Thursday, 26 July 2018

Instructions for a Heatwave

We discussed Maggie O’Farrell’s ‘Instructions for a Heatwave’ at book group some time back in 2014. I had been most impressed with O’Farrell’s ‘The Hand That First Held Mine,’ introduced to us by Lucy English while studying for an MA in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University. Thank you Lucy for showing us pages packed with intensity, emotion, intrigue and unforgettable writing. 

I didn’t feel the same enthusiasm for O’Farrell’s ‘Instructions’ and at her talk in the Bath Literary Festival I didn’t feel drawn to ‘I am, I am, I am’ - her latest work. But I’m open to persuasion.

‘Instructions’ disappointed me in that its title bore no relation to what we understand by a heatwave. We have, apparently, endured the country’s hottest day ever today. At least one dog has died from heatstroke on his morning walk. Cows in Somerset have been left with little water after hooligans tampered with their supplies. Lettuces and peas are suffering in the heat and we are likely to see few of these home grown crops in the near future. Those we do see will be at inflated prices.

Even at the domestic level Richard and I are making mental lists of things to be done on a daily basis - mostly before 10 am or after 7 pm.
My own instructions for a heatwave revolve around the use of water. We still have plenty, it seems, and we have yet to suffer a hosepipe ban.

But, I wonder, how many of you are as barmy as we are in trying to protect our vegetable garden.

When we went on holiday in early July I put a parasol over my short but productive rows of spinach.
Our neighbour watered the parched leeks, lettuce, French beans, tomatoes and herbs in our absence. This was no mean feat as the water pipe to the hose needed fixing and our builder left it too late to get the job done. For at least seven days before our holiday we built up muscles like Popeye. We  showered everything with watering cans via the kitchen sink. Should we suffer a hosepipe ban we will surely be ahead of the curve.

My French beans also had their own parasol while we were awol and the leeks and lettuce were so established I left them to our neighbour’s good care.

On the day we left the phlox and cosmos began to wilt. I’d neglected the flowering plants. What to do? I more or less drained the water butt trying to care for them and, thankfully, they survived. 
I am still picking them as cut flowers but the soil beneath them is so cracked they require daily dollops of the wet stuff.

It is now at least 11 weeks since we had any rain and the water in the pond is much depleted. To add to the increasingly long list - in order to help pond creatures - we now have to fill buckets of tap water and leave them on the patio for gases to escape. Then replenish the pond very gently so as not to shock any sheltering, quivering aquatic beasties. On top of that our naughty visiting badgers, who clearly partied hard on the lawn a couple of weeks back, now have to have dishes of water left out for them, as do hedgehogs and all manner of night-time garden guests. 

Yesterday, it being a mere 77 degrees in the shade, I did ‘real’ gardening: trimming the rose arches, snipping the burnished lawn, cutting back dead and dying montbretia, feeding more precious plants, making a flower bed out of potted plants and dead-heading. It took two hours in the relative cool of the day.

Richard’s broad bean crop has produced the grand total of five pods. But his potatoes have met with greater success. Where was the hose when he needed it? His vegetables are thirty feet away from our kitchen at the top of the garden. We may have the arms of Popeye but neither of us has the strength of Hercules. Thus the broad beans didn’t get watered and they suffered from black fly. Ho hum.

The front garden has managed to look less like a wasteland. Cosmos, antirrhinum and bedding plants have coped. They are erect, purple and pink and are a gladsome sight. But they too need buckets of water on a daily basis.

Needless to say I’m barely sitting outside absorbing the sun’s rays. It’s a full time occupation caring for the gardens, and going for walks or a swim in the cool of the evening.

I could list all our tasks and call them ‘Instructions for a Heatwave’ but I’ve barely started ... constantly covering the cat food from maggot-laying flies...having cold showers... opening all the windows and doors but having to shut everything for a fifteen minute trip to the shops... remembering the factor 30, sun hat, sun glasses and constantly filling my bottle with water.

I seem to be soooo busy. Especially in comparison with one of our neighbours who is loving every moment of this prolonged sun-bask and is sitting back under her parasol, taking it easy and reading in the shade. 

I must be getting something wrong. Is it, perhaps my active interest in gardens? Am I overly concerned when plants are water-distressed? Shouldn’t I be doing normal things like having a hair cut and sunbathing instead of working myself to a frazzle?

I ought to be like my neighbour, sitting calmly under her parasol reading books about the i ching.

My instructions for a heatwave read somewhat differently.

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