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The Groundsman

St Dominic’s Anglican Church – March 1953

As I deposited the last of the hymnals in their usual resting place at the back of the church (not one of my more regular duties), Mrs. Bancroft, the church committee chairperson, wearing her regulation tweed skirt and cream colored twinset, swept past me, nostrils flaring, eyes resolutely fixed on the vestry door.

For some reason, she’s always disliked me, even though I’d hardly ever spoken with her.

As she thundered up the aisle, I couldn’t help thinking how irreverent and inappropriate the sharp sounds her footsteps created, and by the look of her, she wasn’t the least bit concerned.

Then, just before she reached the vestry door, she stopped dead in her tracks, looked over her shoulder, puckered her mouth into a tight circle (rather resembling a certain part of a dog’s anatomy), let out some kind of strangulated snort and abruptly turned away as if I was ringing a bell and chanting ‘unclean.’

Oh dear, what had I done now? Failed to sweep up a couple of pieces of confetti on the driveway, or left a withered flower in a waste bin by the graveyard? I guess I’d find out soon enough. With her hand already raised to knock on the door, she moved forward and then took a step backward because it was already opening.

The Vicar, a stocky man of medium height, filled the doorway. The expression on his face looked somewhat startled. ‘Mrs. Bancroft…eh…how you are today?’
‘I am well as can be expected considering I have a serious concern regarding the church cleaner.’
The Vicar inhaled deeply, folded his arms across his chest before replying, ‘Mrs. Bancroft, John’s correct working title is groundsman, and he’s a—’
‘My goodness Vicar how could you employ an illiterate person? Surely you must see an individual like that sets an atrocious image for everyone in the parish, especially the children?’ Mrs. Bancroft declared with venom snaking through every syllable in atrocious.

The Vicar looked down the church until he made eye contact with me and then his face seemed to collapse like a deflated balloon. I shrugged my shoulders when he said, ‘Mrs. Bancroft, please step into the vestry…we’ll have more privacy there.’
She gave me one last milk-souring look before harrumphing her way into the shadows of the small room. Slowly shaking his head from side to side, I watched the Vicar followed her in.
I’m not going to lie, I was tempted to listen at the door, but I didn’t. Instead, I snatched a broom from the general storage closet near the main door and started sweeping around the portico, despite the fact that I’d done it twice that day already.

Ten minutes went by and I was just about to give up and go home when the vestry door opened and Mrs. Bancroft stepped out looking rather smug. She sauntered casually down the aisle, did the snorting thing again and left without saying a decipherable word. Then I saw the Vicar walking toward me. As he got closer, I could see he had a deeply pained expression on his face.

‘John, please join me in the vestry…we seem to have a problem with the church committee.’ He gave me a watery smile and walked back up the aisle with me following close on his heels.
However, we didn’t go into the vestry, instead, the Vicar sat down in the front pew opposite the pulpit where he motioned for me to sit beside him, which I did, all the while bracing myself, as it was obvious he had something unpleasant to discuss with me.

Keeping his eyes forward, he cleared his throat a couple of times before saying, ‘John, I don’t really know how to say this.’ He stopped speaking, uncrossed his legs and slowly turned to face me before adding, ‘The church committee, which as you know, Mrs. Bancroft is a chairperson of, have come to a decision…’ his words trailed away as if stuck somewhere deep down beneath his larynx.

‘What is it, Vicar? You’ve never been a man to hold back before.’ I couldn’t say anything else because my own throat closed over, such was the stricken expression on his face.
The Vicar looked me straight in the eye and said, ‘Yes John, you’re quite right, I’ll stop beating around the proverbial bush and come straight to the point—the committee has decided to let you go, effective immediately.’
‘Let me go! But why? What have I done or not done?’ I replied, utterly gobsmacked.
‘John, it’s nothing to do with your work, which I might add is always faultless, and implausible as this may sound, it’s to do with your inability to read and write.
I let out a short laugh before replying, ‘What’s not reading and writing got to do with tending the grounds?’
‘In a word John, nothing, but the committee do not see it that way.’
‘Vicar, is this another one of your tactic’s to get me to join that adult education class you keep on about because—’
‘No John, it’s not.’ From inside his jacket he pulled out what looked like some sort of list. ‘According to this,’ he waved the pages in the air between us, ‘all church employees have to meet certain criteria, and unfortunately your disability falls foul of these requirements. In other words, either you sign up for adult education classes, which I might add the church will gladly pay for…’

