Friday, February 20, 2015

Night Watch by Catherine Griffin

A group of friends stand guard in an allotment shed, on the lookout for vandals who have been stealing tools; by Catherine Griffin.

Red, orange and green tomatoes glowed in the last light of the setting sun. Robert gently touched the dangling fruit. In the heat of the greenhouse they were ripening fast now; if he wasn't careful, the best would be over before the Summer Show. He stood, fighting the stiffness in his hips and knees, and emptied the last drops from the watering can onto the thirsty roots. The smell of the grateful earth rose up to him, mixing with the spicy scent of the tomatoes and the strong sweetness of the other plants.

'Hallo there!' Joleen waddled up the path. Her skirt ruffled the leaves of the broad beans as she passed. She was carrying a cool box.

Her broad smile triggered a curious childlike pleasure in Robert. She was so round and shiny and cheerful, he couldn't help smiling back. He closed the greenhouse door firmly behind him.

'I brought soup and sandwiches. How are the tomatoes today? I don't think you need to worry, Martin's are not very good this year. You must win a prize.'

Robert didn't want to win a prize. He wanted to win the prize, the Tomato Challenge Cup. But Joleen meant well.

'You didn't need to go to any trouble. Do you want to put that in the shed?'

In his own and everyone else's opinion, Robert had the finest shed on the allotments. Hand-built from odds and ends salvaged from skips over the years, it resembled a child's drawing of a house, with mismatched windows either side of the door. A bench outside for sitting in the sun, a sagging sofa inside for rainy days, a paraffin heater, and a camp stove provided all the comforts a gardener could desire.

Joleen lowered herself into the mustard-yellow sofa, and kept sinking as the broken down foam enfolded her lovingly. Settled into a stable position near the floor, she gazed at the shelves of seed catalogues ancient and modern and the elderly but well-cared for tools, each on its own hook.

'I am not surprised you spend all your time here,' she said.

'I'll put the kettle on. You take tea, don't you?'

'Oh, yes.' She laughed, her whole body shaking. The sofa wobbled around her. 'I drink a lot of tea. But it's good for you, isn't it?'

Robert made tea. His right hand was trembling. He turned slightly so Joleen wouldn't notice, keeping half an ear to her stream of one-sided conversation.

'Alistair is late, isn't he? Or am I early?'

'He's late.' Robert thought they could manage very well without Alistair.

Twenty minutes later, a firm knock shook the door on its hinges. Alistair wandered in from the dusk, deliberately casual in his grey hoodie and precise degree of unshavenness.

'Sorry guys. Late meeting. Awful traffic on the ring-road.'

He dropped into the sofa by Joleen.

'What is that, a camera?' Joleen gestured to the black gadget Alistair held. It did look like one of those small home-movie cameras that used to be popular. Alistair looked at it as if he'd forgotten he was carrying it.

'This thing? Just a bit of fun. Night-vision scope. Ordered it off the internet.'

Joleen clapped her hands, beaming with enthusiasm. 'What a clever idea. How does it work?'

'I've got a torch,' Robert said, 'and this.' From the seed tray on the potting bench where he had left it, he picked up the old pistol. The feel of it in his hand reminded him of happier days. Or younger days, at least. Competitions, coaching, things that seemed important at the time. All gone now, but for this, and some trophies packed away in boxes.

Joleen and Alistair stared at him, eyes wide.

'It's just a starting pistol.'

Joleen laughed. 'You could have fooled me. It looks like a real gun.'

'It's real enough. Only fires blanks though.'

'If any hoodlums come round here tonight, they are going to regret it, that is for sure.'

'So, what's the plan?' Alistair said.

It was a good question.

'We should patrol every hour or so. That should be enough to put off any thieves.'

'All night long?' Alistair shifted on the sofa, trying to find a more stable seating position while resisting Joleen's gravity.

'You don't have to stay if you're tired. I don't suppose anything will happen.'

'It's hardly necessary to patrol, though, is it? With the night-vision, we can watch from here, and if we see anything moving we can chase them off.'

'You can do what you like,' Robert said pointedly.

'We can do both,' Joleen said. 'I would like to try the seeing in the dark thing, it's very interesting.'

'Sure, just let me set it up.' Alistair fiddled with the device, held it to his eye to peer out of the window, then pushed some more buttons. 'This is great. I can see everything, clear as day. I can see your greenhouse, Robert, and three plots beyond.'

Alistair passed the scope to Joleen. 'Careful, it's not a toy.'

'What do I do?' She wriggled into a better position for viewing.

'Just look through the eyepiece. There, can you see?'

'Oh, how beautiful. All grey. Like TV when I was a girl. How does it work?' She scanned from side to side, seeing an invisible world.

'Infrared. It's like a light, only you can't see it.'

'You got it on the internet?' Robert said. 'I must have a look at that one of these days.'

Alistair stifled a laugh. He leaned back into the threadbare cushions. 'You old folks don't know how lucky you are, hanging round here all day. Peace and quiet, no one bothering you.'

