A short story by Lauren C. Maltas
I heard a man on the radio talking about tree protection orders. He called them ‘t-p-o’s’ and I thought, that’s an anagram of pot, top, opt, and close to ‘tpe’, which is a train company that used to run through my local station. Add a ‘y’ to tpo and you’ve got a typo.
I didn’t really hear what he was saying, it’s a very old radio and it’s grown intermittently fuzzy, unreliable. Good company though, and realistic too, it’s rare you catch every single word someone says to you, or near you, or at you.
Later, he tells the interviewer about the importance of tpos to the echo-system.
It has reached that time of year where the shed is now symptomatic of the cold, by which I mean bunged up, stuffy, aching under its own weight. There are tender succulents, and cactus plants, and dahlia bulbs in storage. Seat cushions, fence paint, wind chimes, spiders, seeds, all kinds of sticks and twigs, a family of black plastic pots. I heard on the news the reason you can’t recycle these black plastic pots, or any black plastic, is because it doesn’t reflect light, so sorting scanners can’t detect it. I learnt somewhere else that sea birds don’t take colour into consideration, they eat plastic because it accumulates algae and begins to smell like the food they forage for. I also learnt that the only way to tell the difference between a daffodil bulb and a white onion, is to cut it open and breathe it in. The daffodil won’t smell like an onion, and it won’t bring tears to your eyes. You could also plant them both up and wait to see which one will produce yellow flowers, but your hunger will have passed by then. I saw a programme once about a farm in Powys near where a friend used to live, growing daffodils for its natural compound Galantamine, which is supposed to slow the advancement of Alzheimer’s. My grandfather used to grow them for my grandma, he didn’t know they might have helped her, they are just pretty things to grow. He grew one for me too, wrote my name on one of those yellow plastic labels you stick in the ground as a companion to your plant. I still have it, it’s somewhere in this shed.
If you shut the shed door firmly on a Sunday, you can’t hear the cars on the road outside. I measured it once, from where my front gate starts it’s about a yard to the road. I’d estimate that means if you ran a tape from there, through the house and out to the shed, it would be about nine yards. Or an average giraffe and a half laid down. Or about four and a bit of me. There’s another road at the back, but it’s much quieter. My shed is an island between the two, but I have string lights instead of Belisha beacons. Anyway, the point is that you can’t hear the cars even though they’re only about nine yards away. I put a buffet in there about a year ago, it’s nice to sit and not hear cars for a bit. You can’t really hear the birds either though, unless you open the door a fraction, but then of course you let a bit of traffic in as well. I put a brick to hold it open, which seems to let equal parts bird to car filter through. Sometimes I take a book in there with me, or I listen to the battered old wind-up radio that used to be my grandfather’s. I remembered that he left me some binoculars too, so I dug them out. My favourite bird is a wren, but I never see those. Someone just down the hill felled a huge sycamore that the pigeons had claimed for years, it took two men to make tens of birds homeless. I saw the name ‘Nick’ on one of their shirts, I thought he would be more suited as ‘fire’ or ‘flood’.
I didn’t know that crows eat pigeon eggs, until I saw it happen. They moved to a tree near the giant horse chestnuts where the crows nest. I wondered if there was anything I could do but then I remembered I wasn’t even seeing any of it with my own eyes. I try not to look at them every day now. You can’t help look in that direction though, one of the houses through the trees is heavily sheeted in blue and white lights, it looks dreadful. I wondered if they know I can see into their rooms, at their white shining worktops and the conservatory with the mildewy blinds. Their neighbour had a better idea, just a string of golden icicles, very subtle and still. All I know about them is they have a green Skoda and a big dog, the son tries to pick it up every day but he’s only small. The eldest daughter moved out a few months ago. I hardly ever see the man next to them, just further up the hill. I asked a relative if they knew anything about him, said I wanted to tell him that the frost melts off his roof faster than his neighbours, said he might need to get someone to look at it. She said she didn’t think people appreciate observations like that anymore. I told her I would, if it were me. She said, anyway I don’t know what to tell you, I know he’s lived there ages, think he might have had a wife and one or two daughters at some point, but I guess they’re gone now. Moved on I expect.
