‘What’s he doing?’ said Andy, as much to himself as to his wife Cathy.
‘Why don’t you just come away from the window and let the poor man get on with it?’
Andy could tell that her comment was to be considered a favourable option failing any plausible reason he could muster for lingering behind the curtain.
‘I’m not paying him to just stand there scratching his chin,’ he said knowing full well that this observation would not fulfil the criteria of a ‘good argument’.
‘I’m going to walk Calculus and when I come back I expect to see you pursuing a more productive pastime,’ said Cathy.
Calculus stretched on the sofa, his sofa, a sofa he’d won through a combination of will and charm, or as Andy was apt to say ‘pure doggedness’. Time to inspect his realm, to check for interlopers and mark the boundaries. Calculus shuffled across the kitchen floor and sat expectantly at Cathy’s feet.
‘Yes, yes of course. I’ll um…?’
‘Write to your brother?’ offered Cathy. She knew Andy was a poor correspondent, so much so that over the years she had taken to replying to letters and later e-mails meant for him. The only letter she refused to answer was from Andy’s brother, Bobby.
Cathy grabbed the leash from the hook by the back door and Calculus stood and wagged his tail waiting with mounting excitement for whatever the world had to offer him.
Andy watched as Calculus bounded down the garden and imposed upon Digger a thorough sniffing. Digger suddenly sprang to life, petting and fussing over the dog.
‘Ah so he moves…’ said Andy to himself. The fact that no one was around to appreciate his sarcasm wasn’t lost on him. He thought fleetingly of including the tale of Digger’s apparent ineptitude in his letter to Bobby but realised that this would highlight what a shallow existence he’d become accustomed to. No, instead, he’d have to take his rather pedestrian existence and turn it into a tale of bucolic bliss, filled with passions and passionate people and a type of poetic camaraderie once thought lost. Feeling compelled to inject some degree of artistic licence into his hum drum existence did not, as you may think, cause a kind of spiritual introspection to occur but rather a lethargy Andy had grown to appreciate as living.
Calculus finished his inspection of Digger and once confirmed as friend not foe he bounded after Cathy with a nimbleness commonly attributed to a dog half his age. Andy waited for Cathy and Calculus to be out of sight and then returned his attention to Digger John who had, in the interim, taken off his T-shirt. Now it looked as if Michael Angelo’s David had hit middle age, sought solace in beer and pies and taken up residence in his sunken Japanese Garden.
‘If he doesn’t move soon I’ll have no choice but to go down there myself…’
Digger John normally tackled the task of digging from behind the controls of his bobcat but on this occasion the task would have to be met manually. There was no access to the sunken garden other than a set of steep steps carved into the bank. Most of the area within was occupied by a Carp pond brimming with Lillie pads and reeds. In the corner by a handcrafted wooden bench thrived a patch of Bamboo. His mission was to remove the bamboo, an easy enough task for a Bob cat but evidently more challenging by hand.
Digger had learnt that time spent mulling over a problem before initiating contact with it was time well spent. While staring at his problem and considering it, along with other unrelated, inconsequential matters, Calculus appeared at his side.
Cathy arrived at the top of the steps, ‘How are you today John?’ (she refused to call him Digger) .
‘Morning Cathy. Fine thanks – just eyeing up my opponent. Shouldn’t be a problem; nothing I can’t handle,’ he said with an optimism he truly felt.
‘Excellent, just the man for the job then? I’ll leave you to it. If you need anything Andy’s up at the house.’
‘Right you are,’ replied Digger. He had no intention of engaging with Andy anymore than he had to. Andy, he thought, had no filter, which some might find refreshing, ‘You know where you are with Andy…’ but he found it galling. All Andy ever did was to find fault in the way others lived their lives. Digger knew his faults, they were not lost and didn’t need finding; he just chose to ignore them and would appreciate it if everyone else got on board with the conspiracy.
