I pulled up outside the house and turned off the engine. The final words of my so-called ‘life coach’ rang in my ears, this is the first day of the rest of your life. I’d cringed at the cliché; it hadn’t felt true at the time. But today it did – if all went well that is. Time for my first... ah! I hadn’t even got the terminology sorted yet. First... customer? Not being paid. Victim? Have some belief in yourself man!
The sky was bright blue, but ominous clouds approached from the west. I suddenly had cold feet. It was a long time since I’d dealt with actual people in my work. Jo was one of the few people I felt comfortable with, and when she was deep in a new game, we barely spoke for days. The thought of her mockery if I bottled out got me out of the car. I reminded myself that I may not know about people but I did know wildlife. I took a deep breath and steadied myself by assessing the property.
Standard three bedroom, semi-detached. Weeds growing out of the path – promising, indicating someone who doesn’t believe nature needs to be hammered into submission. But the weeds hadn’t been allowed to take over, showing a level of care for the property, also promising. I straightened my back and adopted a posture that said ‘I’m a trustworthy expert in my field and not a rapist or estate agent’ and strode up the path to the door. I paused at the extravagant vampire bat knocker.
I sprang back in shock when the door was flung open in my face and an angry black-clad spectre ran out, shouting.
‘Stop trying to control me, you fucking cow!’
A teenage boy stormed past me, throwing me a dark look. Frantic barking signalled the arrival soon after by a pink-collared Yorkshire terrier that thought it was a Rottweiler. Bared teeth hurled themselves at my ankles, but drew back each time a millimetre from making contact. She caught my eye and brief looks were exchanged. The flash from her brown eyes informed me that she felt she had to go the extra mile because she’d been slow on the uptake, being momentarily confused by the shouting teenage boy. Mine said, I’m admiring your precision and I’m not concerned. She tailed off her barking and growling in fits and starts until I was thoroughly checked out and deemed acceptable. A pink tongue licked my hand and she looked up at me.
Liquid brown, kohl-rimmed, emotion-filled eyes begged my forgiveness for the over-zealous greeting. They beseeched me to understand it’s just what she had to do. Their brown moistness reassured me I was now welcome to stroke her if I should so wish. She tipped her body sideways a fraction in the tiniest of hints to admire her silky ears, her honey-coloured fur, all shades of white, grey, golden, silver and brown. Wavy, but short and velvety, clearly recently cut. Her tail thumped softly in the sure knowledge that I’d have to bend down and have a stroke.
I squatted down, stroking her back and ears ‘Aren’t you the most beautiful—’
An ear angled itself towards the hall landing as running sounds were heard.
What? I stood up quickly to leave, but I was too late.
‘Oh. Er, hello.’ The voice was like warm caramel.
I looked up and there she was. A human equivalent. The same deep brown eyes, contrasting strikingly with the lighter hair. One could say it was the hair of someone who wasn’t worried about letting her grey grow out. But having just seen the dog, it seemed like a statement of extreme style and panache. The colours, mingled grey, silver, honey and golden were like an impressionist work of art. The mesmerising eyes moved quickly through a range of expressions – anger, outrage, embarrassment, apology, then wry humour.
‘Sorry about that. Teenagers!’ She shrugged. ‘It’s all the testosterone, I’m told,’ she put out her hand. ‘I’m Lori.’
I straightened up and took her hand. ‘I’m Tim, erm... habitat man.’
‘This is Florence.’ I nodded down at the dog who, once formally introduced, ran off to take her place on the chair in the lounge where she could watch the street. She glanced back as if to say, you got up to the door unannounced this time, but never again. She was gorgeous, and Lori too. But the boy had thrown me completely. Such suspicion and anger in those deep-set black eyes. He’d looked at me like he hated me. And what had she meant by ‘murderer’?
In a blur, I followed Lori through a dining room/dumping ground and into a kitchen. Large Velux windows from an extension let in light over a kitchen table. Clear autumn sun streamed through glass patio doors. Lori opened them and ushered me onto the decking, exuding a benign, encouraging air, along with the remnants of an apologetic smile.
Outside in the crisp autumn air, I took a deep breath and regained my composure.
‘Are you okay?’ she asked.
‘Yes, yes of course.’
The sun caught her hair, creating a halo effect. I dragged my gaze away and leant against the decking rails to survey the long, narrow back garden; a shaggy rectangular lawn, concrete slab path, messy flower beds, a new-looking shed at the back, all surrounded by lap-board fencing. Like a million other suburban gardens.