Last I saw him, might have been last Christmas, I ordered a parcel and it got left at the house round the back of the green Skoda. I wasn’t happy about that, having to come out in the cold, I would’ve gone to the shop myself if I’d wanted to leave the house. Anyway, I saw him then. The back of his head, at least. I thought he might have been Robert de Niro, because he had a similar shaped head, but his hair was scruffy and longer. Not thin, I bet he wasn’t one for wearing hats, that’ll be why. He didn’t see me, well I didn’t really see much of him. I’ve kept looking though, occasionally, after I’ve read a few chapters in the shed, I might look up and check on him. He doesn’t have a car, I don’t think, so I can’t tell when he’s in.
He’s started winding the blind down in the kitchen when he eats. I suppose it must get cold in there. He’s got a big cooker though so you’d think it’d be warm, I see his cat sat in front of it in an old fruit crate. Cats only sit where it’s warm, it likes to sit in his greenhouse in the summer too, where he grows tomatoes. Best tomatoes I ever grew were ‘Rosella’ ones, so I think that’s what he might grow as well. I nicknamed the cat ‘Rosella’ for a while, but then I fell out with it. I became convinced it was a tom cat for some reason, maybe I saw something through the binoculars one day that changed my mind, I don’t know, I might have forgotten. Anyway, I was listening to this radio show about Nobel prize winners and they mentioned a Swiss chap called Hess, who’d won it for finding out which parts of the brain control the internal organs. I thought he sounded like a good person to invite over for dinner, but then the radio told me Hess had done his research experimenting on cats, and I thought about Rosella, or no-named-cat at this point, and turned it off. I decided I’d call the cat ‘Hess’ after that, seen as he was a man too, and I thought it was right the cat had a Nobel prize winning name, seen as it was his brain and his internal organs.
He tends not to have many visitors, so I can’t really bump into them and ask questions about him. He gets a few come around Christmas, but I always think they wouldn’t if they didn’t have the free time, and the tradition forcing them. He doesn’t put lights up on his house, or a wreath, but he lights some taper candles in the window. One of them burns away a number each night of advent, which is a nice thing to see. I wondered if he knew it also helped me to see him better. I’m reading a book about British wildflowers, and found one I hadn’t heard of called ‘Enchanter’s Nightshade’. The first thing it tells you is ‘Along the glades of damp woods, beside the thickets and undergrowths, will be found this tall, slender plant.’ I thought it sounded like the start of a spell I would have written on my arm in invisible ink when I was young. I checked when the book was written because you don’t hear people talking about glades anymore. I reckon you could say his house is in a glade, they probably chopped most of the trees down to build his house and the others. It seems right that he lives amongst the trees, he’s like a tree. I can see him better in the winter when the leaves are gone. He puts food out for the birds, and plants grow well around him. He doesn’t seem to need much. He always looks out of the window when it rains, like he is thirsty, when I’m looking out for flooding.
I thought he might like this book, so I went round when I knew he was out. I had a quick glance through the kitchen window too. He has too many plates, and a mountain of magazines on the table. There’s a barometer above the door which leads into the front room, if his house is structured anything like mine. I saw a line of muddy boots and shoes under the radiator, and a pair of burgundy floral slippers with bows on the fronts, which were much smaller than the others. He has a row of postcards on the shelf above the cooker, one of them looks like the harbour at Staithes, and one of them is definitely The Needles at the Isle of Wight. I think the rest were artistic, I didn’t recognise them. I ended up going round the other corner, because I heard a noise and wanted to see if everything was okay. I was just admiring the pattern on the pelmets when I started to feel uneasy, like someone was watching. I checked again, and no one was, but I heard a faint bell jingle and I thought it must be Hess. I don’t know why, but I scarpered away like the mouse I disturbed in my loft this morning. I suppose it was an instinct. He shouldn’t know I’d been there. Anyway, I pushed the book through his letterbox and walked home.
