Perfect Compost – A little light relief
I thought my talk had gone rather well, after some initial disappointment at the poor turnout. Walter Whoul, secretary of the Ruxford Allotment Association, had assured me compost making was dear to the hearts of the members, so it was disconcerting to find only eleven members had hearts. Nevertheless, a promise was a promise.
The ripple of enthusiasm that had greeted my recent article ‘Perfect Compost’ in the Ruxford and North Ruxford Gazette might have lowered my defenses. Whatever the cause, I felt flattered by the flood of requests for talks on the subject, and had foolishly agreed to do them both. The first had to be postponed after a plague of head lice struck our local primary school, but no such misfortune afflicted the more thinly haired allotmenteers.
Veronica and I walked the half mile from our cottage, braving the cold autumn air. In the gloom of the musty village hall, three rows of folding seats were set out in an arc where one row would have sufficed.
Walter rose to greet us. “Excellent timing, Arthur. And I see you finally managed to explain the excitement of the allotment to your wife.”
Chairs creaked as he gave out the association’s notices for the month. How he managed to stretch it out for fourteen minutes by the hall clock I couldn’t imagine. There were two jokes, or so I inferred from the brief spells of Walter’s solitary laughter.
I was encouraged to see that I was not alone in missing the point in these. There is nothing more discouraging than being introduced with such wit that one’s talk is consigned to the status of anti-climax before it has begun.
The highlight of his address was an interruption caused by the arrival of two young women, both in dungarees that would, I suspect, have glowed in the dark, had sufficient darkness been available.
Walter glanced at them and waved toward the triple arc of buttock bruisers. “Anywhere you like. The compost talk is about to start.”
One of the young women waved a colourful leaflet. “Line dance with attitude, the flyer says. I’m sure you shouldn’t be here.” She had a voice that would have made our gracious queen sound uncouth.
I spoke with some certainty, having been confused by a similar flyer earlier in the day. “Right day, wrong village. You want North Ruxford, which, for reasons I’ve never heard adequately explained, lies a mile and a half to the south of us.”
They left without another word, followed by a young couple who surely should have realized their mistake earlier.
Walter’s voice soon petered out, leaving me the floor.
I took up my position by a microphone that hadn’t worked for two years. I didn’t have to wait long for my welcoming applause to die down. Veronica hates clapping alone. “Thank you, Walter. Riveting stuff, I’m sure everyone would agree.”
I took a deep breath and glanced around the assembled mass. Eleven faces only, including Veronica and three committee members. Damn it, only half the committee had bothered to turn up. So be it.
Never the most confident of speakers, at least I had my words well planned – mixture, adjustment, expectations. The flow seemed right.
“Compost. Black, crumbly, perfect. As most of you have been making compost of sorts for years, I’ll not bother with the building blocks. That’s all in the article anyway.”
“Give us a break, Arthur,” Hector McGregor called. “Why would we ask you here to talk about it if we had read the damned thing?” This was received with a general mutter of agreement, and a knowing look from Veronica who had warned me about making too many assumptions. Mentally, I tore up my notes, shredded them, and tossed them into the compost.
Aunt Angelica once said, and her words were recorded in the obituary column of the Ruxford and North Ruxford Gazette back in ’89, “When adversity struck, Finlay struck back. When the chips were down, he picked them up and put them back on his plate.” As I stood before the few assembled Ruxford allotmenteers, open mouthed, I felt in awe of the legendary Uncle Finlay.
“Not one of you has read it? Walter? Blakey? I see. So. To begin at the beginning. What goes into the perfect compost?”
“Now you’re with us,” McGregor said. “Just give us the recipe.”
A slight tilt of Veronica’s head, which I took to mean If we try, we might just make Line Dance with Attitude, brought me back into focus. For a few minutes I expounded on the merits of mixture: of balancing the browns and the greens, the carbon rich and the nitrogen rich – the importance of air and moisture. I even spoke briefly, knowing I trod a delicate line, on the value of slugs in the pile. No-one objected, but the merest mention of nettle set Hector McGregor in a fury.
“There’s no nettle on my plot,” he said. “You’ll take that back, Arthur Dagnode, or a plague on your leeks.”
Recognising the seriousness of the threat, Walter Whoul was quick to step in. “Please Hector, I’m sure Arthur was not impugning the integrity of your site.” I believe I am right in saying nostrils were flared at that moment, although the light in the village hall was poor, and a flared nostril, unlike a raised claymore, need not be a sign of aggression.
Help came from an unlikely quarter.
“I think I at last understand, and almost care,” Veronica said. “You throw in whatever you have, at least in moderation.”
“Yes, Veronica,” I said, leaping on her words more eagerly than I had leapt on anything of hers for years. “You don’t want two inches of grass cuttings any more than you want two inches of shredded wood. You want it all, come what may – the rough and the smooth, the leaves and the twigs, greens and browns, the sweepings from your chicken coop – all mixed together.”
“Everything, the good and the bad,” she said. “Just like marriage.”
“Exactly,” I said, not quite sure where Veronica was leading.
“The honeymoon that seemed too good to last.”
“Egg shells, tea bags.”
“Good days and bad, sickness and health.”
“Weeds, but not their roots or seeds.”
“The unplanned pregnancies. The pain of birth.”
“Yes Veronica, you have the general idea.” A glance around the audience told me I had their attention. Where was I? “Kitchen waste. Autumn leaves.”
Veronica smiled, a thin smile that set me on my guard. “The infection that was never satisfactorily explained.”
I checked my watch. It was a little early to be winding down but I was running short on enthusiasm. “Yes, Veronica. I believe we have chased this analogy as far as it needs to go.”
“No, go on,” Hector said. “This is fascinating.”
“Compost, Hector,” I said. “We are here to talk about compost.” For a few minutes I gave them the benefit of my experience, subtitled, at least in my head, Compost Heaps I Have Turned. I spoke about recognizing difficult areas – too dry, too wet, too green, too many to list – and adjusting as you go. The excitement was minimal, but it didn’t last.
When I brought out my sample, a bucketful of that which had been mixed and turned and adjusted for some months, I was a little disappointed at the reception.
Walter grabbed a handful and let it fall through his fingers, lumps and all “Frankly, Arthur, it’s not perfect. Good. Better than mine maybe. But not perfect.”
“I hate to say this,” McGregor said after a cursory examination of the product, “but I agree with Whoul. Could you not have sieved the bits out?”
Knowing McGregor as I did, I understood that what he hated was agreeing with Walter, not insulting my compost. But I wasn’t disheartened. Had no one commented on the semi-composted wood fragments that littered the output, I would have been forced, with less effect, to point them out myself.
“And so we come,” I said, “to my final point – the nature of perfection. Perfect homemade compost is not the fine, crumbly stuff of commerce. It’s compost suited to its purpose. Mulch it or dig it in, this is it. The lumps’ll rot down in their own sweet time.”
I felt as though I had limped through my fifteen minutes without really hammering home my point. I needed something more, something memorable.
Veronica sat in the center of the hall, a slight grin showing how pleased she was at having embarrassed me. Well, the show wasn’t over yet. I could push her analogy one step further. She would insist on taking the credit of course, but that was less important than the success of my talk.
“The key to a perfect compost,” I said, “is like the key to a perfect marriage. Fairy tales are one thing. Compost, I hope you will agree, is another. We live in the real world of slugs and dreams, and we must deal with both. With compost, as with marriage, you have to lower your expectations.”
We hurried home from the village hall, Veronica a pace and a half ahead of me. The chill in the autumn air wasn’t one a thermometer could have detected, but I swear frost settled between us with every step.
(c) Ella Swift Arbok 2018