“What we need is a pool,” my wife told me one day over breakfast.
“A what?” I replied.
“A pool,” she repeated.
I could feel myself breaking out into a cold sweat as I imagined having to pay for the hire of an industrial earth excavator along with the services of long-haired man with tattoos wearing a grubby T-shirt and low-slung jeans in order to facilitate the removal of tons of earth from our already shrinking garden.
“What do we want a swimming pool for?” I asked.
“The goats have their yard,” she said, “and the chickens have their garden but there’s no special place for the ducks.”
“Oh, you mean a pond,” I corrected.
“Are you contradicting me?” my wife said.
I momentarily thought about the consequences of an incorrect response before selecting ‘no’ as my answer.
“They have some nice preformed ponds in the Garden Centre,” she informed me. “Maybe we should go a take a look at them.”
I momentarily thought about the consequences of an incorrect response before selecting ‘yes, let’s do that’ as my answer.
Ponds can harbour some strange and unexpected things. In 1988, when stationed in Belize, I worked in an Explosives Area (or Bomb Dump to use its colloquial term) that was surrounded by a large wire fence that was guarded day and night by the Royal Ghurkha Regiment.
|Ladyville Bomb Dump, Belize|
Nobody messed with the Ghurkhas. Although they were small of frame and almost always smiling they could also be fearsome and unforgiving when upset. Not long after they arrived out there a couple of them were mugged in Belize City. The Belizean police either couldn’t (or wouldn’t) assist when the two Ghurkhas (one of whom had been hospitalised with a stab wound) gave a description of their assailant and so (although this is only educated speculation as nothing was ever proved) they took matters into their own hands.
About a week after the mugging a group of local children were playing on the banks of the Sweetwater River that ran through the centre of Belize City when they spied a door floating towards them. Belizeans are born scavengers and so two of the children swam out and dragged the door onto the shore. The door was unusually heavy because something was attached to the surface beneath the water line and when they managed to flip it over they made a horrific discovery; a local man had been crucified to the door, six-inch nails had been driven through his hands and feet, after which the door had been dumped, victim side down, in the river. It turned out that the deceased man was an off-duty policeman who exactly fitted the description the two Ghurkhas had supplied to his colleagues a few nights earlier. An investigation, however, revealed no fingerprints and no witnesses came forward. The Ghurkhas closed ranks and they all told the same story.
A wire fence was not required to protect the Bomb Dump; the Ghurkhas were enough. Like I said – nobody messed with them.
As well as my four colleagues and a vast collection of explosives, the Bomb Dump contained a large pond that was home to an eight-foot alligator that had been handed down through successive generations of staff. He had been acquired long before I arrived as a cute foot-long baby and had been named – in a feeble attempt at alliteration – Ollie the Alligator. He was something of a celebrity and would attract a variety of visitors eager to photograph him being fed processed cheese (which he was particularly partial to) from the end of a fork. Although we called him Ollie and he, we were unsure as to what sex he actually was as we (and all the members of staff that had gone before) were never brave or stupid enough to get that close to a large and dangerous reptile’s genital area.
|Ollie the crocogator|
To be honest we weren’t really sure whether Ollie was an alligator or a crocodile (which was why we started to call him a crocogator), but we did have a unique understanding with him – the pond was his territory and the dry land surrounding it was ours. Knowing that we could walk around the Bomb Dump without being attacked and dragged off to a watery grave by an eight-foot long prehistoric descendant was comforting – right up until the start of the rainy season.
Tropical rainfalls can flood vast areas in a matter of minutes and after a particularly heavy downpour one weekend in early September we discovered that the Bomb Dump was completely under water when we arrived there on the Monday morning. As we opened the gates and waded cautiously towards the office the only thought that was going through our minds was this: Where the hell is that crocogator?
|Ladyville Bomb Dump during the rainy season|
The pond I bought for the ducks was nowhere near the size of the one that Ollie swam lazily around in. It came preformed from the Garden Centre and cost me about forty quid.
SIMPLE TO INSTALL the instructions proudly declared.
Call me cynical if you wish, but I’ve always been wary of manufacturers who claim that their products are simple to install or easy to assemble. The poor souls who have ever attempted to assemble flat-packed furniture from instructions translated from Korean into English by non-Korean (or English) speaking Scandinavians will know exactly what I’m talking about. These instructions claim that they are simple to follow without adding the proviso if you have a master’s degree in quantum physics.
A neighbour of mine once attempted to assemble a flat-packed dresser as a surprise for his wife while she was away visiting her mother. For two whole days all I could hear coming from his house was the banging of hammers and the whirr of electric drills accompanied by desperate cries of “Get in! Get! Why won’t you get in?” His wife was singularly unimpressed by the monstrosity of a dresser that awaited her upon her return and I suspect it was one of the contributory factors that led to the bitter divorce proceedings that followed and his eventual and tragic mental breakdown.