‘…or you’ll have to let me go,’ I finished off for him, hardly able to believe what he’d just said.
For two years I’d worked at St Dominic’s as a groundsman, and honestly, I really enjoy my work, and in comparison to other jobs I’ve had in the past, my duties could hardly be called strenuous. The fact that I couldn’t read or write never came into the equation before. When I was given the job (Mrs. Connellan, the Vicar’s housekeeper organized it), that little blot on my educational background didn’t seem to matter, so why did it now? Yes, I’d left school at the tender age of twelve without having learned much at all, mainly because I was hardly ever in class, preferring to help my father with his coal delivery rounds. After he died (when I was sixteen) I tried out many other jobs and none of them ever amounted to much, menial as they were. So working for the church suited me. I felt proud of what I was doing. I smiled on my way to work instead of worrying how I would get through the day.

In the past, Angela, my wife, encouraged me to participate in the Literacy for All course the local branch of the Salvation Army offered, which, for the sake of peace, I did. But it didn’t work out because they discovered my inability to identify written words and understand their meaning wasn’t because I was stupid (as I’d frequently been tagged in school), my problem was due to the much-misunderstood learning disorder called dyslexia. Of course, during my sporadic school days, I managed to learn the alphabet off by heart, parrot fashion but recognizing those letters as meaningful words were quite beyond me. The result, I simply gave up. And it wasn’t as if reading and writing were necessary for me to attend to my job effectively. Far from it, because any added jobs needing to be carried out in the church or surrounding grounds were verbally forwarded on to me by the Vicar or Mrs. Connellan. Mowing the grass, weeding and edging flower beds, pruning shrubs, etcetera, weren’t the type of jobs needing a literate person. No, my duties only required the understanding of different plants and their individual needs, which were second nature to me, passed on by my green-fingered father during our twice-weekly sessions on his allotment.
‘But I don’t understand Vicar, I’ve been here two years now and it’s—’
The Vicar put his hand up and silenced me.

‘John,’ he indicated the now folded pages in his hand, ‘it’s here in black and white and it’s out of my hands.’
Something snapped inside me. ‘I don’t care what that piece of paper says. For the love of God Vicar, you’re in charge of the parish. Surely you have some say in the matter!’
‘As you quite rightly point out I am the Vicar, and in charge of the parish, but the committee has made a decision, a decision I’m powerless to refute because they are the people in charge of the funding which—’
‘Oh, now I get it, they’re arguing about the salary increase you gave me last month.’
The Vicar shook his head. ‘John, your recent salary increase was more than justified. It’s your refusal to join the adult education class, which the committee recently set up…that’s what’s gotten up their noses. As a church employee, they feel you are flying in the face of—’

‘You mean I’ve gotten up Mrs. Bancroft’s nose. Until three months ago when she moved into this town and somehow got herself elected as chairperson, my lack of reading and writing never came into it.’ I knew I sounded petulant but I couldn’t help it. Since Mrs. Bancroft’s arrival in our not so sleepy town of Wicklow—also referred to as The Garden Of Ireland, she’d stuck her nose into just about everything, and in doing so upset more apple cart’s than there were apples to fill them. From the first day I clapped eyes on her I knew she was going to be trouble, and that’s why I avoided her as much as possible.

Oh, I tell a lie, there was an incident last month when she tried to insist the Epsom Salts I was watering in and around the newly planted Privet hedging was going to burn their roots. Yes, maybe that’s what’s wrong with her. You see, I’d told her quite clearly that she was wrong. At the time, I genuinely tried to be diplomatic, but in retrospect, contradicting her was not a good move on my part. Then again, she’d been so adamant she was right and I was just an ignorant clod. I mean, I couldn’t just stand there, watering can in hand and let her insult me…could I? It wasn’t as if I was devoid of any gardening knowledge. Only last week, Mrs. Doyle (one of the many flower arrangers in the church) praised me about the cut flower preserving tip I gave her. The tip was simple—put a penny in the bottom of the vase along with a quarter teaspoon of bleach. And Mrs. Flagherty couldn’t get over the difference in her pot plants since she took my advice and started watering them with lukewarm weak tea. Even Mrs. Byrne said her brittle leafed rubber plants positively thrived since she started adding a drop of castor oil to the compost and wiping the leaves down with a mixture of flat beer and tepid water.

