Warning. Before you read on, please bear in mind that a little bit of what follows should be taken with a large pinch of salt, especially the imagined conversations, but having said that, much of it is exactly as I recall it……
I took on my first ever gardening job in the village of Shalford, in Surrey, in the early spring of nineteen seventy four, at the age of just fourteen. It was for an elderly widow, Mrs Gladwill. My Mum got me the job. She and ‘Mrs G’, (we always just knew her as ‘Mrs G’), were little more than occasional passing acquaintances. Mrs G was a tall, elegant lady, her hair and clothing reminded me of pictures of the 1920s ‘flapper girls’ I had seen in history books at school, but then she was old enough to have been one!
To my mum she was just another pleasant lady with whom she liked to stop by and have a quick natter, put the world to rights, moan about the weather and the state of the country, and then carry on with her hectic day. Mum had been cycling past Mrs G’s 1930s semi in Florida road, on her blue ‘Raleigh’ bike with its little basket, when she had spotted her tucked away, almost hidden, behind her six feet high escallonia hedge.
She’d been hard at work, beads of sweat forming on her forehead and dripping down into her eyes. Her green wellington boot clad right foot, poised over a stainless steel spade blade, ready to push down to cut up some cloddy dry lumps of earth, and the fresh steaming horse manure, and mix them together into her flower bed. It was no work for a frail octogenarian lady.
Mum dismounted her bike, leaned it against the hedge and walked along to a pair of black iron driveway gates to let herself in. “Hello Mrs ‘G’, and how are you today?” Mrs G sighed wearily, she said she was tired and beginning to feel her age. She went on to complain that she was struggling to keep up with all of the jobs that needed doing in her garden.
My mum, forever on the lookout for any little jobs that her teenage children could do to earn a few quid, and ‘keep them out of trouble’, sympathised with Mrs G, suggested she was ‘overdoing it’, and was at an age where she should be putting her feet up, and letting somebody else, preferably a young fit local lad, take the strain for her. Mum did, of course, already have that certain somebody in mind for that job. Yes, of course it was me! Mrs G knowingly and willingly took my mum’s bait. (Like a trout rising on the near-by Tillingbourne). She asked my Mum, (already knowing the answer), if she might possibly know of any suitably fit young local lads who might be interested in doing a few hours gardening for her on Saturday mornings. Mum had always done everything possible to improve our lot in life, and to help us all to understand, early on in life, that lots of hard work would bring its financial rewards, (I’m still waiting!) and with that in mind she frequently volunteered all of us, my four siblings and I, for just about any job that was on offer around the village!
Delivering logs Jim? Yes no problem, our Mark can do that, I’ll get him out of bed, he’ll meet you down the road at six a.m.! Ringing the church bells did you say Vicar? That sounds appealing. (There is a little joke there for those sharp enough to get it!) Yes Mark will do that for you too. (It was the worst childhood job I ever had, although there was a rather attractive girl bell-ringer so it did have its compensations). You need a bit of shopping Jack? (Jack Grant was one of our elderly neighbours. “Yes missus, if it’s no bother to you.” He would always reply.) Don’t worry, Tracy will do that for you. Work behind the counter at the local greengrocers selling veg and flowers? Jackie would love to do that. Need somebody to nip down to the butchers and the post office did you say Ellen? Our Sue will do that for you! Singing in the church choir did you say Tony? That’s no problem, our Mark has the voice of an angel you know, (of course she wouldn’t have told him that I didn’t always behave like one).
Delivering the milk? Mark would love to help you with that John, yes, he just loves to get up early, (now she was really being very creative with the truth there). Delivering your twins by caesarean section Mrs Jones? I’ll see if Mark’s free for you, but I can’t promise anything as his diary is pretty full at the moment, what with all of his paper rounds, mending the bikes and cleaning the village football teams boots and all, but he’s a talented, hard working, multi-tasking sort of a lad, and he can turn his hand to most jobs. Oh, and don’t you go worrying yourself Mrs Jones, I’ll make sure that he scrubs up first!
But more seriously, well a little bit more anyway, the timing of Mrs G’s enquiry had been very good news for me, in fact the timing was almost as good as one of Martin Peter’s legendary, ghostly drifting runs into the opposition’s six yard box for Spurs. Yes. It was that good. You see I had only just lost my previous job. I had been working with John the milkman, doing a couple of milk rounds with him around the village, in his not very speedy red and white electrical three-wheeler, a job that I had really loved.
