Salad: Act Four, Spring ‘94 — by John Beet

The room was silent now that the heater was off and the night was full. An overhanging lamp was the only illuminating facet of the room and the smell of sweet liquor stuck to the mouth; creeping out with uttered words. “We can stop if you like.” There was no sticky liquor to be smelled. “Pour me another. Please.” “After you’ve finished. Is that cool?” “Fine.” The speaker licked the tip of his index finger and with it, circled the rim of his empty glass. “Tell me; do you remember God?”

***

“Barely” Usher said silently in the dark, “this isn’t the time.” I ignored him. “Everything was better back then.” “Nothing’s changed Jon. It’s all just more of the same. God or no God.” “You want to get struck by lightning don’t you.” It was a whispered conversation up until this point, then the volume rose. “Do you remember why I started burning things?” I did but he told me anyway. “Auntie Penny. Remember I told you that she abused me? Remember that I tried to burn her house down and she survived? God could burn down the whole of Sodom but I can’t take out one auntie?” I looked at him and said blankly, “And my dad cheated with men, that’s how it goes.” “At least we had meat aye.” “Indeed, we did. Let’s not dwell on things we can’t change shall we.” Usher paused for a second then said, “If God was still up there then He wouldn’t let us do this.” “We’ve done worse things.”

We were outside an orphanage. It was the middle of Spring, when the sun was less shy, so we had to wait until the hours between 1am and 4am to arrive. At that moment, it was 1:17am. We entered the orphanage through a satisfyingly cut circular hole in a window on the ground floor. We entered at the end of a hallway which coincidentally led straight to the kitchen area: our destination. The building was about as fancy as you would expect an inner-city orphanage to be. Bookshelves home to books that probably would be in perfect condition if the internet still existed, hugging the walls like prowling men in a once upon a time nightclub.

We walked past rooms filled with children; many of whom that were likely given up by parent’s incapable of providing them with anything other than the life of a nomad. Israelites, they were not. The wood plank floors creaked with every step causing Usher to shake his head and curse under heavy breaths much too often. I could tell that the situation was getting to him. We got to the kitchen and found food before long. We took what we could, leaving enough for the children to eat for the next few weeks. the building was in a far part of town so we had a little way to go and the duffle bags were heavy so we arrived home at about 5am.

The cellar was the best place to preserve the food because of the lower temperature so we put it in there, and then went to sleep. Myself sneaking into bed making sure not to wake Joan.

Winters last weeks were difficult. There was a famine now. The harshness of the cold, coupled with the soil being newly infertile caused it. I’d no idea how anybody else in the city was doing; neither did I care. The food dwindled more rapidly than it had in the beginning of winter. Even after Bo died and almost everybody left, food was becoming a rarity. It was only Dave, Joan, Usher and five others remaining. Wine was the main source of sustenance in the house so we hardly drank any. I hardly drank any.

Morning came and Joan interrupted my already stunted sleep asking me where I got the food from. She ignored me when I asked what she was doing in the cellar. I had noticed that she’d been more prone to a morning drink nowadays. I told her, “It must be manna.”

Regardless of Joan’s wariness, she ate well for the first time in a long time. Usher and I had even come back with a couple cans of tinned fruits. We needed the energy, because that day myself, Dave and Usher left again to finish the boat. We packed some of the food and a bottle of wine, then left. I told the others we wouldn’t be back for a while, and then we departed.

On our walk to the beach, by the time we could see the sea on the horizon it was half way through the morning. I let out a big sigh which almost immediately triggered Usher to say, “It’s your mum again isn’t it.” “I probably won’t find her when we leave.” We walked a bit more, before Usher ended with, “Probably not.”

After a few days, we’d made some very quick progress. The boat was looking less like a remnant of an old world and more like something you’d think was sea-worthy. But it wasn’t finished yet. We contemplated taking wood from the cabin to complete it but in the end, we decided against it just in case we’d ever have to return to it for any reason. So, to craft two sail poles and make some oars, we went into the woods to collect more wood.

The woods swallowed us and mid-afternoon became late afternoon because we were busy conversing about my mother. “She said that she was going to Africa.” “Yes, but where in Africa?” “How should I know?” “Africa is a big place you know Jon.” “Well I’ll have to try and make it smaller won’t I.” “I’m not sure the boat will carry us that far.” “Of course you don’t know; you’ve never tried have you?” We carried on like this for a good while and then the sun began terraforming the spaces around us for more ethereal beings than ourselves. Surrounded by a glow spattered by ineffective pollen dotting the air with flecks of tangible light. We were quiet and to be there at the cusp of evening was mystifying. Dave, while listening in on the conversation paid more attention to the scenery.

It’s always too quiet when there is no wildlife. Like the earth is truly empty.

