The perspicacious reader will recall that I was speaking of the appalling lack of wisdom displayed by myself, my housemate Galya, and the cat. I think we can all agree it was a scene far from ideal, and I’m quite sure none of us (with the possible exception of Galya, whose arrogance exceeds mortal comprehension, and the cat, whose brain is too small to comprehend mortality) knew how to defuse the situation without losing a considerable amount of self-respect. Fortunately, at that moment, Percy burst into the room, rubbing his hands together and shouting with a kind of inexplicable heartiness. I was thankful for his intrusion, because he immediately began an argument with Galya. I suspect that one of the lessons to be learned here is that one of the best remedies for a poverty of wisdom is witnessing an even greater poverty of wisdom.
I took a sip of Earl Grey and – in a fashion which was both surprising and incidentally pleasing – listened to the tirade of rising voices with something akin to benign tranquility. Feeling quite certain that it was time to regard infinity, I left the room with cup in hand, and stepped outside into the backyard. The ruckus within had faded to a dull roar, and my mind, I dare say, expanded to fill the universe, transversing ley lines and gently deflecting cosmic rays and so forth as it did so. Clearly I was on the verge of a revelation. Eager to maximise the mentally stimulating properties of sweet dawn’s serenity, I ducked under the dripping grapevines and ventured around the side of our crumbling home. The street was empty: it was time to undertake one of those wonderfully courageous missions which revelations are inclined to demand. I pulled on Percy’s green gumboots and wandered further afield.
Several streets away lay a private garden which was throat-chokingly impressive in both scale and beauty. It easily encompassed half of a sprawling riverside block, alternately hidden behind an ominous and looming greystone wall, or else a monstrous and tightly compacted hedge. The existence of the garden had inadvertently been drawn to my attention one evening when, having mustered the courage to venture out after convincing Percy to accompany me, I had shied in eyeball-rolling fear at the sheer solidity of the greystone. It was, in a word, There, and terrifyingly so. For mine, I was perfectly prepared to treat the wall as an unbreachable impasse: it was manifestly designed to keep people out, and looked as if it was damned good at its job. Doubtless the blood of braver men than I had been splashed across the morbid stack of stones. O the vagaries of humankind: it was the very tangibility of the blood-soaked greystone which instilled within Percy a determination to get inside. There must (his addled brain probably reasoned) be something worth seeing beyond, or the wall would not be trying to stop him. Over the course of a week, Percy and I traversed the boundary of the garden: he searching for a way to climb over the fence or under the hedge; I nervously tagging along behind, bleating at him to cease his foolishness and come home. Several modes of entry presented themselves; to my relief none of them were accessible to our humble selves. Then, one gentle evening, Percy stumbled across a forgotten labourer’s entrance while attempting to thrash his way through a privet hedge.
The garden seemed to have few inhabitants. The occasional sparrow, of course, and Percy claimed to have once seen a rabbit, though I believe this was a concoction of his latently rustic mind. There was, however, a human presence: a gentleman frequented the place, though he was an elusive character at best. Percy had encountered him before I, and commented that he was quite genial, if rather vague and naïve. I had run into him several times hence, and held a general impression not dissimilar to Percy’s. He seemed to work irregular hours, and was wont to materialise from behind a hedge or squat unnoticed at a potted tree, almost a part of the landscape until he startled the unwitting by moving. He made courteous enquiries about myself, but seemed to hold the outside world in a polite contempt. In an outrageously creative fit of imagination, Percy had dubbed him ‘the Gardener’, though during a later encounter the gentleman informed me that he was known as ‘Old Man Salvia’.
On this particular day, I ventured through the labourer’s entrance with the distinct intention of tracking down Old Man Salvia, who had a frustrating habit of being found only when he wished to. Fortune, however, was with me, and not far behind were startling results. As I delicately high-stepped through the quagmire that was the forgotten labourer’s entrance, I was nonplussed to note a pair of legs jutting upright out of a shack window, gumbooted like my own, and wildly waving around, like two sparring cobras waiting for the chance to sink a fang or twelve into the other’s neck. I cautiously approached them, unprepared to commit myself to any role but that of the rather scared observer. There was a cacophony filtering past the legs, a noise which seemed to emanate from somewhere directly below the window. I could only presume that the figure in question had leaned over the sill and begun struggling with an object of some size and weight. Curiousity passed, amusement waned, and fear subsided, so I cleared my throat. The legs stiffened a little, then, with several frantic jerks, the unorthodox gentleman extracted himself from the window frame. It was indeed Old Man Salvia, looking unusually flushed and agitated.
‘Hello,’ I said mildly, trying to put him at his ease, a feat which must have met with some small success, because he visibly relaxed upon recognising my face.
I took a sip of Earl Grey, but it had grown nauseatingly tepid.
‘Ah,’ said Old Man Salvia as I unceremoniously emptied the cup onto a nearby hedge. ‘Yes. How are you?’
He cleared his throat twice, and I am ashamed to admit I reveled in his discomfort.
‘Quite well. You don’t need any help?’ I asked, nodding in the direction of the window.
‘No,’ he declared. ‘No, thank you. I’ll manage here. Actually, it’s probably about time for a break. Fancy a refill?’
I gratefully nodded and he quickly led the way to a cast-iron gate, the entry to a portion of the garden I had yet to explore. Beyond this gate, a rolling hill swept down towards the river, grass sparkling with morning condensation. The graded field was speckled with orange trees, sparse at the top, but thickening towards the bottom, until, at the river’s edge, they formed a veritable grove. Old Man Salvia picked his way between the trees to a long wooden table. Here he came to a halt, seating himself without decorum on a bench. I took the other without invitation. Old Man Salvia reached behind himself to the ground and brought up a small yellow rucksack, from which he fished out a battered floral thermos and a plastic cup. Having retrieved my tea cup from my hand without word, filled both vessels with a steaming brew. The scent of bergamot filled the air, and my soul leapt in ecstasy. We drank our Earl Grey in silence.
‘What’s on your mind?’ he asked.
‘Wisdom,’ I replied. He gave this some thought.
Finally, he said: ‘The State Library. That’s where you’ll want to be heading. All sorts of wisdom there.’
I could only nod in confirmation.