Guerrilla Gardening   – EGT and Beth Chatto Writing Competition. October 2022. Highly Commended.

Since Barry retired from the army the garden has become a full-time job.  His lawn is golfing green perfection, carefully mown into stripes that align with vigilantly maintained borders.  It has become an obsession, edges are neat and trimmed, and it is regularly fed, watered and raked.  Barry is at war with nature.  Weeds are the enemy and he is battle ready.  He zealously hunts them down and annihilates them, choosing from his arsenal of weeding implements and wide selection of weedkillers.  His borders are immaculate, flowers stand in regiments, ready for their daily inspection – tall ones at the back and short ones at the front.   His planting scheme is colour coordinated – whites, pinks and purples, with a thick layer of bark chippings to supress those enemy weeds.   

In the centre of the lawn is a neat rectangular pool, edged with paving slabs.  His wife, Betty, rarely ventures into the garden, but likes to look out at the pool while she washes the dishes or dusts in the conservatory.  Barry has cemented a concrete statue of Buddha onto the slabs at one end of the pool.  He is not a man who goes in for all this alternative religion nonsense, and explains to Betty that the statue has nothing to do with religion.  It is just a tasteful ornament which is fashionable in modern garden design. Betty suggests that Buddha might be offset by half a dozen goldfish whose bodies could glimmer in the sun.  The goldfish are purchased and released into the pond, but this design idea is thwarted within a day by a family of Herring gulls who feast on the goldfish and marvel at such a delicious aperitif.  Buddha now gazes serenely over crystal-clear water which is regularly dosed with chlorine to discourage wildlife and weeds.  Betty is no longer allowed to make garden design suggestions and has been decommissioned.  Her domain is the house and there is plenty for her to do in there.  She continues in her civilian role, assisting his gardening manoeuvres by washing and ironing his outdoor clothes.  She embraces her role with zeal and he gardens in a freshly pressed, pastel shirts, pristine beige trousers, a white sunhat and clean blue gardening gloves. 

Next door to Barry’s perfect patch lies a jungle where plants clamber and tumble.  His neighbour Yvonne is also a keen gardener but her approach is light touch and experimental.  There is no overall plan and she accepts plants from friends and family, irrespective of their colour and shape.  As she gardens, she asks herself ‘What does nature suggest?  What works in this soil? Which plants might thrive in this dry Essex climate?  How can I attract more bees?’  In her garden, narrow gravel paths meander through beds where flowers and vegetables grow together.  Her garden is organic, full of variety, some areas are cultivated and others full of wildflowers (or weeds, as Barry regularly reminds her).  Her large woodpile is home to insects and toads, her pond teems with life.  Abundant with pond-skaters and beetles, water snails, and water boatmen,  dragonflies and mayflies.  In spring she loves to sit by the pond with a cup of tea, just listening to the mass of croaking frogs.  Each year, she marvels at the growing bundles of frogspawn, which quickly turn into tadpoles, some of which survive and others which feed the garden birds.  Her garden is a place that embraces natures lifecycles – birth, growth, maturity, decline and demise. 

Barry and Yvonne are not friends, but they talk over the garden fence while they tend to their plants.  Their conversations are usually polite, but they have little in common apart from their love of gardens.  So, while they speak often, it is as though they speak a different language, rarely understanding the gardening concerns and interests of the other.  Yvonne thinks her neighbour is locked into his military past which explains his constant engagement in a futile battle with nature and wildlife.  She inwardly condemns his extravagant use of pesticides but says nothing.  She watches him strut around and winces as she hears him bark orders at his wife. 

Barry finds his neighbour unsettling in all respects, from her funny ideas about gardens to her slovenly appearance.  Yvonne gardens in her oldest clothes, a faded t-shirt and oversized shorts in the summer, topped by a well-worn gardening coat in the winter.  Barry is not surprised that Yvonne has been unable to find herself a husband – what with her sun-baked skin, messy hair and those masculine, mud encrusted hands.  He supposes that she has given up all hope in the looks department.  That’s what happens to some middle-aged women – they just stop caring what other people think. 

