Can we just be clear on this? I like flowers. Delivered in nice bouquets to the door when I’ve a new book out or it’s my birthday, fine. But having acquired some years back a house, when I started getting successful as a novelist, why didn’t I think of the scenery around it as part of the package?
It’s a mystery, really. I stood on the balcony with an estate agent and surveyed acres of the stuff. Two, to be precise. And an orchard. A big downland view beyond that. I was sold, instantly. I was in love. I made an offer, and it was accepted. And STILL the penny didn’t drop, not even when friends remarked: ‘Phew! Lovely, no? But how the Sam Hill are you going to look after this lot?’
There was a ride-on mower as part of the package, and you could hire gardeners, couldn’t you? So all would be well. I pointed this out to them. And, as the months rolled on and the deal was done, also to myself. I had a second viewing. Yes, I loved it. I had worked, hard and long, to earn it. I deserved it.
Eventually I moved in, and the first gardener arrived, a sour-faced individual who puffed out his cheeks and said: ‘Right. Well, my rates have gone up.’
‘Right,’ says I. He quoted me the new rate. Jesus! The old one had been bad enough.
‘And here.’ He produced a magazine from inside his coat. ‘All those old tools you’ve got won’t do. These are aluminium. Lightweight. Got to think of my arthritis.’
Reader, I must admit I wasn’t thinking of that at all. I was staring, gob-smacked, at the price of various hedge-cutters and sundry attachments.
‘And look here, I’ll be in every morning at eight-thirty to do my soup.’
‘In?’ I echoed faintly. ‘In where?’
He looked at me like I was a fool. Actually, I was getting used to it.
‘In the kitchen. In the microwave.’
Now here I have to admit that I rarely rise before nine. And the thought of this objectionable man wandering about freely downstairs, making use of MY facilities while I was still in bed … well, no. The hackles went up, at that point. I’d had enough.
‘So,’ he said to conclude. ‘When do I start?’
I walked to the door and opened it. ‘You don’t,’ I said. ‘But thank you for your interest.’
It was only the start of a nightmare journey, for me. A cavalcade of other gardeners followed on, one after another, useless as the day was long. One sat in his van for the better part of an hour at every visit, eating pasta swirls. ‘To up my energy,’ he told me.
Well, it wasn’t working.
Then the next: who broke the ride-on. Then there were repairs needed to the ride-on, which weren’t done properly, so the drive belt was too big and it kept slipping en route to the orchard, so you couldn’t get it down the hill except under protest and getting up was impossible.
Then the next. Who promised many visits but in fact never really arrived for work, except to feel the grass and say: ‘Too wet to cut, I’ll come back next week.’
Eventually the grass was too long for the ride-on to attempt. It choked and stalled and many happy hours were spent flat on the greensward, forking out wads of wet grass from the back of it while weeping into the turf.
I gave in. One of the local farmers took pity on me and cut the bottom field and the orchard with his tractor, making life a lot easier. But that left the top garden, which was slowly going to rack and ruin, being overrun by weeds.
I was sure I could do it. I set to on a boiling hot summer’s day, hoeing and forking for all I was worth. Gardening was not rocket science. It would not defeat me.
Him Indoors found me spark out on the tarmac outside the garage and called an ambulance. I’d fainted through over-exertion in the heat.
‘Gardening in this weather? Madness,’ decreed one of the medics.
So I waited until the autumn, and took things a little easier on the weeding and hoeing and stuff. Then I bought a smaller house, with a smaller garden. Yep. I finally admitted defeat.