Sustenance

This year has been a bad year for us in the garden. Autumn was late last year, the leaves not falling from the trees until November and so winter left us late and spring did not even seem to happen. The April showers visited us in May and now we have this scorching sun. Tomorrow the chill may return – Allah knows best. In the garden, the vegetables are not doing well. The slugs and snails have eaten the lettuce already, while the tomatoes, beans and corn just don’t seem to grow, their leaves going yellow and brown instead. There is a reminder in this for us. We thank Allah that we are not people dependent on our own land; we thank Him that the markets are still stocked with fresh vegatables and that we have supermarkets and shops to choose from. Working for a salary, we exchange our coins for dinner. So think of those who live upon their land. Those whose cattle and crops are their wealth. Think of them and be thankful to Allah for his many blessings.

And now think of our folk, our brethren and fellow humans in the Horn of Africa, in the Sahel, in Sudan, Bangladesh and Pakistan. Think of those folk who depend on the land and whose crops have failed this year. For me it is not the end that the beans will not flower – we will just visit the market instead – but for others it is a matter of life and death. So be thankful for what you have and remember and pray for those who are without.

From Allah we come and to Him we return. Say alhamdulilah for Allah has showered His blessings upon us, even if we do not comprehend.

Divine Comedy

If ever we needed evidence that we have no control over our own lives, it is in my garden. Last year my wife and I spent a lot of effort working on our vegetable patch, digging it over and working in the manure, all to little avail. It did not get enough light, we concluded, and so this year with advice from my brother and sister we decided to turn it into lawn, seeding it with grass while dispersing the vegetables amidst the flowers in our sunnier beds. The rather wet conditions this summer have been perfect for establishing that lawn. Zeynep did most of the work preparing the ground and making it level. A few days before she spread the seed I took it upon myself to move the compost heap, emptying its contents onto that flat ground temporarily as I relocated the bin. This may have something to do with what happened next. My wife scattered the seeds during the sunny spell we had a few weeks ago and with daily watering the grass began to sprout. And then came the rain. Over the past week the grass has really started to grow quickly and strongly, and almost the whole patch is now green. But a trip down the garden two days ago revealed a very funny sight. All over that fertile ground, amidst the shoots of grass, are a hundred little tomato plants, lettuces, cucumbers, even melons. Seeds from the rotted fruit and veg in the compost heap? Last year’s seeds revived? A scattering blown by the wind? God knows best. But an autonomous vegetable patch in our lawn – yes. However we look at it, our lives remain in our Creator’s hands. We may convince ourselves that we have everything under control, but the truth is quite distinct. Oh for the parables of our lives.

Spring is here

What beauty! It has been a long winter this year, but spring is finally here. My front garden is suddenly blooming; flushes of new green leaves and splashes of colour everywhere. There are pinkish red flowers on the camelia, purble tulips, bright yellow cowslips, orange on our exotic oak, yellows, pinks, blues of primulars everywhere. The scent is splendid. It is a sight that makes me mutter Alhamdulilah over and over again. Here is our front garden from upstairs this evening:

And another view from the front door:

And a final view out the back:

Alhamdulilah. Alhamdulilah. Alhamdulilah.

Fond memories

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.

Adventures from the kitchen

So I keep going on about writing – writing, writing, writing – but there is actually another past-time fast taking over. All of my hobbies are time consuming. It isn’t that I enjoy hard work, indeed I am probably one of the laziest people you could ever meet, but I love to see the finished product. So I keep on at the writing and the typesetting, though it bores me sometimes, because I want to see the end result. And I suppose the same is true of this new pursuit of mine.

For the first few years of my marriage I was banned from the kitchen after an unfortunate incident with a cake I had decided to bake for my wife. She had also heard rumours of the birthday cake I had made for my mother as a teenager, which my sister had kindly named the Stumer Cake. My reputation went before me it seemed. I was never satisfied with the exclusions of the no-fry zone under this regime, so one day I decided I would secretly flout the injunction. There was a celebration for two colleagues at my last place of work, so I decided it would be nice if I took with me a cake. And so my little adventure began, the result of which was a marble sponge, half ginger, half cocoa. The next day at work it all went rather splendidly – it literally went down very well indeed. Interestingly, one of my colleagues sneaked a piece to my wife for we used to work in the same office – and my destiny was changed forever.

