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Date: 22/04/11

Mown Down

Today, I have been doing mostly mowing.

Not absolutely entirely that and that alone; I did spend a few moments exchanging uplifting haiku with my old chum Alex, who has gone through a rough patch in recent days. But it was mostly mowing.

Now, I don't have a particularly large garden, but it has three expanses of grass: a squarish bit right at the back of the house of about fourteen feet on each side; a long narrow strip right down the side from back to front; and another squarish bit of about twenty feet a side at the front. There's also a grassy bank on the roadside which, although outside the fence and therefore technically the responsibility of our beloved Council's highways department, would never get cut if I didn't do it.

This makes the job quite fiddly, even without the added complication of flower beds, borders and paths which means that a mower on its own simply wouldn't suffice.

In addition, this was to be the first cut of the year, which always takes a lot longer as the grass gets quite long and thick by this time of year. I'm reluctant to start cutting too soon in the season, however, because this usually means it has to be cut more often between then and mid-September, when I pack it in for the year.

I'd developed a set pattern for doing the job over the years, starting by mowing the front, then the side strip, finishing on the back square. And then going around trimming both the edges and the parts which a mower can't reach anyway (a couple of raised areas at the back in addition to the grass verge beyond the boundary).

It took me until last year to realise that I'd been going at it arse backwards. You see, there's a slight gradient from the back of the house to the front, and the way I'd been doing it up to then meant that I was forever mowing up the slope when doing the long side part. This meant that by the time it came to do the back square (where the grass always seems to be longer anyway) I was knackered.

So, at around 10:30 this morning, I unshipped my Powerbase mower and Flymo trimmer (both of which I'd had to buy last summer to replace the old ones which failed in the space of a couple of months of each other), got the extension reel out, tested the circuit breaker, and set to work on the back square.

I was accompanied throughout by the sound of one of the delightful little dachshunds who reside in the shed of the couple who have the house behind mine. These wonderful creatures (they have four in all) are characterised by three main attributes: an irretrievably cranky nature; very short legs which would render a command of "Sit!" utterly redundant; and immense stamina in the yapping department.

(Oddly enough, boy racers and ice-cream vans can go past without a peep from them, but all I have to do is stand by my back door and breathe and off they jolly well go).

Anyway, the back square done (a job made more difficult by a quite steep camber alongside the path which seems to have become more pronounced over the years, perhaps presaging the time when the whole house will slide into a long-forgotten mineshaft), I set to the long shallow slope of the side-strip, pausing from time to time to wipe my nose (I don't actually suffer from hay fever, but my sinuses were being a proper bugger today) or to stop my glasses slipping off from the copious amount of sweat I was producing.

Once I'd finally got down to the front corner by the gate, all the while collecting further evidence for the proof of Stapley's Law of Cussed Cabling, which states that, if there's something - however small - that a power cable can get caught on or around, the bloody flex will go and do precisely that; once, as I say, I got down to the gate, I debated with myself as to my next move. I decided, as it was now about 12:30, to break for lunch.

One individual pizza later, I started on the front square. I've found that the only way I can cope with doing this bit is by that bit of amateur quantity surveying which one tends to bring to such projects; do a bit, estimate how much you've done and how much is left to do, calculate the percentages (or fractions if you're old-fashioned) then do the next bit and - as they say - rinse and repeat.

This part of the task accomplished, I cleaned the worst of the mushed grass off the mower and took it round the back to put on top of the long-obsolete coal bunker to dry off ready for proper cleaning, then started the whole process from the back with the trimmer. The new one shares one characteristic with the model it replaced; namely that the much-vaunted 'auto-feed' of the cutting cord often doesn't work properly, which slows the job down more than somewhat.

The trimmer deals with the edges and fiddly bits which the mower either can't reach or, if used, would damage - flower beds, sort of thing. This means that it has to deal with a far smaller area than the mower, so the trimming part of the exercise usually takes a lot less time than the mowing.

Pulling the extension lead out to its fullest extent, I then stepped beyond the strict boundaries of my own lovely domain to deal with the grass verge. Today was a propitious time for doing it because there's a bus stop immediately outside my gate (very handy for when I'm running slightly late for work, but also - alas - very handy for every litter-dropper in the borough), and with it being a bank holiday the buses were only running every hour. This gave me more leeway than would otherwise have been the case.

The grass on the bank was very thick and lush (possibly something to do with the substantial diet of dog shit it has to feed upon - people for hundreds of yards around seem to bring their mutts specifically for the purpose of dumping their walnut whips there), and the trimmer took a fair bit of coaxing to deal with it.

Finally, shortly before 15:00, the cutting had all been done. I cleaned the worst of the mulch off the trimmer and took that round the back as well. I was taking a little break before getting the rake out when I felt...raindrops. What!? Lo, there was a solitary black cloud coming over, and a small shower started to pass across us. In a rush, I reeled in the extension cable, put it just inside the front door, then dashed around the back to grab the mower and trimmer and put them in the kitchen for safety (thus adding to the amount of dead grass and mushed dandelion leaves which I'd been carrying in and out on the bottom of my gardening shoes and my jeans).

I stood inside the back door having a reflective smoke and wondering if I was going to be able to tidy up properly, when I heard it:

"BZZzzzzZZ! BzzzZZZzzzZZ!"

I'd had to leave the back door open while I was doing the back and side in order to feed the extension cable out, and I knew what the result would be. Sure enough, there on the back kitchen window was a wasp.

I fucking loathe wasps. There's something about them which triggers some atavistic dread in me, possibly the frequency of the sound they make. I've never actually been stung by one, and I don't want to be, either (I've been stung by a dead bumble bee, however; I was about nine years old and wearing shorts, and I knelt on the sod).

I seldom get bees in the house (they're far too intelligent for that), and bluebottles and flies I tend to leave alone because they have no weaponry to deploy against me, but wasps are a different order of threat altogether. So I dived to get the Raid from the cupboard under the sink and gave the thing two or three hefty squirts. I left it thrashing about while I went back outside (the rain had stopped) with the rake to finish what I'd started.

(I've just been to do the washing up and, six hours after I zapped it, the wretched thing is still lying twitching on the window sill. I wish they'd just die quickly, because I start considering the state of my karma when they don't).

The raking is always the worst part of the job. Partly because I get lulled into thinking that, once I've finished the mowing and trimming, the job is nearly complete, and partly because it's the most back-breaking and fiddly part of it. I've got one of those adjustable rakes with prongs scarcely stronger than the wires on an egg-slicer, and it's a bit hit-and-miss as to how much you actually collect together with it. I tend to take a broad-minded approach to this, in that what I don't manage to get with the rake, the wind will take care of (although this means that, the next day, you see all the little piles that you missed).

Having made about seven substantial piles of cuttings, I then dragged the green bin around the place putting the piles in (with even more animated yapping; the dachshunds most emphatically do not like the sound of the bin being trundled up and down the path). Then it was time to bring the mower and trimmer out on to the coal bunker again to clean them off.

Going back into the kitchen, I saw that there was another bloody wasp on the kitchen window. I'd left the Raid can on the worktop, so was able to down this one a bit quicker. By a stroke of luck, it dropped straight down into the sink and I was able to flush it away.

Job done, I made my tea (faggots and chips - for the benefit of American readers, these are the faggots in question), went and had a nap for an hour, then caught up on the happenings in the world and helped myself to a can of Guinness.

So that's what I did on the first day of Zombie Carpenter Weekend.