Mr Simmonds lived in a crooked old house. It was crooked and cockeyed and twisted. The wood was rotting and the brick was passing away and the roof tiles were peeling like old skin. It was as wonky as a salesmen’s smile. As kinked as a garden hose. It was lanky and thin and at times precarious and on really windy days it would gently sway like tall meadow grass.
Mr Simmonds was a lot like his house. He was tall and old and crooked. His body was ancient, his skin was peeling. His thin frame was twisted, his back was hunched. He wasn’t made of wood but he was stick thin. He was at times precarious and on very windy days he would cling to his walking stick for dear life.
He lived with his cat, a scrawny ginger lady and they breathed a slow pace of life. Days passed between kitchen windows and cups of tea. She lived her days between massages and birdwatching. The pair were happy but they had seen better days. Speaking of better days, have you seen Mr Simmonds garden? It’s a maze, a jungle, a stinging nettle nursery. Overgrown is an understatement. Weeds compete with weeds for space, for light, for oxygen. It’s a bramble breeding ground; a dandelion detention centre; a theatre of thistles. Weeds grow taller than the tallest of men. Weeds grow more tangled than the London Underground.
But if you follow Mr Simmonds garden right to the very bottom, to its very fringes, venture through the thicket, hack through the bramble, something quite remarkable happens. As if by magic, as if a switch has been flicked, as if an invisible border is marked on the ground, the weeds disappear, absolutely all of them.
That’s because we are no longer in the garden of Mr Simmonds. We have entered into the garden of the next door neighbor, Mr Greeves. Mr Greeves is the opposite of Mr Simmonds, a shrunken and squashed kind of opposite. He is a short, red-faced little man with a pudding belly and a long lonely eyebrow like a creeping caterpillar. He has a trunk as thick as an oak tree in summer. He has a head as bald as an oak tree in autumn. His body shape resembles that of an acorn.
Mr Greeves is also a gardener. A very good one at that. His garden was perfect, neat, and grew straight and in order, efficient and working like a machine. One day, while Mr Greeves was out as usual, working in the garden, under the thin shadow of that tall and lanky house, he took a long hard look at Mr Simmonds jungle and sighed. The weeds rose up like big angry waves and appeared to lash their limbs at him like poisonous snakes.
“What a waste”, he thought to himself. “What a possibility!”
Mr Simmonds stood in his crooked kitchen making tea for his guest. He hadn’t had a guest in so long that his hand trembled with excitement as he tried to pour the water. He hadn’t had a guest in so long he had to use a saucepan as a second cup and a fork as a second spoon.
“Do you take milk, Mr Greeves?” Mr Simmonds asked cautiously.
“No, thank you, I like it black”, said Mr Greeves, his voice proper and upright like a well-built wooden chair.
“That’s good,” Mr Simmonds said, smiling as he handed him the saucepan, “because I don’t have any milk.”
Mr Greeves looked down at his black tea and stirred it thoughtfully with his fork. The china cup is cracked and black tea dribbles from the top.
“I say, I don’t suppose you have any sugar?”
Mr Simmonds blushed. His cheeks glowed the colour of embarrassed rosehips. He said, “My wife used to say I was sweet enough…without the sugar I mean.”
“Ooh,” said Mr Greeves, and then, as if to say something, anything, “is your wife here now?”
Mr Simmonds paused a second in order to find the right words to use. “She’s gone”, he says finally, sombrely. “Gone?” Mr Greeves asks, “Gone where? Gone for milk?”
It is Mr Simmonds turn to look thoughtfully into his tea. “No, Mr Greeves. She died several years ago.”
Mr Simmonds looked thoughtfully out of his favourite window. The weather had forgotten to get out of bed this morning. It had forgotten to show up for work. In its place a grey and lifeless sky did its best to cover for it. There was no sign of the rain, no sign of the sunshine, just a blank canvas of a cloud that seemed to cover the entire world over.
“Oh, I’m…oh I didn’t…” Mr Greaves finally stuttered. Then, saying quickly, “Look, Mr Simmonds, I did not come here for tea. I came here to talk about your garden”.
