When I arrive for my regular shift at the Community Centre, our manager is taping a poster to the inside of the front door. It reads, ‘Closed for the Duration of the Pandemic’.
‘How long?’ I mouth at her through the glass.
Erica gestures to me to keep my distance before she pushes her way out, buttocks first, with laptop under one arm and a bundle of files under the other. She pauses to lock up. ‘About twelve weeks. Stay safe, Lovey!’
‘Lovage! My name is Lovage!’
She waves goodbye, hops into her BMW and drives off. It’s all right for her, working remotely in a four-bedroom family semi with spacious garden and view over the golf course. That’s what I call ‘social distancing’. As for me, I’m single and I’ve been self-employed for less than a year. The few quid I earn helping out at the community centre makes the difference between eating and going hungry. I decide to check out the food bank at the church.
Just then, Father Wayne passes by on the other side of the road. ‘Hi there! Are you all right?’
‘No. I’m out of work and I don’t know how I’m going to feed myself.’
‘Give our relief committee a call. Myrtle’s in charge of distribution.’
Trust Myrtle to have her sticky fingers on the goodies. I’d rather starve than accept charity from my Over-Fifties Club nemesis.
I walk home, weighing up the good and bad in my situation. The positive thing is, thanks to a messy but profitable divorce, I own my two-up-two-down cottage. On the negative side, my younger sister and her boyfriend are staying with me while they save for a deposit. They’re annoying at the best of times, and it looks as if the worst of times is on the horizon.
Ivor, who’s supposed to be at work, opens the front door wearing nothing but a pair of saggy boxers. I freak out; he panics and calls Amy. She comes out of the bathroom with my best towel wrapped turban-style around her head. Against my house rules, she’s been colouring her hair in the basin, which, like the towel, is stained with streaks of Nice & Easy black. When I stop yelling, my sister informs me that, for the duration, both of them will be working from home. I yell some more, throw a few bits into a weekend bag, chuck a handful of household bills at Amy, and storm out.
Five minutes later, the red mist clears and it dawns on me that I’ve walked out of my own house. I’m far too proud to go back and make it up with my little sister. What am I going to do? While I’m thinking, I shove my hands deep into my jeans pocket, where I find the key to the Community Centre’s back entrance. Erica gave it to me so I can access the tools I keep in the shed.
Half an hour later I’m in the Centre’s spacious kitchen, brewing tea and nibbling custard creams. Out of a sense of duty, I text my parents in Ireland. They’ve recently reconciled and, for the first time in over forty years, are living under the same roof. Mum replies that she and Dad are perfectly fine – and why wouldn’t they be, when there’s never a cross word between them? Yeah, right, I think, and message them to call Amy next time they need a referee.
By now, I’m feeling much better. There’s a roof over my head and my family responsibilities have been dealt with, or at any rate, postponed. I call my friend, Bub, swear her to secrecy and tell her where I am. When she’s finished laughing, she fills me in about her own situation.
‘You’re a girl, you are, squatting in the Centre! Don’t let Erica catch you. Clive and I are fine. My cleaning jobs are a write-off, but we can manage on his pension. The only problem is that the hairdressers are shut, and you know how fussy I am about my hair.’
That’s the first I’ve heard of it, I think, visualising her scraggy blonde bun. ‘You must be missing your lovely grandchildren.’
‘Yes and no. They wave at me through the window, but their Mum and Dad are furloughed, so for the next three months I ain’t got to get up at silly o’clock to mind them. Result, or what?’
It sounds as if everyone is being taken care of, except me. A tear runs down my cheek and I wipe my nose on my sleeve. ‘Bub, my income’s gone. How am I going to survive?’
‘Don’t panic, Lovey! You’re a professional gardener, so you’re allowed to work if you keep to the rules. And I know a garden that wants sorting out.’
‘That’s perfect. Thanks Bub, you’re a life saver!’
‘Just don’t blame me, okay?’ She won’t say any more.
Early the next morning, after a restless night on a camp bed in the Centre’s medical room and a breakfast of stale crisps, I pack a few garden tools into my shopping trolley and head for the address Bub gave me. The detached Victorian house could do with several licks of paint and, as Bub told me, the side gate has no lock. I push it open and step into what looks like the set of a dystopian film.
In front of me, twenty or thirty mirrors of various sizes and shapes are attached to wooden posts over six feet tall. Each of the mirrors is angled so that they all face into the sky. An unpruned grape vine clings to the posts, spills down from the mirrors and spreads across the ground.
Overgrown trees and hedges obscure my view of the house. I step carefully along mossy paving stones and find myself surrounded by Daleks. On closer inspection, they turn out to be plastic water butts. Someone has glued empty plastic bottles to their flanks, pointing upwards so that they look like guns, and sprayed the whole structure with silver paint.
All around them, mint and strawberries are going native. Beyond the Dalek commune, the foliage gradually thins out until I can see the back door. On either side of it on the first floor, windows are open.
