Joseph Coffey

Updated: Sep 13, 2021

Aileen and I

Rising from the treeline at the bottom of the gently sloping allotments stand the bare skeletons of four new flat developments. From Aileen’s plot, we can see the men scurrying across the rooftop in their fluorescent orange jackets. We listen to the incessant drilling and banging and crashing of construction, peppered by the workers’ occasional shouts above the noise. I ask Aileen what she thinks about the flats going up. She regards them from her chair beneath the apple tree, clutching a mug of tea, its steam coiling up from her gloved hands.

‘The noise is bad now, aye,’ she says, ‘but once they are up, that'll stop. We’ll get used to it. You used to get a lovely view of the sunset over that way, I'll miss that, but everyone needs somewhere to live.’

The allotments are bounded on three sides by trees cut into Walthamstow Forest, on land owned by the Corporation of London. After scrolling through old maps online, I found evidence of the allotments as early as the 1850s, a square splodge of land marked out poetically from the Forest by the Victorians as ‘spade husbandry’. A charity now runs the allotments: Aileen is a member of the board. This comes with some added benefits. She can park her car at the gate instead of down the bottom of the access road. A blind eye is turned to her evening barbeques, and while she works, there is a steady stream of friendly interruptions, questions, updates, and gifts of potatoes or turnips.

Despite the noise of construction, the sound of wild nature is all around. In perfect Beatrix Potter style, a robin watches us from her perch on a rusting garden fork next to a decaying tool shed. She sings valiantly, fiery red against the dull winter palette, and waits for us to turn over the earth for her so she can feast on the worms.

Aileen has rented her allotment for nearly twenty years now. On her strip of earth, she grows all manner of berries and vegetables, pumpkins, courgettes, runner beans, sweet peas, raspberries, gooseberries, blackcurrants, onions, potatoes; I could go on. What is more surprising are the sections of the plot yet to be cultivated. The plot is a patchwork of soil and tarpaulin, intersected with ramshackle borders of wood and stepping stones, brick, or concrete. Metal poles stick out of the ground, disused scaffolding for running grapevines or stabilising fruit trees. Many are topped with plastic bottles. Aileen tells me this is to stop the poles from ripping a rusty wound in your flesh or piercing an eye if you were to slip on the mud.

‘I've been coming up every day these past few weeks,’ she says, ‘but it takes a lot of work to fight back the weeds and get it all under control. So I appreciate your help, love.’

‘No problem,’ I say. ‘It's good to be out working again.’

She points out some progress she has made since I was last up, and from around a rampant stand of invasive bamboo, a fox with plumped-up red winter fur emerges and heads straight for us.

‘She's come for her breakfast,’ Aileen laughs. She stands up, walks over to her shed, and fills a bowl with dog biscuit, setting it down in the grass. The fox approaches warily and then proceeds to crunch its way through the biscuit.

‘I’m sure she’s the same pup that I found orphaned here about four years back,’ Aileen says. ‘See that scratch above her eye?’

The fox is close enough for us to see a hairless white strip of welted flesh just above her eye.

‘She’s very tame,’ I say.

‘Aye, she’s handy to have round, eats all the mice out from under the shed!’

We linger and watch the fox eat, the wind ruffling her coat, her eyes constantly flashing up towards us, ready to bolt at the slightest hint of danger.

‘Right, come on then!’ Aileen pulls me away. After all, I have come here to work.

Aileen is a gardener by trade as well as by passion. She runs her own business from her little silver Ford Focus, which, once the seats are down, serves as a van carrying all her tools and a multitude of hitchhiking spiders. I have known Aileen most of my life, and I remember her waiting in the school playground at home time, long black hair, arms heavy with book bags, corralling her twin girls, Mia and Jody. My parents chatted with her on the walk home (my dad having a particular affinity with her at the school gates as a fellow Scot; ‘You must remember to call her Ay-leen, not I-leen!’). We became colleagues and friends in the summer of 2018. She had just been diagnosed with breast cancer and needed someone to help her work. I had just graduated from university and needed to get myself out of a two-thousand-pound overdraft.

Aileen hands me a fork and talks me through her plans for the day. The fruit cage is overrun with bramble, like a sticky explosion of twisting limbs and thorns, so dense that a darkness lurks deep within. It has burst through the cage and swallowed up the gooseberry bushes, suffocating them of light. If left until the spring it will likely double in size. We are going to have to clear that first.

