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Monday, January 24, 2011

Blue Winter

I get ready to go out into the garden. Its cold but there isn't any snow or rain or particularly strong wind. I've got no excuses not to go out there and anyway, I really should.

The sky is grey and the greyness manages to seep out and into everything. I know that sometimes we have to stand still and wait but its just all so bleak at this time of year. Even the colour of the air feels neglected and sad.

The dog stands stands next to me in the inappropriately named sun-room. She watches as I pull on woollen socks, wellingtons, a thick old anorak, gloves and hat. She is unimpressed. She stands firm with resolute and solid determination written into her body language. You won't catch her going out there. And even when she has to its for the quickest possible time span. Perhaps she'll also indulge in a little vigorous barking at the energetic fools who continually taunt her while playing tennis on a Sunday morning, but other than that she too sees only bleakness and no pressing need to venture out. But I have to.

Once I am bundled up I pull back the glass doors and head up the couple of steps to our small plain oblong garden. My son has been hastily pulling on his boots and has followed me out, hands pushed into his tracksuit bottoms, head down, thick fringe of dark hair hiding his eyes.

I survey the garden. It is a typical rather cramped almost uniformly boring outdoor space, one third filled with the now requisite giant trampoline, a tiny pond in the corner and edged with beds which are infrequently dotted with a few still green-leaved shrubs but mostly crackle-branched naked looking and stripped bare bushes. I do try, but really, I'm not much of a gardener. The hydrangeas, virtually the only flowering plant were never cut back in the Autumn and now, drained of colour and life, look like they have been sculpted out of cardboard, the flower heads have turned into great clumps of cobwebby lace, the colour of sand, and as crisp as over-done meringues. I'll regret that I left them like that when Spring finally arrives. But it all looks so miserable now, and I like seeing them there, a giant dried flower-arrangement, and if I cut them away the frost might get into them and then I'll have nothing.

And all about, dotted through-out the grass in varying amounts is the work of the dog and the downside of owning a dog - clearing up the dog shit. A lot has accumulated in the short couple of weeks since I last came out here. I set to work with my collection of various sized plastic bags. My son is leaping around like a fawn, pointed out dog-poo, chattering to himself in between, the air tunneling out of his mouth and nostrils in great gusty clouds like a steam train as he charges around clearly enjoying being outdoors, filling the lethargy with his prancing and energetic two-step.

I squint and move closer to my target, struggling to see the difference between dog shit and leaf-fall, spending half my time collecting up handfuls of cleverly disguised leaves and the odd unfortunate slug. My eyesight seems worse than ever, if I wear my reading glasses I have to get really close to the subject matter to make a precise judgment. And I'd rather not, but the leaves, they are everywhere. The garden is covered, it has become a sea of soggy organic debris and it's a relatively new phenomenon.

This started last year when a clutch of similar looking small saplings started to appear along the flowerbeds and around the pond, they filled up space, grew quickly and sheltered the pond from the occasional Heron attack. They seemed like a good idea at the time but now that everywhere is so leaf-strewn the idea seems short-sighted. But I don't suppose I'll do anything about it yet.

My son continues to leap up and down the length of the garden, pointing out patches that I have missed, scooting over the ugly concrete path and up on to the trampoline. He somersaults into the centre, adeptly kicking off his boots with a quick jerk of his ankles. The trampoline is also covered with leaves and they bounce and twitch with him as he hurls himself up and down with leisurely effort.

He doesn't need a jacket and is wearing only a thin half-buttoned cotton shirt. The confident ease with which he throws his body about always makes me feel uncomfortable and on edge. I try to focus on collecting dog-poo and not to look at the way he is bouncing around with such flippancy. He will always tell me he is bouncing in a certain hair-raising fashion 'on purpose', as if that makes it alright. If I don't look away I will start to make too many comments about 'minding the edge' and 'make sure you stay in the middle' and 'careful!! you nearly came off then...'

'Careful!! you nearly came off then...'

'Mum...you are so stressy...and anyway, I was doing it on purpose'

He rolls off the trampoline, pulls his wellingtons back on and clomps over to the pond with a couple of sticks. This small pond was his birthday present a few years ago. Not only are there fish to view flitting here and there under the water mint and forget-me-knot, but also the thrill of discovering the many frogs (including the permanently frenzied and manic 'Sir Frogsalot') that now come and go through out the year leaving clumps of wobbling spawn and darting tadpoles.

And when the weather is good he will spend a large chunk of time just observing the occupants and is filled with sadness when any of the fish die. We've had quite a few deaths but one, a big fat orange goldfish, has survived since possibly the first batch were introduced and grows heavier and more monstrous by the week. You catch glimpses of his flashy scaly coat as he darts around in the depths or occasionally sucks down an unlucky water-boatman from the pond-surface. He is the king of the pond, flamboyant master of the waves and ruler of the murky depths. He has a reputation of being a bit of a thug. Even the frenetic dervish Sir Frogsalot seems a bit wary of him. And he goes by the name of 'Captain Fishlips'.

'Erm, Mum...you'd better come and see this'

'What?'

'It's Captain Fishlips'

'What?'

'...I think he's dead'

I drop my now heavily laden bag and hurry over to the pond. My son is standing over the edge, his fringe flopping densely over his eyes, he points with his stick to a large orange leaf that is floating on the surface. In fact the whole pond is covered with leaves. But this is the only orange one.

I peer more closely at it and it does seem to be strangely swollen and moving with more weight than the others. Its a sort of...dead weight...but I'm unwilling to view this as Captain Fishlips. Not yet. I still want to inhabit the part of my brain that will find him swimming about, unchallenged, in the inky Stygian murk. And its still possible, I query internally, that this orange leaf has come from a small tree, growing unnoticed by us, in a previously hidden part of the garden. A tiny tree brim-full with bright shiny orange leaves....

'For god sake Mum! It isn't a leaf. You have to face the truth. Captain Fishlips is dead. Now, where are we going to bury him?'

It is true. Captain Fishlips is now just a bloated orange corpse floating on top of the pond. I seem to be the only one saddened by this. I use one of my plastic bags to pull him out by the tail and drop him onto the edge of a flower bed. We both bend over to get a closer look. His eye is glazed and jellied, his whole body no-longer the brightly effervescent and energetic ruler of the watery depths but stagnated in aspic and undeniably reeking of death.

My son is already dragging out a spade and looking around for a suitable spot to start digging.

'What about here?' He gestures to just underneath the meringue-like Hydrangeas. I picture the spade as a flashing blade cutting through the roots and killing the plant quicker than the frost would.

I direct him to an emptier spot.

He begins to dig a hole, recalling previous fish deaths and where they are buried.

I go back to collecting dog shit and wondering what to do about the leaves and how we'll have to somehow drain the pond and clear them all out, buy new fish. When the weather is a little better though.

The dog is still staring at me from behind the glass-doors in the sun room. She turns, finally, and heads back into the main part of the house.

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