Andy placed his laptop on the kitchen table so that he would still have a good view down the garden. He made himself some tea, sneaked in a sugar cube and sat down to write to his brother: he didn’t have much to say. He glanced over the top of his screen, something he’d promised himself not to do for another five minutes, and was rewarded with movement. At that moment, Digger was returning to the sunken garden with a pickaxe the size of which Andy had never seen.
‘What a monster!’ he exclaimed as he pushed himself up out of his chair and moved closer to the window, certain that a spectacle of some magnitude was at hand. ‘And the pickaxe is quite impressive too,’ Andy chuckled to himself.
Digger steadied himself, feet apart, back straight, knees bent and took aim swinging the pick with all his might. The pick came down hard but caused little damage to the bamboo. Digger, on the other hand, staggered backwards as the shock waves travelled up his arms.
Having discovered the true extent of his opponent’s strength, Digger was resolute and unleashed an assault of biblical proportions upon the bamboo. Andy could only watch in awe as the pick came down time after time. He was at last getting his money’s worth.
‘You still staring out the window like an old maid?’ said Cathy, from the kitchen doorway. Andy startled,
‘You trying to give me a heart attack?’
‘I forgot the poo bags. I left Calculus with Harry Shields, by the football pitch.’
‘Oh’ indeed. I’m running off with Harry. He’s been pursuing me for some time. We’ll start a new life in Patagonia together.’
‘Yes dear. Right you are,’ said Andy half hoping she would run off with the retired football coach and half hoping she cooked him lamb shank for supper.
‘Please try to tear yourself away from Digger’s exertions, it’s most off-putting I’m sure.’
Digger experienced no pain after that initial shock, just a steady sense of ever-growing euphoria. Him against the world, he was unstoppable, like a machine with a sense of determination. He just kept swinging that pick, drawing strength from the very core of the earth. He was in the zone, weightless, having transcended the physical world; the pickaxe but a toothpick to him as the bamboo weakened its grip on reality. Soon it would be no more, not even a memory, any trace of its being would be wiped from existence.
‘My God look at him go! And only ten quid an hour! What a Spartan!’ muttered Andy unable to pull himself away. He counted the downward strokes checking each seventh for its strength and veracity. As a boy he’d stood on the shore, looking out towards the Atlantic with his father. His father, a usually remote and austere man told him to count the waves as they rolled in, informing him to take note of each seventh wave.
‘The seventh wave is always more powerful, that’s the one the surfer wants to catch.’
So, Andy had watched and counted the waves, as he watched and counted the blows now. He had never tried to swim in the sea, he never took up surfing, he felt better off observing life rather than actually getting involved.
‘Why get your hands dirty?’ was his stock reply to himself and to anyone with the temerity to ask. He was one of life’s great spectators watching the miracle of existence unfold from the comfort of his armchair, if at all possible. He watched, he counted and he judged. ‘Numbers are my thing,’ he’d say if prompted. He could get involved in math and there was no danger that math would get involved with him. He liked watching sport, but only to offer his opinion on where the players went wrong. He had the same relationship with his children, offering a running commentary on their apparent failings. These days they seldom sought his advice and treated him with indifference. He didn’t notice so he wasn’t offended, much to everyone’s relief but to no-one’s real surprise. Cathy chose to put up with him and referred to him as her fourth child, which irked him but he stayed silent.
I hope this letter finds you well and not too sore at me for dragging my heels in response to your colourful and detailed letter.”
Andy thought he’d started well and wondered if he should indulge in a little preamble before getting down to the main news. He decided it was probably necessary to cover some of the banality first, but kept it short trimming his news about the kids to, ‘All doing well in their individual pursuits.’ This was a bit of a stretch he knew, if not a tad disingenuous, but his children’s failings were back burner material and would, in time, receive the airing they deserved. Just not today: today he had juicer news to report. So, after skimming over the phenomenon that was his immediate family (Cathy included) Andy got down to business.
