An audio version of this piece is available here.
A few years ago I took an allotment. It was always a wildly ambitious – perhaps even foolish – thing to do, given my health, but if there’s one thing I have learned with MECFS, it’s that almost anything can be achieved if you are left alone to peck at it. Ten minutes here, ten minutes there. A week off. A month off, peck peck peck, and provided there is no deadline, you will eventually get any job done. Accordingly, I had soon put up a polytunnel and bit by bit the beds were conquered and dug and weeded. Things were planted, and they grew.
My site is not a council site and as such has a gloriously laissez-faire approach to plot management. I know a couple of plots where the owner turns up one day a year, digs the whole lot over in a fit of furious endeavour, then buggers off for 11 months and grows nary a carrot for his labour. Well, generally speaking, I went every day I could walk. Quite often the only thing I set out to achieve was a bit of watering, and weeding with a hooked knife on a 6′ pole, which is surprisingly easy to do (and you can use it as a walking stick when you go a bit wobbly). Once you’ve got a bit of ground tilled over and properly weeded, the maintenance isn’t challenging. And when I took a dive and couldn’t go for a month, well, so be it. The sad consequence of the latter is that I don’t recall ever getting a tomato from my plot (though I grew plenty). But I did get rhubarb, asparagus, broccoli, cabbages, raspberries, squash, and a terrific sense that I still had some sort of meaningful existence in the world.
I would typically be very nervous before going to the plot: elated when I got there (a feat in itself, given my balance, and one which usually required the aid of a walking stick, or a strategically carried tool that could be used as one); and super-elated on my way home after achieving something, however small. Even just ambling around and looking at things counted. It wasn’t the sofa.
And then, about two years ago, I became a lot more ill than I had been. This was ungood: I was in such a lamentable state to begin with that “more ill” confined me to the sofa almost permanently. My usual spring surge – a few weeks in April or May where I feel almost well again, albeit weak from lack of use – failed to materialise. My regular little walks stopped. My already sporadic socialising disappeared entirely. I couldn’t go to the plot. Every now and then I’d have a run of a few decent days, and down I’d go: turn over a couple of yards, stick in some garlic or sow a few seeds into it. But it was wildly insufficient, and bit by bit the plot was reclaimed by couch grass, convolvulus, and feral strawberries. And then I got too ill to even manage the extremely treacherous path to my plot. And that was that. I had a series of falls – at home mostly – which damaged the rotator cuff muscles on one shoulder so badly I couldn’t use a dinner fork. I wasn’t getting better. While all this was going on, my GP noticed that my inflammation markers were way up and sent me to be tested for kidney or bladder cancer, which was … well, basically that used up any tiny dregs of energy I had. Happily (and unsurprisingly), after a full battery of tests I got a clean bill of health. My kidneys just don’t work very well, and my immune system is inflamed. Cause unknown.
By last Christmas I knew I would have no alternative this March, when rent became due, but to give up my beloved plot.
In January I noticed that I felt less ill, and started to take a few walks. The minute you feel less ill with MECFS, you want to get up and do. So I did. At first, just a few hundred yards. Then a quarter mile, then a half mile. Then a mile. Then throw in a little hill. Hills are bastards. I can’t breathe going up them and my chest and arms feel laced with tight, red-hot wires. I can’t describe it adequately. But it’s human nature to persevere, so I persevered. I was exercising that damaged arm as much as I could, to restore movement. When I say “as much as I could”, I mean about 30 seconds to a minute of gently moving my arms about, per day. But it made a difference. My range of movement improved, then some strength returned and at least I could use my stick again, which reduced the likelihood of more falls.
Having established that I could not afford help, I decided to take on the back garden. Out I went with my loppers and some woefully inadequate gloves, and one stem at a time I hacked my way through what had become, over the two preceding years, a Sleeping Beauty tangle of bramble. Peck, peck, peck. Ten minutes out there, and a week lying on the sofa in agony. Ten minutes out there, and five days on the sofa in agony. Ten minutes out there and THREE days on the sofa in agony. I was getting stronger. Now I could use the fork for a few minutes. Half dig out one bramble, spend a few days recovering, then come back and have another go. And fuck you, nature, fuck you, fuck you.
March came. I became so anxious about the email demanding plot rent, that I started to avoid my inbox. I say “started to”, I avoided it entirely. It was by pure coincidence that I ran into a fellow plot-holder on the street during one of my sweaty and painful walks. I casually dropped in a question about the rents, and she said there had been no request for them, yet.
The request finally came at the end of April. Rent due at the gate.
The day before it was due I took a stroll to Little Tesco, more for the walk than to buy anything. It’s uphill. I was breathing OK, and by now I could do half an hour in the garden, on a good day. They have a cash machine. I took out enough to cover the rent, mindlessly. No thought behind it, because if I stopped to think it through I shouldn’t, I shouldn’t. Oh, but it’s too late now, I have.
The following morning I pulled on some clothes and a hat, grabbed my stick, and went to the gate. I think they were fairly amazed to see me, but nobody actually threw any rocks, which I took to be a good sign. I paid up, and walked to my plot to see what had become of it.
A meadow, almost lovely.
The bones of my carefully created beds were buried somewhere. The raspberries had taken full advantage of my absence and staged a green coup at the western end. Some sort of leafy chinese thing I’d planted halfway up the plot had gone full triffid. Oh, what have I done, paying the rent on this?
Further up the plot I reached my orchard. Two, maybe three years ago I put in a set of six embarrassing little twigs that I was assured would eventually turn into fruit trees. And now here they were, and they are fruit trees. Taller than me. Covered in blossom. Two cherries, two apples, a pear, an apricot. I put my hand out and felt a branch of one of the cherries, cool and fat with sap and life.
I can do this. I can do this.