‘Erm, what do you want to achieve in the garden, Lori?’
‘To be frank, I don’t have much time for gardening, so to make me feel better, I thought at least I could make it good for wildlife.’
‘The good news is that generally, the less you do, the better for the wildlife, so you’re off to a great start already.’
‘Brilliant,’ she flashed me a heart-stopping smile.
‘Let’s have a look then.’
She nodded and I followed her down the steps and into the garden. On the right-hand side was a tall thicket of bamboo. An invasive species. Non-native.
‘Are you plotting against my bamboo?’
I checked her expression – a hint of a smile. I risked it.
‘A bit. It’s your garden so I’m guided by you, but I’d get rid of it and replace it with a deciduous native species – maybe a small flowering tree, a rowan or wayfarer tree?’
‘Native species host much more insect life than imported species. The flowers will attract insects, and the berries will feed the birds.’
She didn’t look convinced so I dropped it.
‘No worries, it’s your garden and actually there is great habitat potential.’ I looked approvingly at a pile of garden debris and rotting logs at the bottom of the garden. ‘This is fantastic. You can create two habitats right here.’ I pointed to two big green bags stuffed to bursting with vegetation. ‘There’s no need to take these down the dump, just pile up all garden debris in a pile next to the logs.’
She nodded enthusiastically. ‘It’s not a mess, it’s a habitat. I’m happy with that.’
I kicked the logs thoughtfully.
‘I had to take the eucalyptus tree down because it was too big and near the house,’ she explained. ‘I meant to chop the logs up and burn them but then this area became a clean air zone so they’ve just been left.’
‘Perfect. Insects love rotting wood, and that will attract the birds.’
I heaved a couple of rotting logs over to the side to illustrate. On cue a robin appeared on the fence, head on one side, checking to see what might be revealed. He was in luck, a large earthworm wriggled around. We paused, enjoying the peaceful silence, that wasn’t really a silence at all. The momentary chatter of magpies in next door’s oak tree. The almost sonic boom of a flock of swans flying overhead to reach the park by the river nearby. A rustle in the bamboo, causing the robin to look sharply around, then jump down to the worm, who continued to wriggle, ignorant of its peril. The quiet murmur of traffic elsewhere sounding distant and irrelevant to the minidrama before us. The robin shot us a quick glance, then looked at the worm.
‘I’m not sure who to root for,’ Lori said. ‘Probably the robin. What about you?’
I decided against confessing my membership of the Earthworm Society.
‘The worm is probably too big for the robin anyway.’
She laughed and we watched, united in needing to know the fate of the worm.
‘I think he’s come to the same conclusion,’ she said as the robin flew off.
An earthy patch overtaken by weeds separated the lawn from the dumping ground.
‘The old shed was where the logs are now,’ she explained. ‘That was the old flower bed in front of it, but I’ve let it go a bit.’
‘Here, you can screen the messy bits by creating a false back to your garden with a hedge, so all these piles will be hidden behind it,’ I told her. ‘Hawthorn would work well, cheap, easy to grow, native species, and it will provide food and a nesting site for birds.’
‘Easy to grow sounds good to me. As you can see I’m not a natural gardener.’
‘That’s not always bad. Bees will like your dandelions and clover, and your nettles and thistles will support many insect species. I think your garden is great...’
‘Except for my bamboo.’ Lori finished, smiling.
I shrugged, not bothering to deny it.
I pulled a small trowel out of my pocket, squatted down and dug into the soil to get a sense of the depth and texture. The trowel was going in easy enough, no problem with depth. I rubbed the brown, earthy soil between my fingers... I dug another spadeful, still looking. A lone woodlouse, what had happened to the rest? Where were the springtails, the beetles, the millipedes? These were the building blocks of the food chain. I felt a jolt of anxiety in my gut. I’d not dug in soil for twenty years. Statistics were one thing, but the soil was barren. Where has all the life gone?
Florence trotted into the garden and squatted down gazing serenely into the distance.
‘Do you use a wormer on Flo?’
‘That will remove all worms it comes in contact with.’ I held some unmoving soil in my hand. ‘How about flea treatment?’
‘Is that bad?’
‘Pets rarely get fleas in winter so maybe give it a rest till summer.’
‘The vet recommended it each month just in case.’
‘It’s a good income stream for them, but one typical flea treatment has enough pesticide to kill millions of insects, not just fleas, but bees too, and it gets into the water supply, affecting aquatic organisms and amphibians.’