Joleen stiffened suddenly, focusing on one spot.

'I think I see someone,' she said softly.

'Really? Vandals?' Robert glanced at Alistair. With night pressed against the windows, the prospect of seeing off a pack of local hooligans didn't seem as simple as it had at the allotment society meeting.

'No. Not exactly.' Joleen turned her head sideways, concentrating on a vision only she could see. 'I think it is Stacy. She lives on my street. Oh dear, should I tell her mother? How awkward.'

'But what is she doing?'

'She is with her boyfriend. I suppose it is her boyfriend, anyway. They certainly seem close friends. In Martin's cabbages too, what a mess they must be making. Poor man.' She broke off her viewing, turning to the men. 'I'm sorry, did you want to look?'

Robert coughed. 'No. No. I think we know quite enough.'

'I'll watch for a bit.' Alistair reclaimed the scope. 'Not them, I mean, for anything else,' he stammered in response to Robert's cold stare. 'Where were they exactly, Joleen?'

'Martin's plot, I said.'

'Which is Martin? Is that the grey man with the limp?'

'No, that's Ferris. Martin is the one with glasses like goldfish bowls, and his wife has the allergies.'

'That way.' Robert pointed. 'His shed has a weather vane on top.'

'Right. I definitely won't be looking that direction.' Alistair adjusted the focus and stared out into the pitch blackness.

Joleen unpacked the cool box. Robert made tea.

'Wow!'

They looked at Alistair expectantly.

'I think I saw... At the end of your plot, Joleen. Yes, it's... Who would have thought it?'

'What is it?'

'A deer. I think it's a deer. It could be a dog. I thought deer were bigger.'

Robert grabbed the torch and the starting pistol. 'Martin said he saw a deer, last year. His cabbage was eaten and there were hoofmarks in the ground.'

With deliberate slowness, he eased open the door.

'What are you doing?' Joleen spoke loudly enough to alert all the wildlife within a mile.

'Stay here. I'm going to scare it off.'

Robert turned the torch on, keeping the beam trained on the ground. He set off down the path towards the greenhouse, slow and stealthy, using the torch only to check where he was putting his feet. Rounding the end of Joleen's poly-tunnel, he heard a stamp and a snort. Holding his breath, he lifted the torch. The beam shone full in the dark face of an animal, its eyes glowing red in the torchlight.

It was a deer. A muntjac deer. For a frozen second they stared at each other, then it leapt away into the night. Without a thought, Robert followed. He ran like he used to be able to run, legs and arms moving freely, heart thumping, breath surging in his lungs. The swinging torchlight briefly illuminated sheds and wigwams of runner beans, earthed up potatoes, a vacant plot overgrown with brambles. He pushed through the overgrowth, ignoring scratching thorns and nettle stings.

There it was again, caught in the torchlight in a moment of hesitation. Only the size of a large dog, its low-held head gave it a curious hunched posture. He aimed the pistol at the sky and pulled the trigger. The crack of the shot rang out in the still night, deafeningly loud.

Someone screamed. The deer had vanished.

What was making that unearthly noise? He turned left and right, the torchlight flashing over compost bins, rhubarb, rows of young cabbage plants, and a shed with a weather vane on top. Martin's plot.

The beam of torch picked out the back of a blond girl streaking for the gate. Followed closely by a lanky youth, having some trouble with his clothing.

'And don't come back,' Robert yelled. Poor kids, he thought. They must be scared out of what little wits they possessed. But they were trespassing; perhaps they'd benefit from the lesson.

Shaking his head, he made his way back to his own territory.

'What happened?' Joleen pounced on him as he approached the shed, Alistair not far behind. 'We heard a shot.'

'Nothing.' He shrugged her off. 'It was a deer. I let off a shot to scare it. I doubt it will be back. Or your Romeo and Juliet.' He sank into the sofa. His joints told him running had been a bad idea.

'I wasn't expecting all this excitement,' Joleen said. 'I don't suppose anything else will happen tonight.'

'No. I shouldn't think so.'

It was too early to think of going home. Joleen made tea. Alistair idly resumed his vigil.

A double knock on the door broke the quiet, startling them all.

'Who on earth can that be?' Joleen stared at Robert. He dragged himself out of the sofa.

A policewoman frowned up at him, freckled face pale in the yellow light spilling from the shed.

'Excuse me disturbing you, sir. But there's been a report of a man shooting a gun. Have you heard anything?'

Her partner, a tall dark-skinned young constable, eyed him suspiciously from over her shoulder. Robert sighed.

'That was me, officer. It's nothing, really. It's just a starting pistol.'

'Starting a race, were we? Can I see it, sir?'

Robert handed over the gun. 'I was trying to scare a deer.'

'A deer? On the allotments?' She examined the pistol with interest.

'I saw it too,' Alistair said. 'With this.' He held up the night-vision scope.

