boots, the gardener and his shovel materialized one morning to discuss requirements and desires. Henry noted the wiry build, which boded well for actual work being done, and Maria said that his leathered calloused hands reminded her of her father’s. Together they judged that the gardener looked trustworthy, something to do with the steady and luminous green eyes that judged them back.
Solemnly, the man paced the land and measured it with a length of twine. He noted the sun’s position and bent down to crumble the reddish soil between his fingers. He sniffed at it and sprinkled a few grains on his tongue, which impressed Maria greatly. Later, when Henry suggested getting other opinions, she’d resist and present the soil tasting as evidence that this was the only gardener for them.
As he paced, Henry and Maria and the gaggle of children followed, pausing occasionally to listen to his intermittent pronouncements—wondrous words of hardy hydrangeas and waxy oleanders for the front of the house because of the north-facing aspect, and of bright evergreens to soften the lengthy border year-round. Maria clapped her hands when he mentioned how a couple of black fig trees would help shade the vegetable patch that should be planted not far from the house. It would need daily tending. Mentally summing up probable costs, Henry ignored the suggested avenue of gnarled ulivi through the south-facing back garden.
Then the gardener did something unexpected. In addition to his shovel, he’d brought a dull metal rod about a metre long, which he stuck into the ground at regular intervals. Henry had never used such a thing. About thirty paces from the back of the house was a broad yellowing area of grass into which the gardener stuck the rod deeply several times. He grimaced. ‘You need a large shade tree here,’ he said, marking the precise spot. ‘Proprio quà—right here.’
Before Henry could reply, Maria said they’d plant a weeping willow, and he knew she was thinking of the one on his mother’s lawn, a massive luxuriance of graceful stems arching to the ground.
The gardener bent to caress the grass. ‘No. Willow trees want too much water, better a hornbeam.’
‘A cedar of Lebanon?’ suggested Henry. His childhood had featured a fine cedar that had provided excellent shade as well as substantial branches from which to hang beloved swings.
The gardener tsked. ‘Grows too slowly.’
In the end, the willow won. Then the gardener said they’d need sprinklers, naturalmente. Henry nodded without thinking. When came the time to review costs, however, the proposed irrigation system proved too much. ‘Of course there’ll be enough rain,’ he insisted—his mother’s garden in England had never needed watering by human hand. He also refused to consider the avenue of ulivi as there were only so many olives one could eat.
After not a few arguments, the plantings were finally agreed and begun and completed. All that work took several days but to Henry it seemed that the garden sprang up overnight, and he was delighted by the children playing there as he’d always imagined. On the balcony in the evening, Maria kissed him, ‘I’m so happy with our beautiful garden,’ she said.
But familiarity can dull the most magnificent garden. Henry suggested a spur-of-the-moment picnic at Veio, the nearby Etruscan city of the dead, which had been on his mental list of places to visit.
‘I’d rather stay at home,’ Maria said.
He felt it was important to broaden one’s horizons. ‘In a way, the Etruscans were similar to the Egyptians,’ he told the children, to ignite their interest and also because he knew their mother wouldn’t refuse them.
Trini obliged. ‘Come on, Mamma, andiamo.’
At the time, Veio wasn’t a sought-after destination—central Rome had enough attractions to keep tourists within the bounds of its seven hills, and modern Romans were disinclined to consider ruins elsewhere. But Henry had heard about it when he’d taken the history class on a field trip to Tarquinia, and was elated by the prospect of a necropolis on his doorstep. He stuffed everyone and a picnic into the van and they drove away.
Turning onto a dirt road through woods, they eventually reached Isola Farnese, a tiny town built on a tufous ridge. Henry parked in the cobbled square among the unconscious pink and grey houses. Although the swelter had begun to dwindle, the place still had that shadowy lifeless quality of Roman afternoons in August. As the family disembarked, Henry spied what he was looking for: nailed to the knobbly trunk of a primeval pine, the tattered blue sign for Veio pointed to a dirt path bounded by brambles.
‘I’m not coming,’ Maria said, Gabe in arms, and made to turn back. She’d been uncharacteristically silent the whole journey.
‘What do you mean you’re not coming? We’re here.’
‘It’s bad luck.’
‘What’s bad luck?’
