My garden fork grew legs the other day, took off and vanished on me. Several frustrating walks around the garden failed to locate it so I went to the shed to find a replacement – perhaps, Mary’s short-handled one or even the sprong which I will occasionally use for light digging when the fork goes missing. The tools all stand in a half barrel and I did another check to find my fork in case I had missed it on the first visit. It wasn’t there but I came on another full-sized one that I had forgotten about. It took me a while to place it but the blackening on the handle near the prongs told me of its origins.

Here was the fork of my old, now deceased, friend, John. In his mid-eighties he had moved back to England to a retirement home and died about ten days later. I imagine the stress of selling his home here in Ireland, packing up his things, disposing of those things he didn’t want and the move to England were all simply too much for him. It was especially sad for me as we had become close friends in the last four years of his life. I visited each Monday and when called and he came for lunch every Thursday – after doing his shopping and he always brought the most luscious chocolate cake.

John Riley's Garden Fork  (2)
John’s fork – a reminder of a dear friend.
John Riley's Garden Fork  (1)
John’s garden fork on the left and mine, which eventually turned up!

As is the habit of older people his stories were often repeated so I heard many times of his childhood in the East End of London, his years on a farm in Wales during the Second World War, his summers spent in the hop fields of Kent where his mother went to work each year, the bicycle accident when the brake perforated his eardrum and left him with a lifelong nuisance, his memories of his father, a craftsman with wood, and of his days in national service in the British Army. His days of golf and fishing were past but he recalled those days with happiness except for his last sea-fishing outing on a boat out of Youghal, Co. Cork, which sank slowly and all on board waited anxiously for another boat to arrive and take them off – obviously, it arrived in time for John!

Old age brought declining health and he was no longer able to maintain his garden – the knees would not allow it but he continued to grow a small amount of vegetables and fruit up to the last season. Before leaving for England he gave me some of his garden tools and other bits and pieces and I feel they are to be kept in the manner my wife tells me she recalls from her childhood – that the hat or topcoat of a dead man would be given to a family member, friend or neighbour and they were expected to wear them to keep the memory of the dead person alive.

I will turn the soil now and again with my friend’s fork and remember him fondly.

John Riley's Garden Fork  (3)
The telltale blackening on the fork which reminded me of its origins – John used it to stir material on the garden bonfire.

Paddy Tobin

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