I am, as they say, ker-nackered. I have spent the afternoon in the garden, trying to prepare my wife’s vegetable patch. We are on very heavy clay soil and the clumps are like rocks. After spending a couple of hours trying to break the chunks of mud into smaller pieces, I started digging in 300 litres of organic matter. The job is not yet done, but I cannot go on. I can feel the blood pulsating through my veins and I ache all over. I am not complaining however: it brought back happy memories.
When we lived in London, we used to share an allotment with dear neighbours of ours. They lived a good fifteen minutes’ walk from us, but we were always dropping in for green tea and conversation. Unfortunately (for me) they emigrated on to Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates a couple of years ago. My friend was from Peshawar but had come to England maybe two decades before; his grandfather was an English convert to Islam from the days of the Raj and so he had some connections with old blighty already. He was married to a Polish convert to Islam – the lady who produced the Polish translation of “Jesus Prophet of Islam”, for which I designed the cover. So for two or three years we shared an allotment about five minutes walk from his flat.
This afternoon, tiring myself in my wife’s vegetable patch, I recalled those days fondly. I remembered the days when we first got the plot. It was a massive piece of land – around 30m by 8m – and it was covered in weeds when we took it over. I remember the day when we got the key – the only tools we had were a screwdriver and a hammer, and so he and I were seen on our hands and knees trying to work the roots of thistles out of the ground with our primitive implements. Later on, we created a knot-garden at the front of the plot – a round bed of roses in the centre, with four other segments on the other sides of the path. We had a rose and a buddleia climbing over an arch at the front. That first year we had a constant supply of giant marrows all summer long and fresh tomatoes too. We also had a great crop of potatoes, which we had not planted.
My fondest memory, however, is of the chain gang. We had all that land, the soil rock hard and covered in thistles. We wondered how we would ever make any progress. My friend told me to leave it with him; I remember the sight – and the look on the faces of all the other allotment holders – when I arrived one Saturday afternoon. My friend and what seemed like fifteen Afghani men – dressed in sandals and salwar kameeze – were standing in a row, digging a trench with pickaxes and spades. By the end of the afternoon they had overturned an area 8m by 8m of weed-filled soil. I remembered that sight today – it made me chuckle. We did make progress in the end. We had a field of corn beneath which grew cucumbers. We had potatoes, carrots, parsnips and strawberries. But most of all, we had great friendship down there.
I miss my friend, but he is always there whenever I am working in my new garden. The last I heard he was making one of his own in Sharjah: date palms in the sand.