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Friday Fiction: The Potential
It has always been there
Here’s this week’s Friday Fiction. Thanks to my paid subscribers, this post is open to everyone. Note that I’d like to eventually feature short work by other people; you can always reply to this or contact me if you’d like to know more.
This thought-provoking story was included in It Will Be Quick.
Once upon a time a man lived on his own in a castle.
Not really on his own, since he had a ferocious dog called Tara. A beast with long teeth and shining eyes and a wet tongue that could lick fiercely.
Not really a ferocious dog then, but she did bark at people who walked down the passage beyond the back garden, prompting angry shouts and thrown items which made her bark all the more.
Not really a castle then, more of a terraced house on an old road that had been partly encircled by a cheaply built new estate of identical small tower blocks. Now they did resemble castles, with the river beyond as a kind of moat and rusting balconies that faced in every direction and could be used to pour boiling oil on attackers. If not boiling oil, then at least bottles and piss.
It flooded from time to time, which the council knew when it granted planning permission, but thanks to a special friendship between some of the councillors and the developers, that report was left at the bottom of the pile and by the time of the first flooding it was too late to do anything about it except write letters to the local paper. The councillors responsible had moved on and the griping fell to a low grumble that only rose with the water levels.
The man’s back garden was narrow and short. He wished it was long like the grass, part of the tangled confusion of plants that Tara loved to sniff around. In the lush chaos of undergrowth and trees lived slugs and snails which slid up and down his house at night leaving shining trails for the morning sun; snails which fed the thrushes, slugs which fed the hedgehogs (and, once, Tara, but she spat most of the sticky mollusc back out unchewed).
The man did not like other people. He felt like he’d always had a rum deal. An outsider. Slower, uglier, different, in-the-way. The first to go when they had to “make savings”. He’d become a self-employed electrician eventually, so no one could dump him, and he only had to deal with one person at a time. In, out: potentials measured, fuses replaced and faces forgotten.
Tara and his garden had been the exception, the one place he was accepted as himself. The slugs and snails were fine company, and easy. Sometimes he went out at night with his torch and watched them eating windfall apple, or bread he’d left out for the hedgehogs, mouths chewing away slowly, eyes at the end of stalks gently surveying. Tara would lie at his side and occasionally lick his hand. At those peaceful times he was as happy as he’d known.
These gardens were abundant emeralds amid the encroaching grey of the urban areas. As well as the estate on what was once a meadow floodplain, the local fields he’d played in as a lad had become a school and a care home; the woods hollowed out for a skate park and car park. It was strange how parks no longer had to be green. When they’d been built the council had said they’d be in tune with the surroundings, and that was kind of true – the remaining straggling trees were hardly noticeable, and were outnumbered by the new streetlights alongside the new cemented paths above the new channels dug for power cables that severed the roots of a third of the remaining trees. The council ecologist hadn’t objected, saying in her report that she’d detected no wildlife there of meritable conservation status (in the afternoon when she’d spent five minutes in the woods before having lunch in her car and texting the local businessman she was having an affair with).
In many people’s eyes the changes were good because they made things tidier and easier to maintain. You don’t have to trim hedges if you get rid of the hedges, and don’t need to sweep up leaves if there are no trees. Though, strangely, as the trees and hedges disappeared, more litter blew around the paths. Town administrators just shrugged. Understanding such mysteries was beyond the ken of any of the land’s wise men.
Such is the way of things, and the old man knew it. Oh, he knew it. Because he was old. Once tall and strong, he was now gangly and wispy-haired with ears that seemed too large for his head and shirts that hung too large on his body. Kids pointed and laughed at him when he limped to the local shops. They called him The Elephant Man.
A public footpath bordered the end of his garden. It ran from the tower blocks to the main road, so was always busy. There used to be a low fence separating his garden from the path, but he got tired of everyone staring in, eyes destroying privacy as he pottered around. So he used most of his savings for a higher fence. That brought its own problems. Kids rattled his gate as they walked past. They threw things over the barrier, crisp packets and bags of dog poo, and worse, meaning he had to collect litter most days, so Tara didn’t cut her paw on a can or bottle. They taunted him over the fence and ran away if he approached it. At night-time they’d sometimes dare each other to climb the fence and throw stones or eggs at his house, making him shudder at the impacts, knowing they invaded his space with impunity. Shouts would wake him in the night. One time he used the normally bolted gate to get on to the footpath himself, and he saw that the other side of his fence had become a graffiti billboard for local expression. Balloon-like names, vulgar pictures and insults built up layer by layer, engulfing previous generations of paint. So many layers, from so many people.
