Yesterday evening one of the young adults who lives at Mill Grove asked me how my day went, and I replied in the usual East End vernacular, “O.K.” At his request I expanded briefly: “As full, varied and rich as every day at Mill Grove”. Which led me to attempt in this article to describe what did happen yesterday (and therefore on many other days).
I began the day by taking six green bags of garden waste to the local council tip (“refuse amenity”), and was warmly welcomed by the staff there. They know me very well and yet have still not plucked up the courage to ask how on earth we generate so much waste that I seem to be a daily visitor. The bags were needed by other members of the community because we are getting the place ready for our annual gathering of the clan: “Our Day” is the name it has acquired over the years. (As it happens I will needed to go to the tip with five bags this morning, and I have six for tomorrow!)
There were a number of letters to reply to on my desk, and having drafted replies I turned to my laptop to deal with what seems like an unending stream of emails: conferences, training, tribunals, and minutes.
Then I went into the garden to start trimming the big hedge: it is about 30 metres in length and six metres high, so it takes a bit of work. While working on it I planned meetings in my head: that’s where and when I do most of my creative thinking. The job went well including filling another refuse bag with clippings, but it took longer than anticipated and so I had to jog to a local electrical supplier to get the light socket that I needed to fix in the dining room before Thursday lunch. I had left myself 30 minutes to fit it before everyone was ready to sit down for the meal. Unfortunately I did not have the tools for the job and so had to use a potato peeler as a screwdriver, and required one of our visitors to retrieve and hold screws and fixings for me at the bottom of the step ladder.
Lunch was a few minutes late as a consequence of the delay, because I had to dash to sign some letters, but the light worked and the new lampshade looked appropriate. Thursday lunch is a long-standing traditional meal when friends and neighbours come and join us each week. It’s informal and members of the family of Mill Grove living here have a chance to meet and chat with senior citizens and older members of the extended family. I had a chat with someone who lived here as a boy when I was growing up: he is helping paint the front railings.
There was a tap on the window just as lunch was ending: it was one of the youngsters from the Rose Walton Centre, a school for children with cerebral palsy that has used our premises for 23 years. He wanted to give me a “high five”, so I slipped through those washing up in the kitchen and greeted him. Not far away in the playground was another boy who attends this school and he wanted to show me some of his football tricks: they would have been impressive in any circumstances, but given that he has cerebral palsy, they were remarkable. A little girl joined in quite naturally: she is a younger sister of a girl who used to be at the Centre until recently.
At this point I found myself in the middle of the Mill Grove pre-school staff and children: it’s becoming an outdoor (“woodland”) school, and so it was no surprise that on such a fine day the playground was filled with the joyful noise of little children enjoying themselves on scooters and bikes. I went to the orchard where some boys were digging in thick black mud and caking themselves in it from head to foot. Others were playing on a wooden train.
A chat with a few members of staff about health and families, and then I re-joined the Thursday lunch group who were having a fascinating discussion about the creatures that send shivers down a person’s spine. One of the residents said that she had no problems with creepy crawlies, but that it was he sister that really bugged her. Somehow the conversation morphed into a chat about Florence Barclay’s The Rosary (a Georgian novel by a person to whom Mill Grove was so special that our hall is named in her honour). Then I had a confidential conversation with someone about his wife who suffers from dementia: he had endured a very hard week since I last saw him and it was good to talk.
A friend came in at this point with a young adult with special needs. They stayed for the afternoon. There was a cake to make, and a lot of difficult news to listen to.
At this point I remembered that I had promised my wife that I would mend a broken bed, and move a cupboard (full of things). The lack of tools for the former of these tasks meant that I was forced to use very basic materials: string and a piece of wood. But the bed was fixed, and the cupboard duly moved. We have twenty extra people staying with us next week-end, so furniture moving and spring-cleaning are in the air.
At last I got back to my desk to set to work on some of the more important and pressing notes, reports and papers. But the afternoon was wearing on. There were phone-calls to make, and an In Residence article to commence, but my watch told me that it was tea-time. A family of four including two pre-school children joined the meal along with other members of the community. Ruth and I needed to draw on all sorts of experience and resources to navigate this social occasion. It concluded with some action songs and a short prayer.
And then washing up: a communal time and a chance to catch up on the day’s news. But I still had work to do outside: some brambles to cut down, some ivy to root out, two trees to shape, and an elderberry tree to take down. One of the youngsters came out dressed in his nappy and a jumper to help me. We found a way of sharing the task, but his motive was to take my hand and get me playing with a football. We had a brief game (where the pre-school children had been a few hours earlier) and then I got back to my desk to do some more work while Ruth helped the family get ready to return home. I helped them and their things into the car, bade them farewell. Ruth drove them home (about four miles away) while I continued at my desk.
Ruth finally made it back at 9.40 p.m. and over a mug of Horlicks we pondered some of the people and challenges of the day together before getting down to reading the Guardian Weekly.
And so we arrived near the end of another day. Meals. About sixty people. Outdoor tasks. Chats. Games. Letters. Minutes. Mending.
It’s predictable in some ways but also delightfully surprising; both variable and patterned. Not very notable or glamorous. But this is the stuff of life at Mill Grove: a residential community. It has been the focus and context of our life together since 1975, and so in some ways we are getting used to it, but it never ceases to challenge, encourage, disturb and provoke.
This day I was encouraged by the help people offered me with gardening and with fixing the light socket. I was challenged by the lack of help and initiative shown by other residents.
What is my role, and what do people call me? That would take at least another article, but the pre-school children know I am the gardener. So now you know.