‘And by we love, I mean you!’ She nudges my arm, and I nod with a grim smile. Brambles were always my job. Tough bastards. Their thorns could sometimes be as large as a two-pence piece, and their roots anchored themselves into the earth as if made of iron. It had been hot that summer, very hot, and the sweat stung the scratches that riddled my forearms. Today it's easier, the ground is softer, soaked with snowmelt, and the brambles come up with relatively little effort. But still, my hands and forearms ache. The muscle I built that summer atrophied as soon as I stopped working and began a ‘proper job’ recruiting recruiters for a recruitment company that recruited recruiters into recruitment.

To make sure we have got as many of the roots out as possible (you always miss some), we have to move the twenty or so concrete slabs that form a rough path through the thicket, some of which look suspiciously like the slabs you find at traffic lights with the raised bumps for the blind. Aileen heaves the slabs from the mud and passes them to me to store for later. I had always been astonished at Aileen’s strength and stamina. We would work for eight hours a day, hard physical work, often in thirty-three-degree heat or in rain so hard it stung. Even when her chemotherapy started and her hair fell out, and her fingernails turned black, she would always be busy. Trimming hedges, deadheading flowers, or bent double like a yogi weeding flower beds.

It takes about two hours to clear all the brambles. By this time, the ground of the fruit cage has turned into a mire. The metre or so deep holes dug to get to the very deepest of the roots have become trenches that you could lose a boot in. Aileen calls a tea break, and we tramp back to the shed and sit down on the garden table. The wind picks up, and a flurry of snow begins to drive horizontally across the dormant plots’ greys and browns.

Aileen offers me a cigarette, and I accept gladly, for old times’ sake. ‘Don’t tell your mum!’ I laugh; that’s what she always used to say.

‘I'm meant to be giving up,’ Aileen says. ‘They used to come round and measure the carbon monoxide levels in my blood, but since Covid, all I get is a phone call. Easy enough to just say on the phone that I'm not smoking. Ha!’

Aileen had always been cavalier with her smoking. Once she had lost her hair and donned the chemo cap, she enjoyed herself by yelling, ‘It’s breast cancer!’ at passers-by, who had looked at her with a mixture of shock and disdain after noticing the fag smouldering between her fingers. Despite her light-hearted attitude, that summer had been the scariest of Aileen’s life. She kept working because she had to. She would have had no other means of income. But I feel her determination through that summer was in part down to a refusal to concede. She dealt with that cancer like a patch of brambles.

We watch the snow fall across the allotments. It melts as soon as it hits the ground. Aileen reels off other things that need sorting on the plot before returning to her clients’ gardens in the spring.

‘A lot of weeding…’ she begins.

‘There's always weeding,’ I laugh.

‘Don’t laugh! That's my bread and butter.’

The pond has become overgrown and shallow and needs a good clear-out. She wants to add a new layer of shingle to the paths that skirt the raised beds. But the job she tells me about with the most glee is her plan to build a treehouse in the apple tree. Her daughter is six months pregnant, and Aileen is dreaming of summer evenings years from now, with beers around the barbeque and children in the trees. It's good to see her looking forward to the future. During that summer, the future was not guaranteed and came one appointment at a time.

It's too cold to sit down for long, so we return to the fruit cage. The cage is comprised of five sections of temporary fencing, the kind found at the perimeters of construction sites. I ask her where she got them from.

‘Oh aye, I don't remember. Probably Paul got them off the back of a lorry.’ Paul is Aileen’s ex-partner. A part-time dustman, part-time dealer, who sourced illegal fireworks for the annual allotment bonfire. Once Aileen had got her diagnosis, she chucked him.

‘He was always pretty useless, but I couldn't put up with it anymore. I needed him to be strong for me, and he just fell apart. He still comes round to walk the boys every now and then, though.’ The boys are Aileen’s two Jack Russells, Angus and Freddie.

We measure some lining and cut it into shape before laying it across the cleared earth and hauling the slabs back into place. Next, Aileen wants to make a border out of wood which will run along the perimeter and around the slabs to neaten things off. We walk back to the shed, and she produces a portable joiner’s workbench from the dusty clutter. The shed needs organising too, another job for the ever-growing list.