Between me and the house there’s a hole in the ground. This is not any old hole, but the Grand Canyon of abandoned garden projects. It’s almost as wide as the house and, down one side of it, a flight of ten or fifteen concrete steps descends to the boggy bottom. The other side opens into a slope overgrown with ferns and bramble with, here and there, a late daffodil struggling for attention.
While I’m wondering if the steps are safe, I hear a twang and a pencil flies past my head. I drop on all fours, just as a bucket is emptied out of one of the upstairs windows. Fortunately, the smelly contents fall short of where I crouch behind a conveniently placed flowerpot.
‘Cut that out, you idiot! She’s the new gardener!’
The voice is loud, male and vaguely familiar. I raise my head. From each of two upstairs windows, a head wearing a motorcycle helmet pokes out. Both have their visors down. The red helmet is bouncing with excitement. The silver one is looking from me to the other so fast it appears to be rotating. Both of them bob up and down. It looks like a game of post-apocalyptic Splat the Rat.
Red is roaring at me. ‘Get off my property! I warn you, I’m armed!’
Silver leans further out of his window. Tall and thin, he’s wearing my top turn-off, a string vest. His pimply flesh is past the first flush of youth but, as his sprouting chest hairs are black, not grey, I estimate that he’s probably in his forties. I’m relieved, firstly because he’s human, secondly because I can’t see anything below his waist. This time of national emergency has encouraged far too many citizens to abandon their pants.
‘Ignore my brother. He’s armed with a home-made bow and his bathwater, and he’s a terrible shot with both of them.’
‘Nonsense! I almost landed one on her. The sun was in my eyes when I took aim,’ says Red.
I’m halfway to the gate when Silver shouts, ‘Bub told me you were looking for work!’
I stop in my tracks because I desperately need this job. However, I’m averse to having things thrown at me. ‘I’m not sure. This is like War of the Worlds meets The Secret Garden.’
Gleefully, Red waves his arms above his head. ‘You’ve got it in one! I’ve been a survivalist all my life. I’m fully prepared to defeat existential threats to our planet. That’s what my garden is all about.’
They’ve never covered anything like this on Gardeners’ Question time, so I listen up. ‘Really? What are the mirrors for?’
‘They’re precisely positioned to destroy asteroids that approach Earth. Angled to deflect the heat of the sun, the mirrors will melt them into cosmic dribble.’
Silver nods. ‘Of course they will, won’t they, Lovey?’
‘It’s Lovage,’ I say, out of habit, but he’s not listening because Red is rabbiting at top speed about how wasting water is a major environmental threat. When he slows down, I pluck up the courage to ask him the question on the tip of my tongue.
‘Why did you make the water butts look like Daleks?’
‘Isn’t it obvious? When the social contract breaks down and the ravenous hordes come for our water, they won’t dare to take on a brigade of Daleks!’
I can hardly wait to hear Red’s explanation for the hole in the ground, and I don’t have to, because this is clearly his obsession. He shakes a fist in the general direction of his brother. ‘I sweated pints, digging out the location for a nuclear bunker and building those steps. And after all that, you couldn’t get your act together to finish the job!’
‘Where was I supposed to buy a pre-loved shipping container? B&Q, or Wickes?’
‘Did you try Amazon?’
I’ve given up trying to follow their conversation. Instead, I’m taking a look around, and I’ve realised that I’m standing in a walled garden, neglected for many years. Shrubs have grown into trees and, what were once pretty borders, are clogged with weeds and dead stalks, but it’s not beyond rescue. I decide to give it a go because, whatever I do, I can’t make it any worse.
Silver is waving to attract my attention. ‘Well? Will you take our garden on?’
I look him as straight in the eye as is possible, when he’s wearing a motorcycle helmet. ‘Haven’t I met you somewhere before?’
He takes off his protective headgear, and I recognise the sky-diving instructor to whom I was intimately bound last Hallowe’en when Bub and I took to the skies. At the time, he had a bad cold and I named him ‘Mr Sniffy’.
‘Maybe. What’s it worth?’
That evening, I update Bub over Skype. ‘It was only a preliminary visit, so I accepted three tins of beans, half a dozen eggs and a four-pack of toilet roll. And Erica left a loaf of bread in the freezer, so I’ll dine like a Queen tonight.’
‘Bartering is all right for now, but what about next time?’
‘They’re going to pay me real money. The brother has made a fortune selling survival kits. He’s an expert on how to combat all kinds of natural disasters.’
‘So why’s he banged up at home like the rest of us?’
I’ve been wondering that myself, but out of loyalty to my new client, I change the subject.
‘By the way, after our skydive, why did you ask Mr Sniffy for his number?’
‘I never. He gave me his card because he’s sweet on you. I’ve been saving it until you was in the right frame of mind.’
‘And which frame of mind is that, Bub?’
Loarn is currently trying to place her first crime novel and working on a range of short stories she aims to self-publish this year. Her day job is supporting hearing-impaired university students, she also volunteers and has recently passed British Sign Language Level 2. ‘For the Duration’ is the latest instalment in her series ‘Up the Community Centre‘ which she generously writes for Funny Pearls.