Seven years

I pressed End Call on my phone and dropped it in to my pocket, having finished a conversation with one of my sisters that two weeks previously I’d never given any thought that I would have.  Pulling my black raincoat around me against the cold winter wind of 2005 as it whipped round the building – the coat that this sister said made me look frightening to old ladies and children as it billowed out like a cloak as I marched along – I walked back through the automatic doors, pausing out of a recently-acquired habit to squirt anti-bacterial gel on my hands, and made my way to the lifts.  As I stood waiting for one of the four to arrive, it struck me that none of the people bustling around me knew, they had no idea what my story was, why I was there.

The lift doors opened and I stepped in after a few others, people who took no notice of the black-clad woman standing amongst them.  Just as I pressed the button marked 8, the doors started to close and a woman appeared in the quickly decreasing gap holding a carrycot.  I held my hand against one of the doors which hesitated then slid open again.  She stepped in, wafting further cold from outside into the lift.  “Thank you” she murmured.

The doors closed and the lift ascended, various people chattering, carrying flowers, a balloon, bags.  There was a ting, we halted, doors opened and people stepped out.  Once the doors closed again, it was just myself and the carrycot-holding lady left as we began to slowly drift upwards in our box.  I looked downwards, vaguely glancing at the contents of the carrycot.  Babies don’t normally hold much interest for me but, at that moment, I wanted something to focus on.  What I saw shocked me.  Nestled amongst the white blankets and under a pink, beribboned woolly hat was a face, a perfect little face – two closed eyes, symmetrical half-moons of dark eyelashes, a small bump of a nose and a rosebud mouth.  Slightly pink-tinged cheeks.  It was a tiny, tiny face, her whole head seemed little bigger than an orange.

“How old is she?” I blurted out.

“Six days” the lady answered.  Her voice sounded small, she sounded tired, she sounded worried.  Her face was pale, her hair frizzed by the cold and rain outside.  “She’s a bit small” she continued.  “She was a bit early.  My first, I’m rather terrified by her, I didn’t think she’d be this small”.

“How much does she weigh?”  I asked, my disbelief that a human could actually be so small and live – breathe in and out without the need of being surrounded by starched uniforms and bleeping machines.

“I’m not sure what she weighs now but she weighed 5lbs, 3oz when she was born”.  I laughed out loud.  The frizzy-haired lady looked at me quizzically, clearly laughing at her baby’s lack of baby-bouncing weight was not what she expected.

“I was 5lbs, 3oz when I was born”  I explained.  “At six days old, my mother apparently put me outside in my pram to get some fresh air.  It was winter and she told me she’d had to brush the snow off my pram before she brought me indoors”.  The lady audibly gasped and almost mouthed “My God”, my reaction having been exactly the same when my mother told me what she’d done with her newborn fourth child.  Both myself and the new mother looked down at her child, undoubtedly musing on the idea of putting something so small, so tiny, so vulnerable and precious outside in the snow completely shocking.  “You were fine” my mother had said at my outraged shock at her more than blase behaviour “You had lots of blankets, you had a hot water bottle wrapped up with you.  Did you no harm”.

“Clearly did you no harm” said the frizzy-haired lady and I was conscious of her looking at me, really looking at me, starting at my shoes and slowly upwards to my full height of 5’9″.

The lift tinged again, slowed to a halt and the doors opened at floor 8.  I gave the mother and child one last look and with a small smile stepped out, caught in a throng of people who’d just spilled out from other lifts as they hesitated to look at the signs pointing ways, signs I had no need to look at and signs I would not see again.

“Thank you” said a voice behind me.  I turned, not sure if the words were directed at me.  The frizzy-haired lady stood in the lift holding her tiny baby girl in her carrycot in one hand, her other hand holding the lift door open.  “Thank you” she said again.  She smiled.  She looked brighter.  “I feel a bit more reassured having seen you.  Thank your mother as well for me”.  I opened my mouth but there was nothing there.  What could I say?  How could I explain?

“I will” I said just as the doors closed on her and she disappeared.  I turned and went to join my eldest sister who was gathering up various belongings so that we could leave once and for all, leave the hospital where we’d watched our mother draw her last breath half an hour ago.

C’est la vie

The November mists have descended upon the Small Country, just as they did this time last year, cloaking the countryside in ethereal ghostliness.  The car headlights snake their way through the gloom on our morning drive up the hill through the trees to the main road for Joe Brown to face the white-knuckle ride to work on the bendy bus so I can have the ridiculously fast car for the day.  Sometimes the strength of the sun is sufficient to burn the mist off by mid-morning and a couple of weeks ago, on a perfectly clear day and a perfectly clear, straight German autobahn with its lack of speed limit, I tried testing just how ridiculously fast it is.  I think the car laughed in my face when I got sweaty hands and lost my nerve but I certainly drove faster than I ever have before.

