“This ‘ere’s the secret,” he said, tapping the side of his nose, leaving a streak of soil behind. I leaned in closer, eager to hear what magic he knew. “The secret ingredien’ in all this… is the love.”
Grandpa picked up a handful of soil from the ground where he knelt, and held it out to me.
“Smell tha’,” he instructed. I hopped off the edge of the planter I had been perched on, and did as he said. It smelled raw and strong, sweet and earthy. “Tha’ there is soil watered wi’ love, lass.”
It wasn’t hard to believe. Grandpa’s allotment was the envy of everyone he lived with in his village. Mum used to take me down there at least once a week, dressing me up in the prettiest dresses, only to have to wash the grass stains out of the knees of my tights. I didn’t care, and eventually, she stopped trying, letting me wear my denim dungarees with the holes in, just like his.
Sweetpea and honeysuckle danced up trellises that reached the sky, and down on the ground, there were miles upon miles of leafy green tops, all bursting from the earth like erupting volcanoes. My favourite was the summertime, though, when almost overnight, hundreds of strawberries would tumble from the plants at the edge, near the shed; small ones and big ones, all fat and juicy. I remember lazy summer afternoons watching Grandpa with his spade, eating strawberry upon strawberry, sticky juice running down my chin and into my hair. At first, I’d hide them from him, feeling like I was stealing. One afternoon, after I’d had about seven, Grandpa sat down next to me, put his hand in his pocket and handed me as many strawberry tops as there were strawberries on the bush. I never had to hide it from him again – they were ours. Those memories were the fondest of my childhood.
It was sad to see it now. He still owned the lease, but his health was deteriorating. Fleetingly, there were moments of hope, where he’d reach out his hand to me, but there was never any recognition there. His allotment now was barely there. It was the first time I’d been down there in years; the soil was dry and claggy, and any life that still clung on was withered. There was no love left here.
I had come down to gather up the last of his belongings; the small shed now ramshackle still contained the gloves he hung up to come back to, his tools and a thermos. The lease would soon be passed on to someone new. Someone who had no idea what this place meant.
I sat down where I always had, by the shed, soaking up the last of the afternoon sun and cried. For the first time, I sobbed like I once had when I was stung by a disgruntled bumblebee, or grazed my shin messing about on the path. I sobbed for the man I knew and the man I saw now. I sobbed for myself, and for the soil that wasn’t watered with love, anymore. I sobbed until my tears ran dry and my heart hurt.
Downing the dregs of my waterbottle, I stood, ready to go forwards, away from the memories. The strawberry bush next to me was wild and untamed, but as I stood, catching my sleeve, nestled in the centre I spied one tiny, ripe strawberry. It wasn’t perfect – the sides had lumps and bumps and there was more leafy top than actual fruit, but in that moment, something changed. I knew I couldn’t leave this place as I found it. I couldn’t leave it at all.
Throwing down my jacket, I picked up the tools and began to dig, turning over the soil, making it new. Hours were passing in moments and as I turned it, the smell of rich, earthy caramel came flooding back all around me. It had been laying hidden, frozen in time, but the love, every inch of it was still there. I inhaled it like a drug, my eyes filling just as quickly as my heart. Potato tubers were still there, hidden beneath the surface, and the hardy rhubarb fought through brambles to seek the light. There was still love, here.
I dug harder, and faster, correcting the soil to how it should be. We couldn’t let this place go. Inside the tin where my Grandpa kept his secateurs, packets of seeds were strewn nonchalantly, half folded over, dirty fingerprints left behind, showing me how to hold them, how to open them, how to revive it all.
He may not have much time left in this world. He may not know me. But I vowed then and there to bring him a strawberry, grown from the love he sewed. I would tend to his pride and joy and keep it going, throwing in all the magical ingredients he did. Because where there is love, anything can grow. Where there is love, there is hope.
A short story a day, throughout the Coronavirus Pandemic. By me, for you.
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