by Anne Goodwin
Of course, he'd always known the day would come when youth would mock what he had cherished. The clothes in which he'd swaggered down the street. The melodies through which his lust rolled over into love. The idiom that spoke his pleasure, fear, distaste. He'd always known, but now he felt it. Now it hurt.
He'd always thought such mockery would come with compensations. Some recognition of his place in the march of time. Some endorsement of his acts of wisdom, despite the wrinkles and grey hair. Amid the laughter, the wonder of a life before computers, before the mobile phone.
His own father had coached him in the etiquette of beer and darts. His grandad preached the formula for a compost that grew leeks as fat as your arm. Even as he'd raged against their attempts to regulate his music, language, and clothes, the teenaged Jim had appreciated his initiation into the ways of men.
The allotment had been a special place where men in flat caps drank tea from jam jars while waiting for their food to grow. As a toddler, he'd been left behind with his grandmother in the kitchen, while his brothers followed grandad down the terrace with their rakes and their hoes. They didn't want a bairn running around among all that glass aching for its taste of blood.
Glass. It wasn't just the greenhouse, where the cucumbers and tomatoes soaked up the sun. On the allotment, old window panes stood pitched against each other, sheltering the rows of early lettuce from the east wind. Bell jars gave the prize-winning leeks a head start. A freak wind, a careless footstep, and a sheet of glass could escape its moorings and slice through a little boy's foot.
When Jim joined his family down at the allotment, he was quick to learn. Soon he'd mastered the art of double digging: taking out a trench and forking up the subsoil with well-rotted manure. Often, he'd find a shard of glass or rusty nail embedded in the soil. He'd throw the nails straight back. His grandad said iron was good for the soil. A piece of glass was another matter. "You wanna get shot of that," said his granddad. "Could give somebody a nasty cut."
Jim would pick it up, wipe off the soil with his thumb and put the offending fragment in his jacket pocket to dispose of later. He thought he was safeguarding the land for future generations.
By the time Jim had his own children, plastic had come to replace glass at the allotment: cut-off sweet jars instead of old-fashioned bell jars; self-watering wigwam cloches instead of rotting window panes; poly-tunnels instead of the greenhouse. They even swapped their tea-time jam jars for cheery picnic mugs.
Everyone agreed that plastic was far superior to glass. Being cheaper, more plants could enjoy its protection. Plastic was lighter, and more portable, although it had to be secured against the wind with metal pegs or bamboo canes. The main advantage, however, was that if plastic should break, it would be with a whimper rather than a shriek. No rogue sharps intent on opening up an infant artery. And as the allotment was no longer solely a male preserve, this counted for a lot in Jim's mind. He and the missus had the bairns down there from when they were a couple of weeks old.
Time passed. Each year spring came a little earlier and the east wind lost its icy chill. The gardeners still found a use for their plastic cloches, but now it was to cultivate exotic fruits Jim's grandad would never have heard of. Vegetables his grandmother would not have known how to cook.
Jim's children grew up and had children of their own. They used words and wore clothes and nodded their heads to music that made him groan, but Jim wasn't overly worried. Some things endure longer than fashion. Jim looked forward to sharing the secrets of nurturing the soil.
Respect the soil and it'll pay you back plenty. Don't disturb it when it's heavy with rain, or it'll get compacted. Cover the surface with a layer of compost when the weather's dry, so it won't crack. When he tried to impart this wisdom to them, Jim's grandchildren curled their lips. "Who asked the old dinosaur's opinion?"
Not even the youngest would help him rake over his seedbed that spring. No one was around to share his delight in the fine tilth his endeavours had produced. Next day, when he saw the oily film spread across the surface, he was nonplussed.
"It's plastic," said Zen. "Don't you know anything, Grandad?"
Jim shook his head. "That's never plastic."
"Suit yourself," said Zen. "Your generation always has done."
Jim bent his arthritic knees until he was squatting on the ground. He reached to touch the strange substance. It coated his fingertips like an extra layer of skin. He tried to scrape it off with his nails but it was stuck fast.
"How did it get here?"
"It's in the soil, innit? Plastic doesn't biodegrade for centuries. It just breaks up into smaller and smaller pieces until it's practically invisible. But it's still there. Comes to the surface and bonds together when you turn over the soil."
Jim looked at his grandson's serious face. How he longed for the child to mock his taste in music. To giggle at the clothes he wore.
"What can I do?"
"You can't do anything. Like I said, it's too small now to pick it out. And you see how it sticks to everything. I doubt you'll get any seeds to sprout in that stuff. Might as well give up."
The boy turned away. Jim watched him go. Then he went to the shed where he still kept his grandad's old window frames and bell jars. He was thinking how all that glass had never yet seen a drop of his blood.
© The Treacle Well 2013