But sadly the local dairy had gone bust with the rise of the big supermarkets around Guildford, and the undercutting of small local dairy milk prices. So poor old John, his mate Robin, a dozen or so other dairy workers, and of course a few local milk round boys like me had all been laid off.
Mum would have been pleased to see me sorted out with another job so quickly. I think that she had wanted me out of the house, and quickly. I had recently bought yet another Slade single, and I had been playing it relentlessly in my bedroom at high volume. According to my Dad, Slade had two volumes. There was ‘loud’…. and then there was ‘bloody loud’!
My Dad was in no position to complain about me making any noise though, the noise abatement society probably had regular letters and phone calls about our household from villagers ten miles away. He used to like to play his recordings of steam engines very early on Sunday mornings. Sometimes it had felt like the ‘08.12’ service from Guildford to Redhill was going straight through our front room. Our furniture, and our poor neighbour Mrs Goater’s false teeth would all rattle. My Mum used to tease Dad by saying “You ought to put a bit more coal in that boiler Bob, it’ll need it to climb up St Martha’s hill!” (Dad had once been a fireman on the Southern steam engines).
But I have digressed, and it probably won’t be the last time, and it certainly isn’t the first, so it might be an idea to get used to it. So, anyway, let’s get back to me and Mrs G! I wasn’t a gardener at that stage of my early life, yes I may have helped my Dad put the spuds in now and then, or watched him mowing the front lawn, but I hadn’t ever done much else.
On one occasion I had been left alone in the house for a week and was asked to “keep an eye on the grass” by my Dad. One hot July evening I decided to give it a cut. I hadn’t noticed that the cutting blades were set excessively low. By the time I had finished the grass was so short that I should have painted some skinhead braces on it! It was the grass equivalent of a number one haircut. By the time Dad returned it had partially recovered, but I do recall him looking at it, raising his eyebrows and laughing. He didn’t ask me to cut it the next time they went on holiday without me. I can’t think why.
My Mum had already worked out a plan of action to ensure that I bagged the job with Mrs G, just in case any other hopeful lads turned up looking for the job. She would get Dad to give me a quick lesson on basic garden tool recognition before I went to work for Mrs G, so that I wouldn’t make a fool of myself on my first visit, and then lose the job by trying to dig a big hole with a little hand fork, or perhaps trying to cut the grass with a garden roller.
I can no longer recall that first Saturday morning I spent working for Mrs G, but I do remember some of the simple little horticultural tasks that she gave me in those all too brief ‘Seasons in the Sun’. I weeded her borders, cut the little lawn, and planted her tulips and daffodils in the early autumn. I surprised myself by not only enjoying the job, but by actually being pretty good at it too. I would work my way slowly and methodically along her borders on an old crazy paving concrete path, weeding or planting, with my bony little knees comfortably supported on a little flowery, plastic covered, foam knee-pad that she very kindly supplied for the task. I would happily beaver away in the sunshine listening to my radio, (and looking back now, with my rose tinted glasses on, it always seemed to have been sunny).
My transistor radio would drown out the more adult garden pleasures of her neighbours, like listening to the bird song, John Arlott’s cricket commentaries, or maybe hearing the passing trains heading down to Gatwick airport or up to Reading.
Looking back now I’m fairly sure that I annoyed some of the residents of Florida road with the music I inflicted on them, and the awful, irritating, repetitive adverts for ‘Everest’ double glazing, London based car hire companies and ‘Brutus’ jeans! It was mostly ‘Capital Radio’, Kenny Everett I think, and it had only just started broadcasting from the old post office tower in London, some thirty odd miles away to the north. It’s strange but I can still recall some of the songs that they played as I worked, and if I hear those songs today, like ‘Seasons in the Sun’ by Terry Jacks, John Miles’ ‘Music’, or perhaps David Essex’s ‘Gonna Make you a Star’, then I am instantly transported back to those golden sunny days , and I am that young lad once again, with the sun on his back and a song on his lips, working in Mrs G’s pretty suburban garden.
