The Cottage Smallholder

stumbling self sufficiency in a small space

Last day

Photo: Cauliflower portrait

Photo: Cauliflower portrait

“Hello. This is John. I’ll talk to you later”
John Coe isn’t keen on ansaphones.
I dialled his number and his wife Maureen answered.
“John isn’t coming today. His knees have given up. But he’ll be with you next week for sure.”
“Only if he’s feeling 100% better. Meanwhile we’ll mow and hoe so he doesn’t come back to a jungle.”

I had a sense that this might be the beginning of the end.

On Sunday we beavered away. Danny mowed the lawns whilst I hoed the kitchen garden. John is so quick and efficient. He has worked for four hours every other week for the last 17 years. It took us hours to complete his jobs. But it was fun, hearing D mowing the grass on Sunday. For the first time ever we were together working in our garden.

This morning John arrived. Smiling but looking much more gaunt. Danny repaired to The Rat Room for five hours of back-to-back conference calls.

John and I settled down to a long gossip over mugs of sweetened coffee but today there was none of the usual fortnightly exchange.
“I started work at twelve years old. I’ll be 79 in October. I can’t work all my life. I’ve grafted hard, so money isn’t a problem.”

John is a doer and shaker. He’s not one for sitting down with a newspaper.
“Oh, John, you’ll never retire. You’ll keep working until the bitter end.”
His face flickered. And then I knew that he wasn’t coming back.

“I’ve got my vegetable patch to tend. I suppose that would keep me busy.”
“Would you be happy with that?”
“I dunno.”
He looked grim.

When we opened the back door to the garden and he saw the freshly mown lawn he turned to me.
“You are coping fine. I needn’t have come.”
“No, John, you’re wrong. The lower lawns are not mowed, no border has been edged and I still need your help with the vegetables. The cauliflowers have appeared – when do we harvest them?”
As we walked down the garden John was reassuring.
“You can cope. You know most of the facts now.”
“Are you saying that you want to retire?”
“You’d be doing me a favour if you let me go. I can’t work forever.”

When I first moved to the cottage John dug all the borders, planted the hedges and created the backbone of the garden. Having been in the building trade he helped maintain the cottage. When I started to grow vegetables he really came into his own as he has been growing vegetables for nearly 60 years. I traded eggs for plantlets that he grew in his garden. And the benefit of the bounty has always been on our side as we get nurturing tips too.

“I’ll come back if you get in a muddle. Just ring me.”
“We need you to clip the yew and box hedging in August.”
“I’m not sure about using the steps with my knees. But I’ll have a go. Seriously I’d come back anytime to help out. But I do have to retire.”

I’ve come to depend on him over the years and suddenly felt panicky and alone.

The links with the past (I first met John when I was eight years old – 48 years ago he was working for my aunt) and the gossipy 45 minutes sipping coffee meant an enormous amount to me. It was an anchor to the past. And John’s work and enthusiasm was great.

But most of all, over the last 17 years, he has gently helped me to grow.

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  1. Karen - An Artist's Garden

    So poignant, and beautifully expressed.

  2. michelle sheets

    I agree with Jane, pleas tell John Coe his cyberspace friends extend all over the world, and we all have appreciated the advice and wisdom he has imparted.
    Maybe you could pursuade John to be another guest spot (with your help, of course). Maybe a to-do list of things that people should be doing specific to the month, (planting this, trimming that, looking out for whatever bug may be hatching). I’d appreciate it, thats for sure.

  3. You know, sometimes people come into your life for a purpose, and when that is complete they leave. Perhaps it is just time for you to go it by yourselves now.

  4. I know. Our Kenny came here from his official retirement at 65 until he was 87. He still calls round to see the children now, in his electric wheelchair. He had his 90th birthday last month. The place has gone downhill since he left, we didn’t realise all the little jobs he did, and we haven’t even coped with the big ones.

  5. Thank you for sharing John Coe’s knowledge with a wider world. When I lived not so far from your cottage I had the best neighbours anyone could have had – George and Rose Drane. ‘Draney’had lived off the land all his life. His cottage was at the back of mine and we ‘shared’ the big garden at the side. He tended it and I enjoyed the harvest for the whole lot was one big veg. plot with my flowers in one bed nearest the house. When it was freezing cold in the winter, Draney would let himself in and light my fire before I got home from work. Rose made the best jugged hare and the best ever stuffing for the Sunday roast. When we moved house he would cycle the three miles to ‘give the garden a do’ as he used to put it. I loved Draney very much and think about him often. I wish my children had known him too, he would have had much to teach them as John Coe has taught you. Wish him well and I am sure he will still be keeping any eye on you, retirement or no retirement.

  6. magic cochin

    I can sense the panic as you wrote this.

    John Coe reminds me of my Dad. There are lots of gardening questions I still want to ask my him – but it’s too late now. Time to find my own way. But sometimes long forgotten conversations pop into my head while I’m weeding the plot or clipping the hedges.

    At least you can jot down all the questions you still need to ask John and then write down his answers when you invite him over for a sweet coffee and a chat.


  7. The beginning of a new garden era! Who knows what knowledge and ability you will discover inside of you? I wish you all the best for the future of your property, I am sure it will flourish.

  8. I am sympathetic, but as long as his advice is still available, you’ll manage fine. At 78, surely he is entitled to hang up his ‘working boots’. He is unlikely to have decided this without suffering periods of pain, and he will know what he can and cannot do now.
    Also, you will feel differently about the garden when you have done everything in it yourselves.

  9. Jane aka:aromatic

    Oh dear this post is so upsetting .. I so feel your despair and loss. Its such a shock when something you have become so used to suddenly without any warning just ends!
    John Coe you will be very missed as so many of us in cyberspace have become so used to your words of wisdom.. this is a very sad day indeed!!
    With Love, Jane xxx

  10. Domestic Executive

    Oh my. Just as I was coming to expect another post of advice from John Coe and he’s retiring. Tell him no, he has a global audience that needs him too.

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