Read an Excerpt
By Nicola Barker
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1995 Nicola Barker
All rights reserved.
Some people open up like flowers; slowly, painstakingly, each petal unfurling, reacting, affirming. Responding, simply, to warmth and to tending.
Other people can be peeled; like a fruit—like an orange or a pomelo—the skin comes off, and underneath is something full and ripe, perfectly segmented, waiting to be apportioned by deft and inquisitive fingers.
Doug was like an egg. A boiled egg. Hard-boiled. He was knocked once, twice, many times, and his shell cracked, and it crumbled, and underneath was something slippery and rubbery and not especially digestible.
If he hadn't been hard-boiled, he would have dropped from his shell, moist, sloppy, just a mess. In certain respects, in retrospect, that might have been preferable.
I'd been wrong about Doug all along. I'd thought he was an oyster: barnacle-hard outside, abrasive even, but with a vulnerable interior, maybe a pearl in there somewhere, hidden, precious, protected. I also considered at certain points that he might be a beetle. Beetles, it seems, like some other insects, have a skeleton on the outside and the flesh, the soft bits, inside. People are traditionally soft on the outside, and the bones, the frame, the supports are hidden away within layers of skin and fat and muscle. That's exactly how I am. Soft and yielding, like tripe to the touch.
Well Doug, Doug was a boiled egg, hard-boiled with a blueish pallor—white turned blue—a pale yellow yolk (his heart, not soft either), and he was extremely entrenched, obscenely contained and mystifyingly, ridiculously, maybe even deceptively proud of himself.
We'd all worked as gardeners in the park for several years before the whole enterprise was privatized and a group of us—me, Doug and not forgetting Ray (Big Ray)—formed a partnership and along with Nancy, our driver, made a successful bid for the contract.
Doug was always nominally in charge. I'm too shy to do anything but blush and blunder. Ray, well, he's moonish, and tender and completely unfocused. Doug is incredibly reasonable, too reasonable—monosyllabic, in general, admittedly—awesome, though, terrifying, as hard as a nut; a literal tough-nut. He is fair-minded but merciless. If he has a rule book (and he'll usually find one close at hand) then he'll play by it.
Working with Doug is like playing a game of snooker. The park is the green baize. We all look after the baize, we nurture it, we love it—but more of that later—and Doug is the white ball. He sets all the other balls in motion. He doesn't confer, he doesn't request, he doesn't even cooperate. Doug simply knocks into the other balls, slams into them, bangs into them. Balls of all colours. And I'm a red ball. Shy. Embarrassed. Always the first to be pocketed, to scamper and scarper.
Doug's technique is remarkably simple. Physical. He's the big ball, the biggest ball. That's all. He is also, and I guess this is ironic—or else this whole snooker business just isn't working—Doug is also the black ball. He is the first and the last. If he leaves the table then the game is over.
There's one question you should never ask Doug. Never ask Doug where he's from. I know where he's from because many is the time I've heard him talking French, a strange French, like a list of exotic ingredients from a fancy cookbook, to his wife, Mercy, who he walked out on a fortnight ago after thirty years of marriage.
Doug comes from a place full of bright birds and sun and tall trees. I can imagine this place so clearly, can even imagine Doug there, kicking up sand, shouting at people. It's an island. One island in the Lesser Antilles: Martinique. I looked it up in my big old atlas. I saw the arc of Doug's islands, islands humped in the Caribbean sea like the backbone of a long-forgotten animal. Barbuda, Antigua, Guadeloupe, Dominica, Martinique, St Lucia, St Vincent, Grenada, Doug's Islands.
Everything about him gives him away, external things, so he holds himself in, his real self, his inside-self, every-part.
Every muscle tenses, resists, contains. That's Doug all over. With his neat greying beard, his black hair, his hands like clams, his dark, bloodied eyes, his accent which is as strong and thick as rich molasses.
In fact, though, in truth, he comes from Palmers Green, North London. We all do: me and Ray and Doug and Saleem (one-legged Saleem, our squatter, my persecutor, our old curator) and Nancy. That Nancy.
