EXCLUSIVE EXTRACT FROM IVY LANE SUMMER…!
It was a warm Saturday at the beginning of May and as I sailed through the gates of Ivy Lane allotments I could see that the place was alive with activity. It might have been busy at this time of year anyway as far as I knew, this being my first season, but there seemed to be an additional frenzy to the hoeing, weeding and planting this morning. I suspected that the root of this extra ‘effort with a touch of hysteria’ was the forthcoming visit from the Green Fingers TV show. It was all anyone could talk about.
It was a revelation to me; so far all I had witnessed from my fellow plot holders was the therapeutic side to cultivating your own vegetables (and the social side in the case of Roy and Dougie – now that Dougie’s homemade scrumpy had matured, they spent most of their time serenading us with a medley of Daniel O’Donnell and Bob Marley songs).
‘Morning, Tilly,’ called Christine from the steps of the pavilion as I cycled past. She was overseeing the erection of five colourful hanging baskets along the covered porch that ran the length of the building. ‘What do you think – grand or what?’
‘Beautiful,’ I replied, winking at Nigel and Alfred who were balancing on stepladders and rotating the baskets to Her Ladyship’s satisfaction, looking like their arms were about to snap off.
I waved and wobbled past the other plot holders and dismounted at my half of plot sixteen. Gemma’s shed was open. Hurrah, that meant I would have the pleasure of her company while I worked. And my apple tree was in blossom, double hurrah.
‘Ivy Lane allotments will look like a film set by June,’ I said, parking the bike next to my shed and heading over to see her.
‘They all think they’re going on flippin’ X Factor,’ grumbled Gemma from her deckchair. ‘Green Fingerswill be looking for quirky characters not perfect plots.’
She rolled up her pink capri pants and stretched her legs out for maximum UV exposure.
‘I, on the other hand, shall be cultivating nothing more strenuous than a tan,’ she added, leaning back and tilting her face to the sun.
Today her hair was clipped back with a pink ladybird and I eyed her summery outfit enviously, wishing I had the confidence to strip off. I waswearing a T-shirt and my arms, exposed for the first time in yonks, were already turning pink but my legs, clad in skinny jeans, were sweltering.
‘I swear, Mum, if you make me be here when they’re filming I’m going to go and live with Dad,’ said Mia, without looking up from her phone.
Grounded again, presumably. She was sprawled out on the grass next to Gemma, wearing barely decent denim shorts and a T-shirt.
Probably just as well my legs weren’t on display, I thought, noticing how toned and golden Mia’s teenage limbs were.
‘I’d rather die than be seen on a gardening programme. They’d probably make me stand up in assembly at school and talk about it,’ she continued with a shudder.
I smothered a smile; poor girl, her mother would relish the limelight, but I was with Mia on this one and remembered how much I’d yearned to blend into the background at her age. Still did, come to that.
I was feeling pretty excited today. Not because of the TV thing – the mere thought of that had the same effect on my stomach as the smell of Shazza’s mushroom compost. My good mood was down to an imminent event: the harvesting of my first crop. Yippee!
After a catastrophic start to my allotment career in which I nearly threw in the trowel, the plot that I shared with Gemma had come on leaps and bounds over the last month and my radishes, I had been reliably informed by Nigel, were ready for harvesting.
‘OK, drumroll please,’ I announced, willing my crop not to let me down.
‘Get a picture of this on your phone, Mia,’ said Gemma, leaning forward in her deckchair. ‘This is history in the making.’
I knelt down gingerly on the edge of the path near what I referred to as my salad patch, delved down into the roots with my pink hand fork and lifted the first fruits of my labour.
Four pinky-red spheres with tiny white roots twinkled at me through the crumbly soil. Mia zoomed in close – to be honest, they were quite small – and took a photograph.
‘Look at these beauties,’ I said, holding them high as if I’d won an Oscar. ‘Like little rubies.’
Radishes. I couldn’t even remember buying radishes before and now I had grown my own. With Nigel’s help, but even so.
‘Ah, look at you, beaming with pride!’ Gemma got to her feet and I yielded to her rib-crushing hug.
It was ridiculous but tears sprang to my eyes. Gemma was right, my heart was singing with joy and I sent my counsellor a silent message of thanks for encouraging me to take on the allotment as a way of getting my life back on track.
A few minutes later I had a little pile of radishes on the path. A few had grown too big and spongy and several were too small to bother with, but on the whole I was flushed with success.
‘We ought to try some,’ said Gemma. ‘Go and give them a wash under the tap, Tills. Whoops, sorry!’ She cringed at me. ‘Tilly.’
While I fetched a basket from the shed to put them in, Gemma began extoling the virtues of the radish to Mia from the grass path at the edge of my plot.
‘Packed with vitamin C, love,’ she said, ‘and very low in calories.’
‘I don’t think Mia has to worry about her weight,’ I said, pinching the tops off the radishes and dropping them into my basket.
‘Huh!’ said Gemma. ‘Maybe not now, but when she first hit puberty she ballooned like—’
‘I’ll wash those,’ said Mia, snatching the basket out of my hand and sprinting off to the tap.
‘This allotment is largely for her benefit,’ whispered Gemma, although Mia was out of earshot by now. Gemma did make me laugh; she had a habit of only being discreet when there was no one else around. ‘It’s hard work but it’s worth it …’
That was debatable; she palmed off all the hard jobs to Colin.
‘Teaching her about eating healthy food is one of the best gifts I can give her.’
I touched her arm gently and she patted my hand. Underneath that bubbly, carefree exterior she was a great mum. The sort I would have given my right arm to be. My heart pitched suddenly, but Gemma, as usual, brought it straight back up again by snorting with laughter.
‘Besides which,’ she said mischievously, plonking down in her chair again, ‘I’ve met Mia’s grandmother. That woman’s butt has probably got its own postcode.’
I joined in the laughter and glanced over to the tap. Mia had turned the water on full blast and had soaked herself and Liz, who was waiting in turn to use it. I had two minutes at most.
I cleared my throat. ‘Can I ask you a personal question?’
‘Of course you can!’ She looked at me in surprise. ‘We’re mates. My life is an open book.’
A wave of something close to nausea washed over me. Mine was more like a secret diary that required a special key to open it. A key that was currently in hiding…
It’s out tomorrow but you can pre-order it now! Ivy Lane: Summer: Part 2