Martin Keaveney – The Vegetable Garden

photoMartin Keaveney‘s recent stories have appeared in Small Lives (Poddle Publications), Crannog Gold Dust, The Crazy Oik and Agave Magazine. Flash fiction has been published in Burning Word and Apocrypha and Abstractions. Poetry will appear shortly in Carillon and Sleet magazine. He is currently a PhD candidate at NUIG, 2014-18 where he is researching the John McGahern archive and also writing a novel as part of the course. He has a B.A. in English and Italian and an M.A. in English (Writing) from NUI, Galway, Ireland.


The Vegetable Garden

By Martin Keaveney

The spade hit another stone. Rafferty gritted his teeth together. A stinging sensation spread across the back of his neck. The stone was bigger, much bigger than he could see.
He was reminded of decades ago, as a nine year old, trying to obey his father’s instructions to uproot the back garden. He could still see him now; an enormous figure, wearing a long black dusty jacket; his hat angled awkwardly, a pipe protruding from his ‘gob’. His cold words sparked across Rafferty like an incessant hailstone shower. The boy had struggled with a spade that was taller than him, trying hard to loosen the soil in that effortless way his father seemed to. There was always a rock such as this, an obstinate boulder which would need a mighty arm to lever it to life.
He cleaned around the stone, making a kind of trench with which to find the end. But it was still hidden. He grunted. He had planned to have this section ready for hoeing tomorrow. It looked like the tractor and Mulherne’s plough would be needed.
It was irritating, like a man’s sock sliding down his ankle, when his Wellington boot was stuck in deep mud.
He tapped the stone with the tip of the spade. Maybe it would split; it might be one of those brittle pieces of limestone that were sometimes found in fields in the area. If he could divide it in two it would be easier to conquer. No, it was solid. The immovable object.
The gate rattled behind him. The caller wore cream trousers, a woollen jumper and although Rafferty didn`t know it: golfing shoes.
‘Hello, John.’
Bowen. The man from London. The man that had arrived in the village four years ago with his pretty wife and two daughters, deserting the ‘rat race’ of the city as he called it.
He carried a large brown envelope and wore his usual affable expression as he approached. Rafferty drove the spade deep in the ground between them. This would be another delay.

The area was misshapen, it jutted out into what had once been Igoe’s; the land holding next door. Igoe had died many years ago and a distant nephew had let the land, after being unable to sell it at a price to his liking. Rafferty had known Sam Igoe growing up. Igoe was in his thirties when Rafferty was a boy but he looked quite old even then. As youngsters, they would sneak into the garden and pick the apple trees.
One day in September, Rafferty was filling his cardigan with the ripe fruit. There was something thrilling about ‘lifting’ as the lads called it, leaping into prohibited territory and taking what did not belong to them. It gave a sense of supremacy, of power. If an advantage could be taken while someone was not watching, it was foolish not to capitalise. The apples held no commercial value. Mostly, they ended up being flung at old Sweeney’s hayshed, where they made a satisfying ‘clang’ against the rusting galvanise roof.
He had ten apples in the base of his woollen jumper, when a large ploughy hand grasped his little neck.
‘Where are you going with my apples, ya little thief!’
Rafferty wriggled to try and escape the iron grip but it was useless. Then he began to plead mercy.
‘Please, Ill leave them back...’ he whinged.
‘They
re my apples. Keep out of my orchard or Ill have your father whip ya!’ Rafferty spilled the fruit on the ground as he scampered to the gate.
When he inherited the farm from his father, he modified his methods to suit what was available. While the ‘lifting’ had become obsolete, ‘borrowing’ was a useful practice for Rafferty in the village. In recent years, technology and the availability of credit had resulted in his neighbours becoming machinery-heavy. He often had a need for something such as a manure-shaker or a de-horning tongs and it was on these occasions, as he mooched around one of his counterpart
s yards, that he could take an account of what was on display.
Mulherne had bought a new transport box. OToole was keen with new technology; he had a post-driver proudly stationed on front of a sand pile. These details were important for the progressive farmer; he could use this information to plan his year’s operations. OToole would contribute to some fencing, while Mulherne would speed up gravel transporting tasks.
It was also very important to preserve the value of a man’s own equipment. Rafferty`s hay-turner was in good-shape but too many people taking it would increase the need for servicing. Grease was dear. Therefore, the steel ‘ball-hooks’ which turned the golden strands of hay were carefully removed by Rafferty at the end of hay-making. They were shelved to the back of his turf-shed.
Rafferty provided in other ways. His keen eye for stock had often been profitable for the other farmers at marts. He could tell how much growth was in a beast in a second, judging the ‘quarters’ more accurately then his peers. He was a shrewd user of space. Many times he had planned out sheep pens in awkward shed spaces for the other farmers. No one could pull a calf with the deftness of Rafferty. His small elf-like fingers could twist the animal until the forelegs were either side of the head and carefully slide him out.

