Ivan Filton had retired early. ‘I have been working a lot on my garden,’ declared Ivan Filton.
‘This is why you texted?’ asked Graham Donne.
‘What do you think of it?’
‘I like it,’ answered Graham. ‘It is spectacular.’
Ivan felt an overwhelming pride in his work, the first such feeling he’d had for a long while. Not, I think, since Ivan Filton was young, when he had been very good at intricate crayon drawings, had he felt this proud. The secret to the garden was mathematics; he had followed certain number patterns to order his garden in a simple and pleasing way. He had cut beds and planted, laid lawn, placed a bench and arbour, rooted a tree, and built a curve of path. Then he’d put up fencing, weaved vines, cornered off a vegetable patch with a low bush, positioned ornaments, directed two separate light sources, hooked up a fountain, populated a pond, and husbanded a chicken coop. Yes, it was a fantastic garden.
The following day Graham arrived again, this time unannounced, with his girlfriend Lea, who was twenty years younger than Ivan and Graham.
‘I wanted to show Lea your garden,’ said Graham.
And so Ivan Filton showed her the garden and Lea said it was wonderful, and Graham said it was wonderful again, and then Lea asked if she could stay and read a book on the bench next to the arbour. Ivan said yes, and Graham went and Lea stayed and read. She read Saturday, which is by Ian McEwan. Lea’s face was quite animated as she read, her expression changing and reacting as if she were watching a film. Ivan worked quietly on his garden so as not to disturb her, choosing only those tasks that did not make much noise. He pruned a little, watered a little. To impress Lea, Ivan drove to Homebase and bought three pots of outdoor paint: a green called Woodland Grove, a red called Roman Red, and a yellow called Zint Yellow. Zint is not a word, but it does sound good for a yellow and this probably tipped his purchase. He then returned and began to paint his fence at the back of the garden in an attractive three-colour pattern.
(It was all, in a manner of speaking – this concentration on the garden – a displacement activity; that is to say an acute though not severe psychopathology. But I do not think we need to think of it that way; no, it does not need to be labelled as such. This is not a case history; this is a love story.)
Often Lea would visit to read in the garden and Ivan would work quietly around her. She began to be there even in the early morning; Ivan would see her already reading when he drew back his curtains. Ivan built a pagoda, and when it rained she sat in it. At the weekend, Graham Donne arrived with five friends, and though they were strangers, Ivan was happy to show them the garden. They all enjoyed it so much that they too stayed and would be there each day when Ivan awoke.
The garden became popular, and because Ivan did not want these strangers in his house, he soon learnt all about plumbing and electrics from the internet. He went to ruleofthumb.co.uk. He then installed a lavatory, bathroom, and kitchen in the pagoda. With all that, they can look after themselves, he thought.
Lea read in expressive silence as the garden grew about her. Having finished Saturday, she began reading The Luminaries in a fat paperback, stickered like an apple or a pear or an avocado. Ivan watched her from his window: she laughed and frowned more than normal for someone reading. It appeared she possessed a particular sensitivity for the absurd, which meant that she was somewhat uncynical and open to plain buffoonery. Ivan began to fall in love with Lea as she read. But Graham Donne still visited, and she was still with Graham Donne.
Ivan was quite occupied with his garden. A representative of his new guests approached him one Monday morning to request an irrigation system be laid through the vegetable patch so that their first harvest of crops might grow more efficiently. Ivan acquiesced, and the vegetable patch did indeed become more productive. One man, Martin Kent, had begun to selectively breed the chickens, increasing the egg yield three hundred per cent. There was fruit on the trees: apples, pears, oranges and lemons and limes – though Ivan had only ever planted an apple tree. It seemed his guests were doing their own cultivation without ever having sought his say-so. To address this proliferation, Ivan turned to Word 2013, where a template provided an attractive form which all future visitors could fill in to apply for a licence to cultivate. He found a young man, Simon Koljman, to administer applications, and appointed him the head, and indeed the sole employee, of the garden’s Ministry of Agriculture. But soon the ministry expanded and more employees were needed; regulations and food standards had to be enforced, pollution monitored and monopoly distributing broken up, which in itself required the investiture of a court of commerce.
