Four

Merc

The lowering late summer sun causes a shadow from the Tangerine House to seep across the small back garden. By the end of September, it will have reached the fence line and the garden will not see sunshine, other than a thin sliver in the morning and late evening, til next March. For now, the Verbena bonariensis, Gaura linheimeri and Persicaria flower in sun, with daily visits by hummingbird hawk moths. The Rudbeckia I brought with me from the Little House by the Big Wood flowers profusely although not as tall as usual – even they, robust and cheerful in heavy clay soil, need some help occasionally in the form of manure. I need to seek out the farmer again and practice my French.

I’m in the last throes of handing over a voluntary role to two women that I’ve done on my own for the last eighteen months. I’m glad I did it, focus-giving and new software-learning that it was, but it was taking up the equivalent of half a working week and for a voluntary role that largely consists of sitting in front of a laptop, enough’s enough. It has not gone unnoticed that blogging fell by the wayside as a result and much else seems to have been lain aside too, not least my weekly visit from the lovely lady who screams “I’m French, I’m French!”, purely by the way she dresses just so.

By the 7th September it will have been four years since I first pitched up in the Small Country and I have done much and undoubtedly changed somewhat. Joe Brown has commented on how my taste in cheese has developed from basic cheddar to all manner of cheese I eat, rind an’all which would not have happened before. Apparently, I also speak more with my hands than I used to, with the occasional request received to put at least one hand on the steering wheel when I’m driving. I have, with cheese a likely contender at least in part, increased in size. Other reasons for basic weight gain is lack of physical exercise; indeed, there have been periods of weeks when I haven’t picked up a garden tool, my nails have remained earth-free and pristine and much as I don’t mind being on my own, I dislike walking on my own in the middle of nowhere to get a bit of exercise and there is much nowhere to be had here.

I have, however, recently acquired a garden project. It’s across the border in the land of gummi handschuhe and polizei and owned by friends who, for one reason or another, have neglected their large garden which is now an overgrown tangle of brambles and seeded Hornbeams, some of which are taller than I. It is, essentially, a paid gardening job but I have made it clear that if I choose to turn up for more than three hours a week, this is my choice and therefore not chargeable, my reasons being I’ve missed having a veritable ongoing gardening task and, larger of belly and derriere I may be, but thinner of arms and untoned thighs I also am. “Trust me”, I wrote in an email, “you’d be doing me a favour by letting me loose in your garden for all sorts of reasons”. I miss my biceps and firm abs and I’m sure Joe Brown does too, purely because their presence indicates I’m regularly outside and doing physical work and am therefore happier. I think it’s fair to say that if I’m happy, Joe Brown usually is too.

Joe Brown’s health was rubbish for a fair while in the last eighteen months or so, requiring stints in hospital owing to alarming weight loss which startled me every time I saw him first thing in the morning but I’m glad to say, he’s much improved. The surgery he had on his back improved things too but he’s of the opinion this is more to do with the regular sessions of physio he had afterwards, the cost of which was almost negligible given it’s heavily subsidised by the health care system (living in one of the top three richest countries in the world has its benefits, trust me). His parents are ageing, (a ridiculous statement as, aren’t we all?), with Mrs Brown becoming alarmingly stick-thin in the last year and has now been given a terminal diagnosis. We hold our breaths and brace on that one but Joe Brown has just organised for a bouquet of flowers to be delivered to The Browns’ hotel room where they’re celebrating their 63rd wedding anniversary for the weekend. She’s feeling better than she was as, six months ago, she wouldn’t have wanted to leave the house.

Chat Roux has grown into a healthy, robust cat which is something of a surprise given his runty start after being abandoned in a cardboard box outside the door of a dog refuge across the border. I’m sure half the village knows the orange cat, frequently to be seen hunting in the field and, of late, he seems to be The Only Cat in the Village due to house-moves, age and a weasel attack. There are, I know, other cats around but these are farm cats – shady creatures across the way who Chat Roux wisely avoids. We often cite him as a bit stupid but actually this is isn’t wholly fair – steering clear of shady cats aside, he’s certainly sharp enough to know within an hour or so when we’ve gone away rather than just out and will go and whinge at our neighbours who’ll have a key to let him in and fill his bowl.

