The lawnmower boy.
As a kid and like the vast majority of my generation, I knew the family worked on a tight budget. If you wanted something extra, you got some kind of nickel and dime part-time job and after a kickback into the family pot, you had some money of your own in your back pocket. I did a lot of jobs like that, as did my siblings.
Initially I worked as unskilled labour for various local small businesses but the owners seemed to delight in having a new serf to order around and being young and hot-tempered and certainly no respecter of the older than you and therefore better than you idea, things didn’t really work out. I came to the conclusion that if a bunch of idiots like them could make money out of running their own business, so could I.
So I did. It was good experience. In a very minor way, I learnt the essentials of business, which would come to serve me well in later years. Things I’d only heard of before I now had to start doing. Things like marketing – you had to pin up a few notices around the locale saying what the service you were offering was as well as your contact details. Unless you announced yourself, no customer was going to come knocking on your door.
My first business was mowing lawns.
Most of my clients were elderly and female because as any life insurance actuary will tell you, women tend to outlive their husbands. This was in the days when electric lawnmowers were unthought of. You basically pushed a heavy cast iron monstrosity up and down a lawn in the scalding heat of summer and sweated like a pig.
Hard physical work like that was now beyond the years of my customers, but they still wanted the pleasure of sitting out in a garden they’d tended for a few decades which had just had a crew cut by a young lad kept going by being passed copious amounts of home-made lemonade or cordial to replace the rivulets of sweat. It somehow put the summer aright for them. Once I’d gotten over the novelty of earning some money, looking out over the finished product of a well manicured lawn became a pleasure we both shared.
One or two of them were nasty, mean and embittered people and I really can’t remember much at all about them. The good ones – I remember them in Technicolor with a Dolby stereo soundtrack added; their names, faces and even their mannerisms. These days, the gold floats straight up above the forgotten dross at the bottom of the deep chasm of the necessarily trimmed memories of youth.
They did the skilled work like digging up the whole root system of an old and valued plant like a particularly loved variety of Iris which had become overgrown, breaking off the new growth rhizomes and potting them to sell at a modest price as a whole new plant at the summer fête fund-raiser for some deserving cause. I drank huge jugs of the cordial as I pushed different varieties of ironclad monsters up and down various lawns, but at the same time I also learnt a lot about how one should properly tend a garden from simply watching them.
It was always fixed price stuff. I’d look at the size of the job, meaning the estimated square footage of their lawn, name a price I thought was reasonable, and an agreement would be struck. So, however long I’d work on it was irrelevant. It was always Saturday afternoons, so I’d always crank out a proper job as briskly as possible to leave the evening free. Good business, as my father told me repeatedly, is repeat business – do a good job and they’ll have you back to do another one, and perhaps recommend you to their friends.
They were mostly of that generation who were young adults in WWII which meant that although they’d by now bought the mandatory television, it was never on in the day. However, there was always a radio on in the house, and invariably in the kitchen because that was the hub of the home which’d be located at the back of the house, giving convenient access to a small vegetable garden or a modest patch of home-grown herbs.
I’d mow the lawn and listen to the radio coming out of the open back door to the garden. It was Rosie the riveter stuff. Music while you worked, monologues, audio documentaries and books adapted for radio as plays. Mercifully, innovations like shock Jocks and drivel radio shows had yet to be invented.
As always when you’re doing something boring or physically hard, listening to music or something else somehow distracts and makes it easier. A play came on the radio and I listened and gradually slowed down the big mower push, eventually grinding to a complete halt. I’d never heard anything like it. It was a play for voices specifically written for radio by Dylan Thomas – Under Milk Wood. I was stunned by the simple beauty of the language, its rhythms and the accepting forgiveness and understanding it showed of ordinary people.
I don’t know how long I stood there leaning over the handlebars of the mower, transfixed and listening, but the elderly gentleman whose house it was appeared with two folding garden chairs and we both sat on the half-mowed lawn in the sunshine inhaling that freshly cut smell of grass while I continued to listen intently without saying a word to him. I was locked in way too tight for any idle chitchat and he knew it because he was listening intently himself.
He was a retired professor of something or other but looking back on it, I think he took a pleasure in watching the unexpected impact prose poetry was having on the young buck who customarily bulled his brutish way up and down his stripy lawn once a week.