Jim Bowen didn’t know any of this when he casually surfed the internet one wintry night in the south-east of England. Browsing flashy real estate websites; looking for that something to grab onto, looking for something to take him and his family from the day-to-day grind of city life. Away from the incessant daily commute on the subterranean network; exposed to the dust and grime of relentlessly rotating escalators. Away from security codes, daytime cat burglars, car street vandals. A new life in a green paradise.
First, he had looked at Cornwall, where he was from originally. The rough untamed landscape did appeal, but the proximity of his mother and siblings was an unavoidable stumbling block. He had never taken a foreign language at college, had found mathematics his passion, and felt France, Spain or Italy were too much of a challenge. But there was Ireland.
A small island of four million people, separated from the influence of the monarchical traditions by five or six generations. Ireland was the ideal choice. The south-east had the better weather, but Bowen felt the west had something else, something…raw.
Even so, prices were outrageous. Ireland was still booming, land and property were ahead of his budget, even including the sale of his own home. He had to be more resourceful. Many of the websites presented only the expensive straightforward opportunities. While he watched a property programme one night, a couple told how they had found an old cottage in Clare that a pensioner had left behind. The relatives didn’t want it and the couple picked it up cheaply. The programme went on to show how they developed the property. As he set the alarm and went up the stairs to bed, he began to think that bargains could be found.
He started to take the family on weekend trips to Ireland, three to five in the summer instead of the usual two weeks in Lanzarote. It was a way to familiarise themselves with the area, but also to talk to locals about houses that might come for sale. Perhaps from an old farmer dying and which would sell cheaply.
One evening, they were staying in a small village in south Mayo. It was his daughter’s choice. She had been sold by the yellow door of the local bed and breakfast. Some of the locals came in and Bowen got into a light conversation with them. Quickly, the topic worked its way round to his reason for being there. Someone mentioned a man who wasn`t happy leasing his land. It was said he really wanted to sell. A good deal might be possible. The man handed Bowen a mobile number to ring.
The number led to a German answering machine. Eventually the nephew called Bowen back and soon the Englishman was signing contracts. Bowen would knock the old house and build a modern bungalow in its place. A small cottage was available to rent while work was in progress. It would be a new chapter in their lives. The farmer who had leased the land wanted to stay on, his solicitor told him. But Bowen had decided he wanted to become a farmer as well. A position in Galway as a maths tutor would give him enough spare time to learn the skills of sheep breeding and perhaps rear some calves. Tillage was another aspect which excited him, but it seemed the west was generally too rocky for large scale sowing.
Perhaps a potato garden would do.

When Igoes nephew put the place on the market, Rafferty had taken the lease. He would like to have bought it, but the handing over of such an amount as land was considered worth nowadays would be too much to bear.
Rafferty now ruled his farm, and could decide when to supply the hungry grass with manure, when to scoop the clogging algae from the drinking troughs, when to provide the rickety fences with the lifeblood of silver staples and strings of new medium gauge barbed wire. He felt no guilt about moving his cattle into Igoe
s fields for the winter. They quickly dug up the ground, sinking deeper into the mud in the depths of rain, wind and frost; while in the spring his land with a little rolling and fertiliser recovered quickly from the barren months.
A year or two after he took the lease he had began to think about making use of the old apple orchard. The apple trees had long since died and fell away but a few beeches around the bordering stone wall still sheltered the garden. The area was a mass of weeds and wild vegetation. The tangle of growth was an irritation to an accomplished farmer such as Rafferty. He invaded one evening with his spade. Once he got beneath the scraws he found progress spurred him on. Soon, a gratifying rectangle of dry soil emerged. He decided to plant a few drills of carrots. They went well; he was able to sell most of them to Ganley, who ran the local shop. Later, he decided to expand into onions.
He rubbed his hands after a day in the garden, feeling fulfilment in the tiredness of his limbs, a healthy hunger for bacon and potatoes rumbling in his stomach.