Maybe they were jealous because he had his own garden.
The police said they would “talk to people” but could do nothing else without a name, a face, a description.
Other worries jumbled in his mind. The paper had been full of comments saying the town needed a Tesco and an M&S, because there was nowhere to shop nearby. He didn’t understand it. There had always been shops at the end of the road. What would the supermarkets sell that was so much better? A tin of soup was a tin of soup wherever you bought it. Fewer local shops now, though, he admitted. Most people preferred to drive to the out-of-town industrial park. The greengrocer had shut last year, and the butcher and post office the year before. That only left the launderette and the hairdressers and the takeaway.
He had trees in the garden. They provided shelter from the sounds. But one day the council said they were unsafe, blocked neighbour’s light, and the roots of the hundred-year-old oak were damaging the public footpath. The oak was completely removed and the other trees cut down to leafless stubs that the birds avoided. Then they sent him a bill. The green was gone, the nests were gone, replaced with stumps and bare emptiness. He knew the remains of the apple tree would not fruit next year. It would be in shock. As he was.
When he sat on his bench he had to face the other way now, it was too upsetting, and when he looked out of his back windows he didn’t see tree tops, he saw the towers of the estate by day, their thousands of electric lights by night. It was as if they were in his garden now. He stopped looking out of those windows.
The birds didn’t come back.
The oldest trees had been there before the estate, before the footpath. No one respected age any more. Age was a bad thing to be cleared away and carted off on the back of a truck. And he was a stone, ground down by ages, bone powder scraping away at his joints.
Tara was old too. Not as fast as she used to be, and grey around the muzzle. Mostly obedient, but you can’t teach old dogs new tricks, and she had one bad habit – barking at anyone on the path if she heard voices. Maybe she still thought it was her territory. The garden had been longer once, but the council had done a compulsory purchase for the estate’s new footpath. When he’d fought it, the letters in the local paper filled with venom, directed at him: he was a selfish old man. He lost. The garden was shortened.
Tara barked even more after the trees were cut. Voices and laughter and shouting from the passage seemed louder, echoey, no longer a muffled sound blocked by leaves. It aggravated the old dog, and the more she barked the more it became a kids’ game to taunt her, and an adults’ game to shout at her, and to tell the old man to shut his motherfucking crazy cunt of a dog up. He tried to quiet her but she picked up on his tension when anyone walked down the passage, and she barked even more. The police came one time and told him he was disturbing the peace. He tried to explain but the unspoken accusation “selfish” was in his mind. Their hints at “dog control byelaws” made him think of Tara being taken away like the trees and that was the final straw, so he didn’t let Tara out in the garden on her own any more. She would lie by the back door, whining, and he had to say no, and try to distract her, but old dogs and old habits stay and it hurt her, and it hurt him.
And once upon this magic time she was barking as the older kids jeered, but then she yelped, and the voices faded as the kids ran off while the old man moved over as quickly as he could and he found her lying on her side breathing fast, her eye a mess of blood from the broken brick they’d thrown over, and he held her and tried to stop her using her dew claw to scratch the cracked brow while she whimpered.
The vet did what he could but the bone there had shattered. She lost the eye. When bone breaks, character does too. She didn’t bark much after that, just whined in the night. It was difficult to get her to go in the garden, she would just cower near the house, and she took to pissing on the kitchen floor, even though she’d always been such a clean dog before. He didn’t scold her. He just mopped it up while she lay, head on paws, making a strange high-pitched wheeze. Could dogs feel shame? He thought so. It stung to see her life and happiness so drained. Stolen.
More changes were coming. Ancient tales always require a dragon or a pestilence or a witch’s curse. Plans move ahead, announced only when it was too late to stop them because the momentum was great enough to carry forward over all obstacles. The houses on his road had been sold, each neighbour giving in, taking what was offered rather than lose in the long run. One by one they took the money and left, and their homes became empty shells waiting for the inevitable. But the old man refused. This was his home. He didn’t know anywhere else. The suggestions that he’d be better off getting rid of his dog and moving into the old people’s home terrified him. Once people went in there you never saw them again, except as blank, pale faces at windows. He was told he couldn’t remain: compulsory purchase would be enacted if he was stubborn. He fought with letters but they ignored him, said it was imperative for the vitality of the town, he was blocking development. The council hired a swish law firm that represented the big supermarkets, they all threatened to take him to court, amazing what you could afford with public money. He couldn’t see any way to win against that.