‘Eating with dead people.’
Seeing the children running ahead, Henry grabbed the picnic basket. ‘For goodness’ sake. Let’s go before anyone gets lost.’
Hurrying along the path, calling, ‘Wait for us!’ they came upon a sunny clearing dominated by a petite semi-circular waterfall splashing prettily into a shallow pool. A stream from this pool cut the land, and a small stone bridge lay across the stream, connecting to a path beyond into the dark woods. In the foreground, surrounded by lush banks, the children were knee-deep in sparkling water, sloshing and shrieking with delight. Henry asked them if they’d found anything interesting.
‘Toads!’ Gian said.
‘Tadpoles!’ Alex said.
‘Wonderful,’ Henry said, peering into the water at all the wriggling black commas, darting silverfish, and ethereal tendrils of pale green algae.
Apparently forgetting her fears, Maria lay down baby Gabe and opened up the picnic basket. ‘Everything all right now?’ Henry asked her.
She said it was and commented on the beauty of the trees around them. The gnarled old olive trees were indeed magnificent, he thought. ‘I want ulivi in our garden,’ she said.
He sighed. From fifteen years of marriage he knew that look, but he unpacked the picnic and attempted a compromise. ‘Olive trees would be nice. Maybe next year, once we see how our first plantings fare.’ He tried a smile. ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day.’
She pursed her lips and stroked the baby’s head, small actions that nevertheless irritated him. He poured out two glasses of wine and told himself that not everyone is fortunate to lunch on prosciutto and chianti by a necropolis in the sun.
The children’s splashing and shrieking continued. He’d have liked to tell them about the civilization before the Romans, which had buried their dead in stone huts with beloved belongings to accompany them to the other world, but it wasn’t the moment.
Maria asked who might have built the bridge. Henry replied that Cardinal Farnese would likely have been involved, ‘During the Renaissance. It looks too new to be Etruscan.’
That reminder that they were in a necropolis caused disgust to overpower her features. She dropped her sandwich. ‘I want to go home.’
Just then, the children descended with their stories of water life, and their hearty enjoyment of the food returned Maria’s serenity, which faltered only when they asked to explore the tombs. ‘Can we go?’ Gian asked.
‘Later,’ Henry said.
‘Never,’ she said, her tone admitting no discussion. When Bella and Polly protested, she relented and said they could play in the water a little longer, ‘Then we’re definitely leaving.’
‘Listen to your mother,’ Henry said, and lay down by her on the grass, nicely drowsy. ‘Such a glorious afternoon. Look at that sky.’ Perhaps only in pictures had he seen such blueness. He gazed up at her cloaked in cobalt and she smiled down at him.
They were awoken by silence.
‘Where are the children?’
Nothing compares with those leaden words. The sky, the picnic, the waterfall all vanished. Before Henry could move, Maria grabbed baby Gabe and ran across the bridge. He chased after her through grim trees. ‘It’s all right, we’ll find them,’ he heard himself say.
She didn’t reply but her face told him that he’d better, that they never should have come here, that it was all his fault if they’d lost the children.
Through the cruel woods they hurried and called. A fearsome image plopped into his mind, of the vast maze of secret tunnels that the Romans had dug here to overcome the Etruscans. Oh God. Crying out, he and Maria with Gabe in arms hurried on into the terrifying silence.
A ragged stranger in a floppy brown hat appeared. It’s strange how people you know become foreign in unfamiliar settings. ‘If you’re looking for your children, they’re back there,’ the stranger said, and from his voice they recognized the gardener.
Maria thanked him while Henry stood there until his heart calmed. ‘Back where?’
The gardener said they were in the casa delle anatre—the duck house, which seemed to Henry incongruous and unlikely. The man led them to a mossy hillock in which tufo pillars defined a primitive entry. Light voices confirmed the children inside.
‘I’m staying out here,’ Maria said.
When Henry’s eyes adjusted to the gloom, he discerned the walls of a small chamber with knee-high stone platforms on three sides. Trini was lying motionless on one platform, Bella and Pollie on another, Alex and Gian on the last, their arms crossed over their chests. They giggled and he held back his rebuke because he didn’t want to frighten them, not as he’d been frightened. Then he noticed the walls painted with a line of ducks, marching along, or perhaps they were geese, like the geese who had warned the Romans of the impending Celtic attack more than two thousand years earlier. ‘You’d better come outside,’ he told his children.
