It must have been a year ago – almost to the day. Some chums and I were traveling through the countryside. The sun was shining, the fields were green and the hills a bluish purple in the distance. Our trip had been planned some months before; our destination was about an hour away in orchard country. An old apple pickers’ hut had been converted into a workshop and there were going to spend the day cutting away at lino and printing our images. There was a sort of end of term feeling in the car as we tootled along. We were chatting away when one of our little band said: ‘And look, all the Roadies are out’.
For a moment I thought that she meant the toads of this world, the gleeful speedsters and terrors of the road, although it has to be said that the other drivers seemed as sedate as we were. I waited for more context and soon gleaned from the opprobrium in her voice and the pleasure her comment was giving the others it soon became apparent, that the Roadies she was referring to were in fact rhodies, the rhododendrons that bloomed splendidly in the gardens we were passing. Forty years on this island and I still haven’t picked up the lingo.
I know it must have been a year ago because today on my stroll I saw a rhododendron in full bloom.
It took me right back to the first time I heard word ‘rhododendron’ – so grown-up and mysterious. It was taught to me by my dear Papa. We drew out its four syllables, as if it were a chant like the sinister ‘Fifteen men on a dead man’s chest…’, which was the kind of shanty Papa seemed to think was just the thing for small ears. We must have been staying at his parents burrow, I think, where the garden was filled with rhododendron bushes of every conceivable colour.
Although it was Papa who showed me how to enjoy the shape of the word, it is but a shadow of the memory I have of Grandma Mole when I see a rhododendron. Her name was Rhoda and her moleself and the flower are stored side by side in my mind. So they should be. Grandma Mole relished rhododendron colours: bright reds, oranges, pinks, purples. The primmer members of my family thought these colours clashed, but to Grandma Mole whose senses had been enlarged and saturated in Rajasthan and Kashmir, they became the expression of her liberated and generous heart. She wore big splashes of crimson and fuchsia and tangerine; adorned her walls, her curtains, her chairs and sofa with scarlet, magenta and lilac; poured Assam tea from a rose and carmine and gold teapot into matching cups. The magnificent rhododendrons in the garden brought Srinagar to their little Surrey burrow.
What these rhododendron bushes brought to me as a small mole was a place to go that was all my own, a sanctuary. All I had to do was part the dark the leaves with my paws, crawl inside and I was hidden from the world. When I was a little older and had discovered torches, I would head for a rhododendron bush with a book. It was dark and woody and often damp. It was heaven.