Hannah asked me if I’d do a job for her brother and his boyfriend; they’d bought a garden flat on Bede Street, near the station, but the garden hadn’t been looked at in ten years and it needed some work to fix it up. So I said, yeah, alright, I’ll take a look.
I knew Tim, her brother, a little bit, and when I knocked on the door the following Saturday he invited me through to the garden. I wandered around the wilderness that the back garden had become, kicked a few stones, bent back some branches, found an old pond, full of frogspawn.
Tim’s Saluki, Milla, trotted out and took a curious sniff of me. Then she went over to the back door and curled up on the step to watch. After twenty minutes or so Tim came out and asked me, ‘What do you think?’
I shook my head, ‘There’s a lot of stuff here.’
‘The old girl who lived here before us was a mad gardener but she got arthritis and couldn’t work on it. So it went to seed.’
‘Literally,’ I said.
He said, ‘That’s how we got the place cheap. She was moving into a home and she needed money to pay her bills.’
I said, ‘This could be a nice garden. There’s still a bit of lawn under all this, and if the shrubs were cut back to let more light in…’
‘So you’ll do it?’
‘How long will it take?’
I shrugged, ‘About a week.’
Tim nodded back at me, enthusiastic now, ‘So when can you start?’
He knew the answer. I wasn’t working. He didn’t ask me how much either: Hannah and me had already talked about it, and I was sure she’d have spoken to him already.
‘I’ll start on Monday.’
I patted the dog on the way out.
A Sunday night session with bootleg wine and strong cider meant that I woke the next morning with a thick head and a mild case of the horrors. When I got out of bed and stood up I had the sensation of being able to feel every beat of my pulse as the thin-walled blood hoses bounced around inside my skull. It was an uncomfortable feeling, made worse every time I moved.
Leaving Hannah snoring softly in my bed I got washed and, while I waited for the kettle to boil, I put on some old jeans and a t-shirt, pulled on my work-boots and went into the shed for tools. I loaded these into the back of my van and when I went back into the kitchen the kettle was steaming.
I made myself a black coffee. I was out of milk. Then I drove over to Bede Street.
Tim was on his way out as I arrived. ‘Coffee,’ he said, ‘tea, food,’ dropping a set of door keys into my hand, ‘help yourself.’ And he went off in a hurry, shouting, ‘Help yourself,’ again as he walked down the path.
‘See ya,’ I said.
Milla came to the front door and looked around. ‘Hiya girl,’ I said, and she ignored me as she sniffed the morning air.
I got back into the van and drove around to the back lane. As I unloaded my tools the skip lorry arrived and I showed the driver where I wanted the skip dropping. When he’d done that he asked me to sign his docket and as I did he looked at the garden and said to me, ‘Bit of a job there.’
I said, ‘Yeah.’
He went off and I got to work.
That first morning all I did was chop, shear, rake, lift and generally gather all the rubbish and excess greenery. It was getting hot and I’d filled most of the skip by eleven, so I stopped for a break. I went into the kitchen and filled a glass with water. Milla followed me outside and sat next to me as I sipped the water. I put down the glass and pulled off my t-shirt. Milla licked at the tattoo scab on my shoulder.
‘Get off,’ I said.
I turned to see Tim’s boyfriend, Bobby, standing at the door; still sleepy, damp blonde hair standing almost on end. Dressed in t-shirt and shorts.
‘It’s too hot,’ he said. ‘I can’t sleep.’
He stroked the dog’s head.
‘Want a coffee?’
‘That would be nice,’ I said.
‘I’ll make some,’ he said.
While he was doing that I finished loading the skip. He came out and handed me a mug.
‘I put two sugars in,’ he said. ‘For energy.’
I drank it off and he went back inside and brought out a radio. He tuned it to a station and left me alone with the music.
I got back to the job, spent two hours hacking down an eighteen foot Sycamore that had a trunk a foot wide, cutting it into bite-sized chunks with the bow-saw and throwing the pieces onto the skip. I found a hose and plugged it into an outside tap, dropped the end into the old pond and pumped some fresh water into it, taking care not to flush away all the frogspawn. I left the water flowing, pulled on my t-shirt and got into the van, then drove into town for some food.
When I got back I found two bottles of beer on the step with a note from Bobby to say that he’d gone out and could I lock up when I’d finished? Back in the van was a bag of XL crisps and I opened the bag, crunched the contents and poured the salty powder down my throat. I walked to the back door, opened the beer and drank off both bottles in turn. Then I turned back to the bow-saw and the tree trunk.
