Callaloo

 

At first only Edna saw her - the phantom woman with a mug in one hand and hatchet in the other.

The other allotment holders believed that she had been hallucinating through lack of sleep. She was always getting up too early in the morning to check on her precious sweet peas and lettuces in the hope of catching the culprits that had been attacking them.

But then Bob and Daphne saw the same woman one evening while watering the runner beans, which had cropped so well that year they had been determined to grow extra for the freezer. None of the other allotment holders had been about. Most of them were either in the pub or at home in front of the TV with their cocoa. Some of them were older than the allotments which had been allocated by the local authority over 70 years ago and, apart from two latter day hippies in their early 20s, Bob and Daphne were the youngest. They knew they hadn't been hallucinating when this ghostly figure made her way through Newton's plot filled with callaloo. She was heading towards the second-hand garden shed he had recently put up to accommodate his tools and battered old armchair. As they weren't cabbage lovers, Bob and Daphne had been tempted to grow callaloo as well, but it would have taken up the room needed for their onions, courgettes, soft fruit and - most of all - runner beans.

As soon as Newton had purchased his shed on eBay, collected it in his battered old truck and assembled it with the help of several other allotment holders, he began to have misgivings about the purchase. He had never been able to say why, but felt that there was something sinister about it. Everyone dismissed this as another of his empathetic foibles. Newton used pine cones to forecast the weather, predict the future by watching the clouds, and drank redbush mixed with rum through a straw. And he was still pretty sharp for his age, never known to hallucinate.

Bob and Daphne decided not to mention the ghostly woman with a hatchet until somebody else saw the apparition.

The next evening was the allotment's monthly get-together around Norman's barbecue when everybody brought the pick of their root vegetables, courgettes and maize to be roasted.

This time the phantom's appearance couldn't even be put down to alcohol as most of them had to drive home.

Edna was the first to be aware of her presence. Then everyone else saw her, mug in one hand and hatchet in the other.

Norman was turning the parsnips and corn on the cob. He dropped the tongs into the barbecue embers with a clatter that sent up a shower of sparks.

The phantom moved purposefully, coming closer.

Everyone backed away.

Edna would have fainted, but the others were so fixated on the apparition there was no one to catch her.

There was a collective gasp of relief as the woman with the hatchet veered off towards Newton's shed.

Newton automatically followed her despite warnings from the others who chased after him at a safe distance.

This time the phantom entered his shed as though encouraged to put on a show now there was an audience. But there would be no awards for this performance. The onlookers watched in horror as she sent the hatchet crashing down onto the shadow of a man inside. Then they both faded from sight.

Eventually Newton broke the silence. 'Used to be a worktop there. I didn't put it back. I needed more space.'

'Yeah, I remember,' said Norman automatically. 'Good kindling, that was.'

Esmeralda, the hippie's, observation was more to the point. 'Who do you think she was attacking?'

That had crossed everyone else's mind, though no one else wanted to think about it - apart from Bob.

'Yes, she was definitely chopping someone up.'

Newton felt his knees buckle. 'Oh god ... I need a stiff drink.'

Norman lent a supporting arm. 'Come and have a swig of my peach brandy. I'll make sure you get home all right.'

The allotment holders lost any appetite for the vegetables now smouldering on the barbecue, and the next day there was a meeting of the allotment committee. They decided that Newton's shed had to go. It was agreed that everyone should chip in and buy him a replacement so the old one could be put on one of Norman's bonfires. But Bob and Daphne wanted to return it to the seller's address: that was the only hope they had of discovering who the phantom with the hatchet might have been. It was then that Newton confessed to discovering an old diary in the false bottom of the workbench draw that Norman had burnt.

The pages were handwritten and sometimes illegible. What could be read revealed that the writer had an obsession about being slowly poisoned. His doctor had insisted that he was imagining it all, pointing out that his wife was a generous, devoted woman unlikely to be spiking his meals with anything toxic. Why on earth would she do something like that when they had four children and another on the way? The family depended on his income and were unlikely to kill him, if only for that reason. So he apparently gave up and persuaded himself that he had been imagining it all.

The allotment committee agreed that the only way to get to the bottom of the matter was with a diplomatic visit to the seller by Newton, accompanied by Bob and Daphne, though they remained adamant that the haunted shed had to go on the bonfire.

 

The Cleminsons owned a smallholding on the outskirts of a neighbouring village. They had originally intended to burn the shed with all the other unused fixtures and fittings being cleared from the outhouses, but it belonged to their father and they couldn't face the thought of it not being put to some use.

When he arrived, Laura Cleminson recognised Newton immediately and invited him, Bob and Daphne in without question. She assumed their visit had something to do with a refund of the 30 he had paid for the shed, which she would have happily handed over had there been any problems.

Bob assured her that they had only come to see if there was any other garden equipment he could give a home to on his allotment.

Laura showed them to the outhouse where the old implements were stored. They had been in the family for ages, but were not old enough to offer to a museum. None of her brothers had been interested in carrying on the market garden. They had settled jobs in offices and were happy to hand it over to their youngest sister, Laura, who was building up her nursery of herbs.

Bob and Daphne discovered several free standing metal frames for climbing plants, ideal in their quest for the perfect runner bean, and paid Laura 20 for them.

Over mugs of tea, the young woman explained that life had been hard, even before their father left without warning. So her hard-working mother brought up the children to understand that everything came with a price. While the sons chose university, Laura followed in her mother's footsteps, transforming the market garden into a nursery supplying herbs and exotic vegetables to restaurants. She was enthusiastic about Newton's crop of callaloo. Before long they were sharing growing tips and the real reason for the visit no longer seem that important. Learning that Laura's father had mysteriously disappeared was enough. There would have been no point in telling the woman that they had seen the ghost of her mother wielding a hatchet inside the old shed she had lovingly disposed of.

Then, without warning, Newton's empathic genie persuaded him to lay his hand on the back of Laura's. 'Your father didn't run out on you and your brothers, you know. He really loved you and had every intention of coming back. But something happened to prevent him - you know that, don't you?'

Laura looked at him in surprise for a moment, and then smiled. 'I'm sure that's what happened. Mother always insisted that he was useless and she shouldn't have married him, but we believed that was her way of dealing with his disappearance. She wouldn't go to the police to report him missing for some reason. We assumed it was because he had become involved in something she didn't want them to know about. After she died we tried to find out more, but there was no paper trail or records to follow. It was as though he had never existed. We knew we would never find out what happened to him, so gave up trying.'

'That's the best way,' Newton reassured her. 'Sometimes you have to accept that there are things you will never know. It happens to all of us.'

Laura nodded gratefully for having someone understand a conundrum that had haunted her for years.

'I'm afraid Newton's shed has woodworm,' Daphne announced without warning. 'He wasn't going to tell you, but we will need to burn it before it infects everything else in the allotments.'

'That's all right,' said Laura, 'We had the feeling that something about it wasn't right. We should have checked more thoroughly. 'I'm sorry you went to all the bother of re-erecting it only to find that out. The most I can do is refund the money.'

She added 10 to Bob and Daphne's 20 and offered it to Newton.

He refused to accept the money. 'No girl, you keep it. But I would like to take away a couple of your herbs.'

'You sure?'

'I'm quite sure.'

'Come into the nursery and look around. You won't believe the range we've built up. The land here is still very fertile, and we've managed to bring on varieties that have failed in other nurseries. In fact, the only plot we can't seem to grow anything on is down by the old duck pond. So we've just left it to the nettles and the butterflies; a sort of wildlife haven where the hedgehogs can make their nests. Odd that, wild flowers love the place, but plant anything else there and it just withers away.'