A richness preserved

Across the road from our apartment block in a quiet inner suburb of Harare in Zimbabwe are two handsome new town house developments. Both are smartly fashionable, with small windowpanes, private mews and neat miniature lawns and gardens. Steeply pitched red or black roofs, graceful wrought iron balconies on the upper floor and a touch of traditional European styling create an impression of good taste. At night carriage lamps shed bright yellow circles on the immaculate white walls and cool emerald grass.

In the middle of this row of elegance, in a gap in the even roof lines, live Granny and Grandpa. They are not, however, any real relatives of ours. The titles we have given them are purely honorary and spring from the sense of stability and enjoyment that they impart to us and to their other neighbours.

Granny and Grandpa have a small, square, single-storey home set well back on about a third of an acre of carefully tended garden. From our seventh-floor balcony we frequently see them moving purposefully around their property, pruning, replanting, clipping the edges of the lawn and picking flowers for the house. Every now and then a leisurely council takes place. Grandpa stands, erect and alert like the senior Army officer that he was some years ago, the effect softened by his floppy towelling hat and his soil-encrusted trowel. Granny wears a comfortable, broad-brimmed straw hat and carries a shallow basket filled with dead flowers and leaves. An important conference, silent at this distance, ensues. Eventually he points with the trowel and she nods. She moves off and he kneels down among the shrubs to execute the new plan of campaign.

This season seems something of a happy trial for Grandpa. In the centre of the lawn stands a tall msasa tree, typical of the scattered woodland that covers much of Zimbabwe and which is thoughtfully preserved in many of the avenues of its capital. At this time of the year the msasa sheds many of its leaves, replacing them with a burst of reddish-brown new growth at the tips of the rugged branches that jut out high above the ground. Grandpa stands, hands on hips, in momentary contemplation before getting out the rake, reluctant, we supposed, to spoil the natural grace of the fallen leaves, yet savouring in advance the pleasant toil of gathering them up.

At midmorning and midafternoon, whether there has been gardening or not, the tea ritual takes place. Grandpa disappears into the garage and emerges with two folding chairs. A second trip produces a metal table. Granny appears with a tea tray, the pot distending a bright knitted cosy, and a plate of scones. The table and chairs are set up in a sunny spot and the aura of quiet enjoyment is almost palpable.

At weekends we often go for a short family stroll, my wife and I in the lead, followed by our young daughter and very small son, the latter stumping along manfully but continually sidetracked by intriguing garden gates and somnolent cats. As we pass Granny and Grandpa's house our frequent backwards glances at the children give us the excuse to admire the neatness and colour at close quarters. On our return in the fading winter light Grandpa is cleaning his trowel and a cheerful orange glow in the sitting room indicates that Granny has preceded him inside.

For us and for those of our aerial neighbours who have left gardens behind, the ordinariness of Granny and Grandpa's existence provides a gentle, vicarious pleasure. We do not pry, but from our vantage point we cannot help sharing some of their unhurried daily round. The town houses on either side are more elegant, but it is our comfortable friends across the way who bring life and character to this quiet avenue.

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