I was brought back to the present by the Vicar standing up. He studied his sleeve jacket for an instant before vigorously brushing some imaginary lint from it. Why do people do that when they’re uncomfortable? For a couple of beats the silence between us continued and then he said, ‘It’s out of my hands—the decision has already been made. Please come to the vicarage after lunch tomorrow to collect your outstanding salary…I’ll add an extra couple of months in lieu of notice. However, should you reconsider and take up the committee’s suggestion before—’
‘That I surely won’t be doing,’ I told him and walked away. As much as I needed the job, I refused to be forced into doing something that would undoubtedly cause me anguish. I’d been down that road too many times before and had no desire to go down it again, despite the consequences.

‘John, if it’s any consolation, I’m sorry, truly I am,’ the Vicar said after me, meaning it.
Without turning around I said, ‘I’ll pack up my tools in the shed and then I’ll leave the keys with Mrs. Connellan. Goodbye Vicar.’ That was to be my last duty on my last day in the job I loved so well, and all because I couldn’t read or write.
Twenty minutes later when I opened the kitchen door Mrs. Connellan all but knocked me over in her hurry to get to me. ‘John, I’ve just spoken with the vicar. Is it true?’
‘Yes, Mrs. Connellan, it’s true, I’ve been let go,’ I told her with a heavy heart.
‘But John, it doesn’t have to be like this! Join in with the adult educat—’
I had to stop her right there and then otherwise she’d keep on at me for God only knows how long and I needed to get away. I had to get away.

‘Mrs. Connellan, I’m not joining that bunch of do-gooders and that’s all there is to it!’ I instantly felt bad about being so short with her, but for all her good points, she does go on. ‘I have to be on my way, Angela…’ my words froze as I remembered Angela. What was I going to tell her? She’d go crazy. And the fact that we have a baby on the way was only going to make things worse. Over the three years since we’d married, we’d fallen, like many couples do, into a routine, especially over weekends when I would slip out to the corner shop and buy the newspapers. Then, while sipping many cups of strong tea at the kitchen table, she’d read them aloud from front page to last. I loved listening to her voice and never failed to be awed by her easy understanding of even the longest words. But then again, Angela wasn’t dyslexic. In truth, she worked in the local library and knew her way round word combinations like a rabbit knew its way around a complicated warren.

‘But John, what are you going to do? Mrs. Connellan asked as she straightened herself up to her full height. She put her hands on her hips and added, ‘Jobs aren’t plentiful around these parts, especially for people with learning disabilities. Now listen to me, go join the adult class—’
I’d heard enough. ‘Mrs. Connellan, I need to be off, I’m late already.’

She looked at me quizzically, as if seeing me for the first time. ‘Your father was a stubborn man so I guess you didn’t lick your mulish ways up off the ground, but that’s no reason to let a respectable job slip away. There’s plenty out there who’d give their eye teeth to be in a position like yours.’
‘That maybe so,’ I told here while handing over the tool-shed keys. She looked at them as if I’d just offered her something unsavory and made no move to take them from me. With a sigh, I placed them on the sideboard beside her and left the vicarage without saying another word.

As I walked through the grounds, I cast a final glance around the place of worship I’d worked in for the past two years and swore I would never walk through the gates again. How could they do this to me? What on earth was written on those pages the Vicar waved in front of me that was so important for the committee to decide to let me go? As my anger swelled, I decided that no matter what, I would never ask. What was the point? They’d made up their minds without even talking to me. Was I so beneath them that they couldn’t even discuss with me what led up to it at all? By the look of things that was their way, and without a contract to fall back on I hadn’t a leg to stand on. Well, they can discuss and decide all they liked because as I said, I’d never walk through the gates of St Dominic’s again.

Still deep in thought I ambled off down to the sea front where I sat down on my usual bench overlooking the harbor. Before long, I felt a familiar wet nose nudging my hand. I looked down and there was Hank, Mr. Bloomfield’s black Labrador looking up at me with his soulful liquid brown eyes intently fixed on my own. Mr. Bloomfield was a bit of a mystery in the town—an accountant by trade and a rather reclusive one ever since his wife passed on six years back. Even though he liked to keep himself to himself, he often joined me for a chat, which I appreciated more times than not. As I patted Hank, Mr. Bloomfield sat down heavily beside me.

