‘I'm not going to die with dreams, I'm going to die with memories.’ Cody Garbrandt
Simon’s offering today: ‘Anyone who says “out of sight, out of mind” has never had a spider disappear in the bedroom.’
10/10 for that one.
After the jolly japes and high jinks in the bowel department over the previous few days I thought I should give you a bit of a colonic breather and go a bit serious. Scrolling through my Facebook feed this morning, trying to idle some time away, I happened across my old friend Paul Harfleet and his Pansy Project page. Every time I see a pansy I think of his campaign against homophobia.
It always brings to mind too, my lovely customer who adored pansies, dearest Ted.
Cambridge, England, as a city at the turn of the millennium, was booming and developing into the Silicon Valley of East Anglia. So too, was the demand for gardeners and landscapers. Demand outstripped supply, so we had a waiting list.
At the top of my waiting list was Ted.
Meeting him for the first time I was completely unsure what to make of him. One of only a very few of our male customers, with his diminutive stature greeting me as he opened his front door, he was only five feet two inches tall in his stockinged and unshod feet. Also unexpectedly, he emanated a hearty Texan drawl that seemed curiously at odds with the elevated and highly academic post he held. Sporting glasses as thick as jam jar bases, they were liberally covered with a sea of splattered dots restricting his already patently defective vision.
His deafness was obvious too, having recently mislaid his hearing aids, which resulted in our finally shouting at each other across the metre of table that divided us. Nevertheless, it was apparent he had a piercingly keen brain and razor sharp wit that took me by complete surprise, as did the somewhat unwashed smell that greeted me as he showed me around his house: his unkempt grey hair sticking out at every conceivable angle and a pyjama cord hanging down over his hoisted-high trouser waistband.
Orderly lines of dozens of laundered socks hung drying from the bannisters in their pairs, all facing the same direction. Enormous and gruesome, now grey coloured, having-once-been-white, mens underpants stretched along the top rail towards the landing.
Chaotic piles of papers, music and magazines were stashed on every flat surface including the floor, with empty and unwashed tins and food cartons stacked into piles throughout the kitchen, on the off chance they may prove useful in the future.
So too, the piles of festering orange peel scattered in heaps around the kitchen, living and dining rooms, that awaited spreading around the garden to deter the besiegement by battalions of slugs and snails.
And then of course there was Imelda his ‘housekeeper’.
I was never quite sure of the intensity or structure of their relationship, however this dark haired, lazy eyed, equally titchy, middle aged Argentinian loomed very large in all that went on in the four floored semi-detached house, along that tranquil avenue.
Although we initially started only routine maintenance at number six, Ted decided shortly after we started our regular visits that he actually didn’t really like his existing garden that the previous lady gardener had created after all. He wanted ‘colour, colour and more colour’ and didn’t ‘want to see any bare soil’.
Interesting one that. Not only did he want dazzling, retina burning colour all year round, he wanted it immediately. Plastic flowers were offered in jest and alarmingly nearly agreed upon. Many conversations were had, usually with me trying to manage his somewhat unrealistic expectations, so we came to a compromise: tasteful design, structure and some structural perennial planting was to be installed throughout the large garden, however we also left spaces for Ted’s beloved annuals particularly pansies. A complete landscaping project followed.
Plans were also made that twice a year there would be a complete ripping out of the old winter pansies, wallflowers and other winter annuals. Where the spaces allowed, it would be replanted with dahlias, petunias, zinnias, begonias, impatiens, the firm summer favourite antirrhinums in readiness for a blast of summer colour and always, always and without fail or exception, nasturtiums and yet more pansies. Orange, yellow and scarlet were flower colours of choice, as was contrasting purple and shocking pink.
Pastels and good taste were a complete anathema to him and would be discounted immediately in any of the annual plant planning meetings we had. Autumn would bring the same in reverse, with the summer bedding tossed onto the compost heap and brand new pansies and wallflowers wheeled back in. As a slight nod to my advice, he did agree to some pastel perennial planting.
There was no combination too bright or gaudy for my little Texan friend. A brimming full van would arrive packed to the gunnels with his treasures. His eyes would light up as soon as he saw them.
Not content with the front and rear garden being stuffed with these beauteous wonders, so too would a virtual army of hanging baskets and window boxes. It would take my team of three ladies a whole day to install these and plant the garden up. Usually a far longer day than we normally did as well, but at the end of it his face was always a picture of delight.
Pedestrians and motorists alike would stop on the street to photograph this floriferous edifice throughout the summer, gawping open mouthed and in wonder at the magnitude of such a floral feat.
Imelda, however, did not agree.
