The Allotment

The couple began work on the allotment in Autumn. Like many of their neighbours they had a mind to stretch their household budget by growing fruit and vegetables, but they were also motivated by fear. That Spring their beloved son had finally left them and having tired of rolling unsteadily around their house, like two shriveling peas, they were desperate for more constructive ways to fill their time.

The couple’s research had been thorough and they threw themselves into the project with an earnest enthusiasm. First they checked the PH of the soil. Then they built a compost bin, decided which crop varieties were most suited to the composition of the earth and drew up a planting schedule for the Spring. Overwintering vegetables – onions and cauliflower, garlic and leeks – were planted and the rest of their plot was forked and left rough dug, with the roots of any weeds exposed to the frosts that would follow.

It had been some time since the couple had met and spoken to anyone new and at first they were ill-at-ease around the more established plot holders. But their diligence was noted and they were soon made to feel welcome. By the end of their first month – as was the tradition with newcomers – they were given gifts of fruit and vegetables from those growers that had been most successful that Summer. They found themselves with bags of runner beans and courgettes, tomatoes and plums. There were squashes and a pumpkin, the biggest they’d seen. By the time people began abandoning the allotment for the Winter, the couple were able to reflect on a satisfying introduction to a community they had found more of a preoccupation than they might have dared hope for.

Potentially the most diverting of their new relationships was one they had begun with the old man on the plot next to theirs. They had been told that he had taken ownership of it a month before they had begun work on their own, but beyond that no-one seemed to know anything about him. Despite always arriving on foot, he didn’t appear to live on any of the roads in the immediate vicinity of the allotment. His age was a moot point: he could have been 60 something or 70 something or, at a push, a sprightly 80. For whatever reason he wasn’t the slightest bit friendly, and most of the people who’d spoken to him had been ignored; furthermore, the few syllables he had offered by way of reply had come with a heavy accent, from Germany perhaps, or Eastern Europe.

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The couple were undeterred by the old man’s taciturn manner. There was something exotic about his difference and this appealed to them. Besides. His was a constant presence on the allotment and their relationship with him was clearly going to be central to the experience: every time the couple ventured out that first Autumn – and this was often enough – there he was, bent double and turning over the soil like a peasant in a field.

This dedication gave the couple something to work with. If their exploratory ‘hello!’s and ‘nice day!’s had prompted no response, it would surely be more fruitful to prod the old man about the detail of his plans. It was. One weekend at the beginning of November, it became apparent why he had been working with such urgency when he took delivery of – and set about planting – a dozen rose bushes. This was unusual. Flowers were grown on the allotment; someone had sowed wildflower seeds to create a patch of meadow and the practice of planting marigolds and nasturtiums as companions to carrots and broad beans was widespread. But no-one had given a whole plot over to the cultivation of a particular bloom. The couple saw their opportunity. ‘What’s the secret then?’ they asked their neighbour as he dug and dug, ‘to planting roses?’ ‘You have to bury it deep’, he said and although they left it at that the couple were thrilled with the effortlessly enigmatic nature of his reply.

Their curiosity was further piqued that Winter, when they began taking walks on the now deserted allotment. They were looking for something to fill the time during which nothing except emptiness grew. One day they were delighted to see a bird emerge from a previously unnoticed hole in a dead tree at the end of their plot. The bird was colourful and distinctive enough for the couple to identify it on their return home: it was a Great Spotted Woodpecker and they hoped its to-ings and fro-ings would hold their attention until Spring. The following week the rain was coming down but the couple remembered the bird, wrapped-up against the cold and ventured out anyway. Approaching the tree they were surprised to see the old man standing in the freezing rain, staring at his hard-worked soil. He was drenched but he stood up straight and proud too, even as the water poured off his flat cap in icy streams. It was as if he was willing the roses to spring forth from the ground, and for days the couple didn’t speak of the woodpecker at all.

