Today I’m gardening for the gardener. Bit like cleaning up for the cleaning lady, except I don’t have one of those either. This garden has been in the too-hard-basket for a while now and a friend in the village has suggested her gardener might like a few hours a week and he’s due to start tomorrow. Because I didn’t cut back in late spring this year, the garden is overgrown and so I worry he’ll pull out perfectly good plants along with the mauvaises herbes. My plants are like babies, many grown from seed or cuttings – well, you get the message.
This garden has to be the most difficult I’ve ever encountered. I live on a steep hillside and the land is terraced on ten different levels. Much of it was covered in a thirteen-year growth of brambles when I first moved in. This took took three years to eradicate. The main area at the back of the house is now divided into two separate gardens, each fenced with gates. The lower one, which consists of 6 terraces, is for the dogs, the higher one is for me to grow what I want – or rather what nature will allow me to grow on the stony soil here. There’s also a small area of garden at the front of the house with a covered terrace overlooking the Mediterranean and yet another on the opposite side of the track as you walk down to the house. Below all this is common land, never to be built on, with the River Calf way below, bubbling its way over massive rocks and fallen trees and on down the valley to the sea.
Some of the terraces are 7 feet high, some lower, with the soil (what there is of it) retained by old dry stone walls. This whole valley was laid out in olive groves and market gardens in years gone by. Now only the olives remain. The walls were in a dreadful mess when I bought the place seven years ago, tumbled by the sangliers (wild boars) but slowly over the years, a Calabrian miracle worker, Giovanni, working a few hours a week, has rebuilt them for me. I used to work as builder’s labourer lugging rocks to wherever he was working – well those that weren't too heavy, that is.
What makes the garden so difficult is the lugging. You can’t get a wheelbarrow up and down the narrow steps. When you prune you have to lug the cuttings up to the compost heap or way down the track to the bonfire. When you plant, you need engrais (manure) which you have to bring up from the cave way down below and of course all the garden tools need to be carried up and taken back down when you've finished the day's work. All this is particularly difficult for me because many years ago I had a head-on car crash in a narrow Kentish lane. A butterfly farmer hit me whilst driving too fast to get his butterflies to Dover. I did nothing about the resulting whiplash injury (yes, I know, how stupid can you get?) and so now I have an arthritic neck because it set out of alignment. I’ve learned what I can and can’t do and if I’m careful I get thru a day with no pain. A full watering can is impossible; half full is just fine. The simple movement of digging into hard ground with a trowel gives me hell the next day yet I can dig with a full sized garden fork. I take glucosamine sulphate with chondroitin – it helps – but enough is enough and now I know I need someone to help me in the garden.
My bible is Heidi Gildemeister’s ‘Mediterranean Gardening, a Waterwise Approach.’ She talks about gardening with spring and autumn rains only. That says it all really. You can forget a pretty English garden here. Go with the flow I say. If something dies, tant pis, plant something else. If a plant takes too much water, don’t bother – put in something that is happy with spring and autumn rains only, because that’s about all we get here, except this year we hardly had any spring rain and it’s a worry. Even the 100-year-old fig in the lower garden is looking thirsty and dropping leaves and I’ve not seen that before at this time of year.
On the higher garden, and that’s where I’m working today, there are some old olive trees and half a dozen plums that once every year or so give a massive crop then they go back to sleep for a few more years. I’ve planted a couple of avocadoes and an apricot and amongst them, day lilies, echium, lavenders, rosemary, convolvulus cneonorum, all plants that do well in the Mediterranean. And lots of succulents, agaves and yuccas.
It’s 6.30 in the morning and the dogs and I have had breakfast. I reckon I’ve two hours before it gets too hot to lug a sheet of heavy prunings down the track to where I’ll burn in October. Bonfires are forbidden until then - hardly surprising in this heat. It will be 32 degrees today. I work hard and am making progress. I clear two terraces, I cut back plumbago, euphorbia, pull weeds, prune ballota (another good plant for this climate) trim thyme, romarin, clear around the agapanthus currently standing tall and showing off their beautiful azure umbels.
I edge my hand down to my pocket and pull out my portable telephone. I call my neighbour and ask her to come up to me and please to bring some ice with her. Agnès is a neighbour and now a friend who lives in the house below me at the end of the track we share. We look out for each other. I often go and sit with her mother who corrects my French and giggles like a kid even though she’s 80 and in poor health. I adore Madame Pinelli.
Giovanni, who rebuilt the drystone walls, with Ziggy
It takes me about 15 minutes to get into a position where I can get up off the ground and somehow I do. Very slowly I walk. Lordy, this hurts. I get up the steps to the track, walk up a bit and try to bend over to pick up the sheet holding the cuttings. The pain is unbelievable. I crash to the ground and can’t move. Now I know I need help.
Giovanni, who rebuilt the drystone walls, with Ziggy
I wait. I know it will take Agnès a while to get up to me. She has bad knees and can only walk slowly up the track. I hear my other neighbour’s sheep. Monsieur Cocular must be about to feed them. He’s 90 years old and spends most of his day walking around our little quartier, cutting leaves off the olive trees and gathering different herbage to feed his beloved sheep. He doesn’t rear them to eat: they are his pets and when they die he buries them way up on the hillside. We live only eleven kilometres from Monte Carlo and here is an old man with pet sheep living under the motorway. Monsieur Cocular lives for his sheep and when they die I hate to think what he’ll do with his day. I fear he’ll give up.