It’s over a year since I arrived here and much has happened and much has not.  Progress with learning French is, I feel, timorous due to my seeming lack of ability for concentrated study outside my one-to-one lessons and I’m being a rather timorous beastie about joining in with the two social groups I’m a fully paid-up member of.  I know not why.  As is apparent, I have blogged little.

I would have thought I’d have had much to say about our trip to New York at the end of June to which we travelled first class but I did not.  I said nothing of the wonders of turning left as you step on a plane rather than turning right and there was no mention of the amount of walking we did in a city that seriously doesn’t sleep, any more than we slept in the hideous summer heat in a sweltering hotel room.  The only shoes I found comfortable were a pair of pink flip flops.  We sweated our way round the usual tourist spots, putting our hands on the names of people who were felled, on the spot where they were felled.  We ran our hands along bannisters in a building which was the first building thousands of people came to from far, far away decades ago to start a new life in a new country.  We sheltered from lashing rain which cooled the city for an hour or so, by which time my feet had turned cheap flip flop pink.  I took a multitude of mostly crap pictures, Joe Brown’s were better.

The three cows were taken away from the field out the back of the house some time after we returned but, it must be said, the farmer was astonishingly gentle about it, leaving the open trailer in the field for a week and daily trying to coax them in with food rather than forcing the issue.  We missed their puffs and wheezes as we sat in the late summer evening sun on the terrace after they’d gone.

Having, in the past, dug out pernicious weeds in an area the size of the whole garden here at the Tangerine House, as well as doing the same at the allotment I had in Blighty, even I couldn’t believe how much hand-wringing and bitching I did when digging relatively small flowerbeds here but, in my defence, I’ve never come across such shite, heavy-clay soil.  I fear for the survival of some of the plants given that they’re facing a Small Country hard winter in waterlogged soil that will undoubtedly freeze solid.  I started walking past the enormous pile of manure at the end of the village and staring at it wontonly.

Joe Brown has blatantly said in the past that he would have difficulty being in the house with my sisters and I for any length of time – the phrase used was “a cauldron of women” – so, during his fortnight stint of business trips at the end of September, Sister Two came to stay for a long weekend, bringing her impossibly neatly-packed bag, flips flops that don’t dye her feet, shorts and perpetually lightly-tanned legs.  A fellow gardener, she poked a fork in the rock solid, as then un-dug and sunbaked lawn, and laughed at my misfortune.  This tells you something about Sister Two.  Her casual enquiry as to what temperature I wash the bedlinen tells you something else about her and the fevered manner in which I cleaned the house before she arrived probably says something about me too.  We drank cremant in the unseasonally hot garden – she in her shorts and me with lily-white legs covered – and watched the birds of prey hanging in the air high above the tree line beyond.  We mused on manure and my reticence at speaking with the gentle farmer, fearing inability to make myself understood.  We drove in to the city, something that took me ages to conquer the fear of doing – this from a woman who, years ago, would drive in to London in a car whose ability to make it to the end of the road was highly questionable.  We walked down to the old part, which is  a World Heritage site, ambling along winding valley paths lined with narrow houses and, surprisingly, vegetable gardens.  Tiny lizards scuttled near our feet on the ancient walls.  We had lunch at Le Fromagerie, a shop that Joe Brown and I came across a while ago, the smell of which hits you as the doors slide open.  As we slid in to our seats, I leaned forward and told Sister Two she was in for a treat and indeed, she was.  We lunched on glasses of red wine and platters of breads and different cheeses, slicing slivers from each others plates and comparing favourites.  I think we were at our table for well over an hour before winding our way past the Royal Palace and across the busy city square which, a month or so later, heralded its own royal wedding, stopping at a cafe which serves coffee at its best.  Sister Two simply nodded at the first sip of her double espresso.  No more words were needed.  As we drove home, we cruised round the village and spotted the gentle farmer.

He had no manure at that time but explained in a mixture of French and, surprisingly, English, that his neighbouring farmer did have and the pile I’d been coveting was, in fact, horse manure.

“C’est mieux, non?” he said as I explained why I needed it.  Indeed, yes, horse manure would be better than cow for heavy clay soil.

“Ah, oui” he continued, adding that he’d seen me in the village and that I was “a strong soul”, a phrase I think is the local equivalent of “a sturdy girl”, a phrase bandied around our family for some years, the reason for which is Sister One’s daughter, as a robust toddler in her pushchair, was deemed by a Bahamian to be “a sturdy girl”.

Sister Two and I drank more cremant chez moi that evening whilst we made an enormous fish pie and planned a river trip the following day but regrettably the scheduled sail was cancelled and Sister Two was flying home later that day.  On the way to the airport, she pointed to our right and observed “stick-on cows” in the field across the way.  She’s quite right – a herd of cows in the distance look like they’ve been stuck-on the landscape, cows close up do not. Have a look next time you see a field of cows in the distance and you too will now point and say “stick-on cows” I’ll be bound.  I shocked myself by getting a bit weepy at the airport as I waved goodbye and came home to an empty house, with an impeccably made spare bed and leftover fish pie I picked at later.

