By night they came, six masked figures armed with chainsaws and handsaws, spreading through the garden like a poked ants’ nest. Their targets were eleven apple trees, two pears, one plum, one morello cherry, one gage and two damsons. The ground was arid, the grass yellowed by the August drought. The leaves gleamed silver in the moonlight and the aroma of trodden plums filled the night air. They clambered up and sawed off branches, then beheaded the trees with the chainsaws. For three hours they laboured to the tune of squeaking and crunching and the high-pitched whine of petrol engines. There were no nearby houses with curtain twitchers, only the giant supermarket in the shadows beyond. The loose phalanx trickled between the waist-high stumps, moving on to the next tree as each one was finished. They stapled a sheet of blood-red paper with the word ‘Pigeons’ in bold printed letters to the gate and left triumphant.
When ninety-year-old Lionel came out of hospital after a fall and saw the devastation, he wept. The police sympathised and took photographs and fingerprints.
‘Who would do this?’ said the bison-shouldered detective sergeant. He removed the notice with gloved hands and slipped it into a plastic bag.
Lionel jabbed a finger at the scowling redbrick brute. His neighbours’ homes were all razed and replaced by tarmac. Between his house and the droning bypass, warehouses and factories had sprung up higgledy-piggledy in Nunnery Field, where once were meadows, hedgerows and woods all the way across to Grimbleby Crag. They said the farmer had scattered dock and thistle seeds to make the land fit for neither beast nor crop. Beyond, the sea of blazing yellow rape had gone green. They thought he’d give in, couldn’t manage on his own. Friends thought so too, and his son and daughter harassed him, when they bothered to communicate.
The detective scribbled, stroked his chin and promised to explore every possibility.
‘We do take it very seriously, Mr Darley,’ he said, adding, ‘Mind you don’t slip on those fallen plums, now,’ as he left.
Lionel poured himself a sup of whisky, lit a Lambert and Butler and surveyed the unbridled tarmac of the supermarket car park, and in the midst of it his haven, now shrunk to ugly stubs, headless dolmens, their crowns in pieces on the ground. Only the bird table stood proud. The sun sank in an orange blur below a thick slate mass of cloud.
He tore half a loaf into thumbnail-sized pieces. They heaped up on the oval silver platter etched with the words in italics ‘To Lionel and Dorothy on this Joyful Day. 23rd of August 1946.’ This would have been their seventieth anniversary. Platinum. On the fence pigeons slapped their wings.
He took the platter out, filled the bird table, then picked his way over the broken limbs to the Bramley apple with pocked and corrugated trunk planted by his grandfather in 1887. Dorothy’s favourite. She made the best apple crumble in Yorkshire. He folded himself over the stump and stayed like that for an age.
The goateed lad hired by Lionel at the end of his forty hours’ community service was piled high with cardboard boxes from the supermarket checkouts.
‘Now then. Cup of tea and a Jammie Dodger before you start?’
The lad grinned. ‘I know someone can lend a chainsaw,” he said.
The boy flinched at the vehemence of the reply.
Painstakingly he set to, saving unsquashed plums and Early Worcester apples into boxes to go on the front wall for passing shoppers. He sawed up the branches with a hand saw and stacked them. It took all day and filled a quarter of the space. It would have broken Dorothy’s heart. It nearly broke Lionel’s. The garden was swimming in sunshine. Pigeons gathered on the fence for their tea.
That evening the doorbell rang. Lionel’s sharp-suited son David thrust red carnations at his father.
‘I can’t stay long. Sorry I didn’t visit you in hospital. Susan kept me tied up.’ He swiped a hand over his sun-glazed crown.
Lionel put the flowers in a cut-glass vase.
‘Good God, what have you done to the garden? Have you lost your mind?’ David stepped out the back, then swivelled round to face his father. ‘You’re not planning to pave it over, are you? Squandering your money?’
