I’d planned to work today. After all, for one reason or another – mainly to do with accumulated tiredness, I spent all last week doing dolce farniente. However, when I woke up this morning, after ten hours’ sleep, I remembered it was the first Sunday of the month. Hey, a new month, a blank page rich with new possibilities. I had to do it justice by beginning as I mean to carry on from now on. Well, from now on, I plan not to work on Sundays. Deep breath. Exhale any professional remorse. There. I do not work on Sundays. Sundays are for resting, planning, dreaming. Even repotting plants.
I’ve never had, or ever wanted to have, a garden. I’ve inherited my mother’s unease about living on the ground floor. Assuming money were no object, I would like a first or second-floor flat, preferably on the top of the building, so as not to have any neighbours over my head. A top-floor flat with a large terrace, wide enough for a table and chairs. And a sun bed for me to lie on during warm summer nights, star gazing until I can’t tell if the sky is falling on me or I am falling into the sky. A terrace filled with herbs growing in pots. Rosemary, lavender, sage, thyme. Also flowers. Deep blue morning glories to cheer you up at breakfast, and bright yellow, sweet-smelling petunias blooming at night. Curly pink geraniums unfurling over the banisters.
In the meantime, our first-floor Norwich flat is overrun with pot plants, many of them herbs, occupying every inch of the living room and kitchen windowsills.
I spread the pages of an old Radio Times over the dining table. It’s a useless precaution, since I never fail to spill soil on the carpet, but it makes me feel as though at least I am trying to be neat. My gardening utensils are always borrowed from the kitchen: a plastic measuring jug in lieu of a watering can, and a tablespoon acting as a mini-spade.
I place all the herbs for repotting on the table, and open the sack of multi-purpose compost. The rich smell of black soil penetrates my being. Powerful, yet forgiving. And very, very comforting. The kind of smell that makes you feel safe. I ease the basil I’ve just bought at the supermarket out of its constricting pot. Its roots are coiled around the outside of the moulded earth. I stand it on a few inches of soil in the new, larger pot, and spoon extra compost all around it. The leaves are an honest, brilliant green, and I breathe in their punchy, slightly peppery fragrance. A smell of loud laughter, of dear friends cramped around a table that’s slightly too small, of spilled Chianti. I wonder how long I’ll keep this basil plant before, like its two predecessors, it grows into an unmanageably large bush that no longer fits on our windowsills, and has to be given to friends with a garden or greenhouse.
I repot the thyme. I notice its mane has got tangled up while growing in the supermarket cellophane, so I gently run my fingers through it, freeing the ends. It responds with a moody perfume that brings back childhood memories of cyan-blue skies, hat-tearing Mistral wind, and the nasal vowels of a Niçois accent.
It’s the turn of the most elegant of my herbs. The lady. The skullcap. No real scent, but tall, slender, with tiny blue flowers. A herb that knows its own mind. A gift from a wise herbalist.
The sprightly, refreshing scent of mint hits my nostrils. Light, playful, innocent. What you smell is what you get.
I turn my attention to the French tarragon. Its grey-green leaves are homesick for a drier climate, so I hope I can make it feel at home here. I love its subtle fragrance. Chewing a leaf then drinking cold water that then tastes like silver.
I glance at a herb with leaves flopping about like they don’t care, that has grown three times its original size in as many weeks since I bought in in the market. One of my favourites: sage. I gently rub a leaf and bring my fingers to my nose. A tart, slightly bitter, yet richly aromatic fragrance. The leaves are perfect roasted in olive oil.
Once I have finished repotting and, as usual, vacuumed the soil off the carpet, I run my hand through all the herbs. The living room is alight with bright, healing scents.