Wednesday 19 June 2019

David Robbins: Strange how you can find happiness even in the most prickly of predicaments

David Robbins

Spring is the deadliest season. Encouraged by warmer weather and longer evenings, people undertake all sorts of strenuous activities. The result is injury, embarrassment or, at the very least, a nasty chill.

I speak, as usual, from experience. The idea of an afternoon spent digging up a neighbour's unwanted gooseberry bushes appealed to me on many fronts.

Firstly, there was the prospect of a couple of free fruit bushes for our allotment. Then there was the idea of some pleasant, gentle exertion in the spring sunshine. There was also the possibility of impressing the ladies of the house with my manly spade skills.

I had imagined the bushes as small, easily removed little twiglets, and dressed accordingly. In keeping with the style code of the Dublin middle classes, Tommy Hilfiger Denim featured strongly.

And at first, everything proceeded as I had imagined. The neighbour's garden was long and wonderful. It had apple trees, raspberry canes and fruit bushes of all kinds.

It reminded me of the time when most people grew a little of their own food at the end of the garden and a few cooking apples or a head of lettuce was pressed on visitors.

A golden-headed child ran down the garden holding a fallen daffodil flower. The whole thing was like a Timotei ad.

And then I saw the gooseberry bushes. As tall as a man, and as prickly as a scorned woman. They must have been there since old God's time, with a root system that probably stretched into Kildare.

"No problem," I said to the ladies of the house, "just let me at them. I'll have them out in a jiffy."

Did you bring gloves, or protective eyewear, they wanted to know. I looked at the inch-long thorns on the gooseberries and wished I had. But I laughed a son-of-the-soil sort of laugh and plunged my fork into the ground.

It was hard work. The shaft of the fork broke quite early on, and I discovered that Tommy Hilfiger's Denim range is not designed for this kind of work. It's okay for hanging out with groups of beautiful surfers, but not for manual labour in a hostile environment.

What I needed was less Tommy Hilfiger -- who, let's face it, doesn't look like he does much in the landscape gardening line -- and more Bear Grylls. Also, my forearms were bleeding quite profusely.

As I worked away at the gooseberries, I remembered a kind of turning point in my life. Some people have very dramatic Damascene moments -- an illness perhaps, or a death in the family. Mine had to do with gardening.

It was a summer's evening oh, maybe six years ago. Our office cricket team was taking the field against the Theatrical Cavaliers, an outfit drawn from the world of stage and screen.

I overheard one of their players -- it was Maurice O'Donoghue, who played Fr Dick Byrne in Father Ted -- explain his late arrival. "I've been cutting a hedge all day," he said.

There was something about the idea of spending a summer's day outside, of doing something physical, of having the freedom to chuck everything and take advantage of the fine day, that spoke to me.

Timing, as I'm sure Maurice would agree, is everything. In life, in cricket and, of course, in acting. The image of Maurice and his hedge came at the right time for me.

I had been thinking of a change. There was a redundancy package on offer at work. The idea of a freer, more fluid way of life had been playing around in my mind. I had come to hate being tied to the relentless hamster wheel of my day job.

It wasn't that I wanted to cut hedges for a living, but I wanted the freedom, the room, the sense of possibility that Maurice's phrase conjured up.

I heaved the last of the gooseberry bushes out of the black earth. I contemplated my shirt, which now looked like the Shroud of Turin. I felt the ache in my back from all the bending. And I felt happy.

drobbins@ independent.ie

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