I first met Moira Imre one morning in March 1995, when she came into the café where I was eating breakfast and circling job listings in the newspapers. She sat down at the table next to me, and put her rucksack on the chair opposite. She wore heavy boots, a long, waxy raincoat, delicate gold earrings and her white hair rolled into a chignon at the back of her head. Moira’s things were slightly damp, and because of that I had the impression that the dew had fallen on her overnight. She asked me if I had finished with one of the papers I had piled to the side of my table, and when I nodded she thanked me, extracted a magnifying glass from her pocket and proceeded to read the news with such concentration that she seemed almost to be dreaming.
I had been unemployed by then for several months and on that morning was feeling particularly downcast about my prospects for ever getting my life going again in one direction. There was something about that blustery-blue early spring morning, mornings which are meant to make you feel like things lie ahead of you, which reminded me incontrovertibly of my sense that nothing did.
After a while, Moira took some scissors from her bag and cut out a story, which she folded into a book in the plastic bag at her feet. She looked up and saw me watching her. ‘I like to keep funny stories,’ she said, by way of explanation. ‘You know, odd things. I read one recently, about a man who lived as a goat for two years. There was another about a lady who jumped into the sea to catch up with a ferry in the distance. With breaststroke! This one – she gestured to her feet – is very interesting. It is about a woman who called 999 to report that she had become invisible. Obviously, that is fascinating to me, in my line of work. Apparently, the operator told her that being invisible did not count as a medical emergency, and that if she called again without good grounds she was likely to be arrested.’
Moira’s outburst unsettled me, as you might imagine, and I thought about it often in the weeks that followed. I started a new job at a bakery delivering sandwiches to offices and after that, I began to see Moira around a lot. I saw her once watering snapdragons in the rockery in Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, another time inspecting a magnolia tree in Cleaver Square and a third time, in Kennington Park, apparently forking bluebells near a fence. One afternoon, when I saw her with a pruning knife near a children’s playground, I went up to her.
‘Hello,’ I began. Moira was balancing at the top of a ladder and did not stop what she was doing. I was embarrassed, but I continued: ‘I’m sorry, perhaps you don’t remember, we met at the café…’ Moira looked around and squinted down at me. ‘Ah,’ she said after a moment. ‘Yes, of course. Hello Isabelle, I’ve noticed that you’ve been following me around.’ She laughed. I didn’t remember ever telling her my name but insisting that I hadn’t been following her seemed so pathetic that I didn’t say anything else. Moira began to climb down the ladder. When she got to the bottom, she held out her hand. It was muddy and cracked. I took it. ‘Moira Imre’, she said. ‘I’m glad you’ve come back. I want to talk to you.’
With that, she began to walk off. I watched her back for a moment, noticing the way it was covered in bits of leaf, until she turned around and beckoned – ‘Isabelle, are you coming or not?’
We went along the road in silence. I tried to think of something to say, but Moira strode ahead, humming. We stopped at the café where I had first seen her a few weeks before. It was three o’clock in the afternoon and empty other than for a few men drinking tea in the corner, who stared at us when we went in.
As soon as we sat down, Moira began to speak fast and quietly. She told me that she was a well-off woman, who was born in Lambeth in 1924 to an English mother of French descent, and a Hungarian father, who had moved from Budapest to London between the wars. Josef was a doctor and Juliette a classical violinist, and soon after she was born they moved to a small flat without a garden near the Natural History Museum on the Cromwell Road. Because of that, their father would take Moira, and her older brother, Tomas, to walk around the museum gardens every day after lunch. That was where she had begun to become interested in plants, Moira said, because the gardeners would talk to the children as they worked, telling them to go and look at a newly blossoming flower or announcing the turning of the seasons.
She took a shabby plastic book from her bag and thrust it towards me. It was a photo album. I hesitated. ‘Look, if you don’t believe me,’ she said, crossly. ‘It’s all in there.’ I opened the book. Men and women looked back at me. ‘This is my mother,’ Moira said, pointing to a woman posing stiffly with her violin under her chin. The woman’s face was bleached white from stage lights, and she wore a dress thickly sewn with sequins.
‘This is a picture of Tomas and I when we were small’. Two short children in school uniform frowned at the camera outside a front door, holding hands. Neither child looked much like the woman now in front of me.
