Bamboo: A Short Story
That was the summer I cut down the bamboo to let more light in and immediately missed the sound it made. I had no idea that bamboo was actually a clutch of stern fingers, shushing the wood pigeons and the seagulls. Without it, the garden was out of time. Old people clapping in between beats at a carol concert. Of course, by the time I realised, it was too late. I hadn’t looked up once as I hacked and chopped the bamboo into bald walking sticks. The roots were a pile of cold spaghetti, drying out in a bin bag. My bath water that night had dirt in it. I was too tired to clean my knees, and the scummy ring left round the tub. I suppose all this says a lot about me.
That was the summer that the neighbour five doors down rescued a one-eared cat called Bastard who ate dinner at everyone’s house. He’d scale one fence after another, more bloated and less elegant as he went. His stomach sagged, was always covered in dust and leaves. By the time he got to mine, he was a feral beast, wild on power and protein. We were supposed to send a text in the street’s WhatsApp group if he arrived in our garden. Mina would then come and collect him; ‘the wee bastard’ she’d say, ‘he’s on his fifth dinner!’
I didn’t text the WhatsApp group when Bastard came mewling at my patio door. Instead, I hand fed him wafer-thin ham that was the same colour as his tongue, piece by piece. When Mina knocked on the door, I didn’t even hide the empty packet, and everyone knew I was a vegetarian because once I bragged about things like that. I’m pretty sure there was a WhatsApp group all about me. Mina probably started it. Fingers dancing over the keys; ‘obviously it’s awful what happened, but I made her an apple crumble and she’s still got my best dish. I mean, manners cost nothing.’
That was the summer that the foxes turned against me. Skulked in a pack to paw through my bin bags. My poor diet and all those half-finished poems I wrote to you, set free to dance brazenly down the road, lit up by streetlights. My clumsy references to your body, caught in the drain outside number 24. Excruciating metaphors about dead flowers, pasted to Mina’s car window. I’d do the walk of shame in one of your old t-shirts, collecting words I’d tried to find to make sense of you, to keep you in the present, coated in scat and stained by tea bags.
That was the summer I peered through other people’s windows as they ate Sunday dinners, trying to remember what happiness looked like. If it was a certain sofa and coffee table arrangement, or something more complex, like those IKEA units with all the holes in them. I had forgotten how it felt. Once, in France, we had crème brulee. You cracked the brown sugar casing and fed me vanilla cream. I snatched the spoon off you, scraped the tiny bowl clean. You laughed and tried to order me another one. The waiter didn’t understand you. He bought a gateau instead. I laughed at your accent. You ate the cake even though you didn’t like it. Was that happiness? I wish I had kept that tiny silver spoon.
That was the summer that everyone who spoke to me their head tilted to one side like a daisy stem in the wind. I’d notice the cords of their necks bulging out as they asked me how I was. ‘Oh me?’, I said, ‘I’m fine. But how about you? Is your neck okay?’
As if I could care about anyone but you.
Falling apart was a bit like the time I went over the handlebars of my red BMX. I always known it was a possibility. I’d been going far too fast, not looking down. I’d been having far too much fun. As the ground rose up to meet me, I knew it would hurt, but, God, not how much. Aged ten I had a scab on my nose, and I picked it till it scarred. Aged forty, it was on my heart, and I did the same. Sank my nails under the soft crust and pulled until it bled again.
That was the summer that I gave away everything I owned to charity. Stopped buying new books and cut out sugar in my tea. I thought that if everything was awful, maybe your loss would be less. I was wrong and the days were small. I cut my toenails too close. Walking hurt and half-moons of blood coloured my socks. I cried over flowers that dared to bloom, knowing that autumn and winter was waiting for them. I kept telling them how pointless it was, but they didn’t listen. Sunflowers smiled at me, smug and happy. I ripped petals. I kept poppy seeds in jars like prisoners. I boiled strawberries until they exploded into mush. I let your prize tomatoes overripe, pressed my thumbs into their skin. My touch, bullets through rotten fruit. They bled down the wooden slats, left tiny pips in between my toes. I missed you like oxygen. How you’d painstakingly peel every single piece of pith from my orange, but cram your own in whole, chewing happily.
Bastard came to me at night. Curled round my bare legs like a ribbon of smoke. Maypole dancing for me alone. We ate cheese. He shit on my flowers. I wanted to hate him but also, he was all I had.
By autumn, everyone had stopped bothering. They’d done their bit. It was time I did mine. Washed my hair and took the accumulative rubbish bags on the drive to the dump. Polite notes about my overhanging bush fell onto the doormat with a slapping sound. There were jokes to be made, but Bastard didn’t get them. The rain came like a festival. Danced over my leaking sunroom roof and played a tune in the empty plant pots. The grass turned into a football pitch. The last of the poppies got beheaded. I told you so, I told them. Life is one long war.
Bastard stopped coming. Your German friend said there was no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes. Also, I wanted to add, bad cats. I wanted company, but only yours. My mouth was rusty. An old, seized tap. Christmas songs played on the radio. I silenced them with a single finger. Wore your deerstalker hat round the shops, flaps down to block out the noise. Tins of chocolates winked at me. Wrapping paper was exhausting to walk past, with its never-ending pictures of smiling dogs in santa hats. I wanted wallpaper of you. Your smile running for meters and miles. I wanted to cover myself in it. I got asked to leave a lot of shops. I had to pay damages more than once.
I want to tell you that this summer is better. I want to tell you that I’m not that person anymore. I would be lying. But when the flowers came back, I didn’t hate them for their ability to do so. I watered them with the garden hose that you taped up. I loved that you were so frugal about some things and so ridiculously extravagant in other ways. The finest earl grey tea served in a mug salvaged from the dump. I loved so many things about you. I love so many things about you. I still don’t know what do with it all. You are still here inside me. Everything I ever felt for you, I still feel. I tried to plant you into the ground. Your tomatoes and poppies. Seeds you saved in envelopes. I forgot how much your spiky handwriting looked like the screen of a vital signs monitor. You know the ones, they show temperature, pulse, breathing, and blood pressure. You have none of those things anymore. I like to think of you now as pollen. Stuck on the fuzzy behind of fat yellow bees. Being spread like butter from plant to plant, garden to garden. Across the whole of England. Almost as big as my loss.