I’d taken half a day off work to travel to my father’s house, and as agreed, keeping the the garden and house tidy while waiting for the lawyers (who where the executors of the will also) to finish their business and finally put the place on the market.
It was a wonderful house and home but both my sister and I had our lives in different parts of the country so the house was of no practical use to either of us . The best option was to sell.
It had been 3 weeks since the funeral and now it was late September. We all understood it wasn’t the best time to sell a house but ‘needs must’ and maybe we could attract those masochistic folk who take on the project of buying and setting up a new house during the months before Xmas.
I lived 300 miles closer to the property than my sister so it made sense I attended the house pre-sale. It was still a two hour journey for me but I didn’t mind going back to the family house; it would be the last time soon. My wife was very understanding and practical. A little disruption and effort spent by me now, keeping the house in good condition, would reap financial benefits in the near future; a handsome return for a little inconvenience we hoped.
It was a lovely early autumn day but due to encountering a little traffic due to road-works and me not being able to free myself from the office until 2pm, by the time I arrived at the house the sun was now too close to the horizon to start any serious work in the garden. If I put a ‘lick on’ I could just finish mowing the back lawn before dark , leaving the front lawn, the pruning and trimming for tomorrow morning. After that I would head home around lunch and make it back for dinner.
The next door neighbor, Jim Harlow, had kindly run his mower over the front and back lawn once a week but he was retired and I did not want to impose on him any longer. I had let him know I was coming to the house today so he could just tend his own lawns this week.
Jim didn’t ‘trim’ after he mowed so the edges were looking a little scruffy . I would call and thank him before I left and take over a small bottle of good whiskey I had brought along with me as a token of appreciation. I knew he was partial to a little snifter in the evening while sitting on his porch, my father told me on occasions he used to join him when the weather was warm or a local topic needed to be discussed and put to rights.
Once I arrived I dumped my overnight bag in the hall, visited each room in the house to make sure everything was secure and open a few windows to let a little air in. Once that was done I decided to do a little decompressing with a cup of instant coffee, I’d brought a small carton of milk with me from work…it was warm but still fine.
With a hot mug of coffee in hand I took a walk around the rear of the house to make a mental list of the gardening maintenance jobs I could fit in while I was here and then a quick look at the contents of my father’s shed and garage; noting where the gardening tools where for tomorrow.
His tools used for repairs, gardening, decorating, and general handy work were a picture of organization, care and love. Too many tools to count, collected over his life time, all well maintained, sharpened, oiled and in their place. There were certain things in the garage that struck a chord in me, bringing the image of my father and memories of him tumbling into focus. How tidy his work bench was. The top must have measured 8 feet in length and apart from the inbuilt table saw it was a clear uncluttered space; something I know I would never have the discipline to emulate. This place has been well used and well maintained.
I noticed something relatively new fixed to the wall; a purpose built workstation made from plywood to hold his iPad, at a precise 30 degree angle; I knew this because his cut mark where still on the wood in pencil with the angles noted. I bought him this piece of tech, the ipad, but never thought he would use it. So it was a really nice feeling that not only did he use it but built a station to make it part of his tool set while he crafted various things perhaps using it to access the internet for reference. I found that a little overwhelming; he must have thought about me whilst he built this.
Since my mother died (apart from the wobble he had for the first 12 months after she passed away) he had spent his time keeping the house in good working order and making the garden, the lawns, and the many bushes and flower beds flourish each year. This was in homage to my mother, the real gardener in the family. He committed to keep her garden as she would have wanted it; healthy, well trimmed and colorful.
As well as keeping his own house and garden in order he was asked by some of his less able neighbors to do odd-jobs for them; mending, planting , making, or just lending a little muscle. He was a naturally fit man even in his old age. Whenever I phoned to say ‘hello’ and catch up he would trot out a long list of jobs he had done for his neighbors and friends…he was very busy and this work made him happy and gave him a feeling of being useful. Knowing he was busy made my sister and I feel comfortable, thinking he was more than capable of taking care of himself and he was in a community that watched out for each other and had frequent contact. This knowledge also eased the guilt when on the odd occasion my sister or I didn’t phone him for a couple of weeks. We did have a system that should have seen at least one of us phone him each week but life gets in the way and we got all out of sync very quickly. He never reprimanded us or tried to make us feel guilty when we missed a week to contact him. I apologized once and he just said he was happy either of us phoned at all and understood both me and my sister had a lot on our plates bringing up a family and we mustn’t worry about him, if he needed anything he would call one of us. I felt even more guilty after he told me that.
I had been told by the neighbors at my father’s wake. The told me a few things I didn’t know and some of his habits they will miss. Apparently it was normal to see the garage light on and hear work being carried out late into the evening. He never wanted to disappoint or miss a deadline, doing all he could to keep his promises to his friends.
He had a small place in this tight knit community, that of someone who could be trusted, relied upon and who would help wherever and whenever he could when asked. When any job popped up that he didn’t have the tools or skill to take on he was trusted to employ a tradesman on behalf of his neighbor, then oversee the work being carried out and inspect said work before payment was made. He was seen as a man of standards and someone to trust and it was a position he was proud of and enjoyed.
Clouds momentarily blocked the sun and made everything in the garage dark and broke me from my daydream. Once my eyes adjusted to the reduced light I scanned for the lawn mower in the garage but could not see it; the small shed near the lawn was the next place to look. I made my way there, unlocked the door and entered. The lawn mower was the only significant thing in the shed. The walls had a number of sheers and secateurs hanging on hooks so just gardening gear in here.
The lawn mower looked clean and ready to be put to work. It was a petrol mower and I knew, through watching my father over the years, that a couple of ‘pre-flight’ checks needed to be performed before I started to mow.
