I pay my yearly visit to the allotment committee shed/shop/ meeting place, to settle up my account with the Environmental Services Department of Manchester City Council: at £29 a mere snip, that is if you consider the self-provisioning of your bodyweight in seventeen-inch long courgettes, all arriving simultaneously and without warning on a randomly-chosen rainy Saturday afternoon in mid-September, to be a cost-effective method of home economics (which I do, as it happens, but I’m not altogether convinced Charlotte agrees). Behind the soil-covered counter, as she has been for her one designated hour every Sunday morning between March and October for the last thirty years, is Mavis, the fearsome bright-blue-eyeshadowed committeewoman whose lifelong proficiency in the art of vegetable growing is reputed to owe no small part to the power of her steely Mancunian glare to exterminate 80% of common British aphids species at up to thirty paces. She makes me just a bit nervous.
‘I’m here to pay the rent, Mavis. Sorry it’s a bit on the late side, like’
‘Aye well you’re not the only one. There’s a good thirty not settled up yet. Bloody disgraceful, I call it. The notices have been up for two months, not that any bugger reads them. I don’t know why I bother.’
‘Well you’re right there Mavis. Now I’ve got my cheque book here. What’s it come to, this year?’
‘Well, it’s the rent secretary you need. Not that she’s here. ‘Course she’s a waste of bloody space between you and me. It’s twenty nine quid’.
‘That’s great Mavis. Cheap at half the price, and that’s just for my bodyweight in courgettes, ha-ha. Mind if they wouldn’t all come in the same week I might be able to do something with them, eh?’
(From behind the counter: a blank, steely glare capable of rendering the common or garden suburban-grade pigeon unconscious at forty yards, minimum. Pointed fingering of moth-eaten ledgerbook which has suddenly appeared upon the formica surface. Silence.)
‘OK there you go Mavis. Twenty Nine Quid, payable to the Broom Road Allotment Society, right?. Mind I don’t write cheques so much nowadays. All done with cards and what-have-you now, isn’t it?’
‘Well I wouldn’t know. Don’t trust them myself. Al sorts of bloody scams you hear about. And I don’t go near those bloody cash machines either. Not even the ones in the bank. And as for the ones in the street, with every bleeder looking over your bloody shoulder-’
‘I don’t blame you there Mavis. Don’t blame you there at all. Ah- how’s your year been so far, anyway? Anything growing for you?’
‘Bloody awful. Absolutely bloody awful. There’s your receipt. If the cheque bounces we’ll let you know’.
I think she quite likes me really, I reflect as I enter the safe haven of plot 52B, via the curtain of unsightly and actually inimical to public health man-high death-brambles which insist on maintaining a perpetual claim on the blatantly ungated threshold, this two-square-yard area alone thereby infringing at least two clauses of the freshly-minted annual tenancy agreement. Pausing only to mentally register for the eightieth time this year the intention to Do Something About That, I proceed to a purposeful half-hour of harvesting among the only slightly weed-ridden late Autumn beds, emerging with a basket of edible greenery representing the material output of (according to some rough and no doubt flawed calculations I do in my head while busying myself with the small spade and the big scissors) a good six and a half man hours, spread over an equal amount of months, this time being spent digging, compost-hewing, and engaged in associated variants of the sort of strenuous field-effort familiar to amateurs of our particular pursuit.
It’s not a bad haul- and it’s not been a bad year, considering that what Mavis would no doubt categorise as ’absolutely bugger all’ emerged from the hard-worked earth until about mid-July, and Charlotte (I think) was beginning to suspect I was spending my Saturday afternoons at the football/ cricket/among the amply stocked hostelries lining the Old Neighbourhood’s stretch of the A6, and was only achieving the grazed and bedraggled ‘hard afternoon on the plot’ look by the simple expedient of launching myself headlong through some artfully-selected hedgerows on the way home.
But still- my green fingers cannot compete with the exploits of Irish Tommy, the Constant Gardener From The Corner Plot Near the Gate. Sure enough, he’s there as I make my way out, taking a break from his neverending labours to lean on the wall of his expertly constructed shed and take in the first half commentary of United versus Stoke City from a radio hidden among the cabbages (or perhaps he’s developed a strain of Medium-Wave-enabled brassicas in a spare half-hour, I wouldn’t put it past him). He’s a bit deaf, IrishTommy, and the ball-by-ball background noise, added to the rumble of 192 buses from the nearby A6, plays its part in the familiar dysfunctionality of what follows:
‘Afternoon Tommy. How’s United getting on?’
‘Well the peas are all right. But these onions I’m not so sure. Think the bloody pigeons have had half of them’
‘Ah that’s a shame Tommy. Still, a bit of time left, eh?
‘Well there’s an hour gone and they’ve not had a bloody shot on goal. Mind they’re probably knackered. That Hungarian outfit gave us a hell of a game in the week’
‘I saw that one Tommy. Thought fair play to them though, they pulled it out the bag late on. I’d give them a chance in Europe this year’
‘Aye well that depends. I had a look at the longterm forecast- we’re in for a bit of sunshine at least. If October is all right-‘
‘Aye well. Better get going anyway Tommy. Got a few calabrese here. At least I think that’s what they are. God knows what I’ll do with them, ha-ha’.
‘God knows what he’s doing with them, I don’t bloody know that’s for sure. Now if he’d picked Rooney from the start….’
Bidding Tommy my fond farewells (although I’m not sure if he notices: a labouring early-Mourinho-vintage United XI are mounting an all-too-late bombardment of the visiting goalmouth, and the Stretford End is in full voice), I clank my way out of castiron gates bearing a handwritten warning that Tenants Failing To Pay Rents On Time May be Subject To Summary Eviction, By Order of the Committee. Beating the matchday traffic by a practiced ten minute advance entry onto the heaving A6, I return home from the Old Neighbourhood, and arrive back in leafy Stockport for early afternoon. I am, in no particular order: authentically muddy; in possession of what may in all likelihood be a calabrese (certainly it is some representative of the broccoli family); and fully appraised not only on the prospects of an Indian summer for South Manchester, but also on the inherent flaws of Jose Mourinho’s squad rotation policy, with particular reference to the central midfield area.
Now if there is a better way of spending twenty nine quid, you can let me know. Along with any suggestions for what a family of three may do with eighteen kilograms of unreasonably-sized courgettes, of course.