‘Well, the day before my twenty-fourth birthday, Tomas died. It was a kidney infection, and very sudden.’ Moira paused, looking at the photograph. ‘My parents, who by that time were already frail, followed him the next year. They died of sadness, it was quite clear, but when they died there was a lot to sort out. It was a very hard, as I’m sure you can imagine. Anyway, after that, I didn’t want to carry on living in that flat, so I sold it and bought a house on Walnut Tree Walk in Lambeth, close to where I was born.’
I had lived on Walnut Tree Walk a few years before, though I didn’t remember Moira. ‘I know that road,’ I said. ‘Yes, yes, I know, Isabelle.’ She cut me off. ‘Please pay attention. Where was I? See! Now I’ve forgotten what I was going to say.’ She frowned and rubbed her forehead.
‘Oh yes, Walnut Tree Walk. At the beginning, you see, when I moved there, I was the only one in that big house and I was very unhappy. I used to wake up in the night convinced I could hear someone breathing outside my window. I thought that if I opened the curtains I would find a face pressed up against the glass, watching me. I hated it. After a while, I started working at a local school as a secretary. One day some of the pupils were looking for a place to show a film. The school considered it inappropriate and said the screening couldn’t happen on the school premises. They were terribly disappointed, so I said to them, you know, discreetly, that they could put it on in my living room. And that was how it all began. After a while, I moved upstairs and turned over the lower floors to them completely. They used to come in the evenings and play music and have fun. I liked it, because it reminded me of Sunday afternoons when I was growing up, when my mother would play the violin and my parents’ friends would dance around the kitchen. And they liked it, because I made sandwiches and because it was a place for them to be together. And – she looked past me and grinned – because I gave them drinks and talked to them about politics.’
Moira’s tone was making me nervous and I was conscious that my boss at the bakery would be wondering where I was. I looked at my watch. Moira saw and frowned.
‘Are you listening, Isabelle? It’s very important that you understand what I am saying to you.’ Her voice was irritated. She got up. ‘Wait there, I’m coming back.’ She walked out of the café and stood on the side of the pavement, smoking and scanning the road. I watched her through the window and, for a second, considered leaving. The café had a back door. Moira turned around and raised her eyebrows at me. ‘Stay there!’ she mouthed through the glass. When she came back the cigarette seemed to have put her in a better mood. ‘That first summer, in 1947, there was a heat-wave in London and it was too hot to stay inside, so the youngsters began to sit in the garden.’ She was speaking very loudly.
That was when she began to paint the flowers. ‘I was a very unsuccessful gardener, in those days,’ Moira said. ‘I planted dozens of rosebushes, and wanted them so much to do well, but they all became pale and depressing.’ At the beginning all she would do, she said, in the afternoons before the children arrived, was to dip each flower in mixture of water and watercolour paints that she would prepare in a glass and carry over to each plant. Then she would spray them with rosewater she had bought at the chemists. In the sun, the flowers would dry to the most beautiful shades – apricot, raspberry, butter – and when the children came in, they were delighted by it. ‘I could feel them relax,’ she said, ‘when they came into that garden full of colour and perfume. We were very happy there.’
Moira spoke for what seemed like hours. Over the years, she told me, she had begun to develop her practice, evolving her techniques with new paints, brushes, pipettes, and developing a wider palette of colours, glosses, oils and fragrance. Some of the children became her apprentices, learning the skills and bringing their own scents and colours to a garden which, she said several times, grew ever more enchanting. They learnt to apply drops of sugarwater to the middle of each plant to attract bumblebees, and how to prune just above the leafnodes so that the next flowers to grow would bloom into the same colours as the painted deadheads you had cut.
‘But then –’ she sighed. ‘They stopped coming. The first generations – as I thought of them - grew up and moved away. And then, after a while, all of them stopped. Of course, I understand, they couldn’t live on flowers alone! But what makes me sad is that I think some of them don’t paint at all anymore because they have to work all day. Well, some of them do. One of them has moved far away, to Germany. She has children of her own now, and she makes umbrellas. She sent me one, recently, for my hydrangea bushes. Anyway, Isabelle, the problem was that I felt my life was shrinking around me. These days, the garden is still beautiful but no one sees it any more. Sometimes in the afternoon when the children come out of school on Lambeth Walk I stand by the gate to see if any of them would like to come over, but now that I am old I scare them and their parents are extremely suspicious of my intentions. I suppose it is understandable. But that is why I have begun to work on other spaces beyond my garden. I have to be very careful, though. The police have begun to follow me. They think I am a troublemaker. They even tried to charge me with vandalism. Truly, it’s disgusting. They’ve banned me from the park. But there is a young gentleman I know who sleeps by the camellias keeps look out for me whilst I am working. He’s a very nice young man.’ She smiled.