By the 7th September, we’ll be theoretically half way through this stint in the Small Country and I’m acutely aware how fast the time is going and how much I have not done. “I don’t want to get in the car as we leave and feel I’ve wasted the opportunity of being here” I’ve said to Joe Brown on many occasions and I certainly feel that’s the case at the moment. I spent an evening having dinner with friends in the city a few weeks ago and realised it was the first time I’d been in the city of an eve. In four years. This is nothing short of pitiful and embarrassing. There is much to learn, see and do and I don’t think learning a software package and developing an appreciation for three year-old comté quite cuts it.

Via the voluntary organisation I am/was involved in, I’m putting together a stack of school supplies for Those Less Fortunate (richest country it may be but this carries the assumption that all parents are financially able to provide their children with all equipment for school, ranging from pens and pencils to paintbrushes, exercise and set books). This stack of unused and unopened ventures, nay, adventures, highlights the fact that it’s the start of the new school year even more so than usual and, as always, this brings an element of a new start. It’s four years on since I whispered “Are we here?” and, to a large degree, I have a clean slate for the new school year. Half the working week has been freed up, I have a new garden to find amongst the wilderness and even the study has been streamlined of overflowing shelves which makes me anxious (it just does). My French books are in a tidy line, new paper to conjugate verbs is in hand and I plan to work my way through the travel books we have of the Small Country and all three neighbouring countries and make a list of where I’d like to go, taking my new camera with me. All I need to do now is sharpen my pencils and polish my shoes.

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.

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.

August Break 5th

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I forgot to make bread so, at lunchtime, was wandering round the kitchen trying to decide what to have.  Result was first harvested shallot from the garden, a pile of which are drying off in the garage before plaiting, two courgettes twisted off the plants, a handful of small early potatoes from the allotment which are a bit scabby but fine nonetheless, chopped garlic (nearly last clove from bought bulb) and half a red pepper sliced.

Chopping and cooking this up was probably the most energetic thing I’ve done today having cancelled this morning’s gardening gig owing to still dodgy knee which made my right leg feel like a tree trunk.

August Break 4th

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Better late than never due to server down.  Yesterday was something of a wash-out – morning gardening gig was cut short due to heavy rain which was something of a relief given I again have a swollen, crock knee which is a tad worrisome.  Joe Brown headed for the airport, armed with a walking stick due to back problem.  Afternoon gardening cancelled, I spent the rest of the day slouching on the sofa, doing leg exercises and watching the four-hour epic Cleopatra and drinking copious amounts of tea.  Learned that someone I know, whose faith and confidence in me spurred me on to set up my own freelancing business nearly ten years ago, is in his last days of life.

August Break 2nd

One of my gardening clients has these dotted round the garden which can be startling as you come across a tiny face, leering in all their chipped-paint glory, whilst rummaging amongst the shrubbery.

Friday

My hands chill instantly against the cold metal of my fork and spade as I pull them out of the car, fingers curling round tubs of tools as I carry them round to the garden, once owned by an eminent, well-known and long gone gardener, her ghost seemingly always present when I am there.  Hot tea splashes in to the plastic cup and I roll a cigarette as I peer down at the soil in the raised bed, fluffed by the hard overnight frost which is already dissipating in the early March sun.  The metal garden chair scrapes across the patio and I sit for a moment, musing that my “It’ll take at least a day to clear” was undoubtedly correct and suitably vague before I flick the cigarette in to the soil where it curls for a while amongst the shrubbery.  The raised bed is long, spanning the width of the whole house, two sleepers high and six feet deep but terraced with another sleeper and it widens at one end to 14 feet near a path that borders the edge of the garden.  The long gone gardener of high repute was not responsible for the planting of this bed – I do not know who was but the present owner is tired of looking at it and I do not blame them.  I decide to start at the wider end, more full of  large and lolling plants that twist and curl, spindly witchy fingers coming at me as I stand and start to prune old roses that have never seen secateurs.

The lavender – a long row bordering the path – has been chewed by shears cutting straight across the top, pruning last seasons’ growth but nothing will hide the tatty woodiness of the stems, gnarled and twisted by their ten year age and I start to chop, sharp secateurs making a far more satisfying sound through their thickness than it did through the roses.  Long stems that have wound their way in to the border, evading the shears, are pulled out – sad ineffectual growth that runs out of steam at the tips.  Fork is sliced into the ground, coaxing, pulling, levering at the roots with gritted teeth and furrowed brow, the perfect sound being heard as they relinquish their hold in the soil and give and I grab with gloved hands and lift, throwing unwanted tattiness in to the barrow.  One down, nine to go.  I push the barrow up the path, rhythmic squeaks from the wheel as I go, turning right and along the wooden path to The Pile where all is flung on the top for a weekend bonfire that will momentarily fuse the air with the scent of lavender before the heat of flame overcomes it all.

