Tim Dowling: it’s dark and wet – an ideal time for a spot of garden handiwork

I trip over a bird feeder lying in the blackness. And as soon as I regain my balance, I step on a rake

Winter descends like a curtain: a day arrives when the sun never crests the roofline of the house, leaving the back garden – and my office shed – in shadow. That same afternoon, clouds appear and a stiff wind drives the remaining leaves from the cherry tree, affording me an uninterrupted view of a heavy, boiled-wool sky. Then it gets dark.

Heading back toward the kitchen at the end of the day, I trip over a bird feeder lying on its side in the blackness. Almost as soon as I regain my balance, I step on a rake. It’s not as bad as it could be – the rake is leaning against the house, so the handle only has a short way to travel before it hits me in the head – but when I look up I see that neither of our outdoor lights is working. Somebody, I think, rubbing my left temple, is going to get hurt.

The next morning I’m woken by the front door slamming shut – my wife is off somewhere on business, gone before sunrise.

I come downstairs in time to see the tortoise upend the cat’s bowl, and then eat the few nuggets of cat food that spill out. All the animals in the house love cat food, except the cat, who prefers dog food. The tortoise pushes the bowl aside and starts clawing at the back door.

“It’s winter,” I say. The tortoise keeps clawing.

“Fine,” I say. I open the door and set him on the damp grass. The next time I look, after making coffee, he is gone.

After lunch the sun comes out briefly. When I look across the garden and see the rake still leaning against the house, I decide this would be a good time to replace the bulbs in both outdoor lights. But I’m distracted by an email that needs answering, and by the time I get the ladder out the sun has set. I will have to work fast.

The lights, mounted on the back wall either side of the garden door, are simple bulkhead lamps with frosted glass covers protected by metal cages. By the time I have unscrewed the cage of the first one, tiny raindrops have begun to land on my glasses.

I climb down the ladder, leave the lamp cover on the kitchen table and return to the ladder with a fresh lightbulb. As I screw it in, the wind picks up and it begins to rain harder. I go back into the kitchen to flip the switch. Nothing happens. I climb the ladder and wiggle the bulb: nothing.

I address the problem logically: if I use the same bulb in the other light and it works, then I will know the problem is with the first fitting. The rain turns heavy. It’s no longer a good time for this chore, but I’m already under way.

I reposition the ladder, climb up to the second light, and remove the metal and glass cover. I replace the bulb with the new one from my pocket. As I give it a final turn, the bulb lights up.

“A-ha!” I say, at the exact moment a gust of wind catches the open garden door, swinging it round until it hits the other, still uncaged light fitting, crunching its exposed insides to bits.

I score the effort as a draw: one light repaired, one completely destroyed. Still, I think to myself. How much easier it would have been to just move the rake.

An hour later I am back in my office when I see my wife in the kitchen, home early. As I cross the garden I trip over the bird feeder in the dark. Looking up I notice that the light I replaced is already out.

“I’ve had the most appalling drive,” my wife says as I open the door.

“Did you turn that light out, or did it go out by itself?” I say. My wife looks at me.

“What light?” she says.

“I replaced the bulb, like, an hour ago,” I say.

“Hello, back so soon? How was your day?” my wife says – her impersonation of a less unattractive version of me. I flip the light switch, and look out the window.

“There!” I say. “It went on, which proves you turned it off.”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about,” she says.

I can see my wife is worn out from her day, and that we are talking at cross purposes. I try to think of something that will rescue the situation, and cheer her up.

“I stepped on a rake,” I say.

“What?” she says.

“I stepped on a rake, in the dark, and the handle hit me in the head.” My wife turns away, but not before I see the smile pulling at the corners of her mouth.


Tim Dowling

The GuardianTramp

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