Agnès arrives and hands me a calico bag filled with ice. I explain what has happened, and put the ice where the pain is at its worst. I wait a while, try to move but I can’t. Agnès tries to help me but I know the pain is too much for me. She calls the doctor from my portable phone and is told I need to go to the hospital for a radio (x-ray) and to call the Pompiers. In France, when you need an ambulance, you call the Fire Brigade. I tell her not to call the Pompiers yet. I tell her I must get down to the house; I must get the dogs in from the garden and shut away. I need to shut the volets (shutters) and windows and put on the air-conditioning. I need to know the dogs are safe and secure before I can leave. The dogs come first – they have to. I feel faint, I want to vomit but don’t. I need to drink something sweet to give me the strength to try and get up. I ask Agnès to get me some water, perhaps to put sugar in it. She asks if orange juice will do. Yes, I say, yes please.
Poor Agnès. She needs to go all the way down the steep track again to get me a drink but I know I’ll not be able to move without it. She returns with her 18-year-old son. I drink deeply and then I somehow get myself in a position that is the least painful to lift myself off ground. Agnès and Nicolas help me down to the house. I direct operations – I can’t do anything else. Between them they put dogs behind the baby gates – into the bedroom, into the bathroom, into the kitchen, into the study, some in the living room. They close the shutters and windows. I slowly walk into the study and bedroom and turn on the air-conditioning and turn off my computer. It’s time to phone the Pompiers.
We go out onto the terrace and wait. Agnès suggests I sit down and I try but it’s too painful. I stand leaning slightly and supporting myself on the back of a chair. I’ve realised that I can’t bend from the waist, so sitting is agony. Standing is best and lying down even better.
The ambulance arrives with three men. Three seems excessive and if I wasn’t feeling so lousy I’d appreciate these virile specimens of French manhood. What is it about men in uniform? I give Agnès my keys and she tells me she’ll collect me from the hospital later – well, provided I’m OK that is. My mind is racing as to what I’ll do if I can’t get back within a few hours to tend to the dogs but I have a plan – there’s always a plan for that and it’s my friend Carla. Carla would have to come and take the dogs to her place. She cares for dogs much in the same way as I do but I know Carla is busy and…well I won’t think about it. Surely I’ll be OK. Surely this is just a bad bruise?
With the help of dishy Pompier number three, I find a way to lie down on the gurney in the back of the ambulance. Two of the men are up front and this one remains in back with me. We take off up the track and it’s bumpy and they need to go fast to get up the steep hill. The jolting hurts like hell. The pompier is kind, ‘Are you OK?’ he asks each time I wince in pain. Once we are on the Route de Gorbio, I settle down and for a moment, even though, I’m in pain, I’m enjoying the luxury. The mattress is comfortable. I’m looking out of the ambulance thru high set windows and I see the valley as I’ve never seen it before. I see houses I’ve never noticed, I see a hawk hovering, and I see the trail of a plane from Nice airport. The sky is that perfect Mediterranean blue. I should be off to the beach for the day and instead I’m going to the hospital but this ride feels, for a fleeting moment, like luxury so I lie back and enjoy it.
They help me off with my shorts. I apologise, embarrassed, ‘I’m not wearing culottes', (panties) I say, 'it’s too hot.’ What did Mother always say? Always wear clean knickers in case you get involved in an accident. Oh dear...They cover me with a thin white cloth – the shorts have disappeared.
A doctor examines me and after a while the gurney is pushed into the x-ray area. It’s a warm corridor. I wait for about half an hour and I long for water. Someone comes along and tells me the x-ray machine is en panne (broken) and I will have to wait. I ask for water. She says she can’t give me anything to drink in case I’ve fractured a bone.
A young girl appears. She is in charge of the x-ray machine and tells me she doesn't know when it will be mended. Another half an hour passes and we are ready to roll. It's not easy. I need to get myself from the gurney to the flat metal plate I need to lie on - there is no one to help me. Bloody painful it is but it gets worse because she wants me in peculiar positions. She calls out from the next room. I don’t hear her words through the buzz of the machinery. She comes into the room. ‘I told you not to breathe.’ She glares. Chastised I stop breathing. Each time she takes a picture, she yells out ‘Ne respirez pas.’ I barely hear but I guess she’s saying the same thing and what I’m saying to myself is, ’Don’t fall down the hillside again, Jilly!’
We’re done. I get myself back onto the gurney. The young girl appears, tucks a large envelope by my feet, hands me my shorts and I’m pushed back into the corridor to await the doctor. I ask the girl if I’ve broken any bones. ‘I’m not allowed to say,’ she says. I want to look but I can’t reach down to get the envelope.
What a relief! No broken back. I can go home. I can feed the dogs. Life is OK again. I call Agnes and she arranges to come and collect me. I get myself off the gurney; walk slowly and painfully down the passageway to pay at the office. I show my Carte Vitale, I give the document showing my Mutuelle (additional medical insurance). I ask how much? Nothing to pay, I’m told. It’s all taken care of. Vive la France and their wonderful health system.
And the new gardener? He did 10 hours over a few days – he dug up perfectly good plants, he weeded the place to within an inch of its life – exposing precious soil on the banks which will fall in the slightest wind and certainly when it eventually rains. I tell him I think it’s too hot to work and perhaps I’ll call him again in September but I won’t. If he was the last gardener in the world I’d not let him loose on my land. Back to the drawing board.
PS. The pain gets worse and after nine days I take myself off to the doctor. She sends me for new x-rays and it turns out I have four fractures in the lower back and a fissure in the pubic bone. No wonder it hurt so much to drive. I wonder why this wasn't found on the day of the accident but remember how rushed the young girl was and anyway we can't put that wrong right. Now I have to lie flat on my back for 45 days. I can get up to fix food and of course I’m forbidden to take any dogs although I still have a few here but I have to cancel most of the August intake.