Wake up and smell the lemons
By Natalie Meg Evans
‘When one of my parishioners is finding things are tough, I say, ‘If life gives you lemons, make lemonade. If it gives you pips, plant one and grow a lemon tree.’
The vicar’s words flow from the radio as smoothly as a swirl of aerosol cream. It is Sunday and my kitchen window is a rectangle of azure sky, tempting as a beach towel. On the window sill, basil plants and a gangly aubergine exude volatile oils.
Home for me is a Midlands city tower block. The August sun is sweltering and the nearest grass is nineteen floors down. I long for a garden.
The radio preacher signs off. Flute music takes his place but I turn the volume down because right now, the gentlest sound makes my teeth feel as if they’re hard-wired to a dentist’s drill. I don’t want to be finishing the breakfast washing up while receiving sermons about lemon trees. I want to dance through a grove of them, smelling the zest.
My son, Arran, pokes his head round the kitchen door. His hair is slick, the curl showered out of it but it’ll soon dry in the sun. I guess he’s going out because, from under his t-shirt, comes a waft of vanilla-magnolia, a prevailing scent in men’s toiletries these days. I know there’s a girl in the picture, but I won’t ask if he’s meeting her. I don’t smother my adult son. He, by contrast, eyes me in a way that reminds me heartbreakingly of his father and asks, ‘How can you stand being cooped up here?’
‘I can’t really. But I can’t leave your grandad.’ Three generations occupy this flat. Me, Arran and my dad.
Arran suggests I take Grandad to the park. ‘Or walk by the canal, see what they’ve done where the old warehouses used to be.’
‘He won’t want to.’ Dad was once the city’s Deputy Assistant Head of Parks, until parks were re-designated ‘open spaces’ and the job merged with sports amenities. Redundancy let the air out of him. After Mum died, he lay down permanently in the long grass. Evolution enrages him. I suck an imaginary lemon. ‘I’m at my wits’ end, to be honest.’
Arran gives a hippie-style V sign. ‘Be the change, mum.’
He departs and I think, ‘My son, the philosopher.’ But there’s something in what he says. If I’m ever to break out of this sky-high rabbit cage, I have to change; wake up and smell the lemons.
In the lounge, I turn off the TV. Dad doesn’t even notice, his eyes sunk into a copy of Gardener’s Monthly. There’s a pile of back-issues by his feet. I suggest the park.
He doesn’t hear. ‘Did you know about this fad? ‘No dig’ vegetable gardening.’ Bitterly, he shows me the column he’s reading. ‘Always wanting things easy, people these days. A few man-hours with a spade did me no harm!’
I know I have to get out. I take the lift down. The glare of sunlight on slabs transports me to Sienna, Italy, where I and Arran’s father sipped our honeymoon wine. Where love was briefly citron-scented. Only as I pass the bins by the back entrance of my tower block do I crash back. Dazed, I choose the opposite direction to one I take every day for work. I head for the canal.
The waterway is no longer the inky slug of my youth, grave of stolen cars and shopping trolleys. Tow paths have been reclaimed and replanted. The water reflects young trees proudly. I walk, ashamed that I’ve ignored this dappled gift from a Green-leaning council. I whisper Arran’s words. ‘Be the change.’
The canal bends and I follow its curve. As Arran said, the old warehouses are gone, their footprints erased by swathes of foxy orange Heleniums. A sign declares ‘Gardens Open.’ A man in a Hi-Viz tabard directs me through a rainbow arch of flowers. There’s a double-decker bus painted in acid colours, with the legend, “50 years on, a new Summer of Love.” 1967 was the original Summer of Love. Dad sometimes talks of it, mistily. But now it’s all about nature. “WE LOVE BEES” is inscribed in mixed bedding plants.
A bearded man dressed as a carrot thrusts a flyer into my hand. ‘Local? Fancy growing your own organic veggies? We’ve got allotments up for grabs.’
‘Herbs in a pot are my limit. I work full-time.’ Somewhere, a steel band is playing All You Need Is Love.
‘I work too,’ says the carrot, with a grin. ‘You can go halves with somebody else, or even take a quarter plot. None of us were gardeners till we started.’ He waves his flowing green foliage. ‘We got the bug.’
I say no again, but he’s a persistent carrot. ‘Write your name and email on the application and you’ll go on the list. Tick the box if you want a spade buddy.’
‘Spade buddy. Digging partner. No man, or woman, should dig alone.’
I walk on, passing allotment owners at work among the half-barrels and early cabbages, the fruit canes and strap-hanging beans. Nature is packed as tight as commuters on a morning train. A girl in dungarees gives me a paper cup of raspberries, sweet as jam. I think, a quarter of her allotment would be smaller than my lounge. I could manage that, surely? My imagination instantly harvests runner beans and new potatoes, the kind that shed their skins when you run them under the tap.
I look away, towards my distant concrete home and wonder if a few square yards of un-dug soil might tempt Dad out. Or has the sofa digested too much of him? Moving to the rhythm of the steel drum music, I press on towards a grove of vibrant green trees in pots. Would anyone want me as their spade buddy?
Am I really smelling lemons?