Toby crouched down on the damp morning grass and peered wearily into the pea-soup abyss of his natural swimming pond. As he desperately searched for signs of oxygenated water amid the neon-green blanket, the acrid stench rose up from the shiny surface and hit the back of his throat like a dagger to his heart. His dream of a glistening pool – the jewel in his bucolic Cotswolds garden – had turned into a murky and, on this warm late spring day, rather pongy, nightmare.
It had been 12 months since he had paced out the vast, serpentine perimeter and listened to the stream of pond professionals who came to tender their quotes for the job. He dreamed of crystal clear waters edged with flag iris and billowing grasses, and hovering dragonflies that would flock to his aquatic idyll. There would be a jetty, too, with a rowing boat.
Toby had always loved the water. As a sixth former at Oakham, he’d triumphed in the 1986 Feva regatta and then spent a summer sailing the Norfolk Broads – solo. And now he wanted to instill this passion in his offspring, Malachi, eight, and Caspar, six, who had so far shown zero interest and had just grunted from behind their Xboxes at news of the latest garden addition.
He’d never intended to build the bloody thing himself. But then Hugh, the annoyingly alpha dotcom guru next door, spent two months’ gardening leave creating his own three-room treehouse suspended between three 100-year-old Scots pines, complete with a writing retreat (“Like he’d ever put pen to paper,” scoffed Toby), yoga platform and en plein air massage pod – and it was game on. Faced with this towering edifice and a crumpled ego, Toby proudly announced over a neighbourly weekend lunch that he too was about to take on a big project – much to the surprise of his ever-sanguine wife, Harriet, who knew full well that his prowess at building anything began, and swiftly ended, with Malachi’s ancient Meccano.
He booked the digger, consulted Google – how hard could it be? – and promptly eschewed Hugh’s advice to locate the pond further away from the nearby arable farmland, as well as his seemingly in-depth knowledge on waders, filtration systems and aquatic planting.
It took him two weeks to dig out over 100 tons of top soil, 24 hours to stretch out his liners and five days to landscape the banks, while Harriet opted – wisely – not to get involved. When the day came to begin filling the pool with water, even the boys abandoned their tech and whooped excitedly around the edges.
For a while the pond was indeed the idyllic oasis that Toby had envisaged – the boys spent weekends rowing their little boat and leaping from the jetty. The iris flowered, the reeds swayed and Toby glowed with pride. The water lilies, taken from his parent’s Edwardian garden in Berkshire, flourished and his corkscrew willows rustled pleasingly in the breeze.
With all the excitement, he failed to spot either the faulty filtration system or the algal bloom that had started to form around his marginal aquatics, upsetting the pond’s pH balance. By winter it had been infested with lethal bacteria and meddlesome microorganisms, the damselflies had departed, the carp had croaked and his phosphates had gone through the roof. The pond began to look as murky as Toby’s grasp on its delicately balanced eco-system.
And now he had to get to the bottom of it, literally. Dressed in waders, he began to collect armfuls of curly pondweed and algae. Weighed down by his slimy haul and momentarily distracted by Hugh in a perfect warrior pose on top of his treetop yoga platform, Toby lost his footing as his waders began to fill with water.
In a haze of stagnant mud and blind panic, Toby thrashed and screamed, knowing full well that Harriet was indoors immersed in a Bob Roth-guided meditation with her new noise-cancelling Dr Dre headphones. Just as he was envisaging the playlist at his own funeral, suddenly Toby was being hoisted out of the inky depths. He peered up to see Hugh deftly releasing the bloated waders with one hand and then dragging Toby towards the shallows. “Dangerous things, those waders,” said Hugh with just a flicker of a grin, as they finally caught their breath on dry land. “Dry yourself off and pop by the treehouse for a sundowner. I’m just celebrating finishing my first novel.”