Nine balls I found; lurking under hedges, behind the shed, deep under the straggly hydrangea, wedged by the oil tank, away up in the corner where the first of the rhubarb is waking. They hadn’t been breeding, I know this because they are all of a different species: a medicine ball – the oversized one you drape yourself over to work your stomach muscles; a miniature football – great for keepie-uppies; a proper neon yellow football with stitched purple pentagon patches – that one must belong to S.; a dirty white basketball, bigger than the football with longitudinal grooves; one where the surface is perished and peeling like the face of an Antarctic explorer; and two or three of those 99p balls they sell in variety shops, the ones that blow away in a puff of wind. Besides being abandoned for the last four months, the other thing they all have in common is they are soft, deflated and undernourished from having spent winter in the verges of my mother’s garden.
Herding balls isn’t what I had set out to do. Having never seen grass like it at this time of year, my task was to mow the lawn. The old rule is never to cut before St. Patrick’s Day, but this winter has been exceptionally mild, and if ever there was a lawn crying out to be cut, this was it – thick and lush and laden with moss – either that, or my mother needs a goat. Ten grunting pulls of the manual recoil starter (both me and the petrol mower were grunting), knees bent, with all of the right-handed strength I could muster, and the shoulder nearly pulled out of me, I could not get it to start. We both fell into a wasted splutter. I decided I’d give it five minutes, let the machine reflect on its surly behaviour, while I took a tour of the garden to see if there were any other jobs that needed attending to. That’s when the balls started to appear. Plants and bushes and hedges show the earliest pokes of growth at this time of year, like the most tentatively pulled back curtains or twitching blinds, the signs are small, as yet barely noticeable. Mostly it’s a time of winter dieback, frosted leftovers; all is discoloured, withered, decomposed, leaving the underskirts of the hedges lifted higher than usual, which is how I spotted the little arcs of plastic colour – the lost spoils from the grandchildren’s late summer games.
I shepherded the balls onto the summer seat, then made space for myself to rest. The usual blackbird was loitering at the back door, retreating into a clump of tired snowdrops when my mother threw it a handful of raisins. Three collared doves (is three a crowd?) took their leisure under the plum tree and pecked at fallen seed. A palaver of pigeons congregated by the flowerbed, the one that is shrinking, the one with pods of tulip swirls breaking through. Curiously they ignored the starlings that squabbled over the last of a torn up, stale bagel that had been thrown out for them half an hour earlier. Two thrushes pulled moss from the grass, as blue tits enjoyed the fat balls. A wren, disguised as a blowing leaf, bounced between pots of tête-à-tête miniature daffodils, and sparrows were playing hide and seek in the hedges. Surveying it all was the robin, perched high on one of the two posts used the tether the raspberry canes.
Having given the lawnmower time to reflect on its behaviour, myself a break from the grunting, and a rest for my right arm, didn’t the mower then start at the very first pull. And all the birds sang!