Sunday, November 8, 2009

Don't Ask!

There's something we've never discussed and I'd be most interested to know which side of the argument you take.

By disposition, most of us fall into one or other of opposing camps on a wide variety of issues. We are either liberal, or traditional. We are believers or atheists. We are meat eaters, or vegetarians. We support, or oppose, bloodsports. But there's yet another great divide.
Tell me, do you believe in asking, or in not asking?

This division in attitude was brought home to me last week when I took an American friend to visit Holland Park. Our beautiful park was looking at its autumnal best. After an enjoyable tour, I took her for a cappuccino at the park cafe.
With Rupert beside me, I settled down at one of the tables.
"No . . . no!" my friend cried out, pointing to a sign above my head, "It says 'No Dogs'."
I had no option but to pick Rupert up and move outside.
As the sun was shining, this was, in fact, a better place to be. Nonetheless, as I pointed out to my friend, 'No Dogs' didn't necessarily mean, 'No Cats'. At any such moment of doubt, I told her firmly, it was always better not to ask!

Not asking has been my policy throughout Rupert's life. Had I asked, would he have been welcomed in hospitals and nursing-homes . . . in classrooms and day centres? Above all, would he have had the opportunity to be such a wonderful ambassador for well-behaved cats?

When it comes to notices, I interpret 'No Dogs' as meaning precisely that. It says nothing about cats.

However, there is another aspect to not asking. By not asking, you are not putting anyone else in the invidious position of having to refuse your request. To illustrate my point, how about another story?

During the quiet hours of intimacy before she died, my mother and I discussed many things. High on the list was our mutual love of Kew Gardens. The final six years of her life had been spent with me in London, during which time we had regularly visited Kew. Our love of the Gardens was mutual, but our tastes differed. On entering the gate we would each go our separate ways - mother to spend time with her favourite flowers, me to wander happily in the woodland areas.
"See you back here in an hour!" we would say to each other, at the point where the path divided.
An hour later, we would reunite and go off to share our experiences over an excellent lunch at "The Maids of Honour". As she lay dying, mother expressed the hope that she might have a memorial seat placed in the Gardens. She was also in no doubt that this was the place where she wished me to scatter her ashes.

The purchase of the seat proved no problem. I was sent a map, from which I chose a site on a grassy knoll overlooking the flower-beds.
But what, I worried, could be done about the ashes? Had I sought permission, there was little doubt that the answer would have had to be 'no'. Were this to become an accepted practice, gardeners from all over the British Isles - and beyond - would want their ashes brought to Kew.
But my mother had loved Kew . . . I had loved my mother. How could I possibly ignore, or disregard her dying request?
After careful deliberation, I decided not to ask.

On the day in question, feeling and looking thoroughly guilty, I arrived at the entrance gate. To give an appearance of innocence, I had concealed the urn in a Marks & Spencer carrier bag. The woman at the ticket office knew me, and smiled. Although, to my eyes, the carrier bag was flashing warning lights, I did my best to return her smile with an equally innocent greeting.

Once inside the gate, I went in immediate search of mother's seat. This seemed the best place to start.

But where was it? There was no sign of a seat on the grassy knoll. Had they misunderstood my instructions?
Disappointed and puzzled, I made my way back towards the gate . . . to the point where the path divided and where we had so often said, "See you back here in an hour!"
Yes, you've guessed it . . . there, in precisely the spot where we had met so regularly, was a beautiful new seat. The inscription confirmed that it was, indeed, the seat that mother had wanted!

With a sense of happy reunion, I seated myself. It was a beautiful seat . . . a comfortable seat . . . mother would have been delighted . . . but it didn't solve the problem of the ashes. Looking around me I noticed that, within yards of mother's seat, were no less than three working gardeners. Never before could I recall seeing so many gardeners in such close proximity. Had they, I wondered (anxiety causing my imagination to run riot) been forewarned of an intruder with an urn?

Sitting on the seat, clutching the carrier bag, I waited in vain for the gardeners to complete their work and move away. Twenty minutes later, the situation unchanged, I realised that something needed to be done. Reluctantly removing the urn from the bag, I lifted the lid . . . it was time to fulfill my promise and start pouring.

With a final, apprehensive glance towards the gardeners, I carefully trickled a small amount of ash on the ground beneath the seat . . . not one of them reacted. Encouraged, I moved to the rose bushes, my mother's favourite flower, and trickled some more . . . as far as the gardeners were concerned, I could well have been invisible. Emboldened, I moved to the bedding plants . . . and the shrubs . . . and everywhere I went, a trickle of mother's ash was added to the roots of the plants that had given her so much pleasure.

The whole operation took an hour. An hour devoted to carefully choosing and nourishing the plants as mother would have wished. I began to relax and see the funny side of the situation. It was the sort of story that my mother, a woman with a keen sense of humour, would have loved.
Not once during this procedure did anyone approach me, not once did a gardener even lift his head to ask what I was doing. Did they, too, I wondered, believe in not asking?

Finally satisfied that mother would have been happy with my morning's work, I dropped the empty plastic urn into a waste basket . . . and returned home.

So, at the end of the story, tell me: which side do you take in this debate?
Just consider for a moment . . . do creatures ask if they can love . . . do roses question whether they should bloom . . . or birds enquire if it's permitted to wheel in formation against the evening sky . . . ?

Surely, if it adds one iota to the sum of universal happiness the answer is . . . don't ask!