That’s when I saw it. Standing in some bushes in the distance. The cow. It could have easily been a trick of the light that was progressively dying and flashing in between blowing leaves, so I sought confirmation. “Do you two see that cow?” I pointed in the direction I saw it and they squinted their eyes. Dave almost formed words at what he beheld but Usher spoke for him. “Jon. There’s a cow.” “I know. Bo saw it too.” “Should we kill it? It’s been a while since beef entered me belly.” “Let’s follow it first.” And so, we did, ‘follow’ being a loose term seeing as we had to wait for about an hour for it to start moving. Making sure not to startle it, we stepped as softly as we could on leaves and broken branches and held breaths when we thought it sensed us until finally it reached its destination.

It stopped at an open field. The possibility of a field being somewhere in the middle of the woods and me not knowing of its existence was small. Though it could have been something I’d just never taken any notice of.

The field was home to a cottage. Modest in size and design, with a small stable not too far from it. Enough for a single cow I suppose. The grass glowed in the setting sun, and it became colder. As we investigated I noticed that at the other side of the cottage was the lake that I had lost the cow at our last meeting.

We ventured further into the enclosure, nearing the cottage when the door burst open and a tall old man walked out of the house with a military-grade shotgun. He was wearing a mauve turtle neck jumper. All three of us put our hands up so quickly we’d have flown if we were able. “Don’t kill us!” Usher screamed with childlike vim. “Are you here for Leroy?” the man asked calmly. His eyes darted across us three, probably looking for any weapons. “Who’s Leroy?” he looked at the cow and my eyes followed. “Of course not! We’re just on a nature walk taking in nature because we love nature.” Usher smiled genuinely. He’d always been a good actor. Once, a girl told him that she was pregnant with his child. He looked her dead in the eye, said, “No it’s not.” and walked away never to see her again.

The old man told us to come in as he was cooking dinner. Unexpected hospitality aside, we were grateful we were still alive. The inside of his house was barren compared to the gaudiness of my home. Candles were strewn down every hall way and in every room. The furniture, while limited was well kept, and looked as if it had come from IKEA. There was only electricity in one room, dubbed The History Room. Tall, long and equally archaic, inside was a library with countless books upon shelves, there were also hundreds of DVD’s, board and computer games from the past. A singular 50-inch television sat on a cabinet which housed a PlayStation 3 and an Xbox 360.

We’d hoped for meat to be on the menu, but instead we had baked yam with melted cheese and tomato-sauced beans. We hadn’t had cheese in so long that our bodies didn’t agree with it anymore but it was the last time we’d probably ever get it so we savoured our meal. In our conversations, we discovered the man’s name was Leonard. He always made sure he visited the town only when he needed, and at the very moment the stores opened so as not to attract attention to himself. None of us had seen him because to us he’d just be another person we didn’t care for.

Leaning back in the rocking chair which was more worn out than the others, he told us of the times when he was a farmer. Specifically, the very moment that all the animals died. He’d a pregnant cow in his care and as soon as it happened, the calf, Leroy was born avoiding the death cycle. He told us that when Leroy dies he guessed he’d have the last bit of beef on earth. I instead thought that if it had happened here, it could have happened elsewhere. Maybe thousands of times over.

After having been welcomed by Leonard, eating and conversing and the like, it was night time and so we thought it best to leave. We contemplated taking Leroy but opted against it in the end. Enough time had been wasted.

For another 12 days, we worked on the boat. Refining, sanding down etc. Our knuckles had lost skin and nails had become disorganised by the end of our laborious task. The sails were last. We grabbed the tarp from the burning bin area and some more from home — avoiding Joan — washed them all and tied them to two long pieces of treated wood protruding from the boat, completing our masts.

After just two seasons we’d built our boat.

It resembled Elmer the Patchwork Elephant, except less organised — and a boat. But it was well built, and even if the entirety of its sea-worthiness was limited to exiting the bay and sinking, we’d worked hard. Though we hoped for the best. Patch was the boats name. there was one room, but it was big enough for four or five people to stay inside. A separate area was built in the bottom of the boat to keep oars, food, clothes and anything else necessary to bring, all divided into light plastic boxes. Our beach box was too heavy to bring, and all we had was the wind and hope to push us forward, so we needed to be as light as possible.

When we were ready to go back to the house, Dave stayed back for a while longer — signalling with a wave. Joan was upstairs waiting for me in my bedroom. “Finished the boat then.” she said lingering by the curtains, basked in their shadow. “How did you know about the boat?” I asked, and she said that I owned binoculars. “They can’t see that far.” “I may have followed you down to the beach the other day to see what you were up to. You weren’t going to tell me, were you?” “I didn’t think you’d mind me leaving.” Her neck twisted toward me with such speed I thought she’d broken it by accident. “The father of my dead child? Leave?” she laughed hysterically. “No of course not, I wouldn’t mind that at all!” All I could muster up was, “Don’t watch that.” and when she asked me what it meant, I told her not to worry.

A week passed, I was in the gardens to see if anything that I’d planted had grown. There was nothing, save for the odd abnormal sprout that would never be fruitful. I still had seeds left over from the winter, but I didn’t plant them because we were leaving soon. With everything that was going on around the house: boat building, leaving preparations, cow spotting etc. I’d forgotten about my beetroots.