By the fourth bush, my jacket is hung over the garden chair, thin grey lavender leaves litter the path and my breath is emitted short and sharp through my mouth as fork hits soil and levers against roots.  My lips feel dry and cracked and I smear cocoa butter balm across them, speckled with grit from my fingers.  By half ten, they are all out and on the weekend pyre.  More tea splashes and steam curls from the plastic cup.

The ivy twirls and twines its way everywhere, gleaming dark green amongst the undergrowth and I pull long strands, sufficient for a whole wardrobe of dresses and garlands for woodland sprites.  Rose thorns scrape and stab my skin as I step in amongst the soil and start to chop away at hateful purple sage with the loppers, hurling 6ft stems down on to the patio in the vague direction of the overflowing barrow.  I’m stepping on thick ivy now which covers the ground and pull and pull, causing shrubbery 6 feet away to shudder as its adventitious roots leave hold of the soil.  The sword-like leaves of the Phormium bend towards me and I back away as they threaten with their nearness.  Beads of sweat form above my lip and I taste salty cocoa butter and spit grit on to the soil.  As I pull stems of sage, hundreds of grey-purple leaves cover the ivy and I see the tiny, glossy red domes spotted with black of ladybirds fall amongst the foliage and I whimper at the idea of squishing them just as they emerge from their winter hibernation amongst the curled, deadened leaves.  I step carefully away, leaving zig-zags of mud across the path from my boots and chew on a squashed sandwich, the peanut butter not welcome as I contemplate crisp, homegrown lettuce and sweet tomatoes from the greenhouse, a distance of months away.  There is less steam from the tea.  I roll a cigarette, glued with saliva and grit and I cannot find my fork, browned with mud and disappearing from view amongst the shrubbery. 

 The purple sage has lengthened with age, stems creeping down the sloping bed and rerooting as it contacts the soil and I have to heave against their grip to release them.  The barrow is heaped for the innumerable time, its squeak louder with each journey to the pyre.  I glance furtively from left to right before crouching behind the laurel amongst the snowdrops, hot wee staining my muddy boots.  I eat half a bruised banana before flinging the remainder in the barrow, its small Fairtrade sticker to be a tiny, momentary toxic plume as it melts in the heat of fire.  I coax ladybirds on to leaves to lead to safety before clambering back in the bed to dig, pull, heave and squeal as thorns draw blood.

Rooks caw in the Scots Pine across the way as I brush the path, the afternoon wind whipping deadened leaves in to whirls which I catch in my hands and fling in the barrow.  There is a squished ladybird and I emit a long “Oh” of sorrow.  Tools are gathered, warmed by the sun now and the barrow squeaks to its resting place by the greenhouse.  I bash muddy boots by the car before sinking in to the seat, resting my arms, criss-crossed with thin lines of dried blood, on the steering wheel just for a moment before starting the engine.

At home I languish on the sofa, all doors and windows open in the early evening and watch the shadows lengthen in the garden before hearing the click of the gate and see Joe Brown appear, holding a laptop and shopping bag, bulging with double cream yoghurts that he knows I like and cod for dinner.  I smile as he knows his fish curry makes my toes curl with pleasure.  I run a bath, wafting chemical fragrance across the landing and hiss as I sink my scraped arms in to the heat and detergent bubbles before leaning back and sighing.  I hear a cork pop in the kitchen.  Silky cream is rubbed in to dried skin, the scent of roses as red as undoubtedly red can be wafting, enveloping as I walk downstairs.  There is ice in the shape of fish in the ice tray.  I clink fish in to the glass and add gin, topped with tonic.  The chill and bite of juniper makes me shiver slightly as it hits the back of my throat and I hear cumin seeds pop in the pan.

Clear

A couple of weeks or so before Christmas, I’d started to will it to hammer down with rain so gardening work would be called off for the day and was bitterly disappointed when, time after time, it wasn’t.  I would not say I was purely a lily-livered, fairweather gardener but trying to garden when I couldn’t feel my fingers or toes seemed ridiculous.  I felt cross – sometimes cross with my clients for deigning to actually have any gardening work to do but mostly, cross with myself for not organising myself properly and still having gardening work to do.  I’d taken on too much but felt obliged to not let it go.