Some time later, Rafferty received a letter from his solicitor telling him the lease wouldn’t be renewed. Igoes nephew had found a buyer, someone he knew in England, someone who wanted to farm the land. He would have to have his stock out of Igoes within a month. He grinned ironically to himself. His brief reign over Igoes kingdom was over.
He began the process of withdrawal. Some stakes had been just too expensive to abandon. He hadn’t been over-zealous fencing the perimeters of the small fields, but he gritted his teeth at the idea of leaving anything after him. It was irritating that only last week he had grudgingly fed some Nitrogen to the back fields. There were the two weeks he had spent in the cold winds of February building up stone walls at the far end of the place, to secure a Reps payment the following year. That was gone now. He wandered around Igoe
s cottage; the roof had collapsed, it was not much more than a shack. He eyed an old stove. Maybe he could get some scrap money for it.
The vegetable garden was another problem. It was useless to anyone who wasn’t interested in growing vegetables. If this Englishman was just after a bit of beef farming he would have no interest in it. He surveyed the neat drills of carrots and onions. Ganley was selling everything he grew, and it was a nice handy source of ‘beer money’. He decided to continue using it until he was told otherwise.

Some months later, a house began to appear. The Englishman drove up past Raffertys house every day, his yellow UK number plate bright in the distance, to supervise the construction of his dream home. Work was done at a steady pace. Drills and hammers could be heard until late in the evening. Rafferty had not met this new resident in the four months since construction began. The man, whose intelligence had confirmed was named Bowen, had not yet appeared in Haughtys bar.
When the windows and doors were fitted, Rafferty felt compelled to take a look inside. One evening as it began to get dark and there was no sign of Bowen’s jeep, he took a walk down the boreen and stepped into the site. The front door was unlocked. The man seemed to have put a large concrete stairs up though his front hall, it looked almost majestic, like some kind of palace. He drank in the size of the kitchen. He stared, bewildered.
An engine noise from the boreen came along the twilight air, and Bowen’s jeep turned into the drive. Adrenalin pumping, Rafferty skipped to the back door. It was locked. He swung around and Bowen was getting out of the jeep. The Englishman spoke to someone on his mobile. It would be somewhat awkward to meet his new neighbour for the first time while snooping around his kitchen. Rafferty looked across at the patio door. The key dangled from the lock. It struggled to twist in the crevice. Eventually it relented. He swiftly turned it and slid it open. As he closed it, Bowen opened the front door. The sliding door was noisy, the rollers still rigid from the factory press. He heard Bowen shout ‘Hallo?’ Rafferty scaled the ditch and, camouflaged by the hedge bushes, casually walked down through Mulhernes hayfield. He cut across at the end into his own land as the stars began to sparkle in the fading light.
When the interior doors, floor timbers, and wardrobes arrived, curiosity again got the better of him. He walked down the boreen one dull afternoon, with the explanation of looking for a stray ewe in his mind.
But the man himself was there. Rafferty was upon him before either of them could prepare, because of the cover of trees leading to Bowen’s site.
‘Hello,’ said Bowen immediately.
Rafferty pursed his lips but continued his walk along the site fence. Bowen seemed unaffected by this and walked quickly to the end of the makeshift drive where it was obvious he would meet with the still walking Rafferty.
‘Jim Bowen. Please to meet you.’ Bowen held out a soft hand. Rafferty took it weakly.
‘Howyee’ he said.
‘Eh, sorry and your name is?’
‘Rafferty.’
‘Oh. Well, it’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr.Rafferty. We’re just about looking at Christmas to move in here now; it’s been a dreadful summer all over. The children are really excited.’
So he had children. Rafferty could see them now; ugly brats with snotty noses, hoods and white sports shoes.
‘Sandra and Isabel are my two girls. Apart from the odd holiday, they’ve never been out of London…’
‘Uh.’
Bowen’s mixer had not been used for some days, he noted while passing the site, some days later. He had decided to fit a path around his hay shed for ease of access in the winter months. His own mixer needed an expensive part from Belfast, which he hadn’t yet ordered. It occurred to Rafferty the new arrival might not be too familiar with his habits of borrowing in the village but early one morning, he whipped it anyway.
The mixer had a fast drum and turned out a nice mix, he thought satisfactorily. The morning that the kitchen arrived, Rafferty dropped it back. Only the joiners were on site, they looked at him mutely. Later, he saluted Bowen as the Englishman passed in his Vauxhall.
Bowen called to Rafferty
s back door one morning. It was before nine, the radio was blaring across the cottage, and Rafferty was tucking into his daily boiled egg.
‘John, how are you?’
‘Howyee.’
‘I was just wondering if you would be interested in doing a bit of fencing for me. It’s at the back of the site, you see, the builders put up a temporary boundary, but I wanted something a bit more permanent…’
‘Aye’ Rafferty nodded.
‘So, -oh, you would be interested.’
‘Aye, aye.’
‘Great! Look what kind of wire and stakes should I get; I can pick them up in Ballinrobe this morning…’
‘Spose six footers.’
‘Super! And wire, what kind of wire should I get?’
‘Well. Sheep wire I s
pose. Heavy gauge.’
‘Heavy…sorry what?’ The maths teacher looked enthusiastically across the room, his thin-rimmed glasses reflecting Raffertys egg-cup.
‘Heavy gauge.’
Rafferty said it as though he was chewing a piece of over-sized tobacco.
‘Heavy gauge.’ He noted this in an impressive looking pad.
‘Okay. I’ll drop them at the house. When do you think you could do it?’
‘Uh. Monday.’
‘Brilliant. What would I owe you?’
Rafferty shook his head dismissively.
‘No, come on, John, there
s a bit of work there. I`m not expecting any favours…’
Rafferty resisted a powerful temptation to nod approvingly.
He paused.
His mind worked quickly, like it did in a mart during a heated bidding battle for a good ram. Calculating. Subtracting. Time-effort.
The fact Bowen was from England.
‘Seventy euros?’
‘That’s very reasonable. Here you are.’
Bowen took out a fifty and a twenty euro note, as though he had them ready.

