A 2,500 word story by Patsy Collins
Despite her sister’s teasing, Sally loved her patch in the community garden. She enjoyed the friendly chatter of the other plot holders when they were there and the peace when they weren’t. She knew the fresh air and exercise were doing her good and was looking forward to eating the fresh vegetables she hoped to produce. Recycling kitchen scraps, paper and lawn clippings on the compost heap made her happy.
“Present for you, Sis,” Louise said handing over a bag of used tea bags and crushed egg shells. “I think you’re crazy to want to do all that digging, but I do like the idea of going green.”
Sally cycled to the garden, worked with second-hand tools given to her by her dad and used only organic methods. She felt at one with nature. On her first day, the warden had told her that if she needed any advice, she should ask Jim and indicated an immaculate plot.
“He’s on holiday at the moment, but usually he’s down here most evenings. There’s not much that Jim doesn’t know.”
For the first ten days a different friend of Jim’s appeared each evening to water his seedlings, pinch out side-shoots on the tomatoes and harvest climbing beans.
“Here, take some of this lettuce, Jim would hate it to go to waste,” they’d say.
“Don’t struggle with the can, love. Borrow Jim’s hose, he’d say the same if he was here.”
They told her how he always helped everyone, how generous he was, how knowledgeable.
“I’m really looking forward to meeting him,” she told Louise. “He sounds lovely.”
“Planning to spend some time in his potting shed, are you?”
“No! Anyway, I expect he’s really old.”
When Jim eventually put in an appearance she’d been impressed. He was young. He was also tanned, slim, tall and attractive. He’d introduced himself, complimented her on the work she’d done, offered advice, tidied the path edges for her and picked her some strawberries.
“Too good to be true,” Louise declared.
The next time Sally saw him he was tending his tomatoes. She was disappointed he was using a spray.
“There’s some left, Sally, would you like me to do yours?” he’d asked, gesturing at the two tomato plants she’d bought the week previously.
“No, I would not,” she’d said far more sharply than necessary.
“OK.” He’d looked down at her sorry looking specimens. “What variety are these?”
Sally bent down to check the label. “Alicante,” she said, trying not to stare into his amazing eyes. At least part of him was green.
“Then you need to remove the side-shoots.” He started breaking pieces off her already feeble plants.
“Hey, don’t do that!”
“OK, OK. I’m sorry. Honestly I was just trying to help, but they’re your plants, you grow them anyway you like.”
That evening, Sally rang her dad to ask for advice on tomato care. Jim had been right about the side-shoots.
She’d intended to apologise the next time she met him, but when she saw him scattering slug pellets she decided she didn’t want to talk to him at all. Half an hour later, he’d approached her carrying a bundle of sticks.
“You’ll need to stake your peas, Sally,” he said.
She knew that but, unlike her smug neighbour, she hadn’t been able to find any pea sticks and as unlike him she was gardening organically, she didn’t want to use plastic netting that would end up in landfill and might trap and injure unwary wildlife before that. He must have read some of her reaction on her face.
“OK, OK. My mistake. It’s your plot and you don’t need to do anything you don’t want to.”
He’d carried the sticks to his shed and stowed them inside.
“He’s insufferable, Louise,” she’d fumed on the phone. “He’s so smug and condescending. He came over when I was watering and made a big thing about me being a feeble girl and how he’d let me use his hose-pipe.”
“You told me a nice man did much the same on your first week, seems it’s only condescending when Jim does it.”
“It’s the way he does it. Once I’d unwound the reel he tried to lecture me about not over-watering the new potatoes.”
“Well, it does seem that he knows more about it than you.”
“Yes, but he doesn’t just offer advice. He tells me what to do, then says it’s up to me as though daring me to do anything other than his way.”
“Maybe it’s just that he doesn’t see things your way.”
“Too right he doesn’t. I’d like to tell him a few things about not killing off friendly garden creatures and how to avoid polluting rivers and ….”
“Steady on Sally, you’ve already converted me, remember.”
“I think you need to be a bit subtle about this. I’ll come down to look at your allotment and to get a look at this Jim of yours …”
“He is NOT my Jim.”
“Whatever. When I’m there, I can pretend I don’t know anything and you can explain all about organic gardening to me, making sure he can hear.”
“Yeah, that is a good plan. He’ll see he’s not the only one with admiring friends too.”
“You have got it bad, haven’t you?”
Sally pretended she hadn’t heard that.