A week or so later, after many wanders round the village which takes all of five minutes, I finally found someone in the farmyard at the end of the village and stated my desire for “le fumier”, apologising for my poor French.  The wizen-faced man I spoke to pointed me in the direction of another man who I approached, picking my way across the muddy yard.

I pretty much skipped up the road towards the Tangerine House some while later, partly because I was on a promise of a pile of manure being delivered over the fence the following day but also because, as the wizen-faced man wandered across the yard towards our conversation, he gestured towards another man who apparently spoke some English and the farmer I was speaking to replied:

“Ce n’est pas nécessaire, c’est bien”.  My French was seemingly sufficient.

Joe Brown returned home as the sun lost its heat and, with it, our joie de vivre seemed to dissipate.  We both became lethargic and a tad dull, not helped by the shocking news that a work colleague of his is possibly facing not being around to witness his eight and ten year-old sons’ voices breaking.  This outrage of life happens, I know, but it seems particularly cruel to happen to an infinitely kind, gentle giant of a man who looks capable of ripping out fully-grown trees with his bare hands.

A week later, Joe Browns’ father called to let us know that Mrs Brown would imminently be going in to hospital.

“Private health care” she announced to me on the phone at the weekend. “I refused to let him cancel my health care when he retired” she added.  Wise lady, Mrs Brown.

She had surgery on Monday and during an update phone call yesterday, Mr Brown recounted how a nurse explained that his wife had given her a seriously hard time earlier that day on the grounds of rudeness.  Apparently, the nurse had, in an endeavour to reassure Mrs Brown how pleased they were with her progress, she’d told her she was doing really well “for a woman your age” and got severely reprimanded for her impertinence.  She’s had major surgery.  She’s in intensive care.  She’s eighty-three.  She’s a sturdy girl.

Also? There’s someone else living with us as of a month or so ago.

He’s Belgian and, obviously, a redhead.  Le Belge Roux.

Thursday’s Cat

I’ve dreamt about him every night for the last week since he’s gone, vivid dreams that melt away as I wake but amongst the jumbled stories that fill my sleep I’m conscious that his furry presence was by my side, my abiding sidekick, just as he has been for the last fourteen years.

I hadn’t really wanted him, giving vague mutterings to Vic of “Well, not really, well, OK, I’ll think about it” but suddenly there was a lanky-legged twelve week feral kitten born on the local rubbish tip delivered to my house and Vic was gone.  We regarded each other from across the room through the bars of his small cage – I hadn’t even got up from the sofa as he’d arrived – he was all eyes, pointy ears and legs and looked like a rangy, tabby-furred fox.  Having been caught at about seven weeks old, he was the largest of the litter of five by far and certainly the bravest, being the first to come forward as we’d smeared cat food on our hands and held them up to the bars of the big cage Vic kept them in as he slowly accustomed them to people and various domestic noise.  He licked the food from our fingers, his bravery encouraging his siblings to come forward and over the next month started to look rather eager to start a life outside the metal bars.  I got up from the sofa and opened the small cage.

Eddie ate like a horse and grew like a four-stemmed weed, supplementing his diet with an alarming number of kills which he’d bring home as soon as snared and, to give him his due, all were eaten with gusto if I didn’t manage to wrestle them away if still alive.  All that would be left were perhaps a leg, a few tail feathers and, in the case of furry critters, a small whirly bit and tail.  My neighbour, an ex-paratrooper, once admitted he’d had to abandon his shoe-polishing session by his back door as he found the sight of Ed cracking the skull of a bird between his teeth rather distressing.  He’d creep in to my other neighbour’s house and steal the cat toys she bought for her over-indulged cat and regularly came cantering up the garden path with all manner of swag; a magpie which flew round the kitchen before escaping through the window, the lower half of a turkey leg including its foot, burger buns, a garlic baguette and once, an oven-warm lamb chop complete with traces of mint sauce.  He developed a penchance for spongy pot scourers which I’d find shredded all over the house and was frightened of plastic carrier bags after getting his head stuck in the handle hole in a quest to lick the remnants of an Indian takeaway from the tinfoil dishes.  Fights with other cats, if they happened, seemed to be over quickly – he appeared not to follow the rules of endless crooning and slow circling for an age but would dive straight in.  My ex and I once looked on in horror as he leapt on a cat who just happened to be passing and expertly flipped it over on its back.  Wary of strangers, once stroked, he’d be a mate for life, happily approaching people he hadn’t seen from one year to the next but avoiding anyone he’d never met before.  I still get the occasional email from someone who met him twelve years ago, purely to ask “How’s big Ed?”   Neighbours knew him well, he was always “Eddie from the tip” given that everyone knew the local tip and if you knew the tip, you’d be aware of the clowder of tabby cats that lived there.  He was languid and long with a shiny sleek coat that was as soft as rabbit fur and smelled of fresh air.  He weighed 16lbs.