The morning of Raffertys task arrived. He inspected the fencing wire, it was low gauge stuff. He was irritated. The cheap nature of the Englishman appalled him. A man’s fence was the quality of his cloth, the length of his backbone. Even though he had specified, the man had just ignored it. He could imagine Bowens thoughts, light stuff would be good enough, would be cheaper. It would do the job in this yahoo place. He gritted his teeth at the idea of such inexcusable short-cuts.
He looked at the receipt. It appeared that Bowen had paid for heavy gauge. There was that fellow from Liverpool working in the hardware shop. They’d even swindle their own countrymen. Rafferty grunted. Half of it would do for cutting off a small area at the back of his land which flooded in the winter.

The house neared completion. Tall men with foreign accents carried in long rolls of carpet. Their banter echoed down the road toward Rafferty`s kitchen. A landscaper arrived and smart paving was complimented with finely combed top soil. Everything was being finished off to perfection.
There was another job Bowen wanted Rafferty to do. Fix up the stone wall at the front of the site. He was not a stonemason, a point which Bowen had seemed unphased by.
‘The rough country look is fine by me,’ he had said.

On the great day of moving in, Rafferty was almost finished the wall. His eye angled toward the front door as he appeared to size up a good capping stone. Bowen helped his family with various boxes and bags. The two girls were dressed in regal blue dresses. Red and white ribbons dangled from their hair. Mrs.Bowen tried to make order amidst the chaos. She was a busy figure in a pencil skirt, tight yellow blouse, sunglasses and an untidy mop of ash brown hair.
The next morning; as he arrived to put the finishing touches to his pointing, the slumber of new residents was in the air. Curtains were pulled. Two pink child’s bicycles were parked awkwardly on the newly laid paving. Some washing on a back line lifted in the gentle morning breeze.
Rafferty got to work rapidly and by ten o clock was nearly finished. Bowen came out, wiping his smoothly shaven jaw.
‘That’s great, John. Would you like some breakfast?’
‘No, I`m fine.’
‘Come in, come in.’
‘No.’
‘Come on, John I insist. You’ve worked hard and done a good job. I’d be offended.’
‘Aye.’
The back kitchen was a large and grand affair. A washing machine thundered along, beside a similarly propelling tumbledrier. There was a fresh smell of varnish in the room. Mrs.Bowen swept as he entered.
‘Morning,’ she said. Rafferty noted she sounded friendly yet there was a strong English tone.
They served him a typical fry-up; rashers, sausages, two fried eggs and toast. He was quite full at the end of it.
‘Thank-ee,’ he said, leaving.