When everyone was together again, Maria’s smile returned.
The gardener offered to guide them back to the bridge. He seemed different somehow—thinner, wearier. A canvas satchel hung on one shoulder, a metal rod balanced on the other.
‘Out for a walk?’ Henry asked, light-hearted again.
Later, he would consider that the gardener might have felt himself among grateful friends because he wasn’t as coy as he might have been. The man’s green eyes crinkled as he opened the satchel and pulled out a small foot—a clay one not a real one. It ended above the ankle but each joint on each toe, every toenail, was perfect.
‘Oh,’ Henry said, uncertainly. On the other hand, it wasn’t as though Rome’s many museums needed more antiquities—the bored guide at Tarquinia hadn’t batted an eye when one pupil had inadvertently toppled a statue. Certainly, for every one of the artefacts on display, there’d be a thousand in the storerooms.
The gardener gestured to Henry to follow him up a rise. At the top, he stuck the metal rod repeatedly into the ground, and where the rod slipped down furthest, the gardener dug a hole. Then he pulled a torch from his pocket and said, ‘Guardi—look.’ The torchlight revealed a deeper hole within the hole, at the bottom of which Henry discerned curved fragments, amphorae perhaps.
Maria and the children joined them as the gardener was declaring the presence of an Etruscan tomb. ‘Already opened, nothing good left.’ Explaining that there might be another one nearby, since tombs of family members were often placed together, he stuck the metal rod in the ground again.
Maria grimaced and her eyes narrowed as comprehension dawned. ‘Oddio!’
The gardener mistook her outburst for excitement. ‘You don’t want Etruscan tombs in your garden, Signora, not unless you want the Ministero all over your land.’
‘I’m sure there isn’t a tomb in our garden,’ Henry said slowly for the gardener to understand, although perhaps no one would ever understand Maria’s terror of death.
‘Certamente,’ the gardener said, eyes sliding from him to her. ‘No tomb, definitely no tomb in the garden.’
Back on the Etruscan path, Henry listened to the children’s story of the nest of pale blue eggs they’d found. He was relieved to see his wife cheerful again but he was also thinking about Rome’s underground metropolitan line, begun in the 1930’s and still unfinished more than forty years later so beset it had been by delays each time an excavator encountered yet another archaeological discovery that required investigation by the authorities.
At the bridge, he thanked the gardener and Maria blessed him. The family picked up the picnic things and made their way back to the van. ‘I never anticipated such excitement,’ Henry said, driving out of Isola Farnese and trying to make light of the matter.
Maria erupted. ‘That tombarolo might have got us arrested, if not cursed forever, all because you want to eat with the dead.’ When Henry smirked, she smacked his arm. ‘Do not laugh at me.’ All the way home and later too, she fumed and vowed never to work with that gardener again.
While she remained true to her word, she’d often revisit the incident during new arguments about other matters that arose over the autumn and winter. Henry was duly chastened but once, when friends were over for drinks, he began recounting the events of the Veian adventure. Maria fixed him with her stare and he tailed off. After the guests left, she made him promise never again to speak publicly of the Etruscan tombs because she for one wouldn’t enjoy prison. Later, however, as he stood on the balcony, he did wonder what might be there under the willow, the tomb of a warrior perhaps, bedecked with gold ornaments and armed with spears to allow him to fight on in the next world, the ground strewn with amphorae of grain and olive oil to feed him, on the walls rich paintings to entertain him. He mused on who that warrior might have been, what of his life, his people, his loved ones, a full life for certain, and yet life would go on as he lay undisturbed. Yet again, perhaps there really was nothing under there except the builder’s sins and a few worms.
But spring brought new construction in the pasture beyond their garden —there was to be a fine villa with marble everything was the consensus among the neighbours. A modest yellow excavator arrived and its roaring whine soon became familiar. Once the workers had gone for the day, Henry and Maria liked to walk down through the back gate to the building site and check the progress of the hole in the ground.
The day the digging stopped was mid-week as Easter term was ending and what with the children’s sports and concerts, a new puppy, and history essays to mark, no one was paying attention.
