Fiction Month. ‘The Courtyard Pest’ [Part 2]

               Nancy has heard enough from Jeffery and takes an escape route. Will she be able to integrate into her new community and can it offer her any of the comfort and friendship she misses?  Part 1 of this story can be found in last Sunday’s’s post on ‘Anecdotage’

The Courtyard Pest

Part 2

               Having had to demonstrate her intention by leaving the flat, she wanders along the High Street and turns down the lane leading to the library. There may be a noticeboard showing local events, groups and activities or at least someone who could point her in the right direction. The building is new with lots of internal glass. She spots a small, neat, grey woman like herself wearing a navy raincoat and realises it is herself, reflected in a rotating door.

The vast space is decorated in garish lime greens and scarlets. At a circular desk she has to wait as one librarian is attending to a young woman with a foreign accent and another is talking on the phone.

At last she is directed across to an area designated ‘local information’ where there are brochures, wall maps and a noticeboard advertising special interest groups and activities. She reads each flyer. There is a cycling club, meeting each Sunday morning at seven, a ‘knit and natter’ group in a church hall on Monday afternoons, there is the WI, the University of the Third Age and Psychic evenings. On a low table is a file labelled ‘cultural events’ and she bends to begin flipping through but is interrupted by a commotion around the reception desk.

Nancy straightens to peer around a bookcase and sees a figure in a beige waistcoat gesticulating at the librarian, who is responding by adopting a decidedly non-library tone and pointing in the direction of the exit doors.

“Mr Marsh, as I’ve said before we cannot stock every periodical and the library is run according to local authority guidelines. Now I’m sorry but unless and until you are able to follow our code of conduct I am going to have to ask you to leave the building and you may be barred from entering the premises in future.”

Her neighbour doesn’t spot her as he is escorted out of the exit doors. She sits down to look through the file of cultural societies, noting one or two phone numbers down then waits ten minutes before she leaves to avoid bumping into him.

She has walked twenty five yards before a dizzy spell threatens to topple her and she stops by a bus stop, clutching the side of the shelter until it has passed, then perching on the narrow plastic bench inside. A bus pulls up, disgorging several passengers; the driver leaning forward to see if she’s getting on. She shakes her head and takes a few deep breaths as the doors wheeze closed.

 

Back in the flat she feels jittery and unsettled. Perhaps getting on with her unpacking will help. But when she leans down from her bed to get a box out from underneath the dizziness descends like a fog and she sits back up, closes her eyes and sinks on to the pillows. A deluge of jumbled images gushes in to a background of piercing squeaks which rise to a crescendo, at which point her eyes fly open and she is aware of the door bell ringing with an insistent, lengthy clang.

“I didn’t know if you were in.” There is an element of reproach in his frown. “I thought I’d better let you know I’ve put some rat poison down in the alley. In case you go out that way. Let me know if you see anything, won’t you?”

It takes Nancy a moment to gather her thoughts. “Yes. Thank you. I will”.

He clears his throat. “Can I interest you in an early evening glass of wine? Over at my place?”

She pulls the edges of her cardigan together, aware that she is dishevelled from sleep. “Just a small one” he continues and she can think of no excuse to refuse. She keeps him at the door while she slips her shoes on and fetches her bag and keys. “All secure?” he asks, as she locks the door.

His flat is as different from hers as an identical design could be, the surfaces crammed with objects, odd-shaped stones, pieces of wood, metal parts of things; the walls clad in pictures, photos, mirrors and hangings. It feels claustrophobic, as if the entire space is closing in on her. She murmurs ‘thanks’ as he hands her a glass, watching as she takes a cautious sip. “Know your wines?” he asks, “Where do you think that one’s from?”

