Thursday, 11 January 2018
'Alright then,' Gus boomed out in the early morning chill. 'John Wilkis, Red Leader.' The man stepped forward and got a red cap and a radio. 'Red Team is in charge of planting. With Red Team goes Sam Watkins, Liz DeHein and Steve Smith. There'll be more later John, put 'em where you need 'em. Red Team out. Shawn Stein, Blue Leader...'
Barkus watched as the 30-odd adults split off into 5 teams and set to work. He had to admit it, Gus had a knack for leading people. He studiously avoided eye contact with Big Bubba who returned the favour, but almost all of the Boys were here despite, or perhaps because of his outburst. Assignments given, Gus walked to where Barkus was standing aside from the crowd. He was fine with the execution being Gus's parade, he preferred it that way in fact. Now a clipboard festooned with coloured tape and markers and maps and lists was carried in one hand and, Barkus noticed, there was an extra bit of spring in the man's step and an extra glint in his eye.
'Where's Sheryl?' Gus asked, a radio dangling from around his neck. 'I want her around in case people start getting creative without understanding the whys and hows.'
'I think she's in the Café with Lynn,' Barkus told him. 'She seems quite nervous, today is a big day for her.'
'Yes, but she needs to be out here.' Gus looked at his watch. 'I'll go get her, want a coffee on the way back?'
It was in fact 15 minutes and 7 new volunteers later that Gus returned with Sheryl. She still looked nervous but had a determined edge that reminded Barkus of when he first met her.
'Oh, that's not right,' she cried. Gus caught her arm before she shot off.
'What's not right?' he asked calmly. Sheryl motioned to where a group had left their supplies for constructing a cluster of raised beds.
'If they leave those there then everyone has to take a detour because the direct lines, which will eventually be the main paths, are blocked. But if they move it to the other side, then they can still reach everything easily and they're not blocking the way.' Gus digested this, then nodded.
'Alright, let's go tell them.' He smiled at her. 'But I'll do the talking, alright?'
'Fine by me.'
Barkus looked around as someone called his name. A dark-haired man was standing beside a large box truck with a clipboard. As Barkus hurried over, he registered the logo of the local tree nursery on the side of the truck.
“John Barkus?” the man said, holding out a hand. “Richard Smith, got an order of broad-leaves here for you.”
“I wasn’t expecting you today,” Barkus admitted, taking the proffered clipboard and scanning his eye down it.
“I wasn't really expecting to come out today either, but we got the phone call yesterday evening and, lo and behold, there was a gap in our shipping schedule so we packed 'em in this morning.” Smith was saying as Barkus inspected each tree. He nodded, signed the paperwork and helped Smith lift each one down carefully then waved the man off, before thinking to ask who called them.
After that, it was a case of tapdancing on avalanches. Refreshments arrived and were distributed to the teams. New volunteers kept on coming, soon people were standing around because while there was plenty to be done, there were also enough hands to do it.
Barkus saw Annie walk towards him, eyes scanning the crowd that was at once busy and bored.
'Annie!' he called. She waved and headed towards him.
'Looks like you got more than 20 then?'
'Yes, but there's not enough for them to do right now.' Annie raised an eyebrow.
'I thought you wanted 30 people?'
'We have 48 plus the teens and, yes, there's another 5 walking over. I guess the word got around.'
Annie nodded and sipped at her coffee with a smile. Her eyes roamed the Square, picking out who was working and who was looking for work and who was standing around, arms folded.
'Alright,' she said at last. 'Lets see what can be done with all these idle hands.'
After about half an hour, Barkus noticed a change in the pattern. Now instead of gathering in the Square and staring at the work being done, groups of jobless volunteers were gathering at the edges and staring at the building facades. A few shops were already hives of activity, with people washing windows, scrubbing walls and cornices and even removing signs for fresh paint jobs. Some industrious teens and kids appeared to be negotiating a charge for scrubbing the sidewalks. As more people worked on the shop fronts, some were going from shop to shop with lists of paper. They jumped into a truck and eventually returned, overflowing with paints and other supplies. A woman Barkus knew to be a local florist walked from shop to shop with a list of her own and an increasingly-widening grin. Annie appeared next to Barkus with a smug kind of smile.
