For six weeks, now, Daniel has been keeping a close eye on them, from behind the curtain at the back room window. Several times a day he has come to check on them, to see what they are doing and how much they are advancing.
There are four of them. They arrive every day at eight and have tea in plastic cups and sandwiches at ten, and then chicken and chips or some other kind of junk food at twelve, until they have tea again at three and leave at five. Then there are the bosses. Father and son, he believes, who turn up every now and then and walk around with their hands behind their backs as if they’re policemen at a crime scene, here to examine incredibly important evidence before turning on their heels and leaving. Irish and Poles mostly, apart from the loud cockney who swears incessantly.
Since that day, a month ago, when one of the bosses came to the door with the new neighbours who, they told him, are renovating the entire property, he has been extra vigilant; like a bird watching over her young in the nest, alert for predators. And now that the electric hammer has been delivered to break down the wall he knows that he needs to be ready.
His legs shake when they turn the key and the monster of a machine makes such a noise that it must be heard all the way over in the park. The blades of grass, wet from this morning’s short downpour, shiver at his feet. The grass is too long; he has let it grow too long. He should have cut it that morning when it hadn’t rained and he considered it but didn’t get the lawnmower out. Since then there hasn’t been a dry spell long enough for him to organise himself.
The garden is big. It always was but now it feels too big to manage.
Rooted to the spot, he looks at the wall that can’t be seen for the bramble and bushes and roses. He breathes them in for a second and then he runs over to the high wall that belongs to the new neighbours, hugs it as if it were a tree; arms spread, hands clutching at the rose thorns, legs wide apart and toes hitting the branches through the cap of his boots that he bought especially.
He is ready. He is as ready as he will ever be. So he shouts it out. He lets them all know that he is there and he is ready and he is not going anywhere. He pushes his face into the roses, not caring that the thorns prick his skin and make his eyes water. A greenfly tickles his forehead, but he doesn’t move. The sweetness of the roses fills his nostrils and his chest until it is full and he is energised.
‘I’m ready!’ He shouts so loud his voice breaks.
Sweat has broken out on his back and wets his shirt, and he feels young again, like when he used to go running around the park for forty minutes non-stop.
His skin is no longer taut or tanned, and he doesn’t do anything to make him sweat like that anymore. But now it is back, and he can feel it as much as the prick of the thorns that have already cut through his shirt and the cushions of his fingers and thumbs.
‘Do it! Do it!’ He screams.
‘Mister Sanders,’ a voice calls over the wall.
Daniel can’t see the mouth it comes from or the eyes it belongs to or the expression on the face behind it but he knows who it is. It is the Irish man who is tall and older than he is, the one who leads the team of labourers next door that he has been watching for weeks.
The throat belonging to the voice belonging to the tall Irish man coughs to clear itself. Daniel knows all this because he has been listening closely to this voice, heard several times how it clears itself in preparation as he gives friendly but firm orders to the men.
‘Mister Sanders,’ the voice says, calm, loud, ‘We’re going to start at the bottom of the garden and work our way up.’
Daniel springs back and runs to the end of the garden where he throws himself against the wall and positions himself once again. ‘I’m at the end of the garden holding the wall,’ he shouts out loud even though it hurts his throat.
Voices confer, but the drone of the machine fills the air so that he can’t make out the words.
Although there are clouds overhead the air is hot and sticky and his shirt clings to his body as much as he clings to the wall and he feels as resilient as the weeds growing through the shrubbery that he kills every year but that sprout up, over and over again.
At the beginning he thought they were plants and fed and watered them as he did the rest, until one day Margaret caught him and laughed out loud, with that pink dress with flowers on that she always wore for the garden, calling him a silly sod and telling him that they were weeds and she’d been wondering why they grew back quite so quickly. They had laughed together out on the patio and after breakfast she had shown him the difference between the leaves of weeds and the leaves of plants, and they had dug up the weeds together, one by one by one.
But the weeds never died. He half-heartedly sprayed weed killer on them, but looked forward to their yellow heads poking through again, knowing it would be sooner rather than later.
The machine that he can hear but not see rings through his ears and vibrates his body from the feet upwards. He stands strong, counting the seconds.
The voice belonging to the tall Irish man clears itself again, preparing to bounce over the height of the wall and the drone of the machine. ‘Mister Sanders, can you please step away from the wall.’
‘No!’ He is ready and he is not going anywhere but they don’t seem to have heard him so he tells them again, pointing his head up to the sky and shouting with all his energy.
