Once Upon A Time in the West . . . Country (7 page)

BOOK: Once Upon A Time in the West . . . Country
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‘They’ll have to.’

‘Reversing is quite hard for old people.’

‘So is being reasonable, seemingly.’

Impasse. I glared at my two elderly adversaries and they glared back. Fran, an innocent civilian caught in the crossfire, sighed. Seconds passed that felt like minutes. No one did anything. Momentary stalemate. Not an official cease-fire, but a definite cease in hostilities. Time for both sides to review combat strategy.

‘I know,’ I said, having a bright idea, ‘let’s pretend to be asleep.’

‘Don’t be ridiculous.’

‘Just close our eyes and let them think we’ve drifted off.’

‘Like they’ll believe

‘Well what do

‘I suggest we reverse.’

‘You mean give in?’

‘No. Not
give in.

‘Reversing is giving in.’

‘No it isn’t, it’s going backwards.’

I looked up to see the man gesturing to me once again. Suddenly and with some emotion – none of which was positive – I slammed the car into reverse and began to hurl us backwards at an inappropriate speed. As if the recklessness of my actions somehow lessened the sense of defeat.

‘Look out!’ said Fran.

The side of the car was now being scratched by the adjacent hedgerow. I quickly braked.


‘We’ll have to do this slower.’


What followed was nothing short of humiliation. Watched by my two smug antagonists, I now had to reverse at a snail’s pace. The lane, in all its magnificent, narrow bendiness, demanded a measured, calm approach not consistent with my current mood. I wanted to do the driving equivalent of storming out of a building, but instead it felt like I was being forced to leave on my hands and knees.

‘Look how close he is,’ I said, pointing to the car before us, which advanced with glorious ease at exactly the same pace as my desperate and inelegant reversing.

‘Ignore him, he’ll just put you off.’

I returned to my thankless and degrading task, and continued inching us backwards, yard after arduous yard. Each inevitable brush with the hedgerow was received with a physical wince from Fran, and the hint of a smile from the old man, who was just a matter of feet away, rubbing metaphorical salt into a not so metaphorical wound. I tried so hard to avert my eyes from his, meaning that I had to keep my neck in a cricked and twisted position, providing a physical pain equivalent to that currently being suffered internally.

Four minutes and hundreds of yards later we arrived at a farm gate that provided the required space for our two cars to pass. As the shitty little Honda drove past, the driver had the gall to raise his hand in a patronising gesture of thanks. Fran put her hand on my knee to calm me and prevent me from shouting at an old man who was no longer in earshot, but also to reassure me that our world was intact, and that no one had been injured. Physically, anyway.

Thirty seconds later, we were level with the spot where the two cars had originally met. We continued another twenty yards, and there it was, the perfect widening of the road that could have been reached by our adversaries had they not been so unreasonable.

‘I knew it!’ I exclaimed. ‘I bloody knew it!’

Fran’s soothing hand gently dropped onto my knee again.

Over the next half mile, I did my best to calm myself down. It was just about working when a voice piped up, seemingly out of nowhere. It was the overly loud sat-nav woman.


‘Aaaah!’ I cried.

Fortunately Fran restrained me physically. Otherwise that sat nav would have joined the wildlife, ending its days lost somewhere in a hedgerow in deepest Devon.


Amazingly, we made it to the organic gardening course on time, in spite of the sat nav having initially delivered us to a nearby industrial estate. This is what sat navs do, rather than admit they are lost. It’s a default setting. When things have all become a bit much for them, they take you to an industrial estate. For them, this is more acceptable than providing the driver with the truth.


Needless to say that the word ‘sorry’ is not programmed into any sat navs anywhere.

The gardening course was on a small organic farm, and kicked off with us all sitting round in a makeshift circle in a marquee drinking teas and coffees, as informally as middle-class English people who have never met each other before are able to do. There were six of us in total, three couples eyeing each other with a cautious guardedness. Was this English reserve, or the fact that it felt a little like we were all about to undergo some kind of test, or medical examination?

The lady in charge, Joa, had a nice style and sense of humour, and was reassuringly muddy. For me this is a sign that someone is either a good gardener, or that they like to drink an awful lot. Joa asked us all, couple by couple, to explain why we were there. Malcolm and Ann were just like us, novices with a newly acquired garden, and Geoff and Maureen were looking to brush up on their skills. When it was our turn to give our reasons for attending the course, I toyed with saying, ‘To prevent the needless slaughter of further young lettuces.’ I opted, however, for something more sensible.

‘We’re keen to grow stuff and we want to avoid chemicals if we can, and learn to be more at one with nature.’

There. What splendid human beings we were.

Joa went on to explain how she’d got into organic growing, as a young woman, after she’d been poisoned by Lindane and developed pleurisy. I wanted to put my hand up and ask what Lindane
was – and what pleurisy
was, for that matter – but I thought this would give the impression that I was too ignorant to be on a course like this, and I thought it best to keep the truth suppressed.

Joa began passing on her green-fingered wisdom. It’s all about soil. We couldn’t just
from the soil, we had to put goodness back into it. A weed is just a flower in the wrong place. Composting was key. So too was controlling pests. We’d all develop new relationships with slugs.

Wise words, indeed. I, for one, was looking forward to the slugs bit.

We all enjoyed a fascinating morning, as we followed Joa around her organic plot and she took us through each of the stages of organic cultivation and answered our eager questions. At one point, whilst Joa was in the process of showing us how to bring seedlings on, she stopped and offered up a question for all of us.

‘Do any of you know how to prick out?’

Now, I knew the answer to this. Of course I did. But I just wondered why it was being asked on a gardening course. Wasn’t this one for a rugby club outing on a tour bus? I chose not to answer, just in case a demonstration was required.

