Lovely Dahlias

Or – It’s amazing what you can achieve with a hammer

By Paul Jennings

Arthur stood and admired his garden. It was his greatest joy. It had been a perfect summer for growing, just like today, most days had been warm without being hot; there had been no hint of drought and yet no weeks lost to the cold grey spells that had blighted the year before. It had been almost like an old fashioned English summer. Although his little back garden was pretty enough, it was the larger plot at the front of his cottage which he really loved. He shared this garden with the village and keenly waited for passers-by who might stop to chat; sooner or later they always told him how much they admired his work or that they envied his green fingers.

Once upon a time Arthur’s skills would not have marked him out; the village had had many keen gardeners and just after The War had in fact been known for its annual flower shows. That generation though had largely passed on.

Arthur was one of the last locals; certainly he was the last old boy whose garden was his pride; the last old boy who kept a plot just as his father had kept it before him. Born in the village, he dressed like a villager and spoke like a villager. He had become an oddity in his own neighbourhood.

Butterflies crowded the buddleia by the gate; a pigeon cooed contentedly from the trees. On the other side of the road a gentle breeze stirred the tall flowers at the edge of the graveyard, an abundant and fertile place. Arthur wished there was someone about, and, just as he thought he might give up and go and have a cup of tea, Mrs Standon came pottering in to view.

Now amongst all of the people who from time to time came past Arthur’s garden, he did have one or two particularly keen fans and Mrs Standon was one of these. He enjoyed her flattery enormously and often rewarded her with some cut flowers, some vegetables or even both. Theirs was a long-standing symbiosis.

“How lovely your garden is looking Arthur.” Mrs Standon said just as she usually did.

“Well thank you kindly Mrs Standon.” Arthur wore his much-practised modest smile with a hint of flirtatious mischief around his eyes, mischief he saved for his lady visitors.

“I must say the borders are the finest in the village,” the old lady beamed, “and your vegetable patch looks in very good heart.”

She must be having her daughter and son-in-law over for Sunday lunch Arthur thought to himself ; now what would she like? “Well I am very pleased with the garden this summer. Everything has turned out wonderfully even if I do say so myself. It is the first year in a long time that I have been really satisfied.” He could hardly disguise his delight.

“Oh your garden is always a joy Arthur. You are too modest. It is such a shame that so few of the newcomers seem to pay attention to their gardens.”

Arthur nodded sagely. This was a common theme in Mrs Standon’s conversation. “Well now” Arthur said by way of consolation, “your George was a fine gardener is his day.”

Now it was Mrs Standon’s turn to nod in agreement. “My George loved his garden, but I’m not sure he ever had your patience or your eye for colour Arthur.”

“Oh I don’t know about that Mrs Standon.” In fact Arthur had always admired the late Mr Standon’s gardening skills, and had often chatted with him over a pint about matters horticultural when The White Lion had still been a pub. “Still, I suppose all these new families who don’t garden are good news for that young lad who comes round and does the mowing.”

“He’s a nice enough young man, but not a real gardener like you Arthur.”

Normally that was about it for these chats with Mrs Standon. Time to send you on your way with some veg’ and perhaps some dahlias my dear, Athur thought. “Well why don’t you come into the garden and I’ll cut you a nice cauli’ Mrs Standon?”

“That would be lovely Arthur. Thank you so much. You can’t buy veg’ as good as home grown can you?” She came through the little gate as he opened it for her and then followed him down the winding path towards the neat rows of vegetables near to the ancient apple tree.

“Perhaps you would like some carrots as well Mrs Standon.”

“Yes please Arthur.” She nodded and smiled as she took in the full impact of Arthur’s garden. The colourful displays and the marvellous scents transported her; the vegetable patch reminded her of happy times, of a different world, the world of her youth. “I haven’t seen Rose for a long time Arthur” she said almost absent-mindedly, “How is Rose?”

Arthur did not turn around from the row of perfect cauliflowers, he just said “Rose is at her sister’s Mrs Standon. Her sister has not been well.”

“I am sorry to hear that, I do hope that it is nothing too serious.”

Still Arthur bent over the cauliflowers; his knife had come to rest on the stalk of a particularly fine specimen. “It has been a long illness. I expect Rose will be away for a while yet.”

