Strangers

Posted January 31, 2018

Two weeks before the day Mum died, I went up there to sort the garden out. I’d loaded the car up with gardening tools my neighbour had lent me. I didn’t get to see Mum anywhere near as much as I wanted, maybe once every few months, but getting up to her house was difficult. Every penny counted, and keeping a car on the road was expensive enough without having to factor in the cost of petrol all the way from Kent to Norfolk. If I’d known that my time with her was going to be so limited, I would have adjusted my finances and gone without the odd bottle of Pinot Grigio here or there.

I turned my ten-year-old Astra into her street, ignoring the dirty grey smoke that I could see in the rear view mirror. It had been pouring out of the back of the car since the Dartford Tunnel, but I did what I normally do when faced with impending disaster and just ignored it. I was expecting to see her overgrown front garden as I pulled into a space opposite her house, but when I looked across I could see the garden was completely cleared. The ivy that snaked its way up the side of her house, threatening to block out the light into an upstairs window, was gone. Not only was it gone, but the front of her small terraced house had been repainted in the same bright yellow that the local football club wore. The nettles, weeds, and wild flowers that had populated the small square of land she called a front garden had been replaced with a raised bed, resplendent with primroses, lilies, and a bunch of other flowers whose names I didn’t know but looked fantastic. There was even weed matting and bark chips in between the plants. As I waited for her to answer the door, knowing that it would take her a good five minutes from wherever she was in the house, I wondered how on earth she’d managed to get the garden sorted out. That was when I noticed a small sign in the raised bed. A piece of cardboard on a wooden stick. Written on the cardboard in large black letters were the words ‘@Crane_Landscaping’, and on the line underneath that, ‘#jobdone’.

I examined the peeling green paint in front of me until the door squealed its way open and my mother peered out. Her white eyebrows were arched as she squinted at me through watery pale blue eyes.
“Hello?” She said in her high, reedy voice.
“Hi Mum, it’s me,” I replied.
“Charlene!” she exclaimed. “I wasn’t expecting you. Come in, dear. Come in,” she said, beckoning me inside. I followed my Mum into the small hallway, wondering not for the first time why she hadn’t used the spyglass or security chain that I’d had put on her door a few years ago. Every time I saw her I reminded her to use them, but she never seemed to bother. I walked into the kitchen, bracing my nose for the usual musty smell of leg ulcers and sour milk. To my surprise, the only thing that assaulted my senses was the smell of freshly baked bread.
“Cup of tea, dear?” I looked around the kitchen before I replied. It had changed, but I couldn’t put my finger on how.
“That would be lovely,” I said. As she busied herself gathering together mugs, teabags, sundry essentials, I asked her about the garden.
“Oh, I had it done,” she explained. “It was getting silly. That bloody ivy scratching on my bedroom window, it was doing my head in.”
“Where’d you get the money for that, Mum?” I asked her. The fact was that she barely survived on her pension, and I was never going to be in a position to help any time soon. I was worried that she’d been conned by some local chancer, offering to tidy up the front garden of repaying her house for a ‘very reasonable rate’ with repayments that never ended.
“I didn’t pay for it,” she said. “Two lovely young men came round and did it all for me. They even painted the front of the house my favourite colour,” she said, smiling. “Do you like it?”
“Er, yes. I love it,” I said, wondering who these two lovely young men were and where they had come from.
“Have you had breakfast?” Mum asked.

I shook my head. Apart from a cup of tea before I set off from Kent this morning, I’d had nothing. I’d calculated the cost of petrol carefully, but wanted to save my last ten pound note in case I needed to top up on the way home. Petrol consumption in my car was erratic to say the least. “Over there.” Mum pointed to the other side of the kitchen with an arthritic finger. “Baked this morning, it was.” I walked to the worktop next to her cooker.
“So where did you find these lovely young men?” I asked, taking an enormous loaf out of a brown paper bag.
“I got them off the Twitter,” she replied. I wasn’t sure that I’d heard her correctly.
“Sorry? From where?”
“From the Twitter,” she repeated, the irritation obvious in her voice. I flattened out the bag. Written in a spidery scrawl in one corner were two phrases. “@CanaryBoy123”, and underneath, “#jobdone”.

