I haven’t spoken to my neighbour in fifteen years. You’re probably thinking he bedded my wife Lynne or something similar. Unlikely, as she’s not keen on sex. Her most used bedtime catchphrase is
Just turn over and go to sleep.
No, it wasn’t sexual impropriety, something far worse. He left his wheelie bin in front of my half of the fence. Unbelievable, but true. When I spotted it there I moved it back to his side. Half an hour later it was there again. I moved it. He moved it back. Then I told my wife. She went out and started to move it back. Maurice came out and they had a tug of war with the wheelie bin until the handle snapped off. I was watching from the kitchen as she’s a northerner able to look after herself. I decided things were going too far when the handle broke so I went out. The first thing I heard as I rounded the corner was
in a Rochdale accent. Maurice stormed off with his bin and a message in his ear
We won’t ever speak to you again.
Ditto said Maurice.
At least the bins won’t ever get mixed up. His has the black gaffer tape on the handle.
From then on there were two small areas of Coventry* either side of my fence. It was a two rail fence dividing the properties. Maurice and I used to chat with our elbows on it when we took a break from mowing our lawns. Sometimes we’d share a beer. The laughter would attract Lynda, his wife. She could hit the ground running in any conversation. In spite of having a bypass, new valves, pacemaker, in fact everything that could be done to a heart except sage and onion stuffing and gas mark 4 for two hours, she always had a glass of wine in her hand. I was beginning to wonder if white wine was the essential treatment post open heart surgery. And talk, boy could she talk. Anything from the cheese and lettuce sandwich she had in Versailles to, well anything. My wife Lynne would hear the chatter and come to find out why the lawnmower was silent then join in. When it comes to chin wagging those two women would take the biscuit. Maurice and I would get back to work as it was pointless waiting for a pause. After a few minutes Maurice would frogmarch Lynda away asking hadn’t she better finish something or other leaving Lynne in mid sentence. This scenario played out many times until the wheelie bin came along.
*’To send to Coventry’ was a phrase which originated in the Civil war and later became used within the trades union movement, particularly in British Leyland in the mid 20th century. The punishment for members who crossed picket lines during strikes (blacklegs) was never to speak them again, or to send them to Coventry. They were so intent on punishing those who wanted to work that the car industry went bust. Perhaps not; anyone remember the Morris Marina?
When it came to holidays our neighbours immediately became very secretive. Before we all went to Coventry they would trip over themselves to tell us where they were going. Lynda often went indoors fetching a brochure to the fence. Now they would load up the car while we were out or leave in the early hours so the first you knew they were on holiday was when they came back. Maurice would strut about the garden in tee shirt with the most recent destination on the front. Places like Bermuda, Florida, the Rockies or Acapulco. I couldn’t be doing anything like that. A tee shirt with Lake District on it didn’t somehow seem to have the same impact. Besides, it would be the same one every year and for the last twenty five of them. There was no point in being secretive either. The hour and a half load up was impossible to disguise. Bike carrier, mountain bikes, hiking boots, water proofs, sticks, complete set of Wainwright Guides, electric fire, freezer box and essentials like the crate of beer told their own story.
In the absence of the spoken word, we began to communicate in other ways. Gardening for instance, and lawns in particular. If I cut mine, Maurice would start raking his as if he was trying to tell me he’d already thought about doing it. When March came around, it was a question of who would get the first cut in. Timing was essential. Too early and the frosts would do untold damage. Too late and you’d come second. Tension would mount. One year I checked the forecast and there was a week of frosts ahead. I got my lawnmower out, serviced the engine and ran it up. Maurice got his out and cut the lawns as quick as you like. I put mine away until the week after next.
In addition to holidays he also became very secretive about lawn treatments. I never saw him do anything yet his grass would turn greener than mine. I refused to be so petty as to to wait until he was out so I just put my lawn treatments in a white plastic bag. I discovered iron sulphate which would green up the grass wonderfully and also killed the moss. Maurice retaliated by watering his day and night. It got paler and paler. I checked over the fence and got out my lawn book. Fusarium patch fungus through over watering. I rushed in to tell Lynne the good news.
You won’t believe this, but Maurice has got fusarium patch.
Wash your hands love, it’s lunch time.
The week after, we went to the lakes. When we came back my grass had fusarium patch too, especially badly along the fence. I looked closely and found yellow clippings. Maurice and Lynda took one of their secret holidays shortly after. He arrived home sporting an ‘I’ve been to Venice’ tee shirt and discovered slugs had eaten his hostas. I saw him crouching and checking the few remaining leaves. He threw a glance my way. I got my box of lawn fungicide and stood it on the picnic table so he could see it and know exactly what the cause of the problems were.
I decided to put up a six foot fence along the lawn area so there wouldn’t be any more misunderstandings. Communication by gardens is after all, notoriously difficult. Being a good neighbour, I put a note through Maurice’s door the day before the erection. Brian turned up as arranged on Sunday morning at seven o’clock. He had the old fence down in no time using his concrete breaking hammer drill. I took him a cup of tea and noticed the bedroom curtains twitching next door.
Ta muchly. Which way round do you want these panels, guv?
I thought that was a silly question. I’m paying two grand for the fence and had no intention of looking at the flip side.
Best side facing please, Brian.
Right you are guv.
The first panel went up. There was a commotion next door. Lynda appeared in her Jim-jams. Brian stood astride the boundary holding the panel in place. He became the conduit of communication, his head was going from left to right like a tennis umpire.
Left. You can’t put it in like that.
Right. I’m bloody well paying for it, so it goes in like that.
