The JRB presents a new short story by Simon van Schalkwyk.
A Second Mowing
Alan was the gardener.
I found him working in the shade beneath the old pomegranate tree one afternoon, trimming the edges of the lawn with a spade. I walked across the grass and introduced myself. I shook his hand and I noticed that his left shoulder was slightly higher than the right, raised like a hump. It gave the impression that his body was set at a casual angle against the day.
Then I went inside and made myself lunch.
‘Who’s that?’ I asked my mother when she returned home from another day on the road. She drove all across the peninsula in her little car meeting clients. She had been doing this for years and it seemed to me her cars kept getting smaller and less roadworthy by the year.
‘That’s Alan, the gardener,’ she said.
I looked out of the living room window. Alan was still trimming the verge. He set the spade at the lawn’s edge and pressed a heavy boot on the step and pushed the cutting edge through the grass and into the soil, levering the spade after each turn so that the grass folded neatly underneath the dark loam. The action reminded me of Seamus Heaney’s poem ‘Digging’. And perhaps Alan was a fair substitute for the grandfather in Heaney’s poem. He was balding, and the closely cropped hair visible beneath his flat-cap was grey enough to suggest he was well into his fifties. He had earthy skin, a little earthier than my own, but remarkably unwrinkled. He was in good shape, taller than I was and, despite the hump, broad shouldered.
But this was a house in the suburbs and not Heaney’s ‘Toner’s bog’ (wherever that is). Rather than milk in a bottle corked sloppily with brown paper, I later served Alan a tray with a jug of iced water bobbing with lemon wedges, which he drank steadily from a plastic tumbler, and a ham sandwich for lunch, and he would grunt what I took to be his thanks but he would keep working until I had left, leaving the food on the terraced steps. We hardly spoke, but over the following weeks and months I decided to be as personable with Alan as I could.
‘Hello Alan,’ I’d say when I came by, and he would raise his head, look at me, smile and nod a greeting in return.
Alan worked in my parents’ garden twice a week. He arrived in casual clothes, but he worked in an old pair of dungarees. His cheap formal shoes would be replaced by work boots, which he kept inside a yellow Shoprite carrier bag, and which were clotted with dried cement and mud. He would hang his flat cap on a low hanging branch of the ruined pomegranate tree and set to work, whistling as he pruned the bushes with garden shears, as he mowed the lawn, as he trimmed the edges of the verge, turning over the earth with a pitchfork. He worked in an unfussy, unhurried manner.
‘How old is Alan?’ I asked my mother. She shrugged and said she didn’t know and we sat at the TV eating our lunches and talking about this and that.
Later, I peered through the curtains and watched as Alan ate his lunch. He reclined on the lawn in the shade of the pomegranate tree and chewed his bread slowly before slaking his thirst. When he had finished, he walked to the porch, set the lunch tray down beside the french doors, and rapped on the glass, before walking back down the little stairway to continue his work. I went and leaned in the doorway of the workshop my mother had built for herself out of the shell of our old garage. I watched her working at the sewing machine, depressing the foot-pedal and expertly running material underneath the needle.
‘How’d you find Alan?’ I wondered aloud.
‘Your grandmother knew him,’ she said distractedly. ‘He was your Aunt Ira’s gardener.’
I had heard of Aunt Ira but I couldn’t remember who she was, exactly. I turned to look out across the garden. Alan was taking a nap on the lawn. He had placed his flat cap over his eyes and nose, and his mouth was slack and open.
‘He’s sleeping,’ I said, ‘over there, under the tree, in the pomegranates.’
‘Yes,’ said my mother, adding cryptically, ‘It’s after lunchtime.’
When I turned to look at her, she was running a tracing wheel along a pattern she’d marked in soap on a large square of blue cotton.
‘Where do you stay, Alan?’ I asked when I next saw him. Alan grunted, gesturing in the direction of the mountain.
My mother was no help.
‘Where’s Alan from?’ I asked.
‘I don’t know,’ she said. ‘Very good question.’
