1976 and the suburban gardens of England were taking a thunderous pounding beneath the baking heat of a relentless sun. Those of us who lived through those terrible days still remember with horror the gruesome sight of chrysanthemums turning to brittle stalks in their pots, and once green and fertile lawns reduced to barren carpets of brown shoots and bare earth. In such desperate times - when hosepipe wardens patrol the streets alert for the familiar tinkle of illegal sprinklers, and a chap can't get hold of a decent courgette for love nor money - father turns against son, communities are split asunder and people like my brother-in-law, Tommy Cotton, have serious fallings out with their neighbours.
Normally my in-law is a serene and sociable sort of chap, lacking the backbone for any kind of sustained dispute. Not really military material at all, to be honest, and frankly I don't understand what my sister saw in him. Nevertheless, Tommy became moderately peeved when he learned that his neighbour, a Mr Schneider, had effectively annexed part of the garden belonging to Mr Kaweic, two doors down. Something to do with a line of creeping beans encroaching over the boundary, or whatnot. I never knew beans could be that shifty, although I admit that I'm not too familiar with matters horticultural.
However, as a veteran of three world wars, a couple of minor scuffles on the African continent and a vicious altercation in the Salisbury branch of Marks and Spencer's, I know that these sorts of disputes should be nipped in the bud pretty sharpish. A chap needs to stand firm. Just like we stood firm at Dunkirk. Just like we stood firm at Flanders. Just like I stood firm in the biscuit aisle of Marks and Spencer's when that horsy woman tried to snaffle the last packet of custard creams.
I advised my brother-in-law that this was no time to be 'peeved'; this was the time to get angry. Words needed to be exchanged, and pretty blunt ones at that if we were to prevent the same thing happening to his own garden. The fact that the man Schneider was built like a small dumper truck, and was seemingly constructed of similar materials, should not deter him.
Emboldened by my inspiring monologue, Tommy 'had it out' with his neighbour to the east, returning from the conference in high spirits and waving a piece of paper containing Mr Schneider's assurance that he would henceforth keep himself to himself. Tommy was delighted; I was dubious, and rightly so. The following morning we discovered that Schneider had reinforced his devious beans with two columns of peas and a battalion of beetroot. It was at this point that I decided to step in and take control.
As any good tactician knows, the best form of defence is attack. And the best form of attack is a fence - a 10-foot high timber fence, to be precise, which both protected our vulnerable border and screened our movements from the enemy. Schneider immediately interpreted this as a hostile act and introduced a squad of deep-water guppies into our pond. These malevolent aquatic assassins proceeded to pick off our goldfish one by one. Fortunately I had foreseen just such a ploy and had already requested a box of frogs from some of my old R & D colleagues at Portland Down. Not just any old frogs, I hasten to add - highly trained commando frogs that had undergone intensive instruction in unarmed combat, boasted an unrivalled knowledge of rope knots and would prove more than a match for our fishy infestation. Even so, they suffered heavy casualties at first, and it wasn't until supper-time that Corporal Squelchy McAlistair was able to report that they had set up a blockade of frogspawn and were escorting the surviving goldfish to safety. As we retired to bed that evening, we were confident that the situation was under control. However, morning was to present us with a bit of a shock.
The one thing I had not anticipated was an attack from the air. During the night, this swine Schneider had catapulted wave after wave of airborne slugs over the fence. The ravenous pests had penetrated deep into our vegetable patch and were steadily munching their way through our precious produce. As any keen gardener will tell you, these armoured monsters can grow up to as much as an inch long and are impervious to most ordnance. But it was Tommy's morale that was the heaviest casualty. The civilian mind is ill prepared for the horrors of conflict and they rarely cope well when faced with the inevitable casualties of war. Tommy thought things had gone too far, and he started making uncomfortable noises on the subject of a negotiated settlement. It sounded rather too much like appeasement to me, and I quickly quashed such bolshie talk. Wars are meant to be fought, enemies are meant to be vanquished, and we would suffer whatever privations necessary to bring that about.
