Elizabeth Buchan


Of what do you think when you hear the word ‘compost’? Perhaps you shudder, and mutter ‘muck’. Perhaps you shrug and say that it is not a subject worthy of discussion. But I think of a dark chocolate pudding steamed to perfection.

Yes, brown- black, damply sodden and textured like a sponge. It is not a stupid comparison. Just as the tongue caresses the fat globules in desserts which are lapped in sugar and cream, so good compost persuades the earth to yield up its goodness.

Don’t mock, but when the cool, astringent spring winds blow through my garden, I can tell that the soil is shuddering with deprivation. Thin and attenuated, runnelled with moulds and diseases, it longs for its chance of renewal. Sometimes I cradle a handful in the hollow of my hand and allow to drift through my fingers which I, the good and patient gardener, will give it.

I love the soil and understand its way, as I loved and cherished Alice. The soil and Alice: my two great loves.

We waste not, and we want not Alice, say I, the grieving widower.

Petunia says that she worries about me when I talk like that. Petunia dislikes the idea of Alice. No woman likes to compete with a first wife.

When she swoops down on the subject – Petunia, it must be said, feeds off her rival’s spectre… I turn her attention to the garden.

‘Look at the roses,’ I say soothingly, pointing to my angels. ‘Aren’t they beautiful this year?’ Or… ‘the prunus autumalis is flowering early…’ Or…’the hellebores are the best I have seen.’ Then I say something to the effect that, if she is a tease and capricious and bad years can follow good ones, Mother Nature is quite definite in one respect. Once we have done our duty and reproduced we are redundant. Thereafter, we merely occupy space.

Alice never understood the equation. Or rather, she did not want to understand. Nor would she in her situation for Alice, my lovely Alice, was infertile.

I told her we could make up for this shortfall by putting back in what we had taken out.

Petunia is a small person. All neat bones and tidy blood vessels. Less material, I tease her and she looks puzzled, as well she might. She is much younger than Alice was, and strives to make me happy which makes her a good person.

The older she became, the larger Alice grew, and she did not care about me. Yes, she cooked my meals and saw to it that I had clean sheets and orderly socks but Alice, my golden Alice, did not in her heart honour her husband.

From the moment I first clapped eyes on her, I loved her. She possessed me and I was possessed by the urge to possess: every curve, every hidden fold of skin, every silken hair. I had not yet discovered that love is composed of many ingredients, among them a desire to take revenge for being so possessed.

However, I must not complain, nor will I, for I have been lucky and I have been granted my wishes. Alice is with me, and remains with me.

Back to compost. Not a subject in which delicacy plays a leading role for it involves products we prefer to ignore. But, ever since the first gardening fork was driven into the earth, we have willed the garden to obey us. We control it, we depilate it and we hone it into fructiveness, and into dazzling beauty with the boldness and imagination in which gardeners specialise. Means justify the end and the problem of delicacy is irrelevant and quite forgotten.

Only imagine. In the seventeenth century, gardeners were so desperate to enhance their soil that rags to dig into the soil were stripped from the corpses of paupers. For fear of infection, it was the old and widowed who were set to do the work thereby ensuring, I suppose, a constant supply.

Gardeners are also a thrifty lot.. After Napoleon had been beaten at Waterloo, smart Dutch operators nipped down to the battlefield and collected up the bones which they ground into bonemeal and sold to the north of England. Napoleon had reason to believe that from his defeat came the triumph of the English rose garden.

I told this story to Alice. You see, I concluded, everything on this earth has its day and its night, even bones. At the time, Alice was going through a particularly infertile patch of her infertile history. Wild, weeping, angry. She replied that, as far as she was concerned, the sun had never risen on me. She spoke in the sharp, disjointed manner which, by then, had become habitual and with the lips so tightly pursed that there was not even glimpse of the white teeth that I so loved watching biting into an apple or into crumbly cheddar.

Neither of my wives have been gardeners, a co- incidence which I find upsetting. In the end, I concluded that there was an element in the female psyche which prevents the requisite leap of imagination, the empathy with the stirring leaf and damp crimp of the unfolding petal. Can you blame me? Petunia turns out to be colour blind. Only yesterday, she suggested that I plant purple valerian next to the red poppies. Poor Petunia, she was nervous, and when she is nervous she rattles words off without thinking.

Alice never set foot in the garden. ‘Over my dead body.’

Yes, it pains me that both my Alice and Petunia could not share in my delight. Through my trials and errors , I have discovered that marriage is not so much about sharing but about exclusion. No, no argues poor little Petunia, marriage is about togetherness. It is about living with the other half of your own self. She cries a little at this juncture for she feels left out but from what she is never quite sure. Reflecting on her position of being second best, I am willing to concede that she has a point.