‘Let me show you,’ said Joa, who seemed to be about to prove herself to be one hell of a woman.

‘Prick out’ turned out to be a pincer movement with the fingers – a neat way of moving the fledgling crop to a bigger container, before planting it in the raised bed. Soon Joa had us all gaily doing the prick-out thing – something I hadn’t expected to happen when we’d all shared that first shy cup of tea in the morning.

By the end of the day, both Fran and I had filled our notebooks full of information. We felt confident enough to buy pea, runner bean and carrot seeds as we were assured that we weren’t too late in the year for these. We bought some more lettuces, too, which I intended to treat more compassionately.

The planet might not be safe yet, but it had just taken a very important step in the right direction.


In the coming weeks, Fran took responsibility for the peas, beans and carrots, and I concentrated on my particular area of expertise – lettuces. The ones we’d purchased were infant ‘Little Gems’, and I had every expectation that this was exactly what they’d turn out to be when fully grown. Gems. And not so little, once I’d fed them with the organic plant food in which we’d invested.

Things went well, and the continued hot weather meant that I did a lot of watering in the early morning and at dusk. I found this very therapeutic and it enabled me to create a fatherly relationship with my little green babies. However, I knew that it wouldn’t all be plain sailing. We had been given a very important speech about slugs on our course. Slugs liked to come out at night and if we didn’t pay attention to this then our salads wouldn’t be that appetising. All sorts of alternatives to chemical slug pellets had been suggested as a means of protection, one of which happened to be beer. It seemed illogical to put out free beer to keep things away, and I wasn’t keen on any of the other methods either, so I favoured the approach of patrolling the patch physically after dark for half an hour each night. Hard work, yes, but I was up for it.

My first tour of duty, torch in hand, left me shocked. The slugs were already out in force. Each of my little apprentices had at least one small slug crawling upon it, eagerly a-munching. It’s a mystery quite how these presumably stupid creatures (academically they achieve little) know within a matter of hours that these lettuces have been planted, but know it they do. Somehow the word must go around:

Here, have you heard that the new idiot in the village has stuck some Little Gems in?

Yummy! Let’s get over there.

But how do they do that without mouths? Or ears? Or noses to smell with? It’s uncanny.

Each time I discovered a slug, I responded with an audible ‘Gotcha!’ and picked them off with my gloved hand. Harmless though they are, slugs are not attractive to touch and the big ones recoil upon being picked up, giving the impression that they’re wrapping themselves around your finger. I’m not overly squeamish, but I was grateful for the gloves, the extra pair purchased at the nursery now coming in very handy. Once nabbed, I placed each slug into a large carton of salty water. I assumed that this killed them quickly and humanely, but I hadn’t bothered to check, probably because slugs are both ugly and a nuisance and therefore one shouldn’t need to worry oneself too much over the method in which they are dispatched. Ethically very shaky ground.

Poor old slugs. They’re so slimy and ugly that it’s even difficult to write these words – ‘poor old slugs’. Many years ago, I made an appearance on a TV panel game where we comedians were asked what we thought animals or creatures might be thinking. I suggested that slugs were saying to themselves, ‘Euurggh. This is no kind of a life.’ The laugh from the audience suggested that we assume that slugs are miserable. They may be having a wonderful time, but compared to dolphins, they’re piss-poor at showing it.

The Latin name for a slug is:

Limax (-acis)

a slug.

Yes, the Romans had slugs too. The creators of Latin had made a mistake, though, when they’d allocated a male and female ending to the noun. It has since been revealed that these creatures are hermaphrodites. This doesn’t mean that they cross-dress, but it does imply that they have both male and female reproductive organs. I’ve often wondered whether this means they can have sex with themselves. If so, one imagines there would be very little sympathy for slug ‘single parents’. It would be difficult to argue with the line: ‘Well, they’ve only got themselves to blame.’

Biologists, however, assure us that slugs can’t have sex with themselves, and they’re probably right. Slugs would look a lot happier and more spritely if they only needed consent for a shag from themselves. Instead they have to go to all that trouble of finding a partner for sex. Admittedly, it’s made easier by the fact that it doesn’t matter whether it’s a male or female that they do it with. In that sense, they’re very much like pop stars in the late sixties and early seventies.

I collected and mercilessly killed twelve slugs on that first night. Their offence? Trying to survive by eating
lettuces. This, I’m afraid, is the rather depressing aspect of growing anything. Unintentionally, you’re providing food for other life forms, and they cannot stop themselves from seeking it out in order to survive. These organisms are so dim-witted that they cannot understand the nature of ownership. To them, it’s not obvious that this is
lettuce because
bought it and
planted it. It’s no good reasoning with them either. So we found ourselves locked in a battle for survival, being fought in the lettuce trenches. Pleasingly, it was a battle where the stakes weren’t quite so high for me. Even if I lost, I could always buy a Mars bar in a shop.

One gardening hint that I picked up on the growers’ course was that it’s a good idea to wee on your compost heap from time to time. Apparently, it’s an excellent ‘activator’ for the compost because it’s full of nitrogen, although I would have thought that would depend on what you’d been drinking the night before. I’m not sure how much nitrogen there is in Pinot Grigio, but I’d need to check. There are other benefits, too. No need to flush the loo, thus freeing up more water for those occasions when multiple flushing is required for that stubborn floater that just won’t disappear down the pan. I’ve never liked those. Unwanted calling cards that say: ‘Feel free to contact me if you ever want a consultation on the optimum diet for turd buoyancy’.

BOOK: Once Upon A Time in the West . . . Country
5.56Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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