'Whether or not there was an animal, you really shouldn't be letting off any sort of firearm in a public place.' She sounded deeply sceptical. 'I'm afraid I'll have to confiscate this. There may be a charge to answer.'

'If you did your job properly and caught the hooligans who've been breaking into sheds and stealing tools, then we wouldn't be here,' Robert said.

'Yes, that's right.' Joleen backed him up. 'The police should chase criminals, not good citizens like us.'

'There have been a number of reports of vandalism on the allotments recently, which is why we were in the area. Since we're here, we'll just check the other buildings are secure. Good evening, ma'am. Gentlemen.'

Robert shut the door firmly.

'You told them,' Joleen said. Robert stared at his mug of tea. He didn't feel so satisfied himself.

'I suppose we should go home,' Alistair said. They remained seated though, silent.

Another knock at the door.

'What now?' Robert hauled himself upright.

'Excuse me, sir. Are you the owner of the greenhouse?' The dark young constable flashed his torch down the path to where Robert's small greenhouse stood.

'Yes. What about it?'

'Perhaps you wouldn't mind stepping outside a moment.'

'Is there any damage? If you've broken some glass, you're paying for it.' The greenhouse was lit from within, the policewoman's shadow looming. Robert shuddered and followed down the path.

The door of the greenhouse stood open, squandering its warmth to the night.

'You see, sir,' the policewoman was saying. 'What we appear to have here is a very fine crop of hemp, or what a gardener might call Cannabis Indica. In other words, marijuana. Do you have an explanation for this?'

'Yes. It's mine.' There was hardly any point denying it. 'For medical use.'

'Really?' She eyed him curiously. Probably wondering what was wrong with him. He wasn't going to ask for sympathy. Or pity. 'Nevertheless, sir, it is illegal. I'm afraid we'll have to arrest you.'

As they led him out of the allotments, he saw Joleen watching from the door of the shed. He looked back at her once then turned away. This wasn't her concern. But he hoped she'd lock up properly when she left.



Two days later, Robert stood in his plot once again. The police had done a thorough job. The plants in the greenhouse had been torn up, of course, the perfectly innocent tomatoes along with the rest. Every inch of well-dug ground had been trodden, every growing thing flattened. His life, everything that mattered, wrecked and ruined. He didn't mind taking his punishment, but what had the poor tomatoes done to deserve this?

Joleen joined him, slipping her arm through his. They stood in silence for a moment.

'This is certainly a mess,' she said.

He didn't reply.

'I spoke to Martin. Some of the committee wanted to throw you out, but some disagreed. So you won't lose your plot, that's some good news.'

Robert drifted down the path, not paying much attention to her forced cheerfulness. He bent over the battered rhubarb, started to collect the bent and broken stalks.

'How about a cup of tea? Then I'll help you clear up.'

Robert straightened, his arms full of sharp-smelling fruit. 'Can you make a rhubarb crumble? Carol used to like crumble. It was the only thing we ever agreed on.' His voice seemed to come from a long way off.

'Carol was your wife? You lost her?'

'Yes. Long ago. She lives in Cardiff now, with her sister. I miss the crumble though.'

He dumped his arm-load of rhubarb on the bench outside the shed and turned to take another look at the devastated plot. Despite the chaos, he felt better on his own ground. Strength and purpose seemed to flow from the earth beneath his feet.

The rhubarb would be back in the spring. He would have another summer, another crop of tomatoes, another chance. Many summers, perhaps, to plant tomatoes and watch them grow. It wasn't impossible to start again. A gardener starts again every year.

6 comments:

  1. Hi Catherine, I enjoyed reading this and particularly liked how you managed to turn tables on the situation that changed the self defending vigilantes into minor criminals. A bit of a dig at the police added for good measure as well. I could image this being real and although it is fiction (is it?) it came across as authentic, the characters must be real people...surely. Thank you for a very entertaining story.

    James McEwan

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  2. I agree with James, this is a fine story. For me it´s a very British story, I mean that in the nicest possible way! with finely drawn characters

    Mike ;McC

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  3. Hey - us silly Americans can like it, too ;-) In following with Mike's comment, the characters are really what make this story. (And, indeed, they are very British - which is good.) With just the light touch on Robert's marriage ("lost her?" "Yes. Long ago. She lives in Cardiff now, with her sister. I miss the crumble though." you initially get the impression she's died - but his response lends the reader to wonder what the heck happened - thus I could easily see a follow-up or even a prequel to this story.

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  4. l loved this story, especially the drama of ordinary lives that reveal the old, old stories of human connections, love, pride and loss - and regeneration. the characters were nudged into life and took root in my imagination. Very many thanks,
    Ceinwen

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  5. Wonderfully entertaining.

    ...Cardiff...

    Just love it.

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  6. Good ear for dialogue and slow-burn humour - all things which are effective on screen, but it's the metaphor that stays with me: the shed like a child's drawing of a house, the torch picking out the allotment landscape in the dark, the deer. Good writing.

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