“THE PANTON ALLOTMENTS” (1/2).
[The two recent editions of William Fryer Harvey’s short stories from Tartarus Press and Wordsworth Classics have between them left a dozen or so of his tales unpublished, possibly because Harvey’s rare 1920 book The Misadventures of Athelstan Digby is generally excluded from bibliographies of his fiction. Yet Tychy has lately obtained a copy and the website is presently serialising its contents. Ed.]
Without doubt Mr. Digby enjoyed his Sunday afternoons.
As soon as he had finished his solitary dinner, he would remove the telephone-receiver from its rest in the hall, and then, conscious of an isolation which, if not splendid, was at least extraordinarily comfortable, he would take a fruit plate, an apple, and a copy of the British Weekly into the library, stir the fire, shut the window, and close the door.
Half an hour later, about two o’clock, he would draw up a second chair, and with the page of the periodical which was given over to a weekly summary of the doings of the Churches interposed between his muddy boots and the polished mahogany, he would gradually fall asleep, lulled by the importunate clink, clink of the bell of St. Jude’s in Atterwell Lane, scolding little boys and girls to Sunday School.
At three o’clock or thereabouts Mr. Digby would once again become aware of the passage of time, and, after having replaced his handkerchief in his pocket and the telephone-receiver on its stand, he would set out for his Sunday afternoon walk. Down the lane he would go, where, as often as not, he met the children, happy in their escape from St. Jude, past the great stone mill, more sombre than ever on this its day of silence, past the Hanover Place Chapel, that stood there dumb and ugly all the week while the mill worked and worked on Sundays while the mill rested, out along the canal bank and up the hill by way of the gas-works to the allotments. Then after pottering about the allotments, Mr. Digby would either return home or go on to the Dysons’ to tea.
Mr. Digby enjoyed the allotments. There were grey-bearded men to talk to, many of them his own workmen, who had grown old along with him. Some of them kept pigs; and Jim Calvert, the night watchman at the mill, kept his homing pigeons there in a loft that had once been one of Bradborough’s horse-drawn trams.
And Mr. Digby was quite at home in the allotments. He knew all the varieties of early potatoes by name. He could admire with the eye of a critic, who was also a connoisseur, the first bunch of autumn celery or the first picking of green peas. Little girls in white pinafores, who on Sunday afternoons trailed dog-like at their fathers’ heels, would sometimes present him with a radish or an impossible buttonhole of sweet-william.
But war had changed the allotments; and with it had come new allotment-holders to bring under cultivation another five acres of ground that had once been field. Week after week Mr. Digby had watched the progress of what he called the back-kitcheners’ army, first the pegging out, then the rolling up of the sods in neat little piles, the double trenching, the digging over and the raking, while the old gang, goatee-bearded and sceptical, offered discouragement and advice. He had watched the seedlings pricking up their green ears from under cotton entanglements that brought war home to the sparrows as nothing else had done; he had seen the limbers of manure dumping their scant supply of munitions for the trenches; he had watched the way in which water tap and water barrel had forestalled the terrors of a thirsty June; and each Sunday Mr. Digby found his afternoons more and more interesting. There was romance in the five acres of foul land behind the gas-works, the romance of boyhood that is only half forgotten. The old man with the long beard, who built an arbour of sods and willow stakes and sat therein in the noonday heat with a rhubarb leaf for hat, reading Haeckel’s “Evolution,” was Robinson Crusoe. Mr. Entwhistle, the teacher in the elementary school, and his wife and five children, who dug and asked questions alternatively, were the Swiss Family Robinson. Tom Twells, the one-legged proprietor of a fried-fish shop, whom every one suspected of stealing seed potatoes and carrying them off in his little leather handbag, was Long John Silver.
And then the things that were washed ashore on that barren five-acre patch – wheeled ashore rather in perambulators and go-carts! Tool chests, of course, and wood, and kerosene tins, and empty barrels, and once actually a gun, which was intended for shooting sparrows and was used for breaking every pane of glass in Mr. Occleston’s cucumber frame.
This island of romance had never seen a shipwreck, it is true; but the functions of a shipwreck were filled by the dilapidated gas works stables, periodically plundered for nails and bricks and old crushed tiles to line the edges of the allotment paths. And as to cannibals, were not all the ragtag and bobtail of Atterwell Lane ready for the day when the radishes should be big and red enough to be worth the risk of a magisterial caution?