I did try to explain to explain to both wives. Listen, I said, if you are prepared to look hard enough, the garden offers a blueprint of our lives and our deaths…that necessary, inevitable progression. The subject appears to make Petunia uneasy and Alice always maintained she had enough decay in the house to be going on with without crawling around in the grass.

Alice preferred bridge.

Correction, she did not prefer: she had a passion for bridge.

Oh the pity, as someone once wrote, oh the pity. You survive the drama and danger of being born, and struggle through measles, acne and strange dreams towards your first pay cheque. You wrestle with raging passions, your hatreds, the sudden flares of violence. You impose a control on yourself. You place a premium on order in your life. You do what is expected.

And the reward? Years and years of round tables, and green baize tables and square tables. Years of sitting beside overflowing ashtrays and cocktail biscuits that have never been crisp. And the view? Instead of my radiant, whispering darlings, those tender, ruffled damasks, wayward peonies and gorgeous, gaudy poppies, my view was of…well, one of faces reddened by whisky or blanched by face powder. Instead of rain plashing onto the soft leaves, I was forced to listen to conversation whose substance is as nourishing as monosodium glutamate.

Petunia… and I think I must have married her for her name for I cannot, at the moment, think of any other reason… Petunia is showing alarming signs of taking to bridge as well. She assures me she is prepared to start a family soon.

But I wonder. I do not wish to belabour the point but thin, sour soil produces thin, sour plants.

Just like our marriage, Alice flashed at me.

Compost again. A dried cowpat soaked in water will produce very fragrant sweet peas. Night soil… Alice always left the room at its mention… night soil has its uses. Most of China functions on it.

To build a good compost heap you must dig two shallow pits, about four feet by four feet and, when the first is full, use the second. Air circulation is not so efficient with this method and it is necessary to turns the heaps regularly. On a cold day, this is a pleasurable activity.

I favour building a breeze block bin and I do not bother with raising the floor with bricks, a plain concrete one is quite sufficient. I drill holes in the mortar and cover it with black plastic and, because I must never, ever be without my compost, I have three bins on the go at the same time. Its contents?

I am very fussy. Very fussy. It has to be the right garden waste, the correct amount of grass mowings, but I also use egg boxes, broadsheet newspapers, tomatoes, apples, banana skins, tea leaves, the cat’s fur.

Anything that will decompose.

Towards the end, Alice shrank. I did my best and cooked her favourite foods and urged her to eat. ‘If I am shrinking,’ she said after particularly bad night, ‘it is because you have starved me.’

Since I had just toiled upstairs with a plate of lightly scrambled eggs laced with smoked salmon, I did not understand. ‘I won’t die, you old devil,’ she also flung at me. ‘Just to please you.’

But Alice did die. Ranting against the cancer that ate her up. In her final days, I strove to reassure her that her suffering had been in vain. At the final judgment, good would come out of it.

‘I want a decent funeral,’ she ordered. Even in sickness, she did not loose her bite. ‘And no cremation. I want flowers, hymns, mourners in tears and a mention in the parish magazine.’ She added. ‘And a headstone. A carved, white one, and noticeable. You owe me that.’

I took my time before answering, for I had years of barren love to call on. ‘Tributes are for useful people.’ I said.

Her sick, diluted blood washed into her cheeks. ‘Oh I am useful,’ she said. ‘You just don’t see it.’

I don’t think she realised.

When Alice died, I did what was necessary, and with a thankful, grateful heart. The chance to atone is not always granted to us.

The summer after Alice, the garden was at its very best. Everyone said so, and especially notable were the roses. They were a veritable sea, their blooms nodding in the summer heat., their musk releasing little pockets of delight. All good gardeners know that roses like to be trained, pruned, bred from and …well fed. Like a good wife wishes to be treated and, like a good and loving wife, yields up treasure in return…the palest of whites, buttery creams, washed teas, downy yellows and tender, blushing pinks. In the evening, I sit and listen to their papery murmur and observe the blooms glimmering through the dusk and think about the balance in Nature. Goodness and ripeness are allies and the task of putting back what had been taken out to put back is levied on us all.

I met Petunia at a sherry party given by the local horticultural club. Only after I married her did I discover that she was an indoors person. They say love is blind, but I should have guessed as much when my little hints of about mulch and compost fell on stony ground.

Lately, Petunia has taken to playing a lot of bridge.

Nothing should ever be wasted, certainly not love.

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