Our August competition challenges you to use description to suggest mood and emotion.
Here’s the challenge:
You visit the garden of an elderly friend, who has recently died, in the company of your son, who is 12. Describe walking through the neglected garden with your son, who would much rather be home playing a computer game.
You encounter the gardener, whom you are angry with – for not maintaining the garden as you think it should have been kept, and irrationally, for not being your friend, whom you miss. You don’t express this anger out loud, but it colours your view of him and his surroundings.
Write your story in no more than 250 words.
The challenge of this story was not to spell out the obvious – but to let your description of the neglected garden tell the story of your narrator’s sense of loss and anger.
Cue trumpets. Drums. Clash cymbals! The winner is:
Chantal Dawtry. For story – which you can read here – was full of restraint and surprises, and contains the best line, in my view, in all of the entries. She writes: “A small naked tree scratched at the wall as if wanting to get out.” I love the image, and I especially love the use of the word “naked”.
I parked in the street. Roses hung mournfully over the low wall, nodding slowly in the wind. They needed pruning. Arthur loved his roses, but not looking like that. I got out of the car and slammed the door. Christopher took his time, fiddling with his phone. I sighed loudly.
The peeling metal gate got stuck on dead leaves and twigs that had blown up into the recess between the two gate posts. I shoved hard and heard the snap and crunch of the debris as the bottom of the gate pushed over it. “Watch it, Chris,” I said as he walked into me. He moaned, “Why did you have to stop there?”
The front garden looked ragged and old. The life sucked out of it. The lawn tried to shrink beneath the yawning shade and let the August gust pull a shawl of brown leaves across its threadbare winter coat. A small naked tree scratched at the wall as if wanting to get out.
Out of the corner of my eye, a movement. My heart lurched then dropped. Only Amos. He shuffled towards me looking dusty. Wrinkled, like he had just woken up. His eyes were rheumy. There was a newspaper in his hand. Not a garden implement nearby. The hose, curled up in the corner under the tap, was covered in tiny yellow leaves from the jacaranda that grew behind the house. I sneezed as another flurry kicked up dust, sniffed and wiped my eyes.
And here are the others who perhaps on another day might have won the winner’s laurels.
Lisa Anne Julien’s story, with a perfectly lovely title:
Yesterday, Today and Forever
“Christ,” Martha muttered, watching the sunflowers bowed in prayer despite the scorching heat. “I feel like Eve after she was banished from the Garden of Eden.”
“Huh? What are you talking about?” Connor asked, kicking small pebbles out of his path and digging his hands deeper into his pockets.
“Didn’t you read the book of Genesis in Aunt Cora’s Sunday school class?” She bent down and furiously grabbed at the weeds that were choking the red Chrysanthemums.
“Is she buried here?”
Martha understood his mistake. The once vibrant herb patch that spiced their Sunday lunches was now yellow and crusty. The tomato vines, no longer supported, had succumbed to the earth. The peppers had shrivelled up altogether. Only the cacti with their spikes towards the heavens appeared unperturbed. “Don’t be ridiculous,” she snapped. “Go check those pots over there. See if there’s anything we can take home.”
“Anything we can save Connor.”
“G’day Miss Martha,” Elias, the gardener suddenly came into view. Martha couldn’t imagine why his overalls were caked with earth and his sweat fresh.
“Hello.” Her eyes raked over him. “Been busy?”
“Oh yes Madam.” He hurriedly began a futile attempt to revive Cora’s beloved lavender bush.
“Useless,” she whispered.
She bit her tongue. Cora had loved Elias. “It’s useless, Elias. Everything’s gone.”
“Mom! I found one!” Connor smiled as he pointed to a large, cream clay pot. In it lay a Clivia miniata whose yellow tipped leaves cupped a bright orange bud.
Romana Chetty’s story, bristling with restrained emotion and unsaid accusations and regrets.
Mary, Mary quite contrary; the voice in my head sings. I didn’t expect a nursery rhyme. I expected green pastures of a hymn we sang at Gopika’s graveside. But an invisible cloth of black frost has draped itself over Gopika’s garden and my visit in its wake becomes a funeral for lifeless layers of foliage. I remember paths lined with Granny’s lace and lavender and Rooibos tea steaming in the chipped tea-pot from Jaipur on a makeshift tree-trunk as table under a jasmine scented gazebo and Gopika laughing so hard that silk creases around her eyes collected tears.
“You crying, Ma?”
“The sun’s hurting my eyes.”
He’s at the age of rebellion, my boy. So he’d rather be shooting bad guys on his computer screen. Death’s clear as black and white in his games. Lord knows, I could do with some clarity now.
Near the boundary wall, I see a hunched silhouette – the image of Gopika – in a floppy sun-hat, raking jacaranda spilling. When I blink, the figure vanishes. A mirage created by sunlight and tears. Just nature as an undertaker in gusts of wind blowing dry debris around
“The big man in the sky’s my gardener,” was Gopika’s deflection of compliments.
Only he wasn’t. And this; this crackling corpse was my proof. How could he let a garden so alive, die? That’s what I want to know.
“Maaa,” my son calls from the gate.
And I have no answer.
So I turn and walk toward him.
Lee Jones’ piece for the botanical particularity of its description.
Zane was particularly pigheaded that morning.“Mom, WHY can’t I just stay home and play X-Box?” A grumpy child with this equally grim mother pushed through Emma’s garden gate.
Adam, the gardener, was dozing on a sun-drenched bench, the legs of which were obscured by long grass and weeds. A lump in my throat, hard to swallow, made my greeting sound, and feel, like a threat.“Morning, Adam”. My grieving, sleep-deprived brain raced to identify and too loudly shout out the resonant similarity between“morning” and “mourning” as he startled and leaped to his feet.
Emma’s garden, once an enchanted sanctuary of selected Fynbos proudly procured from all over the Cape, was neglected beyond comprehension. Kikuyu rampaged through dying buchus and ericas, weeds obscured once magnificent displays of Osteospermum and Helichrysumgroundcovers. Pathways through the series of little ponds were overgrown and impassable.
“Mom, can we go now, PLEASE!” Zane’s shrill voice cut my ears and my heart, successfully shredding what little composure remained. My anger, at Emma’s needless suffering and untimely passing; at the idiot doctor who had misdiagnosed her condition; at useless Adam’s disregard for this sanctuary – this expression of Emma’s passion; at the universe and any gods who might have allowed Emma to suffer and die too soon; and, at my futile ability to change things, my anger erupted.
“You’re hateful, lazy and pathetic Zane! How can you think only of yourself at a time like this, and not respect Emma’s memory?” His innocent face crumpled.