Certainly the hours which Mr. Digby spent in the allotments were far too short, just as the allotments themselves were far too small. That was the difficulty. There was always the cry for more ground, and the corporation was slow, its by-laws a byword.
“If you would only use your influence, Mr. Digby,” said Mr. Entwhistle, “we might have a chance; but as it is, they blow hot and cold. They kick us and they coax us, and they give us their damned little pamphlets on Bordeaux mixture and gooseberry blight – as if we had gooseberries – and then, when they remember that we’ve got a vote, they’ll plough up a few acres in Victoria Park, cut down the tram service, and expect you to walk three miles out and three miles in, every evening in the week, with your tools, when you’ve been working overtime for the last twelvemonth. I’m going to propose your name, sir, for the committee of the North Ward Allotment-Holders Association which we are forming.”
“I’d like to help,” said Mr. Digby. “I’ve always been interested in allotments.”
“And so it came about that at the first meeting of the executive committee Mr. Digby was appointed as a deputation to interview Sir Peter Panton, who owned the field that every allotment holder had coveted for years.
Bradborough was proud of Sir Peter Panton, of his shrewdness, his prosperity, and his genius for self-advertisement. His name was prominent on all the hoardings. There was the picture of the engaged couple asking each other where they should furnish, as if they did not know that there was only one answer to the question: Peter Panton’s; Telephone Central 555. There were the celebrated posters of the Seven Ages of Man, from the infant in his nurse’s arms – Peter Panton for Perambulators – to the lean and slippered pantaloon – Gents’ Footwear Department. There was the poster which called upon the passer-by to remember two epochs in his country’s history:
William the Conqueror… Hastings 1066
Peter Panton,… … Central 555
Every Christmas sandwichmen had paraded the streets opposite the Theatre Royal. For the first two years you smiled as you read their placards:-
Peter Pan, the boy who never grew up.
He still buys clothes at Peter Panton’s (Juvenile Department).
The great emporium in Quenton Street proclaimed with an entire absence of truth that it was the largest in the provinces. The firm could completely equip officers for the field as quickly and as efficiently as their little boys for boarding school; and how adequate that equipment was could be seen by a glance in the window, where a wax effigy in Etons stood by an open trunk, around which were grouped a bat, a cricket ball, a purple and green blazer, half a dozen collars, one overcoat (extra quality,) three shirts, a silk hat, a straw hat, and a pair of braces. The Royal Albert suit for week-day wear, the boots, handkerchiefs, and underclothing were carelessly packed in the trunk itself.
Sir Peter had acted the part of shop walker to success. “Step this way,” he would say, and good fortune, smiling, had ever followed him.
From the first Mr. Digby realised that his task would not be easy; but he was none the less disappointed at Sir Peter’s refusal.
“It’s no use, Digby, my boy,” he said, slapping him on the back with altogether unnecessary force, “they can’t have it. The field is too near my house. I’ve no objection to a Sunday School picnic now and again, as you know; but a picnic every day in the year – and that’s what it would come to – is a little bit too much of a good thing. It’s not as if the ground were lying idle. It’s just as well employed growing mutton as mint sauce.”
“To say nothing of your six-hole golf course,” added Mr. Digby, dryly.
“It’s all very well for you, Digby; you’re thin; you don’t need exercise. And one or two games of golf during the week don’t interfere with the sheep. Sorry to disappoint you; but if it wasn’t for those fields and the little bit of privacy they give me, we should have moved outside the town boundary long ago.”
Mr. Digby was not prepared to accept defeat.
“A press campaign,” suggested Charlie Dyson, “a few anonymous letters from indignant ratepayers.”
“That’s been going on for the last six months, as you’d know if you read the evening papers. No, we want something more subtle. If Panton won’t take the worm, we must try him with the fly.”
“He’s a selfish brute,” said Charlie, “and oozes prosperity out of every pore. But don’t rub his back up the wrong way. I happened to come across a man in his office the other day who talks French and Russian like a native, just the sort of fellow who would be useful with these new contracts. I’m going to negotiate with Panton for him, and I don’t want you to queer my pitch. Why not try a second interview? Put it to him as a personal favour.”
But Sir Peter Panton’s heart was hardened; he would not let his field, and Mr. Digby’s chosen people on the allotments by the gasworks still toiled at their task of making gardens out of clay…