The next time Maria and Henry took their evening walk, the excavator was gone, in its place a letter in a see-through plastic folder nailed to a stick. The letter featured the seal of the Ministero delle Belle Arti, and stated that all construction had been halted, moreover it was against the law to resume work, violations should be reported to the authorities immediately, consequences included fines and prison. There was a number to call.
‘I told you so,’ Maria said. ‘You don’t play with the Etruschi.’ Inevitably, she scolded him again for losing their children at Veio months before, but Henry said nothing as his feet remained stuck to the ground. He told himself it wasn’t certain there was a tomb in the garden, no, definitely not. As they walked back home he tried to reassure himself that the lawn was really very green.
Then the local paper reported that the Ministero had uncovered an unusual miniature gilded chariot—in excellent condition—and surmised that the tomb in the goat pasture had belonged to a young Etruscan prince. Further tombs may be located nearby, built for the rest of the royal family… Henry threw the paper away.
Day after day, he looked out of the window to the garden cross-hatched by the rain as the willow’s languid branches multiplied and lengthened, their greyness gradually turning purple then yellow, then bursting into green.
It rained and the fruit trees bloomed mists of pink and white. It rained and the figs raised their leafy hands to the sky. In the vegetable patch, up shot onions and feathered carrot tops, up the stakes climbed broad beans and tomatoes, in their furrows green and purple lettuces unfurled, and along the ground zucchini vines curled and spread their dusky fans. The garden grew and the children played and the willow’s veil shimmered.
Then the rain stopped.
When the hydrangeas wilted, Henry invested in a lengthy hose and a plastic attachment that cheerfully drizzled the ground and delighted the children. When the tomatoes began to crisp, he bought another giant hose and another plastic attachment. He tended to his vegetables when he came home from work, and Maria watered the flowers and the grass. She sighed. ‘Look, the lawn is dying around the willow, like the gardener said.’ She appeared to have forgotten about the possibility of the tomb, or perhaps didn’t want to remember it.
Henry stared at the browning circle, at the weeping willow sucking everything dry. He dragged over a hose and kept the water sprinkling there day and night. That meek remedy, however, could scarcely compete with the fierce Roman sun.
As the brown isle grew so did Henry’s apprehension. He recalled the newspaper article, particularly the paragraph about the way the Belle Arti sometimes identified the location of Etruscan tombs: An arid circle on an aerial photograph can indicate a thin crust of soil covering a tumulus, invisible in winter when the soil is moist, but clearly discernible in the dry summer months. A lone airplane cruised across the sky, too low for his liking. Maria wouldn’t stay here if a tomb was discovered in their garden. They’d have to move but who’d want such a house and baggage? His throat closed.
The irrigation system recommended by the gardener was the solution, he knew, but having got her flowers and fruit trees, Maria was demanding new furniture—not only the sofa and the table, but new beds for Gian and Alex who’d massively outgrown theirs—and a dishwasher. So many demands, from Maria, from the children, the animals, the house, the school, and the garden. The bloody garden.
Whenever he asked her to help him water the vegetables, she’d be busy. If he needed a hand pulling out the overwhelming weeds, she’d be doing something else.
At dawn, while everyone was asleep, he pulled up the vegetable patch. The tomatoes and broad beans might have been suffering in the heat, but deep down he knew he was wrong.
Maria rolled her eyes when she saw what he’d done.
He took on additional responsibilities at work, longer hours in the evenings.
‘You don’t help me with the children,’ she complained.
‘You didn’t help me with the vegetables,’ he countered, and regretted it.
Petty arguments grew.
He began leaving for work earlier, spent Saturdays and Sundays there too. He ignored her when she said she was exhausted. He was too. Perhaps that was when their innocence was lost, that evening when he refused to help her after the children had gone to bed, when he said, ‘Unlike you, I’ve been working since dawn.’ Little words, uttered carelessly and in anger. Canker buds invisibly.
Later, in the darkness, he looked for his wife. Eventually, he found her outside hiding under the willow, her face streaked with tears. Anger flared. What did she have to cry about? Hadn’t he given her everything? But habit and her naked eyes made him ask what was the matter.