At ten fifty-five, on the dot, Mrs G would always come out into the garden, politely check on my progress, give me some further instructions for later, and then invite me in for my ‘elevenses’. She was a creature of habit, everything always had its time and place. Her life seemed to revolve around the radio and television schedules in her ‘Radio Times’. Her daily jobs slotted neatly around the pleasures of ‘The Archers’ or ‘The World at One’ on what people of her generation called “the wireless”. I would sit in her cosy kitchen by the boiler, on a comfy high stool near the shiny kitchen worktop, and her large collection of cookery books, drinking coffee, looking out of the window at the garden, and nibbling on caramel wafers. If I close my eyes now I can still visualize that tidy little kitchen, and vividly recall the hygienic aroma of what must have been at least four different chemical cleaning fluids all working together, and all doing their deadly, germ killing, murderous ‘thing’. The bugs really didn’t stand a chance in Mrs G’s house! She was the general in charge of a ‘sparkling clean, genocidal germ killing machine’, and she was fighting a long war of attrition against any bugs that were brave enough, (or stupid enough), to raise their nasty, dirty, slimy little heads above the kitchen sink waste, or even fool hardier still, to scale up the sides of her stainless steel sink and get up on to her immaculate kitchen work surfaces. God help any of them that did, they would be spotted by her eagle like eyes and would soon be ‘history’!
Mrs G was a very kind, talkative, amiable old lady, and she would always stop doing her Saturday morning chores for a few minutes to join me in the kitchen. She loved to relate the momentous events of her life. I would sit spellbound, (well sometimes), as I blew on my coffee to cool it down so that it didn’t melt my lips. She had been born in the early eighteen nineties and had seen the world go through remarkable changes. I can’t think of any other era that brought quite so much dramatic, technological, sociological or revolutionary transformation. Just stop and think about it for a moment…. the rise of communism, fascism, the Conservative party, the motor car, and of course manned flight, among many other huge changes. Manned flight had only been in its infancy when she was a little girl, brave but stupid village idiots had still been running full pelt off of cliff-tops, flapping their arms wildly with just a few feathers tied on, but by the time that she had reached her eighties when I first met her, the ethereal, beautiful Anglo-French Concorde had been crossing the Atlantic at supersonic speeds, on a daily basis, above her garden! Mrs G’s generation, or maybe I should say the luckier ones of her generation, those who had somehow managed to survive all of the terrible wars, diseases, Fascists, Communists, sadistic Japanese P.O.W. camp guards, Conservative governments, and poverty thrown at them, had all had an exciting roller coaster of a life’s ride!
Mrs G had a lovely neighbour called Graham. Graham was a very well mannered, meticulous, balding old fashioned kind of a guy in his late forties. We used to chat, mostly about cricket and the weather, over the garden fence. I have a picture firmly planted in my memory of Graham. It’s a hot summers day and Graham is stood there, on the other side of that fence talking to me. He is dressed immaculately in his cricket whites and a white cotton flat cap with a Surrey County Cricket Club crest. There is sweat on his forehead, which he wipes away with the cap. He is saying in his B.B.C. English… “It’s not looking good at all old boy, England need another sixty runs to avoid the follow-on!” I nod very knowledgeably and I shake my head in mock despair at hearing this clearly awful news. But what he didn’t know is that I had no real understanding of cricket, so I didn’t have a clue what the hell he was talking about!
The Sun briefly goes behind the clouds…………
There was a scribbled note on my bedside table. It simply said ‘Mark…
don’t forget, don’t go to Mrs G’s on Saturday, love Mum xxx’. The note had puzzled me. I had worked in that lovely old lady’s garden for quite a while and I had enjoyed being there, I really liked her. She had become like a lovable elderly aunty. I went downstairs to ask my Mum ‘Why?’ Had Mrs G perhaps sacked me for not pruning her roses correctly? Had she peeked out from behind her drawing room net curtains, and caught me in the act of giving away one of her finest red rose blooms to a passing pretty girl?
“Well, you’ll need to go out and find yourself another job now won’t you? How will you pay for your ‘Shoot’ comic without any money coming in? I can’t keep putting my hand in my pocket every time that you want something you know!”
“No Mum”, I had patiently replied. “That’s not what I meant, what I meant was why can’t I keep working for her?”