The next day went pretty much the same; the garden was looking much neater, cropped even. Bare. I almost felt a little sad for the garden. I spent three hours lifting old roots, and that’s hard work. When I’d finished doing that there was a lattice of grooves across the lawn that I’d have to repair, but at least now I could see the shape of the garden re-forming under my hands and my gaze.
The skip man came and swapped the full one for an empty one and, as I signed another docket, he looked at the garden; ‘It’s coming on,’ he said.
‘I’m going to have to repair that lawn,’ I said.
‘Try Thompson’s. They’ve got a good selection of seed.’
‘Thanks.’ I gave him back the form.
He got back into the lorry and with a blast of diesel smoke he revved the engine, clacked the motor into gear and drove off.
Then I cut back an old, sprawling cherry tree, and found a dead cat lying beneath the branches. I buried it in the loose soil in a quiet corner.
I didn’t see Tim or Bobby that day. Milla came out to say hello a few times, and she drank from the pond before trying to lick my face. When I came back from the sandwich shop at about half-past one I found four cans of lager on the step.
Hannah came over and stayed on Tuesday night and, when I woke on Wednesday morning, she didn’t want me to leave the bed. ‘I have to go to work,’ I said.
‘Aw,’ she said. ‘It’s not real work. It’s just Tim and Bobby’s garden.’
I looked up at her, hair hanging across my face, breasts grazing my chest.
‘Just an hour,’ she pleaded softly.
‘A half hour.’
‘Alright,’ she said.
I rolled her onto her back and raised her legs high, hooking them over my shoulders.
I got to the garden just before eleven, Hannah’s laughter still ringing in my ears, giggling, shrieking at me, ‘You’re not putting it in there!’ and cackling like a witch, writhing but not really struggling, as I did.
Afterwards, as we ate breakfast, she offered to cut my hair before I went out. I got the clippers from a cupboard and sat down as she wrapped a towel around my shoulders, set the dial to number two and cut my hair back to the wood.
‘That’s better,’ she said, looking me all over.
The garden was taking shape. I sat back on the wall for a good fifteen minutes just thinking of what I was going to do next. Then I dropped down and started work again. Finishing late, I went to the Albion for a beer and then got a kebab on the way home. I saw my neighbour, Foz, standing at his door talking to a girl so pretty it made my mouth water.
‘Hey Foz,’ I said.
He squinted at me through his thick lenses, ‘Hey there,’ he replied. ‘Working again?’
He hooked his arm around the girl’s waist. I stood there for a moment and then, finding nothing else to say, said, ‘See ya,’ smiled at them both and went inside.
‘Later,’ I heard him say as I shut the door.
Friday was the last day. I needed to finish off, tidy up, get rid of the rubbish into a mini-skip. Having done that I mowed the lawn, trimmed the edges and then laid down some fresh seed where the roots had scarred the turf when I’d lifted them. I spent some time oiling an old roller that was propped in the corner and I used this to flatten down the watered soil I’d poured over the seeds. The garden was looking bare, severe, but the summer would fix that. It was looking better.
Milla trotted out to see me, followed a few minutes later by Bobby. He said, ‘I’ve made you some sandwiches.’
‘Great,’ I said.
He paused and we stood to survey the garden. ‘It’s looking very good,’ he told me.
He patted my arm and then went inside to fetch the sandwiches. We ate them together, sitting at a plastic table in the kitchen.
I drank beer and Bobby drank some too.
‘Is there much left to do?’ he asked me.
I shook my head, No, but you’ll need to look after it or it will go crazy again.’
Bobby took a bite of his sandwich, chewed for a minute and said, ‘Well I’m no gardener. But thanks. You’ve done great.’
I finished my sandwich and stood up, ‘I need to clear up and then I’ll be away.’
Bobby said, ‘I’ll get your money.’
The skip man came for the mini-skip. I signed his docket, paid him off, and he asked, ‘Finished then?’
‘Good job,’ he said, getting back into the truck.
I put my tools in the back of the van, dropped the door keys on the kitchen table, said goodbye to Milla and left the good garden. I drove home.
That night Hannah came around and, it being Friday, we got drunk. The next morning, as we lay in bed, hung-over, she asked me, ‘Did you enjoy doing the garden?’
‘Tim says it’s really nice. And Bobby has taken a shine to you.’ She giggled and moved closer to me. ‘I think you’ve scored there.’
I leaned out of bed and reached for a glass of water that stood on the floor.
‘So what do you think of Bobby?’ she asked.
I thought for a moment; pictured his long, lean body and his thick, golden hair; his calm, sleepy expression. The way he sucked beer from the bottle.
‘He’s sexy as fuck,’ I said.