So, today, after a rather nice afternoon with Dearest’s Mum, I spotted someone faffing about on the far side of the garden wall. It took a couple of seconds to realise that it was an oldr woman, maybe in her late sixties, ripping flowers off the lavender bush.
Now, let me put this in context. I have a very old lavender bush in the garden. It’s barely survived the past few winters, but though a mix of cruelty and kindness I’ve managed to get a nice crop of flowers from it. It’s about six feet across and similarly tall, despite being half-hollow, and together with the bay tree, blackcurrant, and rose bush that wrap around it, it’s home to a small colony of red-tailed bees, provides the shelter for a fox den, always has dozens of visiting butterflies and hundreds of honeybees, and is the jumping-off point for the sparrows that nest in the higher reaches of the bay tree. On the far side of the lavender there’s a goat-willow which self-seeded in a few years ago and is now eight feet tall, and a little closer to the door there’s a pair of sycamores, also self-seeded.
The garden is a bit overgrown, but I like it that way.
But yes, there was a woman, riving bits off the lavender bush with her fingernails. She had about half a carrier-bag full.
I opened the door.
“Excuse me.” I said, in my gravest voice; “What are you doing?”
No reply. She just stared and looked affronted that I obviously had a problem. I realised that my mental script at this point, handed down by literature and culture, started with “Where do you live? I’m taking you back to your parents…” so I was a bit unsettled. Instead I went with;
“You know, that really damages the tree. If you want something from the garden, you should knock on my door and ask first. I can give you some shears to take a few sprigs, but please don’t pull on it. It’s a very old plant and I’ve put a lot of work into keeping it.”
She mostly just looked shocked that I’d confronted her, so I took this as being as good as an apology. I handed her some shears, because letting her cut a couple of bits was probably worth avoiding a scrap with a neighbour, and went inside to seethe for a couple of seconds.
I came back out to get my shears back.
“Oh! she said delightedly “I’ve had a couple of the roses as well!”
I went from irritated to incensed. The rosebush is a hybrid tea, and sports the most beautiful mauveine-and-white flowers I have ever seen (Other than, possibly, the ones in Downhill Neighbour’s garden, which are entirely mauveine). There were six perfect blossoms on it at the time, and maybe a dozen others which were going over, yellow-tinged with missing petals and frankly which were also about eight foot up in the air. She had taken them. Just cut them off, without even asking.
“Sorry” I said, in my coldest voice, “You’ve what?”
“I took a couple of roses. They’re not yours, they’re his next-door.”
I looked at her. I looked at the rosebush, clearly growing out of my garden, a few feet away from the drystone wall that separates my garden from the next one.
“No, they’re mine. I was keeping them.”
“I don’t know if it was you, but a few years ago the owner here left out bundles of lavender that they’d cut for people to just take, and it was a really nice thing.”
“Yes.” I said, continuing with the funerary tone, “That was me. I’ve lived here for seven years. I sometimes like to give away lavender, once I’ve finished taking what I need from it. But it is my plant, so I decide when I’m going to give it away. And those were my roses. I don’t give the roses away.”
“Well, you know,” she said “I took some of that and I made little mesh bags to put it in and…”
“Don’t take my roses. I was keeping them.”
She puffed up like a hen
“Well, what were you going to do with them? I just thought they were in his garden, and you can tell that he wouldn’t care, look at the state of his yard-”
“Did you ask him?”
“Did you ask him. I don’t care if you thought they were his, I asked if you’d asked him if you could take them.”
“Oh! But what would you want with them? I can see now – ha, oh yes! – the wall does mean they’re on your side, but what were you going to do with them?”
“I was growing them. they weren’t yours to take.”
“Oh well it’s very overgrown. that bit there needs cutting off.” she gestured vaguely to a branch.
“Yes. It does. And it’s my garden, so I’ll cut it back when I feel like it.”
She finally seemed to understand that she had done something wrong.
“I’m sorry, I just thought they belonged to the man next door. You can still get the other ones..”
Yes, the remaining, yellow-tinged, wilted, eight-feet-up-in-the-air roses, which she had assessed as “not worth stealing”. I ran out of energy.
“I don’t care.”
I walked off, and shut the door.
Inside the house, I wished I’d said that there are very few nice things in my environment that I can control, and that since I’m nearly housebound, being able to see my roses from my window is one of the highlights of my day. But I didn’t want to make myself that vulnerable. I wish that I’d taken the roses, and the lavender, out of her hands and put them in the compost bin, to highlight that they were mine to dispose of as I pleased. But I didn’t want to be that arsehole that started a war with the neighbours.
I waited until she was gone, then came back out with shears and cut back the whole lot. Not a single flower left on the lavender, or the roses, and the bay and the willow cut back as far as I could manage, so that they were just a green wall from the street, with nothing to tempt thieving fingers.
Downhill Neighbour, one of the nicest and most understanding people I’ve met since moving in, and pretty much the reason that I’ve settled here, came out, dog at heel and smoking a horrible rollup.
“Well,” he said “You look serious.”
“That horrible old baggage from down the road just nicked all of the good roses.”
He nodded, and looked the garden over.
“It looks neater now, but… Ah, well, some people are just sent to try us.”
I went for a long swim (Three kilos, comfortably under the hour) and when I came out I still felt wobbly. I don’t want to have to put up massive signs on the garden saying “Please don’t steal things” because it should be fucking obvious. I don’t want to be That Neighbour who makes a fuss about people Being On Their Land, but I have to remind you, gentle reader, this wasn’t a young schoolbairn stealing a rose for their sweetheart, this was an adult woman with her own house and garden, tolerably well-off so not incapable of buying flowers, stealing things which needed real force to remove from the tree. I don’t want to be that sad cripple with so little going on in their life that they’re worried about the loss of a couple of flowers, but I am and thus I am.
I know this wouldn’t bother me if I wasn’t already under a lot of stress. But I am, and thus again I am.