Left. We’ll see about that. MAURICE?
Right. Carry on Brian.
Maurice appeared on the scene with a mobile phone. I knew he would be talking to his son who is a solicitor.
Left. It’s illegal.
Left. We have to have the best side or we’ll take you court.
Right. Brian, fit it the other way round.
Game, set and match.
A week later I bought a load of feather edge board and nailed it* neatly to my side. I painted it Burma Teak to match the rest of my fences. I decided to leave Maurice’s side natural and let it blend in and weather over the subsequent years. After about five it had gained a nice green algal patina.
*Tip: if you try this at home, pre-drill the boards using a template board and a drill slightly smaller that the galvanised nail to be used. This ensures the boards won’t crack, all the nails will be nicely lined up and in the right position to hit the cross rail.
When it came to entertaining, Lynda and Maurice were supremos. Lynda ensured the conversation and wine flowed, whilst Maurice bedecked in his apron and baseball cap commanded the barbecue. His sausage was almost as legendary as Lynda’s multi tasking. She could keep the guests topped up, sip wine, toss salad all at the same time as wheeling out stories. For big events they erected a small marquee. The sit down time at these would be my cue to cut the lawn. I have never forgotten the time my family were round and soon as our barbecue was ready Maurice decided to clean his cement mixer by turning it on full of gravel and banging the drum with a rubber mallet. Ever since, the timing of my lawn cutting has been very precise.
As the years rolled by, I noticed the attendance at the events was dwindling. I repainted the top rail of the fence or cleaned the roof of our summerhouse to check on the gathering. I could see the guests sitting with a glazed look and rictus grin, twiddling the stems of their wine goblets. Lynda was still croaking out the same old stories. God knows how many times I’d heard the cheese sandwich in Versailles one. Maurice had long since given up on conversation. He would either be poking sausages on the griddle or sitting in the background with a glass of wine, picking his feet or scratching his head. One time I smelled the barbecue and set up my mower as usual, then sat on a deck chair behind the fence, waiting. The cooking was well under way, when I heard Lynda croak from the patio doors.
What time did you arrange with them, Maurice?
But I thought……
The patio doors slammed shut. The barbecue lid crashed down. I took a peek over the fence and there was nobody there, but I mowed the lawn anyway. About mid way through black smoke was drifting over the fence, with the distinctive odour of an incinerator.
Let me bring you up to date. I’m not sure when or if anyone will be reading this, but for completeness it is now 2018. The constant bickering via turf, flowers and the like, has resulted in the two best gardens on the road. People in cars slow down to take a look. Sometimes they even take photographs. Over the years we have been neck and neck, occasionally one or the other just edging it. Then out of the blue Maurice started putting flowering plants in all over the place. He constantly attended his lawns, even on hands and knees removing individual weeds. For God’s sake, he even pressure washed his paths and patios and put a coat of paint on the front window frames. I felt threatened for the first time in fifteen years. Something needed doing. I searched Gardening World for inspiration. At last I found it. An Allett Classic electric cylinder mower. What sold it to me was this:
If you want an area of cut grass, use a rotary mower. If you want a fine cut, striped LAWN use an Allett cylinder mower.
Wow, that was it! Perfect stripes would sprint ahead of Maurice. It turned out to be a bit of an expensive beast but I bought one. In fact it was so heavy it was like pushing a dead pig with handles around the lawn. The motor turned the cutting blades but forward propulsion was human. No pain without gain I told myself as perspiration ran down my forehead. It was worth it. Within a couple of weeks my lawns had turned into bowling greens. While I was admiring my stripes, a smartly dressed young woman with a camera turned up next door, and started taking photos of Maurice’s garden. I went to the front fence to try to gain some more information, but Maurice glanced my way and then ushered her indoors. I knew immediately what it was. The cunning old fox had entered the Britain in Bloom contest. I waited around and caught the young woman’s attention as she left the house. She smiled but of course I hadn’t filled in the application forms. Maurice quickly ushered back into her car and spoke in those just tangible inaudible tones he had developed over the years.
A week later, I seriously injured my back lifting the Allett up three steps to my lawns while distracted as a sign was being nailed up next door.
FOR SALE – WILLIAM H BROWN – ESTATE AGENTS
My back didn’t hurt at first and I was too busy thinking about Maurice moving to let it, but by the time I’d finished mowing I realised there was no way I could lift the mower down again. I parked it and slumped on the garden seat and shouted for my wife.
Codeine love. Have you seen the sign next door?
Good riddance. You can check on the iPad later to see what it’s like inside and how much they’re asking.
She went off to make a cup of tea and to look for the codeine.
While I sat there admiring my beautiful stripes and wincing with pain I contemplated my time living next to Maurice. In the last fifteen years we had grown old together. We were now in our mid seventies and the time in Coventry had just flown by. No wonder he was moving, nobody could keep this up forever. I felt a wince of pain in my chest and in my back. A tear welled up in the corners of my my eyes.
I am so sorry Maurice.
Perhaps I should go round and shake his hand and share a farewell beer with him. Except I couldn’t move with the pain. It had probably been too long anyway.
Lynne arrived with the tea and codeine. She never could make a decent cup. For once she looked sympathetically at my drizzling face.
Is it really that painful love?
She pulled a brochure from under her elbow.
Someone put this through our letterbox.
It was a glossy booklet. Carlton Grange – luxury retirement apartments in ten acres of woodland and fine managed gardens.
Perhaps it’s time love? she asked.
I shuddered with pain and realisation. It most certainly was time.