Barry is at war and his ongoing battles with nature are apparent to all.  He is annoyed about birds pecking around and disturbing his bark chippings, and about influxes of blackfly sullying the perfection he has created.  He worries about his lawn and has sleepless nights on account of the weeds.  Every day is marked by a series of skirmishes.  Today he huffs and puffs, red faced and exasperated as he scrubs off the trickles of seagull shit on Buddha’s shoulder and hand.  Then he grumbles about worm casts and brushes them away angrily.    

His most recent mission is hush-hush – a covert operation.  He has not said a word to anyone … not even Betty, and aims to catch the enemy by surprise.   The garden shed has become his military HQ.  Tucked out of sight at the side of the house, it is perfect for strategising, surveillance, and safe storage for his garden armoury.  He plots and he plans, mapping out lines of attack as he embarks on Mission Yvonne.    For some time now he has suspected that the weeds are blowing over from her garden.  Initially he went down the diplomatic route and offered to source some weedkiller that really does the job.  He tells her that its now illegal in the UK, but he has found a place where you can buy it online.  However, the irritating woman declines his generosity and counter attacks with a long and wordy explanation that the ‘weeds’ are in fact wildflowers that she has planted to attract the bees.  He grumbles he will have to put down astro-turf, but she ignores him and just wanders away while he is still talking. 

Barry surveys enemy territory from his HQ.  He dislikes everything about her shanty-town of a garden.  Her dilapidated shed is a disgrace and probably full of vermin.  The row of green plastic compost bins at the end of her garden is unsightly, dirty and smelly.  He  is horrified by her ever-growing collection of water-butts.  Collecting rainwater has become a bit of an obsession for her, particularly this year as the drought has set in.  She tells him that she waters the vegetables with bathwater which she syphons through the hose that hangs from an upstairs window.  He considers this practice is insanitary as he suspects that she does not bathe that often.  She makes a peace offering and proffers an armful of courgettes … a glut apparently.  ‘A glut of what?’ he wonders.  The thought of courgettes sustained on the scrapings from her atrophying, grimy body makes him feel queasy.    He snips angrily with his secateurs as he scowls and snaps a brusque ‘No thank you’.

He is stealthy and continues to engage in over the fence conversations as he plans his incursions into the jungle next door.  He half-listens to her eccentric prattling and wonders whether that devious woman has a battle plan of her own.  She appears to be engaging in guerrilla warfare, sharing her obscene ideas and revelling in his discomfort about the most disgusting aspects of gardening.   Most recently she has been rambling on in the most obnoxious way about the joys of composting.  A fortnight ago, she proffered a handful of the repulsive brown muck at him and jabbered on about ‘natures alchemy, decomposition and rich black loveliness’.  She has also started blathering on about worms … her worms!  Every day she has a new sordid word for their wormy activities …. ‘clustering, knotting, squirming, wriggling, writhing’, and last week she claimed that they were ‘coiling in an orgy of eating and excreting’ and  laughed when he shuddered. 

Yvonne is getting weary of Barry’s hostilities and is irritated by his decision to chop down a large section of her apple tree one weekend when she was away.  Quite clearly the tree was cut from her garden, the chainsaw marks are close to the its trunk and well away from his fence.  She is tired of his constant explanations of what she should do to make her garden just a little more like his.  She enjoys her garden provocations … the way his lips tense, the weak smile to disguise his obvious distaste for all things she says and does.   She regularly waves at Betty who is incarcerated in the kitchen, locked into a routine of ceaseless cleaning, but Betty always looks away.

Barry decides it is time to launch operation weeds and seeds.  He creeps over the lawn at midnight, ready for combat, night-vision goggles, dark clothing, and a cylinder of his special weedkiller.  He sprays copiously over the garden fence at her ‘meadow’.  He spends the next few days watching carefully from his HQ and feels a sense of satisfaction as the weeds start to wither.  

