Every autumn she feared the gold in the beeches along the lanes. The problem was the oaks next door.
The south-westerly winds always blew everything to her side of the fence so that a tide of leaves filled the garden, leaving Gerald Robinson’s lawn green and fresh. Worse, every time she was out there with her lawn rake he would start up his Honda ride-on mower, chugging to and fro on his side of the fence. It was an awful, noisy thing, always backfiring and conking out. He was so irritating, she thought, no wonder his wife had left him.
‘You ought to trim those branches back,’ she snapped, when he said good afternoon, thinking how unhelpful he was. ‘They might fall and cause damage. And the leaves that come down…’
He said the trees were beautiful and provided a home for the squirrels, that he liked watching them running up and down the branches, when he had the chance to sit out on the patio with a drink and a cigar-
‘Your smoke comes over the fence too,’ she pointed out, and went back to her raking.
Without Albie there any more it was a nightmare. It was bad enough being a widow, but her gardener’s retirement had sunk her to a new depth of despair. Thick drifts of leaves a foot deep were peppered with bushels of acorns, far too many for the squirrels to eat. What they did take, they would bury in her flowerpots, together with sunflower seeds from the bird feeder, so that every spring a strange collection of seedlings pushed its way up through the azaleas.
Her wrists woke her in the night, her fingers tingling, and her neck and shoulders were stiff all day. She searched the small ads and the notices in the newsagents’ shop for a gardener. She could not face using that damned rake once more, and yet the leaves were overwhelming. It really was too much for her to do, at her age. After a number of phone calls she got a visit from a lovely young man.
She had seen the political posters about the tide of refugees and how they were coming across the sea and flooding the country. Asylum seekers – they sounded as if they were insane, didn’t they? – as in: lunatic asylum; mad, bad, dangerous to know. But this young man was sweet and sane, with olive coloured eyes and curly black hair. Abdi said he was from Syria and his rolled up sleeves showed muscles and scars. He had no references, and was cagey about his story and where he lived, except that he said he had studied engineering in Damascus, years ago. His family had lived in Homs. He didn’t finish his studies because of the war. And now – he gestured at the garden, with half a shrug.
He got to work, gathering the leaves and acorns and stuffing them into the shredder. It would make a mulch for the flowerbeds, which would save having to take it all to the rubbish tip. She did a little tidying inside the house while he was working, pausing every now and again to glance out of the back windows.
Of course Gerald Robinson had started with the ride-on mower again on his back lawn, its engine coughing and spitting as usual. Then she heard the machinery pause and looked out. The two men were chatting over the fence. She wasn’t paying Abdi to talk, she thought with annoyance, really!
She tried to ignore them, turning away to dust her dressing table. The frame of her wedding photograph was tarnished and she took it downstairs to clean it with silver polish. How she had changed, she thought, how soft and youthful their faces had been. She sighed. What was the point of marrying and having children? Her son was doing something with computers in South Korea and her daughter nursing in Australia; she didn’t know when she’d even see them. For a moment she wondered about Abdi: were his parents still alive?
When she took the photograph back upstairs there was still no sound of work coming from the back garden. She looked out of the window and saw that Abdi had gone next door and was working on Gerald Robinson’s lawnmower. They had got it on the patio and he was fiddling with the motor. Gerald Robinson was handing him tools. She opened the window, leaned out and called:
They both glanced up. She saw Gerald Robinson’s shoulders sink.
‘I’m not paying you to fix that man’s mower! Are you going to finish my leaves?’
‘One moment, Mrs Enville,’ Abdi called out, intent again on his task.
She would have to go down and speak to them. As she marched out on to her drive she heard the mower start up again. It was running smoothly and quietly. Then it came out of Gerald Robinson’s front gate. Abdi was riding it and Gerald Robinson walking behind.
‘It should be able to manage the leaves now,’ he said, as Abdi, smiling, steered it into her garden.
Within half an hour all the leaves were shredded into a fine mulch and Abdi was shovelling it onto the flowerbeds. Gerald said he’d pay Abdi for repairing the mower, and why didn’t she come over and have a cup of tea?
She sat on his patio in crisp autumn sunshine while he made the tea. It was a beautiful, still day and his lawn was a vivid green.
‘The oaks look lovely from here,’ she said, when he brought the mugs out. The afternoon sun gilded the branches.
‘Do you mind if I smoke?’ he asked. His cigars were on the table. ‘I have few other pleasures these days, you see.’
‘Go ahead,’ she sighed.
His smoke made floating blue ribbons in the air, sweet and aromatic.
“I suppose it’s not so bad,’ she said.
© M Wallis 2021