In the driveway the care assistant waits patiently in her small blue car as Don makes his final visit to what had been his home for over forty years of happy married life and afterwards to several solitary years.
Just soldiering on. He recalls his jolly response, frequently practised, to the concerns of neighbours, friends and relatives. “Still soldiering on,” he murmurs as he thinks of his worsening arthritis and the myriad ailments afflicting his ancient body. He grips his stick firmly with his bony arthritic hand. “Some soldier!” he mutters with a wry smile.
Moving to the care home, abandoning his beloved home and garden, he’d put a brave face on that. “A strategic withdrawal,” was the way he described it to anyone who was interested. He would share a smile, guessing their thoughts as they nodded their approval. Still got spirit – the old chap. Strategic withdrawal. Hah, hah. Last stand more like.
In a few days’ time the new owners will take possession. Don does not want to enter the house. He easily visualises the rooms, bare of furniture, stripped down to the floorboards, all pictures, shelves empty, all his books gone – an alien place, as alien as his small room in the care home. My hutch he calls it remembering the cage where he kept his pet rabbit as a child. It’s just the garden he has come back to see. Stick in hand he makes his way slowly through the tressled archway hung with climbing roses, rich red and yellow in the summer. “Need deadheading,” he mutters, as he notes the seed bulbs where the flowers had been.
In form and layout, the garden still resembles the arena of a shared life, the years of their retirement. Memories come easily to him, but often they are more than just memories, rather portals to a different time; in that instant, to a neatly maintained garden when he hears again their laughter, the sound of amicable argument, and sees once more his lifelong chum as she bends and plucks a weed, pruning and occasionally turning to nod approval of his manly efforts – his digging perhaps, or his sawing.
Fruit is forming on the ancient apple tree. Going to be a good crop, he thinks. Perhaps, like his wife, someone in the incoming family will convert the fruit into something stewed, an apple pie perhaps, or – the flow of his mind falters – or, perhaps something else.
After his departure to the care home the garden maintenance contract was discontinued. The rain and sun of the summer months have encouraged strong growth. He looks around. Doing what plants do. Growing. Between plants and the gardeners there is a relationship. Will against nature. Conscious of his frailty he chuckles to himself. And nature always wins.
For several minutes he looks around, then suddenly realises that he is bored. Nothing more to see, he thinks, and, with a small barely perceptible shrug, casts a last quick glance around the garden before heading back to the car. At the archway, a trailing rose branch catches the sleeve of his jacket. Carefully, gently – my last act as a gardener, he muses – he tries to secure the errant branch back in its place; but a second later it whips outward, a thorn lancing into his hand. “Damn and blast,” he shouts. Grimacing he watches the blood ooze from the puncture point and quickly grow to the size of a small coin. He sucks at the wound. A big red full stop at the end of a long, long chapter. Inwardly he shrugs. Only one sentence remains. Back to the hutch!
The care assistant, a buxom, young, jovial woman named Helen or Hilda – Don can never exactly remember her name – gives him a tissue and is clucking about his wound.
“That will need looking at.”
“I think I’ll survive,” Don murmurs. Not that it really matters. He does not share the thought. It would prompt discussion. Is Don a bit depressed? A note might be inserted in his record. The staff will award him an extra dose of manufactured cheerfulness. Jollification he calls it. Be happy as you crumble!
“These garden scratches can be nasty,” Hilda – or is it Helen? – is saying with unchallengeable authority.
As they reverse out of the driveway, Don suddenly becomes aware that he is hungry. I wonder what’s for lunch, he is thinking.
John Young is an old chap, grappling with themes of limits, longings and finitude. Likes spooky stuff. Lives in St Andrews, Scotland, an ancient town with an ancient university, home of golf, home also – allegedly – of many ghosts. (He has not met any yet.)