Dig down through the soil in any part of my garden and you’ll hit a solid pan of pebbles and boulders. It comes as a surprise after two feet of soft, rich soil. A hard, jolting surprise. The tines of your fork bend as you try to find a way through, to ease the foreign matter loose. Your neat hole dug for the fence, trellis or gazebo post becomes enlarged and distorted in the search for the margins of a large boulder. When the obstruction is revealed in all its terrible glory, the shaft of the spade snaps in an attempt to lever the monster free from the earth.
This isn’t a natural feature of my back garden. There’s no glacial or ancient river-bed explanation, it was caused by huge earth-shifting lorries that used my back yard as a throughway during the construction of the housing estate seven years ago. There’s no such easy explanation for the obstruction under my own soft surface. It was found beneath my ribs, after I broke them in a karate sparring session. The boulders can be dug out of the garden with the right tools. My cancer couldn’t be removed. It was part of me.
James loves the garden. He’s not a typical boy. The flowers and vegetables are safe from harm when he’s around, unless he has other, more boisterous, playmates to visit. We have the accoutrements of childhood - footballs, sliotars, a rugby ball, the usual sport playthings, but James doesn’t kick the heads off the roses or bash the broccoli. He inhales the scents, wonders at the earth’s creative abundance and carries ladybirds from tree to tree. My special son with unique focal powers. He dwells within a spectrum of disorders, a fitting word for the range of colours and lights that brighten his world.
From the front of the house I call to my family, each of them busy, indulging in their own favourite pastime. They don’t hear me or, if they do, there’s no response.
My wife, Leah, reads a novel. When she doesn’t read, she sleeps on the white stitched, dark brown leather of the Italian sofa in the playroom. We chose that sofa together, just before the recession took hold. There was a bitter fight with the bankrupt furniture company to get it delivered.
Sarah plays her silver-plated flute, bought with her own money saved from birthday, Christmas and Holy Communion gifts. At age six she drew her first note from a flute at the music school open day and took a firm vow to one day buy her own. Now ten, she picks up any new classical piece from sheet music within minutes. It’s too early to say she’s a prodigy but the sound is heavenly.
I walk through to the back of the house, calling for them again. James hears me first, his ear ever tuned for my voice. He looks up from his Lego and I stoop down to ruffle his hair. When he’s not playing Lego or exploring the garden, James likes to watch recorded TV programmes that include quizzes, facts and figures. He’ll stand in front of the screen and speak the answers in time with the contestants, every high and low score of the series stored in a memory that can’t remember where he left his shoes.
I became needy. The family understood that. I didn’t show pain and they didn’t smother me with sympathy. They showed that they cared by respecting my needs when I had to have one or another to keep me company.
‘Let’s take a turn around the grounds,’ I say.
Leah lets her glasses slip down her nose, gives a tight smile and returns to her book. Not her.
Through the archway, in the dining room, Sarah runs through a minuet and hits a wrong note.
‘That should be a sharp,’ I call to her.
‘I’ll play that again,’ she says and runs through the tune, an emphasis placed on the corrected tone.
‘I don’t know how your father could tell the difference,’ Leah mutters from behind her book.
James stands and I put my hand down to his.
‘We’re going outside, Mum. We’re going outside.’
‘Yes, dear. Come in if it rains.’
He unlocks the door and hooks it open.
‘Down here, Dad. Down to the orchard, where it’s squelchy.’
It’s just a dwarf Granny Smith’s apple and a
plum tree. I built the trellis across the garden to give an illusion of a secret garden. This is where I did battle with buried boulders. This is where I sit on my bench, listening to the birds and watching James gather the autumn leaves. Victoria
‘Look, Dad. These aren’t from our tree.’ He holds up a fistful of oak leaves that have blown in from the neighbour’s garden.
Sarah’s flute strikes up a new tune, a march. The notes stride down from the house, and James stomps around the base of the apple tree, his shoes hitting the waterlogged ground with the sound of troops crossing the marshes.
‘Let’s dance,’ he says and takes my hand, swinging his arm to the military step. He will never be too self-conscious, too embarrassed to hold his father’s hand. James doesn’t see, hear or feel other people’s opinions. But he sees me, feels the strong, assuring grip of my hand on his.
My feet make no splash next to his. The rain begins to fall, pattering the leaves. The tears of an absent father.
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