I went out to get a start on removing the tall grass that has colonised a large portion of the allotment. The plan is to start clearing at one end and fill the cleared space with seeds and plants, so the allotment will gradually change from a wasteland to a garden.
I brought a garden fork with me. My usual technique for clearing ground is to dig up a forkful of grass-covered earth, hold on to the grass and beat the clods of earth against the fork until they fall to the ground, leaving me with a handful of grass and roots, which I can later deposit in the compost heap. I had cleared a space of about 3×4 feet when the first visitor appeared: our nearest allotment neighbour, a gentleman of perhaps 82, who approached with a smile and a cheerful wave. I introduced myself, but unfortunately, he was a mumbler — one of those (usually older) men who, whether through natural reticence, lack of teeth or shock at suddenly encountering a woman in shorts and a sleeveless top, find it difficult to enunciate clearly enough to make themselves understood. He gestured, smiling, at the grass-covered allotment and said ‘Grumflashment brambly mummelbrm, eh?’
‘It’ll be all right once we get all these weeds out,’ I reply.
He peers at my fork, shakes his head and speaks enthusiastically if not comprehensibly: ‘Hrrmmm, snogoodthat. Whuzzyneedzn abrmmnd.’ He makes sweeping motions with his arms, and I understand that he is describing some sort of tool.
‘Like a scythe, you mean?’ I ask doubtfully. ‘I want to get the roots out too.’
‘Nah, nah, grumblemumble, show you!’ he declares and totters off, out of the allotment gates and down the street.
Puzzled, I return to my digging. A half hour or so passes before I hear a squeaking noise near the gates and look up. Our allotment neighbour is parking an ancient bicycle. He walks towards me, muttering cheerfully and brandishing a large metal blade attached to a heavy pole.
‘Oh, a mattock!’ I say, glad that I at least know what it is. The man steps down off the path into our ground and indicates that he will now demonstrate the use of the tool. I step back a good way and watch as he chops down into the earth, neatly severing the roots of a clump of grass, which he picks up, knocks against the ground and tosses onto my heap of weeds.
He hands me the mattock, makes a noise and a gesture which I interpret as ‘Leave it over there when you’re done with it,’ totters back to his bicycle and disappears.
With some difficulty, I lift the enormous mattock and get to work. After five minutes, I’m not sure but that I don’t prefer the garden fork, but I’m determined to make an effort so I keep it up. Ten minutes later, the old man cycles past the gates, peeks in to see me hard at work with the mattock, nods approvingly and cycles off again. After twenty minutes, muscles I seldom use are protesting to such a degree that I have to put the tool down and go back to the fork.