With grim determination, we set about the task of neutralising the slug menace, which unfortunately meant collecting up the slimy monsters one by one. These efforts, arduous as they were, were further hampered when we found an unexploded snail lodged under a rhubarb leaf. This we dealt with by remotely detonating it from the safety of the potting shed, utilising a length of twine, four nails and a half-empty can of WD40.
That night, in order to repel the inevitable repeat attack, I kept watch. With the aid of a torch, a tin helmet and a tennis racquet, I hoped to intercept the invaders mid-flight and restore them to their point of origin. My forehand is legendary and although age and good living had dulled my reactions, I believed that I was more than equal to the task. The racquet, on the other hand, proved to be a let down as the molluscs were able to pass unimpeded through its strings.
Faced with another day seeking and destroying the pests, Tommy's spirits sank ever lower. Couldn't we call a truce, he suggested? Hadn't we suffered enough? Would surrendering be so bad? I was in no mood to tolerate all this whinging and whining, and swept his protestations aside. After all, this was his garden that I was pledged to protect. You would have thought that my efforts would have met with at least some suggestion of gratitude.
I didn't see him for the rest of the day, and I later learned that he had been to ask for help from his neighbour to the west, Sam Tailor. Mr Tailor very sportingly pledged to supply us with much needed slug pellets and fertiliser, but in spite of his special relationship with Tommy, he refused to become directly involved. We stood alone against this fiendish aggressor.
On the second night I swapped the tennis racquet for a cricket bat, with far more pleasing results. That the darkness rang out with the satisfying squelch of slug on willow was testimony to the magnificent success of my efforts. Let there be no mistake, if tales of my exploits continue to be told for a thousand years, men will still say, "This was his finest hour". And then, come the early hours of the morning, our retaliation began in earnest.
Our supplies may have been low, our morale may have taken a hammering, but I had not been idle. Three divisions of spring onions were primed and ready to roll, the 4th Light Mounted Cabbages were at the peak of physical fitness, and we had a squad of kung fu tomatoes that, quite frankly, scared the stuffing out of me.
Tommy, I'll admit, was not party to my preparations. I had been at great pains to assure him that everything was under control, but I spared him the details - partly for his own peace of mind, but mainly because he would not have been sympathetic to my methods. And so, as day broke on that fateful morning, my brother-in-law was still safely abed when I gave the order to advance.
The 51st Armoured Cucumbers led the charge, scaling the fence in a full frontal attack. Unbeknown to us, Schneider had reinforced his border with razor sharp rose bushes, and our lads met with heavy resistance from artillery carnations and sniper tulips. However, this was merely a diversion. During the night, deep-tunnelling radishes had been quietly crawling into position. At my signal, they made the final breakthrough, opening up shafts that emerged behind enemy lines, and allowing our army of assorted flora to take our adversary unawares.
It should have been a foregone conclusion. After all, we had the advantage of surprise. Sadly, there was no way of knowing just how well defended Schneider's garden would be. To our dismay we found ourselves hopelessly outnumbered. Several lines of new potatoes were dug in deep, preventing us from gaining any ground, and two willows and a sycamore tree pinned us down with a barrage from on high.
Our chaps fought valiantly, but in vain, and by half past eight the battlefield was strewn with flesh and pith, a twisted orgy of mangled salad. Tommy emerged to see what all the noise was and, when I saw the horrified look on his face, I realised it was time to call off the attack.
We spent the remainder of the morning desperately trying to evacuate the survivors, relying on a motley assortment of buckets, barrows and barrels to gather them up and bring them home. It had been a disaster. The tears welled up in Tommy's eyes as he surveyed the tangled remains of his fruit and veg, and I must admit that a lump came to my throat as he looked at me accusingly. I had failed him.