At the end of it, I think I mumbled something about finishing the job, but to be frank I’d been simply too sledgehammered by the whole experience to discuss it in any coherent manner. I’d have to think about it for more than a few days and definitely get my hands on the text. He took the garden chairs away without comment and I got on with finishing the lawn, but it was one of those moments of intense personal apotheosis you don’t forget. I knew from then on that when it comes to use of language, you can have it all.
My customers were very similar in certain ways because they came from a generation where conformity to an expected standard was strictly enforced by societal pressures, but as usual people found ways around the mores of the times and society they’d happened to have been born into. Some rules could be broken, just as long as it was done discreetly and behind closed doors. The sisters were a good example of that.
They were always called the sisters but they weren’t actually sisters and their relationship went a lot deeper than that. In an age when homosexuality was still a criminal offence and lesbianism wasn’t because it was considered simply unthinkable for ladies to be so degenerate, they’d settled in together for forty years and let the spinster sisters of the parish assumption grow protectively around them. From a few interpersonal clues, I worked out what the true situation was.
They eventually realised I knew, and I knew they knew I knew, but after an initial period of concern on their part, things eased off and we’d freely discuss forbidden books like the Well of Loneliness and the rather indifferent novels of Gertrude Stein and Alice B Toklas over scones and tea after I’d pushed, dragged and pulled their Victorian relic of a mower over that piece of blasted heath or cratered moonscape they called their lawn. Academia and a fondness for gardening don’t tend to go together. If ever a lawn needed a complete dig up, levelling and a reseed, it’d be their one.
They were both what’s termed bookish – half the house was filled with book shelves. I used to like that faint slightly fusty smell of books that always hung around inside their house. They did guide my reading and were very generous in loaning me their books, about which we’d have a lively discussion when I’d brought them back. I was at an age where the hunger drove me on to read a book much too quickly and therefore I occasionally needed the nuances pointed out which I’d totally charged past.
Being a practical man, I’ve never subscribed to the still commonly held view by some men that lesbianism is just something that could be instantly cured by a good old rogering. My experience is that nature trumps nurture every time, and it never really changes. I’ve always got on very well with people off the heterosexual main line, but I’ve never quite forgiven that pair for all the blisters on my hands and hard work I had to do because of them being too cheap to buy a twentieth century lawnmower.
Given the cash-strapped zero costs overhead business I was now the proprietor of, I by necessity used whatever antique push mowers my customers had. I soon learnt that the blades on the rotary drum had rarely been sharpened since the lawnmower had been purchased in the late Jurassic, so I consulted the oracle of Delphi, namely my father, about how you’d go about sharpening them and learnt the trick of it. Anyway, at start of season I’d always arrive with a selection of files from bastard to rat tails to sharpen the mower blades up.
In passing, one of my sons once happened upon me in early Spring filing a good sharp edge on my favourite spade and was somehow both puzzled and appalled at what he thought of as me destroying a garden implement. Busy and being in a slightly grumpy mood, I asked him did he know the difference between a shovel and a spade? After a moment of blank incomprehension, I explained a shovel was a tool you used to move a pile of shite from point A to point B, whereas a spade was a tool you used to cut into the earth and therefore like any cutting tool needed a carefully honed leading edge.
A light of comprehension dawned but I had a sort of mixed moment of regret as a parent that none of them have ever dug a hole in their life. One day of ditch digging ankle-deep in water in the midst of a bitterly freezing Winter might have taught them a few fundamental things that more than three years of tertiary education ever did.
Anyway, getting back on track, my seeming mechanical wizardry with push mowers and developing friendships with my elderly clients, led on to doing occasional handyman things around the house like replacing a blown light bulb or wiring a plug onto a new household appliance. Simple things. Anything bigger or more specialist, and I’d put them in touch with a good local tradesman I knew was honest. They were just small quick favours you did for a client who’d become a friend and therefore over their objections you simply couldn’t accept money for.
One of my clients was a widow lady, and when I say lady, she was exactly that and in the best meaning of that word. Quietly elegant, delicate, never snooty, always friendly and thoughtful and had impeccable manners. I was someone who’d learnt after a few sneery encounters to thoroughly despise the so-called gentry, but she was different. The first time I finished the lawn, she put the correct amount of cash in my hand with a small tip which I haughtily returned to her. We’d agreed a price and I was happy with that.
The next time, I got a tiny little envelope in my hand which when I later opened contained a modest tip. She’d found a mid position between her need to say an extra thank you for a job well done and not offending my over-sensitive proletarian pride. I never acknowledged it, but I liked the way it had been done, so I accepted the tip.
