Add to Soil and Water

14 February 2018

Just far enough away from the bustle of shop front pedestrians to be termed quiet, lies a shabby, rundown street called Mayberry Avenue.

At one end of the street, attached to an unremarkable block of flats, is a small, walled garden, and inside that garden there is almost nothing at all. There are no flower beds or grass and the only soil visible is in two holes where the poles for a washing line once stood. The rest of the bare earth is hidden from view beneath broken slabs of grey concrete, dusted with lichen.

Each afternoon, shadows from the tall trees outside in the street climb the walls of the garden and reach towards the ornate pedestal that stands at its centre. Shaped like a Greek column and once the base for a sundial, the pedestal now supports a cheap clay tub, half full of dirt and shiny pebbles. A scuffed path leads from the pedestal to the back corner of the garden, where a short flight of steps end at a dull wooden door, the handle of which, begins slowly to turn.

With the faintest of creaks and a light fall of dust from torn cobwebs, the door opens to reveal a vestibule full to bursting with dark heavy air. Mr Gardner, the owner of the property and last remaining tenant, emerges slowly into the sunlight, watery eyes blinking. His blotched parchment skin, pale and translucent, hangs on his bones. The expression on his face eroded by long years of solitude. Tendrils of unkempt white hair drift gently, high above his forehead like clouds on a mountain.

Mr Gardner wears, over ancient pyjamas, a worn thin dressing gown tied at the waist. On his feet are ill fitting slippers that leave his cracked heels exposed and in his unsteady grasp he carries a pot full of soil. He climbs slowly down the stairs and crosses to the pedestal, where, reaching up slightly, he places the plant pot in the tub. From his dressing gown pocket he produces a packet of seeds and carefully taps one out onto the palm of his hand. He puts the rest of the seeds back in his pocket then slowly and deliberately pushes one long knobbly finger into the earth. Mr Gardner takes the seed from his outstretched palm and drops it delicately into the darkness.

He pauses for a moment, hands resting on the pedestal, his eyes closed. He sees the garden as it once was. A low wooden fence, hemming in abundant beds of plants and flowers along each side of a well kept lawn. The air filled with the cries of exuberant children, rushing this way and that, engrossed in a strange game of their own devising. His daughter moves more slowly than the others and with greater care and while they laugh and shout, she only smiles.

Mr Gardner has a hole in his heart where his wife and child used to be. Slowly, over the years, almost all of his life has slipped away through it.

His hand lightly brushes earth on top of the seed before smoothing over the soil. He wipes his hands on the cloth covering his chest, then walks across to the wall, where he climbs the stairs to the door and goes back inside.

Each day, Mr Gardner emerges from the doorway and repeats his journey, pausing by the pedestal to carefully inspect the soil for any signs of life. He supplements his failing eyesight with the addition of an antique magnifying glass. Marred by one large crack and numerous scratches, it nevertheless provides him with his first glimpse of the seedling as it forces its way to the surface.

On subsequent visits Mr Gardner contents himself by gently stroking the newly unfurled leaves or lightly raking the surface of the soil with an ivory handled fork, the last remaining item from his wedding service. He keeps a record of the plant’s growth by marking its height on a wooden ruler with a red felt tip pen, the ruler’s edge stained like a rainbow.

The garden is a peaceful place and Mr Gardner spends as much of his time there as possible, pottering around, doing nothing in particular, always with one eye on his charge, growing straight and tall, unbowed by the weight of experience. As the bright sunlight begins to fade and the shadows of the trees lengthen and become less distinct, the darkening tea time sky signals that summer is coming to an end.

Fallen leaves cling to the wet concrete as heavy autumn rain falls on the garden. The door handle turns and Mr Gardner emerges, dressed almost exactly as before, except that now on his head is a dirty souwester and his slippered feet are wrapped in bags of white plastic. He climbs carefully down the steps, one hand on the rail to steady himself. Then crosses the slabs to the pedestal where he leans forward to observe the dripping plant through foggy eyes, rain splashing from the brim of his hat. He raises a chipped ceramic teapot with a tiger on the side and pours some of its contents onto the seedling, then a little more. Satisfied he turns, crosses the yard and climbs the stairs to the doorway where he pauses to shake like an arthritic dog before removing his hat and going back inside.

That night Mr Gardner lies in his bed staring at the rivers and tributaries of the cracks on the ceiling. Outside in the street he can hear drunks shouting and laughing. He rolls over and pretends to be asleep.

The next morning Mr Gardner descends the stairs and crosses to the pillar, carefully avoiding the puddled remains of yesterday’s downpour. Perhaps today there will be a bud or something to prune.

He squints at the empty space on top of the pedestal for a moment, very still. A small bubble of air escapes from his lips with a pop.

On the ground behind the pedestal he finds the smashed tub, dirt and pebbles strewn across the jigsaw paving. Amongst the debris is the plant pot, now empty, its contents spilled in a fan of soil and roots. Next to it the rest of the seedling, crushed by a muddy footprint. Mr Gardner bends down and gently peels the plant from the concrete, brushing soil from its leaves and placing it carefully on the upturned palm of his left hand.

Hidden in the darkest corner of the garden by shadows and cobwebs waits an old fashioned dustbin, pockmarked by rust and faded by time. Mr Gardner walks towards it and lifts the lid by its handle of knotted string. He pauses for a moment, gazing at the plant, the rich green of its leaves already beginning to fade, the stem crooked and bent. With the softest of sighs he tips the seedling out of his hand and watches as it tumbles down into the darkness. He replaces the lid with a clang and a scrape before returning to the foot of the stairs.

Mr Gardner looks back over his shoulder at the mess and gently shakes his head. Perseverance was the key, his wife had told him. Eventually one of his seeds would grow, like his daughter, to become a beautiful flower and this time he would find a way to make sure that her beauty didn’t wither and die. He sighs again and climbs the stairs to the door where he disappears inside, in search of a broom.

Tales Both Withered And Worn

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