Imagine…

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On a recent walk we came across a community garden.

The latter stages of the route, near to the shopping centre took us through a housing estate which, in the past, had a reputation for being somewhat ‘rough’, resulting in school numbers dropping and so on. The housing is mixed-blocks of flats, terraced homes, semis and detached, much ex-council and now presumably housing association. The estate is not pretty but neither is it hideous since there is a great deal of green space, trees, open areas. And in the midst of one, large, open space was an enclosure laid out with raised beds, a neat row of compost bins and a shed.

A father and small daughter were working in one of the raised beds, planting and tidying. It was all shared, the dad explained and the produce from one bed could be harvested by anyone for their needs. Fresh, home grown fruit and vegetables!

To work in a garden is one of life’s pleasures. You are outside in the air, serenaded by birdsong, creating, nurturing, coaxing, often accompanied by a cheeky robin and some industrious bumble bees. It can be frustrating when plants refuse to thrive or are consumed by pests but this is more than offset by the satisfaction of seeing flowers or vegetables flourish from your ministrations. Gardening also exercises a lot of muscles you didn’t know you had!

Walking along past the community garden I allowed my mind to wander. One day I may not be able to tend my own garden. But there are long waiting lists for allotments and in our squidgy, little country space is becoming squeezed by the need for housing-new homes’ gardens becoming smaller.

What if elderly and disabled people who wanted to stay in their own homes but were unable to garden were paired with those who wanted allotments but perhaps couldn’t afford one or didn’t want the long wait? There would be a shed-full of tools. The results of the labours could be shared-as could the expertise of the person who used to tend the garden.

The garden owner would get visits-perhaps even someone to keep an eye on their wellbeing. The gardener may get a cup of tea!

I read of a scheme in the Netherlands [where ideas to help the elderly and disabled seem to abound] where a student could receive accommodation free in the home of an elderly person who might need a little help with housework etc. Of course I can think of many students who it wouldn’t suit at all-and many elderly would be horrified at the thought of a stranger in their house-but still there must be a lot more who’d be happy to share if it meant they could stay at home.

For now, though it’s back to mulching for me-backache or not…

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February Fiction 2

 

In Part 2 of ‘Lewis’s Basement Herbs’, Lewis’s mother’s mood becomes relaxed until the two receive an unexpected, early morning visit which is less than welcome…

 