From the tidy way the garden and house had been set out, her late husband knew what he was doing. There were black and white photographs of them around the house, showing their progression from marriage through the war years and then onwards into old age. There was one of him looking very young and handsome in uniform and I could tell from the ribbons he’d been flight crew and earned a few campaign medals.
They’d never had children, so there wasn’t much in the way of a support network around but her man had set things up with his lawyer so that she and the house would tick over financially should anything untoward happen to him. From the photographs, they looked to have been a happy and loving couple, and from a few things she’d said of him, I often thought I would have liked to have met him.
She was the only one who never asked any handyman favours of me, but I got into the habit of spotting the five-minute quick fix jobs in the garden and around the house. We’d always go through the tip loop every time but I insisted such little bits of work were gratis, so we stuck to just the little envelope tip for the garden work.
One day she did ask a favour of me for the very first time. She couldn’t find her reading glasses and would I mind reading a letter written to her aloud? Of course not. Every Saturday after the big mow down, we’d sit in her kitchen drinking tea and I’d read aloud any personal correspondence sent to her. She still couldn’t put her hand on those confounded glasses and I never remarked on their prolonged absence.
Trust is something that grows between two individuals – it doesn’t usually form instantaneously between you. When you’ve had the time to have a good enough look at each other, that trust manifests itself as giving each other latitude, which means opening yourself up and therefore exposing yourself to the possibility of really being hurt by the other person. It’s slow to build between people who’ve taken some life damage and yet can be destroyed in an instant.
After reading a long and very newsy letter from her sister whom she hadn’t seen in years and who lived far away over the sea, I could see she was buzzing. I asked her if she wanted to reply to it, adding hurriedly I’d write it down for her. I saw that flicker of fear or shame in her eyes and assured her it’d be no trouble. I’d noticed the letters I was reading were months old. At that time, it was a rough convention to write the date on correspondence on the upper right corner of the first page.
Her head dropped for a moment but then she looked up at me steadily and said she’d love to if she could take advantage of my kind offer. For reasons I never found out and were subtly intimated I shouldn’t enquire into, she could neither read nor write and the missing reading glasses thing was one of her coping mechanisms. I’d encountered illiteracy before, and knew it was sometimes just an inexplicable inability an otherwise perfectly normal person had.
As with every good marriage, they’d each covered the other’s blind spots. Her husband had always taken care of the job I began to do for her. Through the summer, we steadily read our way through a backlog of correspondence, with her dictating replies as appropriate. I think because she could finally know what was in the letters and reply to them, it made her so happy in a visibly girlish way. What you might think was a chore for me was actually a pleasure.
It was an amiable experience but I learnt a few things myself as I took dictation. As I got to know the details of her life, she’d occasionally dictate a sentence which I knew would either read wrongly or wasn’t quite what she meant. I’d suggest a slight rewording and she’d say yes, that’s exactly right. For the first time, I was learning to express accurately and to their satisfaction other people’s thoughts for them.
The hardest letter I ever read to her was the notification of her sister’s death from a nephew she’d never met. A paragraph in, I hesitated to continue but she saw from my face it was bad news, but it was an unspoken facet of our trust that I never lied, filtered or spun what was in the letters, because that would have destroyed our friendship. It hit her hard but she took it like a trooper.
She asked me if I wouldn’t mind coming back tomorrow because she needed time to collect her thoughts before replying to the letter. I did, and the next day she dictated a very thoughtful reply to the bereaved son of her sister. It was all aimed at assuaging his grief, and not a word of it touched upon her own personal loss.
Inside some incredibly delicate orchids, you’ll find pure blued steel.
I mowed their lawns each Saturday through several summers and got paid for it, but they showed me some things that became lodestones I could use as waypoints as I navigated through the tangled and at times bewildering maze that is the journey from boyhood to the responsibilities of life as a man.
Quiet actions could say a lot more than showy declarations. Manners always mattered and there was a whole hidden and nuanced language contained therein. It was okay to be simply stunned by the sheer beauty of something and the restraint not to remark upon seeing a young kid being totally bowled over by it was classy. A loving relationship was about a lot more than just which bits of physiology fitted in which place. If you were clever enough to spot something other people missed, it didn’t somehow grant you the right to broadcast it from the rooftops. When you’re under real pressure, learn to cultivate an air of calm and grace, especially in front of children.
They were none of them ideal or perfect people, but they were generous to the young lawnmower boy whom they could plainly see was green and in his salad days and about to embark on the same long voyage of discovery they were nearing the end of.
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