When it came to installing the new pond I did what any normal red-blooded male would do with the instructions – I threw them away without even giving them a cursory glance. Like all men I feel that I have no need for instructions and that I have an innate understanding of the way things work; I have within myself the ability to construct, fit, modify and assemble anything without the assistance or guidance of some half-mad, semi-literate Scandinavian translator of obscure East European runic symbols. I have no need for instructions – it’s just not in my genetic make-up.
I am, of course, entirely wrong in that belief; I have always been wrong No matter how many of my projects turn into hopelessly tragic, marriage testing disasters because I have discarded the easy to follow instructions I will continue to make that very same mistake over and over again until the end of time.
I am a man – it’s in my nature.
As a child I rarely followed any instructions that were supplied with the Airfix model aeroplanes I received as presents at birthdays and Christmas. My planes never had that pristine ‘just off the assembly line’ appearance featured in the colourful and obviously misleading pictures on the packaging. My planes were different; they offered the casual visitor to my bedroom a unique insight into what they might have looked like moments after they had been shot down.
You’ve probably realised by now that my attempts to install a pond turned into a disaster. If I’d only taken the time to read the easy to follow instructions I would have discovered that at the same time as I was packing the earth around the pond I should have been filling it with water up to the level of the soil. This would have kept the pond level and also prevented it from collapsing in on itself resulting in me have to disguise its warped shape by folding over some of the edges and piling mounds of earth on top of them.
When I eventually filled the pond with water, after hours of back-breaking work, it bore no resemblance to its original shape.
“That pond’s not level,” my wife informed me.
“Yes it is,” I replied, hurt from her accusation that I had not done a good enough job. “I spent hours doing this.”
“That doesn’t make it level,” she said.
In a futile attempt to cover up my blunder (and make me look superior) I floated a piece of wood on the water and placed a spirit level on it. “Look,” I said, pointing to the bubble, “it’s perfect. The bubble’s right in the middle.”
My wife looked at my desperate and rather feeble demonstration before saying, “But water is always level.”
I’ve always hated her use of logic against me and so I just simply replied, “Errrrm . . .”
“Did you read the instructions properly?”
“Of course I did. What do you take me for . . . an idiot?”
“Really? Did you really read the instructions?”
Like most women, my wife has this amazing knack of asking me a question whilst looking at me in a certain way. She used her if-you-tell-me-now-you-won’t-be-in-as-much-trouble-as-when-I-find-out-later-that-you’ve-been-lying-to-me look and I immediately crumbled and admitted that I hadn’t read the instructions at all and they were actually somewhere in a black plastic bag at the bottom of the garden covered in pasta sauce and whatever else the kids had left that lunchtime.
“You’ll just have to dig it up and start again,” she said. I felt my stomach cramp up and my head begin to swim. “And besides,” she added, “I think it would look better on the other side of the garden.”
For some reason I suddenly remembered Ollie the crocogator swimming lazily around in his pond. He was nowhere to found when we waded into the Bomb Dump during that rainy season back in 1988. We assumed he had discovered a hole in the fence and had swam away to freedom in the floodwaters. The place felt somehow empty without Ollie’s commanding presence and so after a month (once the floodwaters had subsided and the pond had returned to its original size) we decided to get a replacement for him.
We bought a six-month old crocogator from one of the locals and released him (the crocogator – not the local) into the pond, where he was quite happy for the short time he was there.
Crocogators are fiercely territorial and one morning we arrived at work to find that he had disappeared and in his place was Ollie, all eight feet of him looking content and happy. He appeared to be genuinely pleased to be reunited with us and it may only have been my imagination or a trick of the light but I’d swear to this day that he was smiling. He had probably realised that life was tough on the other side of the wire and had returned to his familiar surroundings where he would be fed on a regular basis.
Imagine his surprise when upon his return he discovered that we had thoughtfully included a welcome meal for him.
As I thought about Ollie whilst looking down at my disaster of a pond my mind was suddenly filled with an evil thought. “You know what would go well in this pond?” I said to my wife.
“What?” she asked.
I (sensibly) reconsidered my original response and squeaked, “Some nice vegetation.”
As my wife walked back towards the house she was serenaded by a cacophony of animal life; the goats were bleating, the chickens were clucking, the cockerel was crowing, the ducks were quacking and the remaining drakes were gang raping a hen.
“Perhaps we should have tried harder for that greyhound,” I called to her, as I buried the spade into the soft, wet earth.