Lewis’s Basement Herbs

Part 2

He waited for her to tell him to go to his room, to remind him of the ‘no TV’ sanction or to say it was bedtime, but she began to watch the next programme, a sport games show, not her usual choice. He noticed that she was smiling, another unusual event and once or twice she sniggered in an uncharacteristic way. At the end of the programme she turned to him and asked him to fetch a bag of crisps from the kitchen, which he did; one for her and another for himself. She tore into the crisps then requested the biscuit tin, helping herself to at least four, an unprecedented action. She sighed, wrapped her arms around him and kissed him, telling him what a good boy he was. Lewis grinned. The herbs must be making her feel better.
During the course of the next week Lewis sneaked a few more bags from the herb garden box and stashed them in his bedroom. When the tea caddy ran low, he topped it up with the herbal mixture. Life became more relaxed as he bathed in his mother’s benevolence and her tranquil good humour.
It was still dark on a school morning ten days later when Lewis was woken by strong light through his thin curtains, the sound of vehicles down in the road and heavy footsteps running into the building. He looked out of his window to see several police vehicles, their lights blazing and a number of police officers scurrying around, some of whom were accompanied by dogs sniffing the ground and wagging their tails. Soon the sound of their feet was echoing in the corridors and along the narrow balconies of the block and he could hear shouts and the banging of doors. He pulled a hoodie over his pyjamas and went out to the living room just as his mother appeared from her bedroom, wrapped in a voluminous towelling robe. It was five o’clock.
His mother was beginning to speak when their door was hammered by a loud knock and a voice calling, “Police. Open up please!”.
Lewis and his mother exchanged puzzled looks before she went to the door and opened it. A policeman, bulky in a yellow vest, with items hung about his waist and holding a leash attached to a laughing, wagging spaniel stepped into their small living room, filling it.
“I’m sorry to get you up but we have to search each flat I’m afraid.” He looked around. “It won’t take long and we’ll try to leave things as they are.”
Lewis thought he’d like to pat the dog, which looked friendly, but the policeman’s brusque manner was discouraging. The boy’s mother drew herself up into a statuesque stance, arms folded across her stout chest and scowled. “Officer! We are a law-abiding household. You won’t find any drugs in this flat!”
The policeman nodded. “I’m sure you’re right, Madam. But it’s procedure and as I say we’ll be out of here in a minute or two.”
The dog was whining and pulling, tail whipping to and fro like clockwork. They were in the tiny kitchenette in three strides, the woman and the boy following to lean in the doorway while the dog yapped and stood up with paws on the worktop, excitement vibrating through every hair of his curly coat. The officer turned to the woman. “Dog seems to be interested in your containers, Madam.”
Lewis’s Mum frowned at the policeman and pushed her arms higher over her bosom. “I don’t have anything except food in there-sugar, sweeteners, coffee and tea. That is all.”
The Officer withdrew a pair of gloves from his pocket. He took a caddy from the shelf, opened it and looked inside while the dog jumped beside him, barking, whining and wagging. The officer took another tin down, peered in and replaced it. He went for the third. Lewis heard his mother grunt in disapproval then the dog went wild, leaping up at the tin and barking in a frenzy. The lid was removed and the policeman shook it before sniffing the contents. He turned to the woman, tilting the caddy towards her.
“I’ll be taking this tin, Madam. And I’ll have to ask you to accompany me to the station. You might want to get dressed first. I’ll wait out here.” Now that the thrill was over the spaniel lay down on the floor, head between its paws.
Lewis’s mother’s mouth hung open as she stared at the officer. She tried to speak but no words came out. She frowned at Lewis as if begging him to help. After a moment she gathered her wits. “And what about my little boy? I can’t just leave him here you know. He’s only nine years old.”
Lewis licked his lips. He felt hot. He glanced at the policeman then at his mother, then back at the policeman. He cleared his throat, prompting them both to look at him. “Wha…what is in the caddy?” he stammered. The policeman waved the tin at him. “I believe this caddy contains an illegal substance, young man. Do you know anything about it?”
Lewis felt his face grow hot as he studied the laminate flooring. He mumbled, “Herbs-it’s just herbs.”
They were both staring at him now. He could feel their eyes on him, turning him to stone where he stood riveted to a fake knot in the plastic floorboard. “I put some herbs in the tea caddy” he managed to whisper, risking a sideways peek at his mother, who was gawping at him as if he was an alien. The policeman strode back into the living room and spoke into his radio.

Lewis led them down the steps to the basement room. Behind him he could hear the dog wheezing as he strained at the leash, enthusiasm rekindled at the prospect of more discoveries. As the boy reached the bottom of the steps and stood before the door with its frame of light, he felt a sense of loss at this, his own private retreat exposed to others’ eyes. He bent to swivel the numbers and pulled the lock open. The policeman, dog panting at his side, touched his arm. “Alright son, I’ll take it from here” and he reached in front of Lewis to pull the door open then he and the dog went in.
Lewis’s mother fixed him with what he had come to think of as the death-stare. “What” she hissed, “have you done?”

The new house still seems vast. Lewis’s new, bigger bedroom looks out over their small patch of garden and sometimes he just stands at his window smiling. Today he can see his mother sitting out on the patio and he thinks he’ll go down and offer to make her a cup of tea because this always makes her hoot with laughter. Nowadays she calls him her ‘lucky star’ for getting them this new home, away from dangerous gangs and threats, away from graffiti and basement drug manufacture. Once Lewis had convinced the police of his innocence, he and his mother had needed to be whisked away from the flats to avoid reprisals.
He wanders downstairs and outside to the tiny garden, his favourite part of the new house. His mother has sat down again so he perches next to her. “Mum” he says, bestowing on her his most guileless smile, “I’d really like to grow something in our garden, like we do at school. There’s a space at the end by the shed. I know what to do. I can grow some herbs. Please will you let me try? Please?”

I hope you enjoyed reading this 2-parter. Comments, whether you liked the story or not are much appreciated. Normal blogging will resume next Sunday. Thanks for visiting!

