Adam stopped digging and looked up at the sky. The weatherman had got it wrong again. It was far warmer than forecasted, although the predicted storm clouds were now gathering out towards the horizon. He brushed the perspiration from his forehead and removed his tattered pullover. It didn’t feel like the fifteenth year on his allotment. Each new spring bought its own excitement, as if he had only just begun. He noticed a robin on his piece of dug earth. The tiny bird looked up at him expectantly.
‘Hello young chap,’ Adam said, ‘looking for worms I’ll be bound.’ He imagined this was the same robin of the last few years but couldn’t know for sure. Still, it did have a similar white spot on its breast. Adam resumed digging out the apple root, a tree which now bore little fruit. It had been hard work chopping it down for a man already in his seventies. It was nearly lunchtime and he needed to get home to prepare a meal for Mary. Not that she understood the meaning of time now. He busied himself tidying up rather than dwell on this.
He shut the shed and just before leaving saw his plot neighbour. Adam wasn’t in the mood to hear his moans and groans today, especially the one about his shed casting a shadow over Clive’s tomatoes. If Adam had a pound for every complaint about that he would be a rich man now. He growled this to himself as he hurried along to Maple Avenue. Here half rendered houses stood either side of the street and cherry-plums stood like sentinels along the pavement. Bright daffodils and luscious blossom erupted from gardens. Thank God for nature, Adam thought as he turned into his drive and skirted round to the back door.
That night he set up the weekly cine show in the lounge. Sometimes these old holiday movies created a spark in Mary’s memory. The film revealed a dress night they had been to during a holiday in Torquay. The pictures flickered over the pull-down screen making Mary laugh.
‘That’s you Adam,’ she slurred, trying to look back at him. ‘Don’t you look dashing?’
‘And you look quite the lady,’ he returned.
Adam ran the film on a bit. Later he stopped for an intermission and went into the kitchen to make cocoa. It had always been him and Mary; she was his only love since their meeting on VE Day. Now, on bad days, she hardly recognised him. As he heated the milk a thunderclap grumbled in the distance.
‘We’re in for a storm tonight love,’ he remarked as he returned with the drinks. She didn’t seem to hear him, was instead looking dreamily at the frozen image on the screen. It was of a small town in Italy, with them both smiling out from a pavement café. They were young and full of life, and Adam caught his breath when he saw how vibrant his wife had been.
‘This must be the late fifties,’ Mary said, surprising him. ‘Oh Adam, couldn’t we buy somewhere in Italy and have every day as a holiday?’ Amazed, Adam sped to her side. This was the most coherent thing she’d said in months.
‘Is that honestly what you would like?’ he said, taking her hand and looking into her sparkling eyes.
‘I would really love it,’ she confirmed. Adam kissed her cheek and imagined the glimmer of her future recovery. His gaze flashed back to the screen and he recalled while on that holiday they had laughed about ever becoming old.
Eric’s whist drive was held at the top end of the avenue. Barbara from the church and Eric’s wife Cinda made up the four. Adam would have taken a turn being a host but because of Mary this was difficult. Cinda kindly asked about his allotment and Mary’s health but she didn’t wait for a reply. He knew it was too much to expect a visit from them, they might feel awkward, wouldn’t know what to say. And in keeping their distance at least he was able to keep some of his wife’s dignity intact.
That night Adam and Barbara won £5.60, but he knew he would have to do better than that if he was going to take Mary to Italy. Before retiring Adam had worked as a postman and Mary had a part-time job in a newsagent. They had no savings, and on a pension could not afford to travel abroad.
‘Don’t look so happy,’ Eric said to Adam, ‘anyone would think you’d lost that game.’
He gave Adam an awkward pat on the shoulder and the usual sympathetic smile followed him as he left. Adam didn’t stop to wave as it had started to rain and as usual, he’d forgotten his umbrella.
Spring thunderstorms kept Adam from visiting his allotment but one morning dawned dry and warm. He left Mary at the kitchen table with a jigsaw puzzle, one with assorted cats on she enjoyed doing.
‘I won’t be long,’ he said.
On the plot he realised how deep the apple roots went, now loosened up considerably from all the rain. He set to work removing those that remained.
‘I’ve been meaning to catch you, Adam.’ He knew the voice at once.
‘Morning Clive,’ he said without looking up.