I didn’t go to the shed for a few hours, but then when I did the buffet broke. Too many hours of me sat scoffing biscuits I suppose. I managed to fix it up before it got dark, and I swapped it for a metal stool I used to use in the workshop. He wasn’t in at first, but then he came back. He carried his shopping bags up the slope like they were pneumatic drills and I thought he might break in half. Hess was sat waiting for him on the doorstep, like he was going to tell him.
I decided I was hungry so I went inside and made some soup, peeled the potatoes for the dauphinoise I made later. It was the first time I’d made it, only ever seen it on a chilled shelf, but I’ve been wanting to. There’s a new programme started about the culture of food and I watched the one about France. I’ve been once, wanted to go again. Even tried learning the language a few times. I couldn’t really get my head around all the terms, still to this day couldn’t tell you what a participle is. I know they are something to do with the past. Anyway, I’ve always admired it. Dauphin, that’s dolphin. Looks nothing like a potato, unless it’s got very strange eyes growing out of it, and you’ve a good imagination. I knew that for a long time the heir to the throne in France was known as ‘le dauphin’, but I found out the first person to use that name was Guiges IV of Albon. They think he got it from his mother’s distant relative, Dolfin of Carlisle. I think she must have really loved him. I don’t know why he was called Dolfin, there are no dolphins in Carlisle. It is about ten miles from Scotland though, and there are plenty of dolphins around the west coast up there. I think, as a title, ‘The Dolphin’, is quite nice. I expect all those people with dolphin tattoos would probably agree.
I ended up back in the shed after a while. There wasn’t much else to do. His house was dark, which was a bit odd, there’s usually a lamp or a candle or something. But then he appeared in the kitchen window, half in shadow and looking out. I put the binoculars down and shuffled to the edge of the window. He stood looking out for quite a while, my neck strained, but I waited it out. Eventually he turned into the kitchen and dragged one of the chairs up to the window. When he sat down it made him smaller, it could have been a child stood there watching out, if I didn’t know it was him, because I’ve been watching. He reached over the table and pulled my book out. I grabbed my binoculars without looking at them, as though he was a kingfisher, which we don’t get round here. He was still. My binoculars told me he was a quarter-way through the book, probably near the Enchanter’s Nightshade I was waiting to see.
I must have been tapping my foot, like I do, because a jar of seeds was knocked over and spilled everywhere. I would have left them, to keep watching him, but the sound was like rice through a sieve, and itchy, as they slipped towards the gaps in the wooden slats. I couldn’t find my pan and brush quickly, which caused a frenzy, knocking the plants and pots, twigs scattering everywhere, seeds still raining down, pouring out, like a flood of tiny spiders. I shattered the jar of plant food too and got white powder, like baking soda, on my hands. When I picked up the binoculars to check he was still there in the midst of the mess, he wasn’t. That was it. No lights. No book. I decided to sweep what seeds I could salvage with my bare hands.
I didn’t watch him as much after that. I saw him occasionally and he looked the same. Eventually I forgot about the book and all that, and it took me ages to get the shed back right. I thought about Hess a lot, and the tomatoes. I think I’ll try a different variety this year. I heard on a radio programme that the best way to grow big tomatoes is to thin out the small ones and leave the bigger ones to grow. Sometimes, they said, you might get two big ones on the same stem. I thought that would be marvellous, but they said no, they get too close , it interferes with the air circulation, they get a kind of blight and both go bad. They said it’s much better to keep them apart, to sacrifice one for the other.
Lauren is a poet and writer from Calderdale in West Yorkshire. She has written on environmental and social issues including experiences of Alzheimer’s disease and everyday loneliness. In her free time she likes to garden, and runs The Discomfort Project, which works to support fledgling student writing. You can follow her work on Twitter here.