‘A Blank Canvas’

 

Laetitia sits by her drawing-room window. A small tornado of dust spins across the black tarmac of the garden and catches on the leaves of dandelions and shepherd’s purse that have pushed up through the cracks, but Laetitia’s eyes are closed and she does not notice.

She smiles as the chairman’s bluff, warm voice repeats the listener’s question to the panel: a garden can bring so many problems  but at the turn of a switch, the experts are there, like doctors, to offer comfort and advice. Her bony hands, knobby with arthritis, stir slightly on her lap as she deftly untangles and ties back sweet-peas. The salvias are thick with scarlet blooms, and the banked-up straw has worked wonders in suppressing weeds and slugs beneath the strawberries. Her narrow, bent back aches slightly, but she has been stooping to fill a punnet with the fruits that smell of summer.

Outside, starlings chase each other across the lumpy grey surface, unafraid of the tabby cat that sprays the fence. But Laetitia’s new garden is a rich mixture of shapes and colours, through whose lush profusion the striped cat stalks like Rousseau’s tiger.

***

The trouble had started when Adams had become obsessed with vegetables. For years, he had cossetted the herbaceous border and pruned the shrubs with deliberation and care; he had attacked slugs and greenfly, and dosed the leather-jackets in the lawn; he had planted out the summer annuals with artistry and skill. He knew that Laetitia had liked to watch him, and she had sometimes tapped on the window and waved, so that he had nodded and adjusted his cap, his cheeks warming faintly with pleasure. The obsession with vegetables, however, had germinated in his old age and had rooted and strength-ened even as he grew more frail.

At first he had confined himself to a few spring onions and radishes, sneaking them into a corner of the furthest flower-bed.  But gradually the obsession had grown within him, spreading like a gall. He had become more ambitious, he had fretted about the waste: there was so much land, wasted on useless flowers. Bare soil should be made into food: soil and sunshine and a tiny seed could be transformed into something good to eat. What he really wanted to grow were waxy white potatoes and runner beans. He liked the idea of beans with their scarlet flowers, the bamboo supports peaked together like a wigwam. And perhaps a few carrots; they looked good on a plate, meat and three veg., white, green and orange, as pretty as any bed of annuals. He’d need to ask her, of course. She might not like it. It would need some thinking about, how to tackle her. It was her garden, after all, though he never saw her in it. He scarcely spoke to her, except to get his money. But she saw him, and saw the garden; she sat there in her chair, watching from her window. He was sure she hadn’t seen the radishes, but beans were tall — he’d have to ask.

***

Laetitia heard the latch on the garden gate, and watched as Adams wheeled in his bicycle. He was looking old, she thought; he was bent like an old twig with cracking bark. His face was gaunt beneath the earth‑coloured tweed cap, and his eyes were almost hidden behind the thick‑lensed glasses.He pushed the bike slowly along the path, his knees bent, his feet sticking out sideways as though … as though he had wet himself! She covered her mouth with her hand as she smiled, then rebuked herself and pulled her navy cardigan down over the top of her pleated skirt. She supposed he would be coming in this morning to ask her about growing more vegetables.

In the evenings, when she made her customary slow and solitary progression around her garden, she had noted the radishes and spring onions hidden behind the delphiniums, but she hadn’t minded because she liked to watch the crimson spheres and thin white columns grow.

But the other day she had watched as Adams had stared for a long time at the far end of the herbaceous border, and had then paced out imaginary rows. He might as well, she murmured to herself, he might as well. Just a few, and as long as the vegetables look attractive. But no cabbages or brussel sprouts, they’re so  common.

Later in the summer, when the evenings were long and balmy, she took up her two sticks and slowly negotiated the back steps into the garden. A dog barked briefly next door, and a car revved in the road, but here bats flittered round the eaves and a blackbird, relieved of this year’s offspring, sang from a bough of the plum-tree;  Laetitia stopped to listen, a smile lighting up her wrinkled, sagging face. The new vegetable patch was prolific and it didn’t really matter that Adams had planted a row of dwarf beans behind the lavender hedge, they were not visible from the house. The fuchsias were beautiful this year,  dense bushes of  flamboyant pendants. But she did wonder why the Shasta daisies, that usually reared up at the back, had not yet appeared;  she must remember to ask Adams to keep an eye on them and to replace them, if necessary, with something tall.

Adams now came to work with several carrier bags tucked into his bicycle basket, and Laetitia sat at the window and watched as he knelt by the rows of carrots, or gently pinched the swelling beans to test their size. The weighted bags hung from the handlebars when he left, and, once or twice, he knocked at the door and gave her samples of his produce, the fruit of his labours and her soil. But her fingers were too stiff to prepare them properly, she preferred the frozen or tinned varieties, so she smiled and thanked him, and told him to keep the vegetables for himself. She wondered, idly, what he did with so much produce  — perhaps he sold a few, to augment his gardener’s pay.  She couldn’t begrudge him that for he had bought the seeds and, if he made a small profit from his work, well, he deserved it, he had served her well.