Maybe it was simply a cultural difference between she and I, of that I could never be sure, but there were definitely odd things happening in Ted’s garden between our fortnightly visits. Potatoes started sprouting up in the most unusual places, often where we had diligently and exhaustedly excelled ourselves in planting annuals some two weeks prior.
The specimen tree peony was razed to the ground during the winter eliminating any hope of the glorious dessert plate sized pink flowers for the following spring.
During the summer, the enormous sprinkler system was left on for eight hours a day, every single bloody day while Ted was at work, welcoming an army of slugs and snails in to do their worst during each and every one of the warm summer nights.
The desiccated piles of orange peel lay blue-coated or shrivelled, still reclining in the kitchen.
Arriving for our routine visits during one of the reliably annual hosepipe bans was always a tad alarming when we were faced with sopping wet borders and pools of water sitting on the lawn.
Some of the carefully planted perennials that gave all year round structure between the patches of annuals were dug up and ‘almost’ replanted elsewhere in places totally unsuitable for the plant, or found two weeks later languishing on the compost heap. Only ‘almost’ replanted, as their roots were usually completely exposed with the plant sitting on the top of the soil, usually at a jaunty angle and looking totally shrivelled.
The only plants crying out for moisture were always the ones left well out of reach of the infernal sprinkler.
Favourite climbing roses that were covered in tight-packed buds were hacked back just as they were about to burst into their first and most glorious summer bloom. So too, spring flowering clematises pruned down to the ground as they were waking from their winter sleep.
To say Imelda and Ted’s relationship was volatile was an understatement. Originally employed as his housekeeper, possibly with ‘benefits’ one had to suggest to oneself, it was obvious to everyone that keeping house was not on her list of life skills.
Together, she and Ted had a fractious and back biting relationship where housework didn’t enter into any part of their intertwined lives. It was nonexistent within number six. Festering piles of washing up would lie untouched and reeking for weeks on end, slowly growing a blue-grey fur coat before finally being scraped into the vile and smelly bin with no lid. Neighbouring cats in varying sizes, shapes and colours sauntered in and out, scavenging what they could from the open cans of cat food left on the top of the fridge, cooker and indeed from the incredibly malodorous bin and filthy plates. Unquestioningly, there would be piles of squeezed out tea bags lying on the wooden kitchen table ensuring the piles of orange peel never totally dried out. A practice that must have been happening for years if the brown stains on the table were anything to go by.
Knocking on the door as we always did to announce our arrival, first putting the chain on, she would eventually open the door a crack. Hissing at us through the gap, she imitated Manuel in Fawlty Towers, proclaiming ’He not here. He say you not needed.’ My ensuing telephone call to Ted’s work would prove otherwise, so we would then continue our morning’s work as if nothing had happened. Imelda would emerge from the house later as if the words had never left her lips and all was normal, wrestle with her bicycle lock and toddle off to work. This game continued, as if on a loop, many times. She did not want us around. She was the lady of the house and I was obviously treading on her toes.
Rumours were that her father and brother had been marched to the top of a cliff near Buenos Aires and pushed over by the Argentinian mafia. Goodness only knows how true that was or not, and how that would affect you if it were so.
Perhaps the compulsion for growing potatoes and watering every day emanated back to her roots? Was it any wonder she searched for and hopefully found her own piece of accord far away in the ancient streets of Cambridge?
I’m sure Imelda possessed hidden depths, however they never revealed themselves to me. Ted once told me that they both had colluded to collect all the nasturtium seeds they could find, planning as they were to throw them out of a train window along the tracks to try and encourage beauty along the train lines. Sadly, it never happened but it was a great idea. The same huge pile of seeds lay rotting on the kitchen window sill for most of the fifteen or so years we were gardening there.
At one point, after a particularly fierce exchange Ted demanded she left, which she did for a few weeks. Peace reigned throughout the house and garden too. Number six unusually, even seemed to be slightly more orderly for while.
A month or so later he heard a noise upstairs one evening and went upstairs to check it out, thinking one of the neighbourhood cats had somehow become locked in the attic bedroom. He was somewhat surprised to find Imelda lying on the spare bed. She had found the spare key in a different outside hiding place from usual, let herself and a few black bin bags of her possessions back into the house, and had been hiding out upstairs in the attic for over a week, emerging only to eat or use the facilities when Ted went out to work.
Unsurprisingly, the attic was where she made her home for the next several years as she had decided she was going absolutely nowhere. That was until the next time they had a massive barney, whereby history repeated itself as it was always going to do, eventually bringing about her return once again as she did in the same clandestine fashion, after a full six months of being away. That time too, they fell back into an uneasy routine with Ted moaning more and more about her sloppiness, but putting up with it as she had nowhere else to go. I also think he was rather fond of the company.