'Thanks for that,' Barkus said. 'Now we have room to work.' Indeed, without people standing around, it seemed like the teams were were making much better time. He watched as Sheryl and Gus wandered throughout the Square, checking on the progress of each team.
'It looks like we'll be within deadline.' Barkus commented before he saw a battered green truck reverse into a reserved spot at the top of the Square. 'Who's that?'
'Mrs. Cleary,' came the reply.
'It's not lunch time already.' Belatedly, his stomach told him how long it was since breakfast.
'Oh yes it is,' Annie laughed. 'Come on.'
Shouts increased as Team Leaders yelled their teams back into line as Mrs. Cleary, assisted by women that seemed to appear out of nowhere, swiftly set up tables and a production line-style buffett.
'When the Team Leaders hear the bell, they bring their teams and they're fed first,' Barkus heard Mrs. Cleary tell a hopeful attendant. 'And they're fed first Mr. Adams because they showed up first. You think I haven't been keeping an eye on the goings-on? Wait your turn, Ms. Watkins, you only rolled out of bed an hour ago and don't you try to lie to me girl, you were never any good at it.' She glanced up as Barkus and Annie arrived, still arranging bowls and and plates to maximum effeciency. 'Mr. Barkus and Mrs. DeHein. Ah, Ms. Monroe and Mr. Mantic.' Barkus turned to see Gus and Sheryl hurry up behind them. 'I daresay we're ready for you to ring the bell for the teams Mr. Mantic, ' Mrs. Cleary added after glancing down the table. She motioned to a brass bell and, grinning, Gus obliged. Faster than Barkus thought possible, every team member was in an orderly line, with the new arrivals tagging onto the end of the line morosely.
'So how come you're at the top of the line Annie? Barkus joked. 'You only got here 2 hours ago.'
'I was peeling potatoes at 6am, that's why,' came the smart reply.
'She's a handy lady around a pot of potatoes, is Mrs. DeHein,' Mrs. Cleary said, handing them a plate each. 'No more than one spoon from each bowl please, there's plenty of food but there's plenty of mouths too. Napkins, knives and forks are at the end.'
Barkus looked along the the groaning table and his jaw dropped. The line of women behind the tables grinned at his shock.
'Told you Mrs. Cleary runs a mean buffett table,' Annie laughed and poked him in the back. 'Come on, don't hold up the line, I want some of that Chicken Tikka.'
In the end, Barkus took half a spoon from each bowl he fancied until his plate was overflowing, then walked along three quarters of the line until he reached the napkins and cutlery.
'How long did all of this take?' he asked the woman standing there.
'I have no idea,' she laughed. 'Maybe 5 hours for each of us at the outside? Mrs. Cleary is a good organiser and she makes it fun.' The woman beamed. 'I've got some great new recipes for dinner now too.'
Barkus pondered this as he walked to the HQ table.
What makes the difference? he wondered. Is it the town? The leaders? The fact that everyone here is doing meaningful work? Or is it a mix of all three?
'How is the progress going?' he asked as Gus sat down.
'We're ahead of schedule,' he said. 'All these extra hands mean the planting is half-done, including the trees. The trashcans and benches are all in place. Gazebo's painted, pathstones are due to start going in this afternoon and the drains are so clean you could eat your dinner out of them.' He looked down at his plate. 'Not this dinner though, it's way too good for that.' He picked up a forkful of potato salad and put it in his mouth.
'So what's for after lunch?' Gus held up a hand, closed his eyes, and chewed. Barkus grinned and ate some spiced chicken. Gus eventually swallowed with a contented sigh.
'You don't talk through a mouthful of Mrs. Cleary's potato salad,' he said, by way of explaination. 'We're finishing planting and mulching, and starting the pathways, signposts and lighting.'
