‘The Serial Garden’ by Joan Aiken

Like most writers I was an unsuccessful child: ‘I played in the school yard all alone,’ as Frank O’Hara put it. Also like most writers I spent hours obsessively reading almost anything. The floor of my childhood bedroom was where I formed my unhygienic reading habits: to this day, I read books back-to-front and sides-to-middle – not so much interested inwhathappens but how, and in images and phrases I could store in my head. Joan Aiken’s short stories were particularly good for this: they’re beautifully written and beautifully formed too, packed with surreal images and well-turned sentences). I must have read ‘The Serial Garden’a hundred times.  Mark Armitage – the Armitage family are a recurring trope – stumbles on a very disagreeable breakfast cereal which tastes of alfafa grass but has a beautiful printed cut out garden on the back of the packet, and a delicate, magical and sad sequence of events results. Certain phrases from this story – Mark finding the putting of the garden together “a long, fiddling, pleasurable job” or missing his sister, ill with measles and “a handy and uncritical eater”, haunt me unreasonably to this day. I suppose it’s also a story about me and my brother in the ‘70s when there really were terrible little corner shops and we built an Asterix village from the back of the Weetabix packets.

First published in Armitage, Armitage, Fly Away Home (Doubleday, 1968), collected in The Serial Garden: The Complete Armitage Family Stories (Virago, 2015)