The weeks wore on and winter approached. Things remained bleak for us. The flowerbeds were devastated, and continued to come under regular slug fire. There were frequent greenfly attacks and Schneider had developed long range guided dandelions that could be launched from deep within his territory, and which spread their evil tendrils throughout our lawn. Worryingly, we were running very low on weed killer, and compost had to be rationed.
And yet something good was to come out of this. Our counter attack had apparently given Schneider pause for thought, and he turned his attentions to the rich pickings of Mr Kravtsovich's allotment at the bottom of his garden. Periodically we would receive word of his progress. He had planted row after row of cauliflower in the allotment and was steadily advancing towards Kravtsovich's shed. Kravtsovich, however, struck back with a relentless attack of broccoli and incendiary carrots, and the situation had reached stalemate.
During this brief respite, I began to develop a bouncing turnip that would career right over the enemy's defences and cripple his water butts. I knew it was only a matter of time before Schneider renewed his campaign against us, and sure enough a combination of heavy fighting and severe frost caused him to retreat from the allotment and mass his forces along our border.
Schneider was at his most vulnerable now. He had suffered heavy losses and Kravtsovich continued to harass him on the allotment front. Sadly, we did not have the resources to take advantage of his weakness, but we were soon to gain an unexpected comrade. Following some minor dispute about a bonfire, our neighbour to the west, Mr Tailor, suddenly found himself on the receiving end of an unprovoked bindweed attack from Mr Saihoushi across the road. In return for the loan of our strimmer, Tailor agreed to join our offensive against Schneider.
Courtesy of our new ally, a healthy crop of sugar beets, pumpkins and peppers now considerably strengthened our ranks. They were overfed, over watered and over here, but welcome nonetheless. We wasted no time in pressing home the attack. The scoundrel Schneider now found himself fighting on two fronts, and we met with little resistance as a result. Our scouts told us that Kravtsovich was making similarly good progress, and by teatime we had rendezvoused with his forces at the enemy greenhouse, reaching it just in time to witness Schneider shoot himself with a loaded parsnip.
Soon afterwards, Tailor's little spat with Mr Saihoushi was satisfactorily resolved when the former dropped a nuclear marrow on the latter's window box.
It was with no little sense of pride that I was able to return to my brother-in-law and tell him that hostilities were ended. I fancied that I caught a glistening in his eye and a faint trembling of his chin as he surveyed the smoking and blackened wasteland that had once been his back garden. A faint wisp of smoke still drifted across the vista of rotting cabbages and lettuces, the broken stumps of fallen cherry trees and the wilting brown stalks of poppies that had been cut down in their prime.
Everything was finally back the way it had been. Well almost. Tommy still owed Mr Tailor for the supplies, a debt which it would probably take some time to settle. And Tailor felt it was only fair, given all that they had gone through, that he should have more of a say in the way that Tommy ran his garden.
But apart from that, everything was back the way it had been. Well nearly. Mr Schneider's garden had been divided up between Tailor and Kravtsovich, who had built a concrete fence down the middle of it, blocking out the sunlight. Not that sunlight would be missed, since there was now an eerie and ever-present glow emanating from the smoking crater where Mr Saihoushi's geraniums used to be.
That aside, everything was... Actually no. There was Tommy's friend, Mr Kaweic. This whole thing had started with the invasion of his garden. We had pledged to defend his territory. We had been resolute in our intention to liberate this man's plot from the evil aggressor. We made it known that we would not rest until Mr Kaweic and his flowerbeds were free. Mr Kaweic's garden was now in the hands of Kravtsovich, somewhere behind that big concrete fence.
But for these minor details, all was as it should be. As the sun went down on that historic day, my brother-in-law sank to his knees with joy, let out great wailing sobs of jubilation and shook his fist at the sky with a passion that I calculated could only have been born of triumph. Realising that my work here was done, I left him cursing and screaming - with contentment - and slipped away into the night.
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