‘You’ve finished another book,’ said Ivan to Lea, having ventured to speak to her after he’d finished chairing a garden council meeting regarding the use of open fires on a Sunday. A certain number of his guests wished Sunday to remain a day of reflection and peace.
There was a pause. Then Ivan said: ‘The first person to read in their head was St Ambrose, I learnt that from listening to In Our Time. I listen to the podcasts all the time. They’re fascinating.’
‘Yes, I learnt it from reading St Augustine,’ replied Lea. ‘He walked in on him one day and saw him by the lectern, but not making a sound.’
‘An idea so simple it’s amazing it wasn’t always like that.’ Behind Ivan Filton a group of men were erecting a radio antenna. It was right next to his beloved azalea bushes.
‘Yes,’ answered Lea.
‘Just thought I’d throw it out there,’ said Ivan.
But this was not the real reason Ivan had spoken. Ivan took a moment and decided to go on and tell Lea why he had said it. ‘Watching your face as you read reminded me of it. You’re full of life, like you are in an audience. I guess that’s what reading in your head first did for people, it made them performer and audience all at once.’ Ivan looked back over at the radio antenna. It will need to be a public broadcaster, he concluded. He then spoke again to Lea: ‘Before that, you see, reading aloud could only be performance and to hear was to be an audience. Then we started to be both, and perhaps we got too used to it and forgot how to be either. But you still have it: your face reacts like you’re in an audience.’
‘I see,’ replied Lea, ‘I see.’ Then she added, ‘That’s an interesting thought.’ And she seemed a little flushed.
It was a romantic thing that Ivan had said to her, and he was pleased at how he’d said it. But he did not say anything more to Lea because he had at that moment seen Graham Donne (who was now Superintendent of the Garden Gendarme). The Superintendent swiftly took Lea off to lunch in the pagoda.
Now, Graham Donne, of course, was not unaware of the growing affection of Ivan Filton for Lea. It was quite apparent. But he, as much as Ivan, was preoccupied with the administration of the garden, seeing it now as his solemn duty to enforce law and order upon its citizens. In particular, he was concerned with Martin Kent, and a number of people surrounding him, who appeared to be engaged in political activity that could only lead to an upsetting of the delicate balance of interests in the garden as a whole. It was, thought Superintendent Graham Donne, a worrying matter, one that needed to be monitored.
‘That Martin Kent,’ said Graham to his deputy-ops, ‘is a no good sort.’
‘Yes,’ echoed the deputy-ops, ‘a no good sort.’
‘Seems to think he owns the chicken coop, that no one can touch him. Well, it’s time he understood that he’s not outside the law. That cock.’
‘Yes,’ the deputy-ops absent-mindedly echoed once more, ‘that cock.’
Despite the obstruction of such political elements, much progress was accomplished by Graham Donne, who was now working closely with the Department of Transport and Zoning. Sanitation was improved using a sewage system designed in Germany and built in China. The German company was called Helmtich & Lonsten GmbH. The Chinese company was called Seven Stars International Manufacturing, Logistics and Services. An inner ring road had been built, and though it unfortunately bisected the historic part of the garden, it significantly relieved traffic congestion on the central arterial roads. Approval had been given by the pagoda council for the establishment of a business park, which he hoped to be named Donne Park, and foresaw definite inward investment from the Chinese, beginning with Seven Stars. All in all, Graham Donne was pleased with the future, and the plan for the garden. The plan was called The Big Forward Garden Strategy Investment Plan. Everyone called it ‘the big forward’; for example a councilman might say: ‘We need to get on board for the big forward and stop this squabbling’; or ‘I don’t think he’s doing much for the big forward’; or ‘the big forward is all talk’.