Louise arrived just in time to witness Jim remove his T-shirt and reveal a tanned and muscular chest.
“Wow, Sally, he’s a real dish. I could wrap him in lettuce and have him for tea.”
“Sorry, I forgot for a minute that I’m a happily married woman. It’s you that should be trying a bit of cross pollination.”
“You’re not helping, Louise.”
“OK, let’s talk loudly about what a great organic gardener you are.”
The conversation went well. First Louise shrieked, “Ooooh, there are horrible bugs on your lettuces, get some spray quick and kill them all.”
“No, Louise, those are ladybird larvae, they are good. I wouldn’t kill anything that worked to help my organic garden by eating all the greenfly.”
“Oh, that’s very clever, Sally.”
She couldn’t tell what Jim’s reaction was as he hastily hid his face behind a clump of rhubarb when she looked over.
“Aaargh! I think that’s a weed, Sally. Let’s put some weedkiller on it!”
“No, Louise. Weedkiller doesn’t just kill the weeds, it also poisons the soil. It will be much better to dig out the weed and put it on the compost heap.”
Their plan seemed to be working; each time Louise shrieked, Jim seemed to move to the edge of his plot that was nearest to Sally’s. She’d just finished lecturing Louise and the nearby Jim on the advantages of composting garden waste when he brought a pack from his shed and started sprinkling something on the ground.
“Urgh, I’d like to compost him,” Sally said.
“I’ve never heard it called that before,” Louise giggled.
“Look at him. He’s deliberately using artificial fertiliser after what I said. He’s doing it to annoy me.”
When Sally’s voice got sore from the high volume advice, she and Louise went home.
Jim greeted her the next day. “Is your friend going to grow organically, now?”
“She certainly is. I think I fully convinced her of the advantages. Organic gardening really is the best way; you should try it.”
Sally bit her lip. She’d complained about him telling her what to do with her plants, perhaps she shouldn’t be quite so assertive about his plot.
“Well, I think you should consider the benefits.”
“It’s good in some ways, I’m sure, but will it grow good plants?”
“Absolutely and they’ll taste better than ones covered in chemicals,” she assured him.
“That’s a bold claim. You really think that with your organic methods you can grow something better than me?”
She couldn’t back down now.
“Tell you what, you prove that and I promise to only ever grow organically.”
He nodded. His eyes seemed to be getting even greener in readiness.
“But how can I prove it? If I say mine is better and you say yours is, then who’s right?”
“That’s easy. We can both enter the garden show. If you beat me then I’ll admit your stuff is better.”
“That’s not fair, you’ve been growing vegetables for longer than me and you’ve got a lot more types than I have. You’re bound to win.”
“True. How about if we say that if you beat me in any class, or win any class I don’t enter, then you’re the winner.”
That sounded fair. Her tomatoes weren’t very good, but she had some lettuce that was doing very well and her potatoes must be really good with all the watering she’d given them.
“OK, agreed.” She offered her hand.
He held onto it. “Just one thing, if you win, I go green; what do I get if I win?”
“Whatever you like,” she said, rashly. Too rashly.
“Louise, you have to help me win,” she’d demanded of her sister the moment Louise answered the phone. “I’ve made a bet with Jim and there’s no way I can lose, I just can’t do it, it’s just too …”
“I take it the stakes are high?”
“Way too high, I said he could have whatever he wanted if he wins.”
“I know. I can’t believe he said it. Even of him, I can’t believe …”
“Half an hour in his potting shed!”
Louise laughed. “Never mind, he probably just wants you to help him catalogue his seeds.”
From that day on, Sally gave the potatoes extra water, weeded diligently, encouraged the tomatoes. She got so desperate she asked Louise to come down and make some of her smutty remarks in the hope of making the fruit blush.
The day before the show, Jim stuck an arm through the open doorway of her shed and waved a white flag.
“You’re surrendering?” Sally asked.
“No. This is a truce. I’m guessing you haven’t exhibited vegetables before?”
“No, I haven’t.”
“I know you don’t like being told what to do, but there are rules. For example you have to leave the stalks on the tomatoes and they’re normally shown on plates.”
“On plates? With mayonnaise or just salt and pepper?”
“Honestly, I’m trying to help.”
“You’ve said that before.” As Sally said it, she remembered that the last time he’d offered advice about tomatoes, he’d been right.
“Come and look at some of my stuff, so you can see what to do.”