When I left the ‘Set to live with Joe Brown in 2007, Eddie seemed to put himself into retirement, avoiding fights and rarely hunting, which was a surprise.  He became lap cat, sofa cat, lolling in the garden cat but still with his unmistakeable loud miaow.  He’d come when I called him and respond if I asked him if he was a peckish puss but not flinch if Joe Brown asked him the same thing.  He became less hefty to pick up.  When having a blood test and resisting mightily at having his front legs held, the vet asked “Is this a feral cat?”

“Yes” I replied and, out of habit, went on “He’s from the tip”.

It was odd to have Ed on medication, he just didn’t seem the sort of cat that would need it, being picky about food was strange and stints on drips felt just plain wrong despite the fact that they flushed his system and kept him going.  I’ve stood in the vets on more than one occasion quietly weeping at the sight of my cat tucked into the corner of his caged cube, attached to a drip and with a litter tray.  Litter trays were an absolute outrage to Ed, he once protested at being forced to use one when I moved house by weeing in my handbag.

In the last month or so he deteriorated rapidly, thinning alarmingly, became disinterested in food and looked pitiful during another stint at the vets which didn’t appear to be having any effect.  I brought him home.  My cat who’d always greeted me cheerily gave me sideways looks that seemed accusing, he who’d crunched and eaten the heads of starlings refused to eat and who’d once caught a swift wobbled and fell down a couple of stairs.  It was, in fact, the sight of him obviously having tried to get to the litter tray and run out of steam, lying in his own wee and looking humiliated, which caused me to pick up the phone and ask the vet to come.

I’m not sure if there’s cats at the tip any more, certainly not the true tip cats anyway with their unmistakeable tabby rabbit-fur coats.  The Cats Protection League caught them, had them neutered and either found them new homes on farms or returned them to the tip to slowly die out over time.  Eddie was one of the last litter.  He’s buried in the garden which apparently is against the law here and therefore seems fitting for a cat that was born on the edge, as it were.  He’s within earshot of the church bells and pretty much in the shadow of the chateau up the road.  Clearly he came an awful lot further than could have been the case if I hadn’t opened his cage nearly fifteen years ago.  I’m so, so glad I did.

Twenty Seven: All good things

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Champagne afternoon tea, with fondant fancies and my sisters this afternoon.

Ninth: Barley twist and beeswax

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I worked this morning in the garden of a lady who’s 80.  She has an easy but difficult garden to work in – borders are stuffed which make for less weeds but what weeds there are can be pernicious and require careful stepping amongst plants to get at them.  She also has a penchance for the likes of lemon balm and mint and certainly when I first started working there I had to negotiate hard on just how much lemon balm and mint was really necessary.  “But it’s really pretty” she’d say which became something of her catchphrase before wandering off and muttering “Oh you, you’re just like the nit nurse” as I pulled great chunks out.  Her house, a tiny cream-coloured cottage down a quiet side street, would not look out of place if you came across it in the midst of a wood and, in many ways, she wouldn’t look out of place either – a small grey-haired lady with bright eyes and capable hands who pumps at the well in her garden for longer than I can before my arms give out.

Today, after I’d finished my stint, we had lunch in her garden then headed off across winding roads that rolled across wide open countryside to go see a place she thought I might like.  Garden furniture, new and old, were stacked in buildings dotted round the site, containers full of planks of differing sizes, old doors leaned against walls and a warehouse full of old furniture which was our main reason for going.  We wandered through the aisles, peered in to wardrobes, opened chests of drawers and ran our hands along dressers.  We sat on chairs, cooed at dainty tables with barley twist legs and said hello to an inky black cat with a long twirly tail and came across her cardboard box full of fat, roly poly kittens who she was happy for us to gently stroke.

“I haven’t seen a cardboard box full of kittens for years” I remarked.

My camera was bereft of SD card and the only photo I could take of my day was of a stunningly beautiful stained glass window in a church it was suggested we stop at on the way.  If I work out how to work out the built-in memory malarky I’ll upload it although it won’t do it justice.  It was truly breathtaking.

I bought no chests of drawers nor barley twist legged tables but a few packets of seeds and four blocks of beeswax were brought home to plant in my new garden and make polish to wax the furniture we already have.

Fifth: My mate

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Fourth: Stamped

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Someone had a rabies shot and got issued with a passport today so he can travel to the small country.  Signed and stamped, he’s good to go.

Mrs Jones

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“She’s hard going” said the man at the garden centre as he handed me a piece of paper with a name and number scribbled on it.

“In what way?” I asked.  I already had a couple of clients who could be deemed as difficult, the last thing I needed was another one.  He sighed, rolled his eyes slightly and paused, clearly trying to find the words to adequately convey.  I’d known him a short while – it’s a small garden centre, run by a husband and wife team who seem to work like dogs amongst their plants and two small children, one newborn and gurgling in a pram which he gently bounced as he talked to me.