That evening, he took the strimmer he had spotted. There was no one outside. The Bowens were enjoying a family night in. Bowen stood holding a glass of wine talking to his family and then laughing while Mrs. Bowen smiled and the children played on the cream sofa. Rafferty wandered quietly into the garage that Bowen had built simultaneously. He had told Rafferty that he was still waiting for a customised rolling door from Derry.
He wouldn’t miss the strimmer for a while. Probably never would. Bowen hadn’t mentioned the vegetable garden, where Rafferty was often to be found, perfecting his drills of lettuces, onions and carrots. He most likely didn’t even notice it was actually his property. Too much money, that was the problem with these blow-ins, Rafferty thought. He flicked the strimmer onto his shoulder and mooched away into the dusk.
It was an excellent machine, a long arm and a good motor. He clipped most of a bothersome thorn bush which had persisted in growing around one of his gates.

Bowen occasionally called into the garden while Rafferty was working. It was usually about some job or other he wanted doing. One day it was something else.
‘How’s it going, John?’
‘Not bad.’
‘Much luck this year…’
‘A bit now, a bit.’
‘Look John, Ive got a bit of a problem...’
Rafferty continued to pull new weeds from around the carrot leaves.
Bowen took a deep breath.
‘It’s like this. Some of my tools have disappeared. My strimmer, a circular saw and some other bits and pieces. They were in my shed and now they’re gone.’
Rafferty paused in his work.
‘Aye?’ he said quietly.
‘Well, you see I don’t like making accusations, but, it
s pretty ominous…’
Rafferty felt hot. The day was cold but his forehead perspired.
‘To be honest, John, I have a feeling it’s those mechanics that live in OTooles old cottage. They’re always working on engines and I just think maybe they picked up the gear off the site one night.’
‘Hmm?’ Rafferty was non-committal.
‘Anyway, if they have them, they have them, and I’m not going to get them back. But I’ll have to take precautions from now on, I have other things in there which might also go walking and I’ve ordered a new security system from Germany. Trouble is, we`re away in England next week with the children and, in the interim, I wondered if you’d be so good as to keep an eye on the place for me…’
‘Mm? Oh aye. No bother.’
‘It would be just a matter of checking the doors and stuff. I can give you the keys. I’d be happy to pay you, John.’
‘No, that’s aright.’ Rafferty replied generously.

Now he was here again, probably with some other job. Bowen seemed a little flushed, his wavy hair hung down over his face. His usual affable smile had faded and was now replaced with a worried, uncertain countenance.
‘Working hard, John?’
‘Aye.’
‘I just wanted a quick work with you about something.’
Rafferty leant on the spade.
‘Well, it’s just that my solicitor gave me the map of the holding. I mean it’s …ridiculous how long these things take, this is nearly five years on, but there you go.’
Rafferty looked at the clouds. It would rain tonight, but not heavily.
Bowen cleared his throat as though the words wouldn’t come out smoothly.
‘Anyway, he gave me the map.’
From the envelope, he pulled out a square piece of folded white paper. He competently unfolded the large sheet out, and tried to display it to Rafferty.
It’s, it’s marked around here, that’s fine where my house is. But, eh, down here at the corner where I border you…this…this patch here, it seems to be in my holding.
It was said. Finally. Rafferty grinned. Bowen would probably build some kind of playground for his brats here; let them dig up his carefully planted vegetables.
‘Oh.’
‘I see you’ve a lovely set of carrots and lettuces growing…’
‘Not bad,’ the comment tore a response from the farmer.
‘It’s a credit to you, John. Anyway, it’s on the map, but as far as I’m concerned you can work away. We wouldn’t have any use for something like this anyway. Just thought you should know, that’s all. Isn’t there a rep scheme or something?’
‘Aye. I wouldn’t be claiming for this bit anyway.’ Rafferty replied gruffly. This was his most servile of modes.
In the middle of the drills, seeds from the carrots had blown across the onions and settled in the cabbages. There was a slightly staggered effect in one corner, splashes of orange emerged amongst the pale green leaves. They both stared in the silence as though the conclusion to this conversation lay in the clean dry soil.
Seeming to read from the drills, Bowen said jokingly: ‘I think you’re the best man to keep the carrots and cabbages separate.’
He turned to go, sliding the map back into the envelope.
‘I’ll be off so.’
‘Grand. Sound as a bell.’ Rafferty replied, his head somehow light.
Bowen began to scale the gate.
‘Oh, just one other thing, John.’
Rafferty looked up. His hand felt around in a deep pocket for his ounce of Mick McQuaid.
‘Aye?’
You might drop over the strimmer. I’m going to trim back the hedge next week, it’s gone really wild.

 

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