“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?”
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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