“Just hard going” he eventually said.  “She obviously knows her plants and is a keen gardener but there’s ….. there’s no spark to her.  I think she’s reluctant to admit she can’t cope with her garden – she came in with her son last week and it was her son who asked if I knew anyone.  I get the impression she’d far rather have female help than a bloke”.

He was right.  The five minute call I had with Mrs Jones was almost painful.  When I explained I’d been given her number as she was apparently looking for some help, her response was “I see” with more than a touch of suspicion in her tone, as though I was calling to force myself upon her.  “Well, what sort of gardening do you like to do?” she enquired.  She sounded clipped, tired.  I reeled off the list of tasks that I spend my day doing in various gardens, finishing off with “Is that the sort of help you’re looking for?”  She sighed and there was silence.

“Well.”  she eventually said.  I waited. “I rather think the garden’s under control at the moment and I’m not sure there’d be very much for you to do”.  This was mid-August and in complete contrast to the overgrown mess I’d been given to believe was the case.

“Well.” she repeated.  “Actually, the thing is, my husband has just gone in to hospital and is likely to be coming out soon.  He’s going to need a lot of care.  I really don’t think ….”  I interjected immediately, relief washing over me at a perfect get out clause to end the conversation and stop any possibility of having to deal with this woman and her apparently under-control garden.

“I understand” I said, rushing the conversation along, keen to get to the end. “You have my number, if you change your mind, do give me a call”.  I put the phone down and breathed.  She called within the month, her voice as flat and tired as I remembered.

She was taller than I imagined and slimmer, thick grey hair surrounding a pale, virtually unlined face for someone I suspected was in her 70’s.  She was as slow and measured in her walk as her talk.  The single storey house is tucked away down a dead-end road, fronted by a tall hedge of fir which hides the house from view.   The gardens wrap round the whole property, the sides and back edged with bent and broken deer-proof fencing, beyond which are tall trees stretching in to a wood.  Despite the sun of the day, the trees cast large shadows across the garden, the lawn still wet with dew and fluffed with moss.  Deep borders are stuffed with growth, shrubs planted towards the back leaning forward to try and catch any available sun, trying to reach away from the trees.  The lawn laps against the flower beds, like a spongy, mossy green sea at the water’s edge as the tide creeps in.

“Your borders could do with edging” I say in what I hope is a constructive way.

“Hmm” she replies. “I’m not too keen on hard edges.  I quite like things to be more casual”.  I sigh.

There are two large island beds, complete with various trees and twisted branches of overgrown shrubs sprawling further in to grass.  Towards the bottom of the garden, which slopes down slightly, a large area of lawn is left long and is awash with last season’s browned oak leaves which have sat in the dry shade of their tree.  “There are spring bulbs here” she says.  “They look quite pretty”.  Strangely, I’m surprised she’s used the word ‘pretty’.  It seems out of character.  We walk back to the house, up a few steps and along a paved path, inbetween which are spiky grey-green stems of Eryngium and thousands of small Aquilegias.  I can feel the scraped fingers from trying to get them out already.  There is a vegetable garden with narrow raised beds completely caged from deer damage.  “Muntjacs” she sighs and I murmur words of heartfelt sympathy.  Three or four sickly-looking courgette plants are the only vegetables I can see amongst smallish weeds, their wide leaves looking like flat fish that flopped and flailed, trying to thrive.

“You have a few courgettes” I say, for wont of something to say as we pause.

“My husband planted them.  I don’t like courgettes”.

I was shown the compost bins and bonfire pile which “my other gardener attends to when the weather permits it” she explained.  “He does the lawns.  I think he’s a bit simple”.

“So”.  she says as we reach my car.  “Is this something you could do?”  I hear myself cheerfully stating that indeed I could, two sessions of three hours each week which I thankfully thought to split over two days to avoid being in her dreary garden for a whole day.  “I could start next Tuesday” I said.

“Fine” she replied and seemed to melt away back in to the house.  I got back in the car and silently cursed myself.

She was there waiting for me as I arrived the following week, directing me where to park as there were now two cars on the drive.  As I passed one car, carefully holding my tools away from the paintwork, on the back seat there was a box of latex gloves and plastic aprons, telltale signs of a carer.  “My husband is home from hospital” she said slowly, as though confirming what I’d seen.  “He’s not very well”.  I was taken down the side of the house, back to the steps and path sprouting with Eryngiums and Aquilegias.  “Would you like me to start on clearing these?”  I asked.

“No.  They can stay there until you can’t find anything else to do.  This, ” she said, pointing to a square area backed by a holly tree and crowded with mint, leggy sage and Aquilegias, bloomed stems already browned with seed pods, their offspring already sprouting new growth, “this is my herb garden.  Under here is a path to the centre and pebbles.  See if you can find it”.

She walked away, looking slightly unsteady on her feet and I rummaged in my tool tub, looking for my flask, a welcome respite before I’d even started.  She appeared three or four times before the end of my first session, making observations, pointing and stating what could go and what she wanted kept.  “Your mint seems to have run away with itself” I said.  “It seems to be popping up all over the place.  I’ll dig it up and regroup it to try and make it easier to keep it under control as it can get rather wayward, to say the least”.  She looked unconvinced and not entirely happy.

