My father and I sit in the back room of my childhood home and stare out of the window at his small, well-maintained but very much a self confessed "work in progress" garden with highlights of The Chelsea Flower show whispering from the television set as we drink wine and reminisce.
My dad has loved the Flower Show for as long as I can remember, and as I gaze at the garden I know so well I consider the differences between his and my Mum's patch of England's green and pleasant land and the perfectly manicured ones in SW3. My garden of course has a history - from the Victorian fireplace and several family pets that have been buried under the rockery to a friendship that grew as strong and as tall as my father's Conifer trees.
Years before when I was just a small boy of four or five, a family with passion for their Italian heritage moved in next door. They had a little boy around the same age as me. His name was Alexander or as his Mum and "Nona" called him - Sandro. Within the blink of an eye we became best friends. We would play and go over to each other's houses, and one day (and this is the story my Dad reminded me of) we discovered, behind the hydrangeas on the English side and tomato plants on the Italian, a loose wooden slat in the fence that divided our two gardens.
We would regularly chat through the gap in the fence until one day, our families concerned the fruits, vegetables and flowers from their labor would be damaged, told us to stop. This caused some distress. After all, the hole in the fence was our (it turns out not so) secret place and so after much deliberation Alex and I decided we would NOT stop using it. Our communiqué was far too important to be ended because we might damage a shrub.
As if the audacity of being told to stop by his parents was the last straw, my Italian friend rebelled even further by picking a homegrown tomato from its plant and passing it through the gap. I, who have always been easily led, picked strawberries from my garden and passed them to him and with wide defiant grins we dined al fresco style.
Our friendship continued to grow (as did we), too big and too old now to use the missing part of the garden fence to communicate, and also acutely aware that two grown men crouching in a South London garden would most likely alert the the Neighborhood Watch. Instead we met in pubs and did all the things that most young people do. We laughed, we talked, we planned for the future and we got drunk. Our twenties whizzed by with relationships, jobs, change of jobs, and for him, a beautiful daughter who I am extremely proud to be godfather to. And despite a move out of London, we remained very close until suddenly and with no warning in 2013 Alex died. It destroyed us all and is something his family and I and other friends will never get over.
I wouldn't change meeting him for anything in the world. Being in touch with our neighbours, respecting them, learning from them and them becoming our friends is essential to the progress of humanity. There will be good times and bad, but the hole in the fence, that channel of communication, must remain open so we can share in the things we all have to offer one another. I didn't want to play on my own then, and I certainly don't now.
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