‘I found this on the road outside the work they're doing over there.’ She nods towards the building site. ‘Left it for a few days to see if anyone came back for it, but after a while, I thought I'd take it myself.’

I cut the wood to size for her while she steadies the other end. The sawing is satisfying; each clunk of the wood hitting the ground produces a little burst of serotonin, a rush of achievement. That's a job done; a thing created. That is what I loved most about working with Aileen. I had found no work before or since that was as fulfilling. The process is beautifully straightforward. You turn up; a job needs doing, a fence painted, a garden cleared, a tree pruned, or a flowerbed weeded. You work at it, enjoying a stream of endorphins from the physical action, free to take breaks on the lawn, watch the birds, sunbathe a little, or listen to music. Once the job is finished, you can see an actual tangible change in the quality of the environment. The garden looks tidier, more inviting, more beautiful. When you add in the reactions of the grateful customers, the work is incredibly rewarding. Once Aileen began leaving me on my own to have her treatment, I’d spend all day outside, alone, yes, but busy and engaged. The solitude was another bonus, and I realised how strange it must have been for Aileen to take an apprentice into her peaceful green world. How lucky I was.

Those are the good days when the sun is warm and not too hot, and the jobs are long but not too hard. On the bad days, when you have the weather to contend with, it can be tiring, freezing, or boiling. But you never suffer from insomnia, anxious late nights worrying over the formatting of emails, or looming quarterly reviews. No boss is screaming at you. No stream of banal emails. No packed commute. No targets to be met or missed. Just what you can do honestly, with your own strength and your own will. You go between the private gardens of your clients, each like hidden worlds of their own, a slight thrill of trespass, or privilege, to see behind the uniform facades of the anonymised suburbs, a window into people's lives, which you have a hand in shaping.

Aileen holds the stakes into position while I hammer them down. My hands are numb with cold, but the stakes sink into the earth easily enough. The thwack of the hammer echoes across the allotments. By the time all the stakes are in, I can feel sweat beneath my layers of thermal clothes. We stand back to admire our progress.

‘It's already looking so much better, love, thank you.’

‘It does, much nicer. We should've taken some photos at the start.’

‘Aye, always forget that bit.’

‘You’re too keen to get going.’

Next, we cut holes in the lining to plant the new fruit bushes. Aileen has bought four spindly blackcurrant bushes that we place into the earth and cover with manure and compost mulch. The soil we put around the base of the bushes is dark and rich, stark against the slight grey of the earth we have just removed to make the holes. The smell is heady and sweet, and it squelches pleasurably between my gloved fingers. It writhes with worms, a testament to the quality of the compost. Next, we take two wheelie bins up to the entrance of the allotments. Outside, Aileen has had a large pile of woodchip delivered. We shovel the woodchip into the bins and, once Aileen has determined which one is the heaviest and gifted it to me, haul them back down to the cage, scattering it across the lining.

I’m glad the snow has dampened the woodchip. That summer, we were doing similar work at a block of flats with a large and unruly garden. The woodchip had become dry in the heat of the sun, and when we had used it to neaten the borders, dust and fungal spores billowed out with every thrust of our shovels. I took off my shirt and tied it around my face, not that it helped much. Dust was ubiquitous. I will always harbour an enduring hatred for ivy. People foolishly use it to decorate garden walls, but what they forget is that it is a tree, and eventually, it crumbles bricks to dust. Gardening was not a glamorous job, and the water would turn brown when I showered at the end of the day, but that too was oddly satisfying.

We smooth down the mounds of woodchip across the membrane. I fill in any gaps on my hands and knees and then stand to smooth it over once more with my foot. Aileen takes a step back, hands-on-hips.

‘There! Job done.’

The fruit cage is unrecognisable. Neat and ordered and ready to provide fruit for years to come. We stand for a while to admire our work. The snow has stopped falling. My waterproof trousers are muddy up to my knees. I’ve worked up a hunger for something heavy and greasy, like fish and chips or a battered sausage. I think about the work that I need to get done, incomplete submissions that wait for me back home, the glare of the screen, and the pain in my back from sitting down for too long. I much prefer the ache in my hands, the ache in my arms and legs after being in the fresh air all day. Aileen reads my mind.

‘Have you got a few more hours, love? I’d like to tackle that bamboo.’

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