Last in a series of reissued blog posts in memory of my Dad…

I have come to love Autumn, with its promise of a long brutal winter to come that freezes the ground and makes gardening impossible. But this year when September arrives, Dad rings with strange news. ‘You’ll never guess. We’ve been awarded the prize for Best Allotment!’

‘Who by?’ I ask.

‘Oh, I don’t know. The In Bloom people, I think.’

‘I didn’t even know there was a prize,’ I say, wondering if he has got hold of the wrong end of some sort of stick. The whole thing seems so unlikely.

But he goes on, with a convincing level of detail. ‘We’re invited to the presentation tea this Saturday. We can wedge up on cucumber sarnies and cream scones!’

The tea is being held at a local posherie.

‘Really?’ I say. ‘I can’t believe it.’ It has been a difficult growing year, swinging from drought to deluge and back again. A lot of allotmenteers got to July, dug their early potatoes then abandoned their plots for the rest of the season.  Perhaps that’s why we won: because we didn’t.

‘Oh well. That’ll be lovely!’ I say, belatedly.

But I’m not sure that it will. Dad, at 90, has reached a difficult age. Difficult for me, that is. He has abandoned his £2,000 hearing aid on the grounds that the batteries are too expensive (5p each) and also his false teeth, relying instead on his 6 or so stained and broken natural ones. He’s no oil painting, but comments unkindly on other people’s weight, height, nose, ears, teeth or lack of them and hair or lack of it in an exceptionally loud voice.

I wish I could take a different family member to the tea, one who has excelled at digging this year and has eaten all the produce no-one else wanted, like windfall apples, worm-eaten potatoes and stringy beans. But the invitation says dogs aren’t allowed.

I ring the organisers and ask if we can bring an extra human. ‘If that fails, I’ll come,’ says Mr MS. Fair enough, as he has contributed as much to the allotment as Dad this year (ie nothing).

But the organisers say no. ‘Never mind,’ says Mr MS, too quickly. His session in front of Match of the Day stands unthreatened. ‘He’s your Dad! Take him. It’ll be a lovely trip out.’

I remember our last lovely trip out to the Garden Centre, when the woman in front of Dad hesitated in front of the six-packs of pansies. ‘Giddon out of it!’ he muttered as drove his trolley into hers. She gave a startled cry and dropped her handbag. He, of course, pretended it was an accident.

‘He gets quite lairy these days,’ I say.

‘I’m sorry,’ says Mr MS, ‘but if you think your Dad qualifies as lairy, you’ve led a sheltered life.’

‘Alright,’ I say quickly, before he can start talking about the antics of drinking buddies from back in the day. ‘Point taken.’

In the event, none of the things I’m expecting to happen do. Dad talks over the presentation speeches because he can’t hear them and keeps saying loudly that tea is all very well but where’s the real drink? But even a wuss like me can cope with that.

Then something happens that I’m not expecting.

As we leave the hotel, Dad loses his footing and falls down two stone steps to land flat on his face at the bottom.

Time stands still.

Then I rush to help, anticipating at least a dozen broken bones.

‘I’m alright,’ he says again and again. ‘I’m alright.’

But his face is puce and getting him to his feet takes enormous effort on both our parts. We limp to a nearby bench and sit for a long time. No-one emerges from the hotel or passes by on the pavement. The entire incident has gone oddly unwitnessed.

He doesn’t want doctors involved, so when his face is a better colour, I drive him home. I don’t sleep a wink all night. But in the morning, he says he has suffered no ill effects at all, except for a small round bruise on his thigh, caused by the pound coin that was in his trouser pocket.

This seems even more miraculous than us winning the prize.

Shortly afterwards the hotel goes bust. Perhaps it was sued by someone who fell down its (unmarked) stone steps. For a year, Dad and I are custodians of a silvery plaque that we swap between mantelpieces. The hotel is converted into flats.

The plot goes on being a place where neglect and failure seem only a heartbeat (or a summer mini break) away. In almost every respect, it’s as though it never happened.

Except for one thing. I now know that there is a prize. And I can’t help myself from trying, albeit in a half arsed kind of way, to win it again.

Drawings by Janis Goodman