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An English story set in France by Nick Twyford
It was the day after I came home with a bloody nose that Papi first took me to the allotment. I didn’t want to call my granddad Papi. I thought that it sounded stupid, but mum and dad weren’t around anymore and it was his rules. The message was clear: you’re in the countryside now and you’ve got to respect that no matter where you’re from.
Maybe that was why I got into the fight. I was a city boy in a country school and I was proud of being a city boy. But I was new and I had no friends and the other boys often picked on me. That is how I ended up having a fight.
‘No perspective,’ was all Papi could say. He didn’t tell me off, just talked about me having no perspective as if I should know better.
We walked to the allotment in silence. It was early morning and the sun was climbing skyward. We had nothing to talk about, Papi and I, so our conversations were brief at best: short, mumbled sentences, neither of us having any desire to learn about the other. That day, like every other day that followed, he made me carry a large wicker basket that was so big I always struggled to see over the top. In it was a pair of shears, a long coil of rope, a trowel, our lunch, and an empty coffee jar. Papi carried nothing because he walked with a limp. He had flown planes for the Free French over North Africa during the War, or so I had been told. One day, a bullet took a chunk out of his leg so he didn’t walk so good anymore. I didn’t know why a pilot even needed good legs in order to fly, but the barrier between us meant I couldn’t ask him about his days as a pilot even if I had wanted to. I couldn’t imagine Papi as a pilot. I couldn’t imagine him as anything other than an old man.
The allotment seemed limitless – plot after plot, each one perfectly square, adorned with the fruits of peoples’ labours. There were mouth-watering raspberries and tomatoes, plump courgettes and vines of haricot vert, and vivid sunflowers that smiled at me as we passed them each day.
When Papi showed me his plot, my heart sank. Unlike the others I had seen, which were drenched in colour and loaded with fruit and vegetables, Papi’s plot was an unloved square of dirt, riddled with weeds and stewarded by dozens of slimy slugs.
‘Back again, Edouard?’ an old man asked. His name was Monsieur Jean-Paul and he was always smiling and teasing. He was much fatter than Papi and he owned the three plots next to ours. He casually plucked a ripe tomato from one of his vines and inspected it with obvious glee before adding it to the pile of vegetables he had already collected in his little basket.
‘What is it this time,’ he teased, ‘another money tree perhaps? You should try and grow easier crops in that dried-out dirt of yours.’
‘Sow What?’ Papi replied to his taunting neighbour.
‘Easier crops, more produce,’ Monsieur Jean-Paul chuckled to himself. And with that he left us to it. I looked from his allotment to ours in despair and thought that he might have had a point.
‘No perspective,’ Papi said. ‘Same problem as you.’
I frowned. I didn’t know what he meant when he said no perspective. I could see things just fine.
Papi took the empty coffee jar from the big basket. He stooped awkwardly, picked up a slug from the ground and put it in the jar. He handed the jar to me and gestured for me to do the same. I did as he instructed and picked up a slug. It was fat and slimy and did not like being held one bit. I quickly put it in the jar and wiped my hands on my trousers.
‘Continue,’ said Papi.
And so I carried on while my grandfather awkwardly got down on his knees and slowly turned the soil with his trowel. The slugs I was catching moved faster than he did.
‘What are we doing, Papi?’ I asked after a while. ‘I mean, what are we growing?’
‘Sow What,’ Papi replied in his usual gruff voice. Maybe he wasn’t even listening to me.
The days continued like that for a while and I hated them at first. Early in the morning and late afternoon we turned the soil and collected the slugs. We went every day, before and after school, and we went every weekend no matter what the weather. We avoided going at midday because no self-respecting Frenchman would go out in the midday sun. There was no point working in such heat. The afternoons were for rest.
Every day was the same thing: soil and slugs, slugs and soil. I carried the basket and always made sure we had the right gear. At home, in the evenings, Papi was forever testing and strengthening the lengths of rope, always mending and fussing over the huge basket.
And in this manner, very slowly, I don’t know when or how, everything began to change. There was something about going to the allotment every day, something about the regularity of it, the reassuring predictability of it… It made me feel calm. I still didn’t like school. I really missed my friends from the city, and I still didn’t care much for the country kids. But I didn’t mind them so much either.
One day, during morning break, the same boy tried to pick a fight with me again. But this time I ignored him and went on my way. ‘So what,’ I said as I walked back to class.
Another day, we saw Monsieur Jean-Paul again. He was collecting his produce and placing it lovingly in his little basket. He howled in disbelief as he watched Papi sprinkle salt into the dirt of our allotment. He called Papi a crazy old fool. ‘Nothing grows in salt,’ he said with that smug smile of his, ‘nothing at all!’
I had not noticed Papi doing this before. I suppose I had been too busy collecting slugs and putting them in the glass jar as instructed. I did not like to agree with Monsieur Jean-Paul, but I said, ‘Surely he is right, Papi. If we salt the earth then nothing will grow in it.’
Papi simply shrugged his usual shrug and said, ‘Sow What.’
Monsieur Jean-Paul walked away, laughing to himself the whole time. ‘Crazy old fool,’ he said again.
When it was just the two of us once more, I asked Papi why we were doing such hard work if he was just going to ruin the soil with salt. ‘You can’t grow fruit or vegetable in that,’ I said.
