by Jeanne Davies
Saddled to the back of our garden was a strip of allotments where my father spent most of his summer evenings harvesting his spring labours. Brandishing the hoe, I’d march behind him holding a metal bucket. We’d wander past our noisy chicken coup and into that special place nestled snug beneath the shadow of the South Downs. I’d watch and help where I could, shelling tiny peas that tasted like nectar and caressing the tactile fur inside the pod of the broad beans which rhythmically hit the bottom of the bucket. All the while I took sideways glances to study my father’s features which gradually relaxed as his work commenced. His furrowed forehead slowly softened as sweat clung to his heavy blonde brow line, collecting in rainbow droplets before releasing into the dark earth below; this soil never needed enriching he told me. Our houses were built on Roman remains and I often imagined our potatoes growing like grapes on top of a magnificent mosaic or bath house. Dad once dug up a coin with Nero’s head on it but when the local museum offered him no reward, he decided to encase it in a crazy paving path where he could admire it as he passed by with his rickety wooden wheelbarrow.
Beyond the allotments spread vast fields of wheat leading onto the grounds of the local mental hospital. Built in harsh red bricks with metal barred windows, there was a strange ivy-covered tower attached to it like a dark leach. Often curious individuals wandered into the allotments from there, sometimes appearing naked and bewildered in our garden like deer caught in headlights. They all had a strange lost look in their eyes like the captain of a ship gazing far out to sea. Often or not they’d be dressed strangely … particularly the women with miss-matched clothing, sometimes with the pattern turned inside out or the buttons done up wrongly. They never bothered me as they never said much – ‘the drugs’ my mother used to say. But still, she warned me and my brothers never to make eye contact with any of them.
It was like that with “the monkey man” who often pushed his old black metal bike through our estate to the old rubbish tip. I always wondered why that nickname was given. It’s true his skin was dark and leathery with a brown wrinkled face and a low forehead, but I found it curious that he had no tail. I didn’t notice one anyway, unless he kept it hidden wrapped around the saddle. I never saw him ride that bike either, but he often returned at dusk with weird objects strapped to it. A spare misshapen bicycle wheel, a tatty lampshade or a set of pram wheels, which us kids really coveted as we wanted to make go-karts with them. Mr. A (the bank robber) who lived in the corner house just before the path to the pits, often shouted something at the monkey man which made no sense … unless he knew his mother. His four sons leered and shouted rude words, but the brown man without a tail would just ignore them and walk on. I wondered if he was deaf or something as he too had that strange lost look in his eyes.
Mr. and Mrs. A had the best garden in the street. It was a corner shape, much bigger than all the others and quite immaculate in every way with an abundance of blooms all the year around. He was always tending it with his hoe; well that was when he wasn’t in ‘the nick’. Mrs. A was a quiet plump lady who always wore pretty clothes and jewellery. She seemed shy and kept herself to herself, particularly when Mr. A went away for those long vacations; my mother said their marriage was a true love story. When I became a teenager, she died of cancer. Two weeks later Mr. A shot himself.
We all disobeyed our parents sometimes and went to the forbidden pits to skim stones across the deep murky waters left by gravel extraction; it was thrilling to live dangerously and if your footing slipped on the bank you’d feel the hairs prickle down the back of your neck. Once, when it had been snowing, my friend’s older brother went there with a few friends to skate upon the ice. His friends came panicking back to his parents with a tale of how their son suddenly disappeared beneath the ice through a small hole. The police came and searched, dragging up paint tins, empty bottles and other rubbish all seized together by a thick, dark, rubbery weed. The next day there was an ambulance in the street; some policemen carried a body towards the ambulance and my friend’s mother began screaming and wailing. My mother dragged my arm to pull me back inside the house; but I just had to look. The boy’s face was a pale porcelain blue colour with his eyes protruding from their sockets like Dad’s new potatoes, gazing emptily into the distance. After that my friend’s mum had to stay at the mental hospital because she kept trying to set their house on fire.
Sometime afterwards, our next-door neighbour’s daughter knocked one morning when we were eating our porridge. Her face was as white as a sheet, so Mum and I went with her to find out why her Mum wouldn’t answer the door; she’d slept at her boyfriend’s that night and didn’t have a key … I remember she wore amazing blue glittery nail polish. Peering through the letter box, the girl said her mother’s motor scooter was still in the hallway. We headed around the back and Mum stood on a box to peer through the kitchen window; her face became very serious and ashen coloured. She stepped down, instructing the daughter to fetch our other neighbour and me to bring her a towel. She strapped the towel around her fist before smashing the window, allowing a pungent eggy smell to escape. I ran home to take my brother to school. There were lots of murmurs echoing down the street afterwards as people recalled the change Mrs. G had asked them all for, for her gas meter. Nobody had guessed she was depressed; she’d had her hair done that morning. Nobody knew her husband had a fancy woman and had left her.
Over the years I realised how strong my mother really was … a woman of poor mental health herself who suffered with severe asthma and anxiety attacks throughout her life. Dad and I knelt in prayer for Mrs. G and her daughter in church that Sunday; but my mother called all church goers hypocrites.
Dad never seemed bothered when we were there; it was his place of solace … and for me too. Shelling the peas and broad beans took us away from all the harsh realities of life for a while … it was our little allotment in time. And his new potatoes were like beautiful pearls as his fork lifted them like a necklace from the deep ocean of the earth.