‘OMG, I feel like a murderer now.’
‘Look for less toxic alternatives. If they don’t work you can always do a stronger treatment if problems occur.’
I straightened up and spotted the tree stump from the eucalyptus. There was little point treating stumps with stump killer as they won’t grow once cut down to that level, but commercial gardeners often did anyway. If the poison made it to the roots as it was designed to, it would also have affected the surrounding soil. I rubbed the soil from my hands and peered round the garden. A few decking boards, and panels from the old shed lay among the logs which would have been chemically treated. There were several possible culprits but I had some potential solutions I could throw at it.
‘The treated wood should be removed as it will be toxic to wildlife.’
‘So a trip to the dump after all.’ The sky went dark as clouds obscured the sun. It started to rain. ‘Anything else?’ asked Lori.
‘No, that will do.’
For now anyway, I thought to myself as we headed back past the bamboo.
Florence followed us back and settled into her faux fur dog basket. I sat at the kitchen table, looking round. The kitchen was cosy and unpretentious. It spoke of a woman with more interesting things to do than housework, yet sufficiently clean that I felt happy to accept the offer of tea and toast. I nodded thanks as she set down a mug of tea in front of me.
She sat opposite me. ‘How long have you been a gardener?’
‘I’m more of an ecologist than a gardener, but I’ve done a bit of guerrilla gardening.’
‘Ooh, have you?’
‘Oh yes,’ I said, mild pride in my voice.
‘What’s guerrilla gardening?’ The way she said it made it sound far more dangerous than it was.
‘You plant fruit trees and edible plants in public spaces without permission, and even,’ I decided to play up to the romance of it, ‘in people’s gardens.’
‘I knew a guerrilla knitter once.’
‘What? Someone who gets rid of nits.’
‘No, a knitter, someone who knits.’
‘Ah, yes of course.’ Stupid idiot.
‘She knitted this patchwork shroud and put it over the statue of Lord Palmerstone in Palmerston Park.’
I laughed out loud at the image it conjured up in my head.
‘I think it was a feminist protest against all the statues being of male imperialists.’
‘There should be a statue of her.’
‘Knitted’ said Lori. We burst into laughter. ‘No one ever saw her after that.’
‘What? You mean...’
‘There’s a bit of conspiracy theory around her actually, because she was never seen again.’
The rain picked up, drumming down on the Velux windows.
I noticed the guttering outside her patio doors, which led onto the decking. ‘I didn’t see a water butt – do you have one?’
‘No. Oh dear maybe I should.’
Did she sound defensive? Tim, you stupid bloody idiot – cardinal rule, don’t make people feel guilty. Here was I, sat at her table drinking her tea, berating her for not having a water butt.
‘Sorry, no, I didn’t mean, look I can get you one. We could put it on the decking right there to catch the rainwater.’
‘Yes, that would be handy for watering the plants in summer. But I’ll get it, I don’t want to take advantage.’
‘Right, yes, okay.’
She nodded, amused.
‘I’ll put all my suggestions in a full report listing all the advice and materials needed.’
‘That would be great, I’d just been thinking I should have taken notes.’
While Lori buttered toast, I surveyed the garden out of the patio doors, mentally compiling my report. The hawthorns would be tall enough by next summer to screen off the habitat area behind it. The garden material piled at the back would decompose providing a habitat for invertebrates, which, in turn, would provide food for birds.
‘This is a great project you’re doing. I’m so glad you came,’ Lori echoed my thoughts.
‘You were the first...’ I paused, still wondering what term to use.
‘Beneficiary of your skills?’
‘Beneficiary of my skills – I like it.’ I smiled at her as she handed me a plate of buttered toast. Florence appeared at my feet, and gazed up at me with loving eyes.
‘Was it good for you?’ Lori laughed.
‘Thank you, it was... yes.’ I felt my face getting red. ‘Erm, you’ll need bare-root hawthorn saplings. It’ll create a hedge with a high wildlife value. I’ll email you a link. Plant them the moment you get them.’
The clock tower chimed. Twelve already. I paused. The idea had been to be strict, one visit, just advice, and if they wanted a gardener, they’d have to get their own and pay. That way I wasn’t undervaluing myself and my time would be utilised to its maximum benefit. Jo had been insistent. ‘One visit only, no actual manual labour.’ We’d shaken on it.
‘I could help plant them if you like?’