‘Not growing fruit or vegetables,’ he replied with a mischievous twinkle in his eye. ‘Sow What.’ He said, as if that were all I ever needed to know. And that was that. After all, I couldn’t argue with him if I couldn’t understand him.
Then, a few days later, the storm came. It snuck in early before I awoke, but quickly made its presence known. Shutters banged and the dogs hid. Lightning lit up the sky and I could feel the ground shaking even though I was curled up in bed.
Papi suddenly burst into my room with the biggest smile on his face. ‘Pierre!’ he shouted, ‘Pierre! The allotment! Quickly!’
We ran to the allotment through the wind and rain, Papi moving faster than I had ever seen him move before. His leg hardly seemed to bother him at all, and he was almost skipping with all the excitement. I struggled to keep up because it was my job, as usual, to carry the huge basket and its contents of rope and jar and shears.
Everything was in a mess when we arrived at the allotments. Bean plants clung to their canes like sailors to a sinking ship, vegetables were uprooted, and the poor flowers were strewn all over the ground like wet flags. But that is not what grabbed my attention. My eyes were fixed firmly on Papi’s plot in the far corner.
‘What is that?’ I asked, dumbfounded by the site of the strange and giant plant.
‘Exactly!’ replied Papi. ‘That is a What!’ And with that he took the basket from my arms.
‘Sow What! We sowed this What and now it has grown!’ he explained as he skipped across the allotment towards the wonderful plant.
The best way for you to picture the What is if you imagine an explosion going off in a paint factory with all of the colours forming into an impossible flower. The What was, without a doubt, the most beautiful and extraordinary thing I have ever seen! It had risen from the arid soil overnight and exploded into bloom, maybe eight foot high with a smooth green trunk and leaves like giant sycamore seeds or enormous feathers. It was every colour you could ever dream, and at the base of each leaf, close to the thick stem, hung huge football sized pods that bounced and jangled soundlessly in the wind and rain. It looked alive as it stretched and twisted away from the earth, up towards the sky as if it wanted to escape!
That is when I realised it actually was trying to escape from the earth, the leaves catching the strong currents and the pods tugging at the roots that grounded the stem. It looked like a giant carousel attempting to spin up into the night sky!
As I stood frozen and gawping at the spectacle, Papi got to work. He secured lengths of rope to either side of our basket, and then looped them around the body of the What and tied them in a knot.
‘Get in,’ he commanded, pointing at the basket with a smile.
I did as he ordered, feeling both ridiculous and excited as we huddled together in the wicker carrier. Once we were in, Papi got the shears and made ready to cut at the stem of the What.
‘Papi, you can’t kill it!’ I protested. ‘It’s only just grown!’
‘Flower and seeds,’ Papi explained. ‘The rest is below. It will grow again. Now hold tight.’ he said, and with three sharp hacks of the shears he cut right through the stem.
Without the stem to anchor it, the plant slowly lifted up into the air. The ropes tightened and the basket, much to my delirious surprise, was pulled into the air behind the glorious What, up into the wind and rain and lightning above! On our way up, the basket flattened Monsieur Jean-Paul’s shed and I swore that I heard Papi give a little chuckle to himself.
I remember holding on very tightly to Papi then, and I must have closed my eyes in fear as we drifted higher and higher up into the sky. But very soon I felt the warm sun on my face. The rain subsided and the grey clouds parted.
‘Pierre,’ said Papi, ‘open your eyes and take a look!’
We were very high up. Underneath us, stretched out for as far as I could see, was the French countryside – mile after mile of fields, meadows and woods; a tapestry of rich greens and browns all the way to the sea. There were rivers too, glittering in the sunshine like silver snakes.
‘When I used to fly my aeroplane,’ Papi said eventually, ‘things made more sense to me. It’s important you see it too. Distance from your problems gives you perspective.’
That was when I truly understood what Papi meant by perspective. I thought about the kids at school and how I didn’t quite fit in. And then I thought about being far away from my friends in the city. But it didn’t seem to matter so much at the end of the day, not in the big scheme of things. I realised then that any problem can be overcome given enough time and a little help from those who love you. And I had both.
Far below us, with the rains ended and the clouds all cleared away, I could see some of the children from school emerging from their homes to play in the morning sun. Some of them looked up and saw the beautiful, giant What floating above. They stared in disbelief and I had to smile because they looked quite silly.
I would be fine, I thought to myself. I would make an extra effort and I would try and get on with the other boys at school. I would try to fit in and make a go of it. I told Papi all of this and he winked at me. ‘And if not,’ he said, grinning from ear to ear, ‘well then we always have these.’ He opened the coffee jar of slugs and held one between his thumb and forefinger. ‘Like in the war,’ he said. ‘Bombs away!’ And with that he launched the slug at the children below.
I thanked Papi for his kindness and the valuable lesson he had taught me. Then, after a while, I asked nervously: ‘Papi, how do we get down?’
‘Later,’ Papi chuckled, ‘when we are good and ready. We can stay up here for now. So what if we drift for a while. We can always find our way home.’
I smiled and hugged Papi. ‘So what indeed,’ I thought. ‘So what indeed.’