“I’m sure you still remember the sunken Japanese garden we had installed back in 2004? I remember during your last visit you took your morning coffee there to enjoy the tranquility of the spot; that is, until the peace was shattered by a bounding puppy called Calculus. He’s still going strong but with a little less bounce. Well, we recently decided that the area could do with a little TLC and called in a local tradesman to deal with the overbearing bamboo. I’d have attacked it myself if it were not for my sciatica which seldom leaves me these days. The tradesman in question is a colossal fellow known affectionately as ‘Digger John’ because of his occupation but also to separate him from all the other Johns resident in Little Bibcock.”
Andy wondered whether to go through the litany of Johns to illustrate the point? But decided on this occasion his brother did not need to hear about ‘Little John, Munchie John, Demi-John or Preacher John to understand the point.
“Digger John, perhaps more so than any other John you’d care to mention is defined by his moniker. He digs therefore he is. A lovable chap with an easy wit and disarming personality: a charm to have around. In short, a real asset to the village in terms of what he does and who he is. If only John cared for himself as much as we all care for him. You see, like many men described as ‘larger than life’, he has a considerable appetite for erroneous things, junk food, cigarettes and no doubt beer a plenty if Bootlegger John’s attestation is anything to go by.
I have often looked on hopelessly as friends and acquaintances employ a ‘devil may care’ attitude to their health and safety. Telling them seems to have little or no effect in my experience. (If anything, informing someone of their mistakes only amplifies the problem). This is by no means a reason to stand by while others make folly and in the case of Digger, I tried more than once to shame him when all else failed but, alas to no avail.
Yesterday he may well have mocked me for my concerns but today Digger had pause for thought I’m sure. You see Bobby, as Digger was digging into that bamboo he suffered a massive heart attack! Now, as luck would have it I was just passing the large bay window in the kitchen, the one that looks down over the garden, when I happened to notice Digger keel over. It doesn’t take a genius to realise what had happened to the poor man.”
Andy knew his response time was slow. He’d stood staring at the spot where he’d seen Digger collapse and then looked towards the front gate hoping that Cathy was back in time to deal with the situation. She wasn’t. He wondered briefly whether she had run off with Harry after all?
When the realisation finally hit him that he must act, it arrived like the seventh wave and from that point Andy did everything by the book. He phoned the emergency services while making his way to the sunken garden. Once there he administered CPR bouncing up and down with his hands flat on Diggers chest to the tune of Saturday night fever, “Stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive. Ha, ha, ha, ha, stayin’ alive,” (but stopped short of giving Digger mouth to mouth). The paramedics arrived with a defibrillator just as Calculus came trundling down the path wondering what the hell was going on?
“There was a bit of a struggle getting Digger out of the sunken garden but they managed with a tow rope and a winch. He’s doing fine, in hospital for a few days under observation. So there you have it, more excitement in little Bibcock. Bootlegger John wants to throw a bash in my honour but you know me. I don’t like a fuss. If however the village insists on repaying me for saving Digger’s life I’d rather they band together to remove that bloody Bamboo.”
Digger John felt loved. His wife Maggie and four children sat by his bedside and a constant flow of friends dropped by to wish him well. Other than feeling loved, he felt embarrassed that his life had been saved by Abacus Andy. He considered briefly moving away, going somewhere far from little Bibcock, if only to avoid Andy’s inevitable gloating. In the end he knew he had no choice but to stay. After all, he had darts on Sunday and Maggie had a seance booked with a psychic at the Bear Hotel. He was aware that if it were not for Abacus Andy’s efforts Maggie could have been talking to him via his spirit guide but on the subject of spirituality, Digger and his wife agreed to disagree (which he thought saved him a lot of earache).
Andy re-read his e-mail to Bobby and pressed send. Calculus, slithered off his sofa, waddled over to the kitchen table and sat at Andy’s feet looking up at his master.
‘What is it boy? You hungry?’
Andy looked at the clock on the wall.
‘My goodness you’re right, it’s supper time.’