Sally followed as he lead her up the garden path.
“Potatoes and carrots should be carefully washed.” He pointed to his collections of beautifully matched vegetables. “Trim the leaves on beetroot, but leave some stem. You can decorate the plates with sprigs of parsley if you wish, the judges seem to like that.”
“They won’t like mine, it’s gone to seed. Thanks for the tips, Jim.”
“No problem, I want to win fairly.”
Sally raced round to see Louise. “You’ve got to help me!”
Louise gathered together her white plates, scrubbing brush and dish cloths and drove Sally back to the allotment. Jim was just leaving and held the gate open for them.
“Sally, I’ve left you something by your shed. I promise it’s completely green.” He left before she could reply.
Outside her shed was a large bunch of parsley.
“He’s either a very good sport, or very confident of winning,” Louise said.
“The latter. I’ve seen his exhibits and they’re very attractive.”
“Seen his what?”
“Louise, you’re supposed to be cleaning, not supplying the dirt.”
They picked four well matched tomatoes; unfortunately the competition required five. Sally had to use one that wasn’t quite ripe. The lettuce weren’t bad, as long as you ignored a few slug holes. Both her marrows were good specimens, but sadly they were different colours. Jim’s had looked like identical twins.
“Cheer up, Sal. These radish are quite good.”
“They are, but not as good as Jim’s.”
After a couple of hours washing and tidying, Sally had entries that she was quite proud of, but that she knew wouldn’t beat her opponent’s.
“There are just the potatoes to go,” she told Louise. “I’ve got high hopes for them.”
The potatoes were huge. They were also very strangely shaped.
“What’s happened to these? They look like the result of a nuclear disaster,” Louise said.
“Jim said not to over-water them. Drat that man. I really would like to bury him on his own compost heap.”
“Yes, so you’ve said. I don’t think he’s half so bad as you make out. For one thing he does have a compost heap, that’s environmentally friendly and he does seem to know his onions, or rather potatoes.”
“I’m going to end up in his potting shed, that’s not so good is it?”
Louise just smirked and held up a potato that looked uncomfortably like a fertility symbol. “This show doesn’t happen to have a ‘rudest shaped vegetable’ class does it?”
“Lou, you’re a genius! There is a class for the ugliest spud and our knobbly friend looks like a sure winner.”
They carried the vegetables across the lane to the village hall and arranged them neatly on Louise’s white plates.
Later, Sally and Louise walked round the show. As predicted, Jim had several red ‘first’ cards and Sally didn’t.
“Just Mr Spud to go, then,” Louise said and headed for the novelty vegetable section.
Sally’s potato was tied in first place, with a very warty pumpkin exhibited by Jim.
“No, that’s not fair!” wailed Sally.
Sally spun round to find Jim just inches away from her.
“I didn’t think you’d entered this class,” he said. “I only did it as a joke, I thought you’d feel better if I’d grown something ugly.” He really did look sorry. “You’ve grown some good vegetables, Sally. I saw you’d got second for your radishes and third for the lettuce.”
He wasn’t gloating. Perhaps Louise was right and she had misjudged him.
“Well done, Sally. You got a first prize, so I’m going to grow everything organically in future.”
She really had misjudged him. Why hadn’t she noticed that he had a lovely smile and …
“I don’t think that’s right,” Louise interrupted. “You said that to win, Sally had to beat you in any class, or win a class you hadn’t entered. She hasn’t.”
“Thank you, Louise,” Jim and Sally said together, but not in the same tone of voice.
“So I’ve won?” Jim asked.
“Yes,” the traitorous Louise confirmed.
“Good, then it’s off to the potting shed for you,” he grabbed Sally’s hand and pulled her towards the shed in question. “Your sister can come too.”
She’d misjudged him far more than she’d realised. Surely he couldn’t mean …
“Come on,” Louise urged and pushed her along.
Once inside the shed, Jim picked up a carton of slug pellets. Soil association approved organic slug pellets. He then showed her the pack of fertiliser he’d been using, it was concentrated chicken manure, not the chemicals she’d imagined. The spray he’d used for the tomatoes was made from seaweed extract.
“I owe you an apology, Jim.”
“No you don’t Sal, you owe him half an hour in the potting shed,” Louise corrected before leaving and pushing the door shut behind her.
This story, and 23 others, can be found in my book Up The Garden Path, which is available in paperback, an ebook and through kindle unlimited.