“My garden?” repeats Mr Simmonds who leans down towards him, arching his back to the floor like a greyhound. “So it’s my garden I have to thank for your visit! I’m afraid it’s a little overgrown, isn’t it? I’m afraid I’m a little old these days to get out gardening as much as you!”
Mr Greeves smiles brightly and licks his lips like a cat. “Why, Mr Simmonds”, he says, “THAT is EXACTLY why I am here!”
“As you know, Mr Simmonds, I am a gardener. As you know, Mr Simmonds, you are very old and too fragile to be out working in your garden. As you know, Mr. Simmonds, I am not here to drink tea. I am here to offer you a deal!”
“A deal, Mr Greeves? What kind of deal?”
A dramatic pause. A long, melodramatic pause. As if waiting for the sound of thunder. As if waiting for a drumroll. Mr Greeves savoured the moment and then, slowly, making sure to pronounce each and every important sound, he said:
“If you let me work in your garden, let me nurture it and develop it, well, for everything I grow, anywhere I grow it, we can split the produce down the middle?”
For Mr Simmonds the deal sounded too good to be true! He double checks it, triple checks it, and yes, Mr. Greeves is offering to do the gardening for a split of the crop. Half of the harvest. A fraction of the fruit. For every cabbage he creates, for every grape he grows, they split it, fifty-fifty. Mr Simmonds loved the idea.
“I love the idea”, says Mr Simmonds.
“Of course, I’d have to draw up a contract,” Mr Greeves explains slyly. “Nothing big or important, just to keep the powers that be happy, you understand?"
But Mr Simmonds was no longer listening. He was too busy pouring two more black teas in celebration. He stood by the little window and peered out into his crazy garden. He watched the bramble fight with the thistles. He watched the brave and adventurous weeds advance from their stronghold. He watched the ivy stretch its long limbs after a long sleep. And in the light of the weather-less sky a smile creaked onto the face of Mr Simmonds. It was, I can assure you, the happiest he had been for several years.
Barely a month had passed when short, tubby little footsteps could be heard pedaling up the garden path. You would, of course, struggle to identify this particular garden. It wasn’t the weed infestation of the past, not the one we knew. Gone were the frightening weeds. Their heads had been decapitated and their roots ripped from the soil. Now there was order. Now there was calm. Now there was a garden.
But what was even more exciting was what Mr Greeves clutched in his proud and dirty hands. “Look Mr Simmonds,” he yelled in excitement as he jogged up the garden path, “look what we’ve grown!”
Mr Simmonds could not help but smile when he saw the six shiny strawberries sitting delicately in his hands. They were the colour of the most intense red he had ever seen and each one was as shinny as a wet pebble baked in sunshine.
“One for you”, Mr Greeves counted, placing the strawberries delicately, “and one for me”.
He did this a few times until Mr Simmonds held three strawberries in his long tea-stained fingers and Mr Greeves held three strawberries in his short pudgy paws. He had divided the produce exactly in half, just as he had promised. Mr Simmonds could not help but smile. His teeth bulged like corn on the cobs, yellow and delighted.
Another week passed and the same fantastic occurrence. Only this time Mr Greeves held an entire wicker basket filled with greens and yellows and reds and browns. There were potatoes and carrots and cauliflowers and peppers and beans and sprouts and the basket bulged greedily and two little knees quivered under the weight.
Mr Greeves began his careful and laborious division of all the produce. He counted slowly and deliberately and had soon divided the harvest equally.
“One for you”, Mr Greeves counted, “And one for me”.
Between them they had ten potatoes each, seven carrots, two cauliflowers, four peppers, a large handful of beans and a walking cane of sprouts. It was an impressive bounty indeed.
Mr Greeves took all the praise reservedly. He bowed his head low and assured Mr Simmonds that the pleasure was all his. But the glimmer in his eyes did not fade. They shone as bright as lightbulbs, as bright as broken lighthouses.
“Are you pleased with our deal?” Mr Greeves asked finally with a smirk emerging in the corner of his mouth.
Mr Simmonds clutching to his walking stick replies, “Why of course! You are ever so kind. I cannot remember a time the garden was so lovely.”
The smirk became a smile. The smile became a grin. And the grin grows so big that Mr Greeves cheeks have to retreat further up the face to give it more room.
“And you enjoy your half of the vegetables? Your half of the fruits? Your half of the flowers?”