“If my husband appears and asks you to sort out the vegetable garden, please ignore him” she said.

I flopped on the sofa later that day and lamented my agreement at doing her garden to Joe Brown, stating that I feared she would be a pain, watch me all the time and never be happy with what I’d done.

“Wouldn’t you watch someone closely if they came to do your garden?” he asked.  “Certainly, when they started, surely?”  He was, of course, right.

Over the coming, increasingly Autumnal weeks, she did indeed appear less often as I worked but frequently asking me to move to another area of the garden to tackle another task before I felt I’d finished what I was doing.  Occasionally, as I suggested things that required attention, she’d look slightly pained, once stating that I clearly had an obsession with edging when I mentioned that it would help to stop the couch grass invading a border.  She repeated her request to ignore her husband if he asked for attention to be paid to the vegetable garden.  The courgettes grew fat and then disappeared.  There was often a carer’s car parked on the drive when I arrived and I believe a second daily visit occurred at the end of the day.  I was once asked to move my car as she needed to go the doctor.  “I feel very lightheaded” she said and, as she walked away, I watched her, unsure if she was going to float away in to the damp air or collapse in a heap amongst the Aquilegia seedlings.  As I woke each Tuesday and Wednesday morning, I would sigh with some despair at the morning’s work ahead.  “What’s wrong?” Joe Brown would ask.

“Mrs Jones today” I’d reply in explanation.  I enquired after her husband every time I arrived and the response was virtually always the same.  “He’s not well”.  I knock on the back door when I’m leaving although, sometimes, she slides open the patio doors of the sitting room as I gather together my tools.  On one occasion, as I approached the door, I saw her husband sitting in a wheelchair at a small table, with a plate of lunch in front of him.  He smiled broadly at me, his white face looking moonlike against the dark of the room.  “You’re doing a fine job” he said.  “Thank you” I smiled.

“What about the vegetable garden?” he went on.  “I expect that needs doing over, doesn’t it?”.  His wife straightened behind him and I avoided her gaze.

“Not really” I said cheerfully.  “There’s a few annual weeds there but it’s not too bad at all.  They can just be dug over shortly”

“Right-oh”.  He said.  “Whatever you say, you know best”.  Behind him, Mrs Jones slowly blinked at me and gave a single nod, in a clear gesture of wordless thanks.  By the next week, she told me he’d been re-admitted to hospital.  She still seemed wobbly and I would occasionally feel compelled to put a steadying hand out as we walked round the garden although I was always tentative about doing so for fear she’d shy away, horrified that I was touching her.  On a rare show of energy, she once appeared carrying a pair of long loppers stating “I shall prune” but I ended up having to heave her out of the border where I found her on all fours after her knees gave way.  Unable to stand after repeated attempts, I parked her in a garden chair where she sat looking rather grim-faced but relieved she’d been liberated from the Crocosmia.

“I don’t know what’s wrong with my knees” she said, as I cleared tufts of couch grass from a border edge.  “I used to be quite supple.  I used to do yoga”.  Rather startled by her statements bereft of horticultural direction, I attempted to start a conversation but she turned her head away and seemed to not be listening.

“I think we should try and get you indoors before I leave today” I said as I checked the time and started to gather together my tools.  “I really don’t want to turn up tomorrow morning and find you still in the garden chair.  We’re due rain later, aside from anything else”.

“Well, you could always just get me an umbrella” she replied and her mouth rippled in a sort of wave, as though she was going to smile or possibly laugh with amusement at the prospect but it settled back in to a flat line.  She pushed herself out of the chair as I hovered cautiously and we walked up the garden, with her leaning one side on me and using my edger with her other hand.  As we reached the patio doors, she handed back my edger, stating “That needs sharpening” before disappearing inside her dreary, dated and dusty house and sliding the grimy patio door shut.  The following day, she wobbled down the garden remarking on the latest muntjac damage as she did so.  I told her I’d been tempted to accelerate my car towards one I’d seen only that morning in the lane on my way there.  She threw back her head and laughed and I was, quite frankly, astonished.

“How are your knees?” I enquired.

“Better today” she replied flatly but as she turned to go back in to the house she did her slow blink and single nod of wordless thanks and, as I left that day, she openly thanked me for my concern.

“My husband died a couple of days ago” she told me as I heaved tools out of my car a week or so ago.

“Mrs Jones, I’m so sorry” I replied and, after a moment or two of suitable condolences and enquiry asked “Are you sure you want me here today?”  She looked surprised.  “Yes.  There’s plenty to do and I shall be busy.  So much paperwork and organising.  Do you know a caterer?”

The shadow of a son appeared behind me as I worked the following morning and I immediately offered my condolences.  It was expected, he said.  “We’re were all there with him.  It was all rather peaceful” he went on before changing the subject and remarking on how much the garden had improved since I’d been “helping out”.

