Our new house is much bigger than our old one. Mum says we needed a bigger house because there are so many of us. Even in the new house, there is not a room for everyone. Me and my brother still share a bedroom, and so do the girls. But it is much bigger than the old one.
Dad bought the house from an old lady. She had lived there for years and years. The house smelled of old lady’s things, and the garden was very overgrown. Mum said that Dad could do the garden, and she would look after the house. Dad wasn’t keen on gardening, and the house was too much for Mum to care for all on her own, especially with all of us children. We did our best to help her, but I think we made more mess than we cleaned up.
Eventually, Mum and Dad decided that Dad would have a gardener come and get the garden into shape, and Mum would get one of the ladies from the town to come and help with the house. So every day, George the gardener would come and unlock the tool shed, get out the wheelbarrow and the fork and start working in the garden. Dad said that I was to help him, so I pushed round the wheelbarrow and piled the weeds and clippings up onto the compost heap. George never spoke very much, but he seemed happy enough with my help. At least he never sent me away like Dad would when I tried to help him.
Mrs Ingram came every day too. She would walk over the hill from the town, let herself in through the back gate and then in through the kitchen door. Mrs Ingram was lovely. We all loved it when she came. The first thing she would do when she arrived, was brew up a special cup of tea for Mum. It was good for nerves; Mrs Ingram would say. It certainly seemed to calm Mum down. She always seemed much happier afterwards.
And Mrs Ingram was a great help in the house. She would do the laundry, tidy the children’s rooms, run around with a duster and hoover and start on Dad’s dinner. She was very busy, but she still always had time for a smile, or for a quick joke. It was nice having her around, especially as Mum seemed to be getting sicker and sicker.
Children are never told what is wrong with adults, but the doctor came round to the new house quite often. We were always sent out while the doctor spoke to Mum and Dad, and when he left, he always had a serious look on his face. Sometimes he would look at us and shake his head sadly, but he never said anything. It was a good job that Mrs Ingram came round and took care of the house.
At first, we were allowed to visit Mum in her room for a few hours every day. We would gather round her bed, and she would read us stories, or she would let us put on the record player, and we would all sing along. We almost always chose ‘The Sound of Music’. Doh a deer a female deer; we all sung in parts. My part was ‘Me a name I call myself,’ and ‘Tea I drink with jam and bread.’ To honest, the words made no sense to me. But it didn’t matter; I still shouted out the words as loud as I could.
My big sister would sing along to ‘I am sixteen going on seventeen,’ all by herself, even though she was only nine.
However, soon Mum was too sick even for that. We had to find other things to do. So, I went back to helping George in the garden. I’d wheel the barrel for him and help him dig the borders and vegetable patch with a fork.
One day, He dug two big holes on either side of the gate out onto the hill behind our house.
“What are these for?” I asked.
George, who normally never said anything, pointed to two bare rooted saplings.
“What are these?” I asked.
“Rowan trees,” George said.
I helped George to plant the trees. We put one on either side of the gate. I held the saplings as upright as I could while George pushed the earth back into the hole with a spade. After he had put the soil back into the holes, he got me to stamp on it as hard as I could.
“You need to get it packed down hard,” he said, so I jumped up and down until the ground was no longer soft. I was a bit worried that I’d get a row for getting dirt on my shoes, but George said not to worry because he had a stiff brush that would have my shoes looking good as new in no time.
We were not done yet, though. We had to take the two saplings and twist them together, so they formed a loop or an arch. It was hard work, and I couldn’t have done it on my own. George had some raffia, which is a kind of string, and tied it round the twisted saplings so that they would stay twisted up together. It was very pretty. Rowan trees have nice divided leaves like feathers. In the spring, they have white flowers and in the autumn, they have beautiful red berries that the birds love.
I looked in a book, and they are also called mountain ash. But we don’t live in the mountains, so maybe that is why George called them Rowans. In some places, they are also called Quickbeam. I don’t know why. When I read that, I imagined them running around on their bare roots quickly, but that’s just silly; trees can’t run, quickly or slowly.
Anyway, after we had finished, we stood back and admired our handiwork. Dad would be pleased. They certainly made a nice feature around the back gate. Then we went and put the tools back into the shed. I asked George if he wanted me to get him a cup of tea from Mrs Ingram, but he shook his head. He always bought a flask of tea from home and two digestive biscuits with butter on them. He gave me one of the biscuits because I had been such a good help, but I don’t like tea, so I never had any of his.
The next day, when I was out in the back garden playing, I had climbed one of the apple trees and was sitting reading a book. The apples were not ready, so I never bothered with them, but I had climbed up to make sure they weren’t ready. You can’t really tell if apples are ready from the ground that is why it is always important to climb up and see.
From the top of the apple tree, I could see Mrs Ingram coming over the hill. I shouted at her and waved, and she waved back. When she got to the back gate, she stopped. I scrambled down from the tree and rushed over to her. I opened the gate and held it open. She smiled at me.
“Aren’t you a polite little man,” she said, and I always did try to be polite because Mum was always saying how important it was.
She stopped at the gate and looked at the rowans.
“Who planted these?” she asked.
“I did,” I said. “George helped me.” And then I remembered that Mum liked me to tell the truth. “Geoge did most of it really, but I did help.”
Mrs Ingram still didn’t come through the gate. She stood for a while and then it seemed as if she disappeared. I was holding the gate open, and then she was gone. Mum complained that she never got her tea, and when Dad came home, there was no dinner for him, or for us. So he had to go and buy chips for the dinner. He complained a lot, but we all love chips.