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With the arrival of Spring, the allotment was full of people again, putting the finishing touches to their preparations for the new season’s growing. The frost had worked its magic but there were roots to weed out and manure to tickle into the expectant earth. The couple consulted their plans and sowed carrots and lettuces and covered them with fleece. They secured canes for broad beans near to the onions, in order to deter root fly. They transferred courgette plants from pots to cloches, tomatoes and peppers too, while chitted potatoes were buried in trenches.

The old man also busied himself, pruning his rose bushes and weeding assiduously between them. The plants had lain dormant over the winter but had taken well. The leaves were dark red, although some were already showing signs of the vivid green that the couple had learned would come with maturation. By the last week of April, the roses had bloomed. The flowers had large heads and were petalled densely in deep apricot and fiery pink and orange. The bushes were laid out in three precise rows, the earth from which they grew was darkly rich and otherwise clear of plant life and although the flowers had yet to fully inhabit their beauty, the old man’s plot provided the most arresting sight on the allotment.

One morning in May, the couple ventured out for an early start, only to find their neighbour standing on the exact same spot as he had that Winter. Once again he was staring at his handiwork. ‘Looking good,’ they ventured, genuinely enough. The old man turned around. He looked past the couple, as though he was unsurprised that his efforts had attracted an audience but also as though he hadn’t registered – or didn’t care – who it was. He raised a hand to his chin as if lost in thought. ‘Not good’, he said, ‘too strong. Too soon.’ Then he turned back to his plot. The couple would have been happy if the encounter had ended there, with this further evidence of the old man’s eccentricity, but even as they exchanged glances, they noticed that he had started to sob, his head full and bowed, his whole body convulsing in great wracks of distress.

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The incident alarmed them. While they had sometimes wondered what the old man was doing and why, there was a limit to their curiosity and to how far they would go to occupy their thoughts. The exotic was welcome but this response was raw and deeply unsettling and not one on which they cared to dwell. By the time the arrival of their first cauliflower heads heralded the end of Spring, they had long returned to the counsel and succour of their less challenging neighbours.

Summer was their most rewarding season yet. The rhythms of the growing cycle were becoming familiar to them. They harvested their potatoes, planted beetroot. Their courgettes had begun to attract attention: ‘you’ve got green fingers!’ people said and they were told that they were ‘natural gardeners.’ Someone from the top corner of the allotment moved house and a plot became vacant. With a newcomer due – and the ritual of presenting them with gifts of fruit and vegetables to be honoured – the couple saw an opportunity to properly announce their arrival into the community. As June became July the roses died back and they forgot that they had ever considered cultivating a friendship with the old man.

That Autumn they planted raspberries and gooseberry bushes and leeks and garlic. They picked their courgettes, lots of them, and were delighted to be able to present the allotment’s latest recruit with a selection from their glut. On the plot next door, the roses blossomed again. The couple spoke of the greater number of flowers and of the fact that although the bushes were steadily thickening, weeds were beginning to grow between them. But they did not stray onto the subject of the old man himself. By now their indifference to him was total; they didn’t notice that his visits to the allotment were becoming infrequent and that when he did show himself he looked less wiry than thin, as though he had gone to bone, and that he had begun to curl up at the edges, like a leaf.

Winter came and the couple planted cold weather lettuce. They went looking for unusual birds. In Spring, they occupied themselves with their raspberries, another crop of broad beans. They picked leeks and garlic. It was May before anyone heard that the old man had died. When the couple were told, they were transfixed by the news and unsure how they should react. Then they were drawn once more to his roses. The bushes had torn themselves free from the deep-rooted detritus of his patch of earth and were flowering again in violent swirls of colour, like silent explosions, like faraway suns. They were fully grown and truly beautiful, but there was something else about them too, something in the way they had been laid out, that now brought to mind the arrangement of flowers in a memorial garden. For a moment that passed, the couple thought about the old man and his life. And then, for the first time, they found themselves thinking of their loss, and of the nature of the seasons to come, relentless, unforgiving, eternal…

By Kate Whitmarsh