People in Glasshouses

A single purple flower of the Lesser Periwinkle growing through a mulch of bark and conifer.
Vinca minor: Lesser periwinkle growing through mulch.

It’s usually just a single bird that wakes me. Or so it seems. A solitary blackbird come up from the wood to sing across the gardens. Or a resident of the conifers lining the boundary, woken up in the pre-dawn, insistent to start the day. Grey light frames the windows at either end of the bedroom, and I’m caught in between, suddenly very awake.

I get up as quietly as I can and put the kettle on. I get the hot water bottle from the shelf and collect the cushions and blankets. Outside, it’s lighter than in the house, but indifferent to colour, and objects blur together: the bike shed is the rose bush; the trellis is the honeysuckle; the wall is the jasmine and vine. Only the steps stand out – harsh and flat, absorbing the thin light. And the steppingstones that take me through the garden to the greenhouse. Glancing from side to side, I check for snails and excitement builds with every footfall; this is my space, my time, my witching hour.

The greenhouse door is stiff and grates on its runners, cutting through the cold air. From mid-November to the end of January it’s uninhabitable, and the spiders relax as the grit accumulates. But one warm winter day in February triggers the dusting and the wiping and the sweeping and then it’s ready to be used again as a writing den. After this, only the residual slime of slugs every morning reminds me that other people live here; they sign their names under cover of darkness, leaving them glistening briefly in the early light.

Three trips down to the greenhouse is what it takes to prepare for the dawn-write: first, come the cushions and blankets; next, come the hot water bottle, notebook, and pencils, and last comes the tea tray. The tray is complete with teapot and strainer - comforting, wakening, ritualistic.

For the first few minutes I’m all eyes and ears. Wrapped in blankets on the old sofa, I listen for more birds, more voices. I’m obsessed with the way the dark sky takes on a deep, silhouetting blue at the same time as rustlings in the undergrowth tell me frogs and toads are making their way home. At some undefinable moment, when the greys become yellows and the greens are finally discernible, flitting movements in the rowans above the feeders manifest into robin, blue tit, sparrow, wren. Small and resolute, the little birds take their breakfast first. Larger birds - pigeon, magpie, crow – make an appearance later, when all the colours have flooded in. Later still the squirrel appears; cocky in the daylight, but, I think, afraid of the night.

When I’ve seen and heard enough, I swap mug for notebook and write for fifteen minutes. Some days this stretches to thirty. Rarely, I might make an hour. At the height of summer, it’s easy to lose time in the greenhouse, which is why I keep an old alarm clock ticking in the corner. Either side of summer it’s more difficult; despite all the measures to keep warm, the chill creeps in and soon sends me back indoors. By half past six, I’m in the kitchen, emptying the water bottle and putting away the cushions and blankets. I make more tea and take it upstairs. With the cold air still crisp on my skin, I am as ice melting into the warmth of the bed.

And then the day begins again.