“Well, your mother clearly knows what she’s doing so if I just do the things she has difficulty doing, she can do the easier, nicer bits” I said.

“Quite, quite” he said, nodding.  “We’re really glad we’ve found you” and I momentarily opened my mouth, then shut it again.  Now was not the time to tell him, nor his mother, that they would shortly need to find another gardener.  “My mother feels much easier about the garden since you’ve been coming”.  I chewed my lip and smiled.

Whether it was the unusual presence of a son or distracted by thoughts of a sad, tired lady living alone or plain rebellion I don’t know but as I weeded an island bed, I edged it that day.  It was only as I became aware of her walking towards me towards the end of my session, I panicked slightly at what I’d done.  Her statement of “I like things casual” whirled in my head as she approached.

“I’ve edged that bed” I said as I assembled tools in my tool tub.  She turned towards where I was pointing.

“Oh my!” she exclaimed and I held my breath.  “Doesn’t that look smart!” and I felt slightly lightheaded with relief.  As I left that day and she counted out my money, I asked her if she wanted me to come the following week.  She looked momentarily confused.  “Well, yes” she said, “unless of course, it’s raining.  I wouldn’t expect you to come in the rain”.  Slow realisation on why I’d asked clearly dawned on her and she went on “The funeral’s next Friday, so that’s fine” but again, she nodded and slow blinked.  After I’d watched her cautiously walk back towards the house, I stood by my car bashing mud from my boots and mused on when I should tell her that she’ll need to find another gardener next season and realised with astonished shock that I would be sorry to tell her.  I would be regretful to say goodbye.

Home

I turned right at the junction, passing what for years had been a crumbling wreck but is now a smart barn conversion complete, I’ll be bound, with a new, gleaming red Aga in the kitchen.  As I drove over the hill and passed the sign pointing left for the town centre my stomach knotted, just as it always does as I approach the town I left two and a half years ago.

I swung left and started to roll down the hill, braking slightly and looked to my right and upwards to a mid-terrace cottage set up a flight of steps.  The door is different, half paned with a gaudy coloured pattern in the pvc plastic panes.  The sash windows of the sitting room and bedroom are shiny new, no sign of rotting wood or the weird mark in the lower pane of the bedroom window that looked like a three-eared hare.  Even looking up from road-height, I can see that all vestiges of front garden shrubbery has gone, plants that I tended, moved and added to in the days when my gardening tools consisted of nothing more than a bread knife and soup spoon have disappeared, no remmants of Saturday mornings spent sitting on the front step drinking strong coffee with my mother as we watched the world go by, no sign of the afternoon I spent pretend pruning bushes with a new pair of secateurs, purely to place myself within eyesight of a certain 6’3″ fireman with chocolate spread eyes and catalogue man smile.  As I cruise on down the hill, I wonder if the carpet with the splat of rouge noir nail varnish has been replaced, whether the multi-coloured blobs of candle wax have been scraped off the hearth from my forays into witchy ways, if they’ve realised that the newel at the bottom of the stairs is not as it appears – a result of years of claw-sharpening by Pixel followed by a stupendous fill-in and cover-up job by the brown-eyed man some three years after I’d stood in the garden with secateurs in my hand.

I pass the bank further down the hill, the bank I opened an account with on the first day I moved to the town some seventeen years ago.  The bank manager – a small, dapper man with greying hair – came out of his office to introduce himself  and shake my hand when I handed in my completed application form.  He and I had no idea that day how much of a trial we’d be to each other in the future but also forming a grudging fondness I believe.  Known by everyone in the town, he would occasionally shout at me in the street, loudly bellowing across the road that “there’d better not be any food in that bag young lady, you know you can’t afford to eat this month!” as, it seemed, the whole townsfolk stopped to stare at the woman with the unauthorised overdraft.  I once threw stones at his office window on a Saturday afternoon when the bank was closed, knowing that he was there, to complain that my cashcard wouldn’t go in the machine and walked away with £40 from his own wallet.  I came across him one Sunday morning standing on a step ladder outside the bank watering “the girls” – rows of pansies in windowboxes.  He agreed to increase my overdraft after I threatened to push him off his ladder if he didn’t.  He retired some years ago and, to my disappointment, never saw my bank account in credit the day before I got paid which over time and increased salary became a regular occurence.  The windowboxes are empty now and the last bank manager I saw there was young enough to be my son, endeavoured to high-five his customers instead of shaking their hands and turned up on TV for a short while before having a fat finger pointed at him and told “You’re a shambles, you’re fired”.

The loosely-termed antique shop, run by a tall lady with enormous hands and dog hair covered clothes just past the bank is long gone, as are my days of foraging amongst its junk for delicate but cheap china, decorated with green dragons that I still have.  Now, it’s a shop that wafts perfume and tinkles with vintage jewellery and nightwear.  In the midst of grief four years ago, I would empty my head by running my hands over satin-smooth chemises with lacy cuffs and buying vintage necklaces.

