Thursday, 16 July 2009

Thyme and Time in Cemeteries and Ian McEwan

Last summer I rhapsodized and puzzled over the carpet of purple flowers in the grass on sunny slopes in Mount Royal Cemetery. I thought they might be a small mountain azalea, and then decided they resembled a clover more. But yesterday discovered that I’d been complicating things: they’re neither and I should have realized earlier.

A pair of young women horticulturalists were weeding a patch of daylilies amid one of the purple slopes, and I had to ask. The flowers are just forming, but it’s clear that the plants have spread, and will soon be absolutely gorgeous.

“Thyme,” the young women told me.

Of course: when I crushed a couple of leaves between my fingers and breathed in the spicy smell, I wondered at how silly I had been not to recognize the herb earlier.

The revelation reminded me of two fleeting bits of Ian McEwan’s Atonement. I looked for the passages last night, but couldn’t find them so I must rely on memory to explain. As I remember it, Robbie Turner, the gardener/family friend destroyed by misunderstanding in the book, has planted thyme between the paving blocks on the terrace of the stately house at the center of the first part of the novel. Years later, someone mentally notes the lovely smell arising from the terrace when the thyme is walked on.

The two passages amount to nothing more than a couple of paragraphs, but (as I remember it at least) the thyme becomes a symbol of the way events linger in time, permeating and permutating people’s lives. A singularly appropriate plant for a cemetery too, I know for sure.

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