Lionel bit his lip. ‘Vandals, according to the police.’
‘Why on earth…?’
He wasn’t going to tell his son and daughter, vultures the pair of them. But grief will out. ‘It was the supermarket paid them. Paid vandals. Trying to buy me out.’
His son’s jaw dropped. ‘You never said.’
‘You never came.’
‘For God’s sake, Dad, take the money and run. They’ll never offer as much once you’re gone. It’ll be worthless. What are they offering?’
‘Wouldn’t you like to know?’
David’s face grew redder than the carnations. ‘Look, I could help you here. I’m good at negotiating.’
‘I wouldn’t sell for a million.’
‘So how much have they offered?’
Lionel turned to look out at the garden. ‘A hundred and twenty thousand.’
‘No way! Let me handle this. I’ll squeeze more out of them.’
The pigeons were waiting. His son wasn’t listening. How did he produce such callous offspring? He and his evangelistic sister in Sweden. Their mother would have been aghast. ‘I thought you were in a rush,’ he said.
‘This is important. I’ll talk to them now.’ He headed for the door.
Lionel continued to look out of the back window. On a hill before the bypass stood the old fever hospital. The traffic hummed as ever.
‘I won’t sell.’
David spun round. ‘You’re throwing away our inheritance,’ he screeched. ‘Just accept. For Mum’s sake.’
Lionel turned, grim-faced. ‘Your mother would have died rather than sell to them.’
David strode out, got into a gleaming BMW and did a U-turn with squealing brakes.
Twice a week Lionel took the bus to the next town. Only one corner shop remained in his own town, which delivered his weekly groceries including half a litre of Bell’s, but he refused to enter the supermarket. If he wanted more whisky, and he did, then he must go further afield. Friends said he couldn’t go on. He was falling all over the place. If he forgot what he’d bought fifteen miles away, he always heard it later: not two, but three litres of whisky last Wednesday, tut tut.
On Friday nights he played Monopoly with the Cookes, a couple on the other side of town. He put on his black-gone-grey tee-shirt and white trainers with loosely woven uppers and cushioned soles. Running shoes, but his running days were over. He padded through the car park which had been his neighbours’ homes. Endless grey with a rim of ugly spotted laurels. The shiny red and black and silver cars glinted in the late sun.
With trembling hand he read out to the Cookes the letter hand-delivered by a minion from the supermarket, with a ribboned bouquet of flowers which he had thrown back over the fence.
We are extremely sorry to hear of the vandalisation of your property. We hope the police find the culprits, though of course this will be little consolation to you. We offer you our greatest sympathies. We would add that our offer still stands, regardless of the condition of the garden.
‘Lying toad,’ he said, and the Cookes murmured agreement.
‘You could sleep in the spare room,’ the apple-cheeked Ellen always said at the end of Monopoly night.
‘Move into town, Lionel,’ said Humphrey. ‘You’re not getting any younger.’
‘They’ll have to carry me out in a box.’
Ellen drove him home.
She moaned to neighbours (it got back) that Lionel was a liability, walking round with pints of whisky inside him, and the extra couple of brandies he always coaxed out of Humphrey.
‘Keeps him happy,’ said Humphrey.
‘He’ll kill himself one day.’
One day he didn’t kill himself. He slipped on an oil patch crossing the road and broke his wrist.
‘Blasted cars,’ he said, struggling to his feet, then wailed, ‘My shopping.’ Whisky seeped from the rucksack lying in the road.
He waited sixty hours for surgery. Whisky gave way to fluorescent pain. A twice-daily carer helped him to dress with the disobedient arm and a girl cleaned once a week. She wiped smoke-tar off the walls as far as she could reach, leaving an odd cream and brown effect. She opened the sideboard and out rolled a dozen empty bottles stacked horizontally on top of papers.
‘That’s a few years’ worth, there’s no doorstep glass collection,’ Lionel snapped and sacked her.