“Oh”, said my Mum, slightly taken aback now, only just realising that I hadn’t yet heard the sad news of Mrs G’s passing. “Oh, I am so sorry dear”. (She said in a more hushed tone). “Didn’t anybody tell you? I’m afraid poor Mrs G died last week”, and then, after a short pause she had added, almost jauntily I had thought, “Whilst listening to the Archers apparently”. Even at the young age of fourteen I remember thinking ‘how very English of her’. At that precise moment I had heard the ‘Archer’s’ theme tune playing in my head….you know the one………. ”Dum de dum de dum de dum, dum de dum de dum dum,” (of course you do), and I had pictured sweet Mrs G laying there. Dead. Prostrated on her super clean kitchen linoleum. In my minds eye she had a ‘J’ cloth in one hand and a mop in the other, and there was a splattering of bleach, mixing in with the blood from her head wound, leaking out on to the lino from under her chin.
Maybe she had slipped on the spilt detergent and cracked her head open on a nearby formica worktop? But it had puzzled me as to how anyone would have known that she had died whilst listening to a specific radio programme, and frankly it still does. A good T.V. copper, like ‘Inspector Morse’, or maybe that Swedish guy with the lovely dog, ‘Wallander’, now they could have probably worked it all out within an hour, including the adverts, but that Cornish detective Wycliffe? Fat chance. He would have run out of space on his blackboard. He was slower than a V.W. campervan on the ‘A39’.
‘The Archers’ may well have finished when she dropped dead, and the next programme may well have already begun. We just don’t really know. She might well have been listening to ‘The World at One’ when the grim reaper arrived in her kitchen. Knowing Mrs G, I bet she would have told him to take off his muddy boots, wash his hands thoroughly, leave his rusty scythe outside, and sit down, before even realising who he was. ‘Doinggg’! The clock would have struck one….. ‘Doinggg’, Mrs G would have slipped on the detergent. She would miss next week’s episode of ‘The Archers’ now, and would never find out if ‘Home Farm’ had had the ‘foot and mouth’ restrictions lifted. It’s a sobering thought for us all isn’t it? We just don’t know when that grim reaper is going to show up and piss all over our strawberries, do we?
Surprisingly, when my Mum had broken that sad news so clumsily to me, I had found myself feeling quite emotional. I had to hold back the tears. Well, I really loved that tenner that she paid me every week, (and no, it wasn’t always the same one). “What’s wrong with you?” My Mum had asked, “Not another damn cold. You really should wear a vest like your Dad does. I’m always telling you, but oh no, you always know best!” Mum of course, being Mum, had been so busy juggling her multiple part-time jobs, and doing the myriad things that all good mums do to provide safe, loving, clean homes for their families, that she hadn’t perhaps yet realised that I had actually grown quite attached to poor old Mrs G.
The occasional death of my gardening customers is now, in 2016, in my fifties, sadly something that I have got used to, but back then as a young teenager, it had really hit me quite hard. It doesn’t do to get too attached to your elderly customers in this gardening game, it can hurt.
The Sun comes back out from behind the clouds……
On a hot summer school day lunch-time, a few weeks after receiving the sad news, I had been chatting to my mate Alan and some other friends on the school playing fields. We had been idling around the immaculate cricket pitch in the sunshine, eating our sandwiches and talking about football. I remember telling them how I had just lost my little gardening job because the ‘old lady’ had died. I didn’t admit to losing a friend too, that would have been seen as a sign of weakness, and of course probable ammunition for future teasing. This was, after all, the early seventies.
Alan told us that his Dad, (Fred), a jobbing gardener with his own thriving new little business, was looking for more assistance to ease his increasingly heavy gardening work load.
He asked if anybody would be interested in joining him and his Dad on future Saturday mornings. I jumped in very quickly to ‘bag’ the job offer before any of my mates could muscle in on it. The offer had barely been out of his mouth….. “Yes! I’ll do it. When do I start?” And so, as one pair of garden gates had closed on me forever……..another pair had only just started to open up………
If you are interested in what happened next, so to speak, then visit my website ‘It’s a Dark, Dark Night!’, and look for ‘Fred’. Thanks……..
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All written work by Mark Anthony Wyatt, Bude, Cornwall. Edited, August, 2016.
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