It was summer and dad had now renovated three bedrooms, a box-room-turned-en-suite-shower and our sitting room. He had torn down several ceilings, pried up random floorboards, exposed live wires, illegally rerouted gas pipes, illegally removed asbestos, and regularly polluted the air with toxic dusts and fumes. He had half-finished a five-by-three-foot model railway, and built, flown and crashed a remote-controlled model airplane – both on my brother’s behalf. And he’d now enrolled on a stained-glass evening course and purchased a professional-quality picture-framing kit.
My brother and I decamped to the garden while my mother’s pleas for him to commence work on the kitchen reached fever pitch.
Dad huffed off to the builder’s merchants, returning hours later with a giant cement mixer for reasons as yet unclear.
The garden was paradise for two small children and a bouncing young Labrador.
I remember it perfectly.
You turned a big, black, wrought-iron key – like something straight out of a fairytale – in the lock of the sky-blue back door and went out into a little courtyard. Behind you was a coal chute – a concrete box added later in the house’s lifetime that you could crawl inside if you were feeling brave. Behind that, there was a dead space blocked off by the side of the house and the concrete steps that led up to street level. The dead space was a good hidey-hole and home to my ‘snail farm’, where I diligently collected, and coloured-in the shells of, all the snails I could find – providing easy pickings for hungry birds. At the top of the steps was a broken gate and fence that led to a busy main road.
In front, there was an archway, which supported an Edwardian extension containing what would eventually become a second-floor study and the third-floor bathroom. Dad used the left side of the archway to store logs, and odds and sods of wood for the fire. A permanently leaking hosepipe and a ramshackle of tools hung to your right.
My favourite archway memory is of my brother and I bashing the ceiling down with hammers. Dad had promised us two quid each to relieve him of another pesky ceiling, and so we donned eye and mouth masks, and merrily beat at the plaster and wooden frets beneath. The plaster dust still found its way into my mouth – such a strangely familiar taste to me. Surrounded by broken ceiling, my brother and I went to claim our pennies… only for me to step on a rusty old nail that easily pierced my welly and my soft young foot. Dad pulled it out and declared it “not that bad”. Mum paid us three pounds each for our troubles and wearily began transporting the destruction up the back steps to a skip. To hell with tetanus.
Emerging from the archway, there were a few metres of concrete patio and, to your right, a long glass greenhouse leaning against the kitchen wall. Many of the panes of glass were broken and it generally looked like it might collapse at any given moment. We were forbidden from venturing inside. And so, of course, we did – every chance we got – to investigate the forgotten treasures within. It never did fall down the whole time we lived there and only one pane of glass got smashed.
To your left, nestled in the corner by the archway and the neighbouring wall, was a huge pile of old bricks. Now, these bricks became the bane of my childhood. Dad would be moved to build something with these bricks – a wall, a barbeque, a raised flowerbed. Whatever. My brother and I would be persuaded to move said bricks to the site of the planned construction for a couple of quid. We’d spend long, hot summer days waddling up and down, up and down, a garden the length of two football pitches, a brick clutched in each hand, praying we wouldn’t drop one on our toes.
Dad never built a single thing with those damn bricks. He never paid us either – mum did.
Then came what felt like miles and miles of scraggy grass for the first two-thirds of the garden. But there were a few notable features along the way. First there was a big, red-branched, circular bush sitting in the middle of the garden just a few metres from the patio. Its bendy, ruby-red branches – dogswood, I believe – made marvellous bows and arrows, which, with a bit of string, my brother and I would fire ineffectually at each other for hours on end.
Further up, a small pond amidst a rockery in the border. We were forever plucking fish, newts, frogs, frogspawn, tadpoles and water-boatmen from the water with nets, jam-jars and cupped hands for study, and lobbing clumps of pondweed at each other’s heads.
Reaching the top third of the garden, you were greeted by two plum trees. Dad installed a pair of swings, a shed and a line of fast-growing conifers with an archway pruned into their branches behind them. This is where mum and dad thought we played. And, yes, we did spend many happy summer’s days swinging in the heady scent of rotting plums.
But the final third of the garden was our real playground. This was a weed-ridden waste-ground that dad had spent the first summer, with all our help, clearing. He’d read several books on Victorian kitchen gardens and so set about planting authentic varieties of fruit trees, and plotting a vegetable patch. But, on account of her having no kitchen, mum went on strike and the main thing the garden grew was weed-grass. It became a depressing failure for our parents, so they rarely ventured up to the very top of the garden, where two creepy old sheds slumped in each corner. Behind them, we lit fires with stolen matches, sharpened our arrows with stolen knives and lived like outlaws. I cooked, and insisted upon us eating, disgusting ‘bread’ buns made from flour and water, and baked on a dirty old piece of slate behind my shed. My brother got his kicks by taking dirty dumps behind his.
When we were older, we liked to scale the six-foot fence behind the sheds and drop down into the industrial estate behind. Then we just sort of stood there, realising that the outskirts of a dog-food factory carpark was no Disney Land, and so sprinted all the way across the estate, round the rows of houses and down the steps to our back door before mum realised we were missing.
Each morning as I crossed from my bedroom to the bathroom, I paused to survey the garden – my garden – from the tall, long landing window. There were four squares of green stained glass in the corner and if mum caught you leaning too far outside when it was open you’d get grabbed back inside by the arm and yelled at for fear you might fall out.
One morning, I discovered my dad had dug up the dogwood bush – the source of our bows and arrows. My mother, brother and I got dressed and marched outside to see why.
Our Labrador, Cleo, clawed at the hollow where the bush had been as dad unveiled his latest plans.
“We’re building a pond.”
“But we already have a pond..?”
“We’re building a pond,” dad confirmed.
My brother and I were provided with shovels, while mum was put on wheelbarrow duty.
We exchanged conspiratorial glances. We knew that there was a small plastic pond shell, no more than a metre or so square, languishing in one of the creepy old sheds up the top of the garden. There’d been rumblings about this before. So we figured this was dad’s last hurrah before he finally – finally! – started work on that fucking kitchen.
We dug for weeks.
That man built the biggest, most pointlessly ambitious pond one man could ever set out to build. It must have been more than 12 metres long by six metres wide – a great, wobbly shaped crater of varying depths quarried from solid chalk soil and a metre-and-a-half deep in the middle.
It had been a backbreaking spring. My dog’s claws had been worn down to smooth nubs.
My mum took a photo of my dad standing in the deepest part of his gaping hole, his arms outstretched in accomplishment and a big grin on his face. How she didn’t wallop him over the head with a shovel and bury him then and there I’ll never know.
Dad fired up the cement mixer. Whether this was always its intended purpose we’ll never know – he may have very well bought it and then felt the urgent need to construct a pond. The pond was lined, its sides bricked up and its base concreted. A ginormous bag of gravel was despatched by the builder’s merchant and its contents evenly spread over the base.
Then – a momentous day! The leaky hosepipe was unravelled and the pond filled with water. This took a full day and a night, and – I’m sure – infuriated any hosepipe-ban-conscious neighbours. The next morning, my brother and I threw on swimwear and took a well-deserved dip. Dad yelled that we were stirring up the silt as we swam and splashed about, ordering us out. But the moment he disappeared to study a book on aquatic plants, back in we went. He returned now and then to inspect how murky the water was and unsatisfactory silt levels were blamed on Cleo, the dog, who’d ‘fallen’ in. Given she was sopping wet after being lured to the water’s edge and then shoved in by my brother countless times, this was a believable tale.
We begged dad to keep the pond as a permanent personal swimming pool, but the following weekend we arrived at an aquatic centre to buy fish. Koi carp, to be precise.