Another occupation that is great for picking up stories, I am starting to learn, is gardening. People tell their hairdresser stories about their children or their marriages or their horrible bosses. People tell their gardeners stories about the neighbours.
One old man was convinced that his neighbour had moved the fence posts and was now encroaching on his property by a foot or more. Even a surveyor’s map could not convince him otherwise. We were also not allowed to attach any stakes or irrigation uprights to the said fence, because the neighbour was apparently an irritable and angry man who would almost certainly complain. If the wind so much as blew a drop of irrigation water over the fence, there would be hell to pay.
This “neighbour from hell” turned out to be a decent man who always greeted us with a smile and once offered us icy poles (at the time I didn’t even know what these were) when he saw us working at the hottest time of day.
Since plants don’t see borders as lines not to be crossed, considerable affront can result from trees hanging over fences, leaning against fences or creeping through fences with roots or winding stems. The accompanying stories about who cut down whose branches are usually told in a low confidential voice or a booming one that is meant to carry to the neighbour’s ears.
Messy trees get their leaves returned and weed seeds are blown back. Inter-residential weedkiller is another story with some homicidal (or was that herbicidal?) potential.
Some neighbours are just mentioned in passing as a source of information, as in “Mr. X said the council is bringing out new laws about pool safety” or “According to Miss Y there was a severe storm warning on the television last night”. Others have their whole family saga exposed – the new marriage, the chronic illness, the job lost or found.
And yet, if I were to write a book of garden stories, it would not be about the neighbours. It would be about the people themselves. Because whether they tell you their own stories or not, whether you even get to meet them at all, the garden tells its own story, and for a writer that means ever fertile ground for fiction.