I don’t know how many times my wife has asked me to bake a cake now. There was the one she requested when her friends were coming around, one for a visit by my siblings, one for my father and one more for my parents on our recent visit up north. I am now the official baker of Chateau Bowes. But cakes are not all I do. I’m onto pies now. Cheese and onion quiche. Apple, sultana and cinnamon pie. We took an apple pie to my grandmother. And the tour-de-force: lemon meringue pie.

Although there is a rather unfortunate tale accompanying the last.

We have at work a certain member of staff who is always on hand to help absolutely everyone out. She is underpaid and overworked. I can only say she is not of my generation – it is all I dare to say. Everyday I ask her how she is when I go to change the back-up tapes on the server. There was a week when she kept saying, “I’m fine, but I’d be much better if someone brought be a chocolate cake or a lemon meringue pie.” So I went home that weekend thinking that I would bake her pie. If anyone deserved a pie it was her, and so on Sunday evening I set about the task. It took me hours – the pastry base, then the fresh lemon filling and finally the meringue – but I enjoyed it all the same. Monday morning I delivered the pie. Well, who would have known it? I was certainly the flavour of the month. The whole of the executive team were busy tucking in.

Unfortunately word got out. My wife has a friend who works in my organisation and she had stories to report. Suffice to say, another embargo has been put into force. I am prohibited to take any more baking with me to the office. So a day or two later, there I was eating a slice of my homemade apple pie at my desk in the office when in walked our friend from the front desk. She asked where her piece was. I had to explain. “But didn’t you explain that we’re all happily married ladies?” she asked.

“Don’t worry,” I replied, saying the first thing that came to my mind, “I told her you were all golden oldies.”

I am sorry to report that I was no longer the flavour of the month. In under twenty-four hours my personal rating had shot through the roof and then back down through the floor. Oh, for my culinary adventures!

More bounty

Here comes the rain – Alhamdulilah. The sky is beige and its falling in sheets. Good for the garden I am sure. Still, my wife has rushed into the garden to defend her vege against the snail/slug onslaught – last seen heading for the garden with a bag of porridge. Don’t ask. Anyway, alhamulilah for rain!

Fire

While preparing our vegetable patch this weekend, burning the last remnants of our pruning, it occurred to me that the average Englishman hardly has any relationship with fire in this age. If we are cold, we flip a switch and do the same when it gets dark; the closest we get are the blue jets of heat on the gas cooker. Whereas my wife’s mother will stoke the flames in her wood burning stove to cook some fresh corn bread several times a week, whereas desert nomads would gather around open roaring flames comforting them in the deep cold night, we are a people of switches. So I started to wonder: are we in danger of losing the imagery of centuries? What effect does the loss of contact with one of the most potent influences on humanity have on our language? Standing there, watching the tall orange flames, the heat reaching my face though I stood more than a metre away, these random thoughts came to mind. In the evening, when I returned from the market, I arranged a pile of bricks both side of the now white ash and placed a grill on top. Dinner was delicious that night and I felt some sort of appreciation for the imagery of old.

Into the garden

We have this plant in our front garden. It has flowers somewhat like those of the Fusia, but glossy leaves and woody stems like a gooseberry bush. Does anyone know what it is?


At the bottom of our back garden we have another unusual plant. It seems to have two sets of flowers. First come the bunches of tiny bell-like white flowers, but they are followed by large red flourishes. What is this plant?

In the front garden around the pond we have some really lush vegetation. This is a good old English cowslip:

And finally, the Camelia bush in full flower at the top of the path in front of our house.


The beauty of Allah’s grand creation never ceases to delight me.