The machine is brought closer, so close that Daniel could probably touch it, if it weren’t for the wall, and it is like the beginning of an earthquake that will break everything.
He wonders which one is going to hammer the wall down. When the piece of machinery arrived he watched them take turns to swing it around in the air, as if they were at a funfair preparing to hit a target. He had played that hammer game himself at the funfair in Hampstead Heath, where they would take the children every summer. The gold fish always died within a week or two, and then the eternal debate of getting a dog would begin.
He clings to the roses and the thorns break his skin all over and he knows the blood is already flowing but by god, this is nothing. How it will flow. He can feel through the top of his boots that he bought especially for today, and the tips of his fingers, that the machine held by one of the Poles is coming for him. Him and the wall and the roses that have clung to the wall and grown up and around it and bloomed upon it for forty years.
They are coming to tear them all apart so that his sweat and blood mix with the honey-sweet redness of the roses and soak the rubble of the wall.
Someone shouts but Daniel can’t hear the words: his eyes are squeezed shut and when his eyes are closed for some reason he can never hear as clearly. It was something that always got on Margaret’s nerves.
It’s his name. Mister Sanders; there it is again. ‘I’m coming over.’
A shard of sunlight breaks through the clouds and forces his eyes to wrinkle shut while he waits to see the tall Irish man appear over the wall. Instead the doorbell rings like a church bell and he is momentarily amazed at the power of the sound. But the vibrations make him feel as sick as he did when they would drive through the Alps in the summer holidays when the children were little.
Margaret loved going to France. They had a house there and would go several times a year. They would relax, and the children would play outside and in the pool and Margaret would turn a golden brown colour all over, and he would burn, and they would drink too much wine and enjoy the long evenings. Friends would come sometimes, and they would take the long table out onto the patio and have to put lots of repellent on because of the mosquitoes. But he sold the house. After she died there was no point in going there anymore, and then the eldest moved to Argentina, and the youngest to Edinburgh, so they were barely in London never mind able to go to the old holiday home in France.
‘I’m not going anywhere!’ He shouts over the noise and the doorbell and the shouting. ‘You’re going to knock it down when I’m gone.’
The machine chugs dead and the ground stills.
‘We won’t do anything,’ says another voice, the older of the bosses, Daniel would say.
He waits. The sweat tickles his face on its way down. He takes a step backwards on wobbly legs, turns and stains the carpet with the mud from his boots on the way to the front door.
The Irish man looks different close up. He is indeed tall, made taller by the orange helmet, and is perhaps older than Daniel originally thought. But he is strong and smiling and not unpleasant looking. ‘Hello,’ he smiles, one appropriate to the situation, Daniel thinks, although he cannot muster one himself. He nods. In other circumstances he would invite the man in, offer him a cup of tea.
‘Mister Sanders, we just have to take down this wall so that we can construct a new one. I’ve brought the drawings for you to have another look.’
Daniel wipes his forehead with the back of his hand. ‘What’s your name?’
‘I’m Vincent,’ he removes his helmet and runs a hand over his hair.
‘Vincent. You see, that wall was there when I moved to this house forty years ago. I have had my life in this house, and my wife too. She’s gone now, and the roses on the wall are all I have left.’ Tears come and Daniel brushes them away. His eyes sting with the sweat and the blood that he has wiped into them.
Vincent pulls a tissue from his pocket.
Daniel takes it and dabs his eyes and face. ‘I know this is nothing to do with you,’ he smiles; rubs his eyes with the tissue, then his nose and neck.
Vincent nods. ‘Daniel, I’ll see what we can do.’
He wonders if this is a trick.‘You will?’
‘I will. Now go and have a bath. I can assure you we won’t touch the wall today.’
This is the first time Daniel has come face to face with this man, but he has been watching him from the back window behind the curtain for weeks. He has seen how he speaks to the men, how he explains to the Poles with his arms and tools and slow, patient words what they should do next. So Daniel knows the look in the Irish man’s eye is sincere, and he would shake his hand but his own is trembling too violently. ‘Thank you.’ He nods instead, and watches him walk away down the path and out the gate.
It is when Vincent is on the parallel footpath that Daniel feels the ripple through the ground and hears the roar of thunder. He hears Vincent shout out in anger, and watches him bolt forwards, running on surprisingly nimble feet to try and stop them.
‘It’s too late,’ Daniel would say to him if he wasn’t falling to his knees.
The Irish man disappears through the neighbour’s door as the ground shakes and the air is filled with dust and earth and the blood-red roses, and the wall tumbles down.