George could track the start of The Works back to the beginning of October. If pressed, he could be more specific and tell you it was a Saturday – Saturday the fourth of October. He had just gathered the last of the raspberries and presented them to Margaret with his customary cheery end-of-harvest “last of the fool”. Margaret had wrung her hands in a ball of apron and taken the old ice-cream pot from her husband. Margaret’s raspberry fool was a highlight during the fruit-picking season: whipped up thick double cream, served in shallow cut-glass bowls with curls of dark chocolate on top. He would miss it during the winter months.
As his wife tipped the berries into a colander and placed them under the cold tap, George took a moment to stare pointedly out of the kitchen window. “Looks like they’ve started,” he announced. Margaret shook the raspberries and tipped them onto a green tea-towel. “I said, they’ve started.” “So, I see,” she replied flatly, sorting through them and placing the over-ripe ones to one side. “The kiddies love playing in it,” she said, “they think it’s a giant sandpit.” George didn’t say anything; she was teasing him. The sun was high at the moment, but give it one hour and three months of building work and it would be completely hidden from view.
“It was folly to begin a project like that at this time of year,” George called over his shoulder, the triumph barely disguised in his voice. “Any fool could have told you that.” He had the back door open and was hugging his china mug – the one with the ghostly outline of a kingfisher worn close to extinction by the Hotpoint. The wind had dropped and the rain fell in a vertical sheet. “Close the door, George, it’s freezing.”
“Well, I think it makes sense,” Margaret announced to her niece and her niece’s husband over Boxing Day boiled ham. “They’ve got three kiddies and a little babbie on the way, so, of course, they need the space.” George was well aware his wife’s comments were aimed at him. She often sought the safety of guests to make her point. So, he took a moment to consider his response, a half-chewed forkful of Piccalilli waving in the air before him. “If they were struggling for room then he should’ve kept it in his pants,” he said, triumphantly. “George, really,” she hissed.
The Works had ceased completely for the festivities, although there had barely been any sight of the builders since the weather had turned in the first week of November. With every day that more rain fell the foundations became more sodden and, though he was not the kind who reveled in others’ misfortune, George took heart from the continuing damp. As Christmas drew nearer, the rain was replaced with sleet and the bulging green tarpaulins became covered in ice.
“George is suffering from property envy, that’s all,” Margaret teased. George smiled thinly and smeared pickle on his ham. He could say with absolute confidence that he had never coveted anyone else’s possessions. He was not a jealous man. But he did believe in protecting what was rightfully his, like the sunlight in his garden, for example.
George despised the winter months. He felt trapped inside the house. He didn’t even dare trample the grass to the greenhouse for fear of making a quagmire of footprints that would take months to repair come the spring. Margaret busied herself with the duties of the house, ushering George from one chair to another as she dragged her Henry vacuum behind her like a naughty schoolchild.
A few of the more perseverant birds, like tits, finches and sparrows, made it to the bird table each morning. It was too early for nesting, or for the rare appearance of migrating species, but he still liked to make a note of them. He placed his notebook in a drawer that spilled over with guts of string, pins, matches and pens. That was another thing. The bird table would be cast full in the shadow of the new extension’s overhang, a stretch mark of black a full three quarters of the way across his lawn.
With a gently growing warmth to the days came an uplifting of George’s spirits. He had already planted early brassica seeds on the windowsill of the lean-to conservatory. His buoyant mood, in someway, could be attributed to the continued lack of action regarding The Works next door. He had long expected a resumption of activity and he had begun to speculate on the possibility that the neighbours had had second thoughts.”Maybe the builders have done a runner. Wouldn’t surprise me if they’d been foolish enough to pay up front,” he said, wiping the sill to the kitchen window, as he peered across at the untouched soil piles next door. They reminded him of those wasteland pits of the Somme trenches you saw in old black and white films.”I’m sure that’s not so, George,” Margaret said, ushering him from under her feet and placing crockery in the kitchen sink.
George convinced himself he had been worrying for no good reason. That is until eight am on Monday the seventeenth of March, when J Tucker and team bounced the kerb outside George and Margaret’s, spilling twenty pounds worth of their carefully placed decorative edge chips down the drainage grate. George was like a bear with a sore head all day. Margaret went to visit her niece, leaving him with a plate of corn beef sandwiches under cling film.
Works were steady, if not spectacular, during the next few weeks. George noted, with some satisfaction, that the render was a sub-standard mix that scrimped upon cement. “It’ll pitch to the ground with the first good south westerly,” he declared, a half nibbled bourbon between his fingers. “I’m sure they know what they are doing, George, leave it alone.” George wondered at his wife’s spectacular willingness to accept everything and do nothing; to see others in such a favourable light. He had loved her from the first day they met for that incredible, honest innocence. But really! She would miss the sun as much as him come the summer months.
After a slow spring start a burst of warm weather inter-dispersed with short sharp downpours had left the garden threatening to burst at the edges. His brassicas and beans had taken a teenage hold. On his fruit canes luscious green buds were appearing everywhere and underfoot the weeds were a persistent enemy worthy of his constant attention.
