Last week I helped build a fence along the boundary between my garden and that of my neighbour. The old one, a rotten three-foot trellis, had collapsed under the lolloping affections of laurel and rhododendron to the extent where my dog could easily wriggle out and the horsetail could easily wriggle in. I had not been too bothered at first – the old boiler was taking priority – but my neighbour, Rahim, seemed so nervous about the subject that I realised he viewed the matter with some import. Both gardens were exposed to the other down the full length and neither of us had any privacy. His young family did not utilise the vast expanse of lawn available and I always felt self-conscious about doing tai chi on the patio. Furthermore, my escaping dog left little presents on his lawn, a matter of some embarrassment. A proper six-foot fence running from the top corner to the party wall that divided the alleyway between our houses would create space for us both. And if we did the work together, the cost would be more than halved. I was convinced.
We started on the Monday by clearing away the tangled chaos that had wrecked our former boundary. We both chopped away at our respective sides until we could see each other and then, grinning like Stanley and Livingston must have done, created the space to work by removing the lower limbs of the leylandii and spruce planted forty or more years ago. We knocked out and pulled up the rotten fence posts, leaving the concrete footings in the ground. A holly tree had to be felled, me hauling on a rope to stop it tumbling into my raspberry vines. Afterwards, while Rahim went to collect his daughter from school, I trimmed back the branches from the trunk so they could be folded and stamped into a one-ton builder’s bag. It took nearly three hours to take the clearings, bag by bag, to the recycling centre down the road.
The tip is just twenty minutes away although this extends a little when the Catholic school empties and the traffic lights play their frustrating games. Rahim and I talked all the way, non-stop, time after time. What did I learn in the army? Was it hard to become an officer after being a soldier? Why did I study philosophy? Since he is an academic, I wanted to know what he thought of Michael Gove, of continuous assessment (his daughter was wrapped up in her GCSE exams), of her dreams of studying cardiology at Cambridge. I also wanted to know what Basra was like when he was a child, before his family had to leave. That night we were exhausted. Rahim’s wife, Sanaa, cooked chicken and rice for us all, a gesture offered without question and accepted without a second thought. The meat had been marinaded for much of the previous day and with slow roasting, fell from the bone in chunky, joyous mouthfuls. My nose filled with the aroma coriander and spice notes I could not recognise. My back ached, but nothing would take me away from the patio table till all was consumed.
The following day we dug post holes and waited for the wood to be delivered: twenty panels, each six by six, twenty one posts, each four by four. I had spurned the idea of post feet in favour of concrete and so there were fifteen bags of that to shift, each weighing six kilograms, as well as the brackets, pots caps, screws and paint. I offered Rahim the choice of panel side – the one with a single batten or the one with three. He asked Sanaa and she generously chose the side with three, which meant the lapped boards would be in my favour if it came to painting them.
That night she made a date and banana cake that surpassed even the chicken.
On the third day we fixed the posts in place, starting at the top of the garden and working down. We got a rhythm going. I dug the hole. We both rammed the post into place and made sure it was vertical using a spirit level. I checked my side and he the other. He held the post while I poured in the water and then the quick drying postcrete. He checked the levels again then held it in place for five minutes while the concrete dried. I moved on to the next hole. We had all the posts fixed in place by lunch time and awarded ourselves the afternoon off as a reward, pulling off our gloves to shake hands. That night my wife gave Sanaa advice about what plants would grow in the claggy ground and she showed us the bed she had reserved for mint, which she used in abundance.
The following day the news was full of the brutal slaying of Drummer Lee Rigby outside Woolwich Barracks. One of the killers was shown on national TV with the blood not yet dry on his hands. Before long, the English Defence League had paraded through the town. Muslims were assaulted. A mosque was attacked and later burned down, prompting local youths to form protective gangs. The media became suddenly alert to their responsibilities and the reporting changed tack: community representatives spreading messages of tolerance. Extremism had no place in Woolwich, they said. It was a happy town, a happy and diverse place to live. At the weekend, the British National Party planned a march in honour of the dead soldier, forcing the poor man’s distraught family to appeal for calm while they were still confronting the depths of their grief. I got an email from my regimental association asking any retired soldiers thinking of going on one of the marches not to wear their berets in case the regiment was seen as identifying with any right wing causes.
Living in the north, on the edge of Bradford, I was surprised by this appeal.
The following Monday, after a weekend off to rest out limbs, Rahim and I once again addressed the fence. He nailed the brackets to the panels laid out on his lawn while I dug out the panel footing with his mattock. We fitted the panels together, him bearing the weight while I frantically struck at the nails. We spoke little. Much of what we wanted to understand had already been expressed and the weight of the murder was sufficiently far in the past for us to ignore it. But it remained there, unsaid, for much of the day until late in the afternoon, when we stopped to drink Sanaa’s green tea with mint. I turned on a pocket radio for the music, but at the half-hour the news intruded. There had been more demonstrations in Woolwich, a crowd frustrated and angry at the unforeseeable.
“This is what Basra is like now,” Rahim said at last. “The uncertainty, between people.”
Later, after putting the tools away in his shed, we stood back to admire our work; hands on hips, as men do. We nodded to each other. It was good. But I had under-measured the distance to prevent wastage and we could, if we wanted, fit one more panel at the bottom, linking the fence with the party wall that separated the side alleys between the houses. There was room. The post could be screwed to the wall instead of sunk. This final addition would seal off our respective worlds, separate our mutually exclusive space and we would be able to dance round unobserved with impunity. I agreed it should be done and immediately got on the internet to order one more panel and a post. We made plans to complete the work on the next available weekend.
It is Wednesday as I write this. The two men accused of the Drummer Rigby’s murder are already in court, one barely able to walk. On the BBC website there is a photo of community leaders in Woolwich, the spectrum of religions zealously represented, laying a wreath in the shape of the word ‘PEACE’ outside the barracks. The text below states that the family and friends of Lee Rigby are distancing themselves from extremist groups who are organising parades and demonstrations in his name. The final panel and post were delivered this morning. They lean against my wall, blocking the alleyway. I step over them as I take the dog out for a walk. They can wait.