The next day, I was in the living room, and the front door bell rang. The four of us children rushed to see who it was, and there was Mrs Ingram.
“Aren’t you going to invite me in children?” she asked.
“Yes, of course,” we said. We invited Mrs Ingram in as if she was an important guest, we shook her hand, and my oldest sister curtsied.
“No need for that,” laughed Mrs Ingram.
After that, Mrs Ingram always used the front door. Dad complained that she should use the back gate, but she told him that she was too old to walk over the hill and that the bus dropped her off along the street, so it was easier to use the front door. Well, Dad couldn’t say much to that, so other than her using the front door, things stayed much the same. Mrs Ingram would come about midday, make our lunch and take a cup of her special tea up to Mum. Then she would do the housework and make the dinner. When Dad got home, she would put on her coat and head off back to Mr Ingram. She was a great help, but it was a shame that Mum wasn’t getting any better.
I continued to help George in the garden. I love gardens and flowers and vegetables and trees. I’ve read all about them in books, and I could tell George the names of all the flowers and vegetables that he planted. That year, we were planting cabbages and cauliflower. I helped George dig up the ground into long trenches. Then, George would come along and push little plants into the ground. He’d slip a little circle of black grit paper around each plant like a collar. He said that kept slugs away. While I was digging, I kept imagining that I would find treasure. I’d read all about digging for treasure. Usually, the place treasure is buried is marked with an X. There were no places marked with an X in the vegetable patch, but I still hoped I would find something. I found big stones and an old bottle which were quite interesting, and then just as I was digging the last row, I found something else. I held it up and shouted with excitement.
George came over to see what I had found. Sometimes when we dug in the garden we found old coins which George took to show the museum; he said. I’m not sure if the museum kept them or not. I must remember to ask him.
But this wasn’t an old coin. I showed it to George, and he told me it was an old horseshoe. I asked him if he wanted to take it to the museum, but he said I should keep it for luck. When I showed it to Dad, he said we should nail it up above the front door for good luck. So that’s what we did. Dad had polished it up, so it was all shiny, and nailed it over the front door.
In the front garden, there is a big laurel hedge between the house and the street. The leaves are green and glossy, but when you wriggle under the hedge, the ground is dark and hard, and the branches of the hedge spread over you like a forest. Dad said not to play in the front garden, so I probably shouldn’t have been hiding under the hedge when Mrs Ingram came the next day.
She came walking up the path and then she saw the horseshoe nailed above the door and stopped. She never said anything but sniffed. It was a funny sort of sniff, and it would take a hundred words to tell you what it meant, but if you stick out your lower jaw, suck on your top lip and give a good hard sniff like so then you’ll know just what kind of a sniff it was.
I wriggled out of the hedge and walked up to her smiling.
“Who put that up there?” she asked.
“I did,” I said, and then remembering how important it was to tell the truth, I continued, “Dad did it really, but I helped. And it was me that found it when I was digging the vegetable patch with George. It’s a horseshoe. Dad says it’s good luck.”
“Tell your Dad that I would be able to make it today. I’m feeling under the weather. My old bones are aching.”
“Of course, I will,” I nodded. “Is there anything I can do to help. Would you like me to carry your bag to the bus stop for you?”
She looked at the horseshoe for a while, but said nothing. She turned and headed back down the path. I ran after her and carried her bag to the bus stop.
“Thank you,” she told me, and then handed me a rosy red apple.
“I was going to give that to your mother,” She said, “would you give it to her for me?”
“Of course,” I replied and put the apple in my pocket.
“You’re such a good boy,” she said as she got on the bus. I waved to her, and she waved back.
On the way home, I carried the apple very carefully. I know it was for mum, but it looked so good I couldn’t resist taking a bite. The apple tasted really horrid. I think it must have had pesticide on the skin or it must have gone off somehow. I spat it out and threw it away. Poor mum never did get her apple. And the next day when I came past, a bird had been pecking at the apple and lay dead beside it. Just as well mum never got the apple.
When dad got in, I told him that Mrs Igram had gone home. There was no dinner made and so we had chips again that night. Dad was very cross, and he was even crosser when Mrs Ingram did not turn up the next day. A letter arrived from Mrs Ingram explaining that she was getting too old for working and had decided to retire and concentrate on looking after old Mr Ingram and that she was very sorry to leave us at an inconvenience. It said to give her regards to Mum and to the children. Dad was very angry. What was he going to do? It would be very difficult to secure a housekeeper at such short notice, especially one as helpful and inexpensive as Mrs Ingram. Mum suggested that he take a few days vacation to look after the children until a new housekeeper could be secured. There really was no alternative, although by the look on Dad’s face you could tell he was not very pleased. He had hoped to use his vacation to take Mum and go on a study tour just the two of them to Scandinavia later in the year. Still, there would always be next year, said Mum.
Next day, Mum got up and made us pancakes for breakfast. We were surprised and even more surprised to find that Dad had gone to work after all. My big sister gave a sniff, not unlike the one I saw Mrs Ingram give, and asked why Dad was not here to look after us and shouldn’t Mum be in bed if she was sick.
But Mum told us that she had woken up that morning feeling better than she had felt for a long time.
“Shouldn’t you call the doctor?” asked my sister.
“He’s coming round to make a house call this evening,” my mother said. Then she shooed us out of the house so that she could get on with the housework in peace.
When the doctor came round, we were all sent upstairs to bed, but from the top balcony, we could see the doctor coming out of the living room after his consultation. As he came out, he looked up at us, raised his hat and smiled.