‘Goodness me John, its parky this evening,’ he said rubbing his hands briskly together.
I turned and looked at him as if he’d just said something I didn’t understand. Without noticing my bewildered expression, he picked up a stone by his foot and threw it into the distance for Hank to fetch. Hank looked at him (as normal) as if he’d lost it and stayed firmly planted by my feet. According to their breed profile, Labrador’s are supposed to be retrievers, but Hank couldn’t retrieve his own shadow if he was sitting on it, although Mr. Bloomfield never failed to encourage him. Oh well, each to their own and all that.

‘You know John, those darn moles have destroyed my lawn, yet again, ‘Mr. Bloomfield said testily, ‘I couldn’t believe it when I woke this morning and saw the damage they’d done, damn pests.’
‘Rhubarb,’ was all I managed to get out in reply.
‘Rhubarb…what a strange thing to say,’ Mr. Bloomfield replied and threw another stone for Hank, which of course, he ignored.
‘Put a small piece of rhubarb down the hole and they won’t come back while it’s relatively fresh,’ I told him and added in explanation, ‘they hate the smell of it. After a while they’ll get the message. It’s not instantaneous, but far better than poison.’

‘Is that so? Well, I never!’ Mr. Bloomfield replied in a surprised voice. ‘Moles hate the smell of rhubarb. I would never have thought…ah well, you know what they say, you learn a little every day.’
‘Yeah,’ was all I said. I’d just lost my job because I refused to learn how to read and write.
Yet another stone disappeared into the distance. ‘Tell me, John, do you have a poison free remedy for keeping slugs out of my herbaceous planters?’
‘Smear petroleum jelly on the outside of the pots and trail a thin line of salt at the base. That should do the trick,’ I told him and stood up to leave.
‘How clever, I must say you’re mine of information, I would never have thought of that either.’
‘A mine of useless information,’ I said under my breath.
‘What was that John? Didn’t quite catch what you said.’
‘Nothing Mr. Bloomfield. Nothing at all.’

I felt his eyes boring into me as I picked up my rucksack.
‘Is there something wrong John? You seem a bit down in the dumps. Are Angela and the baby doing well?’
‘Angela is fine, but if you call being fired from my job as something wrong, well then, yes, there is,’ I told him and sat down again, even more heavily than he’d done earlier. The gravity of my situation was finally hitting me. I was an out of work husband and father-to-be, and with the state of unemployment in the county rising so fast, the prospects of finding another job was bleak. I never paid much attention to the facts and figures before because I stupidly thought I was set up in a job for life. Just shows you, never take anything for granted.

‘You’ve been fired!’ Mr. Bloomfield boomed, incredulity oozing across each word.
‘That’s right, I’ve been let go,’ I told him miserably. Hank let out one of his soulful whines and nuzzled my leg.
‘What on earth for?’ Mr. Bloomfield asked in a way that said I was talking nonsense.
Before I knew it, the entire sorry tale spilled out.
‘That’s the most unfair reason I’ve ever heard! Really, the sooner this country gets its labor laws into gear the better.’
‘Labor laws, hmmm, as if they’d do me any good, even if they applied,’ I told him dolefully.
We sat in silence for a while until Mr. Bloomfield broke the hush between us and surprised me by saying, ‘Why don’t you start up your own gardening business. Go it alone, you’ve more than enough knowledge under your belt.’
‘Start up my own business,’ I repeated in a voice I hardly recognized as my own.
‘Yes John, times are changing. Many women are choosing other options than the traditional homemaker. They want careers of their own outside the home, which means there are plenty of gardens in need of a weekly or monthly freshen up, whatever the gardening term is.’
I looked at him as if he’d just told me I won first prize in an enormous raffle. I liked his idea. And then reality dawned. ‘But where would I get the start up money from, the little Angela and I have saved is needed for the baby?’
‘Do you own your house outright?’
‘Eh, yes, I do. My father left it to me when he passed on,’ I told him, not sure where he was going with this.