Yvonne notices the change in her wildflower area, the shrivelling of plants and the death of the wildlife.  At first, she is perplexed but then one morning she notices him standing and gloating at the destruction.  She is no-one’s fool… guesses straight away.   ‘Bloody cheek… him and his miracle weed killer.  This is the last straw’.  She plans her revenge, buys a plastic dog poo from the joke shop and launches a counter attack before dawn.  She clambers over the fence and places the poo on the grass, close to the edge of the pool.  Then back to her shed, to sit wrapped in a blanket with a thermos of tea.  She wants to see his reaction, to watch his body tense and to hear him huff and puff.  Sure enough, he is out at dawn … ready for the morning inspection, she stifles a giggle as he sees the poo.  His initial reaction is just as expected. She whispers, ‘Silly old sod…. Serves him right’. 

She opens the door of the shed, ready to confront him about her meadow and to suggest a truce.  She is alarmed to see he is grimacing, his eyes wide, as he clutches his heart.  She hears him gasp and watches him fall heavily onto the pristine grass.  Yvonne collects her thoughts, looks up towards the dark windows of his house. Betty is still asleep.  Birds sing in the trees and the breeze feels cool on her skin.  She slips over the fence to retrieve the plastic poo, drops it into one of the compost bins and apologises to the worms.  Then she goes inside and rings for an ambulance.   

The Ghost Reader – runner up in the Frinton Literary Festival Short Story Competition – October 2021

This is where I died.  Not right in this spot, but here in the hospice book shop – mid-way down the aisle on the left.  I think back to that day.  A walk along the Greensward followed by my regular browse in the bookshop. I read prolifically but without method.  One week a romance, the next a crime novel, fiction, non-fiction – I read them all.  I love this shop – it provides my regular supply of second-hand books coupled with a sense of virtue as I donate to a local charity. 

Back to my death.  I remember arriving at ‘L’ Marina Lewycka.  I recognised her name – couldn’t pronounce it – but I recognised it.  I remembered that she once wrote a book about tractors – nice characters – I liked that one.   The book on the shelf was called the The Lubetkin Legacy and the cover looked promising.  I read the blurb on the back, then opened the book and looked inside.  There was a message.  I loved reading messages in second hand books .  This one was carefully written in fountain pen  “To Gloria.  Happy Birthday. I will always love you.  Fred.

I read the message again, confused.  The script was familiar, letters slanting off to the left.  That was my Fred’s writing.  I inhaled sharply and felt my shoulders tense.  Who the hell was Gloria!  And then I realised … That Gloria! Short skirt, too much cleavage, brassy Gloria from the Salon.   My heart broke with a peculiar crack.  Stopped dead – not another beat.  My body crumpled and my soul drifted up towards the bookshop ceiling where I hovered and watched as people crowded around.  I saw the ambulance arrive and then leave with my body on a stretcher. 

My disembodied self has been here for a few months and it has taken some adjusting.  For the first two weeks I tried to amass enough energy to leave the shop.  Every day I failed and I spent each evening weeping by the doorway.   I mourned for my old life, my walks on the beach, and those days sitting in my beach hut, cup of tea in hand, watching dog walkers or gazing out toward the horizon and listening to the sea.  But then I realised it was time to embrace my spirit-self and move on.

I discovered that there was fun to be had in ghosting on the day that  Gloria tottered in on her too-high heels, wearing one of my necklaces.  Bloody cheek I thought.  First my husband, then my jewellery and now my bookshop.  I stood behind her, and reached out to retrieve my necklace.  As my hand touched her sun-raddled neck she started. I touched again – goose bumps and a shiver that reverberated through her scrawny shoulders.  She felt her neck with acrylic nails, looked around, then shrugged and resumed her browsing.  This was war!  I looked around, found the biggest book I could lift and threw it at the back of her carefully coiffed head.  It struck hard and she let out a little yelp – more chihuahua than human.  I scrabbled at the books on the shelves around her sending them cascading into the floor.  By now she was screaming and the volunteers, disturbed by the commotion, gathered around. 

‘Madam!  You can’t do that to the books’

‘You have to leave the shop. Right now, or we will call the police.’ 

She was ushered out of the door, snivelling

“It wasn’t me!  I didn’t do it!”

The volunteers ejected her, ignoring her protestations. 