Well, the park is my soul. I live off it, I work on it, I live for it. I love it. Doug loves it too, but lately he's taken to growing vegetables—out back, in the greenhouses which are no longer open to the public. Giant vegetables. He thinks the punters don't notice when they peek through the glass, expecting succulents, orchids, exotica. He thinks they aren't surprised, shocked, maybe even piqued when they see only row upon row of onions (Doug's an onion, yes, I like that. An onion) or marrows, cabbages, tomatoes. The occasional giant, merry sprig of a carrot top.
'Phil,' Doug said, last time I broached the subject of the vegetables—and the other things too, more recent peculiarities—'Phil.' (He takes every opportunity to say my name, rolls it on his tongue, pronounces it 'feel', which never fails to activate something in me, something inside, something vulnerable and inadequate, something connected to feeling too much but expressing nothing, something soft and sad.) 'Phil, whosoever diggeth a pit shall fall in it.'
Doug has another saying, equally incomprehensible, which he'll interchange randomly with this one; 'Phil, Phil, what-ya gonna do when your well runs dry? Huh?' He won't wait for an answer. He's too preoccupied. He'll saunter off (that saunter, a true gardener's gait) and he'll be rubbing his hands, jangling the keys in his pocket and expectorating; drawing something deep from his throat which he'll expel neatly into the border as he wanders past the perennials.
By then I'll be blushing. Fool. I'm thinking about 'Feel'. Feel.
Whosoever diggeth a pit.
Ray was digging a deep hole next to the perimeter fence on the east side of the park and preparing to sink a gate-post into it. He was glossy with sweat. He stopped digging as I approached.
'Whosoever diggeth a pit,' I said.
'Now that,' Ray answered mopping his wide forehead with his fat arm, 'That's Bobby Marley.'
'You're kidding me. I thought it was biblical.'
Ray shrugged. 'Could be originally, but I'm sure I heard it in a Bob Marley song.'
Ray must be well over twenty stone, has long, frizzy blonde hair, a straggly beard, green eyes, the face of a cherub. I told him Doug had requested a meeting at five, in the house, the kitchen.
'You, me, him and Nancy.'
Ray rested on his spade. 'It seems like Doug's finally cracked,' he said, grinning gently. 'At long last. And that's what comes,' he added, 'that's what comes of being too solid for too long.'
I didn't like this kind of talk. 'He's only left his wife,' I said calmly. 'That's all.'
Ray remained undaunted. 'He's talking to himself.'
'I do that too, sometimes, when I'm not thinking clearly.'
'You're like royalty. You talk to your plants. Doug's just talking. All the time.'
'He's got a lot on his mind. There's the meeting with the council to reassert our tender on Friday. That won't be much fun. It won't be easy. And Doug's the man to pull it off.'
Ray nodded his assent. 'Doug's the man, yes, but he hasn't done a stroke of work in weeks now.'
I shrugged. I said, 'He's keeping busy.'
Ray scowled. 'He's up to something,' he said. 'He's tipping the scales ...'
Ray made a strange, scale-tipping gesture with his two arms. 'And I don't know,' he added, 'what that actually means for the rest of us, and for this place.'
He looked around him, at his spade, the mud, the grass, the fence.
I cleared my throat. I said, 'Things are chugging over, just like they've always done.'
Ray shrugged, yanked up his spade and returned to his digging. 'Someone,' he said, grunting out every syllable with each cut of the soil, 'Someone is going to have to do something.' And after he'd finished speaking, the slice of his spade added a further five syllables: And it won't be me.
I watched Ray digging for a moment. If only, I thought, Doug'd opened up gently, like a flower.
I had a thorough understanding of how flowers worked.
How big is it? Christ knows. An average size. Not a grand park. Not your Victoria, your Hyde, your Hampstead Heath. It seems small because of its unpretentiousness. Even so, it has pretensions. Used to have a Tudor museum—black, white, criss-crossed beams—stuck wham-bam in the middle of it, facing the water, reflected in the water; three little lakes and a round ornamental pond over to the right where kids paddle—contravening the park regulations—in the summer.
