The cognoscenti will tell you that the best time to visit the south Devon coast is the autumn. The vulgar summer hordes have departed, the weather in September is generally reliable and accommodation is cheaper. Unfortunately for them, word has got out. The lanes round here were more congested with traffic last week than in July and August, and in town the pavements were packed with cognoscenti looking askance at one another.
Mirroring this trend were this year’s bookings for the holiday let attached to our house. For three consecutive weeks in July, the flat was vacant, yet from now till the middle of November it’s fully booked. I’m not allowed to approach the visitors in the cottage in case I say or do something controversial. My job is to maintain the secluded walled garden, which I carry out diligently, with a slash-and-burn policy, when the occupiers go out for the day. Otherwise, I stay hidden. But last week, owing to staff shortages, I was entrusted with the job of handing over the keys to the first of our late-season tenants and making them feel at home.
A man and two women, all in their mid to late eighties, arrived in mid-afternoon in a Nissan Micra. The man was connected to one of the ladies by marriage, I think. He was wearing a hearing aid, shorts and a running vest. While the women transferred the suitcases from the car, the man told me about his war record. He fought mainly in Burma with Queen Victoria’s Madras Regiment of Sappers and Engineers. He told me all about that, then he explained then demonstrated each of the many functions on his new four million pixel digital camera, also very interesting. Then he whipped out a diagram of his family tree. He’d traced one line of his descendants back to one Mary Clarke, born on the Isle of Wight in 1704. Was I any relation, he wondered? I liked this guileless, enthusiastic old gentleman very much. The women were quiet and small and very strong for their age.
Early next morning I noticed their car was gone. They’d gone off down to the beach, no doubt for a swim and perhaps a game of beach volleyball. Their lawn was looking a bit ragged, so I grasped the opportunity, while they were out, to mow it. It was already hot and I walked up and down behind the mower au naturel. I was bending over picking up windfalls from under the old apple tree, when both ladies emerged from the flat into the garden bearing newspapers and cups of tea. The last thing they expected, I imagine, was a nude gardener. They saw me and turned around and went back inside. Immediately I put my shorts back on and went to apologise. ‘I’m so sorry,’ I said. ‘I thought you’d all gone out!’ ‘Oh we’re sorry!’ chorused the ladies. ‘We don’t like to interrupt men working, do we, Peggy?’ said one to the other.
Next day I knocked at the kitchen door and asked them whether they had everything they needed. ‘Yes, thank you!’ chorused the ladies. They were making sandwiches together. The man jogged in. They were going to the zoo, he said. Was Paignton zoo a good zoo? Paignton zoo is a tremendous zoo, I said — which it is. And is there an elephant, he asked, anxiously? He had a special interest in elephants. He used to ride them during the war. I told him there is not one but two elephants, but as terrific as Paignton zoo is, I didn’t think visitors were allowed to ride them.
While they were away at the zoo I cut down some thick brambles. In the evening I went to the pub. When I came back from the pub around midnight I found I’d locked myself out of the house. Fortunately, I’d left a small upper window in one of the upstairs bedrooms open. I took the aluminium ladder from the garage, leaned it against the window ledge and ascended. Unfortunately, my body passed through the window only as far as my hips, which became jammed, leaving me stuck half in and half out. Because the half of me that was inside the house was heavier than that waiting to come in, I was hanging more or less upside-down. I felt sick. Then I was sick. Some of it, I noticed, went on an ornamental saucer commemorating the first centenary of the death of John Wesley.
There was a polite tap on the outside of the lower window. It was the man staying in the cottage, wearing stripy pyjamas. He was standing at the top of the ladder and peering in through the window at me. ‘Can I help?’ said the gallant old gentleman. ‘How was the zoo?’ I said. ‘Marvellous,’ he said. ‘Simply marvellous.’