Mrs Standon had not noticed that Arthur had come to a stop, she was still admiring the rest of his garden. Then, suddenly concerned, she said “You must be lonely Arthur. If you ever need anything do give me a call.”

Now the blade of the knife cut swiftly through the cauliflower, taking the head off easily. Arthur stood to trim the leaves and as he did so he turned once again to face his visitor. “I have been a little lonely.” He smiled and added “but on the other hand I have had a lot of time in the garden.”

“Why Arthur” Mrs Standon exclaimed, “are you telling me that this wonderful garden is a result of Rose being away?” She was teasing; Arthur’s face was wicked mischief.

“Well I don’t spend much time in the house at the moment” the old man said, “but honestly I think you could say that the garden this year is more down to the appliance of science.” He rolled his mouth around the borrowed phrase; he was pleased with it and Mrs Standon seemed amused as well.

“You’ve gone all scientific have you Arthur? Have you gone organic?”

Cauliflower in hand, Arthur made his way to the rows of deep green topped carrots. Having added a small bunch of picture book roots to the cauli’, he went to the ranks of beautiful dahlias. He cut Mrs Standon a pristine bunch and walked her to the gate. “I have changed all my plant feeds this year Mrs Standon. I can’t tell you too much, I don’t want to give away all my secrets.”

Mrs Standon laughed. “Well whatever you have done it seems to have worked wonders.” She took the vegetables and flowers in hand and left the garden pausing just outside the gate only to add “Thank you very much again Arthur, especially for these lovely dahlias, and please do give my best wishes to Rose when you speak to her.”

Arthur watched her go. The friendly smile fell sharply from his face and he went to the shed. When he came back out into the sunshine he was carrying a small sack no bigger than a football. He began a methodical tour of the garden sprinkling the dark powdery contents of the sack at the feet of flowers and leafy vegetables alike.

Give my best wishes to Rose” he said to himself quietly, rocking his head from side to side in time with the words. “Well” he said in his own voice again “Rose, Mrs Standon sends her best wishes.” A little chuckle escaped his mouth.

The old gardener imagined how the conversation with Mrs Standon might have gone. He could have said “Oh Mrs Standon, Rose is here, closer than you think.” He chuckled again. He could have said “Well Mrs Standon, I could not have had such a lovely garden this year without Rose’s contribution.”The chuckle became a laugh. He could have said “Rose has put her body and soul into the garden this year Mrs Standon. It has been a real team effort.” He rocked with laughter as he finished spreading dried blood around the brassicas. “She’s feeding the chickens at the moment.” And that was too much for Arthur, he stood upright and roared with laughter until his sides hurt and tears ran down his ruddy cheeks.

When he had quite recovered his composure he took the sack back to the shed. At the potting bench he stood awhile in thought and surveyed the garden through the shed window. “Well actually Mrs Standon” he said, waiting just a little to deliver his own punchline to himself, “I have used my shed to produce my own plant feeds. Oh yes, blood and bonemeal are excellent for the plants and Rose has been a great help.” A little shudder went through him as he suppressed more laughter; he looked over his shoulder at what was left of his stock. “Oh Rose” he addressed the row of sacks at the back of the shed, “you have made the garden lovely this year.”

All-in-all every part of the garden had benefited from Arthur’s new domestic arrangements. The compost heap was better than it had ever been; the chickens were in fine lay and their eggs were delicious; the vegetable plot was brilliant and as for the dahlias, incredible was the only word Arthur could find to describe them.

What was more, not once that summer had Arthur got it in the neck for spending too much time in the garden or in the shed; not once had he had to sit through tea with Mrs Knox, and not once had he had to watch television just because some member of the Royal Family was on it.

Amazing what you can achieve, Arthur pondered, with no more than a saw, a ball-pane hammer, and the utensils of an ordinary kitchen.

“Still” he said to himself, or perhaps to a row of seedlings in the shed window, “I wonder how long I can keep up this business about Rose being at her sister’s. More importantly” he added as his smile returned after that more thoughtful moment, “I wonder how much longer Rose will be enough to keep the garden going.”

Very gently Arthur began to prick out seedlings into pots filled with his own unique potting compost. “Perhaps I’ll have to consider inviting Mrs Standon to tea one day soon.”


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