The museum was burned down, years ago now, but its black, burnt-out shell remains, and Saleem, its curator, well, more about her later. We used to have a proper athletics track: red, official, fenced off, very impressive, but we grew it over a while back. Athletes go down to Tottenham or up to Enfield now.
The tennis courts—six of them, slightly overgrown, but in working order—stand adjacent to the greenhouses. There's also a wild section, which is purposefully unkempt, circled by silver birch, where the squirrels dart. A bandstand, Doug's pride and joy, recently built at his instigation out of raw, dark-stained, splinter-pushing pine. An adventure playground that any park would be proud of.
To the north is the hill which is grass, mainly, where people come to picnic. We have public toilets—Ladies, Gents—and behind these are the private areas, staff-only places, which consist of a barn—a lovely barn—and the house where Saleem squats, where Doug is skulking, now he's left his wife. Now he's opened up and gone crackers.
It was three o'clock that same Wednesday afternoon and I was planting geraniums over by the bandstand. I had twenty plants in all and wasn't particularly optimistic about the contribution these would make to the display as a whole which was scruffy and sparse and relatively shambolic. This was Doug's patch, supposedly.
I was deciding whether to plant them in a half-moon, close to the border, or whether to distribute them more freely among the spider plants—this display's main constituent. The spider plants had been Ray's idea. His reasoning was that they grew quickly, reproduced easily, and that they were, most importantly, green. I doubted whether they'd last the winter out, but they'd cost us nothing which, as we're broke, was all that really mattered.
Nancy had promised to drive over a new, cheap assortment of annuals from Southend at some point. She'd arranged to get them on credit. She has the gift of the gab, and it's a useful gift. I wish I had it.
I dug a hole with my trowel near to the front of the bed. Behind me, as I worked, I could hear the gravel shift and scuffle, and another familiar noise, a plunging, a sucking-plucking. One-legged Saleem. I could see her from the corner of my eye, swinging over, staggering over. I pretended to be engrossed.
'Phil,' she said, 'what's up?' She drew very close. 'Planting pansies, eh?'
'Geraniums.' I popped one in and pressed the soil firm around its roots.
'Yeah? What's a geranium do?' She poked her stick out, automatically, and pushed it into the soft soil to the right of the new plant. 'How's that?'
I widened the hole with the trowel and placed the new plant.
'What's it do? I love knowing what they do. You're clever like that.'
'You could dry the root. It's astringent. A kind of tonic. You could take it internally for diarrhoea or use it as a gargle. It's a good gargle.'
'Who'd've thought it?' She bounced a step back and made a further hole. I moved over and planted the next one. 'Who'd've thought it, eh?'
I grimaced. She stared at me closely, 'Are you busy, Phil? Are you working too hard? Are you hot? Catching the sun, maybe? You've got bright little flames in both cheeks.'
I tried to distract her, to evade her questions, to drag her eyes away from my skin which always ripens at her approach, always reddens. 'You're getting mud on your stick.'
'Huh?' She inspected it, 'Nah, Soil's dry. Needs a water.'
'It's moist for August.'
'It's moist for August!'
She guffawed and threw herself down on to the grass verge. I glanced at her for a moment and then turned my back and carried on planting.
Saleem has long, black hair and a lean face. Skin the colour of caramel. Half dark Hindu, half Greek. A curious hybrid. She looks like a cobra in a wig. She speaks with a forked tongue. She hates me. I don't know why.
'Can we talk, Phil?'
'While you work, then.'
I smell her hate, always, and it's a hot-hate, has a hot smell which makes me shrivel, inside, outside. And she loves to stare, to invade, to gouge. She lives for it.
'While you work, then,' she repeated.
I said nothing.
'Am I irritating you or something?'
She prodded the base of my back with the tip of her stick.
I swatted her stick with my arm but didn't turn.
'You're just too sensitive,' Saleem said, and by the sound of her voice she had a smile on her lips. 'And usually,' she added, 'I wouldn't care, but lately, well, things are coming to a head and I'm looking to you for some kind of decisive action.'
