That morning, as others, he knelt between the rows and scraped pebbles and stones out of the earth with his fingers and a fork. Although mid-June the night had been cold and a thin layer of frost still marked the ground. He raised himself slowly, pushing a clenched fist into the soil for support and he stared, without expression, at the earth he had turned up, at the small pile of pebbles beside the hole. Slowly, he knelt once more and, after a moment, he continued to scrape and to dig.
It was a small garden, front and back, flanking a house that stood alone on a country road, five miles from town. Apart from maintaining the lawn, he had done very little with the front. He preferred to work out back, in privacy, away from the craning heads of occasional motorists. He believed in the morbid curiosity of others and in the power of the tongue.
The back garden was more impressive. Fenced off on either side, a small stone wall at the end gave way to a farmer’s field where horses sometimes galloped and grazed. Near his shed and a tall oak tree he now kept a vegetable patch of potatoes, carrots, lettuce and onions, which saw the light but was sheltered from the wind. His bushes and flowers had been sowed and planted in keeping with a strict plan. To the untrained eye – which rarely had the privilege – this garden was orderly, restrained and well-kept. In his own mind, there wasn’t a leaf out of place.
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His wife had passed away the previous Christmas – St Stephen’s Day to be precise. She had complained of a pain during lunch, went upstairs, lay on the bed and died of a heart attack. The Wren Boys arrived before the ambulance. He had suffered their crude fiddle-playing and their painted faces in silence before giving them a fiver and closing the door. He sat on a chair in the kitchen. He couldn’t stop his hands from shaking. He gripped one in the other and watched them tremble. Then, from away down the road that he could imagine so well, from beyond the bend and the small river and the broken wall, the faint sound of the siren growing stronger.
It seemed a long time had passed since the largest of the stones had been removed. And although he knew that the soil required its quota of stone, that it demanded its pebbles for structure and drainage, he worked steadily each day as if in a trance, always most content at this most menial of tasks, clawing and plucking irregular shards from the black soil. On occasion rainwater would now pool where it had never gathered before, taking away seeds and drowning spores, as if the earth were collapsing beneath him like a burst lung. Indeed he had wondered more than once whether he was maintaining the garden or destroying it. But this was a private issue, the solution to which even he was not yet privy.
At twelve he went into the kitchen and sat on his chair. He turned on the radio. He buttered two slices of bread and laid a slice of ham between them and he drank steaming hot tea from a mug. He did not wash his hands.
In the afternoon he returned to digging, turning the soil over and over again, unearthing new stones, until the spade met resistance. He stooped to examine what he expected to be a rock and was surprised when he brushed away the soil to discover a large root. He shovelled away yet more soil and was alarmed when he found the root growing longer and thicker. He realised that it belonged to the oak tree, some ten metres away, and that this root, this impostor, ran deep directly beneath his vegetable patch. He pulled at it frantically. It hardly moved. He took a swipe with his spade and left barely a scar. He stood on it and cursed at it and had taken aim again, with the shovel above his head, before he realised that someone was behind him. He turned to find a young man, perhaps in his early twenties, standing on his lawn. ‘You’re having a bit of trouble’ he said, smiling. The old man lowered the spade and said nothing. He felt the heat crawling up his neck and up his cheeks and across his brow. ‘Sorry to bother you like this’ the young man said, ‘But the car’s gone out of petrol’ He indicated towards the road with his thumb. ‘I was wondering could you help me out?’ Still the man said nothing and continued to recover from his exertion and embarrassment and the surprise of having someone in his garden. ‘I’ll see what I have’ he said finally. He walked into the shed to get the can of lawnmower petrol. When he came out the young man was staring down at the vegetable patch. ‘You’ve got a root problem’ he said. The old man nodded and handed him the can. ‘I’ll give you a hand with it now if you don’t mind, as a thank you for the petrol.’ He leaned down and grabbed the root in his two hands. And with that, thought the man, his garden was finished, the sanctuary ruined. ‘It’s one of the oak trees, isn’t it?’ asked the young man. ‘You could make an awful mess taking it up. Should you not just leave it?’ ‘We’ll take it up now, the two of us’ said the man.
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They went to work, the young man pulling at the root with his hands, the older man working underneath it with the shovel. Soon there was some give. From being turned and stoned so often the soil was loose and now it began to fall away without struggle. Then the young man had a shoulder under the root and was pushing. The old man pulled harder. The soil fell and the patch split and the pale and cracked potatoes were unearthed. In an instant the root had cracked, as long and slender as a woman’s leg, and the old man fell back into the patch and into his soil-stained hands, in front of the boy. He wept.