'They'll take till the end of tomorrow to finish up properly,' Sheryl said, dropping a plate beside Gus. She said it like it was a problem instead of more than a day ahead of the advanced finish time. Barkus stared at both of them.
'You know,' he said slowly. 'I don't want this to sound bad or anything, but the only time I've ever heard of a finish time like that, is when something vitally significant has been left out.'
'Yes, but you dont usually get over half again your maximum workforce, do you?' Gus said without rancour. 'Not everyone here is a trained craftsman but don't forget that most people have been maintaining and renewing their own properties and gardens for years.' He passed the clipboard over to Barkus who ran an experienced eye down the detailed check-list, every box for 2 pages now had a definite tick.
'Wow,' he said in reply.
'And I see you got the surplus working too Annie,' Gus commented, accepting the clipboard again.
'Well, I just reminded them how fresh and new the Square was going to look and then started staring meaningfully at the shop fronts. They got it eventually.'
By now, there was only a small line at the buffett table and people were spread out everywhere, enjoying their meals.
'Things are looking good here Barkus,' came a voice. Barkus turned to see the Sherrif and Deputy George walking towards them.
'Thanks to Gus and Sheryl, and Mrs. Cleary of course,' Barkus told him.
'Indeed.' Again, Barkus got the feeling that the Sherrif was trying to read his mind.
'I think the bell for seconds is going to ring in a minute Sherrif,' Gus told him, scraping up the last of his meal. 'If you want to get anything to eat, you had better get ahead of the stampede.'
Both officers turned and looked towards the buffett table speculatively. 'I don't think Mrs. Cleary will object to you guys taking a plateful, especially after you recovered all her patio furniture last month.'
'She made her potato salad?' the Sherrif asked.
'She assured me that she kept a full bowl back for the second round,' Gus told him and sure enough, Mrs. Cleary was pulling a large bowl out of a cooler from underneath the table. There was a rush of air and suddenly the uniforms were lining up and currying up to Mrs. Cleary and her ladies. Their efforts were rewarded by Mrs. Cleary herself putting a heaping spoon of her potato salad on their plates, eliciting jealous looks from every circumspect watcher. Barkus debated going up again, but the realisation that his belt was now two holes too tight decided the matter. He sat back and watched instead as Mrs. Cleary made a final joke with Deputy George and rang the bell for seconds. What resulted was the quietest, most discreet and yet most vicious scrum he had ever seen as everyone stampeded in then elbowed and shouldered, toe-trod and tripped, to be the first in line and therefore claim a spoonful of the legendary potato salad. He laughed out loud as Mrs. Cleary's gaze scythed over and everyone froze and put on angelic expressions.
'Look, look,' Annie said quietly with a devillish tone. 'Peter Smith is going to fall over.'
'Is he the one trying to trip three people at once?''
'Yep, but I think it's more to do with the fact that John Smith is grinding on his toe with his heel. Oh no, Clarice DeHein has ducked under four sets of elbows and is sneaking up the left flank. There are benefits to being short, you see?'
'Yes, but she's going to, yes she's blocked by the check shirt. Wait, how did she manage that?'
'Joe fractured that rib last year.'
'That's a bit mean.'
'All's fair in pursuing love, war and Mrs. Cleary's potato salad,' Annie replied. 'Oh but she's being cut off by her neice who obviously learned a lot from her favourite auntie.'
'Is that the red-head in plaits?'
Soon, the whistle blew and lunch was over. People started gathering up their trash and joking about christening the trashcans. Barkus stretched and started to walk around the Square. He passed Jeff T. Cleary with a wave and a smile, shared a wink with Slim who was talking to Big Bubba and stopped dead as a certain smell grabbed him by the throat.
His eyes fell on a group of potted roses that were standing by the gazebo, waiting to be planted. There were three people preparing to start digging the holes for them, but he only had eyes for the flowers.
'It can't be,' he breathed.
