by Sheila Cornelius
If one more old codger mentioned Albert’s footsteps, Henry would swing for him. He’d asked his son-in-law on the council to secure him a decent allotment, not involve Henry in some kind of vendetta. Finally, he decided to ignore the disgruntled regulars. With the Shropshire acres gone and with them the heritage that was his by rights, some string-pulling was necessary.
Valerie was all in favour. The first beetroots would be ready when he’d finished dismantling the ancient shed. Trouble was, in the fortnight since he’d taken possession, he could hardly set foot on the patch without some yokel shuffling over to praise the previous tenant, who apparently ‘kep’ hisself to hisself’.
After he took a hammer to the padlock, Henry spent the afternoon piling the contents of the shed beside the Land Rover. He moved quickly under the tin roof, trying not to breathe in the rank smell of mould and rusted metal.
Towards four o’clock he came across a new handsaw and a sharpened pair of heavy-duty pruners under a pile of musty sacks. An axe stood in a corner, its blade gleaming in the shadows.
It was a miracle that the shed hadn’t fallen down already. Wet rot had eaten at it so badly that the huge padlock was completely redundant. Not that the winos from the disused railway tunnel would be interested – Albert’s equipment held no charms for them, and nobody else used the path that ran alongside. It led only to the part-blocked tunnel, temporary home to the dispossessed.
‘They won’t trouble you,’ his son-in-law assured him. ‘The local police move them on as soon as they receive any complaints.’
He warned Henry in advance that the other growers coveted the corner plot. They’d been practically drawing lots for it after Albert collapsed while digging in his ‘secret recipe’ manure. Still strong of arm, his heart just gave out. Over the years, according to the cronies, Albert had created a second Garden of Eden.
One of the yokels, his face brown and wizened as a seed potato, had come shambling over and asked Henry outright if Albert had left any record books, or catalogues in the shed.
‘I could have a look now, gov’nor, to save you the trouble. Albert’d be happy for his old mates to know how he won all them prizes, now he’s gone where he won’t need ’em and it don’t matter. It’d be a kind of legacy, if you see what I mean.’
‘Sorry, old chap. Can’t help you there, I’m afraid.’ Henry had pointed to the padlock and hoped the old fool wouldn’t persist.
‘He was one of the old school, from the days when you could shovel horse dung off the streets, or cadge bits of carcass from the abattoir. Blood and bone. Can’t get it nowadays, more’s the pity.’
The other rustics stood muttering as Henry daydreamed about the rotary mower he’d buy when his new shed was installed.
‘It weren’t money as did it, neither’, one of the scruffy brigade murmured, eyeing Henry’s Barbour and his Hunter boots. They were birthday presents from Valerie.
Now, his back aching so he could hardly move, he was about ready to call it a day. Then, right at the back of the shed, under a stinking workbench, he glimpsed an album of newspaper cuttings wedged in a crate, next to a foul-smelling parcel tied with string. As he bent over, gasping at the pain, and snatched at the mouldy cover, the stench almost made him gag. Grey bugs, disturbed by the slight movement of the crate on the earth, scuttled towards the corners.
Maybe the tobacco-coloured pages held the secrets of Albert’s success: a real legacy, hidden away all these years. Henry opened the book.
Paragraphs cut from the local gazette were headed: ‘FIRST CLASS MARROWS’; ‘GOLD MEDAL CARROTS’; ‘BEST IN SHOW’, and so on. There were dozens of them. Most had photos of a broad-shouldered man in a tweed cap, cradling oversized marrows and bunches of leeks with dangling, skeletal roots.
The very last cutting was attached to the cover with a rusty paper clip. Holding up the book in the fading light, Henry saw it was newspaper article like the others. But unlike them, it had no accompanying snapshot.
The late afternoon chill stiffened Henry’s arms as he struggled to read the headline:
MISSING TRAMPS – POLICE STILL BAFFLED
Sheila Cornelius is a retired English teacher and author of a book on Chinese film.