I found this bell in the garage today, a bit dusty and cobwebby. It used to hang from the side of the family home in the New Forest. Mum had it put there to be used like those in cowboy movies that were rung for the cowpokes to come and grab their tucker or however the lingo had it. This one though was for Dad.
Dad used the garden as a balm, returning from work stressed out after a day battling ignorance, ineptitude and institutional idiocy. At least that’s the way he saw it. Example: Dad worked for a chemical business selling their products, all made from cracked (i.e. refined) oil. So when he asked for the latest price of T.E.A. (something like Tri Ethylene Alcohol) he really didn’t expect to receive a list containing Ceylon Silver Tips, or Darjeeling Orange Pekoe.
The garden was his refuge, a place of routine transformation from the grumpy curmudgeon that drove up to the house at about 5.45 every weekday evening and the smiling raconteur and husband/father that sat for dinner at 6.30.
He would enter the house with a greeting that sought out a merry timbre but managed to sound like an angry warthog with inflammed hemorrhoids and an unexpected mortgage increase, stomp up the stairs to his bedroom to remove his tie and suit, stomp (slightly less heavily) back downstairs to the kitchen, take the offered cup of tea, twist a smile at whatever news we wanted to throw at him, attend for a pause, proffer an ‘I think I’ll just go and check on my beans/potatoes/tomatoes/sweet-peas/compost/other’ and head outside. He would don appropriate footwear for the time of year and weather, in the years pre-1972 light up a cigarette and, in my mother’s oft repeated phrase ‘sally forth’.
Perhaps he would pause in the first shed to retrieve a knife (to cut something – Mum may well have given him the task of sourcing something for dinner) or string (ditto if something had flopped or fallen); sometimes he might pop into the greenhouse. But mostly it was to the far end of our triangular garden he would head and his lovingly tendered vegetable patch.
What is it about growing your own food that acts on someone’s whole psyche? You can’t see the things actually growing, can you? The beans or tomatoes are much the same as yesterday’s but something in the process of renewal, of creating a fresh hope where only the day before there was nothing, pleased him. Pleased him mightily.
It may be that, in that small corner of a small corner of Hampshire he did something all of his own. He was his own little god of creation. He could be lost in that greenery, among that vegetation. I suspect he turned his daily turmoil, his wonder that he had to spend a significant amount of time with nincompoops and nonentities into the language of his poetry. The oxygen these plants gave out was his medication and inspiration.
And then the bell would be rung and he would be brought out of his reverie to return to the house, usually without whatever it was he had been asked to fetch so he would smile sheepishly, hand over the empty tea cup and return to the garden for another five minutes of peace and restoration.
And this is one of those poems of his. His best friend, a delightful man called Les Kench, was his rival when it came to gardening. They teased each other over the size and success of their vegetables, though when one went away the other would look after the other’s crops, watering and picking and generally being a good neighbour. This would no doubt have both pleased and horrified Les.
Happy Holiday, Gardener
Dear Les – I think I should report
on all the things your plants have caught
While you have been in Spain.
There’s capsid bugs and slugs and thrips
and all the leaves have yellow tips.
Could that be acid rain?
The greenback and chocolate spot
though colourful, of course are not
exactly crop enhancing.
Indeed, it’s not a pretty sight
and rabbits now are every night
The mildewed leaves fall from the trees
upon the spuds with wart disease.
The lettuces are bolting.
Fusarium wilting of the beans,
combined with blackleg, means the scene’s
quite utterly revolting.
Tonight, the forecast is ‘hard frost’
but don’t despair, all is not lost.
Enjoy the Costa Blanca.
Relax, unwind, don’t build up tension,
there’s no need for apprehension –
it might not be root canker.
You’ve earned your holiday,
so just have fun – and, by the way,
I’m filled with admiration,
‘cos I’ve never seen another lawn
with grass that isn’t green but fawn –
a brilliant innovation.
It does you good to get away
so why don’t you extend your stay,
a fortnight, anyhow?
Meanwhile, wielding flame-gun spray,
I’ll hopefully hold all at bay.
So cheerio for now!