‘And do you or Angela have any outstanding debts?’
‘No, I…we don’t, thank God but—’
‘Well then, take out a bank loan using your property as collateral and bobs your uncle.’
‘I don’t think any lending institution would allow me to borrow money. Remember, I don’t have a job!’
‘No, you don’t have a job at the moment, that’s true, but you do have a decent house to borrow against, and with a sound business plan in place, no professional lending institution would refuse.’
‘Business plan—Mr. Bloomfield, I have no idea how to put a business plan together, I’m a gardener and an illiterate one at that, I’m not one of those finance whizz kids who—’
‘No, I agree, you’re not a financial whizz kid as you put it, but I am, and I’ll gladly put a financial strategy together for you.’
‘You’d do that?’
‘Of course, I would. That’s the easy part.’
‘And you think I could get a loan based on this plan?’
‘I honestly don’t see any reason why not. And I already know who your first client will be.’
‘My first client,’ those words slid off my tongue like dripping honey. ‘Who would that be?’
‘Mrs. Blake?’
‘Mrs. Blake…from the manor?’
‘The very same. I take care of her books, etcetera, and I know for a fact that Bengy, her present gardener is retiring next month…he’s just too old to carry on,’ he shifted his body into a more comfortable position, ‘Age catches up on us all at some stage or other.’
‘But that’s a full-time position and she’s meant to be a right demon to work for.’
‘I won’t deny that she can be a little difficult, but John, you won’t be working for her directly, you’ll be putting in one of your staff to take care of the lawns and flower beds. In truth, the entire garden only needs a strong pair of willing hands no more than two maybe three days a week. But the point I’m making is, she needs someone to take care of it and there’ll be plenty more like her.’
The more I thought about Mr. Bloomfield’s idea, the more I liked it. We chatted on until the mist rolled in from the sea, making the both of us shiver.

‘Lordy John, look at the time. We’ve been here for nearly two hours,’ Mr. Bloomfield said in a credulous tone, I must be off; my housekeeper will have a search party out for me. Hank, as if in agreement, started twirling around in circles, the most energetic thing I’d seen him do that day. ‘You go off home now and discuss all with Angela…we’ll meet up at my house tomorrow morning. Would ten o’ clock suit you?’
‘Ten will be fine,’ I replied eagerly, still hardly able to believe what the day had brought upon me.
When I reached home, Angela gave me what for about being late, but when I explained the reason, she just stared at me with her big blue-grey eyes, saying nothing at all.

‘What do you think?’ I asked for the second time while subconsciously holding my breath.
‘John Henderson, I think Mr. Bloomfield is a genius and it’ll be the making of you,’ she eventually replied in a clear unaffected tone.

‘You mean that? You really mean it? You’re not disappointed?’
‘Disappointed! How could I be disappointed? You’re a hard, honest worker and I know you’ll make a go of this…whether you can read or write doesn’t matter a hoot because flowers and shrubs require nurturing, not skillful writing techniques. And anyway, I’ll be there beside you to help in any way I can. Tell you what, let’s go down to Flanagan’s and have a drink to celebrate.’
And that’s exactly what we did. Mind you, when we got there the news of my dismissal had already reached the ears of some of the locals, no surprise there. However, we kept quiet about our plans, for the time being, that is. Angela firmly believes in not letting the right hand know what the left hand is up to, and I have to admit, she’s right.

That was twenty years ago and now I employ over one hundred and fifty staff in my six Organic Garden Centre’s and Garden Hire Services, and throughout the buildup of all, Mr. Bloomfield not only remained my dearest friend, he remained my trusted accountant.

But before I sign off, I have to tell you about a small incident that happened only last week, which really brought more than just a smile to my face. Mr. Bloomfield and I were in a meeting with Johnaton Peabody (my new and appallingly young bank manager, the type who thinks he knows it all). He looked up with an astonished look on his face when Mr. Bloomfield began to read aloud a document that required my signature.
I grinned at Mr. Bloomfield before I told the youngster that I could neither read nor write resourcefully and haven’t done since I was a young boy.

When Johnaton Peabody heard that, his eyes widened like a startled rabbit caught in headlights. ‘You mean you’ve amassed all this wealth and you’ve never learned to read or write…pro-properly?’
‘That’s correct,’ I told him, as straight-faced as I could.
‘Well blow me down,’ he replied quietly, and added rather bluntly, ‘imagine where you would be today if you’d the advantage of a suitable education.’
Mr. Bloomfield, quite used to this attitude remained quiet, but I thought the young man deserved a truthful answer, so I told him. ‘If I’d bothered to learn to read and write properly, I’d still be a groundsman.

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