Note: The following piece was commissioned by Writers’ Centre Norwich. Each year, WCN gathers up to forty writers and translators from around the globe in Norwich for the Worlds festival. Writers talk to each other about the art and craft of writing, spend time in each other’s company and join readers at public events. In 2011, Worlds focused on the notion of ‘Influence’, with commissioned provocations from Alfred Birnbaum, Maureen Freely, Natsuki Ikezawa, Gwyneth Lewis, Joyelle McSweeney, Christopher Merrill and CK Williams. A number of writers were commissioned to produce a literary response of their choice to the four day gathering.
I tore down the tomato plants today; I had to, they’d started to rot.
Apparently I had tied them too tightly to the bamboo canes, they had black wounds on their stalks, which bled upwards, and when the tomatoes came out they were soft and slimy, not green and hard like unripe things but grey and furred.
The squirrel in the garden watched me digging their roots out of the earth, sucking those toenail teeth of his and waiting for something. If it was tomatoes he had a long wait ahead of him. I thought of what you might say if you saw the mess I’d made of the tomatoes – probably you’d kneel down with me and help me pull at the roots. But maybe you’d just sit inside with your hand on the television remote, giving me the occasional look over your shoulder.
Since you left, I have been known to do a bit of gardening.
As far as I am aware, there are no rules say you have to be any good.
But when you went, I looked at our little yard, and thought that’s where everything should be.
There was always that old tree with the cooking apples, the ones that we left to go brown on the floor and collect wasps around them. Sometimes when we were kids we’d dare each other to kick a windfall apple as hard as we could. You had to run afterwards or you’d get stung. I read a book which told me when to plant, and the first time the passion flowers came out I looked at the phone for someone to call to come and look and then I unplugged it.
The new bird table attracts finches and great tits, of the good variety of bird. The nuisances are the woodpigeons who are too fat and who take over, and sometimes a robin who looks nice but who scares the rest of the birds away, never mind his sweet little chest. The worst, though is the squirrel in the garden who jumps from the willow birch and slithers his way up the peanut feeder. Even the wood pigeons fly away when he comes, even the robin too.
I raked up the windfall from the apple tree because they were starting to brown, and there is a new wasp nest built on the under hang of next door’s shed.
When we were kids you warned me away from eating the cooking apples – they were just for kicking. The only way to get the wasp out of your throat, you said, was to disconnect your head, surgically, of course, and let it fly out your neck.
That was a barefaced lie as far as I am aware.
The squirrel in the garden has been known to run through the daffodils in March, plucking off the heads and breaking the stems.
Buggering little shit.
I’ve planted beans and sweet peas, ivy and passion flowers and the dead tomatoes. I went down the list in the planting book and chose at random, because it mattered more that there was something there to fill up the space, not what it was. I didn’t know that sweet pea was a flower, and I kept picking off the blooms as they came out, like we used to do with the strawberry plants, and I kept waiting for the peas to come through.
It was about that time today, when I was tearing down the tomato plants, I noticed my hands are much smaller than I had ever realised, and yellow. I noticed this because in tearing down the tomato plants, I came across a man’s hand in the dirt, the colour of bone and big as my face.
The squirrel knew what it had done, and it jumped up on the lawn furniture, chattering and skipping from one foot to the other.
‘What have you done?’ I asked it.
The squirrel stood still and saw me with its clove eyes, then jumped from the lawn recliner into the apple tree and then into the elderberry and out of sight.