‘It’s about your shed,’ Clive began the usual theme, ‘I’ve had a word with the overseer about it. He’s got a proposal for you.’ Adam straightened up and rubbed his back, wincing in the sunlight.
‘What sort of a proposal?’
Clive put his foot against the felled trunk of the tree. ‘Just hear me out. If you move your shed, Raymond has a spare greenhouse going. That means you get the greenhouse for free and my tomatoes will get the sun they need.’
‘What I need is to get on. These roots won’t dig themselves up.’
‘But what do you think?’
Adam leant on his fork handle and took his time replying. He’d didn’t much like Clive with his smug attitude and perfect plot. Clive was in with them on the Council, and very pally with Raymond the overseer. He won the big prizes at the shows and seemed to have all the time in the world to mess about in other people’s affairs.
‘Why can’t you move your greenhouse?’ he said, knowing full well there was nowhere else on Clive’s plot where it could be put.
‘Come on Adam, how many times have I explained it’s in the optimum spot. So do we have a deal?’
‘I’ll have to think about it.’ Adam said.
A week later Mary collected the morning letters. ‘It came through the door,’ she said, ‘but I’m not sure what it is.’
‘It’s all right love, it’s the post.’ Mary gave him one of her blank looks. Today her right cheek seemed to sag more than usual. ‘Like the letters I used to deliver. You must remember that, love?’
‘Oh, yes,’ she said, lowering her eyes.
One of the letters was from the council. Adam read it by the window where the light was better. It said if he agreed to move his shed, in return he would receive a fully glazed greenhouse as compensation. The letter said the greenhouse would be his property from then on, as with anything else he had on his plot. Dated 4th April 1996, it was signed by Raymond. Adam almost spat as he snorted in disgust. So now it was official, he thought. He drained his teacup and made a silent vow not to become Clive’s fool.
Adam had rented his plot since 1968 when he and Mary were approaching middle age. At the time it seemed the ideal hobby as they loved gardening and outside space at home was limited. Soon this new pursuit took Adam back to when he was a boy. But his plot neighbours also revealed strange stories. Seth Armstrong from an adjoining patch was the worst for them.
‘Your plot used to be kept by a fellow from South Africa,’ Seth had told him, through loose false teeth. ‘He were a rum one that Kurt; always up to no good.’
‘What do you mean?’ Adam had replied.
‘He used to sneak around his plot after dark. He’d come down with an oil-lamp and start digging holes. Nobody knew what they were for, but by morning they were always filled in. Some say he buried a body, but the holes weren’t deep enough for that.’
‘What happened to him?’ Adam asked.
‘He had a sudden heart attack and died last year. He left no will, or any family.’ Seth turned to leave but then hesitated. ‘Clive and Raymond got on with him really well,’ he said, ‘they became quite close knit.’
Adam dug the earth and thought of Kurt. Today he was planting potatoes where the apple tree had been. Buried treasure, that’s what his dad had called potatoes. He’d also taught him the important roots sustaining all plants lies hidden. Adam straightened up and made for the shed, just in time to escape a rain shower. Might as well boil the kettle on the camp stove, he thought. Mary was at home watching Columbo on the telly, and very likely now asleep. He hoped she would remember to eat the sandwich he’d left on the chairside table.
Adam drank his tea and suddenly recalled the day they’d met. Funny to think it was forty years almost to the month he’d walked through Victoria Station. With thirty minutes to wait for his connecting train he made his way to the station café. But people were everywhere, dancing, laughing, pushing and cheering. He was just about to walk to his platform when he saw her. She wore a brightly flowered dress and her hair was pinned in a sleek chignon. But it was her smile that caught Adam’s attention and as she burst into laughter, he knew she was the one for him.
Adam sipped his tea and remembered how they had danced. He wanted to show Mary the Tango, something he’d learned while on active duty. She had twirled in anticipation when the music began.
‘First things first,’ he said, indicating his feet and pointing as he moved one toe out towards the wall. Her eyes followed his steps as he moved to the music. When he had finished the short sequence he motioned for her to join him.
‘Now together,’ he said, ‘do you think you can remember it?’
‘I think so,’ she said, and he moved her round the room in not too clumsy an attempt. ‘That seemed to go well,’ her smile faded as their eyes formed a sizzling connection. ‘Shall we try again?’