I quickly scanned the lawn and chose a spot, just beside the grass on the stone path, where I wanted to do those checks; it was too cramped in the shed. The things I had in mind where making sure I had enough petrol and the blades was sufficiently sharp, anything beyond that was above my pay grade. The mower was a ‘beast’ and I had to man-handle it along the path which turned out to be more of a job than I first imagined. I put my coffee down on the floor and pulled at the handle of the mower, reversing out of the shed initially then a tight 45 degree turn, then another before I was pointing in the right direction. I was out of the shed and about half way to the lawn. I stopped for a second to readjust my grip, rest and plan the next leg of the journey. I was very mindful that the lawn mower had very few marks or scratches and I did not want to disrespect all the care and love my father had obviously lavished on this machine by marking its paintwork due to careless handling. Despite this ‘pressure’ I was lumping on myself I was still looking forward to using one of my father’s tools in anger; after all he was the last one to start it up and use it. This got me thinking about him again and who he really was. How many times had he performed this very same act of coaxing the ‘beast’ out of the shed and on to the lawns and what did he think of while doing it and where did his mind wander to while cutting the grass? I got a little emotional and misty eyed, obviously still a bit raw from his death, a little bit sorry for myself and a little sorry for my father that he is missing this glorious autumn evening. I looked up to breath in the cool air and turn my face to the setting sun, savoring an experience my father would never have again, the bliss of being alive and feeling the warmth of the sun on my face. It was then I saw my ‘guest’ staring at me from the corner of the garden.
I tumbled through a number of reactions and emotions before I had even blinked. My first was surprise, I think I jumped back a little. The second was confusion as I had been glancing up at the garden and lawn all the time I had been maneuvering the lawn mower into position and I had not noticed the figure at all. Once I had come to terms with the fact he was actually there the next feeling was one of embarrassment that I had been so unaware of his presence , then I started to focus on his details. I was certain it was a man, a slender one but with rather angled features, not young but not too old or an old face on a young looking body. I was certain I had never seen him before. While one part of my brain was playing ‘face recognition’ another was getting me ready to flee. It was a fleeting sensation of fear but a strong one that left a knot in my stomach for a long time after. I was in a place where I had felt the most safe in all my life but now I felt the prickle of fear here. Such a stark contrast for me to digest. In that split second I first saw him, his face was dispassionate, inscrutable, head slightly tilted on one side, intently watching me like a cat watches a bird. Maybe it was that feeling of being ‘prey’ that triggered a primal sensation of fear and a rush of adrenaline making my knees tense and my eyes to stop blinking.
At the point he saw my reaction, and all those micro emotions rush across my face his features and demure broke into an amiable smile, his eyebrows raised and his cheeks widened to stretch his mouth in to a smile, but it felt to me that he was careful not to reveal any teeth. He raised a hand in a friendly gesture and spoke.
“Hello there. I didn’t want to startle you while you were struggling with your mower; it looks mighty heavy and an awkward thing to control. You were doing a great job. I’ve been here a few minutes waiting for my chance to say hi.” he said in a slightly high pitch non-threatening tone.
I knew, or I think I knew, that he hadn’t been there a few seconds ago, never mind a few minutes ago, but when he ‘told’ me he had, then I started to question myself. For reasons of desperately wanting this meeting to be ‘friendly’, it felt the right thing to do was to defer to someone who would know how long they had been sitting there….wouldn’t it? On reflection my predisposition was to trust this stranger and not to have a confrontational first meeting so was happy to defer to his version of the event.
His tone and pleasant approach seemed to calm my initial panicky feelings and be enough to set a scene for a ‘normal’ meeting of two strangers who both wanted nothing but to be friendly. I felt a burden rest on my shoulders to be compliant and almost automatically forced a smile to my face as if to signal I was happy with his explanation. The smile must have looked strange because that’s what it felt like, my mouth understood what to do but my eyes were still not willing to blink, not trusting this stranger, and until they did they could not change into the ‘smiley eyes’ required to complete the signal. I had to treat him as a potential friend, but he was really an intruder and that knot of fear was still heavy in the pit of my stomach reminding me of that fact.
“Hello. I didn’t see you there. How did you get in?” I shouted over to him.
Ignoring my question he continued “I am so sorry to hear about your father please accept me deepest condolences. The reason I called was to see your father and finish up some business we had together.”
“What business?” I asked. Once again he ignored my question and continued.
“He spoke a lot about you, I feel like I know you. If you could spare me a few moments I would like to speak to you; but not tonight. It’s getting dark and I need to set off for home. If you are here the same time next week we could talk. I have to run now. “ He turned to disappear around the hedge at the bottom of the garden leading to the gate.
“Oh! By the way; please do not put the house up for sale before we have had our chat…it’s in your best interest. Bye!” He had turned his back while saying goodbye in a deliberate way so as to not allow me to retort. I could have shouted at the top of my voice and run after him but I didn’t. I stood there for a full two minutes at least trying to digest everything that just happened. A silence overtook the whole garden prompting the thought ‘..did I just dream that?’
I walked to the rusty iron gate at the back of the garden that leads on to a path that runs along the river at the back of the house…there was no sign of him. I pushed the gate expecting it to open but it didn’t budge…it was locked. ‘How did he do that?’ I pressed my face against the iron bars of the gate to get a view upstream and then down stream. No sign of him or anyone. Directly at the back of the house, beyond the river, there was just rough pasture, rocky outcrops and random trees for about 20 miles, then the foot hills stepping up to the small mountain range. The mountain range that had been an ‘ever-present’ and watched me all my childhood. The mountains were very misty today.