Sunday, November 29, 2015

Past, Present, Future

The very morning that I was flying home from Jeddah, that very morning, I got the email from our Community Allotment Association's Secretary asking what my intentions were regarding an allotment. The last conversation I'd had with her, face to face at the allotments, she told me it was normal to spend a couple of years on the waiting list, and then get a quarter plot, or even just a raised bed, and later a half plot, and one day, eventually, a full plot of your own. "It's rare to walk straight into a full plot... In fact, it never happens."

That was fine. I was just keen to get some fresh air and exercise and grow vegetables. But I knew I wanted a plot to myself, and would wait as long as it took, and take whatever came my way meanwhile. I wanted my own allotment, a whole one, all ten poles of it. I'd shared an allotment with Dad, and that was fine, we never fell out over anything, but what we were going to plant and where it was going to be planted, and whether we should have a pond, it all had to be negotiated.

So I got back from Saudi on 5th June, and went to see the Secretary the next day, and expected to be shown a raised bed or maybe even a quarter plot, and I would have been happy with that, just to get the good Glasgow earth under my finger nails after 2 years in hot and dusty Jeddah. She showed me to the plot. An Irishman had gardened it for 30 years, he was getting on, and was unwell. It was clearly neglected. We struggled to find a way into the north end where the growing beds were. Some small areas on the west side had been cleared for cultivation, and had onion sets in.

A small part of what I later realised was the west side of the Old Greenhouse Foundations was also planted out with onions. "My" side, the east side, was mostly weeds, but I recognised the leaves of blackcurrant bushes fighting through the nettles, and there was a bare patch of earth by the tree, which I later found was a cherry. I picked up a handful of soil, and it was good earth. So would I be prepared to take it on? Yes. "There's a lot of work to be done, just clearing the weeds. But you can make tea from the nettles." Yes. "And if you could help him clear the other side, I'm sure that would be appreciated." Yes.

Back then I was still flush with my petro dollars from Aramco. I quickly began to plan spending some of them on the allotment. Pond liner; sheds, (plural); a poly tunnel was too cheap, I wanted a proper cedar-framed greenhouse; hundreds of bare root plants for a hedgerow... But first I had to clear the weeds. I did spend some money on decent tools, £20 for a good garden fork. "Tools that will see me out." With my fellow allotmenteer in mind, I was thinking, they need to last for 30 years.

I got down to it, clearing all the weeds on my side, planting out with phacelia, comfrey (from the old allotment I had shared with Dad), and borage. I didn't quite tame the fruit bushes then, but I let them know there was new management. I started on the other side, and I still hadn't met the old fella. One day his daughter came, and did some ineffectual weeding amongst the onions in the Old Greenhouse foundations.

She told me her father was very ill, and "I don't know if he'll be back." When I began to work on his side to begin the levelling, I somehow feared she'd turn up and demand to know what I was doing on her father's side of the garden. She never did, of course, and on the evening when I levelled the bank he'd built up into the ditch he'd dug, I muttered spontaneously to the allotment in general, "You're mine, now."  But I always felt that the old man would show up, and even when I planted the winter field beans on his side, I thought, well, he'll have some cultivated beds to plant his onions in next year.

But the Secretary has been to see him, and she spoke to the daughter. I'd harvested his onions from the Old Greenhouse area, and she took them, a bagful of onions smaller than golf balls. Poor old soul. His wife had died in July. He has lung cancer and is on morphine, and is past 80. He'd recently had a fall and broken his hip. He won't be back. So, the Secretary said, "you can take over the whole plot when the missives are signed in December". Yes please.

My own allotment. But it was not an occasion for celebration, as it had come about in the circumstances of another man's demonstrable mortality. That will be me, one day: old, infirm, ill, bereaved. Unable to dig drainage ditches and ponds and push barrow-fulls of bricks around. But I make this promise to posterity: the allotment I hand on will be ten poles of plentitude.