I had been awarded a scholarship to study abroad, and I spent the mid-term vacation finding out about literature programmes in the UK. In the months leading up to my departure I worked as a teaching assistant to my supervisor. I mainly tutored, or gave the odd seminar, and I sometimes stepped in as a substitute lecturer if I was needed. I attended presentations by well-known academics. They talked about ‘changing the inscription of the body’, ‘the lawn as an imperial project’, ‘South–South oceanic mappings’. I offered first year students a lecture about structuralism, explaining the difference between sign and referent, and the bifurcated nature of the sign itself, the arbitrary relationship between the signifying sound-image and the signified concept.
‘Signs,’ I said, ‘are essentially empty shells, ghosts of themselves. According to Saussure, they are only meaningful when set in differential relation to one another. Later theorists, however, suggest that signs don’t even form such clear syntagmatic chains of differential relation, but that they always slip away from settled meaning. Meaning, then, is something glimpsed, something vanishing, always on the edge of vision, like a ghost.’
‘Who’s Saussure?’ asked a student.
One day, as I stepped into a taxi heading back to Wynberg from Woolsack, I heard the news about 9/11 over the radio. The first Boeing had hit the north tower. The news affected everyone in the cramped minibus; the air bristled with anxiety. Eighteen minutes later, as the taxi drew up to my stop, I heard the newscaster’s voice crack as he tried and failed to explain that a second plane had exploded through the eightieth floor of the south tower.
‘I can’t believe what I’m seeing,’ he said, before falling silent.
In my flat, I turned on the television, sound down, and watched recorded footage of the attacks repeated on screen. I saw the towers fall, the dust cloud, the view from the street. These images played over and over again as if the event was intent on wiping out the memory of everything that had happened before that moment: NEAR Shoemaker landing on the saddle of the 433 Eros asteroid; Mir plummeting into the South Pacific; the discovery of 2798 Ixion; the Nepalese Royal Massacre; the Bradford Race Riots; the death of Aaliyah; the performance of John Cage’s composition ‘As Slow as Possible’, which began in 2001 and will play for 639 years, ending at last in 2640 (Gregorian. According to the Holocene calendar, its recital has long since been completed; for the Discordians, it is yet to come.)
Troubled, I decided to head to my parents’ house, where I found my father outside in the garden, mowing the lawn.
‘Where’s Alan?’ I said.
‘Alan?’ he said, surprised. ‘Alan’s missing.’ I waited for the noise of his old petrol mower to die down and for the blade to stop spinning.
‘Missing?’ I said.
‘Missing,’ he repeated. ‘Long time now.’
‘What do you mean, missing?’ I said. ‘I mean, he’s not missing missing, right? He hasn’t vanished? He’s just not returned to work?’
‘No idea,’ my father said.
I asked if he’d tried calling Alan or visiting Alan’s home to find out whether he was alright.
‘Maybe he’s sick,’ I said. ‘Maybe he needs someone to take him to the doctor. Or the day hospital.’
My father tilted his head back and drank deeply from a jar of iced water that he had set on the stoop.
‘Alan doesn’t have a phone,’ he said, ‘No idea where he lives.’
‘Let me mow the lawn,’ I said.
We both knew that I was terrible at mowing the lawn. My father had tried to instil the art of lawn-mowing into me from a young age. But I remained skinny and weak well into my adolescence. Whenever he left me to the task, perhaps believing that pushing the heavy mower across the unyielding grass would strengthen my muscles or, at the very least, inspire me with a sense of fortitude and accomplishment, I botched the job.
‘It’s crooked,’ he would say with disappointment, returning from the Kenilworth tote to survey my handiwork. Indeed, as I looked over the labour I’d done, I noticed that the rows of light and lime green were never as neat as they were when my father had finished mowing.
‘Look at all those tufts of uncut grass,’ he’d say, and I saw that, indeed, long spikes of dark green grass cropped up between the crooked paths that I had left across the garden.
My father would invariably crouch down and reset the worn blade of the mower and run the machine over the grass all over again, cropping the lawn down sometimes to the root and bare earth. It was an arduous job, this second mowing, this aftermath. There was no reconciliation between the machine and me. At some point, we both decided it would be better if I refrained from the job entirely.