In the autumn, while Laetitia day‑dreamed and listened to concerts on Radio Three, Adams enthusiastically mulched the beds. He spread compost, then dug it in with handfuls of bonemeal, and he mounded up soil around the leeks. His wiry old body quivered with the effort, and his face was flushed with excitement.

But, when Spring arrived, and the pale green swords of the emerging delphiniums mysteriously shrivelled and died, and the cornflowers and campanulas failed to appear, he was quick to knock on the kitchen door and explain that the soil was starved of nitrogen, even the compost hadn’t helped. He talked quickly, animatedly (Laetitia had never heard him talk so much) about rotation, and leguminous plants, and nature’s cures. She must not worry, he said, the slits of his eyes glittering behind his glasses, he would cure the soil organically, that was the modern thing, and she would see the plants flourishing again. He would make the desert bloom, he said: she should  just be patient, if she would.

Laetitia was uneasy, but she would have to let him do as he suggested because there was nothing she could do herself. She marvelled as Adams skipped around the garden like a spring lamb. He hoed and raked and planted, he hammered nails and ran wire supports along the fences. Barricades of thorny rose‑clippings, cages of wire‑netting, flickering bird-scarers: the garden was transformed. And, as May advanced to June, feathery leaves, spiralling tendrils and grey‑green spikes appeared, in rows, and clusters, and climbing up the fences. The dark bulbous heads of beetroot bulged above the earth. Huge orange trumpets bloomed among broad hairy leaves, sweet‑scented flowers of broad beans and shy white peaflowers all nodded in the summer breeze — then turned brown and withered, to give life to their fruits. And the herbaceous border contained not one uselessly decorative bloom.

Now, Adams came three times a week instead of two, and would take no extra money. He harvested in a frenzy, pulling, lifting, cutting. His carrier bags were so full they split and burst in the middle of the road; he abandoned them and their contents in the gutter. Once, from her bedroom window, Laetitia saw him leave the bulging bags by someone’s dustbin.

Soon he gave up the pretence of coping with the harvest, and the vegetables swelled and rotted with old age. But he could not stop: Laetitia watched helplessly as he transplanted leeks, and sowed another row of lettuce. She longed desperately for pelargoniums and sweet peas —  but the huge peapods turned white and wrinkly, the broad beans grew broader and the radishes bolted behind the gardener’s back. She tried to hope that Adams knew what he was doing, that the soil was thankfully sucking up nitrogen, or whatever it was, in preparation for next year’s antirrhinums; but she knew that Adams’ obsession, and his vegetables, were rampaging uncontrolled.

In the autumn, when Adams had piled  yet another compost heap with yellowed pea‑vines and courgettes that had become marrows, and had begun to lift the last of the potatoes, Laetitia rapped on the kitchen window with her teaspoon, and imperiously beckoned him to come into the kitchen. She demanded, in her thin clear voice, to know whether the experiment had worked:  she wanted her flowers reinstated.

For a moment, Adams stood quite still with shock. His bald head shone and his eyes glittered feverishly as he attempted to straighten up and look his employer in the eye. He waved his arms stiffly from the elbow, and shuffled his sturdy boots.

Not yet, he said, these things took time. He would need to test the soil, he said; he would have to get a kit, and test the soil scientifically. He was sure the cure was working well, but she should not expect too much in just one growing season. Sprouts, now, brussel sprouts, they might just do the trick. And all‑year spinach, that would keep the cure ticking over. He could, of course, try for a few frost‑hardy perennials, but …. He looked out of the window, and shook his head doubtfully.

Laetitia knew she could not win. She let him return to his potatoes, and she made herself a cup of tea. She took out her favourite bone-china cup that was hand‑painted with blackberries and purple plums, and she half‑filled it with dark smoky‑flavoured Lapsang then carried it carefully to her chair.

She sipped her tea and mourned her flowers. And she watched as Adams mounted his bike and rode off, slowly, down the road, his bent legs scarcely propelling the aged machine. Soon he would take his holiday; but afterwards, it would all begin again — the mulching, and the trenching, and the obliteration of all that she had loved. She sighed, and put down her cup, and she lifted the heavy telephone directory onto her lap.

***

The builder was stout and ruddy‑faced, an Irishman who said that yes, to be sure, he’d do it in a day. He knew a gang, he said, who’d lay tarmac in a flash. It took them three days, but it was that digger there, you see, the corner was a bit tricky, and yes, no indeed, the rubbish would be gone tomorrow.

The noise of their machines and the smell of hot tar had filled the house, and neighbours had stopped to stare, but now the garden was good and flat, an easily cared-for, blank, unpainted canvas.

Laetitia closed the curtains, and poured out a tiny tot of brandy. Her hand shook a little and she found it hard to hold the glass. She turned on the television, and then sat down in her favourite chair, lifting her legs up onto the footstool, and tucking her skirt around her knees. The credits rolled silently up the screen, and while she waited for the programme to start, about the gardens of Sissinghurst and Stowe, she wrote out a cheque to Mr. Adams, calculated for one month’s wages at four days a week. Tomorrow, if the weather was fine, she would make an expedition to the Post Office. She might even treat herself to a  copy of ‘The Gardener’s World’.

 

(This story was short-listed for the Wells Festival of Literature short story competition in 2002)

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