Once I was over the gate, I made a great show of diving into the sea of hawthorn that had terrified us for so long. Pushing out in half circles with both hands and occasionally crawling, I paddled through a backwater of tangles until I half-emerged into a clearing. I looked up and saw an old stone sundial, upon which stood a linnet. It was the first time I’d been this close to one and presently it met my eye. We stared at each other for what seemed several minutes, before I remembered a story I’d been told at school about hawthorns and fairies. I began to crawl out of the bushes and when next I looked, the bird had flown.
I stood upright for the first time since entering the Jungle. I could hear the other children calling me but it was faint now. In front of me, somebody had trodden a rough path into yet another ocean of various bushes, trees and plants, all of which soon served to send a ten-year old boy into a state of hypnotic trance. It was impossible to tell where one plant ended or another began and as I was trying to figure it all out, I somehow missed the formidable figure that came hobbling right through the heart of it. All of a sudden, Rene was there with me in the clearing.
She wasn’t at all what I’d expected. For one thing, Rene was huge. Not in height; she barely made five feet tall- but she easily looked that in width. Her skin was a lovely walnut brown all over- and wrinkled like one, too. On her face she wore an enormous pair of glasses- the type that all old ladies wore in those days. Finally, she carried not a broom- but a walking stick. In the jade half-light of her jungle, and leaning on her cane, Rene looked more like Yoda than a witch… Until she spoke that is.
“Waddaya fink you doin’?! You bedda gedda outta here now!”
The delights of a thick Italian accent were lost on a ten year old; I barely understood a word of her staccato barks. I remembered what the gang had told me about her smell-spells and promptly held my breath…. And ran.
Plunging straight back into the hawthorn bush, I quickly found the faster I struggled, the slower I went. Soon, I was suspended like a fly in a spider’s web. Behind me, I could hear Rene laughing- or rather cackling, as I would later tell the other kids. Eventually, I allowed myself to breathe in a little (only, of course, whilst crossing my fingers and uttering the most powerful of all counter-spells known to Kentish children of that era: ‘Feign Knights!’- pronounced ‘feynites’). Calming down, I gradually proceeded out of the jungle and up over the front gate. On the roadside, I discovered that my friends had long gone. I was badly shaken. I hadn’t been so frightened since the old Greek guy chased me out of the cafeteria at the Ramsgate Boating Pool (I’d ran out of money and tried inserting bottle-tops to get a credit on the ‘Double Dragon’ machine).
I didn’t see Rene again until a few days later. At the time, there was a gang of travelling gypsies who used to turn up in Pegwell most summers (funnily enough, a whole tribe of them rocked up recently- for the first time in years); this time round, my father had hired them to tarmac our driveway and they used to let me help out a little. Or rather, they tolerated me. One hot afternoon, we all had our shirts off and I was trying my very best to look tough (which was difficult for a child nick-named ‘Shaggy’ on account of how skinny he was) when Rene came walking up the garden path, stick in one hand, Yorkshire terrier (‘Petal’, whom I was later to become very fond of) in the other. My bravado disappeared and was rapidly replaced by the beginnings of an asthma attack. I was still mindful of her magic but struggled to hold my breath. Rene walked through all of us and marched right up to my dad, who was on a ladder at the time fixing a window:
“Hey you- you, yes you! Do you know ‘ow to fixxa the toilets?! It wonna flush!”
My father was a dark-skinned, fearsome looking fellow of about 17 stones. Passers-by could easily have mistaken him for the King of the local gypsy tribe but Rene didn’t care less. In any case, she’d picked the right stooge. They started talking and within seconds she had him whipped. He explained that he wasn’t a plumber but that he’d come over in a while and see what he could do. Before leaving, Rene briefly inspected the tarmac gang; I looked away but could feel her eye upon me. I only looked up when I couldn’t hold my breath any longer, but like the linnet- she’d disappeared.
I’m grateful that she came back the next day. My dad had refused all payment (she tried stuffing wads of notes into his hands) so instead she came over the road with huge bags of sweets for my brother and I; we exchanged the most furtive of glances at one another- before scoffing the lot. I’m also grateful that she offered to cook for my family on the following Saturday night; it was my first taste of real Italian food and to this day, I’m hooked. But most of all I’m grateful I got to know her over the next three years. There weren’t a lot of old people in my family. And there were certainly no Italians. Both my grand-fathers worked the pits and died before I was born, but I was very close to my nan and my grand-mother, and Rene joined a group of ‘aunties’ that I collected as I grew up.
Rene continued to cook for us- two, sometimes three times a month, even when my dad couldn’t find anything to fix. My favourite dish was what she called her ‘sugo’; it was a kind of meat sauce that she poured all over farfalle- those little pieces of bowtie pasta that up until the age of ten I’d never seen, but thereafter couldn’t imagine a world without. If ever I caught a decent fish from the local bay, I was expected to ‘present’ for Rene. She would judge our catches (usually eels and dabs, but sometimes a bass, if we’d got lucky) and then give us some herbs to cook them with. Her garden had a flavour for all seasons but it’s the summer plants I remember the most when I think of her, rosemary, evening primose, but most of all oregano- that piece of home she’d managed to bring with her all the way from Italy. Some early Londoners did a similar thing with linnets, taking them from the countryside to the city as a keepsake to remind them of home. But Rene could never have caged a linnet, of which her garden was full. As well as finches, tits and wrens- one of which would come and sit on her.
I became very good friends with the old lady, as sometimes occurs between those just starting off life and those who are soon to leave it- which she eventually did, a little over three years later in the autumn time.
Several months later, some new people moved in and cut down the jungle; tore up every hawthorn bush (some of which had been there since before our estate was built) and scattered the herbs into the breeze. To be fair, they were nice people. I don’t know if anybody else could have maintained the gardening; the herbs needed tending and watering in a secret rotation known only to Rene. Whilst the hawthorn bushes very frequently housed large wasps’ nests, the inhabitants of which seemed to sting everybody (yours truly included) except for Rene.
I often cycle past the old house on the way to the farmland at the bottom of the road. The linnets are still welcome there- as well as the larks, wrens, bats and of course the foxes, too. When I reach the top of the street, I don’t have to pedal any more; I can just let the hill take me down- so it’s even easier to hold my breath as I pass Rene’s house.
Her garden is mainly concreted over now… But on the hottest days, I can still smell the oregano.