He gazed out the patio window at the back lawn and the trees beyond. The morning’s low sun sent shadows of the forest across the clipped grass, hands reaching out from the darkness about to be extinguished by the heat of the day. He heard aircraft, engines sighing across the blue sky on their final approach to the airport, sighing as if they were apologetic, sorry, I don’t mean it, sorry, I’ll try to be quiet. He looked at the garden shed. He looked at the neat hedgerows. How did it ever come to this?
The polished wood floor was slippery in his socks. It was kind of assumed that you’d take your shoes off when entering, and he supposed that it was only polite. Sighing aircraft, pigeons in the woods, and sliding around just to be nice, this is what it all meant, but he was always glad to get back home. He liked the vanilla, though. His sister used special plug-ins which infused every room with the scent of vanilla, and it was a smell that always reminded him of this place, here, now, the suburbs. It was all performative, of course, he told himself, leaning forward slightly and touching his forehead against the cool glass of the patio door. They’d never been like this as kids, they’d never been so . . . Posh? With a pile of shoes at the front door, and a patio, and vanilla.
She came into the room.
‘Some of the other parents at the school have suggested a nature trail,’ she said. ‘Something for the kids to do during the summer holidays. I told them that I didn’t mind helping out.’
‘In what way?’
‘I just thought we’d go through the woods and see how many different animals there are.’
‘Unless you have any other ideas.’
His forehead had left a mark on the patio door window. He was worried that his sister might see it.
‘I was going to try and get some writing done.’
‘Can’t that wait?’
‘Actually, sure, yeah. Animals, then. Sounds fun!’
‘Nature in all its finery.’
‘We could just Google it.’
‘You don’t know these people. Sebastian’s mother is a stickler for detail. And don’t get me started on Percy’s mum. They can tell when you’ve been cutting corners. Get one of them alone in the playground when you’re picking up the kids and they’ll gossip like anything.’
He remembered growing up, trying to write in his bedroom, and music pumping out from his sister’s room. It was like she was deliberately trying to stop him from concentrating. Heavy metal music, of course. She was going through that phase, black t-shirts depicting fanciful skeletons, dyed black hair, big DM boots. But the neighbours would be playing music, too. House music, oom oom oom, the floorboards rattling. And planes flying over, but they weren’t polite like these planes, oh no, because they lived right near the end of the airport runway, and these buggers would shake the house. And another neighbour might be banging away on some old car raised up on bricks, and they’d have a radio blaring, and he’d just wanted to shout at them all, just be quiet! Don’t you understand, I’m a writer!, like that made any difference. And he’d imagine somewhere peaceful and quiet where everyone was just so calm and easy-going and well-mannered and respectful of each other, and how this kind of environment, this suburb, this actual place, would have suited him to the ground.
‘Percy has a nut allergy. Every time he comes round to play with the boys, Felicity’s always on the phone. She thinks I forget. She really does. I know she’s just concerned about her boy, but . . . I swear, one day I’ll deck her.’
‘I’d love to see that!’
And he’d knock on his sister’s door and ask, ‘Can’t you please just turn it down, just a little bit? I’m trying to write,’ and she’d tell him in the most precise detail exactly what she thought of his writing, and why didn’t he just consider fucking off instead?
‘You ready, then?’
‘I’ll just get my shoes.’
Mind you, the stories he’d been writing back then were so laughably pretentious that it was a shame he’d put so much effort into them. Maybe he should have relaxed, and lived his life, and tried to enjoy himself? The smudge on the patio door flew above the garden like a solitary bank of fog, something wispy in the morning. Of course, he had been young, and he was just going through the motions of being a writer, and that cranky old typewriter of his probably made more noise than her heavy metal, and a real writer might possibly have turned it all around and tried to see things from her point of view.
‘It was like I was just playing.’
‘I was . . Playing with this idea that . . Rather than a nature trail, perhaps they should, you know . . Count how many squirrels they see, or pigeons, what do you reckon? Make it . . Fun’.
‘They’re only kids.’
To get to the woods from her house you had to walk along some alleyways between people’s gardens. But they weren’t like the alleyways he had when he was growing up, and they weren’t like the alleyways in his current neighbourhood, two hundred miles away. For a start, there wasn’t any graffiti, or crisp packets, and not one syringe. Everything was just so well kept and maintained. It was like life didn’t actually happen here, and he kind of liked the idea that she lived somewhere so safe but on the other hand, he wondered again if this was performative, and if real life were lurking somewhere just out of reach. Was this all put on, he pondered, for people like him? Someone had even come along one of the alleyways and clipped the hedges, so that parts of it were more like an Elizabethan maze. Perhaps, in a funny sort of way, it was their own method of pretending that the alleyways didn’t exist.
‘Camella is having a cream tea next week. Of course, she’s invited me. But I’m wondering how she can have a cream tea if she’s a vegan. I mean, isn’t cream the most un-vegan thing you can possibly have?’
‘Perhaps she’s found a cream substitute. Every time I see her when we’re picking up the kids, she’ll be telling me about a vegan alternative that I really should try. And some of them are quite nice. But they’re expensive.’
‘What I don’t understand is, if a lorry full of vegan produce accidentally runs over a badger, then strictly speaking, the produce is no longer vegan, right?’
‘I’ll ask her about that.’
‘You’re right. She wouldn’t see the funny side.’ She cleared her throat, as if clearing herself of the thought. ‘And anyway, it would be an example of punching down, wouldn’t it? You wouldn’t want to denigrate someone just because of their beliefs’.
‘No . . No, you wouldn’t.’
The alleyway ended and the woods began. Sunlight filtered through the trees. They took a path which wound through beneath tall straight pine trees, the early spongy and bouncy with discarded pine needles.