With every year that went past, so too did Ted’s demand for a bigger and better floral display the following year. Brash and American in his ways he may have been, but he was also a wonderfully kind person who only ever thought of himself last of all.
Mad as a hatter too, of course. Arriving one Tuesday morning about nine thirty, upon letting ourselves through the locked garden gate, we were greeted with a trail of about fifty twenty pound notes along the alley beside the house. It turned out that Ted had come in through the gate after finishing work the previous evening, locked up his bicycle and completely unawares, scattering the tidy sum of money through his garden. Not a thought afterwards as to where it had gone at all. Lucky for him it was us that arrived first and not someone with fewer scruples.
Being a full thirty years plus older than me, there was never any question of Ted and I having any kind of romantic involvement together. Not in my eyes anyway. I was happily married to Simon and was definitely not looking for any complications in that department, especially with a customer, who, although I had developed a great fondness for him, I certainly did not find in the slightest bit attractive.
Ted, it appeared, had different ideas.
Sue, my sister and colleague noticed it first.
Ted had had a massive heart attack a couple of years after we first started gardening for him. We were warned by Imelda he would not welcome visitors at his hospital bedside, where he languished for several weeks. Upon his ensuing return to number six, the old boy was necessarily at home for a lengthy period of rest and recuperation. His interest in all things gardening increased and he made sure there was always tea available, often with a biscuit. Steeling ourselves to drink from the hideously stained mugs was something Sue, Dawn and I had to do, for fear of upsetting the equilibrium within the household. As his health improved and he regained his fitness, at every visit we were greeted by a beaming Ted, fresh and fragrant, having recently showered, coiffed and shaved. Attired in the smartest of gear, even wearing shoes, and ensuring his shirt was tucked safely into his unnaturally highly-hoisted trouser waistband, he would open the door and invite me into the house.
Imelda was working at the University at that time so mercifully we were not having any dealings with her at that particular juncture.
After finding out if there were any additional jobs to be done in the garden over and above the routine, I would pass the information onto Sue and Dawn, whereby Ted would insist upon sitting me at the kitchen table. He would then quiz me as to my ‘hopes, dreams and aspirations’, and in those brief but jolly times, we would discuss everything from Roman Emperors to coins, poison ivy rashes to cat worms, music to the German language, from the American tax system to his ex wife’s cancer.
His intelligence and memory was extraordinary but I was not prepared when he asked me if I would be interested in having a serious relationship with him.
Sue had been spot on, saying she had seen it coming for a few months; the haircuts, the shaving, the showers, even a slightly tidier and more fragrant house. She was not in the least bit surprised when I gently told her. She and Dawn continued to rip the living piss out of me all morning.
There was really never going to be any answer to him other than no, except when I told Simon he seemed humorously surprised that I had declined. He knew Ted by this time, liked him, and was secure in the knowledge that of course I never would have done anything untoward, so the whole thing could all be a future joke at my expense, which of course it did; endlessly!
After that visit, Ted took my rejection on the chin and thankfully, what developed thereafter was an even deeper and truer friendship between us. We never referred to that morning again but kept a sense of respect with great fondness between us throughout the rest of the fifteen or so years we knew each other. As he grew even older and definitely even more eccentric if that were ever possible, Imelda left the gardening to the gardeners and a gentle and non-confrontational flow evolved. The potatoes disappeared from the borders and the sprinkler system was switched off unless requested to be kept on by me. Number six was a better and calmer place for it all, as a normal-ish service fell into place.
Finding out the news of Ted’s death hit me hard. I had planned to visit him in the hospice the following day as I was in the UK visiting from our new home in France.
I was too late and he had slipped away during the night, completely alone as is so often the case.
It came as a total surprise to me to hear that his new wife had forbidden him any visitors during his last days.
New wife? When did that happen? The man was over ninety years old for fucks sake. Perhaps another new gardener?
The new wife, in her twisted wisdom, had also decided that as Ted had requested to be cremated and laid to rest in the England he loved, his home for the past forty years, she would churlishly and expressly against his and his children’s wishes, have his body flown back to America at some ridiculously extortionate cost to his estate.
As ever, knowing his time was coming to an end and being the selfless man he was, Ted’s parting gift to Imelda, was to marry her while he was in the hospice, give her his name and thereby allow her all the lawful wifely rights of an American citizen.
She did well by sticking around, but then I think she always hoped for exactly that.
He was such a softie.
Enjoy the Big Sleep, my dear friend.
(Ted’s garden below)