Nature Red in Tooth and Claw

There is no quick fix for a garden. At our last house I laboured over the garden for twenty years and waged a constant battle with the difficulties it presented: blustery, coastal breezes, dry, dusty soil with never a sign of a worm, cold winter gales and unforgiving summer sun. I learned to grow things that liked the conditions and gave up on desires for luscious rose bushes, cottage garden displays and tumbling, old English cottage looks in favour of tough, architectural plants like palms and Cordyline, resilient sea-holly and ornamental hops.

After two years of our new [to us], very different garden we continue to wrestle with a challenging set of problems although they are quite different. The dry areas here are caused by large trees and we’ve swapped relentless sun for dominant shade. Dry shade is reputed to be one of the most difficult conditions to address in a garden, this being also exacerbated by slopes. Dry shade slopes.

During our spring expedition three clematis [out of five] turned up their roots and expired due to drought, after which I watered, since we were not subject to a hose pipe ban and fed every last plantlet. In spite of this mildew set in to such traditionally hardy stalwarts as honeysuckle and geraniums.

In our semi-wild garden we are fortunate to see regular wildlife visitors such as foxes, bats and squirrels as well as a large range of wild birds. In late May a speckled juvenile robin became so tame as to perch on my fork as I delved into the compost heap and accompanied me on all evening watering sessions. We christened him ‘Speckle’ and he continues to visit now-although with a handsome red waistcoat and a little less intrepid.

In the dried out lawn bumble bees set up home and have kept us entertained throughout the hot, dry summer with their coming and going. They vary in size from small, agile creatures to gargantuan, furry bombs whose improbable flights are ungainly. They lurch in drunken circles in efforts to land and access the tunnel they’ve constructed.

I hankered after a hedgehog to complete the wildlife in our garden, which should be the perfect habitat-with a miniature copse, piles of leaves, piles of logs, abundant snails, water and all hedgehog mod-cons. We constructed a small hole in the base of the fence to allow access and departure.

I visited the garden late at night with no results, until one morning Husband woke up and spotted one on the grass in broad daylight, just beside the bumble bee nest. He brought me the news: the creature was lying on its back, lifeless. My one and only hedgehog-deceased!

Did it stumble into the environs of the bumble bee nest? Did a fox attack it? Or an owl? We will never know. And I have yet to see a real, live hedgehog availing itself of the garden facilities. Ho hum…

 

 

Two Memorable Summers

The summer of 1976. Long, hot, dry days. A summer that stretched on in an endless, sweaty haze punctuated by occasional fires, hosepipe bans and exhortations to ‘bath with a friend’.

I was still in the early years of my career, although I’d switched jobs and had moved from a school in a 3 story tenement building in Stockwell to a light, airy, leafy special school [for ‘delicate’ children] in Putney where I was responsible for all of twelve children in a huge classroom. I loved everything about my new job, from the joys of working with such a small number of children to the social life of the staffroom; from the three delicious meals each day, [cooked on site] to the convenience of living a twenty minute walk away. I’d moved from Wimbledon to share a flat in Putney with a girl who’d begun working at the school at the same time.

One wall of each classroom in this modern building was glass, giving a view on to landscaped grounds but in a hot spell heating the rooms to oven temperatures in the afternoons. Our gregarious, eccentric boss, who had a gammy leg and was given to gesturing wildly with his stick, instructed us to take the children outside under the trees, a directive that we were only too delighted to follow. These were sick children, suffering from a range of conditions that included chronic asthma, heart problems and cycstic fibrosis. They flopped down under the trees and slept while we worked on our tans, having given up all pretence of holding meetings or making teaching aids.

By the time the long summer holiday came I’d acquired skin the shade you would expect from a long sojourn in a tropical location-and remember this era pre-dated any enlightened warnings about sunbathing.

This summer is the longest and hottest in the UK since that heady season of 76. And while I may not tolerate blistering sunshine as well as I could in my 20s I continue to love hot weather. I love soft, still early mornings and long, light, balmy evenings. Yes, the garden is dry. The grass is golden and crispy. Bumble bees have taken up residence in the lawn, tunnelling underneath the decking. The come and go in a relentless, dedicated relay, circling drunkenly before they make their inelegant landings then disappearing into the grassy tunnel.

As yet we’ve been spared a hosepipe ban, unlike 1976. I no longer loll around in the sun and am more likely to be walking, cycling or gardening. To relax I’ll seek out some dappled shade and settle with a book. I’ve become a conscientious user of sun cream and wearer of hats. We eat dinner with the doors wide open and a view of the river at the lowest it’s been since we moved here, flowing slowly and exposing islands of weed for hopeful moorhens to pick over.

