With 40° heatwaves and devastating wildfires now a routine part of a British summer, cool heads are needed on the plot.
Surfing the clammy, 40°-plus breeze, Lex freewheeled down the winding street, legs splayed. Even with sunglasses on, he was still forced to squint. Every building was white: white walls, white roofs, white drives. White awnings and shutters shaded every sun-seared, closed window. Every garden shed dazzled white in the sun – as did every greenhouse. Some wore their whiteness painted on, others were swaddled in old bed sheets; some were draped in branches, their leaves brown and crisp after nearly a month at 40ºC.
The heat dome that was frying Europe wasn’t budging.
Rubber sucked on tarmac as Lex rounded the corner, passing the almost-finished new houses, their walls neatly whitewashed. The builders – like almost everyone else during a Heat Alert – had stopped work until the evening. Beyond the new houses, dead trees stood like charred scarecrows, a reminder of the wildfire that had torn through this edge of town a year ago, turning gardens and homes to ashes, childhood memories and everyday lives to tear-stained cinders. Between the fire-razed gardens and the seared trees, a wide band of leafy greenness defied the heat haze.
Lex had helped plant up the big curving swale that would act as a living firebreak; rainwater from the town was now being diverted into its deep, wet ditch, its banks sprouting a shady thicket of willow, alder and bamboo. Instead of trying to fight flash floods, the town was now fighting future fires using water from its streets; dense, sappy greenery doesn’t burn so well. Wildlife was loving it, too – it needed somewhere to rest up on days like this.
I’m gonna be late!
Heading onto the shady swaleside path, Lex headed for the town’s allotments. Crossing the footbridge over the wide swale bordering the plots, he saw Lena gesturing for him to hurry up. His wheels spat dust as he weaved between white sheds.
‘Where have you been, Lex? It’s nearly half two – and it’s touching 42.’
‘Sorry, sis, I got distracted by the new swale. It’s looking real good. It should make Grandad feel safer when he’s in the new house.’
‘We’ll see. He won’t talk about it much right now.’
‘But his burns are getting better?’ Lex swigged some water, pouring the rest over his head.
‘The pain’s gone, but the scars never will. It was like losing Nan all over again. The garden was gone in minutes, Lex. Minutes.’ Hot tears filled her eyes. ‘It was worse for him than losing the house.’
‘His plot’s helped him keep going, though. They had good times here, too.’ Lex pulled her into a sweaty hug, his own tears welling.
‘Oi, you two! Sorry to burst your hug-in, but us oldies need to cool off!’
Grandad. He waved from the group of friends who were fanning themselves with cabbage leaves. The official advice was for older folk to stay indoors during the day, to avoid the highest temperatures. But their crops didn’t sow and plant themselves, so they did what they could in the early morning and – if they had any energy left – early evening. The hotter it got, the more determined the gardeners became.
‘We’ve decided we’re going all Mediterranean,’ Grandad announced one day, when it was clear the heat domes were now fixtures, not fleeting one-offs. ‘Some of us haven’t got the energy to go home and come back, so we need somewhere safe and cool here where we can zonk out in the afternoon – other than in our stuffy sheds. We want to siesta.’
Lena, Lex and the other youngies donned their shades, each heading for the base of one of the towering bamboo stems. Planted in a big circle, they enclosed a motley collection of loungers, benches-cum-chaise longues, and makeshift hammocks. Methodically – they’d had plenty of practice – they carefully bent down a few rustling stems at a time, tied the shoot tips together, then slowly released them. Soon they were stood in dappled, sun-beating shade beneath a vaulted ceiling of bamboo shoots.
‘Never mind a heat dome, what about this – a really cool dome!’ Lex spun around, high-fiving everyone’s sweaty palms. ‘Let’s pull the cover on, and then we can give them their big surprise.’ Unfurling the giant, circular tapestry of white cotton sheets over the bamboo dome was a real team effort. Once secured, it quelled the fierce solar rays, coolness setting in.
‘Can we come in?’ Grandad appeared at the entrance, impatient. ‘We’re griddled out here. I need 40 winks – or maybe 42!’ Everyone took up their favourite spots, some still carrying their lunches, iced drinks clinking. Lex pushed in the wheelbarrow, filled with fast-melting mini icebergs and bottles of water. ‘That’ll keep us cool. Thanks, youngie.’ Lex blushed as his grandad pinched his already heated cheek.
‘You might be even cooler this afternoon,’ said Lena, raising a chorus of oohs and aahs. ‘We’ve a treat for you. Now get yourselves comfy.’ Her brother’s muffled curses summoned her to the outside of the dome.
‘It’s okay, it was just a bit of loose plumbing,’ said Lena. ‘Try pedalling again.’ The wheels of Lex’s bike, sitting on a makeshift frame, brought the whining mechanism to life. Water slushed and gurgled along the spaghetti of black pipes fed by the tank of tap water they’d hauled up early that morning and hidden among the foliage behind the dome. ‘Just go steady, Lex, it should be almost…’
Suddenly, the chattering and laughter inside the dome gave way to gasps of delight. Lena parted the bamboo and peered inside. Everyone was looking up, eyes closed, beaming, using their cabbage leaves to waft around the fine, cooling mist that was drifting down from the hissing nozzles hidden high on the arching stems. Lena’s grandad saw her looking in, mouthed ‘thank you’, and blew the sweetest kiss. Lex pedalled faster as claps and cheers filled the dome, the water Lena poured over his head cooling the kiss she gave him.
‘It works Lex, it works! We did it – we gave them a mistiesta!’
Text © John Walker. Images: Depositphotos
Find John on Twitter @earthFgardener