‘I’m afraid,’ she said and let him hold her. He didn’t ask why because he knew her and his fear was the same. There above the possible tomb they held each other and it occurred to Henry that this was all they could do. Finally, with the hem of her dress, she dried her eyes. ‘We’ll manage,’ she said. Although there was silver in her hair now and her waist had spread, to him she had never seemed more beautiful.
Providence came to their rescue or maybe it was just plain hard work that resulted in another promotion for Henry. Either way, it enabled them to commission the wished-for irrigation system. Maria also got her olive trees because Henry would always be sorry about the day the children went missing, although he never said so. Without being asked, Maria helped Henry replant the vegetable patch.
The great confident jets from the new sprinklers delighted the land and the children. New tomatoes grew while the vexing brown circle vanished, never to return. In time, the archaeological dig was completed and the Ministero departed, the fine villa was built, and a family moved in.
Over the years, Maria’s sapphire hydrangeas flourished and the oleanders bloomed ruby. New plantings of golden roses, amethyst bougainvillea and topaz trumpet vines colonized walls, while leylandii and laurels grew tall and hid the plasticated fence. The fruit trees thrived and the ulivi trembled in the breeze.
‘Look,’ she’d say, ‘Isn’t my garden perfect!’
Henry sighed, but she was so proud and happy that it wasn’t worth spoiling the moment to remind her that it needed constant weeding and mowing, and that it wasn’t only hers.
Springtimes the fruit trees bore their flowers generously, curious daffodils poked up through the ground, and the willow tree swelled. Summers the fruits and vegetables flourished, the roses prospered, and the family gathered tomatoes, broad beans, and zucchini. When autumns neared, Gian and Alex and Gabe bit into honey peaches and fat dark figs. Over the years, there were parties on the lawn, Bella and Polly played hide and seek behind the evergreens, and Trini read her secret books under the willow. There were other times too, fights over whose turn it was to mow, and about the needless expense of new plants and sun loungers.
Winters the garden slept.
Years passed and for various reasons the family moved away. They made another home but it wasn’t the same. ‘You didn’t like the neighbours,’ he’d remind Maria when she lamented the years at Formello. ‘The road there was terrible.’ It truly was—a perilous, bone-rattling procession of potholes. ‘Remember the damp in the downstairs bathrooms, the showers never worked properly, and the constant power cuts, remember?’
‘There was a tomb in the garden,’ she’d reply, and cease her lamentations, although the tomb had never been confirmed.
So life went on, with its ups and its downs. The children grew up and left to have families of their own. Grandchildren. It still surprises him that he should be blessed with so many.
And now it’s summer again and he and Maria are on their way to visit old friends in the Roman countryside. They find themselves driving along that hill overlooking their old garden at Formello.
‘Stop. I want to see it,’ she says.
‘For goodness’ sake,’ he says. But he stops the car and helps her down the bank to the back gate. Bad hips slow them.
Through the faded plastic diamonds, the weeping willow sways like an enormous sailing ship above the tomb in the garden. Contended bees buzz along the grasping vines, dipping in and out of shining trumpets. The peach trees are heavy with fruit—they’d always been generous— and the sweet memory of that juicy flesh fills his mouth with saliva. He breathes in the figgy air, which reminds him of salt prosciutto and a languid afternoon at Veio. The silver olive trees ripple as he and Maria creep along the fence to inspect the vegetable patch, still there after all these years. At the top of the garden, as far as they can see, Maria’s glorious flowers blaze. She tugs on his arm. ‘Henry?’
Dreading the recriminations, he turns to his wife of sixty years, hardly recognising this old woman with her white hair and shaking head.
‘Look,’ she whispers, taking his hand. ‘Look what we made.’ Her smile has never changed.
He glimpses the warrior resting on a lounger by the willow, the children running through the trees. There’s laughter and snippets of song, and a dear pain sears him. He watches that warrior bent over the grape vines and tomatoes as the dogs chase the children, and there are the ducks and the sheep from the summer they thought they’d have a go at farming their ‘hectare of possibility,’ and there are the drawn-out suppers under the pergola at sunset. His mind tenders wisps of sad and terrible things but he can’t catch them, or doesn’t want to. He is focused on Maria, his hand in hers, stumbling along the avenue of eternal olives, imperfect and flawless, fragile and magnificent, mortal and timeless, human and divine.