The bottom tier of my traumatised rockery is a venue for revelation. Dirt, worms, sedums, limestone. Fog, graft, dappling, bone. I trample the ground in my winter coat, saluting magpies, alpines. A troubadour, I tune up my soil.

There are dogwalkers on the pavement, a sign. Bright gossip soaring over traffic. I know which brother is terminal, whose affair’s become chilly. The right way, the wrong way, the only way to fell an ash. The road is a hell. For hedgehogs and humans. It speaks a language its own. A pitch to bury birdsong.

With great ceremony, I have acquired my neighbour Isla’s favourite bedding fork. I use it for all duties – hoeing, raking, seeding, planting, digging, forking, turning, leaning, mathematics. Rockery maintenance is so precise an endeavour, requiring much measurement, many calculations. In place of real drama, I create impossible tasks for myself and then spend decades trying to realise them.

Once I flew us both to Germany, to fix us, see the lizards in the München-Nymphenburg Botanical Garden. They sparked like brainwaves over all the rocks. I ordered thirty vivid die-casts but they were lost in the post. Now I make do with these money spiders, millipedes. Drowsy digger wasps that winter in the dark. 

Next door, Isla’s soulful tattooed nephew has hired a skip. Yellow and unimpressed, it fills with rainwater. In the downpour there are bin bags, broken furniture on the pavement, shards of damp wood. I offer to help, but hollowly. It is a personal cleansing. There is such a thing as a private renaissance.

Again and again I am forced to bend, poor spine. I bend all day and I suffer all night. I dream of waterways. A glistening, malignant waterpark. The attendant is a foxglove. The ticket collector an elm. This is my trophy, these imaginings. My prize for personifying all these plants.

When the cyclist fell at my feet, I was replanting my gentians, turning topsoil at night. Acaulis and Shot Silk, a shady spot, good drainage. If only I had syphoned my efforts into medicine. CPR, first aid. For he soon had such limp arms, dysphagia, they said. First calm, unshakeable – but his cool was so quickly invaded. I still can taste the fog. The rancid moisture in my mouth.

By the time my decorative gravel arrives it is November, so icy. I lay it by streetlamp, and night-drivers heckle me. The blonde Cornish stones have size-ordered themselves in the bag. I tip them into the trench I’ve dug and spend all night reckoning. I am almost certain it is November. Though it could as easily be spring.

She has not died. She lives in a palliative care home. A decent one but bloody expensive, says her nephew. He is enormous and teetering, but gentle, plaintive, aggrieved. He has his memories and I have mine. Of assessing the voices in Isla’s kitchen, ghosts running relay in her hall. She was frank and sensitive and large like her nephew, but was plagued by them, ghosts. All they wanted was to retune her radio.

The people in this valley forever pass my ankles. Terriers, downpours, illness, death. Yes, a cyclist had a stroke at my feet – but all I could think of for a while afterwards were the Range Rovers, the numberplates, the dashboards. Later I plucked out the ramblers, starlings. I try to remember as vehemently as to forget. Cheered at its singularity, in truth I am desperate for it to happen again.

Not one person in our valley has yet challenged my ineptitude, my failure. After the paramedics took him, I slept for a long time, in the spare room with my conscience. People commiserate, they pity, relate. But nowadays I reason with someone else’s nerves. I am on the lookout for a professional, for anyone, to scold me.

There is a most ridiculous slovenly manner to Isla’s nephew’s movements which I have been trying to understand. Why are you watching him? my wife says. A sort of question, a sort of critique. I jolt behind the curtains. I am finding it almost impossible to move away from this window. 

It is feasible for bodies to simultaneously bloat and tug. It will never happen again, though I invite it to, this horror. Another go at outrunning his incomprehension, the flickering. For he was so close. There was such a loss of consciousness. Yes, it’s true – I flagged the ambulance down in the palest of mists.

Vascular dementia, says the nephew. What they call ‘rapid decline’. I dream of Isla most nights, kneeling over the victim, his shattered bicycle. Both have memorised the code I couldn’t. For the emergency defibrillator on the train station’s northern wall. But I have no pen. I have written nothing down. My God, I have written nothing down.

At the plant nursery I strive to be corrected by specialists. Nice apple trees, I say. Those are pears. A tonic. But the gardeners are so playful, their sap-speckled shorts. I watch myself walk back to the car, the shape of my own tailored haircut, the new gait I’ve invented. By the greenhouses, someone has built a fortress of earthenware. It points the way, a brittle tower – gesturing fundamentally to the sky.

In June my wife and I plant a magnolia. We carry the rootball over the fields, a toddler in our arms. Perhaps our trip to Switzerland can heal us. My cowardice, incapacity. I watch mayflies journey over the soil all summer or spring. I understand what I am supposed to do now. I am prepared to dismantle this rockery.

In life, chiefly, I have been unhelpful, paralysed. A fool toiling in hard clay. Had I not been at my soil that evening, no campanula, no creeping thyme, would he have lived? For of all those little gardens, of all those inept saviours. A street’s worth of liberators and he had dropped at these feet.

Like me, Isla’s nephew is beyond melancholy, broken. The planks arrange to meet strategically, overlapping pyramids, a bonfire of wood. Iron birdcage, broken rib. A skip of parasols, picture frames. At three-fifteen he stops and crosses the mulch-strewn path, beckons to me. Over the fence I am knighted with Isla’s bedding fork. Yours, lad, and I crumple. 

I struggle for markers, at whether all this has happened before. Perhaps he has knighted me already, with a scythe, a rake. I turn to my rockery, but remember I have had it destroyed. The soil is sat so patiently. But we have nothing left in common. I pierce the ground with Isla’s fork and the dust comes up like a spell.


Jack Barker-Clark is a writer from a valley in the North of England. His fiction has appeared in 3:AM Magazine, Hobart, Litro, and elsewhere. His prosework has been selected for the Prototype 4 anthology and he is a 2021 Fish Publishing Prize winner.