That foray into poltergeisting was fun – but rather exhausting, and caused irreparable damage to several books.  I realise that I am not that sort of spirit and have settled into a more sedate role as a ghost volunteer.  I have many duties – cataloguing books when the others have gone home and during opening hours I like keep an eye on the customers.  I have become the unofficial store detective, seeking out the light-fingered.  I see them off with cold touch and a rasping whisper ‘I can see you!  Put it back’ . 

Most of the time I am well behaved but I do have one guilty pleasure.  I regularly write inscriptions in the books that might appeal to Fred.

To Bert,  You are my only love.  Gloria.

To Frank. Thank you for another wonderful night.  Gloria.   

To Bill.  My love, I can’t wait to see you again.  Gloria

He hasn’t come in – probably too scared – it doesn’t matter.  The pleasure is in the writing and the hope that these messages will stir up some gossip. 

I realise that everything I need is right here.  Last week I walked the South West Coast Path with Raynor Winn and the week before journeyed along the Essex coast with Tom Bolton.  I learned how to sail in a weekend and am discovering more about marshland birds.  I lived in a shack with Kya, deep in the North Carolina marshland, near to the place where the Crawdads sing.  I searched for the Essex Serpent with Cora and then visited the coastlands Tanzania and Mexico with my guide from the Lonely Planet.   I read and I read, learning more each day, immersing myself in stories and exploring exotic and unusual locations around the world.  When my spirit rested here I assumed I was in limbo – waiting to be transported somewhere else.   But now I realise that I am destined to spend eternity here in Frinton-on-Sea.  I have just finished reading Thin Places: An Evangelical Journey Into Celtic Christianity and realise have arrived at my thin place – the place where heaven meets earth.  I am free! 

To read the shortlisted stories go to http://www.frintonliteraryfestival.co.uk/short-story-competition-2021/

Untitled – Shortlisted Furious Fiction July 2021

When Bert died suddenly in a freak gardening accident, Dorothy was inconsolable.  Their large secluded garden had been a shared passion, common ground for two very different people.  It was their place to be together, to make plans and nurture seedlings.  In the garden they would play, fling snails over the hedge giggling conspiratorially and then sit chatting and drinking tea.  The garden was not the same without Bert and that summer she put down her spade and retired back into the house. 

She needed to be busy and started to knit.  Baby booties, bonnets and cardigans, in pale pastels and soft wools.  All were donated to the local hospital. The nurses were thankful, but supply exceeded demand and as the pile of knitted goods accumulated the matron asked her to stop.  Dorothy diversified into cardigans, scarves and hats, and soon the whole village was kitted out.  

As her knitting gained momentum, she moved onto competitions and trialled her own designs.   Time to experiment, challenge knitting traditions and to explore the potential of wool as an artform.   Her nativity scene won first place in the Wivenhoe WI knitting competition.  Her beach scene, complete with beach huts, small figures playing on the sand and a frothing stormy sea, secured a win at the regional finals.  And now here she was at the nationals.

They provided a table for her display.  She asked if she could have a chair and after some discussion it was agreed that a chair was within the rules.  As Dorothy finalised her display, she realised that she had forgotten the knitted snails which were still in a bag in the boot of the car.  She hurried out to retrieve them.      

When she returned, the hall was buzzing with excited chatter.  Crowds milled around and the press photographer ordered people out of the way.  Giggles and smirks….‘Oh My!” 

“Well look at that!”

“Well, there’s a thing!” 

Mrs Hebblethwaite, the head judge looked flustered and perplexed.  She ushered Dorothy over to an ante-room.   

“We need to talk about your work”  

“Yes it is my Bert.  Large as life”.

“Your Bert, does not appear to be wearing clothes”

“No, he’d never wear clothes in the garden…”

“He has a penis!”

“Yes, he had a penis…about that size and shape.” 

Silence… exchanged glances… and then a response. 

“We, at the Women’s Institute, cannot allow you to display a knitted penis. It is pornographic! We would like you to take him away immediately!”

As Dorothy crossed the hall everyone looked in her direction, someone shouted “Well-done! Can you knit me one?”  Then applause. 

