You Do Forget Things
© Jon Horne  

   They think I’m stupid, and that gets to me.
    First, let me tell you the things I don’t mind: I don’t mind that they strut around the place as if they own it; I don’t mind that there’s girls living with them, or that they seem to be shared out willy-nilly between them; I don’t even mind that they’re growing pot in the greenhouse, and that they go into the shed and come out giggling. I don’t mind all that because if I was in their shoes I’d be doing just the same. The world’s changed beyond recognition since I was their age - too much for me to tell you if it’s for the better.
    What I object to is being part of the furniture. Does an allotment have furniture? Part of the landscape then. Old Frank Jackson in his cloth cap and braces; digging his furrow, planting his marrows and smoking his pipe. Only today, this lad - I forget his name, the tall one with the beard - comes onto the plot with some girl I hadn’t seen before. “Morning Mister Jackson,” he says to me; then he says to the girl: “He’s an institution,” and the girl starts laughing.
    I’ll give him bloody ‘institution’.
    Let me tell you something about myself: I was born into the Great Depression. Out-and-out bloody misery in fact. My Dad - or rather the man I called my Dad - he could never find work, not regular. He was an electrician. Yes, they had electricity then. The trouble was, no one could afford to have it put in. So he spent his time working the allotment. We always had food on the table.
    He taught me how to work this little plot of land. That’s the thing people forget, I wasn’t born knowing what I know, I had to learn it the same as everyone else. He was a good teacher, and to be fair, he wasn’t bad as a Dad. My real father didn’t come back from the Great War you see, but that’s another story.
    There they go: the lad’s taking the girl into the potting shed.
    There was a copper nosing around here a couple of weeks ago. Little bloke, he was, with a face like a bull-terrier - and nasty with it, talking to me like I was a bloody half-wit, and going on about the next allotment and what he reckoned was going on in the greenhouse.
    “Listen son,” I says to him, “between you and me, I’ve been using the greenhouse myself - you know, tomatoes and peppers. Bloody wasted on them kids it is. If the landlord finds out, I’ll be turfed off of this plot.” I gave him half a dozen tomatoes to be going on with as well, since there was a bit of truth in what I’d said.
    Dogface reminded me of a Redcap I knew in Cairo, during the war. He had Sid Green court-martialled. Sid was an oppo of mine who used to run hashish back to the army camp. The Redcap found out and took six weeks’ worth of backhanders off Sid - and then turned him in anyway.
    I told them, casual like, about Dogface, so I hope they’ve had the sense to shift their plants. I didn’t tell them what I’d done though - not that they’d mind about the tomatoes, it’s just that they’d take it the wrong way.
    A familiar sweet smell is wafting over from the shed.
    They haven’t had the allotment long: Alf Smith had the one that the kids are on now. In fact I’m sure one of them’s related to him - a great nephew or something like that. Alf was a kind man, which isn’t a word you hear much these days. He was also a sad man, and that’s a word you hear too often. Alf was born in the Depression just like me, but he never really climbed out of it. He spent his life pushing a pen, working till God knows what hour every day in an accounts office. I can’t tell you much about his work though, because he never really talked about it. Something else about Alf, and this is where the young lad does take after him; he couldn’t grow vegetables to save his life. I used to do half his work for him, or at least stand there and tell him what to do. That’s how my tomatoes ended up in his greenhouse, if the truth be told.
    Cancer took Alf. He had no one with him. Too bloody proud to let anyone see him at the end: not even me. Or maybe he thought he was sparing me something, I don’t know.
    Hello, they’re back: the Bearded Wonder and his girlfriend, sunbathing. Topless. It’s enough to distract you from the turnips.
    We used to go to Rhyl for all that sort of thing - sunbathing I mean. Three motorbikes and sidecars in convoy through the north Wales hills, tents in the spare sidecar. That takes some beating. I’ve got an old photo of us - you wouldn’t believe it now; four strapping young men with a girl each on our shoulders. I married one of them, and I’ll give you a clue: she’s not sitting on my shoulders.
    Wartime stopped all that. I volunteered and got sent to the desert, and if you want to know all about it, ask someone else. I got shot at, had grenades chucked at me, and saw my best mate blown up by a landmine. I killed people. Probably some of them deserved it.
    I put off tying the knot till after the war. A lot of folk said I wasn’t doing right by my Jane, keeping her on a string when I could have got myself killed any minute. The thing was, my Mum had got so much stick off her so-called friends for getting engaged when she was still in black - well, I wasn’t going to let that happen. If I hadn’t come home, there’d have been men queuing up for Jane. In fact I know a few who weren’t too happy to see my face on VE day. Looking back, I still reckon I did the right thing. It wouldn’t have been fair otherwise.
    I never thought I’d outlive her.
    “Bye Mister Jackson!” calls the girl, and I jump half out of my boots.
    I wave back at them and watch them saunter off. I should be getting back for my tea soon. I’ll check the tomatoes first though. I’m just about to go into the greenhouse when who should I see but PC Terrier walking along the road. You’d think he’d have better things to do. I wait till he’s safely out of sight, then go in. They’ve only gone and left their bloody plants in there.
   
    The next morning, Beardy is looking worried.
    “Mister Jackson, are you sure that no one’s been here?”
    “Don’t worry son, I keep an eye out for troublemakers.”
    “Not just that,” he says, “has anyone been around?”
    I take my time lighting my pipe. After a while he bites the bullet and says: “That policeman you talk to - has he been here?”
    “Oh yes,” I tell him, “he dropped by just after you’d gone.” The lad turns pale, so I pile it on a bit more. “He was telling me about some local lads who’d been caught with drugs. I have to say, he was asking a few questions about you lot. Of course, I told him you had too much sense to get mixed up in all that malarky.”
    I’m pushing my luck now, so I get the next one in quick: “I hope you don’t mind, but I let him have a look round your greenhouse.”
    “You did what?”
    “Yes, and I don’t know how to tell you this...”
    White knuckles.
    “...but I’ve been keeping my tomatoes in there. Sorry son, I’ve been meaning to ask for ages, but never got around to it. Alf - you remember Alf? He always let me...”
   
    It’s a good job nobody’s about: I’d forgotten that dope makes me cry. It’s been fifty years since Cairo, and you do forget things at my age. They’ll get their plants back tonight, and I won’t be up here tomorrow. I’ll be at the grave. Alf’s too. I’ve cut some flowers.


      
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