Salvation came in the form of snow billowing round me as I dug out an overgrown bed and I called Time Out and came home, gleefully watching the snow fall thicker and thicker from the window at the Little House by the Big Wood.  We were snowed in for three days and it was touch and go whether we’d be able to get out on Christmas Eve to restock the vegetable supplies and get smoked salmon but, armed with shovels and garden forks, a concerted effort with our neighbours saw us heading off to Waitr0se.  Once we’d returned home, Joe Brown and I both admitted we’d be perfectly happy if we were snowed in completely over Christmas so family visitations would be curtailed.  We weren’t so they weren’t and it was good.  I have told my clients to not expect to see me until mid to late January.

As well as learning the NPK rate of chicken pellets, I have learned much over this last year, not least about myself and the new year sees resolute intentions forming in my head as to what I’m going to do with it.  Cringeworthy as it may sound but I shall be writing my own Mission Statement as well as five Top Things to achieve.  The word ‘clear’ appears to be the word of the year in all manner of ways – clearing space, clearing lungs, clearing allotment, clearing head.   With clarity, I may see where I’m heading.

Snapshot

There are nine leaves left on my Forest Pansy, the last vestiges of six months worth of purple and green heart-shaped leaves fluttering on their dainty branches.  My gardening work has involved blowing on my cold-tinged fingers before donning gloves to start cutting down dead stems and clearing leaves.  A week or so ago, I got paid to spend the morning poking a bonfire with a stick.  Autumn is well underway.

Having snapped two garden forks with lifetime guarantees in the last year and bought another make in protest, one of the tines on the new one has bent at an irritating angle as a result of digging out an unwanted rosebush in a garden last week.  I have resorted to using my back-up fork given to me by Joe Brown’s Dad which had belonged to his father – sturdy, a handle worn smooth from use and tines that are as straight and true as the day they were made.  This fork is possibly double my age.

I had a letter from an organisation advising that my sponsored child in Haiti had moved away from the area with her family.  “We realise you may be disappointed, particularly if you had built up a relationship via letters over the years” they said.  Somewhat disappointed but overall guilty quite frankly owing to my pitiful level of correspondence after a flurry of enthusiasm at the beginning when I was first sent a picture of a young girl with bitter chocolate eyes and woolly hair pulled into a multitude of bunches with bright pink bobbles.  “There are many reasons for migration of families” I read and I hope she and her family are safe and well.  They’ve suggested a new child to sponsor and enclosed a picture of a very serious-looking four year old boy in Haiti whose father does not work and mother is a street hawker.  It is not clear what she hawks.  I shall buy coloured crayons and drawing paper to send with a letter.  “Sponsored children like receiving letters and learning about the lives of their sponsor”.  It may be difficult to explain to a four year old boy what I do as a job – the concept of making people’s gardens look pretty may be hard to grasp when you’re four, you live in Haiti and your mother is a street hawker.

Joe Brown went up in the attic yesterday and came down with a dusty faux-leather carrying case containing a camera which his father gave him some years ago.  There are a number of different lenses which I sat and gingerly screwed in, one by one.  “My God!” I exclaimed across the room as I squinted and tried to steady a lens half the length of my arm.  “I can see each individual hair on the back of your head”.  As a wholly point-and-shoot-and-fuck-about-with-Picasa kind of girl to date, this will be a serious learning curve of film, apertures and ISO’s but one I’d like to give a go.  There will be portraits, lots of portraits and, given vaguely talked-about plans for next September, pictures of New York if I’m lucky.

I sent an email last week advising my last client from my freelance, working from home business that I was bowing out of the industry completely.  It felt rather strange – he’d been my first client, procured from my dining table back in 2000 when I had no idea that this new business I seemed to be creating would lead me to clients and trips to America which subsequently led to this.  This last client had become something of a weight, constantly calling me to a desk and correspondence that I’d lost interest in dealing with and I tentatively but simply explained my reasons for wishing to withdraw.  “I don’t blame you” was his response.  I’ll be able to clear the small study we have of various paraphenalia from what seems like a lifetime ago away once and for all.

I have bought a new handbag on Ebay – a larger, squashy, more relaxed dark brown number than my more square and structured one that I currently use.  I think it’ll be more in keeping with my apparent new lifestyle, able to house a small point-and-shoot for plant identification, notebook, plastic bags for soil samples and the obligatory ball of string.

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.