‘The other thing, I have to tell you Isabelle, is that I have begun to forget things. It’s extremely annoying, but there you go. And that’s why I need you to help me.’ Throughout her little speech, she had not looked at me, but only out of the window and over her shoulder. Then she paused, and looked intently at me, to see my reaction.
‘There is a woman called Iris, Isabelle, and she is very sad. I knew her when she was little. She used to come to Walnut Tree Walk. She was wonderfully talented painter and she had a fantastic sense of humour.’ Moira threw her head back and laughed to herself. ‘She was the one who taught me how to boil cherry roots to make a purple dye to paint the irises. Then when she was fifteen she stopped coming over. I heard later that she had run away. It turns out her uncle had started beating her up. I don’t know what happened to her since but then a few months ago she reappeared around here.’
By now, I had begun to feel very anxious.
‘She’s like you, Isabelle’ Moira said, ‘She has lost her job. Now she lives in the park. It’s very bad. In the mornings, she cries and talks to a seagull. She’s gone over the edge. We need to help her. We need to paint the park for her, Isabelle, so that one morning she can wake up and remember the happy days. I feel very strongly that this is the only thing to do.’
Moira continued. She wanted, she said, to paint and spray every flower in the park between the time Iris went to sleep and the time she woke up. She looked at me again, demanding a response. I was scared of contradicting her.
‘I can’t climb over the fence any more these days, so we’ll have to get into the park before it closes at dusk. We need to become almost invisible to evade the park rangers. And then we will have to work quickly, to get to all the flowers before dawn. I need you to write everything down, Isabelle, to remind me as we go. And I want you to record my recipes.’
I couldn’t think of what to say. I looked back at her, an old woman with bright eyes. ‘You won’t let me down, will you, Isabelle?’
Our preparations over the next days were intense. Every day for about an hour before I left work I would see her waiting for me on the street outside. She took me to dusty chemist shops to buy orange blossom, musk and myrrh. We went to food markets as they were closing to buy old peaches from the dregs, and she showed me how to pound their skins to make a perfume for roses; we bought bruised lavender for the wisteria; fetid oranges for a dye, wrinkled olives for a black tincture. We bought scraps of taffeta for repairing rose petals.
We walked several times around the park in question, Moira wrapped in scarves and sunglasses. I saw Iris, feeding bits of cake to the gull. We took careful notes of which plants needed new flowers, which repairs, which perfumes. Back in her house, we prepared our materials. Moira’s kitchen was the strangest one that I had ever seen, full of knives and brushes and glass flasks for distilling. She showed me how to dip and dab the flowers, how to use the pipette to trickle dyes down the sides of the flowers so that the colour fanned out through the veins of the petals. We drew plans on thin paper, and cut out patterns for the plants that needed to be darned. She showed me how when you sew a stem and a silk flower together the stiches melt away and the fabric flowers graft themselves onto the original plant. Throughout those days, Moira was lucid, determined, calm. I became her scribe, writing down everything she said in a notebook she gave me. She took the notebook back from me each evening before I went home. ‘It’s safer with me,’ she said.
On the agreed evening we took the bus to the park with all our supplies packed in tissue in cool boxes. We arrived just before closing time, as the dusk was gathering. Noone was around. We walked around the park and stopped by a monkey puzzle tree, which Moira began to climb. She looked right, and left and all about her to check no one was watching and then hopped up before I could stop her. ‘Come on, hurry up’ she called down to me, impatiently. And so, reluctantly – I have a fear of heights – I hauled myself up, pulling the picnic boxes up with me. When we were up in the boughs, surrounded by the prickly leaves, sitting perfectly still, people carried on below. A dog ran to the trunk and sniffed suspiciously, barking, but no one looked up. After a while, Moira opened one of the boxes and produced some sandwiches, which she offered to me absentmindedly. We sat there, on the bough, eating sandwiches in silence. We waited. At one point I thought I heard Moira start to coo quietly as the night began to gather itself around us.
Alexandra Reza's writing has been printed by publications including the London Review of Books, the New Left Review, Le Monde Diplomatique, Trespass and Dissent. She is finishing a book about 1960s anticolonial poetry, and as a BBC ‘New Generation Thinker’, this year she is recording radio essays about contemporary postcolonial fiction. She lives in London.