I ran as if they were a daughter getting off a plane after four years coming home. They were gone. Not just the vegetable, the whole thing — from the root. There was but a small, misshapen beet at the back of the plot they were in. Usher was behind me and said to me in a soft voice, “We may as well burn this place down.” I picked up the discarded vegetable and asked him why. “At least I’d have successfully burned one house to the ground in my lifetime.” I ignored him and said, “We leave in a week.”

During that week, we prepared everything to take with us. Joan decided that she was coming too. Clothes, food and wine, the odd sentimental trinket, a photo of my mother and me. I took all the seeds with me because they were mine to take, but we left a little of the food we’d collected behind. I told the rest of the tenants that they could either go or stay. Then, one early morning when the sun was just about touching the earth we stood on, we set sail.

Anxieties about leaving were null, and luckily the waters welcomed us without simultaneously overcoming the boat. It creaked like aged wood as we got further out into the sea, and before long the land was completely gone. The wind had us completely at its mercy, granting us more than mercy, coupling its smooth forward pressure with calm seas and warm sun. The creaking never stopped. Dave was at the helm most of the time; turning the boat with expert precision, though there were rarely obstacles. Knowing there were no fish beneath us was strange, though I couldn’t help but wonder about the creatures that lay in the utmost depths of the sea. Those parts which man had not tainted with their presence: surely, they would still be alive? But we’d never know. Joan was the quietest. She’d sit by herself a lot of the time, looking up at the sky as if for birds. I would sit with her, but no words were exchanged save for asking how she was coping. She was always “fine”. One of the mornings we found Usher lying down on his back looking up at the sky too. We asked what was wrong, and he just said, “No birds.”

Endless teal skies and blue waters started to transform into a tapestry that fell onto our heads unwelcomed from which we couldn’t emerge from. It felt like it had been weeks since we’d left, but there was still food left over so we couldn’t gauge how long it had truly been. All in all, life on the boat was boring. Then we saw land. “I knew Africa wasn’t that far away.” I said. We’d travelled non-stop in the day times and the winds only stopped at night. We’d made unexpectedly good time. We continued towards land. It was the beach that stopped us in our tracks — we didn’t know how to stop, and neither did we need to. The houses in front of us, stacked next to each other like multicoloured dominoes favoured that of a staccato rainbow in their arrangement. It was quite beautiful.

The sun still shone and the light reflecting off the beach was brighter than back in England. We wasted no time in getting off and only took what we’d need for land. We locked up the boat and left it to scour the streets. As soon as we touched concrete, Joan said that she was leaving. I remember the uncomfortable throat lump forming slowly and I felt as if she could see it protruding from my neck. “I would say I’ll always love you; but that’d be a lie. So, I’ll love you for a little while longer.” I think I still love her. She embraced Dave and Usher and they said their goodbyes. We hugged, and during the embrace I wondered why she was leaving. Only clichés akin to her being reminded of the baby with every look at me, me never being there for her or some lie about how it wouldn’t work out between us entered my mind. As Joan embraced me she whispered to my softly, “This is Saint Tropez.” We were in France. None of us had ever been before. “I used to come here in summer with my family when I was young.” “Is that where you’re going? I can at least escort you there.” “I’m not that kind of girl.” A last joke. “Bye Jon. I love you.” Then I never saw her again. I wished her well in my head and missed her well in my heart. She still lives underneath the left of my chest.

Dave had already begun to explore the town before us. We caught up to him. Then it dawned on me — I still hadn’t reached Africa. There was a long walk ahead of me and no time to waste. Mother waited — either on the land, or under it; she waited.

EPILOGUE — SUMMER ‘02

“You’re wondering how we got here.” The listener nodded. “We spent three years going through the entirety of Europe to reach this place. Long ago we’d seen a world map, accurately painted on a wall. That’s when we saw our bridge between Europe and Africa. A small island called Gibraltar, beneath the boot of Spain. Eight years later we’re still here, because we’d all found something. Myself: a sort of peace, Dave: love, and Usher: contentment. We’d been waiting so long for a boat to Morocco that never came. We only needed one. It gets to a point you start to wonder what it was that you’re really waiting for. I’d had everything I needed where I was, and me hoping to see my mother again was revealed to be just a reason for the next step in my life. I’ll still go to Morocco whenever that boat comes around. But I’m in no rush. Joan still pokes her head around the corners of my mind sometimes, and leaves before I can say words. I’ve thought about trying to find her — but I want to respect her wishes before I give in to my urges. Mother probably died. I’m OK with that. Dad died. I’m happy with that. I’m still living and that’s fine too. Do you want another drink?” The listener paused and pensively looked at his feet. “There’s just one thing I don’t understand Jon. Why are you telling me this?” Jon looked back at him and smiled. “My words are all I have now.”