Some day soon it will be over, this hot spell-and autumn will be upon us. But for now I’m going to enjoy every day, just as I did 42 years ago.

 

The Garden Birdwatch

The previous occupants of our house had two, small, yappy dogs whose favoured latrine area seems to have been the roughly triangular patch of scruffy grass in what is now our back garden. I know this because I’ve had to spend time and effort removing the evidence. In the beginning there were no bird visitors to the modest space that we call a garden, presumably due to fear of the two yappy dogs.

We’ve spent the six months since we moved attempting to lure birds back into the garden, wooing them with a fortune’s worth of tasty treats. Peanuts, mixed seeds, fat slabs, sunflower hearts, bread scraps and [their favourite] mealworms are displayed for their delectation, with the result that we now have a regular flow of tiny [and not so tiny] feathered guests to the cafeteria in the back yard, where a bird table and a contraption like a hat stand with hooks display a range of titbits.

Following the success of this enterprise I applied to do the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds’ ‘Great Garden Birdwatch’. This initiative exists to investigate how numbers of differing species are changing. It does not involve a terrific investment of time [one hour over the course of a specific weekend] and requires little more than observation and recording. I am, however confused. We are not asked to count the birds or to record the different species. We must record the greatest number of any given species at one time. OK. How is ‘one time’ defined? The birds are not obligingly cooperative in this respect, visiting in pairs or serially as individuals.

We settled down at our large window with sheets of paper and pens. The most frequent visitors to the feeders are great tits, an almost incessant stream of them, though rarely in numbers of more than two at a time. There is the inevitable pair of robins who are mostly enamoured of the bird table. Husband, as part of the war he is continuing to wage against squirrels has encased the open sides in wire netting which has nevertheless been breached a few times. Then there are blue tits, lumbering wood pigeons and intermittent groups of starlings.

The traffic flow was slow at the beginning but then there are flurries of frantic activity. I’ve noticed before how a mixture of species come into the space in waves, perhaps as security in numbers. I was both disappointed with the lack of some of our frequent visitors [like wrens] and delighted by the appearance of others, especially the long-tailed tits, who never deigned to visit our previous residence and a pair of chaffinches who are rarely seen.

How scientific is the exercise? The surveys can hardly be expected to be reliable, since some are bound to be a little over enthusiastic with their data. I suppose the collators must cross-check with postal codes. If I were to note that a golden eagle had entered our portals the credibility would be stretched somewhat.

But it was an enjoyable hour. If nothing else it gave us an excuse to sit and stare and [as William Henry Davies famously penned] what is this life otherwise?

A Very Happy Christmas to all Anecdotage Followers and Visitors-

Since Anecdotage is on Christmas Day this year I’m posting a seasonal story on the blog. While it is a story for children it is also a parable of our times. The birds in our own garden seem to have definite characters, making them ideal fodder for fiction…

Goodwill to All Birds

                  Rowena Robinson was huddled on the spindly branches of the lilac tree. Her feathers were puffed up like a seeding dandelion while Roy, on the branch above her was filling the garden with a selection of his latest songs.

“I don’t know why you’re bothering with that rubbish!” Rowena nagged. “Nobody is taking any notice. It won’t get us any nearer to the peanuts; not with that rabble hogging the bird feeders.”

She jerked her beak at the bird table across the lawn. The Starling family, all seven of them, were feasting there, tearing into the peanuts and the suet as if it was their last meal on earth. Shreds of food rained down upon the grass. Rowena shook her head. “Their manners are terrible! Look at the mess they make! No wonder their chicks are so badly behaved, with the bad example they set. And why do they have so many children? Three or four is enough for any bird, surely?”

Roy hopped down to join his wife. Cold and hunger was making her bad tempered.

“They are hungry too, my love. Perhaps we should call them the Starvling family! And if they drop scraps on to the grass it’s easier for some of the smaller birds like Jenny to pick it up. Wrens prefer the ground for feeding after all. Stevie and his chicks will be done in a minute then we will get a turn at those nuts. We’ll need some supper. It’ll be dark soon.”

