A Potted History

misty forest of trees in czech republic

Published in Nutshell Magazine. performed with live illustration by joanna layla at the alternative press festival 2012.

Across Britain in a million different homes the credits roll on a programme about holistic healing from around the world. In the last scene, Bruce Fisher, the show’s bucolic presenter, visited an African tribe where it is believed digging a hole in the red earth and addressing the goddess within will release a body’s internal demons.

*

John didn’t have a garden, let alone a tribe with a walled village compound, outside of which he could perform a ritual. He looked about his sparse, drab living room for inspiration and found none. Wandering his cramped flat, whiskey in hand, his eyes settled on the row of cacti in his daughter’s bedroom. Would she notice one missing the next time she came to visit? Probably not, he reasoned; she rarely came to the flat and only stayed over when her mother couldn’t find a babysitter. Which wasn’t often, as her mother was a fat bitch who was too lazy to leave the house to need one. He digressed.

Focusing on the task at hand he surveyed the windowsill, pondering his victim. He’d take the large one, the one that seemed to thrive when everything else withered, getting larger and larger each year, hogging the sunlight, spawning more flowers than the other cacti. That fat fuck was gonna get it for sure. He digressed yet again.

The cactus in question was housed in a ceramic pot, typically more expensive and prettily decorated than the others. This was clearly to disguise the fact that it was ugly on the inside. He decided to see once and for all what evil lurks behind a beautiful, albeit green and prickly, veneer. He spent a good twenty minutes and ruined at least one kitchen knife hacking off the needles and dissecting the plant. He pricked himself several times, though the pain and tiny droplets of blood made the task seem even more rewarding.

He looked at the green sap on his hands, jeans and carpet. Yet another irreversible stain he mused, inspecting the remnants of what had been his daughter’s prize cactus. There was no black heart, no grotesque demon hiding within the plant’s flesh, just wet innards, cool to the touch. He found this soothing. He sniffed at it, ventured the tip of his tongue to lick a drop of the alien moisture. The taste was vague and gave him a faint memory of her moisturisers: cucumber or was it Aloe Vera?

He recalled a bedroom scene; the egg on her chin compelling him closer towards her mouth, the disturbed cutlery on the breakfast tray clinking on the plates, the Sunday papers crumpling beneath them. Ugh. He recoiled in disgust at his arousal, scooped the contents and dumped them in the bin, refilled the whiskey in his tumbler and sat cross-legged with the potted earth between him.

How had the presenter done it? He clawed a hole big enough for all his words to fit in squashed his face into the pot. Feeling extremely ridiculous he sat up again only to be reunited with the memory of her moisturiser. The smell of soil was better than that, it was humble, honest and raw. He pressed deeper and began to speak like a lover to it: “Didn’t I make you feel like you were the only one? Didn’t I give you everything that I possibly can?” He didn’t know where the words were coming from, but they kept on “Each time I tell myself I think I’ve had enough, well..”

John hadn’t been able to express himself with words since Mrs Matthew’s English lesson, 1976, when he had to read a poem he’d written about Sophie Atkins out loud. After that humiliation, well, now he preferred punching walls. But the words really were flowing tonight, probably the whiskey he reasoned. He took another gulp and continued cradling the pot, “I’m gonna show you baby…”

Baby? This wasn’t right, these weren’t his words? But oh, did he feel them, “that a woman can be tough…” Wait a minute. What? Oh, fuck it! He spat each one through his teeth “come on, come on, come on…” and sobbed the chorus into the soil “Take it! Take another little piece of my heart now, baby. I know you will break it. Just break another little piece of my heart now, baby. You know you caught if it makes you still good, so good”

He snorted the last nonsensical line through thick tears, causing the soil to blow up and stick to his face. He came up coughing and caught a glimpse of himself in the TV reflection. What a massive cock! He guffawed to himself and gulped his whiskey, wiping his face with his shirt. But still, he was careful to refill the hole and attempted the same sacrificial hand motions as the presenter. Then, satisfied, he flicked the set on and laid back at the foot of the sofa to the calming presence of some late night news show. He fell asleep wondering if anyone else had been stupid enough to try that at home.

*

Ester was already hard at work grappling at the loose earth to the right of her potting shed with trowel and spade. Thankfully Stephen had been round only a few days ago to soften the earth and prepare it for the bush she was soon to plant; a hydrangea perhaps? She hadn’t decided, but that could wait.  She sat back on her thighs, her knees softly cushioned by the gardening pad that matched her tools and gloves, and took stock of her work. The hole was at least half her size, but she had many words to spill into the fresh soil. She decided to begin, else she would really be there all night.