But my father was older now, and found the work less satisfying. So I was pleased when he agreed, and I set to with surprising enthusiasm, running the machine over the grass and thinking about Robert Frost’s poem ‘Mowing’, even though this was a garden in the suburbs rather than a wood and despite the fact that I wasn’t handling a whispering scythe but a machine that ran on petrol and which produced the deafening sound of internal combustion. As I worked, I remembered Whitman’s uncut hair of graves. There is more to the lawn, I thought, as I ran the blades over the white turf, than empire, respectability and aspiration. I considered Sandburg’s amnesiac grass that worked to cover all. I ran the mower back and forth as carefully as I could, checking and double checking the path I had followed and trying to set the blades evenly against the edge of cut grass, hoping to match Frost’s ‘earnest love that laid the swale in rows’. This was more than mimicry, or irony, or subversion, this second mowing.
When I’d finished I went inside and found my father holding the telephone in the crook of his neck and circling the numbers of racehorses in his tote book.
‘Kenilworth. 3 p.m. R20. Quinella on 5, Native Dancer.’
‘All done,’ I said, then went outside and waited for him to survey my work.
‘Not great, not terrible,’ he said when he stepped outside a few minutes later.
I went inside and found my mother doing something with a hem, she had pins pressed tightly between her lips.
‘Dad says Alan hasn’t been around for ages, and that he’s gone missing,’ I said.
‘You know,’ she said, knitting her brow, ‘Alan.’ She shook her head, crossly.
‘Alan,’ she said again, looking up and focusing on an empty point in the room I could not see, her pupils then darting left and right quickly as though she were searching for something.
‘Hurr …’ she said, and shook her head again and went back to sewing.
I decided not to press the question.
That evening, we sat on the couch and turned on the TV and, exhausted by the coverage of 9/11, changed the channel and watched a show about the Mariana Trench. We talked about this and that. A voice on the TV said something about the bottom of the trench being light and clear, and covered by a waste of firm diatomaceous ooze.
‘Amazing,’ my mother would say whenever another incomprehensible creature reared upward, out of the depths, toward the screen. ‘Just amazing.’
In late August, I flew to England, arriving at Heathrow where I was stopped at passport control for not having a visa of entry.
‘I believe prospective students don’t require visas for entry,’ I said, ‘provided that they have a letter proving their acceptance at the university to which they’ve been accepted.’
I produced the letter.
The attendant at the passport control looked at me blankly and called security. I was ushered to the side of the booths and I watched as the security guard pressed a thumb against a square of glass set into the wall. With an almost inaudible hiss, a panel in the wall slid open, and we passed through, the guard gesturing me along a narrow corridor of unplastered brickwork and exposed outflow pipes. Electric striplights hummed overhead. They were attached to metal oblongs suspended on thin wires reaching up beyond where a ceiling should have been, high into a vacant dome, the underside of the airport’s upper floors. This was the airport’s inner core, the inside of the inside of the shell.
We arrived at a set of rooms housing medical equipment. A matron entered and told me to strip down to my underwear and then left. As I was undressing, I heard the matron’s raised voice and I looked across the corridor into the adjacent room, where a young Asian woman sat on the edge of an examination table, her legs dangling over the edge.
‘Get undressed,’ shouted the matron. Then she left the room.
The Asian woman seemed confused. She looked around the room anxiously, then folded her hands in her lap.
‘Didn’t you hear me?’ said the matron when she returned to find the woman still fully clothed. ‘I said get undressed.’
The woman shifted uncomfortably as the matron shuffled around the room, opening and closing cabinets and drawers as if she were looking for something she had lost. When she turned to find the woman still sitting on the bed with her hands folded placidly in her lap, she paused. Stepping forward purposefully, she squared herself before the Asian woman and, with slow deliberation, began to unbutton her blouse.
‘Get. Un. Dressed.’ Each syllable was cold and firm, punctuating the undoing of each button. The Asian woman flinched, but seemed to understand. She began to take off her clothes.
Soon after, the matron glanced at me and, without speaking, motioned me towards an X-ray machine. She left the room and I heard three clicks. When she returned, she told me to breathe into the mouthpiece of a spectrometer. Then she conducted a brief examination of my body and, satisfied, told me to get dressed, after which she ushered me out the door where I was led back to the airport.
At the arrivals gate, I found a small, shabbily dressed woman holding a placard bearing my name.
‘I’m sorry to have kept you waiting,’ I said.
