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MAUREEN LIPMAN: My blooming lockdown… ruined by pesky intruders

Alone in my tiny courtyard, I’m watching the small but perfect walled garden in full bloom. Hydrangeas, eh? 

What a voluptuous show they give you – and for so many weeks. I always think people regard them as slightly ‘common’ – too ubiquitous perhaps?

Right now, I have pink, blue, purple, white and that sort of morbid mauve one associates with funeral parlours and anoraks. 

They ask nothing of you – just hose-loads of water, a few rusty nails in the soil to raise acidity levels if you want them to look blue-ish and voila… just sit back and watch as they fill up the space and really sock it to you.

Oh, how this garden has kept me smiling through lockdown.

I might be a Coronation Street-furloughed, vulnerable, national treasure (on account of having a 1946 birth certificate), but it hasn’t kept me out of the garden centre in Gerrards Cross, where my partner Guido lives.

I have been a masked and gloved stalker among the stalks there since… well, lockdown, or ‘schloch-down’, as I like to call it, began.

I suspect your Yiddish is limited to bagel and chutzpah (the American humorist Leo Rosten’s definition of chutzpah is ‘a small boy peeing through someone’s letter-box then ringing the doorbell to ask how far it went’) so I will translate.

A ‘shloch’ is someone who lives in old, battered clothing and never gets dressed up. Need I say more. I am sitting typing this in a Hugh Jackman T-shirt and blobby leggings. 

The yoga mat is on the floor of the lounge and raising and lowering my forefingers over these keys is as much exercise as I am going to get today. Hence, I am happily in ‘schloch-down’.

So. The garden is perfection. Awash with trailing purple and lemon petunias, sea-green grasses, pots of coral geraniums, baskets of over-spilling heliotrope and jasmine and honeysuckle spiralling down the walls and… what’s the other thing? 

Oh yes, rats. No, you read that right. London rats. The ones those reports always say we’re never more that two feet away from. 

We know they are there because all the birds have disappeared and because Inky, the rescue Spanish Podenco, spends long days just staring out of the kitchen window looking as though she’s doing a box set on Netflix.

Last week she caught one – before it leapt from her jaws and disappeared down the neck of a drainpipe. 

Then I started to see them peripherally from my basket chair as I sipped my coffee in the courtyard. The soft rustlings I had associated with tits and blackbirds took on a venomous hue.

So, reluctantly, because I don’t like to take out a contract on any living species (with the possible exception of cold-callers), I called the ‘Pest Technicians’. A tall and taciturn techie came and laid bags of poison inside three rat boxes. Safely, we thought, in plastic bags so the dogs wouldn’t eat them.

A week later the rodents were merrily in and out of a trough of soil with a plank over it, which I use as a bench. 

We looked inside – I believe the word is ‘gingerly’, although I have no linguistic knowledge why – and the clever little rodent Pickfords had removed the three bags from the rat boxes and stored them, neatly nibbled, underneath my plank.

The Technician returned only when dead and dying rats appeared on the front doorstep, almost frightening the postman on to a life-support machine.

The Ratcatcher then came back and took the poison out of the bags and laid it loosely in the rat boxes. He wrapped up the dead ones, popped them into his tote bag and headed off.

‘Where is your van?’ I asked him, fearing exposure from neighbours on my terrace.

‘No, I’m a walking pest controller.’ he told me.

‘Oh right. And how are you… er… getting back to work?’ I asked.

‘On the Tube.’

So. Never farther away from a rat than the masked man with the twitching tote bag on the Hammersmith and City Line. Barking! He’s been back a couple of times since, to remove the poison and lay traps instead. So far no show. The birds are back though.

There is a nest in the honeysuckle. A tiny, delicately feathered, brown and yellow robin gave me 15 minutes of its attention yesterday, chirping, unafraid, from a table top beside me. I was beaming like a toddler with a mobile.

Overhead, the rapacious gulls, who have set up a nest in the empty hostel, are watching my baby birds with the look of a guest on Antiques Roadshow before money is mentioned. If they get my fledglings, it will be too much for my lockdown sensibility.

A week ago in the park, I watched a gull snatch a baby moorhen from its intricately fashioned nest and rise through the air, dangling its struggling prey from its claws like a Deliveroo takeaway. I screamed out loud. Seconds later it snatched a second one.

This time I screamed at the park-keeper: ‘Do something! It’s her last chick! It’s like Saving Private Ryan for God’s sake. Do something!’

He smiled ruefully. ‘Bloody townie soap star,’ his face said. ‘Who does she think I am, bloody Superman?’

This led me to recall a favourite verse:

‘Who trusted God was love indeed.

And love Creation’s final law

Tho’Nature, red in tooth and claw.

With ravine, shriek’d against his creed.’

Anyone for Tennyson?

Alexandra Shulman is back next week.

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