Sure enough a light came on in the house, illuminating the garden and prompting the Starlings to rise up like a cloud and swoop away over the fence. As the Robinsons prepared to fly over to the bird table a door slid open on the patio and the giant figure of a girl chick stepped out. Rowena turned back with a squawk of alarm as her husband landed on the stones next to the girl’s feet. He bowed several times in front of the enormous figure, who stood still and murmured to him in her strange tongue. In her hand she held a bag and now she shook it over the stones, peppering the ground with delicious seeds, nuts and mealworms.

Roy called to Rowena, “Come on over, dear. There’s enough food here to feed a flock!” But she shrank back into the tree, trembling.

“Roy! Get out of there! It isn’t safe.”

He hopped over and looked up at her. “Dear, the people won’t hurt us. They like us. They are the ones who put all this food out. We must show them we like them too. When we gather around them and sing they keep feeding us.”

He coaxed her from the tree, leading her on to the stone slabs to where the girl, Millie was standing.

Later, feeling well-fed in their cosy roost as they prepared for sleep, Roy was explaining about the family in the house. “That one you saw, the one who served us the meal; that was a hen-chick. They call it a girl in human language. I don’t think she lives in the house but she visits quite often”

“Girl” Rowena murmured.

“Then there’s an old hen. She lives there all the time. They call it a woman.”

Rowena yawned. “How do you know she’s old?”

“Well her feathers are all white and straggly. Of course, the poor things only have feathers on their heads and they can’t even fly.” He turned to his wife but she was asleep.

The next morning, after a quick preen and a beak wipe they peered out to see Mark and Mandy Magpie strutting around as if they owned the place and making their usual racket. The other birds hung around at a distance listening to what sounded like pistol volleys. Rowena sighed.

“Not much chance of breakfast any time soon, then.”

“No-but they are the only ones who can keep Squirrel at bay, so they have their uses! What do you think that is?” Roy indicated a bedraggled, grey mound of feathers on the slabs by the door. Rowena stared, aghast. “Oh Roy! Do you think that dreadful cat’s been here again?” She shuddered, remembering the last time the fearful beast had terrorised the inhabitants of the garden.

“I’m going to take a closer look.”

“Roy you can’t! It isn’t safe with the Magpies there!”

But he’d already taken off. He flew over to the patio and perched on a window ledge above the feathers, ignored by Mark and Mandy who were squabbling and squawking over a fat ball they both wanted. Rowena saw Roy bend towards the feathers as he chirped at it then was astonished to see the feathers move! A bedraggled head appeared and peered up at her husband.

Just then the door opened and Millie stepped out. Mark and Mandy screeched and rose up grumbling to retire to the nearest tree but Roy stayed where he was, watching. When the girl-chick spotted the heap of feathers and got down to look at it Rowena gasped, for the heap of feathers did not get up and fly away or even try to move. The girl-chick went back inside the house and Roy glided back to his wife.

“It’s a pigeon, Row. His name is Preston. I know pigeons aren’t very clever and they’re a bit common but he’s in a bad way. I think his wing is injured. He says a car hit him. Look-the girl-chick is coming back out.”

Millie returned. In one hand she held the peanut bag they all knew so well, in the other a saucer of water. She knelt by the pigeon and placed the water and some peanuts next to him. Then withdrew to the other end of the patio. Preston raised his head to stare over at Roy.

“It’s alright” chirped the robin. “The girl-chick won’t hurt you. She helps us all.”

“Shush, Roy! You know we don’t talk to pigeons! They come in here from miles away and take all our food and water!”

Roy cocked his head to one side. “My love, we are lucky to be very well looked after here in this garden. Does it really matter where this poor bird is from or who he is? He may not be like us but he is a bird all the same. There is enough to go around, whoever needs it, isn’t there?”

“I suppose so. But he won’t stand much of a chance if he stays there anyway. Fox will get him.”

She was right, thought Roy.

The next morning Preston wasn’t there and in his place was a box. Millie stepped outside and poured some nuts into it. “Is it some new kind of bird feeder?” Rowena asked and Roy went to look. “He’s in the box, Row! Preston is in there!”

“Don’t be daft, Roy. Have you been eating those rotten apples again?”

“It’s true-go and see for yourself.”

She took off and made a cautious circuit over the patio, peering down at the box before returning to their branch. “He seems a bit better today-more perky and he’s tidied himself up a bit.”

