Friends in the local pub just couldn’t believe it. Even though, some of them had seen our actions with their own eyes. “Ben Coles in court?” they said, with some amazement, “Mr Easy-going. Mr Doormat. Never.”
That, just about summed me up. I’d always hated any hassle and had avoided any confrontation. Couldn’t fight my way out of a meringue pie. Even with my dear lady, whenever a row was looking possible, I’d take off and read my book somewhere.
I guess that everybody has a breaking point. And I wouldn’t call what blew up mere ‘hassle’. To me, and my friends, it was war. Those allotments, those designated plots of gardening land, were where my father had started cultivating over seventy years ago. Richest soil anywhere. Soil that contained more horseshit than a politician’s manifesto. Since I’d retired from the factory it had become one of the joys of my life.
Summer afternoons, there’d be Willy Flynn, eighty years old, Betty Garnet, a weird old bird, and me, the youngest at sixty-five. Gardening chores done, the three of us loved to sit outside Willy’s magnificent pigeon shed, sipping from the flask of treacly tea that Betty always brought.
Willy’s pigeons probably didn’t appreciate it, but they were housed in what might have been called ‘Pigeon Palace’. Always neat and tidy, with individually painted entrances that the pigeons seemed to know. The roof was elaborately fringed with colourful shaped spikes. The whole thing was a sight to behold, and Willy ensured that the blue and white colouring was repainted as regular as needed. A superb backdrop to our tea-drinking.
I mentioned that Betty was weird. Platinum blond hair, aged seventy-five, wearing vivid red lipstick, as thick as embossed wallpaper. And not all of it on her lips. Her hands must have trembled whenever she applied it.
Willy and I would tease her terribly. “Why do you get so flashed up to work the allotment?” I’d ask her.
“Son,” she’d reply, always called me ‘son’. “If Marilyn Monroe had lived, she’d look like this, now.”
And old Willy would chuckle and say, “If she’s looking down on us right now, she’ll be bloody glad to be dead.”
Betty just smiled, a thin super lady, growing the best potatoes in the district, she claimed. Willy’s skill was with his leeks, and, of course, his pigeons, and I was proud of my dahlias.
But then came that bombshell. A new motorway was being built, and the council claimed that they had the right to take over our land, destroy our life’s work. Well, that was it! I could feel my blood pressure go up by twenty notches. Together we organised the other plot owners so we could get into action immediately. Letters were posted. Petitions were organised, and we trekked all the streets around the estate. Nobody refused to sign.
Because I was one of the youngest, I did much of the trekking. My good lady, my own special cactus dahlia, got herself all riled up. “You shouldn’t be running around at your age,”
“But I’m getting plenty fresh air,” I told her.
“Yes,” she said, with that twinkle in her eyes, “and I know what too much fresh air does for you.”
“At my age?” I asked. And she laughed.
But this was serious business. The council held public meetings. ‘Consultations’ they called them, but it was only an excuse to tell us exactly what was going to happen.
One particularly stiff-necked councillor, named Trotter declared, “A bye-pass is essential to the progress of the city.” Whenever Betty spoke up she would drop the first ‘T’ from his name. That made his face look even more like an overripe plum.
“We can’t allow trivial things to stand in our way.” Trivial? Our allotment trivial?
No matter what we said we were getting nowhere. We went on talking among ourselves, but everything seemed hopeless. Then one weekend, diggers and a bulldoze appeared on the edge of our plots. That was when Betty came up with her idea.
“As those young protesters do, we could chain ourselves to their machines.” Once said quicker acted upon. So many folks around the estate were willing to help. Somebody provided old padlocks and I don’t know where Albert Fenwick found the chains. “Ask no questions,” he said, with a wink.
In the end, there was enough chain to fasten six of us to the diggers. Half-past five that morning, chilly for May, but we wrapped up warm. By quarter past six they were all there. Locals supporting us, police, fire brigade, news reporters, and, just what we wanted, television cameras.
We knew they would cut us loose easily, but we knew what we had to do next. “Placid resistance, they call it,” Betty said. “Or something like that.” So, as soon as they cut through the chains, we dropped to the ground and lay flat.
A young constable standing over Betty said, “Come on, Missus. Don’t be daft.”
Betty had told us what would happen, and it did. She’s not the weight of a bag of fries, so the constable stooped and picked her up in his arms. He started walking towards the police van. All the way, Betty’s kissing his cheek. He was going red, but not as red as the streaks she was making down his face.
“Ooh,” she squealed loudly, “if this is police brutality, I like it.”
The constable that stood over me said, “You’re a bit old for this, aren’t you?”
I offered to race him to the end of the street. He refused.
Anyway, we had made our point. We had to go to court, and would you believe what the magistrates came up with? They bound us over for a psychiatry report.
We told them it was the bloody councillors that needed their heads examined. The work had been held up and there were a few of us there, collecting tools and things when this smartly suited bloke turned up. Another councillor we thought, but no, he identified himself as being from a Government department to do with the environment.
Apparently, all the publicity, Press coverage and especially, television pictures had led to an investigation, and they’d discovered that Willy’s pigeon house was a building of historical importance, a listed building. It had to remain exactly where it was. The allotments couldn’t be destroyed.
So, Betty, Willy and I are still having our Summer chats. But the very first one we drank something even stronger than Betty’s tea. A warm triumphant celebration. And my dear lady said, “You, know, this business has made you a different man.” As I leaned closer to her, she hastily added, “But not that different.”