‘Like Ginger and Fred,’ she’d told the girls at the Munitions factory, ‘that’s us all right.’ He imagined her in her boiler suit and hair scarf, her lacquered nails glinting as she retraced the steps for them. But Mary could no longer dance the Tango and now Adam’s thoughts returned to Italy. If it meant improved health, he would happily leave everything behind, including his allotment. He packed up the tea things and made for home.
Seth was bent double sowing beetroot and carrots while he whistled through his teeth. ‘I’ll give you a hand to move your shed when you’re ready,’ he offered, straightening up. Adam nodded but didn’t reply. ‘Where’s it going anyway?’ Seth continued, ‘By the compost?’
‘Aye,’ Adam replied, and began emptying out his garden tools into a wheelbarrow.
‘So, where’s the greenhouse going then?’ Seth gestured toward the dismantled frame leaning against the fence. Adam sighed audibly.
‘If you must know, it’s going where the shed is.’
‘Oh, I see.’ Seth appeared confused for a moment. ‘Well just let me know like, if you need a hand.’
That afternoon Clive appeared. Adam noticed his smirking expression even from a sideways glance. Wordlessly he set to work collecting all the small items from his shed. These Adam placed in a cold frame. He stacked up his long-handled tools and secured the paraffin stove near to the fence, covering it with a piece of tarpaulin. Then in defiance, he went home to Mary and didn’t return to his allotment for a whole week.
It was 10.45pm, and Mary was fast asleep. If Kurt could work all through the night, then he would do the same. Adam collected his storm lamps and tool bag and made his way to the site. It wasn’t far to go but it seemed to take longer in the pitch black. Unlit by stars the sky was quilted with cloud. At least there was no wind. Adam walked slowly but even so stumbled into gully’s he would normally see by day. His tool bag was heavy, and the lamps clanked. Terrified of discovery Adam stopped in his tracks. All was silent save for an owl hooting at the far end of the allotments.
On his plot he lit the lamps, casting his shadow across the freshly dug beds. Undeterred, he got to work with a hammer, pulling out nails that had long since rusted. Bit by bit he moved the components of his shed to its new position. Steadily he knocked shiny nails into place until the shed was ready to receive his garden tools. Adam’s expression set in determination. He took up a pickaxe and began to hack at the virgin ground where the old shed had lived. Packed solid over the years, it was a while before the soil broke. He’d been told by Seth how Kurt had built the shed soon after his acquisition of the plot.
A large spark went up as the axe glanced on something solid. For a moment it lighted the dim patch he’d worked. Sinking to his knees Adam took up a trowel and dug down to the object. It was stuck fast, compacted in the subsoil, what Adam recognised as an old tin. He fished a torch from his pocket. The tin lid revealed a gash where the axe had struck above the words: Peek Frean. The biscuit makers, he thought. Adam used a penknife to prise off the rusted lid. Inside sheets of newspaper covered a small sack. Adam tried lifting the bag but surprised at its weight, had to stand to gain more leverage. It hit the ground with a metallic clink.
Adam reached inside the bag and pulled out a large golden coin.
His hands were shaking, and Adam wanted to scream. But his breath had shortened, and his heart thumped. With sinews taut he lifted the sack of gold into his wheelbarrow. Resisting the urge to rush home, he doggedly worked until sunrise. Only then, when the greenhouse frame finally rose from the earth did he straighten up. Adam sang out like an early songbird as he glanced toward the unexpected riches in his barrow. But strangely, the greater prize was of denying Clive see him struggle and sweat.
It was two days before he returned to his allotment, his body aching still from the exertion of the work. Adam expected the expression on Clive’s face to be of even deeper contempt as he hurried to his plot. He swallowed down the pure thrill of finding the gold, but his stomach lurched anyway. Clive was nowhere to be seen, but Seth approached.
‘Hello Adam,’ his words carried the usual ring.
‘Clive was asking after you,’ Seth continued, and Adam coughed to hide a chuckle.
‘Oh? And why would that be, when I’ve done as he bid?’
Seth ignored this. ‘Did you do all that work on your own?’
‘I managed.’ Adam wished he would come to the point or leave him alone.
‘I know Clive and Raymond intended to lend a hand with it, that’s all.’
Adam took his time glazing the greenhouse. The day was bright and clear, and he wished he’d thought to bring sunglasses. The panes clipped in, he added two large bags of compost to the soil. He couldn’t be sure but fancied the ground had been interfered with, perhaps from a fox digging for worms or slugs. He didn’t recall leaving holes all over, but maybe he had. Adam left at midday, but Clive still hadn’t appeared.
