When I mention the allotment to friends, they often say ‘how rewarding, eating your own veg! And all that fresh air you get.’
These friends aren’t allotment-holders. The ones that are raise their eyebrows and silently clasp my shoulder to express their sympathy at this difficult time of year.
For Spring is hard work for allotmenteers. The whole shebang has to be dug over and weeded anew: it’s like reinventing the wheel.
But this year, I get an offer of help. Perhaps ‘offer’ is too strong a word: Julia owes me one from the time I helped her paint bitumen on her damp cellar walls: a job even King Canute might have thought twice about.
She arrives an hour late, badly hung over and in need of breakfast.
I assure her that the peace and quiet of the allotment will make her feel better. There is rarely anyone else down there, I say, and the sound of bird song is healing.
Unfortunately when we arrive, there is someone else down there, and it’s our charming, floppy haired next door neighbour. He is going at it with a rotovator, which is making enough noise for a vehicle five times its size.
‘Sorry,’ he shouts, charmingly and floppy-hairedly above the din, ‘but I’ve only borrowed this for ninety minutes, so I’d better get on.’
Julia shows great strength of character for the first two of these minutes, then says, ‘I need another coffee.’
When we return later in the afternoon to peace and quiet, she does manage to get a patch of soil to a fine tilth. Unfortunately it’s only about one foot square, which, given the size of the allotment is about as much use as a pastry spade.
‘Look,’ I say. ‘Don’t sweat the details. Just get the big weeds up and give it a rough digging over.’
‘Oh, but you know I’ve got a bad back,’ she says.
This is the first I’ve heard of a bad back. But it’s a trump card. I mutter vague condolences and turn away, back to digging out dandelion roots that go half way to Australia.
When another friend, Sarah, volunteers help, I’m not expecting much.
But Sarah announces on arrival that, of all garden tasks, weeding is her favourite because she loves to see cleared soil.
She works like a Trojan. We dig up miles of gnarled yellow root. I thought I’d got the nettles out last year, but no. They have been busy over the winter, knitting up their vast yellow underground string vest.
Sarah seems to need no breaks.
I offer her tea, in the plastic mug I keep in the shed.
‘I’d rather get on,’ she says. Her work ethic is phenomenal. Or else she saw me empty the dead spiders out.
Sarah knows a thing or two about gardening, even though she has never grown vegetables. I spot an opening. ‘Would you like to get more involved? Take over part of the plot? Think how rewarding it would be, eating your own veg! And all the fresh air you’d get.’
‘Naah,’ she says.
I console myself by making a bonfire.
Lit, it produces very little flame, only a smoke cloak which drifts east, enfolding the couple diagonally opposite. They move all around their plot to escape it and eventually leave, coughing.
‘You should have let the damp stuff dry out first,’ says Sarah. ‘Now, are you going to help me dig up the rest of this nettle root or not? That fire will go on burning without you standing there watching it, you know.’
‘Give me a minute,’ I say. ‘Did I ever tell you I’ve got a bad back?’
Cartoon courtesy of National Archives of Australia.