My knees are killing me. Of all the pastimes to take up when you are in your 60’s, gardening has to be the most ridiculous. I’ve got all the equipment; gloves that say ‘sod off’ to anything up to the ferocity of a Blackthorn bush, a little seat that makes it easier on the knees but then piles on the agony when you get up, metal hand tools that buckle and snap with the slightest sniff of leverage, wellies, a sturdy wheelbarrow and of course a decade of old clothes not fit for public consumption.
I know one good reason they say we should take up gardening in the Golden years, and it’s not to get a sense of accomplishment as a previously barren piece of ground suddenly turns into the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. It’s actually the escape. For the past three years this little patch of earth in the back garden has been my sanctuary. I couldn’t give a toss what I planted as long as something needed sowing, weeding or harvesting all the year round. I’ve got a gardener’s calendar in the shed that is like a never ending letter from my mum to get out of PE at school. In this case it’s to get out of talking, or being in the presence of Martha.
I can’t really say when it all started, except that with hindsight the warning signs were there. Her mother was an obnoxious bitch and treated her dad like he was something nasty on the bottom of her shoe. The difference between her father and I is that he seemed quite happy to put up with it, even enjoy it in a masochistic, loving way. The more she belittled him, the more he smiled. So I suppose I’m saying that Martha’s behaviour was inherited, acquired, based on a wholly unsuitable model. It wasn’t too long before Martha joined in with the baiting of her father. It was like watching hungry lions circling around a warthog with a broken leg, but this warthog was basting himself. When I tried to stand up for Ted, it was like I had just joined the injured warthog club.
Like my winter greens, this change in her took time to sprout. At the start, there were little digs in public, usually making light of something foolish I had apparently done while out together, like realising I’d forgotten my wallet at the supermarket checkout or giving my parking space to a young mother. These would just be accompanied by sarcastic remarks and an equally patronising pinch of my cheek or punch of my shoulder. Of course, I’d laugh it off, because I’m not one for confrontation or public disagreements. It was a few years before the first, proper physical abuse happened. I remember that occasion vividly, because I’d been watching a hospital soap opera drama on television where an abused wife was telling the doctor that she had walked into a door. I was watching it, with Martha, in the living room with an ice pack over my bruised forehead. She had deliberately pushed the door on me as I came in from the garage having locked the car. I supposed at the time that it had served me right for forgetting to buy batteries for the television remote control on my shopping trip. That meant, of course, she had to physically get up from the armchair to change channels, unless I was there.
I was a bit stuck, but a lifetime in the lower echelons of the civil service taught me that often the best way to solve a problem was to avoid it. We were watching a gardening programme on television one evening and I suddenly came out with it.
“Why don’t we do something with the old vegetable patch at the end of the garden?”
She looked at me for an eternal second like I was going crazy.
Then she said, “I have a better idea, why don’t you do something with the old vegetable patch at the end of the garden”, and went back to her magazine.
That was my license to escape, my parole, time out for good behaviour. Before that I bloody hated gardening, hence the old vegetable patch that never yielded a single, shriveled carrot in all the time we had lived here. All of a sudden, this was my way of avoiding the acidic atmosphere and breathing agreeable air. I was suddenly very good at remembering things on her shopping list, what time she needed picking up from her mother’s house or the book club meeting, at programming the video recorder so she never missed her soap opera, and of course purchasing the equipment needed to reclaim Eden.
I wasn’t going to pull up the weeds and rotavate the soil ready for a season of planting. Cobblers to that. That’s what Boy Scouts are for, and I have to say what a great job they did for less than the minimum wage. Over time, the garden became more than just an escape, it became my fortress. The greenhouse was my castle and my shed a bunker where retaliatory strikes were planned and weapons stored. No one else saw the slug pellets I sprinkled on the front path in honour of Martha’s mother when she came for Sunday lunch, but it made me chuckle.
I had no idea Martha was so unhappy too. I was always under the impression that bullying me was her greatest pleasure. Clearly that wasn’t enough, and maybe someone else was. Her letter was surprisingly vague given that it was announcing her exit from our marriage. Clear in as much as she was going, but helpfully remiss in not giving any reasons that could be attributed to me. She managed to say, “I’m off” in about four sentences. I put it in a safe place for future reference.
I think my knees are locked and my toes are starting to tingle from being in one position too long. I really enjoy television drama as it is full of irony. Like my injured forehead. Like the fact that only a few hours after bundling my dead, weed-killed wife into my sturdy wheelbarrow at three in the morning and burying her three feet under the parsnips, I found her letter. It must have slipped off the armrest of her chair when she started to have breathing difficulties because I found it under the television remote on the floor. That’s ironic, don’t you think?