The carer was dispatched too, though socks and lace-ups were impossible. The Cookes fetched and carried him, and Ellen made him steak pies and Battenberg cake.
Every day with his teeth he tore up bread for the clamouring pigeons and opened the whisky bottle. He poured himself a sup and left the bottle open, sucked a cigarette from the packet and lit it with a match against the matchbox clamped between his jaws. Drink and tobacco might have creased his skin and scoured his brain and everyone said he couldn’t manage, but his proud stature was uncrumpled. No corporation would drive him from his home.
The clouds marched on and so did Lionel. He tried rolling cigarettes to cut costs, but the wrist was no better. The grip was like a dying crab’s. He flung tobacco, Rizlas and filter tips in the bin in a tantrum, but later fished them back out. Still, he had his groceries delivered, his bus rides and his Friday Monopoly.
On his birthday he walked to the Cookes under an umbrella. Mammoth raindrops ricocheted off the pavement.
‘Who needs two hands?’ he crowed, blowing out the candles on Ellen’s cake.
Humphrey laughed. ‘Plenty of life in the old boy yet.’
They ate, they drank, they played two rounds of Monopoly. Lionel landed on Chance.
‘Street repairs,’ he said with dismay. ‘The ultimate insult.’
Humphrey counted his stack of five-hundred-pound notes while Lionel’s had shrunk to nothing.
‘It’s only a game,’ said Lionel.
A blur of contentment settled on the company. Lionel was rambling and drunk. He almost agreed to sleep in the spare room. Ellen kissed him on both cheeks and Humphrey clamped his good hand. They were such good friends, nothing too much trouble. Salt of the earth. ‘You just mend that poorly wrist,’ they said, dropping him home.
A month later, in the car outside his home after a lavish evening, there was an awkward silence. Lionel was in the back.
Ellen said, ‘Lionel, we’ve got a buyer for the house.’
He stared. ‘You never told me you were moving.’
‘We told you on your birthday.’
They looked at their laps. Humphrey fiddled with the keys. And he thought they were his friends. His throat knotted.
‘How will you manage?’
‘It’ll take more than that to knock me down.’
He got out and slammed the door. How could they do this to him? If they had mentioned it on his birthday, they certainly had not done so since. Traitors. Well, he didn’t need them.
Lionel was sitting in the gloom, smoke curling from a cigarette, when his long-lost daughter rang from Norrköping. She had spoken to her brother. Lionel would rather she had stayed long-lost. Joan would pester like a cold-caller now.
‘Come and live with me,’ she said.
‘I am not moving,’ he said, steeling himself.
But he couldn’t tell her not to come. Joan was coming, full stop. To help. It’ll make more work, he thought, having to clear up before she comes. The dripping laundry on the clothes horse, walking two miles to get into town ‒ Joan would hate all that. She never came to stay, and Lionel never wanted her to. But a wily voice told him to suffer the moans and allow some shopping trips. And Joan would bring pickled herrings and ginger snaps.
Joan blasted in and blasted out again. It was tiring to watch. She left lickety-split, earlier than planned because of the rat. Lionel settled into the sofa with a glass and a Lambert and Butler. Whisky was thicker than water.
Lionel shuffled into the garden, scattering pigeons. Car doors slammed and engines throbbed beyond the fence, and lorries thundered along the bypass. The clouds looked like a blanket to wallow in, like Dorothy’s favourite chair with the down-filled cushions, which he never touched. He crunched the littered twigs underfoot to reach the decapitated Bramley. He ran a finger along the saw grooves which oozed resin. Then he hugged its gnarled trunk with its rot-holes and caverns, knobs and warts, the moss on the north side. The rugged, furrowed bark stroked his cheek. Beside him, next to the crushed stems of the delphiniums, her favourite flower, was where she had lain, the ladder she’d been holding toppled over, the chainsaw lodged in her neck, motionless and silent. The pool of blood.