£20 Challenge

The area where I now live is irredeemably ugly: a horrible, dead dormitory of endless 30s semis, and most of the gardens have been paved over to make car parks. Walking towards the tube, I often thought how much nicer it would be if people would at least cut back their hedges. It occurred to me that since I like to trim hedges, I could offer to do it for a small price. I could rope the kids in maybe over the hols.

‘Il faut cultiver notre jardin.’
– Voltaire, in Candide

I loved that book, which I read in school nearly 40 years ago with the gentle Mrs Troiano.  And I love this message, with which the tale concludes.  One must cultivate one’s garden. Create a space with life, energy and beauty. Tend to our own affairs.  Quite.

Of course I did nothing.  ‘People like me don’t just knock on their neighbours’ doors like bob-a-jobbing kids!’  ‘I’m not a proper gardener!’ Then I’d beat myself up for my laziness and lack of nerve the next time I walked past. Cos it could be win:win.

Bingo! On the course we were given the task of earning £20 doing something we enjoy. Perfect. While some had to think of what to do, I had my idea all ready.

The kids were game, and off we went, ringing doorbells. Chose a Saturday, hoping people would be in. Many were not. Those who answered looked puzzled and suspicious, mumbled ‘no’ and closed the door on us.  We were choosing those gardens that were not completely overgrown, but had slightly shaggy privet hedges. At last a large, very unkempt man accepted our offer to trim his hedge and sweep up, for a total of £5. He was strange and interesting, as we discovered with a long conversation afterwards covering the origins of language, scouting, travels in Canada and the task of identifying people’s bloodgroups.

No other takers in his or adjacent roads. So far we had made maybe a pound an hour each.

Along the main road, the front gardens are enormous. Some had as many as three cars parked end to end, that’s how long they were, with hedges correspondingly vast. We tried some bells as we made our way home with our fiver.  An elderly Irish lady with a hedge along two sides agreed to let us tidy it up for £10. We set to. My son is tall. He had the only decent shears and did the tops. My daughter took the less good, smaller shears that give me blisters, and I had my trusty secateurs and a broom. By the time we had finished it was getting late and we all had to get ready for a celebration of birthdays and graduations of cousins in town. Our customer insisted on giving us £15, and with many apologies about how big it was, asked if we would do the back garden as well, and how much would we charge?

The eldest is now back in Oxford waiting to begin her postgrad studies, but my son is keen. We’ll take our electric trimmer and safety specs and as much extension lead as we can muster. There are worse ways to spend a morning. The lady was so keen to have us back I would feel terrible if I didn’t show up.

I hope the £20 counts even though I had help and gave the kids a fiver each.  More to the point: we had fun and our change was as good as a rest.


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Florence Feynman

I am a middle aged, middle class woman, thinking.

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