Dorothy smiled as she approached Bert, who was sitting with a tea-towel draped across his lap.  “Come on love”  she whispered as she gently lifted him, balanced him over one shoulder and carried him back out to the car. 

BALANCE – (Runner up – Create Nature Competition – University of Westminster – May 2021)

Cold rain splashing against my face, hair soaked and sticking to my head.  My body simultaneously cold from the biting wind and warm from the exertion of running.  Thud, thud, thud … foot following foot.  That regular rhythm and sense of being propelled endlessly forward.  I want to be calm, but serenity is not my strength,

You are sick – radiotherapy, chemotherapy, liquid food through a tube.  You are in pain… So much pain – exist in a diamorphine haze and sleep for 22 hours a day.  We are in lockdown, trapped in the house.  You sleep and I worry – unrelenting fear. At daybreak I quietly leave the house and run as fast as I can along inner-city streets.  Escape!

At first my chest is tight and I gasp for air. I sense the cold and feel my muscles awakening and aching.    Then I notice the park around me – breath and body begin to align.  The trees are emerging into spring, leaves unfurling, each day a little greener.  The rain stops, my pace slows as I feel the morning sun emerge, and gently touch my skin.  I become aware of birdsong – the harsh chatter of a magpie – that noisy, rasping front-man, backed by the melodies of blackbirds, thrushes and the coo of city pigeons.  A joyous avian chorus.  I feel tension melting away, and a growing resilience as each stride becomes effortless.  I smell the fresh damp grass and notice my footprints in the dew.   With each breath I relax, find space for my thoughts, feel my heart become lighter and my spirit lift.  Surrounded by nature I get things into perspective, become myself and feel joyful, alive.  My balance restored, I calmly jog back home. 

In the grotto

Longlisted Furious Fiction Competition December 2020

‘Not good enough!’   Words bellowed into my face as I sit at my work bench on the en`d of the production line.  It is freezing, my shoulders are hunched and my back aches.  We are well behind schedule and have toiled day and night for the past week.  With each exhale I see my misty breath rising around me.  The noise is deafening, clunking machinery, cheery Christmas songs and above it all comes a regular roar ‘Idiot!’ , ‘Wake Up!’.  One of my cheeks is ablaze, rose red, smarting from a slap delivered as my eyelids started to droop.  An unexpected and brutal slap that knocked me off my stool.  I feel broken, my normally nimble fingers have stiffened from the relentless task of attaching felt Santa hats onto the heads of cats.  Not real cats you understand – I am not a taxidermist or a vivisectionist.  These are Grotto Gift cats, compliant, clawless, cuddly plush fur, matching expressions and glass-eyes.  We work long hours in the Grotto and are given just enough food and water to keep us alive, just enough sleep to ensure that we can still produce these high quality gifts.

We came by invitation from the big man himself buoyed by tales of camaraderie and the opportunity to participate in a project to make the world a better place.  We would work at Grotto Gifts located in Siberia, right next to the North Pole.  We jumped at the chance to work with that cheery red-faced man, clean white beard, soft plump hands, all kindness, warmth and generosity.   How shocked we were to see high fences, barbed wire and heavily guarded gates when we arrived.  Immediately rounded up into work teams, separated from friends, our every-day clothes taken away and replaced by our prison uniforms, green tunics and pointed green caps.  Unable to walk outside, our movement restricted by felt boots with slippery soles and long curled up toes.

So here we are incarcerated in Santa’s sweat shop.  We shuffle from factory floor to dorm room, work without pay and receive regular beatings from Santa and his cronies.  The man is a fraud, his image fashioned by the marketing men of a multi-national company and spruced up once a year for public appearance.  He is, indeed, rotund and he does have a beard, but it is a filthy and foul-smelling, and his nose and cheeks are reddened by his copious consumption of brandy.   We are trying to resist, writing small handwritten notes, stashing them in our tunics, passing them palm to palm when no-one is looking.  Each day as we work we tuck them into those cuddly cats.   ‘Please help us! We elves are enslaved’, ‘Made by elf slave-labour’.   Every day we send out these entreaties and hope that one day someone will see our message, start to ask questions, and that we will be freed from this tyrant.