On my way to work I cycle past an enormous ramshackle old house. It is shabby, but so big I had always assumed it was a kind of student accommodation, run by Bohemian types. The kind of middle class people that have always appealed to me – Radio 3, shouty arguments, intellectual and lots of good food and wine. Probably a bit continental. It turns out that it is a private house.
Often, they leave stuff from their garden for you to help yourself to. I tend to ignore the plants but make merry with the greengages and plums. This week, for example, there have been foxgloves and cowslips, and all sorts of greenery that I don’t recognise but those who know their plants would be able to identify straight away – they are left in small piles on the pavement, with scrawled instructions on scraps of paper about dividing and acidity and the like. A few years ago, on a whim, I pulled over to have a look, and was caught by the very woman I had imagined her to be. In her seventies, but very healthy and young with it, scruffy (Boho tick) with a sweater that was more holes than it was sweater, gardening gloves and a thick German accent (double Boho tick). She asked what I was interested in and I said that I was actually looking for vegetables.
She said they tended not to leave the vegetables out, but share them with their friends, so I had better come in and have a look to see what they had. I told her I was honoured to be included in that category! She laughed, told me to lock my bike up and asked if I wanted any kohlrabi seedlings. And so we walked down the side of her house into one of the most magical gardens I have ever seen.
If her jumper was the sartorial manifestation of her Bohemian ways, the garden was the horticultural equivalent. At first it looked like an overgrown scruffy mess, but I soon started to pick out the order from the chaos. The lawn was partially mown, but largely left to its own devices, and was a sea of cowslips (my grandfather’s favourite and something he took great pride in as they grew wild in his garden) with the odd bluebell and orchid. There was the most wonderful and old mulberry tree, branches swooping out like candelabra, and surrounded by a carpet of forget-me-nots. Around the edge were a series of overgrown room like areas (a bit like side chapels in a cathedral) which would have some kind of feature – a stump, a sculpture, a piece of driftwood, an old bicycle – around which the plants were allowed to grow. Oh, but it was glorious! The sky was blue, the sun was shining, big fluffy white clouds above, and I was in a secret garden.
We rambled through this, as she pointed out her treasures, before we reached the vegetable plots. This was a big garden, and the vegetable area alone was the size of a tennis court. Again, it was overgrown and disorganised – weeding clearly took up very little of their time, but glorious and alive. I felt like I had gone through the wardrobe into a pastoral Narnia. Beyond the blackcurrants and gooseberries was a greenhouse contraption – it was neither green nor glass, but a structure with some kind of material wrapped around – thicker than garden fleece, but thin enough to let in light. Inside were raised beds of a kind – they were long mounds that ran up each side of the structure – they seemed to be full of weeds, but my guide went straight to the seedlings, pushed away the weeds and picked a massive clump of kohlrabi. “We’ll go to the house and wrap these up”.
And we marched off up the garden to the house. I didn’t get further than the kitchen, but Radio 3 was, as expected, blazing away, and it looked like it hadn’t been cleaned for several years. An old man came out and shook my hand firmly, before grilling me, also in a German accent, as to who I was and where my allotment was, and how deep was the black soil there these days, and so it hasn’t all blown away then, ha! He was a geologist and was very keen to know about my plot. He was especially excited about the ancient layer of aquatic snail shells that I occasionally hit with my spade. And then the mood suddenly changed.
I told them I worked up the road, in one of the new buildings, and so he asked if T____ was still there. I said he was – he’s my boss, but that he was retiring and wouldn’t be there for long. “Hang him!” shouted the old man. I was startled by the violence of his words (I’d forgotten that hang him is an archaic expression for much ruder modern expressions) and said, “excuse me?”. “Hang him! I have never had the pleasure of meeting a more dishonest man in my life!” And there was no stopping him. “He was a rugger player – typical example of the type!”. “He was very good at raising money!” and so on.
My poor host, whose day was clearly ruined as she wearily realised that she was going to have to deal with her husband’s bitter rage, began ushering me to the door. “Time for you to go to work young man – we mustn’t keep you any more”, as she desperately tried to keep me moving, stop him following, whilst all the while trying to keep the conversation light. It would have been comical if it hadn’t been so sad about her angry husband, who was still muttering away as I cycled off.
Extraordinary! I have no idea of what it was all about and don’t suppose I ever will. I didn’t say anything to T____ when I got in, but I found myself looking at him that afternoon, wondering what on earth it was he had done to upset these people quite so much.