Tempted to say ‘Tesco’ she perches on the edge of a sagging sofa covered in piles of magazines and shakes her head. He grins, holding his glass up to an imaginary light. “Algeria! You wouldn’t know, would you? A friend brought it back from a trip for me. I love the stuff.” He places his glass on the edge of a shelf, snatches up an object from the coffee table and offers it to her. “What do think this is? Any ideas?” She turns the small, circular, metallic item in her hand. It has an opening with a serrated edge like tiny, sharp teeth

“A nut-cracker?”

He chuckles. “It’s a pepper grinder. African. I bet you’ve never seen one like that before!”

She clears her throat. “I must go, Jeffery. I have some calls to make. Thank you for the wine.”

“You haven’t finished it!”

“No. It’s very nice. But I’m not much of a drinker. It goes straight to my head I’m afraid”. She picks up her bag. He continues to stand, tilting the glass up to drain it then twirling the stem as he watches her.

Back in her flat Nancy makes some tea and takes it into the sitting room. She finds the numbers she wrote down in the library. As she picks up the phone she is distracted by a sound. She sits still and concentrates. There! A scraping, grinding sound, like a pot sliding along on the slabs of the courtyard. Jeffery told her if the rats got into the yard they might dig up the bulbs. She goes to the patio door and pulls a curtain back, peering along the shaft of light that’s been cast. But there is nothing other than the pots standing motionless in their places.     A rat, however large would not be strong enough to move a large, terracotta pot full of earth. The sound must have come from something in the alley; someone trundling something along there, perhaps. She picks up the phone again.

It is two twenty three when she wakes, having fallen asleep thinking about her telephone conversation with Rebecca Fripp, of the local amateur dramatic society. Rebecca’s response to Nancy’s enquiry had been Luke-warm, as if she’d be doing her a favour by allowing her to attend a rehearsal. But they always needed ‘front-of-house’ help, she’d said, even though Nancy’d explained about her experience in set design. Once she is awake, she is unable to drift off again and thinks that perhaps she should get up and make tea. She stretches out her hand to the light and there! There is the sound: scrape. Outside the windows.

She freezes, stomach churning, her skin prickly; but forces her feet to the floor; tiptoes through to the kitchen. She takes her time in the half light, pulling open a cupboard door to withdraw a heavy pan with a long handle. She breathes in long, slow pulls like an automaton. She returns to the living room, pan held to her side in one hand and uses a finger to create a slit of light in the long curtains.

A wind has got up, stirring the trees over the alleyway and chasing leaves around the small yard; but there is also a dark, rounded shape moving around the pots. Nancy grips the pan handle and uses her other hand to inch the patio door open. The swishing breeze is louder as she steps outside, flattening her nightie against her legs. She searches for the shape then spots it-moving from behind one pot to another. In two paces she is there. She pulls her arm back straight like a forehand smash and swings hard at the shape. Crunch! The contact is sickening, jarring her arm as she stumbles. The shape topples and she drops her weapon. She takes a step forward to look but the foot gives way, sliding and she falls to her knees in the wetness, confused. There has been no rain so why is there a puddle? Reaching out she feels fur, wetly sticky; then she is swaying, sinking as the fog descends.

 

She is dressed and in the chair when Sarah arrives. “Ready, Mum?”

Got your tablets and everything?”

Nancy nods. She stares at her daughter, eyes wide. She swallows. “Sarah-I can’t, I don’t…”

“Shh-Mum it’s ok. You don’t have to go back to the flat. Danny and I have packed all of your stuff. You can take a case with you today and the rest will follow.”

“How…how is he?”

“He’s doing alright, Mum. He’s a tough old boy. His skull has a small fracture but it will heal. He doesn’t blame you. He’s an idiot to have been there in the middle of the night! ‘Checking the rat bate’, apparently.

A solitary tear rolls down her mother’s face. “I’ve caused so much harm. I’m so sorry”

Sarah takes her hand. “No, Mum. I’m the one who should be sorry. I should never have nagged you to come. Now we must go or we’ll be late.”

