Digging down, with a robin and nostalgia for companions

Allan Jenkins
·2 min read

The worm turns, the soil, too. Just me here and the robin, a choice companion, curious, eager, intent. Standing only a metre away – watching, waiting for anything wriggling.

The plot earth has been compacted. The pathways trodden. The cold and wet have taken their toll. It’s past time for an intervention.

The robin is curious, eager, intent, watching, waiting for anything wriggling

This is sharp spade work, not a time for garden forks. I work quickly at firs, slicing off the shallow weed growth. Digging blade deep. Ideally there would be two of us here. A taller garden companion without a red breast and wings.

The spade is a favoured tool from Implementations. A present to myself when we worked the first plot, about 14 years ago. Copper-bladed, a fierce friend, it cuts quick – though the heavy turning soon has my back complaining. Ibuprofen calls.

Digging alone here often conjures Dudley, my foster father. And the words of Seamus Heaney: ‘By God, the old man could handle a spade. Just like his old man.’

Dudley was a determined and gifted gardener. I was his eager child apprentice. Now I dig like an old man who has sat too long in offices. Or writing and editing from on an old kitchen chair for much of this past year.

I will take the work in short but sustained bursts. Maybe an hour or so at a time. Multiple visits. In the morning, past the ponds now gloopy with spawn. The marsh marigold flowers are forming, the yellow flag irises will be next. More echoes of the Devon riverbanks where I grew up. I hear their call more clearly now. Evocative, plaintive as a curlew.

I have a packet of nasturtium seeds in my pocket. I have been carrying it for a few weeks. My hand seeks the seed out like worry beads. I’ll add calendula to them soon. Memories unearthed like turning heavy soil. It is near time to sow summer vegetables. But first, the totem flowers.

Allan Jenkins’s Plot 29 (4th Estate, £9.99) is out now. Order it for £8.49 from guardianbookshop.com