At the beginning of the month Margaret’s niece had to spend time in hospital for a procedure that she had euphemistically told George was ‘feminine in nature’. Whilst his wife visited twice daily, George was left to hold the fort. “He’ll be fine,” Margaret reassured her niece, “he’ll be out from dawn to dusk fiddling ’bout in his garden. He won’t even notice I’m not there.” In her absence, George was free to study The Works next door at close quarters. He had purposefully left the garden bench beside the fence next to the foundations. The stacked breeze blocks now towered a couple of feet above the fence. There were to be no openings or windows on George and Margaret’s side of the extension, as agreed following consultation over the original plans. He was still concerned, however, that a window at the back of the extension, that the planners had allowed to remain, might have an aspect over the back end of their garden. As he studied the structure’s rudimentary imprint he couldn’t be sure the block work was even level. He was tempted to find his spirit gauge and check for himself, but thought better of it. “Damn it,” he shrugged, “let the whole thing be on a gradient, maybe they’ll have to tear it down and start again.” He could see the new baby gurgle joyfully on the grass and, for a moment, he was taken, as he always was at this time of year, by the wonder of mother nature’s passionate advocacy for fresh, new growth. The mother noticed him and waved with a smile. He pretended not to see and eased himself down from the bench. Margaret would be annoyed, he realised, that he had clambered on to the bench without her to hold his arm. “Do you want to join my niece in hospital, you old fool?” she would say – in that wonderful, annoyed, charming way that she did.
With Margaret’s niece out of hospital, George had less time to study the progress of The Works. If he made his way towards the fence Margaret found clever ways of distracting him; a cup of tea ready brewed, an errand’s urgent attention required. As the sun slipped from view he stood on the back door step and watched for the bats darting from the tall spruce pines four gardens away. Margaret folded his duck egg blue sweater over his shoulders. “Don’t be long, love.” For a June evening it was still deceptively chilly.
In July Margaret died.
It was during the first few days of the new month that George’s suspicions were first aroused regarding the validity of The Works. Initially, he wasn’t convinced by his own thoughts. He lay awake for hours trying to work out the possibilities. He had counted the breeze blocks and done the calculations and, yet, he still doubted himself. The thought stayed with him like a persistent blue bottle, until he could take it no more and, when he was sure the workers had finished for the day and the family was out, he took his place again on the garden bench. He teased his floppy metal tape-measure up to the edge of the newly-added plastic gutter, hooked it over the rim and then guided it down to the foot of the extension wall. Indisputable evidence – for all to see – that the walls were a full six inches higher than the proposed plans. Shaking jubilantly, he laid his photocopied set of plans across the dining room table and stared in joy at the disparity between the proposed and actual measurements in front of him. He sipped at his mug; the kingfisher now barely a smudge.
Under Margaret’s instruction George might have consulted his neighbours first, but he felt the time had long passed for arbitration. He had always been more Churchill than Chamberlain. After a dozen unsatisfactory telephone conversations and a folder’s worth of dismissive emails, George made a personal appearance at the local planning office. He sat in the reception with his arms folded and refused to leave until someone spoke to him. Eventually a tall, sweaty-browed youth in an ill-fitting blue suit and mismatched socks appeared to inform him that “they would look into it.”
Six weeks later, George watched from his sitting room window as a council representative knocked at his neighbour’s door. The council man waved a plastic-sheathed name badge from a lanyard around his neck. The woman ushered him in and, barely twenty minutes later, showed him back out. To George’s consternation, she waved happily at the man as he climbed into his silver Astra estate, the baby bouncing on her hip.
By the middle of October, a year after they had first begun, The Works were all but finished; the roof slates had been nailed in place and the last brush of paint had dried. George spent the whole of one weekend constructing an elaborate ten-foot-high trellis along the full twenty foot expanse of the extension. As he stepped back to appreciate his handy work he noticed the last few raspberries of the year hanging steadfast to their canes.
In the kitchen George folded the letter and tucked it carefully back into its sleeve. He tapped the edge of the envelope on the tip of his fingers and looked out at the back garden. A wren was busy pecking at a dangling fat ball. ‘No further action’ the letter unequivocably stated, its tone clear that there was no room for further debate. George picked the remaining raspberries and put them in the old ice-cream pot. He wandered back into the kitchen and placed it on the sideboard, and without thinking, announced out loud: “last of the fool.”
George steadied himself against the rim of the sink. His shoulders began to shudder and finally, after three months, the tears began to flow.
The sun, which had flirted all day with the trim of the neighbours’ new extension, but never once hid behind it, now skirted it entirely, allowing its warmth to flood the full length of George’s garden. A timid knock at the front door shook him from his melancholy. He drew a cuff across his nose. The woman from next door cupped a white bowl in her hands. “You’re lucky there’s some left,” she smiled, handing it to him, “the children just love Margaret’s raspberry fool recipe.”
Giles Ward is a copywriter and author based in the UK. He has had two printed novels published, 100 Ways To Improve The World and The Price of Everything, through Impress Books. His latest novel, Where Beauty Is – a fictionalised biography of an artist – and his collection of short stories, Spill (some stories), were recently published by Watchword eBooks. www.giles-ward.com or follow him on Twitter @GilesFWard