From The Guardian, family section, 23 October 2010 (Story by Lia Leendertz)
A little over a year ago, my husband, Michael, was diagnosed with ME. The letters stand for myalgic encephalomyelitis but we've come to call it miserable exhaustion. Excessive tiredness, a need to sleep lots, pain and – dare I say it – a little grumpiness are the order of most days.
We spent the first few weeks in shock, particularly as Michael succumbed to a particularly wicked spell of severe symptoms the moment he stopped fighting. Single-handedly, I suddenly had to earn all the money, look after the house and garden and care for Rowan and Meg, now five and three. So I stripped life back to its essentials. For a while I hardly went out. I dropped extraneous commitments like sitting on committees, having friends round to eat or children over to play. I called in all the childcare favours I could muster, took on every scrap of work going and set about the task of gritting my teeth and holding life together.
Then there was the allotment, growing away ceaselessly, as they do. Small weeds turned into flowering triffids, couch grass spread out from the paths to colonise the beds, crops went unharvested. Allotments are unforgiving during tough times. After a couple of goes at taking the children up on my own, beating back the weeds and making hardly a dent before they got cold and bored and demanded to be taken home, I started to think, I have to give this up.
I earn my living writing about gardening. I even wrote a book, The Half Hour Allotment, a few years ago, about how to keep an allotment going if you have little time. It seemed so shoddy not to be able to follow my own advice. But it wasn't just some imaginary professional peer pressure that made me so reluctant to let it go: our plot sits towards the top of a hill at one of the highest points in Bristol, we can see right across the city to the hills on the other side. It has mature apple trees and fruit bushes and hazels and an almost new shed. It's pretty darned fabulous. Michael had always had an idea that one day he would be one of those retired old boys who spend their lives at the plot, keeping it spick and span and perfectly planted up every season. On top of losing his business and his health, it seemed a harsh blow to take that modest dream too.
So I asked, tentatively, a few friends to help us out. Arieh and Jane first, who have children the same age as ours, and were on an allotment waiting list. Some new neighbours, Adam and Katie, had moved in a few doors down. We hit it off (they have children the same age and they had hit it off too), and on a whim I asked them. Then I asked Karen, a friend who also – you guessed it – has children the same age.
Now we all go up every Sunday morning, a big merry gang of us. We work side by side, the kids play together, we stop to drink tea and eat cakes. We take it in turns to bring the kids into line if they are getting wayward. It has turned the plot of guilt into a happy weekly gathering.
One of the surprising things for me has been how very much my friends have come to love the plot. Jane gets quite emotional when I ask her what she gets out of it: “It isn't just about growing vegetables, it's about spending time communally, forging friendships, being a part of each other's lives. I love having somewhere to meet up without having to phone around and arrange.”
This strikes such a chord with me. One of the many things I fail at now is organising the kids' social lives. While all the other boys in Rowan's class go off to each other's houses for tea after school, I haven't had the energy. In truth, I'm slightly horrified by the idea of bringing someone new into such a chaotic house, and Michael can't cope with too much noise. At the allotment the kids can be as noisy as they like. They do have proper, old-fashioned childhood fun, hiding and scrabbling and getting mucky. As Karen says: “I like to see Laurie and Josie climbing trees, covered in mud, picking up bugs, rescuing butterflies, fascinated by a toad. Those are things I want them to have in their lives.”
For Adam and Katie, so new to the area, the adult friendships are pretty important. “So often socialising is based around work, or conversation about work,” says Adam. “The incidental talks you have when you're digging next to each other are such a natural, easy way to get to know people. It beats playdates or dinner parties.”
This is precious to me too. When illness hits, it's easy for friends to slip away. People have their own lives and troubles and I'm not as available as I once was, and without the energy I once had for making arrangements and invitations. It's all understandable. But this lot aren't going anywhere. I've found a way to force a group of friends to stay close.
Everyone has different strengths and most are different from mine: Karen loves the digging and the clearing of new patches of ground, a job I truly hate. “I get a kick out of it,” she says. “I suppose I have a yen to tidy and make things presentable, and I like to tackle a patch and see a real difference.” Katie likes, “Anything mindless – weeding, digging. I just don't want to have to think about it.” Jane is the planner. She wants to know what's happening next. Adam is the builder and fixer, with a knack for making frames and raised beds from scraps of wood around the allotment. I often nab the glamour jobs such as sowing seeds and planting, and will quite often just waft about, maybe partaking in a little light supervision. Michael and Arieh do whatever most needs doing; Michael in short bursts with lots of rests, but easier in the knowledge that the weight of responsibility for the allotment isn't on his shoulders. “It's good to come up here and just enjoy it with the pressure off, after so long worrying about it,” he says. “Everyone's helping and it doesn't matter if I can't do very much.”
A year and a bit on, Michael is still ill. He has seemed a bit better in between, but now is worse again, sleeping a lot, struggling to do much beyond basic daily tasks. I still struggle, financially and emotionally, with how to cope with this in the long term. Work is hard, the house is a mess, childcare is a constant juggling act, and there are many, many aspects of our lives that are worrying and more than a little out of kilter. But the allotment – happily – is no longer one of them.