I looked across the kitchen at my Mum. The woman who’d taught me everything, who was everything I wanted to be but wasn’t, and had ended up to be everything that I feared becoming. Had she always been that small, that frail? I crossed the kitchen to help her make the tea, worried that she’d spill it and scald herself even though she managed just fine without me when I wasn’t there. I was sure her kettle was an ancient one, the inside almost completely covered in limescale. This one was white, gleaming, devoid of limescale. The only thing unusual about it was the sticker on the bottom of it. ‘@PeterRutler’, and ‘#jobdone’.
“Mum,” I said. “What’s going on?” She looked at me through half opened eyes. That look that I knew so well. The look that asked ‘what are you talking about?’ without a single word. Her face might be more weathered and creased now than it was when I was a child, but the look had lost none of its meaning.
“I told you,” she barked. “The Twitter. I got the Twitter to help. I got fed up with waiting for you to come up.” She paused before continuing. “Well, not me directly, it was the lad in the newsagent that did it for me. He works for the Twitter, you see.”
“Which newsagent? The one at the end of the road?” Mum nodded in reply.
“Where are you going?” she called out after me as I walked towards to the front door.
“I’m just nipping to the newsagent,” I replied over my shoulder. “Back in a minute.”

“Hello?” I called out as the door to the newsagents triggered a bell somewhere in the back. I stepped into the shop just as an unkempt young man appeared behind the counter. Maybe mid-twenties? It was hard to tell in the gloom of the shop.
“Hi. Can I help you?” he smiled, and his face was transformed. He might have been unkempt, but he was very easy on the eye and easily half my age.
“Er yes, I’m Charlene,” He held his smile but frowned ever so slightly. “Sorry, my Mum lives at number 23.” His smile faltered so I continued. “She’s just had her garden done, and she’s going on about men from the Twitter.”
“Oh yes, I know her,” he said, his smile back to full strength. “She’s a lovely woman, your Mum.” He paused and I thought he was going to continue, but he didn’t.
“I’m not sure what she’s talking about. She said the nice young man from the newsagents helped her. Is that you?”
He laughed, running a hand through his unruly blonde hair.
“Yes, I did,” he said. “You’ve not seen it then?”
“Seen what?”
“On Twitter. Her campaign. Well, kind of hers. Have you got a phone? If you bring it up I’ll show you.” I thought of my brick, good for phone calls and the odd text depending on how well I rationed my credit. There was no chance of getting Twitter on it.
“No, sorry. It’s in my car,” I lied, hoping he wouldn’t notice the fib.
“No worries,” he said, fishing in his back pocket and pulling out a brand new iPhone. “We, er I, started up a Twitter campaign and put out a call to action to get her garden sorted out. Let me find the first one. It all went a bit mad, you see.” I didn’t see at all. I didn’t use Twitter, but had a rough idea how it worked and enough to know that my Mum would never use it. The idea of my Mum using Twitter was about as likely as her dancing for the Bolshoi Ballet.
“Here you go.” He held the phone out for me to read the screen.

‘Elderly pensioner needs urgent help with overgrown garden in Thorpe St Andrew – come on Twitter, let’s be having you #helpastranger’

I looked at the numbers underneath the tweet. They were all in the hundreds, some in the thousands. He prodded again at the screen to show me pictures of my Mum’s front garden, before and after pictures, which showed just how bad it had got before it was sorted out. The pictures had been posted by someone called @Crane_Landscaping, and only had one word in the text – #jobdone. Almost a thousand likes.
“I don’t get this,” I said to him. “Sorry, what’s your name?”
“Danny.” We exchanged an uncomfortable handshake. “Pleased to meet you.”
“Yeah, okay. Danny. I still don’t get this.”
“It’s like, a social experiment,” he said, a wry smile playing across his face. “It just went a bit bonkers, that’s all. Viral, I think is the word the youngsters use.” I looked at him. Hearing him use the word ‘youngsters’ made me feel every one of my forty something years. Looking uncomfortable, he continued. “I posted it, and it just got picked up. It’s become an internet, I don’t know what the word is, meme? People have started posting with the hashtag #helpastranger, then other people do whatever’s needed and reply with #jobdone. It’s gone mad.”

I stared at him, not sure what to say. This man, this young man, had managed to turn my Mum into a meme. I wasn’t even sure what a meme was, but what I did know was that it, they, whoever these strangers were had helped my Mum when I hadn’t. That cut me to the bone.

That was a month ago now. A few weeks before I got a phone call to tell me that Mum had died. She’d fallen down the stairs in the night, and died alone on the floor in the flat that @PeterPainter had decorated to get the #jobdone. I sat in the public library in the Forum in Norwich, a web browser in front of me, staring at the home page for the Twitter, as Mum had called it. My fingers were poised over the keyboard, ready to compose my first ever tweet.

‘Elderly pensioner in Thorpe St Andrew, passed away. Founder of the #helpastranger movement. Can anyone help me give her a good sendoff?’

My finger paused over the ‘tweet’ button and, with a deep breath, I pushed it and sat back. A few seconds later, my tweet was liked. And liked. And liked again. Then it was retweeted several times. Within a minute, the offers to #helpastranger started to flood in. Florists, choirs, and finally a funeral director in Thorpe St Andrew chimed in offering their services.

#jobdone