‘No trouble,’ she replied, and asked me if I wanted to freshen up while she kept an eye on my luggage. I thanked her and walked to the restroom where an elderly man sat shifting coins around the surface of a makeshift table. He puckered his lips, winked at me, and said, ‘Interesting blend.’ Unnerved, I hurried to the far side of the hall to use a different restroom.
‘Feeling better?’ said the shabby woman when I returned to the arrivals lounge.
Then she handed me a bus ticket and some cash and waved at me as the bus began the cross-country journey to the University of Coventry.
When I woke, I watched one of the stewards push a service trolley down the aisle. He pressed past a short woman in a red windbreaker and gym leggings who was trying to retrieve her luggage from an overhead compartment, moving his body in a way that would maximise the contact between her ass and his groin. He leered as he did this and, when he saw that I was watching him, a self-satisfied expression creased his face. I turned my head to the window and went back to sleep.
My time in Coventry was eventful. I roamed the city whenever I had spare time, paying frequent visits to Coventry Cathedral, built alongside the gothic shell of St Michael’s Church, which had been bombed to ruins by the Luftwaffe. I was drawn to Graham Sutherland’s tapestry, ‘Christ in glory in the Tetramorph’, a strange image depicting the risen Christ seated within a mandorla and presided over by an eagle, lion, calf and angel. I discovered that the tapestry had been commissioned to the weavers of Pinton Frères at Felletin, a commune in France.
Sometimes, I joined my peers for weekly pints at a pub called the Old Windmill, or played the occasional game of weekend soccer with a close-knit group of students from Malaysia and Borneo. I’d attend gigs at Arches, Empire, or the Corner Pocket, or I’d head to a little cinema called The Cube to watch independent and experimental films, and listen to British Marxists talk about hauntology and retromania.
Walking through crowds in Broadgate one day, I got the feeling that I was being watched or followed. When I emerged from the atrium, I calmly made my way down Cross Cheaping before ducking into Palmer Lane and leaning against a wall behind an overflowing skip. I lit a cigarette and waited until a woman wearing a black frock and a black aspen hat shuffled past. She didn’t appear to register my presence at all but, somehow, I knew she was my pursuer. Since then, I have maintained a deep suspicion of women in black aspen hats.
I rarely travelled during my time in England, though I did visit Anglesey, in Wales, where I stood on the ramparts of Beaumaris Castle looking out at the white capped peaks of distant Mount Snowdon; and London, where I struggled to find the Tate Modern and had to settle for a few hours wandering around the Tate Britain, where I was shocked by the smallness of William Blake’s paintings and engravings.
A brief affair with a violinist studying at Bristol meant that I spent every weekend for three months in that city. While there, I listened to the university student orchestra navigate the dangerous entries of Malcolm Arnold’s Four Cornish Dances at Colston Hall, and read up about Colston, the slaver, and Bristol’s history as a slave city. The affair burnt out over the course of a road trip to Hay-on-Wye, a town that seemed intent on turning itself into a library.
Later, I travelled to Nottingham for a five-a-side football tournament, where a thirteen year old on a BMX rode past me and my Malaysian teammates, gave us a two-fingered salute, and yelled, ‘Fuck off, Pakis!’ I wasn’t offended. Even people who claimed not to be racist thought I was Afghani, or Egyptian, or Algerian, or Mexican. I was unplaceable, and I didn’t mind that.
I had numerous affairs. Men, women, who cared. They were pleasantly forgettable.
Most of the time, I stayed in my little dorm room listening to the news. It seemed as if the world had come to Coventry to witness the spectacle of Kevin ‘Captain Cyborg’ Warwick, who had built a robotic head called Morgui, and who had a neural interface implanted under his skin. The implant connected his nervous system to the internet at Columbia University and allowed him to control a robotic arm across the expanse of the Atlantic Ocean. Warwick’s next trick involved his wife, Irena, who, fitted with a similar implant, said she was able to feel ‘lightning in the palm of her hand’ whenever her husband flexed and closed his own.