“It was just after the war and the country was as rickety as old bedsprings” she began as if speaking to her granddaughter. The rest followed easily, like a chain of children’s hands snaking around the playground, breaking only occasionally with the lapse of memory and the drifting of old age.

“The boundaries between the countries, always changing, one day to the next. The Russians advanced, shifting the blockades, creeping in on our land with their rough overcoats, stout beards and grim faces, stealing it inch by inch; flower by flower. They took and many of us fled, I fled, with nothing, to start from nothing. And these days they come and they get. They get houses, they get money and sit happy and fat getting pregnant whilst their whole family get, get, get, more flights over.”

She digressed. And sat back her back already aching from the strange position, but the strain gave the act weight. She knew that nothing helped without hurting first. Pausing briefly, having lost her train of thought, she then continued to fertilise the ground with words.

“Yes, yes, I was on my bicycle going to the Heinkleman’s farm, except the usual lane was closed off behind a new checkpoint that had appeared overnight. I hesitated.  There was no other way but the path through the woods. Everyone knew the woods were unsafe but we desperately needed milk and eggs, so I took the road. I was fast in those days, a top runner in my division of the Bund Deutscher Mädel and I thought, well, I can outrun any danger. So, my heart beating, as hard as my mother getting dust out of the rugs, I turned off the track”.

Entering the forest she remembered the chain of her bicycle flickered and made a sound like the reels in the cinema. The curtains in her mind pulled apart allowing light to streak through the canopy in violent flashes. Twigs cracking under the tyres, wooded debris hitting the spokes.

“The Linden trees were so big, and proud, these were the ones who had survived and not yet been uprooted by the war or what came after.” She pictured them stretching upward; a canyon of colours and birdsong.

“A soldier appeared, smoking a cigarette. Russian. He looked up enquiringly and our eyes met. ‘Liebchen’ a voice called mockingly, its coarse inflections poisoning the word. ‘Liebchen’ ‘heregekommen, liebchen, bitte’ two others appeared, their arms full of kindling, clucking in my direction, but I powered fast down the hill and was soon within the boundaries of the Heinkleman property.

Inga was at the gate to greet me. She took my churn from my basket and led me to the barn where we usually sat in the hayloft. Her father, like mine, had still not returned from the fighting so to console ourselves we had been making our way through his store of schnapps. She told me such tales. Of the band of Russians that had strung the Kopf’s Alsatian up to the church door because everything German was now evil and religion was for ignorant peasants.  When Dr Kopf protested that the dog was Czech he was hit until he admitted he would soon love Stalin as much as he had loved Hitler. And of our classmate Greta who was already friendly with several of the Russians as she had been with the Germans soldiers, on account of her love for the cigarettes they gave generously. But oh, what she wouldn’t do for an American GI! What we all wouldn’t have done for some stockings and a Hershey’s bar!”

She digressed.

“I left the Heinkelman place and remember hugging Inga fondly. I remember because this would be the last time we’d drink schnapps together in the hayloft. The next time I’d see her she would come with an officer and take the last of our firewood and then Oma would tell me not to wait for Opa to return home, as he may never be coming home, and if I could get the papers I should go and I knew just the man to get them from…”

“…but now I took my milk and my eggs and headed back to the path through the forest. The light had softened and the leaf edges cast circles on the forest floor. It was like someone was above and beaming a torch through rows of bottles, green and brown and cloudy white, as if they were searching a wine cellar. But those men were long gone and different men had taken their place.

I felt slightly sozzled from the schnapps and began to sing an old folk song. I forget the title, By The Fountain, Near The Gate or some such, always about nature they were, but this one, had a haunting melody that pined like it was homesick:

In the mountains the streams run clear,
In the meadows the flowers bloom,
In the forests, we hunt the deer,

In the forests, we hunt the deer… sang the officer as he stepped out onto the path. I stopped, startled. ‘Liebchen’ he whispered again, a broad smile across his face as his comrades appeared from the bracken. I forced the pedals down, willing the chain to move, but it was uphill this time, and they were ahead. So I turned off the path. My bicycle jolted through the uneven undergrowth, thin-fingered branches pulling at my skirt and scratching at my legs. The wheel dipped in a hole and I flew through the air. For a moment I hovered. The wheel spinning below me, sounding again like a projectionist’s reel, the milk spilling from the churn onto the thirsty leaves, cracked egg yolk oozing through the wicker threads of my basket. I don’t remember landing, or what happened next, just the flecks behind my eyes floating round my lids like little red balloons. When I opened my eyes the soldiers were gone but my bloodied mouth kept uttering niet, niet, niet.”

*

Bruce Fisher, safely returned from Africa and comfortably back in his Chelsea residence, turned from the television and snorted to his beautiful fiancée “well, what a lot of utter wank that was” and downed his Prosecco with complete disgust.

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