'Beautiful, arent they?' a woman ambled up, wiping her hands on a cloth hanging from her belt. 'I'm Gerri Smith, we've never been formally introduced. I run the nursery, just brought these over during lunch.' Barkus shook her hand, but only had eyes for the roses. She followed his gaze. 'They really are something else, arent they? Got the mother about 3 years ago from a friend. Best rose I had the pleasure to grow.'
'Who did you get it from?' Barkus asked in a strange voice. She looked at him with her head on one side.
'Big blue house? On the corner of Connaught and Short street?' She blinked in surprise.
'That's right.' She looked from him to the roses, and back to him. 'So you are him then. The kid who saved his rose from the burn pile.'
'From the compost actually,' Barkus corrected absently. He hunkered down and fingered the glossy leaves, breathed in the perfume. He read the hand-written label “The Barkus Rose, Climber, Red, Hardy,” and smiled. 'Mama always said that “More thorns than the road to Hell” should appear on the warning label,' he said, straightening up. Gerri smiled.
'After a while you learn to treat 'em with respect,' she replied airily. She paused. 'You know, some folks would pass comment on my charging you when you know that I only got the original because of you. And of course, you also now know that I got it for free.'
Barkus shook his head, partly to answer her, partly to clear his head of the memories that came crowding in with the smell.
'You might,' he had to pause to clear his throat. 'You might have gotten a cutting for free, but you had to turn that into a healthy mother to get offspring looking like that.' He nodded to the 5 potted roses between them. 'You're entitled to a certain price.' Then he grinned disarmingly. 'But I will be checking the dockets, so don't get cheeky.'
Gerri laughed and held up a hand. 'Scout's honour, only a fair price.' Her face turned solemn. 'Jo told me what happened, to your family. I'm really...'
Barkus abruptly turned away.
'Well, nice to meet you at last Gerri, keep up the good work.' He walked away as nonchalantly as he could manage. Gerri smiled sadly and called out;
'You too!' before bending back to her work, the smell of roses filling the air.
The rest of the day passed in a whirl for Barkus. Teams hustled to and fro, wheelbarrows whizzed by as a sense of competition filled the air. By the time dusk fell and the final whistle rang, everyone was tired but exuberant. Parents carried or walked their worn-out children to bed, while teens stood around with the adults, eyes shining as they took in all that they had achieved. People pointed, told stories, recounted tales of almost disaster, laughter filling the air. As the stars came out and the street lights came on, the group dispersed, calling out goodbyes and reminders about the morning till only Sheryl, Gus and Barkus remained.
'I can't believe it,' Sheryl kept repeating. 'Even though I'm looking at it, I still can't believe it.'
'Well you just wait till the rota for the leaf-racking comes up,' Gus chuckled.
'Oh, I'm holding workshops for that.' At their quizzical looks, she went on; 'Did you know that you can grow potatoes in semi-rotted leaves? And build raised bed gardens?' She beamed.
'My goodness,' Barkus joked. 'What have we unleashed here Gus?'
'I dont think anyone suspected,' Gus agreed solemly. He grinned suddenly. 'Except me of course.'
Sheryl laughed happily, 'And I'm very glad you did. But now,' her words were cut off by an involuntary yawn. 'I'm ready for my bed. Good night gents, see you in the morning.'
'Sleep tight.' With a wave, she was walking away, clearly floating on air despite her tiredness.
'Heard the Opening Party Committee are calling around tomorrow afternoon,' Gus said after a few moments of comfortable silence.
'Mmm? Oh, yes. About 2 o' clock I think.' Barkus yawned and nearly swallowed a bug. 'Ugh,' he washed his mouth out with the last bit of water in his bottle. 'I think they want to hold the party next Saturday.' Gus nodded and finished up his water bottle.
'They want to catch the enthusiasm I guess.' They stood in silence and watched the Square.
'The birds aren't going to know what to do,' Barkus remarked quietly.
'There's going to be a lot more singing going on, that's for sure,' Gus agreed. He turned to Barkus. 'Fancy a beer?'