May 2009

By Martin Kirby

The table of smiles

I’ve been itching for the weather to settle and it has, into the season of scratching; when the buttery evening air suddenly becomes a soup of thirsty insects in which whirl swallows, swifts and our solitary Mother’s Garden bat.

It is advisable to adjourn to the kitchen table a split second after the clover casts a long shadow, or be tooled up in advance with repellents and citric candles. But we never do, never are.

There are too many spells, not least harmony and the thought that these are among those timeless minutes of indelible happiness.

Last Sunday, to the tunes of bee-eaters, blackbirds and golden oriels, we christened our skip-tip garden table with laughter in two languages, ankle slapping and a talk of Norfolk.

Lelia our niece and her boyfriend George, from Sheringham, were with us, as were our friends Mac and Conchita, Marta and Paula, all of whom know the equal beauty of the lush lanes of my childhood betwixt Blakeney, Holt and West Runton.

Leila’s parents, Maggie’s sister Sally and her partner Terry, are old friends of Mac and Conchita. Readers of my book, No Going Back – Journey to Mother’s Garden, may recall that the dye of this existence was cast in 2000 when we first came to the valley to visit Sally, Terry, Leila and sister Rosa while they were staying with Mac and Conchita.

We cooked over a fire of dead vines – we always lose a few every year – and then proved positive that what sunshine is to flowers, smiles are to humanity (Joseph Addison 1672-1719).

Everywhere you turn there are things that need doing around the farm, but George, Joe Joe and I spent several satisfying hours last Saturday talking football and turning someone else’s rubbish into that table.

The woodworm infested base was fished out of a skip a couple of years ago, its turned legs catching the eye during a back-street hunt for a parking space in the city of Reus. How pretty we looked with that strapped to the car roof. How pleasing to the eye it is now, painted sky blue.

The table top is made from a pile of fencing planks I’d been keeping my eye out for at the tip. I tugged them from the rubble two weeks ago, chatting to myself with satisfaction.

I may have been a smidgeon over ambitious regarding the overhang, giving the table that faintly discernable curve of the earth, and one leg needs a brick under it. But set on the rough grass beside the persimmon tree and ringed by an assortment of old chairs it holds the promise of happiness for one or two summers if we are lucky. And we can get 10 around it at a friendly squeeze.

There are some who think that Mother’s Garden is a haven of solitude (It can be), that I am part hermit (yep), and that we have found a way to hop out of the normal hustle with all its heated exchanges, endless anxieties and the non-stop hubbub of being.

If that means running away from the battering of the senses by endless television and information excess, the grrrritted teeth of road-rage rush hour and – ping – the hollow-eyed expressions of overload come tea time, absolutely.

But hang on a minute. I struggle. I fret. I fail. I am increasingly uncomfortable in crowds or out of my space. I need to hear sense from the likes of Sandra Ord from Thirsk.

“I live one day at a time, and enjoy the moment. I don’t worry what people think of me. I am comfortable in my skin. They must take me as they find me.”

She and friend Sarah Pitt from Ripon asked if they could call by, and brought with them Yorkshire friendliness and clarity. They made me grateful. They made me think. They reminded me of a colleague on the EDP from the land of dales and moors, summer wine and puddings brimming with gravy. He speaks in the same key. He is one of the most measured, positive, considerate people you would care to meet; a fine journalist.

Sandra sat with me beneath the fig tree and talked gently of her life, of growing up in Halifax a few doors away from Percy Shaw, the man who invented cats eyes, and not so far from my Gran’s roots; of sons born in Huddersfield now settled in Australia, of working as a district nurse, living on the Isle of Man, returning to her native county and finding community in Thirsk. When she spoke of her crippling rheumatoid arthritis it was crowned with a deep appreciation of life and the great care and consideration of her doctor and the people at the surgery.

We talk and listen a great deal here at Mother’s Garden, and I love it. People want to talk. It is an undeniable magic of this space. Time is to be found if we are open to it. Optimism rises in smiles and the gleaning begins.

We meet people from all over the planet, and so far this year they have numbered one softly-spoken retired UN worker from Madagascar (how I wish I could spend a month with him), a film maker from Suffolk (a friend of whom I promise to relay a great adventure another day), a mother and son from Oxfordshire (returning in the autumn), a family of four from Peru (yes Peru), five French Catalans (now that’s a story of borderless identity) , seven souls from Norfolk (oh so important), seven from Switzerland (regulars now) and eight from Yorkshire (not enough said).

As well at Sandra and Sarah we’ve enjoyed the company of Michael and Sue Kellett and daughters Molly and Rosie from Gildersome near Morley, and Sue’s parents David and Sandra Parker from Shadwell, the other side of Leeds.

I’m looking at the Red Lion and Brandon Buildings in Shadwell right now, as painted by Sandra for the 2009 village calendar in aid of St Paul’s Church and the community.

Their nine days with us went in the blink of eye. Michael and I may have chatted electronically for more than a year, but we both feel there is much more talking to do. They left us, though, with the essential example of family, and a hundred young vines weeded.

Can I get my soapbox out? It’s an old wine crate actually ...

I find that although society is pressured with all manner of quick-fix, selfish, gratuitous twaddle that kills communication, most people are acutely keen to talk.

True fulfilment only comes with endeavour, often shared. How crucial is the art, joy and value of simple conversation, having the confidence and security to express ourselves and the sense to listen; and how close to the heart that goes in terms of humility, family, self-worth, learning, understanding and sharing, among friends, adversaries imagined or real, and the generations.

Mind you, one at a time please.

There were days when I had to wear a suit, glad hand at lofty gatherings and try with mounting desperation not to make a small-talk arse of myself. I’d forget faces, titles and the notable accomplishments of a veritable assortment of the good and the great, while in my disorientation plunge verbally headfirst into no-go hotspots such as the health of a partner (recently divorced), the success of a business (just folded) or their impressive youthfulness (toupé and dyed sideburns).

Put me in room flush with chatter and my brain quickly sails away on the boat of my dreams (a Rossiter Pintail that we will call Ee-Aw, should we ever be blessed with enough money to buy one).

I cannot blame ageing, for I have never had the capacity to retain a list of names.

There was one painful evening shortly after Maggie’s life weaved into mine in 1992 when she offered to join me at a mayor making in the town where I had edited a weekly newspaper for three years. Councillors and former mayors, all very important pillars, of course, queued to be introduced. Could I remember their names?

Before I sign off, I must tell you with heavy heart that Megan our second springer spaniel has died. Almost 12, she now lies with brother Charlie beneath the plum trees, close to the path they would beat en route to the horizon and all manner of mischief.

Do we get another? Almost certainly, as company for Biba, Megan’s daughter, and to fill the void. But not immediately.

We will do as Maggie’s mother suggests; find somewhere peaceful, close our eyes and imagine ourselves on a beach surrounded by all the dogs that we have loved.


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