A story told from two points of view about a teenage boy and an old lady who meet in an allotment at night; by Bruce Harris.
True, I had things on my mind. My dad worked as an aid worker then; he had joined a team leaving Juba, in South Sudan, for the DRC - Democratic Republic of the Congo - after a lot of debate about whether they should go at all. A war was going on in the Congo involving soldiers from at least four countries; on the one hand going there was dangerous, on the other, the war had created a lot of homeless and hungry people. Three of the team of seven had found their way back to Juba safely; my dad wasn't one of them.
I used to work at the allotments with Pa, my father's father, when I was younger; he and Grandma Routledge became Pa and Nan to separate them from Grandad and Grandma Stone, my mother's parents, a bit posher and further away. Since then, sport, school work, girls sometimes, had taken up the time. But this thing with my dad made me determined to see Pa and Nan more regularly. Home, in any case, was getting a bit tense, both Mum and Kate giving me earache all the time. One of the things they gave me earache about was Pa's allotment.
'He can hardly walk, Ben. He's had a letter saying if the place isn't kept tidy, they'll take it off him. It would break his heart. Just clearing the mess up there would take you no more than a few hours, then we could think what to do.'
'I dare say it would only take you and Kate a few hours too, wouldn't it?'
'Don't be cheeky. I'm working all hours God sends while your father's away, Ben - you know that. And you also know that - well, Kate is fourteen and very self-conscious; a bit of mud on her face and she'd be practically hysterical.'
She looked a bit shamefaced, but we both grinned. Kate was rather obsessed with her personal appearance then, and there was no getting away from it.
'And, alright, yes, if flattery'll get me anywhere, you're strong, you keep yourself fit, and it would be easier for you than for the rest of us. Especially Pa. Satisfied?'
I still wasn't wild about it, but then, the next time I visited Nan and Pa, I asked about the Council letter and he showed me it.
'Since your mother's said, you might as well see it. But don't feel obliged, Ben, lad - some people like gardening, some don't. It doesn't have to be your problem.'
I looked up from the letter across at him and there were tears in his eyes. Pa, with tears in his eyes. Pa fought in the Korean War, which everyone's forgotten now; the Battle of the Imjin River, 22nd to 25th April 1951 - last year, he thought the papers and everyone would be talking about the sixtieth anniversary, but nobody even mentioned it. Everyone thinks Korea was just the Americans. Pa was stuck on Hill 235, which became known as Gloster Hill, when he and his mates fought off seven assaults by thousands of Chinese troops. He got a bullet lodged in his leg; they took it out, but Nan says he's never moved as easily since. This was the guy with tears in his eyes.
So that decided me. Two nights later, after I'd had tea and shifted a bit of work, I changed and went up to the allotment. My heart sank when I looked at it, but I made a start, and was doing quite well shifting the weeds, even though the darkness was coming in fast. I was thinking twenty more minutes and I'll call it a night, when I looked up to see this mad old woman shouting at me, behind a torch beam she was shining right into my face.
I did manage to grab a torch at the last minute, thank heavens, imagining that anyone seeing some deranged old bat stomping around an allotment in the dark would instantly be on the phone to the men in white coats, whereas a light beam might convince them she wasn't actually totally bananas.
What was it all about? Well, Jack's brother and sister in law were coming to dinner, and I'd turned to my latest Nigella in sheer desperation for a recipe which would provide Harriet and I with a conversation piece. Malcolm and Harriet are good company generally, but usually they're no sooner through the door than Jack and Harry are off on football, Lampards, Drogbas, route ones, various goobledegook indecipherable to us ladies. There was one topic which Harriet could be guaranteed to bang on about, which was Malcolm's retirement, a year away then. Malcolm is five years younger than Jack, who has retired, and Harriet in particular had the jolly idea of the four of us buying a holiday home and the chance to escape the ghastly English winter.
Capital scheme, in its essentials, the snag being that Jack had just had a lot of tests re. his kidneys and we were about to get the verdict, and it wasn't beyond the bounds of possibility that he wouldn't be around by the time Malcolm retired. An absolute bugger, but there you are; the big C has been prowling around Jack's family for generations and we feared the worst. Jack had taken to turning a sort of puce colour when the subject of Malcolm's bloody retirement came up again, and I feared that he might eventually say something he'd regret, because we really didn't want to start any kind of panic until we were sure we had something to panic about.