As Warwick continued to build neural pathways towards a telepathic future, I read about the history of enclosure, land and landscape in England, hoping to find a spark for my dissertation. I already knew about colonial landscapes, their inescapably white, Western impress. I didn’t find the idea particularly interesting. I’d started an essay called ‘Auden’s Impenetrable Orifices: The Seedy Appeal of ‘In Praise of Limestone”’, based heavily on the theories of Abraham and Torok. But the paper had snagged on a line towards the end of the poem and veered off into a rambling itemisation of England’s underground streams, natural, political and psychosexual.
By chance, I found out about a little known Caribbean-English writer named Christophine Elridge, originally from Saint Kitts, who had disappeared from her home in the West Midlands in 1914 at the age of twenty-two, only to reappear decades later as a Republican conscript in the Spanish Civil War. The rumour was that she had walked to the continent along the bottom of the English Channel.
Elridge’s reputation rested on the mystery of her vanishing coupled with the rediscovery of her earliest manuscripts, which appeared to pre-empt the style of the computer generated poetry of Theo Lutz and JM Coetzee: weird, stochastic texts the underlying mathematical formulae of which had been disclosed by an American, Bonnita Serrano in the Boom years following World War II. But Serrano’s sexual transgressions made her a pariah across the scholarly community, and the fallout meant that her study of Elridge—along with the alarming and puzzlingly racist and Fascist aspects of Elridge’s own work—soon disappeared from popular memory. It seemed to me as if she had been buried for a second time.
I decided that the subject was too risky, and shelved it.
Instead, I found myself writing about the figure of the fugueur, so-called ‘mad travellers’, the shadowy counterpoint to the more urbane figure of the flaneur, taking the walks of John Clare, Edward Thomas and Simon Armitage as my poetic subjects.
This seemed much safer.
I argued that these walks illustrated an attempt to escape the carceral landscapes painted, written and sculpted around some cryptonomies of loss, fantomes.
I barely scraped through.
Worse, finding my time in the dorm terminated, I realised that I had failed to make plans for alternative accommodation, and I ended up staying in an empty flat in Uxbridge with a friend who, weirdly, never seemed to spend any time at home. I spent my days cooped up in a cold room finishing my dissertation, and then missed my return flight home.
I booked another flight, giving myself another month in England where, I knew, I was now another undocumented and illegal immigrant, living like a squatter in a nondescript, unfurnished flat at the barren edges of the island of London.
At night I’d head out to walk the streets without any real destination in mind, passing brightly lit grocery stores and fast food shops run by second and third generation immigrants. One evening, the fire-patrol arrived to extinguish a post office box, which was burning freely after someone had decided to chuck firecrackers through the aperture for letters. I watched the fireman chat up a woman leaning out of a third floor window of another run-down council block and thought about all the letters—written in polished or broken English, perfumed and xoxo’d, sealed with lipstick and signed off ‘Sincerely,’ ‘Yours,’ or ‘Love,’ and surely destined for various outposts of the post-imperial world—that had been lost to the fire.
I thought about this as I continued to walk the seemingly infinite roadway running like a scar through Uxbridge. I always kept my eye on the furthest streetlight, hoping to reach it and then to walk further beyond, but I never did.
And then, just like that, my time in England came to an end.
I met my parents at the airport and they seemed exactly the same. Everything fell back into place, but my days didn’t resume their old order so much as fade into a kind of entropy. I returned to the university, inhabiting, like a stunted hermit crab, the same office I had inhabited years before—the ghost office, reserved for tutors, postgrads and adjunct staff who, I knew, would steadily be phased out of the system. The work didn’t pay enough for me to afford either a car or to keep paying the rent at my old flat, so I found myself back home again, in my shrunken bedroom, walking to the train station each morning and up the mountainous hill to work, then back again, down the mountain, to the train station, and home.
My contract expired, quietly, and I decided to investigate the prospects offered by vagrancy and sleep.
It was a fine day, warm, with a gentle breeze. I decided to revisit old haunts: Wynberg Main Road, the library, Maynardville Park.
‘Do you want a lift?’ my mother said.
‘No,’ I said. ‘I’ll walk. I always walk. It’s not far.’
‘It’s not the same now,’ said my mother, ‘All those taxis.’
