Tom brought a branch of bayleaves up which he felt needed sparing from the bonfire, did I want it for the kitchen? I like the flavour of bay, one of the first things I learned to cook after I'd left home was a very simple potato soup, from Diet for a Small Planet I think, and the bayleaf was the making of it. The smell of the leaves reminds me of a family holiday we took at an old house somewhere in mid-Wales called Gwynfryn, it was just before my siblings embarked on their first wave of emigration, so I was six. There were gardens with lawns and tall bay hedges, and a sheepdog called Fly. My sister Alison took the varnish off one of the dressing tables with nail-polish remover, my other sister was pregnant and cried when our sister-in-law got cross with her little boy, our nephew. He and I shared a bath and some rude words. We were happy and sad. For the rest of her life I could crush a bay leaf in my hand and hold it out to my mum and one of us would say 'Gwynfryn'. Some of these memories may be slightly muddled but all of them are real.
The hedge man said he had a brother living in the country near us somewhere. I questioned that he didn't know quite where. He said he had fallen out with his family fifteen years or so ago. I made the conventional noises about these things happen, sometimes it's easier to get on with some family members than others...
It was about his children, he said. He and his wife adopted two Vietnamese children as babies, a girl and a boy. I met his daughter, who is now seventeen, briefly once when she was working with him next door, perhaps a year ago. She's beautiful, and so bright and open and grown-up, and clearly had such a good co-operative relationship with him, that I thought briefly that she was older than that and might be his younger wife, before I understood she was his daughter. He speaks of her with great admiration, for her drive and hard-work and ambition, and it amuses him that the famous King Charles spaniel sleeps on her bed. His son he speaks of with a more rueful but equally genuine love and affection.
But when they told his parents about the adoption plans, which presumably came about because they couldn't have children of their own, and showed them a photo of their future baby daughter, the naked, cruel racism of both of their reactions was shocking, and much of it unrepeatable. His father said he would be ashamed to be seen holding the hand of such a child. His brothers were less offensive but gave them no support. A couple of years ago he did attend the christening of one of his brother's children, with his now-teenage daughter, the first time anyone in the family had seen her. His brother commented, quite seriously, on how well she spoke French.
When his father died a few years ago, other family members exhorted him to build bridges, make an effort, resume relations with his mother and the rest of the family. No, he said, it's too late, finished; they made no efforts for him, and why risk being hurt again and hurting his children too?
When they go on holiday, they leave the King Charles spaniel with his wife's mother. Do they get on all right, I ask, the dog and the mother-in-law? Oh yes, he said, she's a good mother-in-law.
He left earlier today to take his son to ping-pong and his daughter to her driving lesson. He puts in a fairly short day but works non-stop, his armoury of machinery is formidable and nothing is too hard for him, he's a hard man. He's working elsewhere tomorrow, so we can at least have a bit of a lie-in and a day without the whirr of the hedge-trimmer.