Nancy stands and accepts her daughter’s supporting arm. In the car she sinks back, closing her eyes to picture Meg’s sparkly eyes and the way specks of scarlet lipstick are visible on her teeth when she grins. “You don’t have to downsize, dear” her friend had told her, sitting by the hospital bed. “Just come back and live at my place. We can look after each other, can’t we? And you can come back to The Nettlehide Players, where you belong.”

Nancy had nodded, feeling relief course through her like a transfusion. Of course. It was all anyone wanted or needed. To belong.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Boomers’ Bloomers [again]

Baby boomer:    a person born during a baby boom, especially the one in the US or UK between approximately 1945 and 1965: Ageing baby boomers are creating a greater need for healthcare. baby-boomer. adjective [before noun] › The baby-boomer generation is now hitting retirement age.18 May 2016

We ‘boomers’ are in trouble again. Not content with having had free university education, ‘good’ pensions, having the gall to buy properties and now living long enough to be using up all the healthcare budget we have transgressed further. The offence? We have failed to teach our progeny horticultural skills. There! How appalling! We should have been outside in the garden with our new-borns teaching them the difference between bindweed and broccoli instead of idly dandling them on our knees. We should have set our toddlers to weeding, hoeing and tying in the runner beans rather than reading them stories and letting them splash around in paddling pools.

Having been born and raised in the countryside I did actually learn a great deal about gardening at an early age; though not grand or modernised the properties we inhabited were always surrounded by large pieces of garden which my father tended with gusto-perhaps because he came from a family of market gardeners. The fruit and vegetables he grew were more than a supplement to our diet; together with the hens we kept they almost were our diet. Yet we were not coerced into digging and weeding and were left to our own devices, excavating our own plot behind the shed to find buried treasure and taking stray worms down to the hens’ enclosure or trawling the small stream with jam jars on strings. I do remember being interrogated as to why I’d pulled up a cabbage and explaining that it was to see if it was growing, a reply not received with indulgent approval-nevertheless it had been growing.

But I knew about gardening. I knew that you could graft one type of apple tree on to another, that potatoes needed to be earthed up, that you could make compost from garden and vegetable waste. I knew the names of things-vegetables, fruits, flowers and weeds. I also knew the names of trees and wild flowers. At school, with no danger of a ‘national curriculum’ we went on nature walks-a long crocodile of hand-holding pairs strolling the lanes and scrutinising the banks and hedgerows so that we knew which tree conkers grew on [not a conker tree!] and bringing back specimens for the ‘nature table’. I grew up able to identify common birds from plumage and song and to know a number of wild flowers, plants and trees.

Just as a garden itself cannot be made instantly you can’t ‘teach’ gardening. The skills and knowledge develop over time with trial and error and a little research now and again. The best gardens evolve-like the twenty year old patch I’ve grappled with and am about to leave. How will the next garden grow? I look forward to finding out…

 

 

A Matter of Time [part 1]

Frith steps out into the grey, depressing familiarity of the patch she still thinks of as a garden at a time she knows is morning from her ancient alarm clock. She glances up into the hazy fog as she does each day, to assess the extent to which a semblance of light may be penetrating. This morning, within the billowing folds of damp cloud a sulphurous, bilious glow hovers like a searchlight beam, providing little in the way of illumination and no warmth, although Frith allows a small thread of encouragement to weave into the start of her day.

Along the cinder pathway fresh layers of fine dust display the prints of the girl’s boots as she moves towards a network of raised beds rising like ghostly islands in the gloom. She pauses by the first rectangular slab, a dark oblong mound constrained by timber planks, crumbling a little now from prolonged exposure to damp and housing what would have been a robust crop of potato plants. Frith adjusts the filter masking her nose and mouth before bending to inspect the nearest plant. A few dark, brittle leaves have struggled to the surface of the dusty heap of soil. She peers at them, unsurprised by their insidious coating and searches for any sign of a flower. They will need to be earthed up again, she decides, grimacing at the idea of the task; digging into the tainted earth will produce a storm of silver powder pluming up and coating all in its descent, including herself.