I knew what she meant. The main road had been on the decline for years. As was the Maynard Mall, where I had once tried a plate of escargot at a restaurant called The Porterhouse. They were disappointing, and I found myself thinking about how I preferred the periwinkles my grandmother used to gather from rockpools during trips to the beach. Akrikkels, Alikreukels. The mall was a shell of vacant shops now. But the degeneration was familiar enough to me—I had witnessed it first hand over the years, walking to and from home to the train station and taxi ranks and, beyond that, to the library down Church and Glaren and the Salvation Army store on Maynard, and into the park, where vagrants, car-guards and people slept unmolested on a lawn that remained surprisingly trim. The annual carnival no longer happened, and that made me wistful, but Shakespeare was still performed there every year.
As I walked up Station Road, through crowds of shoppers and skollies, my eye was drawn to a man walking through the throng on the far side of the road a short distance ahead of me. The man’s gait and build reminded me of Alan, and the flat cap that he wore cocked on the side of his head only served to strengthen this impression. The man seemed pleased with himself, and was whistling a cheerful tune. He turned the corner as I quickened my step. I wanted to find out whether this was Alan. I wanted to know where he was going and where he had been.
Pressing through the crush, I followed him, but couldn’t bridge the distance between us. Alan somehow managed to maintain the gap, no matter how quickly I walked. I struggled to keep him in view, lost him again. Then I saw the peak of his cap emerging above the shoulders of the crowd, and I watched as he crossed the road, jaywalking through traffic, and turning into a narrow alleyway. I, too, crossed the road, breaking into a jog, and turned the corner.
The alley led to a T-junction, one side of which had recently been blocked off with a cement wall, the other continuing for a few metres before leading to a cul-de-sac. I retraced my steps, looking for a doorway or a gap, somewhere for Alan to have gone. In the main alleyway, I noticed a sheet of corrugated iron and, behind this, an oblong of metal, about two by two metres square, set into the concrete. A small aperture, in the shape of a Q, suggested a lock and implied a key and a door. But the metal edges seemed airtight and there were no hinges to be seen, no rivets or screws, and no handle. I looked up at the steep sides of the building, then walked round the side and realised that the street sloped down toward the alleyway. If Alan had entered the aperture, he would be at least two or three metres below the ground level of the adjoining building, a furniture store named Beares. I turned and walked back in the direction of the library. It seemed as if Alan had walked straight through the brickwork. I was pleased by the thought that he had found some way to the other side of here.
‘I thought I saw Alan walking down Main Road,’ I told my mother.
‘Yes,’ she replied. ‘He’s always walking around that side.’
‘I thought he went missing,’ I said.
‘Missing?’ said my mother, looking at me with a puzzled expression. ‘Who said he was missing?’
A few days later I heard, through the fog of sleep, a knock at the patio doors. Entering the living room, I was surprised to find Alan standing in the doorway, waiting. He was smiling benignly as I approached, but when I opened the door—before I had a chance to say anything—he emitted a short, sharp series of guttural sounds that failed to coalesce into words.
‘I’m sorry,’ I said, ‘can you say that again?’ He repeated himself. I panicked.
My mother arrived.
‘Hello Alan,’ she said, ‘what do you want?’
Alan frowned apologetically, turned to wave a hand in the direction of the garden, like a fisherman casting a net and spoke. I couldn’t understand a word. Then, having completed his exposition, he turned to look at me again, nodded, with a tone of finality.
‘Yes, just a minute,’ my mother said, walking off. When she returned, she was carrying a box of pesticide used to control snails and slugs. Alan nodded agreeably, took the box, and returned to the garden.
That evening I watched as Alan bundled his dungarees and boots into a carrier bag and set his flat cap at a smart angle on his head. He whistled as he opened our gate and began to trudge up the road in the direction of the train station. The air was dim and cool and I walked through the garden with my mother, listening to her talk about her plants, the ones that grew, those that struggled to grow, and those that she dreamed of growing. I looked down at the trench that Alan had dug in the broken shade of the ruined pomegranate tree beside the verge and the flowerbed. The black loam seemed to be flooded with a strange waste of diatomaceous ooze. And there, neatly arranged inside a hollow in the wall, I noticed about twenty or thirty snails that Alan had retrieved from the poisoned soil, slowly emerging from their shells, gliding up the stone, and waving their vesicular eyes at the late blue moon.