Two days later they woke to see Preston standing on the slabs tucking into a saucer of peanuts. Roy called to him. “How’s it going? You’re looking much better.”

The grey wood pigeon took a few wobbly steps towards the edge of the slabs. “Since the girl-chick gave me food and a safe place to sleep my wing is starting to feel less painful. I might try a few exercises after breakfast.”

“Take care, friend,” warned Roy, “The Magpies can be very rough and we sometimes get Fox here in the garden, too!”

They watched as Preston hopped around the garden, flexing his wings and wincing then propelling himself half a metre into the air in a series of leaps whilst flapping. At last he flopped on to the slabs for a rest.

“He’s persistent. I’ll give him that.” Rowena glanced sideways at her husband.

Preston got stronger every day until one morning they woke to see him flying around the garden and making experimental landings on branches and the grass. He stopped on the ground flower bed below them and squinted up with one beady eye.

“I’m off this morning. I’ll say Cheerio. Might be back some time. Thanks for all your help.”

Roy flicked his tail. “Take care friend. You know where we are.”

Preston bowed deeply before making an ungainly ascent, circling once and then heading west. They watched in silence until he became a tiny speck. The patio door slid open and Millie stepped out, looking about her and into the box, which was empty. She called something into the house behind her and a short, old hen-person came out to stand by her.

Roy took off, calling to Rowena. “Come on!”

“What are you?…” Rowena spluttered but flew to join him on the patio next to the two humans. “Sing, my love. Sing with all your heart!”

The Robinsons perched together on the edge of the bird bath, serenading the hen and girl-chick as they stood smiling outside the door. Millie clapped her hands. “That was so beautiful. Thank you. I expect you’re hungry after all that singing!”

She sprinkled a liberal helping of peanuts on to the slabs in front of them.

“There-you see?” Roy nodded at his wife. “We are so lucky. We live in the best garden in the world.”

Living in a Cultural Desert

The time has come to finally accept that summer is now over for this year. We managed to extend it by a month or so by nipping off to warmer climes, but even there autumn is nudging in. I tend to go through a period of mourning at this time-not being a fan of winter, the cold or the dark. We also have to turn our attention to all the outstanding chores that are necessary when one takes up residence in a new abode-a list that is lengthening as I write.

In our absence an invasion of a miniature sort has taken place in that the outside and all its mini creatures has invaded the space. Chez nous has become spider haven, with a spindly arachnid lurking in every conceivable corner. Going to the study to get a pen [with which to redirect a pile of wrongly addressed mail-some of which had already been redirected here] I made the mistake of reaching out only to find I was plunged into an Alien-like scenario, my hand ensnared in a gargantuan, cloying candy floss of gossamer. Ugh!

Outside, much of the stalwart inroads that had been made before departure in taming the rampant ivy, brambles and unwanted interlopers is now rendered inadequate by their enthusiastic return. October is the month I’ve allocated for planting the climbers I’d brought with me when we moved so time is of the essence. Accordingly I’ve now crippled my back and various other parts with a marathon session of planting. Re-acquainting myself with the garden has only served to demonstrate how much work there is to do in it.

This is also the time when I turn my attention to cultural life and begin to cast around for entertainment to fill long, dark evenings. Those who’ve read these scribblings before will know how much I abhor musical ‘shows’ and how much I love a good play. Here in the provinces, however we are not well served. My own small, local theatre has a programme of events that includes a few broadcast screenings but is dominated by tribute acts, mediocre musical soirees and the odd has-been. The venue is run by volunteers, is a cosy and welcoming space with an art deco façade. It should be a magnetic powerhouse of activity.

A little further afield, in the seafront, tourist metropolis only a bus ride away there are two large concert venues, both touting…yes, tribute acts, has-beens and performers I’ve never heard of. There is nothing for it but to go to the movies. The critics have done a hatchet job on ‘The Girl on the Train’ [a novel I enjoyed] so I may have to try Woody Allen’s latest offering.

After much searching I discovered that Nina Conti-a comic genius with puppetry-is on at the end of the month; on I went to the seating plan. Nothing in the circle except for single seats or restricted view. Nothing in the stalls except for single seats or restricted view. It’s no surprise. I’m not the only person starved of quality live entertainment!