Lennie died a few years back, after we left Severnside. To say he was a character would be a massive understatement. He was, for instance, the last person in the village who still spoke in a Gloucestershire dialect so thick and uncompromising that I had to dredge the silt of my childhood speech to remember the subtle but occasionally life saving difference between ‘thee‘ which was friendly and ‘you‘ which wasn’t. The texture and cadence of his speech was pure King James bible, but not as spoken by a posh London type so much as a hefted peasant; the vowels stretched and broadened by fag smoke and cider. His cap was a permanent fixture – bolted on against inclement weather but worn equally indoors and out. His wellingtons were equally joined on to his feet, but turned over at the top as a kind of one fingered salute to the village incomers with their green Royal Hunters. I never quite understood the complications of his family life but his later marriage to Beck, who brought her own extended family, was rock solid. She was always smiling and unlike Lennie, never swore – ever. But when Beck had her stroke she suddenly started to introduce extraordinary swear words at quite the wrong places in her sentences. The local middle classes were appalled of course, and gratefully retired from patronising her. After she died – we filled the church with balloons and there was a real party atmosphere at her funeral (another black mark I’m afraid). Lennie would come to her grave twice or three times a day and talk to her; tell her all the news and hope for some news back from her. We wondered if he would step back from his gardening but he carried on much as before, winning all the prizes at the Flower Show (another black mark) and modestly accepting his place in the sun as the best gardener in the village.
I loved talking to him and had ample opportunity because I allowed him carte blanche to take away as many wheelbarrow loads of manure and topsoil as he wanted. There are very few perks to being a country parson but the regular marrying, baptising and burying of those who never came to church but liked it to be there when they needed it, attracted the kind of loyalty which could stop you in your tracks. I came back one day to find twenty tons of farmyard manure dropped off in the car park outside our front door. Wood chip appeared in huge piles after I mentioned that we’d be glad to have it – and one remarkable day I drove back and saw the outline of a giant quarry lorry depositing another twenty tons of topsoil; overburden from the local quarry – courtesy of a bellringer friend. Lenny made full use of the bounty and was always up for a chat because he was probably quite lonely after Becks was gone, and also because he was tickled pink at being able to wind me up without being told off.
When I say that Lenny was a good gardener I mean a really really good gardener. A single one of his prizewinning onions heavily filled two cupped hands. The skin was polished to satin, the roots pure white and the stalks neatly tied off with raffia. It was bewildering to see three or four apparently cloned vegetables side by side in their baskets at the show; identical in every way. Runner beans at exactly fifteen inches and all ramrod straight; potatoes perfectly true to variety and tomatoes, strawberries ………. I could go on! He was generous to a fault when it came to gardening but his secrets went to the grave with him because they always do.
But the village was changing. In fifty years it had grown from a small hamlet to a suburbanized dormitory village. The old-timers were disappearing one by one and the Flower Show – Lennie had always been on the committee – was taken on by an incomer who had no sympathy for the tradition and saw the way forward as a moderniser. The day we won all the prizes was a sad day for all of us. Lennie had had a falling out – he never uttered a word on the subject to me – and he failed to enter a single class, in fact he didn’t even turn up for the show. It felt as if the world had shifted in its orbit and the prizes we won that day had “dust” written all over them. We didn’t mind being second or third best – we never minded it because Lenny was so obviously better. He was the standard we all aspired to. It was the beginning of the end for the produce section and I wished we’d told him what an epic role model he was.
There are a handful of those gardeners who inspired our lives. Perhaps one day I’ll write about my grandfather Tommy Cox; Trev; Mr King and Mr Monks, but meanwhile we’re itching for the rain to stop so we can go up to the allotment. On Saturday we top-dressed the asparagus bed with a mixture of sand and leaf mould and today we’ll give it a small feed of blood and bone in the hope it will do better this year. I’m afraid the asparagus is dining in the Last Chance Hotel. Did I mention utter ruthlessness as one of the qualities all allotmenteers need?