The greengrocer – the mainstay of the town – is now closed following an apparent shocking affair that scandaled the town.  I bought my fruit and veg there for seventeen years, ignoring the modus operandi that the greengrocer and his wife, with her red-painted nails and fingers glittering with diamonds, would pick the items to weigh.  I took a dodgy head of broccoli back once and also an orange on the grounds that it was “highly disappointing” and they never gave me any truck about picking my own produce from their shelves, halving oranges for me to try before I bought any.

The antique shop proper, whose windows once glowed with burnished, polished wood chests and rich red rugs now sells cardies at £240 a pop.  The art and craft shop that sold camera film, balls of wool and tubes of glitter and glue is now a kebab shop.  The ducks on the pond waddle their way across the road to beg for pitta bread at the door.  The two swans who slip-slapped their way down the hill in the morning, frequently startling me as I chugged my way to work in my Beetle, no longer slide in to the water and glide across the pond.  I understand someone went to prison for it.  The ironmonger, where I bought my glass butter dish, is now a hair salon.  I don’t know where else you can get replacement clips for clothes airers now.  The menswear shop that shuts for lunch and half day on Thursday’s has ‘Shutting Down Sale!’ banners plastered across the windows.  The baker, that became a hugely overpriced florist, is now an art gallery.

I drove past the house I bought with the brown-eyed man and it looks the same, the columns of bricks in the front garden bought four years ago to terrace the sloping lawn still stacked and unused on the scrubby lawn.  I wonder if the bathroom now has four whole walls having been pulled apart and then abandoned for over two years, crumbled walls mirroring the crumbling relationship.  I would hide in the room that was my office, cry in corners of rooms and escape to the back garden to sit on half-finished steps drinking tea as the Tabby Panther crept amongst the undergrowth I’d created and I’d dream of shiny bathrooms and vegetable gardens.  I’d sleep on the edge of the bed, apparently mumbling in my sleep “I want to go home”.  How much I wanted to go home then, back to the lone peace of the rented house on the hill with the three-eared hare in the windowpane that ironically had stood empty since I’d left.

I made to drive away, back to the house I’ve filled with things, some of which I bought nineteen years ago, back to the house that has a bathroom that sparkles, plants in the garden I dug up from around clods of abandoned, hardened concrete two and a half years ago, with a fat, black cat buried under the apple tree, another curled up on the sofa and a vegetable garden I created two years ago.  I caught one last sight of the columns of bricks in my rearview mirror and pulled over again to send Joe Brown a text.  “On my way home, x”

Play it again Ham

There are times, usually at about 8.45am as I heave my tools in to the back of my car, when I wonder if I would prefer to be facing spending the forthcoming day in an office sitting on my backside tippity-tapping on a keyboard as I roll my feet around in my heeled shoes but, an hour later, as I’m standing in someone’s garden hearing the very gentle twittering of a robin not two feet away from me, or chasing away fat, healthy ex-battery hens who are curiously scratching around my muddy shoes as I re-edge a border, I’m glad I’m not.  Seeing the expression on a potential new clients face as he gestures his hand vaguely around his weed-infested garden as he tells me that he just wants a garden “full of wavy flowers” with an expression that could only be described as wistful and seeing his face four hours after I’ve spent digging out invasive, pernicious weeds and revealed plants he hadn’t known he had, quite frankly, makes my day.  Being asked by one of the Jam-making Ladies to “do this border”, this border being an empty, 50 foot, newly manured riverside border in her garden with patches of dark and partial shade as well as full sun that she wants filled with plants pretty much of my choosing makes me feel a bit squealy.  The client who told me that when her and her husband bought the house five years ago the garden looked really nice and “we rather thought it would always look like that even though we haven’t really done anything in it” makes me laugh.  The client who tells me that she doesn’t know how large her planned vegetable garden will be because the garden designer hasn’t told her yet rather pisses me off.  The fact that she leaves me in her garden for four hours without offering a cup of tea also makes me question her manners.  The titled lady who not only asks me if I’d like tea but what type, what time and if she’s not going to be there, instructs her cleaner what type and time I like it makes me want to hug her but I wouldn’t be so forward.

It’s good to come home after a days work and, over dinner, tell Joe Brown of my day and I missed him last week whilst he was away on a business trip.  I had unexpected company twice however, both of whom from damsels in various forms of distress – one of whom stayed about three hours and, over tea and frank discussions of her anguish that has repeated itself, weepily asked if she could have another chocpot and I’ve known for 30-odd years.  The other stayed the night, refused all offers of tea or food in favour of eating folded up slices of ham she’d brought with her, machine-gun talked at me for fucking hours and I’d never met before.  The former damsel left with a bag of homegrown veg and I’ll happily welcome here again, the latter left with exactly what she brought, less her ham, and I hope I never see her again.

Another week has started, Joe Brown is home and I have a full weeks’ worth of work.