So I found a Nigella thing which would occupy Harriet and I at least for a while, though it was decidedly herby - sage, rosemary, thyme, all involved - and Harriet made Sherlock Holmes himself look like an old plod when it came to detecting the use of dried herbs rather than fresh. Hence the allotment in the gathering gloom, and I was simply going about my business until I looked up and saw some tall, skinny youth rampaging around in Tom Michelson's allotment, simply pulling up plants without so much as a by your leave.
This was about the last straw, the way I was feeling at that time, and I went to confront the so and so. I marched across and turned my beam straight on to him.
'What THE HELL do you think you're doing?' I shouted, though the end bit tailed away ever so slightly, because that rather thin face with the odd dark eyes seemed a little familiar.
So there she was, this crazy old lady beaming her stupid torch right at me and shouting the odds. Just for a minute, what with my dad and Pa and all, I lost it.
'What's it got to do with you what I'm (rude word deleted) doing? I'm working on ground rented by my own (rude word deleted) family!'
Then a panic button in my head told me I knew this lady.
'Don't use that sort of language to me!' she shouted, and then she stopped and looked at me differently. 'Just a minute. I know you; you're Ben Michelson, aren't you? Good God, look at the size of you!'
That's the kind of statement they make that there's no answer to. Now she went all sagging and deflated - even worse, in some ways.
'Oh, Ben, I'm sorry. You're trying to sort it out for him, aren't you? Oh, Ben.'
'It's Mrs. Leonard, isn't it? I'm sorry I mouthed off like that, Mrs. Leonard. Things on my mind, you know?'
'Never mind, dear. Let's start again, shall we? How's your dad? If he helped, it wouldn't take the two of you more than five minutes to sort it out between you. Is he back yet, dear?'
After our brief exchange of views with a little Anglo Saxon language thrown in, I placed who the youth was and made an innocent inquiry about his father. His face suddenly crumpled and he burst into tears.
This was a real stickler. Crying girls, no problem really, having occasionally been one. Crying boys, I'm out of my depth, quite honestly.
I pointed towards our shed and guided his shoulders gently in that direction, thinking to myself, as I got the size and feel of his arms, that the eager, skinny little Ben, all uncoordinated limbs and lots of energy spent to not much purpose, was well departed.
For once, I let the boy sit down on the only stool while I stood up, and we had the whole story a bit at a time. He was desperately worried and he had every reason to be, it seemed to me. The trouble was that listening to the boy get it off his chest seemed to mean I couldn't avoid getting what I needed to off mine, how worried I was about Jack and what he might have to go through. So we finished up, the pair of us, two soppy sods weeping in a shed, holding on to each other in a very awkward clench, given the shortage of space and seating room. He smelt of soap and sweat at the same time, oddly enough; I probably smelt of herbs and most of the rest of Nigella's recipe, I'd imagine.
Yes, I cried in Mrs. Leonard's shed; I wasn't sorry then and I'm not now. Lads like to make out how hard they are, but when it comes to it, they're not so tough. I've seen boys cry or blush; Richie Ferguson clattering into a goalpost one football practice, getting the edge of it right in his hem hems; Sam Wilson sitting on a test tube while mucking about in Chemistry, then going to sick bay to have glass picked out of his behind; he was so red, he looked like a beetroot. Big hard boys. I needed to cry, and Mrs. Leonard knew it, because she needed to as well, and her reasons were every bit as good as mine.
It turned out alright with Dad. He appeared at Juba a few days later, exhausted and scarred, having been smuggled out of the Congo by the local people. A week later, he was home, spending a lot of time with Mum and not all of it was talking - don't ask. But part of the result of it was that he wasn't going abroad again. And, when he wasn't with Mum or sorting out a UK job with the charity he worked for, he helped me put Pa's allotment straight. Tears in Pa's eyes again, but I didn't mind this time.
It proved to be a false alarm this time around, after I'd spent my time blubbing in a shed with a young boy with plenty of his own to blub about. Sad old sausage. Yes, it was a tumour, but benign and operable; fingers crossed for the rest of his life, but at least there's going to be a rest of his life, for the time being, anyway. We might even do the holiday home with Malcolm and Harriet, if only, in Jack's trenchant words, 'to shut her up about it.'
And young Ben's business sorted itself out too. He and his dad did up poor Tom's piece of ground well and truly; weeds out, crops in. On a warm summer day, I saw the shirtless father and son working there, Ben trying to catch up with his dad's deep leathered tan, while old warrior Tom sat on his chair, beaming and practically self-igniting with sheer pride.