Ivan Filton’s retirement garden was becoming a headache for him. It had become too intricate, it was requiring too much work. The Chinese investors submitted plans to build a ten-floor office block by the miniature Alpine rockery. The Church of the Third Resurrection of Christ wanted its own school. The garden broadcaster had asked to start showing certain highbrow films after 10pm. The first three were Melancholia, which is by Lars von Trier, and Crucifixed and The Other Apostle, which are both by Dziga Jones. The choices seemed deliberately provocative, and Ivan Filton did not know what to do. He held his head in his hands.
Over the next weeks, Ivan became bolder in his approaches to Lea, so that he was soon spending a lot of time with her. They walked in the garden, keeping themselves to themselves, and hardly noticed the bubbling activity, the fomenting of resentments all around them, the establishing of camps, the raising of makeshift flags, the speechifying, and the amassing of weaponry. Ivan, passing the bed of flowers he had planted so long ago, bent and picked a mixed bouquet for Lea.
‘I love you,’ said Lea to Ivan.
‘I love you, also,’ said Ivan, deliberately trying to make the phrase sound new.
‘What do we do now?’ asked Lea.
‘We must speak to Graham. He will understand. This is something that happens. I never meant to do this to him.’
‘Of course. I did not mean to hurt him either,’ said Lea.
At first it was difficult to enter Graham Donne’s command centre, over by the pond. Lea and Ivan had to wait next to a sentry for an hour until being granted admittance. Graham Donne was sitting behind a large mahogany desk. Across the desk was an intricate map of the garden, and behind him tall French windows, then the garden itself, which seemed to stretch farther than Ivan remembered planting until its edges were lost to a low-misted horizon.
Graham unplugged a stub of cigar from his month. ‘What can I do for you?’ he asked. A lieutenant stepped to his side and handed him a piece of paper. Graham left the room.
‘Sorry about that,’ said Graham, returning, ‘it is hectic here.’
‘I can see,’ said Ivan.
‘Our self-proclaimed King of the Chicken Coop thinks he’s got things going his way. Well, not for much longer, just you wait and see.’
‘Yes. I see,’ said Ivan, though he did not really see at all, and felt in that moment quite bereft at what had become of his garden, which had been after all, he realised then, nothing more than a displacement activity.
‘Graham,’ said Lea, ‘I am leaving you. I am leaving you for Ivan. I am in love with him. I am sorry to say it like this. There is no other way to say it.’
Graham did not respond immediately but stood and turned his back to them. He looked out at his disintegrating administrative area, at the line of barbed wire that ran across the mid-distance like a sinister river, at the smoke rising from a burning conference centre that had once rested so peacefully in the shadow of the mulberry bushes.
He turned to them. Graham looked troubled but not unsteady. It seemed as if he was ordering the importance of the problems in his life. ‘Is this what has to be?’ he asked.
‘It is,’ said Lea.
‘Then go,’ said Graham.
They moved quite soon to Fulham and were married. Ivan got a two-day-a-week consultancy job as a credit analyst for an insurance company called Avizor. He had realised that he’d missed working. They purchased a two-bedroom terraced property with front garden, back yard, two reception rooms and original features. Then the following year, Lea became an actress. She got a small part as a maid in a remake of The House of Eliott, which was not well received. She then went to work as a drama teacher. She did not mention her role in the remake of The House of Eliott at school, but was pleased when one of her colleagues discovered it.
‘I see you have an IMDb page,’ said Terry, the PE teacher.
‘Oh, it’s nothing,’ said Lea. ‘People just put things up there.’
‘Some good credits.’
Their affair began six months after Terry the PE teacher’s bold revelation that he had googled one night the name of Lea Filton the drama teacher. The affair lasted three weeks; consisted of thirteen incidents of sexual activity broadly defined; and was ended by Lea with absolute decisiveness and certainty – not to be repeated. Ivan Filton never learnt of it. It did not seem to affect their marriage from Lea’s point of view; indeed, perhaps it even improved it.
But as for me, when I heard that this had happened, I could not stop throwing up.