I didn't respond to this, didn't rise to her, and she, in turn, was silent for a minute, sitting up straight, viper-still, her amputated leg jutting out in front of her like the short butt of a cigar.
'You know, sometimes, Phil, your natural reserve comes across like a kind of hostility. Turn and look at me, Phil,' she added, almost whispering. 'Turn and look, go on. Go on, Phil. Turn and face me. Look at me. Go on.'
My head was so low as I spoke that my chin touched my chest. She laughed at this. Her incisors are protrusive, are very clearly pointed. I could picture them in my mind, and the very idea of them scorched me, scalded me. She prodded me again, sharp in the back with her stick. 'Go on, Phil, go on. Go on.'
And I blocked out her taunting, was working, like I'd said, was busy, was working, was planting, was digging. Quickly, busily. Five plants, then four plants. Then three plants left, only three, and after I'd placed those I'd have to turn to face her and she'd see, with glee, that I was burned by her proximity, that I was red as beet, purple-red as beet. Two plants left. One plant.
I turned. But Saleem wasn't looking at me. She was a hooded reptile, yes, still a reptile, drawn up to spit, rocking, readying herself, but suddenly not focusing on me, but staring beyond me, over my shoulder, at the museum, its black shell. I thanked God for it, the museum. That was a skin she'd shed a long time ago, but she kept on inspecting it, sniffing at it, mulling it over.
I turned away again, shuffled the soil into smoothness with my palms, broke down lumps with my thumb and forefinger, patted it, softened it. And for a minute or so I was still blushing, red and ripe and bright as a poppy. Blood. My curse.
You see, I blushed before I could walk, before I could talk. People's eyes invade me and make me anxious. Maybe because I think too well of other people, or maybe because I don't think well enough of myself. My schooldays were tortured, my teenyears a wash-out, and when I grew older, my only recourse was to disguise. Girls wear green-tinted make-up. Yes, that helps to hide blushes, apparently. I grew my hair, a mass of curls that fall over my face, cover my ears, which always tingle first, sting and heat up. A neat and moderately well-spread beard—up my cheeks, down my neck—helps to shelter further exposed flesh. I am Monkey Man. I am Mountain Man. I am Scott of the Antarctic after a very long expedition.
Doug told me once, in a lighter moment, that my face was a vagina—all curls, all hair, with pink lips protruding and a small nose, labia-like, just above—a tender fold. After that I knew I didn't just feel strange, vulnerable, like a whelk when its shell has been jerked open, but that I seemed strange to others, that I looked strange to others.
It's all so complete, so perfect. A sun, a moon, a circle, a cycle. Maybe I think too much. Maybe I don't think enough. Saleem knows all this. She smells it. She sees it with her yellow eyes.
'What's that?' she asked suddenly, pointing with her stick. I followed its line. To the right of the museum I could see Doug in the distance, carrying what looked like a small tree.
'What's he up to?'
'I don't know. He's working.'
'Come off it! Anyway. I don't mean Doug. I mean that ...' She continued pointing and added, 'A plant. Inside the building, the museum.'
I squinted. It was too far to see anything, not clearly.
'It's a plant,' she insisted, 'crawling up where the chimney used to be.'
I looked again, still not seeing but vaguely remembering—the park, its constituent parts, every small thing etched in my very heart—I said, 'I think it's a passion flower, growing up in the charcoal and old cinder.'
'What kind of a plant?'
'A creeper. It has a beautiful flower. White and very ornate. In Jamaica they have a variation which they call a grenadilla. Doug might know more about it.'
'I bet it grew from my leg,' she said. 'My skin and foot. During the fire, that's where the burning beam fell, right there.'
I stared at her. She was warped. She was rubbing the stump of her knee, smiling. I shuddered.
'What does it do?'
'It works like a kind of morphine, affects the circulation and increases the rate of respiration. In homeopathic medicine they use its narcotic properties to treat dysentery. Sleeplessness. Some types are used for treating hysteria and skin inflammation.'
Excerpted from Small Holdings by Nicola Barker. Copyright © 1995 Nicola Barker. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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