“Why, of course, Mr Greeves! With all the fruit and vegetables my house has become a greengrocer! With all the flowers my house has become a spring meadow.”
“Well”, said Mr Greeves slowly, as he began to enjoy the sound of his own voice, “how would you like more?”
“More? But Mr Greeves, but the garden is already full!”
He was quite right. The garden was well and truly full. It simply had nowhere else to go. There was barley room for shadows. It was already tapping on the kitchen window, already pushing its hands against the cold walls of the house.
“Well we extend it,” shouted Mr Greeves, awaking the cat with his excitement. “We bring the garden into the house! Isn’t it genius? It’s warmer in here so the plants will grow faster! Isn’t it genius?”
The long face of Mr Simmonds looked like a worn out shoe. The lines and cracks and blemishes were old leather and each told the story of a long life. The deep creases, curved like brackets around his mouth, told the story of his smile. The horizontal train tracks on his forehead told the stretches of his anguish. The crescent moons asleep under his eyes told the history of his days and nights. Right now the face was gently grimacing. His heart was unsure of the idea and it let his face know.
“Mr Greeves”, he said a little nervously, “I’m not sure,” and then, worried about his own answer, as if he was the one at fault, “if there is a garden in my kitchen where would I be able to make the tea?”
“But you are missing the big picture”, barked the insistent Mr Greeves, oblivious to Mr Simmonds concerns. “I am not talking about just your kitchen! I am talking about bringing the garden into your entire house!”
Mr Simmonds face told a worse story still. The corners of his mouth sagged and his eyes looked around in a muddle as if trying to understand a piece of modern art. He arched his long and creaking back to draw eye level with Mr Greeves. He let out an exhausted sigh as we went, timbering like a tree.
“It’s just that this is where I live. The garden, I think, should be outside.”
The features of Mr Greeves sharpened. He was a pudgy faced man with rounded hamster cheeks but his nose was sharp and his eyes piercing. They grew larger and larger like suns before they die. They grew darker and darker like the sky as the moon shrinks. Sensing the anger building up in him Mr Simmonds attempted to explain his reservations.
“It’s not that I’m not grateful of what you’ve done, Mr Greeves, truly I am. You have transformed my garden and have made me so happy when you have visited for tea. It’s just…” he paused briefly, looking for the right words to say, “It’s just, I don’t think it’s for me…I hope you are not angry?”
But he was angry. The small round face of Mr Greeves looked like a red balloon. It was puffy and bright and spherical. It was tanned with anger. It would take off if it wasn’t attached to his body. He was angry but knew he had to remain calm. He had sensed an opportunity. He swallowed his fury and felt it bulge in his throat as it passed through him.
“I am not angry, Mr Simmonds. I am only disappointed!” The voice was soft, understanding, false. “I am disappointed because if I can no longer work on your garden I can no longer visit you for your delicious tea!”
Mr Simmonds thought about these words curiously. He was curious because this little man had never had a single sip of his tea yet now he was upset he wouldn’t taste it again…But he could not think about it for long as Mr Greeves was in full swing, talking like an auctioneer and waving his hands around like he was directing traffic.
“Can we not build a garden as big as our friendship? Can we not nurture over tea as we have nurtured these plants?” And when this garden is doubled in size so too will the produce! And for everything I grow, anywhere I grow it, we can split the produce down the middle!”
For Mr Simmonds the produce was never the goal. He liked the fruit and vegetables and flowers but he already had everything he needed. He watched the cat rise in the morning and the sunset at night. For him, what he liked more was the friendship. He enjoyed the company and he enjoyed the tea. He wanted to do it for his neighbour, for his friend. He wanted to help Mr Greeves.
“Okay Mr Greeves,” he said tiredly, slowly, his lips clenched firmly together in hesitation, “if you say so.”
Mr Greeves attacked the hand of Mr Simmonds and shook it furiously. He waved the man like a flag, from side to side and up and down. “You won’t regret it!” he screamed, disturbing again the just settled cat.
“I will have to draw up a contract, of course, nothing serious, just to keep the council happy you understand?”