She walks to the apple tree, a spectral giant in the mist hung with fringes of dull spores and remembers her grandmother describing summer afternoons as a child lying in the shade of it with a book or clambering to the top to teeter on a spindly branch and marvel at the view across the sunlit valley. She shivers, conscious of the oppressive silence that hangs over the garden like the fog. On the tree’s lower branches one or two tiny, misshapen fruits cling in a valiant effort to perpetuate.

Beyond the tree, by the low stone wall that once marked the boundary with a neighbouring property there is a brave, rebellious clump of brambles making a stand against the suffocating effects of fungal invasion, producing fierce, protective thorns and exuberant, wet foliage tinged with hints of green amongst the smoky coating. Frith allows herself to hope for blackberries later on, in the time that used to be called autumn when there were seasons marking changes in climate; months when days were warm, hot even, and periods of fierce cold when the land lay dormant.

The greenhouse is barely visible at the end of the monochrome garden until Frith is near enough to touch its damp and slimy surface. She pulls the door open and steps inside. The tender plants here have not escaped the blight and she surveys the spindly pepper bushes, brittle stalks smothered in grey and moves slowly on towards the end of the small structure where she’s been nursing the tomato seedlings. She stops; holds her breath.

The Way the Garden Grows

                Every year at about this time I marvel at a bizarre phenomenon that occurs in the garden to the rear of our house. It expands. It definitely becomes larger each spring. I don’t understand the reason for this event-especially as the boundaries of the property do not appear to move, nevertheless every area, feature, pathway, patio, border, lawn, pond and structure has grown. I know this principally because it all takes hours longer and produces more aching muscles than the previous year and the year before that.

                I like to think I’ve got the measure of our garden. After seventeen years of designing, redesigning, trying out plants, failing, digging, planting, weeding, chopping, trimming, mowing, pruning, staking, composting and the rest I am under the illusory impression I have the better of the beast, but the reality is I haven’t got it under control at all.

                During the May holiday weekend, along with everyone else, I made my annual pilgrimage to the garden centre, a visit which never fails to provoke a feeling of optimistic fantasy. I trail around the stands of bright, bushy perennials with my trolley, scrutinising their labels and picturing them in the border; a riot of dazzling colour bursting forth and wowing the neighbours as they peer jealously over the fence, or eliciting exclamations of ecstasy from visitors. I fill the trolley. I bear the trophies home in a rush of excited enthusiasm. I set to, identifying a location, soaking the plant, preparing the planting hole, adding the compost, ladling in the food granules, settling the roots in, refilling, firming and watering. I go out each day to check.

                But it is the garden that has the last laugh. It cannot be fooled. It grows what it wants to grow, its favourite diet consisting of robust ‘self-comers’ that seed with effortless abandon or send out subterranean wires of roots that pop up anywhere and everywhere, resisting wind, frost, slugs and drought regardless. Thus I have a garden brimming with Aquilegia, Montbretia, bluebells and spiderwort-all very pleasant and worthy of their place in moderation.

                Here we are battling strong, coastal winds, salt laden air, poor, sandy soil and droughts. Once I had more time to devote to growing things I developed ambitions to grow things to eat. Knowing how unsupportive the soil is I persuaded Husband to build some raised beds, explaining that we-[I]- could fill them with rich, organic compost. The first year I was inspired to sow a wide variety of vegetables, including beetroot, asparagus, potatoes, runner beans and onions. Success was limited. The beetroot never grew beyond miniature, the asparagus failed to rear its head and the onions remained in stubborn infancy long past the time when it should have grown up.

                I still dabble with vegetables, but in a limited way. I seem to be able to produce tomatoes [provided there is any sunshine], spinach seems to quite like our gaff, and most herbs are tough enough to cope. There is only one problem though; we are almost always away in September, when  we should be enjoying the harvest. Let me see-travel or tomatoes? Fortunately there are others around to see they aren’t wasted!