The Red Wheelbarrow
From a suitably safe distance, he watched the old man with the fingerless gloves and woollen cap, empty the contents of the red wheelbarrow onto the compost heap. It was part of the man’s daily routine at the allotment and something that Robin had grown accustomed to. Same time, same place, every day except Sunday. Not that Robin understood what Sunday was. To him it was just and extended gap of time between fresh food.
Of course, that did not stop him from sitting on the handle of the wheelbarrow on a Sunday. Why should it? It was his favourite perch and a place where he could express his feelings without interruption or at least until his mate called. This was not so frequent these days. Now that there were no more yellow-billed mouths to feed. No, his family had long flown the nest, and he knew that his mate would soon abandon him, just as she did at the end of every season.
Robin approached a little closer and waited for the old man to carefully place his tools into the weather-worn shed and lock the door. It was all a matter of timing. Letting the old man leave and getting to his viewing perch before any of the wildlife in the freshly disturbed compost heap could reach safety.
The man’s crooked hands fumbled with the old padlock and then let it fall back noisily against the rusting hasp. It made Robin jump and skittishly fly to the safety of the hedge. Not that it gave him much protection. Most of its leaves had already turned a dirty rust colour and fallen to join the others from the nearby oak. However, it did mean that he had a clear view of the shed and his real target, the wheelbarrow. If the old man followed the rules of the game, he would tip it up on its end and prop it against the outer shed wall, directly opposite the compost heap. The barrow handles would then become the perfect viewing point, allowing Robin to keep one eye on the compost and the other for approaching intruders.
The old man did not fail to follow the routine, and Robin hopped from one foot to the other in anticipation of what was about to come. But, that would be after the following and more irritating part of the game was played out.
The old man looked around for his little friend and seeing Robin sculking in the hedge, held out his hand and made a ridiculous attempt to whistle. The noise was supposed to be a mimic of Robin’s song, but something got lost in the translation.
There it was, the evening standoff. Robin was having none of it. It was one thing to hop cheekily on to the edge of a spade while the man dug the earth, ready to grab a fresh worm, as he had done on their first meeting. However, it was something else entirely to approach his outstretched hand. You did not know where such rash action could lead.
The old man grunted and walked back along the allotment pathway. Both hands placed firmly on the small of his back.
Now. Now was the time. Robin flew eagerly onto the barrow’s grubby black rubber handles before his competitors could even think about it. He made it. He was so pleased with himself that he broke into his evening song, and announced that this was his spot and that he would defend it with his life. A threat that was more a question of shouting than doing. Some of the blackbirds were really big, to say nothing about the overweight pigeons.
The evening feeding was good.
So far, the weather had been kind with just the right balance of rain and sun making the earth soft and warm. However, the days were getting shorter, and Robin instinctively knew that hard times were coming.
He was not wrong.
The next few weeks were some of the worst the allotment had seen for a long time. Loose items blew with demented fury across the open land, and the rain fell in sheets that overfilled the water-butts so that they looked like islands in a muddy sea.
Robin continued his relentless daily circuit, but this time finding a small degree of shelter under his usual perch rather than on top of it. As expected, his mate had gone, and strangely there was no sign of the old man.
As the storm past, and the season rolled on, the allotment received its first snow covering. Robin’s usual perch disappeared, becoming just one more amorphous shape amongst so many others. He tried to complete his daily circuit, but it became a challenge. Robin found that he could only sing when the sun made one of its rare appearances. But even then, he was unsure why he should bother. Most of his contemporaries had fled to warmer lands. Life was a little confusing, and there was still no sign of the old man. Robin was beginning to find it difficult to remember what he looked like.
The snow melted, and Robin’s perch appeared like magic as did the compost heap. Its earthy mound was a welcome sight, even if it was covered by a fuzz of green shoots. The sun became stronger, just as Robin’s song did. To make things even better, his mate returned. She was a welcome sight, and Robin thought that his bright red breast would burst with pride as she presented him with four perfect eggs.
Life was suddenly frantic. There was no time for Robin to even think about the old man. However, the perch remained a constant feature, even if its rubber tyre was flat and the red paint was beginning to flake. Spring was here and would move quickly into Summer. Robin’s busiest months. The fact that the old man’s part of the allotment was overgrown and the shed window was broken did not concern him, just as he had no concern that the old man had not reappeared.
However, he was concerned the day his usual perch vanished. Not only that, the shed was a different colour, its window had been replaced, and the door was fixed with a shiny new lock.
Once again, Robin was confused and unsure of what to do. He sat in the hedge that was heavy with leaves and waited.
There was a new noise. It was the sound of children laughing and a young woman attempting to clear the overgrown allotment. Robin flew to a new perch on the top of the shed and looked down. It was a good view but different. He tried to remember why but was distracted by the sight of the young women’s spade as it sank deep into the fresh earth. The temptation was too much, and with all thoughts of the old man gone, he flew down and introduced himself.