By Sue Shipp
We’d just sat down from our labours when Old Roy appeared on the grass path running between the allotments, eating a nectarine, the other hand hidden behind his back. He slopped along in his wellies and, as is allotment etiquette, waited for us to invite him onto our patch of rented ground. No matter how many times we told him he didn’t need to ask, Old Roy was rooted in the time honoured code that no man should trespass on land that wasn’t his.
‘Roy, don’t stand there on ceremony. Come and take the weight off your legs. we’re just making a brew. Want one?’
Dave didn’t wait for an answer, just disappeared into the shed as the camping kettle began to shriek.
Roy came to a halt at our old garden table and chairs, set out in front of a backdrop of elderflower. His thinning, white hair fluttered in the breeze. Bright blue eyes, surrounded by a web of lines, told you he had lived a good life.
They shone with shyness as he stood before me. Like a schoolboy trying to pluck up the courage to ask his first crush out, he stood scuffing the grass with the toe of his welly, then, not quite looking me in the eye, drew his hand from behind his back. It held a bunch of sweet peas, their perfume having reached me long before his courage had risen to make him bold.
‘Thank you. They’re lovely, Roy.’ I buried my nose in the array of white, pink and lilac blossoms, inhaled deeply.
‘Sit yourself down. I’ll just pop them in some water and put them in the shade.’
‘So, how have you been keeping?’ I take a sip of tea.
‘Not so bad. Blood’s playing up a bit.’ Roy dragged his mud-stained fingers through his almost non-existent hair. They don’t seem to be able to get it balanced these days.’
Shrugging, he stretched out his legs, crossing them at the ankles. He blew on the tea, then took a sip. ‘Got to have another blood test next week. Expect they’ll change the dosage again.’
Putting the mug down on the grass, he rolled up his sleeve. ‘Look!’
I could see bruising, the colour of damsons, where the blood had been taken. I paused for a moment, wondering if I should be direct or polite. Directness won. ‘You wouldn’t bruise so badly, Roy, if you pressed hard on the area like they tell you to, and besides, you know when you’re on a blood thinner you’re going to bleed and bruise more easily.’
‘I can’t be bothered with all that nonsense. Besides, I think they’ve got me on too high a dosage, so I just do my own thing. Take what I think’s right.’ Roy rolled his sleeve back down. He picked up his mug and grinned. ‘My Beryl says I’m too bloody stubborn for my own good. Given up telling me, she has.’
That was the one thing that was reliable about Old Roy. He would do his own thing, no matter what the consequence. That and lob his eaten nectarine kernels into our compost heap. He didn’t grow the nectarines on his allotment. He grew them in his garden, where he could best keep an eye on them, he said.
They don’t compost down, those kernels. No matter how many years you leave them, they stay hard, patterned to look like brown, withered brains.
It was a shock to read Old Roy had passed away. The information was pinned to the notice board outside the allotment shop. A picture of him smiling, holding up the trophy for the biggest marrow, at last year’s allotment show.
He’d told everyone he was off ‘down under’ to visit his nephew and family. So excited. Like a kid in a sweetshop. Thought he’d have to make the best of Australian beer, being a real ale man himself. What excited him most wasn’t the sights he would see, but the thought of holding his great-nephew in his arms, the boy having been born several weeks before Roy’s departure.
‘They’ve called him ‘Tyler Royston Gilman’ he said, his face bursting with excitement. ‘That’s my name; not Tyler, Royston.’
They brought Royston home in a coffin, laid him to rest in the local cemetery, deep in the soil his hands had lovingly tilled for well over 50 years. On his headstone, carved sprays of sweetpeas and a trowel.
Months later, when the late spring weather began to warm the soil, we dug out our compost heap, and there it was – a tiny shooting sprout emerging from a nectarine kernel that had burst open, just enough to allow warmth and light into its inner. A tiny white sliver of life, so fragile, yet so strong.
We took that kernel and, cradling this sliver of life, buried it in a spot near the elderflower, then waited.
At first nothing happened, but we kept watering and keeping the area free of weeds, and then one day there it was, the slender green sapling pushing up from the earth, spreading its leaves to the sun, its roots deep into the earth.
Now, one year on, this sapling has grown into a maiden tree standing strong, still reaching for the sky. It is healthy and vigorous, just as Old Roy used to be before we knew him. It may never bear fruit, but it bears something more precious than that. It bears Old Roy’s legacy, tossed into the warmth of the compost heap, to rest in the dark until the time was right to emerge.
It will never bring me sweetpeas, hidden behind its back, scuffing the grass with the toe of its welly, a shy embarrassed smile playing in it’s eyes. But it will always remind me of Old Roy. The man who loved to be out in the open, growing food for his family. Who tended and cared for nature’s bounty until she slept, preparing herself for the season to come, when once more, she would unfurl her beauty around us.
Inspiration: Thinking of all the reasons why people plant trees, I remembered watching a documentary ‘Judi Dench: My Passion for Trees’, in which, amongst other things, she talks of planting trees in her own secret woodland for friends and family who have passed away. An act of remembrance. Not everyone has that much land but even a tree in a pot can act as a form of remembrance.
Pens of the Earth is about environmental tales from a positive Portsmouth – encouraging writers to celebrate existing environmental initiatives, and to imagine what might be. This year, we will also be supporting two charities, one global, one local. Help us to support our global reforestation charity Tree Sisters and plant 2,000 trees by March 2021.
Click on the logo above to donate via Pens of the Earth’s TreeSisters page. Every £10 plants around 25 trees.
More will follow about our plans to raise money for our local charity, WilderPortsmouth, in the coming weeks.
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