He arrived home to find Mary asleep on the sofa. Snapshots of their holiday in Italy were scattered over the floor. Adam knelt beside her and kissed her soft hair.
‘I’ll make things better lass, I will, I can now-’ Although whispered the words woke her. She looked into his eyes, and her face lit up like a young girl. He left her sorting some wool scraps while he made a pot of tea. Quietly he opened the pantry and checked inside the Peek Frean tin. Inside the hessian bag the gold greeted his gaze. He would count the two hundred coins again tonight.
The next whist night was cancelled. Eric called Adam saying Cinda had the flu and he thought he might be getting it himself. Adam communicated get well wishes, but he didn’t mind missing the evening. His mind was full of plans, excitement and wonder. At the bank just days before he’d found out his coins were South African Krugerrands, with an estimated value of two hundred thousand pounds. That night he couldn’t sleep and got up at midnight to make some cocoa.
Mary always slept well, and tonight was no exception. Adam drank his cocoa in the kitchen and thought about the gold. He had enough money to buy a house in Italy, and together live comfortably for the rest of their lives. He couldn’t squash the excitement, knowing this was precisely what he longed for. He had the letter from the council saying anything found on his plot was his property, but it was almost too much to take in.
A noise in the garden made him jump. He looked out of the back door just as a fox scrambled over the fence. The light from the kitchen reached the shed door, open when he was sure he’d shut it. Still elated, Adam supposed Mary had left it so. It seemed of little importance and his thoughts once again turned to a brighter future. Feeling the need to sleep Adam finished his drink and happily returned to bed.
It was Eric who saw the fire first. From the top end of Maple Avenue what he mistook for the morning glow was a house ablaze. It was impossible to know if it was Adam’s house. Cinda was ill in bed and he was running a temperature, but Eric phoned for the fire brigade without delay. Within minutes the shrill siren filled the street with noise, and now the whole avenue was awake. The fire was extinguished quickly but an officer remained at the scene for some hours.
The following night a cloaked figure broke into the charred kitchen. Stealthily the man searched the cupboards, eventually finding the Peek Frean tin in the pantry. The lid had been taped down and the contents weighed heavily. Loaded up, the thief left softly by the back gate and vanished like the early morning dew.
The sun lit up the patio at Villa Maria as Adam poured a drink for his wife. She’d been swimming in the pool, something surely impossible back in England. So much there had seemed unobtainable; that was, until he dug up the gold.
He sat beside Mary on a sun-lounger and reached for her hand. They had only been here for three months, but in that time her health had improved beyond his wildest dreams. Adam had high hopes they would live out a happy and lengthy retirement in this paradise land. Mary squeezed his fingers and picked up her knitting. She was making a little cape for the cooler evenings, yet another pastime made possible in coming here, to Italy.
After the fire Adam didn’t return to his allotment, instead he waited while his house was repaired, and he could put in place the plans for the move abroad. It didn’t take long to find a decent property near to a town and not so far away from where he’d served in the war. To his surprise Adam found he still knew some words and phrases used back then and had managed already to make new friends.
A letter had arrived that afternoon from his old allotment neighbour, Seth. It seemed things were much the same at the site although people had shown surprise that he’d taken a sick wife abroad to live. Seth mentioned how Clive had singed his eyebrows off lighting a bonfire in his back garden. And it seemed Clive and Raymond were just as close, having regular and rather loud conversations in Clive’s shed about one thing or another.
Adam put the letter down and blew a kiss to his wife. He lifted his glass towards the sinking sun and smiled. ‘To life.’ he said.
Mary left off knitting and turned to face him. ‘To you, my love,’ she said, raising her drink.
Adam watched as the sky turned from pink to mauve, the last breath of light remaining until night fell over the landscape. He could only imagine the conversations Clive and Raymond were having, most likely not about tomatoes, or any vegetables for that matter. How annoying it must have been for them all these years keeping Kurt’s secret, unable to do anything about it. He tried to visualise the moment they must have prised open the biscuit tin, ripping and tearing the tape away only to find the stones that Adam had placed inside.
He smiled again at Mary before his grateful gaze moved to the horizon. Here Adam saw the green vegetation, the lush trees on every slope. Growing in abundance, their arms stretched to heaven in blissful jubilation.