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.

  Leave a reply


  1. Fiona Nevile

    Hello Domestic Executive

    I need his advice and superb maintainance. Perhaps if he gets new knees he might be tempted back.

    Meanwhile I’m going to visit regularly for tips and gossip.

    Hi Jane

    I keep on thinking, I must ask John about that and remembering that he’s not coming back. It’s the end of an era for me.

    I don’t think that he’ll enjoy staying at home. He’s such a mover and shaker.

    Thanks for dropping by.

    Hi Linda

    Of course he can retire any time. But he is retiring because his knees have failed not because he wants to spend more time at home. He thrives on his jobs. So the retirement was bitter sweet for both of us.

    Yes it’s great for D and me to garden together. But we both work in the day and evening and relied on John to keep things together in the garden. We also loved his investment in our plot. I probably worked an hour on a weekday evening in the garden and a day at weekends. Now this has to be ramped up massively. But even worse I’ll miss my old friend.

    Hi Dawn

    Yes we are positive too. And we are increasing the kitchen garden massively in the autumn so that we have enough ground to grow 90% of the vegetables that we need. This will be a joy (gardening is my hobby, and saves money too). The vegetables taste so much better plucked and cooked within minutes.

    Hi Magic Cochin

    Yes you are so right. Sorry about your father. It’s always the same. We dwell on the areas that we never ventured to.

    John would enjoy visits with a purpose. Thank you for suggesting this.

    Hi Liz

    I loved reading about the Dranes. This cottage belonged to the Danes. Basket weavers and smallholders.

    Hello Z

    Kenny sounds like he was a real treasure. What a shame that he had to retire.
    Hello Mary

    That’s a good point. Thank you.

    Hi Michelle

    Seasonal guest spots would be great. I must talk to him about it.

    Hi Karen

    Thank you for leaving a comment.

    Hi Tamar

    I reckon that if we do a little each day we can keep on top of it (vaguely)

    Hi Veronica

    Yes I agree with you. I wouldn’t dream of losing touch he’s such an old friend.

    Hi Amanda

    It’s the end of an era. Thanks for dropping by.

    Hello Ruthdigs

    I was so sad to see John go. I’ll keep in contact with him and try and encourage him to contribute a guest spot every now and then.

  2. Ruthdigs

    Oh dear, I feel how down you are through your words. John must need a rest as I don’t see him as someone to be happy sitting about. I’d like to join the others in wishing him well, and if you can persuade him as to the merits of a guest spot so much the better.
    Best wishes to all.

  3. Amanda

    Oh my goodness my Dear Fiona I do wish I hadn’t read this today when feeling maudlin and down.

    Okay getting a grip…. you are doing fine, better than fine and you will do okay without John, and how lovely that Danny and yourself are now doing these things together…

    Big loves xxx

  4. Veronica

    John Coe is obviously a very special person, and it’s sad that he’s going, but he must have thought long and hard about it and his decision has to be respected. I bet he’ll be delighted if you ring him up for advice, or ask him round to look at the garden’s progress. A guest spot for him would be brilliant too!

    Oh — and rememmber to take extra good care of his potatoes 🙂

  5. It sounds as though you’ve been pushed out of the nest! I’m confident that you will fly — or at least mow, weed, and edge.

    But if John’s got time on his hands, I could use some help …

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