We’ve moved in. The renovations are complete, the moving boxes are gone and we’re finally living in the house.
So, apologies for the long time between posts. Things have been a bit hectic around here and then, for good measure, we went on a ten day holiday to Portugal three days after moving in. (Don’t ever do that, by the way. No amount of sangria will help you forget all the unpacking you’ll face when you get home.)
But all this business is not to say that nothing has been done in the garden. Au con-freaking-traire! No, no, despite the hottest and longest heatwave to hit Britain in my lifetime, your hero has been out the back, getting stuck in. (Spirit of the Blitz, and all that!)
Listen, it’s not like I took the Hippocratic oath
My first act was one of murder. And it was deeply satisfying. This shrub was ugly, inconveniently located and absolutely covered in powdery mildew. I mean, properly covered. Like, if your John Thomas was that infected you’d be too ashamed to go to the clinic. It’d be a have-a-shot-of-whiskey-heres-a-razor-blade-now-bite-down-on-this-gauze job.
And I had new toys to try out.
So I murdered it and it felt good.
I already knew that I’d kill again.
Hi-diddly-ho, good neighbourino
It was about this time I started to get to know the neighbours. All the backyards are really narrow, so everyone’s garden is sort of on top of everyone else’s. And with the weather being so hot, everyone is out in their yards quite a lot.
Next door is a wonderful Portuguese couple, Paul and Sofia. I can’t get enough of them — they’re lovely. Paul has been in England long enough to know that the weather is safe territory for small talk.
“It’s hot today,” he’ll say, dragging on his cigarette.
I agree, it’s hot.
“It’s going to be hot tomorrow, too,” he’ll add, offering a temperature.
I respond with the appropriate level of concern or surprise or quiet resignation.
“It’s very hot in Portugal today, too,” he’ll say, keeping the conversation ticking along.
After several weeks of talking about the weather, Paul finally ventured into new territory last week.
“Portugal is on fire,” he said.
And it was.
A furtive poke around under the covers
Planning for the garden is going very slowly. I can’t quite decide what I want. Do I go for a cottage garden? Do I go for an Edwardian garden to match the house? Or perhaps a Japanese garden, to make the most of the small space available?
Or do I turn the whole fucking thing into a contemporary art installation, put a tarpaulin down, hire in a woodchipper and endlessly fling rose bushes into it, in a blistering commentary on Brexit?
I’ve done lots of research and lots of thinking and I’ve made plenty of sketches, but the plantings aren’t firming up in my mind yet. But, I do know where I want one particular garden bed to go, even if I don’t know quite what I want to go in it. And given I’m as firm as a groom on his wedding night about that, I figured I should do as any good groom would, and have a solid poke about under the covers.
And by covers, I mean pavers. Specifically, these pavers.
They’re at the very end of the long “cricket pitch” that is the back garden — a patch about seven feet square. It makes sense to have a garden bed here because:
1. It catches the sun
2. Whatever I plant at the end of the garden can frame everything that stands before it
3. The bloke over the back seems like a bit of a cock so I’d like to grow something up high enough to hide him and his Poundland bargain bin family.
So, it was up with the pavers.
Now, I’d bought myself a new shovel. It’s a vintage shovel, with a beautiful split wooden handle. I’ll blog about my indulgent and possibly impractical collection of restored garden tools in the coming weeks. All you need to know for now is that I couldn’t wait to drive my lovely shovel into the ground and see what kind of soil I was working with.
I chose a spot right in the middle, placed the blade upon the earth, pressed my foot onto the shovel and gave it a heavy kick into the ground.
Surely not? I tried again.
In the words of Victor Meldrew, “I don’t believe it!” Would you just look at this fucker.
The great mummy of East London rises
Buried six inches under the surface was a slab of concrete about two feet by three feet. Was it a manhole cover? Was it an access point to the sewer? Was it covering up someone’s dead granny so they could keep claiming her pension? I had no idea.
My partner, who knows about these things, wouldn’t just let me smash it up until we knew what it was. Which is all quite sensible, but not really the way we do things in my family. We’re more the “grub it up and see if anyone dies” sort of people.
I was furious. This slab of concrete had stopped me dead in my tracks. I had so much pent up anger… it was time to kill again.
The jasmine got it.
(At least, I think it was Jasmine. I’ve not been terribly good at identifying my victims. I imagine actual killers might have the same problem. They don’t really know who they’ve done in until the missing person report turns up on the television news.)
We searched our title deeds and all the paperwork we have for the house and found… nothing. No mention of an easement, a drain, a panic room for a technically-advanced badger set. Nothing.
So I called the council. You know things are desperate when you’re willingly engaging with a local government authority. The chap who answered the phone was helpful in precisely the way someone who has survived thirty years working in a bureaucracy is helpful. He said he’d looked at the records and he “didn’t think” it was anything important… but he “couldn’t be certain”.
Now, if your doctor said “I don’t think it’s cancer, but I can’t be certain,” you’d bind his hands behind his back with his stethoscope, staple his tie to the table and cause havoc for the Medical Board until the bastard was struck off. But, not so, in local government — where being a “jobsworth” is rewarded with the best corner offices and a generous pension.
“It could be the base of an old green house,” Jobsworth said. “Or perhaps part of an air raid shelter.”
“How small did Anderson Shelters come?” I asked. “It’s about two feet by three feet and six inches below the surface.”
“Oh, it sounds like a manhole cover.”
Back to square one, with the urge to kill rising.
Lara Croft was useless; at least Miss Marple brought a weapon
I attempted to excavate around the slab, and under it, to see if I could work out what it was. It turns out the “soil” in my garden isn’t soil at all. It’s basically building rubble held together by a heavy black clay.
My shovel was completely useless. I was down to a trowel and every time I shoved it into the dirt I’d hear…
“It’s hot today.”
Faced with the prospect of downsizing to a brush and sweeping away the dirt from each busted brick as if it were a fossil of stegosaurus’s bellend, I decided to use brains instead of, uh, brawn.
There’s another neighbour we’ve got to know quite well. She is absolutely marvelous and she’s made us feel really very welcome. I can’t be sure how old she is, but there’s just a chance she was Agatha Christie’s inspiration for Miss Marple. She is a one woman Neighbourhood Watch. Doesn’t miss a thing. She stands at the window, watching the comings and goings. This street would actually be a marvelous place to live if you were an exhibitionist with a septuagenarian fetish.
Now, it just so happens this neighbour was also great friends with the previous owner of our house, who had lived here for thirty years. The obvious thing was to asked our neighbour if she’d mind calling the former owner and seeing if she knew what this blasted concrete was.
The next day, our neighbour came over with the news. It was bad.
The previous owner had no idea what it was, either. She hadn’t come across it in all those years.
“So,” our neighbour said, “it can’t be anything important!” And she handed me a cold chisel and hammer from her private collection.
Murder, he wrote
This is perhaps the most deeply satisfying thing I have ever done.
And guess what?
All that investigating — all that fuss — and there was absolutely nothing under there. Like a eunuch in a kilt.
I didn’t use the cold chisel to kill the concrete. I bought a mattock and bashed it’s brains in with that, then used it to dig up all the rubble.
There was quite a bit of it.
And we’re left with this…
This weekend I’ve got 30 bags of the finest East Anglian topsoil and compost arriving. Then, finally, I can bury this whole episode.
And the bodies.
I hope it’s hot.
Join my garden journey progress from the start, here.
Read the next blog post in this series here.