‘Do you ever come here alone?’ he asked.
‘Is it safe?’
‘I think so.’
‘But you are being careful, aren’t you?’
‘I come here with the kids, a lot. And anyway, we’re actually not far from the high street.’
An aircraft sighed overhead, the sun shining from it between the overhanging branches. He could also hear the background rumble of the motorway. This is the sort of place he would think about when writing, somewhere desolate yet not too far from human contact, somewhere different where you might return from thinking that you had experienced a completely new environment, somewhere, he thought, definite, and connected to the ancient myths of woodsmen and nymphs, woodland spirits and Herne the Hunter. They stopped for a while and watched a squirrel scamper up the tall, straight trunk of a pine, and then another run across the forest floor and up a nearby tree.
‘Plenty of squirrels.’
‘It’s good to get out in the wild.’
‘Especially when it’s within walking distance of a coffee shop.’
‘Look, there’s a pigeon.’
‘And another squirrel.’
‘This is great. We’ve got squirrels, and a pigeon. Any deer around these parts? Wild boar?’
‘Yeah, but apparently the council is doing something about that.’
‘It’s still wildlife.’
‘We wouldn’t want to show the kids the wrong type of wildlife though, would we?’
‘You know, the yucky ones. Rats. Spiders. Snakes. They need to be protected from that sort of thing until they’re older.’
They both stopped for a while in complete silence. He could hear another aircraft approaching. The woods seemed to go on forever, but he knew that it was just a matter of perspective, because they probably weren’t far from the garden centre.
‘I’ll tell you what,’ she said. ‘I think we will just go home and Google it. But at least we actually made the effort.’
They sat at the dining room table next to the patio door. He was using his tablet to research the forest where they had been walking.
‘It’s man-made,’ he said. ‘Planted in the 1890s. Before that, it was just common land. Isn’t that fascinating?’
‘But what about wildlife?’
‘Squirrels. Pigeons. Apparently it’s got badgers. Doesn’t seem to mention much else.’
‘We could make it up, of course. Add some pizzazz.’
‘What would the other parents think?’
‘To be honest, they probably wouldn’t even notice. What could we add in there? Bears? Otters? Wildebeests?’, she laughed.
Sometimes he’d be sitting at his desk and he would be writing and he’d kind of get into this strange zone, almost like a trance, where he felt himself kind of hovering above what it was that he was working on, but then he would find that he was doing this with his own life, too, kind of just sitting there, all omniscient and gauging his life so far as if with the narrator’s knowledge of the story as a whole. And then he would kind of snap back, and he’d be in his flat at the seaside town, an old Victorian mansion separated into tiny apartments, the noise of the busy street coming in through his open window. And he would see his life as a journey from the estate where they had lived, and how he and his sister had gone off in different directions and become their own people, and lived individually, and loved individually, and neither of them were the same people who had existed back then. For some reason this is what he felt at that moment, sitting with his sister at her rough wood dining table with its designer chairs. He looked up and he saw that smudged stain on the patio window still there and he thought, yes, that’s it, that’s the mark that I have made on her world.
‘Dragons. Unicorns. The kids would love it.’
‘Yes! Let’s do it!’
And maybe, he thought. Maybe she saw him now as a performance, an avatar of something that most probably, he just wanted to be.
‘Do you think they’d notice?’
‘To be honest, they’d probably not.’
He looked further down the window where there were kid’s hand prints, greasy outlines where they’d been standing and looking out at the back garden. He then looked over through the door at the kitchen, where his sister had pinned by magnets some pictures that the kids had painted at school to the refrigerator, and at that moment he knew that this performance, this adoption of a certain personality was something that perhaps came naturally to most people.
‘I must admit . . Even after all this time, I really don’t feel like an uncle’.
‘You’ve had long enough to get used to it.’
‘It just doesn’t seem to fit in with the – with the image that I have of myself, you know?’
‘Kind of. But there can be no getting away from the fact that you’re definitely an uncle’.
And then the two of them sat for a while in silence. And he remembered how she had picked him up from the station the afternoon before, and he’d sat in the front of her car and found some of her old CDs in the glove box, the same CDs that she used to listen to all those years ago when he was trying to write. And now here he was, decades later, and now here she was too, and she was still listening to the same music, and he was still trying to write.
‘What shall we do, then?’ she asked.
‘About this nature trail.’
He looked at the screen of his tablet. The woods didn’t seem at all interesting from the perspective of a nature trail. No endangered species, nothing exotic. And the trees had all been planted on purpose.
‘I mean, you’re the writer, aren’t you?’
She passed him a pad of paper and a pen and he took the lid off and then he began to write. And a low aircraft went over, its sighing engines breathing out some kind of mechanical relief, and he wrote down the names of the animals that they’d seen and the ones that they’d read about, and then he started writing the names of other creatures too, mythical creatures, and she watched the pen, tilting her head, and she laughed as he wrote dragon, and she laughed as he wrote unicorn, and then she laughed again when he wrote octopus and kangaroo. And the shadows across the back lawn had been replaced by bright sunlight, and the smudge was still on the window where his forehead had been, and he knew that she would probably blame it on the kids.
Robert Garnham has been performing comedy poetry around the UK for ten years at various fringes and festivals, and has had two collections published by Burning Eye. He has made a few short TV adverts for a certain bank, and a joke from one of his shows was listed as one of the funniest of the Edinburgh Fringe. He was recently an answer on the TV quiz show Pointless. Lately, he has been writing short stories for magazines and a humorous column in the Herald Express newspaper. In 2020 he was nominated for the Pushcart Prize.