In Isolation with Bre Audrey Graham

Location: London, England

Eight years ago I left home and moved to London. I’m not really sure what that version of me—eighteen years old and uncertain of what she wanted—was thinking when she chose to do it, because it feels so far away from who I am today.

Recently I’ve been clearing out USB sticks full of files and old boxes of photos gathering dust in drawers. In them I can see my cheeks swell and shrink depending on the season, my hair colour shifting in shades, the contents of my screenshots differing in line with who I ached for at the time. Across those eight years, only the walls in which I lived stayed the same. The flat had too many rooms and a bathtub as big as a bed—and it had a garden, most importantly one that kept growing in spite of my neglect.

While the trees and the hardy greens always weathered both winters and heatwaves, one thing returned every year without any effort on my behalf: a tiny pot of mint. I’d bought it from a supermarket the first summer I moved in and it had sunk its roots into the soil of a raised bed and went wild. Its leaves lingered long into January and by the time May came around every year, it was a lush tangle of peridot green. Even though literally everything in the world has changed since twenty-twelve, this mint has mustered on.

Last month, I left the garden and moved out of the place that was my home for so long. On my last afternoon in the emptied-out apartment, there was a heatwave. The city sweated as I drank the last beer I had left in the fridge for that exact occasion. After doing the final checks, I went outside in the scorching heat to water the garden one last time.

I soaked the pots of roses that grew up the ancient wall and bloomed every June with apricot-coloured, sherbet-scented flowers. I made sure that the bottlebrush my Dad bought me to remind me of home had just enough water to feel like it was still in the hemisphere it belongs in, and then finished by turning the hose on to the now flowering mint bush. The warm water from the hose hit the leaves, and the scent of damp soil and the fragrance of mint filled the humid air.

It was the scent of my grandfather’s garden. Everything came to me all at once: around the back of the garage, to the left of the Hills Hoist, was where the mint grew. Three years ago when Poppy, my grandfather, was sick I was able to go home to Australia to be with him. The week I arrived he was still walking, week two he was in a hospice, and by week three I was holding the weight of my grandmother at his funeral. Like everything else lost in time, when he died, the mint that had grown in his garden did too. 

The warm water from the hose hit the leaves, and the scent of damp soil and the fragrance of mint filled the humid air.

Amidst the confusion of the pandemic, I’ve tried not to think of how far away home has become. Watching people on the news every night lament not being able to be with loved ones when they’re ill is an unfathomable agony amongst it all.

At Poppy’s wake, we ate pies. He was a pastry chef, a job he had almost his whole life but had retired long before I was born. I was too young to taste the ones he’d made in the factory that sent him deaf, but it didn’t matter because I had something better—I had his birthday cakes. One year, he piped a delicate pastel pink mermaid tail onto a Barbie doll that sat atop a chocolate popcorn-covered cake in a sea of bubble-gum blue jelly, giving life to a doll that had never lived. He could spin sugar into roses and roll fondant over Christmas cakes as if it was as light as silk. He could make things that even in my most confident moments of cooking, I would never get close to creating.

If I was ever offered entry into an alternate universe where cancer didn’t kill him, I would scroll through my phone and show him the photos of all the ornately iced cakes I love and he would show me how to pipe puffs of cream and reimagine roses from a bag of sugar sprinkles. Standing in the garden, I thought about the birthday cake I’d just ordered for myself and what colours I wanted the icing to be. I turned the hose off and sat down, suddenly overwhelmed.

It wasn’t just the mint, it was everything. Saying goodbye to the kitchen I learned to cook in; the walls of the apartment that had heard all of my crumbles and triumphs. I watched the sun reduce the water from the hose into smaller puddles along the tiles and waited for them to dissipate into nothing before I got back up again. It dawned on me that in this new world, crossing streams and seas to get home to Sydney in an emergency would be impossible.

In those two weeks I had with Poppy, I got so much before he was gone—I read him a feature I’d written in a magazine about a place he loved, I watched while my Mum nursed him and sliced roasted potatoes and lamb for one of his last meals at home. My Nan still lives in the house where the Hills Hoist swings and the mint no longer grows. She’s too frail to hang the sheets on it anymore and where the herbs used to spread, just weeds wander.

The last time I talked to Mum and she told me that Nan’s latest blood test was bad. This is where it starts, blood is at birth and the beginning of ends. I know I can’t get back home this time if she deteriorates.

Before I go from the garden, I pull a handful of mint out from the roots along with a few of the roses and take them across town to the new postcode where I live. It’s opposite a park but I don’t have a garden anymore.

In my new kitchen, a place I’m still working out how to cook and move within, I smash the mint into a green pulp in the marble of my mortar and pestle. I swirl it into seltzer with a drop of rose water, a generous glug of gin and a sprinkle of sugar. If I am surrounded by what tastes and feels like home, I’ll feel closer on every call—a combination of closed eyes and the right flavours. There is so much in memory. And though everything we love will change, wet mint and sugared roses will always smell the same.

By Bre Audrey Graham