But Mr Simmonds could not answer. The little man was already half way up the street, plodding his little legs as fast as they could carry him. He was still shouting something to Mr Simmonds but he could not hear him now. Mr Simmonds smiled an old and crooked smile. He looked down at his cat sitting loyally and frightened at his feet. He was happy to see that he had made his friend happy.
The weather had turned up at last. It was a sunny day. It was a gloriously sunny day with a sea blue sky where few clouds went swimming. It was palm tree weather. It was a tropical paradise. It was a day that brightened your garden as well as your soul.
The garden was now flourishing. It had never looked so good. It was as green as a field of rice paddies. It was as healthy as an Olympic swimmer. Pea shoots coiled their way up the windows. Grapes tiptoed up the bendy banisters on the stairs to choke the chimneys above. The oven had become a glass house for exotic mangos. Young saplings were planted into old shoes and the vegetables growing in the fridge couldn’t be fresher. The garden had taken over the house.
Upstairs it was the same. Sunflowers blocked the toilet, potatoes filled the bath. Cabbages lined the corridors and the bedded gardens outside were no match for the garden bed inside. The sheets and pillows had been replaced by magnificent flowers the colour of warm spring. The mattress was a fertile land where seeds and bulbs slept now, not humans.
Mr Simmonds sat amongst it all. He was barely visible, cowering in the shrubbery like a nesting bird. His house was unrecognisable, just like Mr Simmonds, who could be mistaken for a beanpole when he stood up. It belonged to him but he couldn’t identify any of it. He sat in his crooked house but felt more like he was in his garden.
The time had come for that now familiar sight. A plump little man holding a ridiculous amount of food came plodding his way up the garden path. This occurrence was now so regular that Mr Simmonds could time his arrival preciously with the making of two cups of tea. The second he set them down on the table, one spoon, one fork, one mug, one saucepan, Mr Greeves burst through the open door.
“Look Mr Simmonds, look what we have grown!” As always Mr Greeves was most animated when gardening was on the menu.
“One for you,” he counted, “and one for me”, he tallied. “One for you,” he counted, “and one for me”, he matched. He did this for such a long time, such were the amount of fruit and vegetables, that by the time he had finished the tea had turned cold.
“I say,” said Mr Simmonds finally, standing among his piles of vegetables, among his fruit factory, “what a terrific amount of food!” As he spoke he scratched his head, thinking about what he was going to do with it all.
But Mr Greeves did not stop there. He started counting out the books where tomato plants had colonised the shelves. “One for me,” he counted, and one for you! Shakespeare for me” he said, “Charles Dickens for you”.
Next, under the curious eye of Mr Simmonds, he plodded over to the cabinet of heirlooms stocked with silverware and antiques. He pulled away the vines and fruits that now wreathed the cabinet and he began dividing these out as well.
“I will take these African sculptures and you can have these old pots,” he said. “I will take these silver plates and you can have this stuffed hedgehog”, he exclaimed.
Mr Simmonds sat smiling, still waiting for the punchline, and it wasn’t until he saw Mr Greeves attempt to saw the kitchen table in half that he had to intervene.
“My friend”, Mr Simmonds announced as gently as he could, “what on earth are you doing?”
Mr Greeves looked up casually. He put down the saw and smiled one of his famous grins. “Well, I am taking my half, of course!”
“Your half of what? You have your half of the produce but the rest belongs to me!”
“But Mr Simmonds”, he said, calm and innocent and horribly, “that was the agreement, was it not?” The smile did not fade. It was smudged over his face like a birthmark.
Mr Simmonds grew nervous. As he spoke he started to stutter. “But…but…I did not agree to such a deal! I…I…I thought…”
“Oh, but you did! I have it in writing”, Mr Greeves interrupted, “I have it right here!” He pulls out a scroll of paper as big as him and he begins to read. “For everything I grow, anywhere I grow it, we can split the produce down the middle!” Below the writing, Mr Simmonds crooked signature sits unhappily beside the name of Mr Greeves.
“So you see”, the little man continues, “I am simply splitting the produce down the middle.” He picks up the saw and continues to take his side of the table.
As Mr Simmonds sits soundlessly the memory of his frail body returns to him once more. His face falls to the shade of a parsnip. His hands fall in to his lap like wilting weeds. And sitting at his feet, watching the movements of the saw, the cat is looking terribly nervous.