He had nightmares of bulldozers and impatient councillors and roads, all encroaching, taking, turning the green to grey. And the gardens would make way for a car park and a new construction that reached for the sky as a temple to call all around. A temple of choice. But no, they would not wait. It had to be now, according to demographics and market demand. He was being selfish in trying to stop progress. And the council had already paid the supermarkets an enticement to come here, to bring their bounty. This was an investment. Investments can’t be halted for the individual.
He continued to write letters by hand in spidery writing, but they seemed weak and flimsy compared to the solid blocks of text and thick paper he received in return.
Tara died in the night a few months later. He found her stiff body in the morning. It took him hours to dig her grave but he did it, alone, as deep a pit as he could manage near where the oak tree had been, and planted flower seeds on top from an old packet. They were probably long past germination, but maybe a trace of nature’s magic could break through. His back ached when he stood and returned to the quiet house.
He lost his appetite, such as it had been. Took to going out less, too. Tried to block out the world by turning up the volume on his TV. No dog by his side to stroke and calm his hands. They shook when he didn’t pay attention to them. He was going to lose his home.
He understood the problem well enough, but he couldn’t put it in words. The land division system seemed to be broken. Apparently councils cut the land up into blocks on a map, marked as residential, commerce, agriculture, or whatever “development” categories they felt like in conjunction with those who had the influence and money to suggest it. Objections from anyone else got nowhere. It was a biased system that led to blocks of only one type of thing, all across the land. Fields would have houses crammed on since the whole thing was marked as “residential”, rather than saying it was to be half housing, half native forest. And the categories were inherently unfair. The councils didn’t mark large blocks of land for re-wilding, or nature conservation, or tree-planting. They only chose categories that generated money.
Then one day he stood by Tara’s grave as cold November bit, his breath a mist and fingers numb, cheeks stinging, trying to remember the peace of green summers past. The memories couldn’t come, though, buried in earth too hard to let anything out.
The reverie broke when he heard a laugh: seemingly the same laugh he’d heard so many times before, part of a crowd of juvenile voices chanting “Where’s your dog-gie gone? Where’syourdoggiegone?” to some tune he half recognised. This was too much, and something snapped inside, and he hobbled to the gate at the bottom of the garden, threw it open to watch the kids scarper, but he spotted the one he hated most, in his bright jacket and shaved head, a look of amusement turning to surprise as he saw the old man; although the others ran off this boy stuck two fingers up and stayed, not expecting the old man to approach, not expecting him to grab the orange padded hood of his coat and start yanking it around, tears in the old man’s eyes as he shouted that the boy was a disgrace, had no respect, and the boy twisted and kicked out and in turn told him to fucking get off, yelling that he was a paedo, the boy getting red in the face at this unexpected turn, teary with anger and frustration that he couldn’t break free from the grip, his hood stretching and beginning to tear while his threats of what his brothers would do to the man went ignored.
Some of the other boys came back now, jeering and pointing at both of them, getting bolder and moving in.
In every fairy story there’s a fork in the road. The side that runs straight and narrow to town, and the road that leads off into the shadowy woods.
The winding wooded path, then. This boy was a ringleader. This boy’s nasal voice always seemed to be there, calling obscenities over the fence. This boy stood for all of them. The estate people, the council, the police, the doctors … and the boy’s head connected with the wall, half-accident at first but enough to silence everyone, so the old man shoved it again, thud, thud, the boy at a bad angle to resist, and finally having a look of fear on that bloodied face, fear that would have to do in place of respect, smack smack as the others ran in to try and separate them, too late, the old man smashed that head against the brick wall again and again before they pulled him off, wanting to break all that bone on good solid brick, show them what it was like when faces mushed to pulp … a sacrifice was always one for the many, and a sacrifice was always red. The wall was smeared in blood, bright spatters of sickening crimson on the floor around the broken teenager.
He spent his last few years in prison, treeless concrete and steel. He lay on the bed of guilt and hate in his cell and knew they were vandalising his garden, smashing house windows, celebrating their expulsion of the limping bogeyman in communal togetherness, and he knew he’d die without ever seeing that garden again, the building would go ahead, the supermarkets, the car park, and Tara would be buried under concrete just as he was, alone and forgotten.
So much for the wooded shadow path. It flashed up in a second after the first time that face scraped against the wall, and the redness of the blood brought back Tara’s pain … the pain was too much. The shadow path was not for him, any more than the man-made highway. So he took another. He stopped at the fork, let them pull the boy away, swearing and crying at the old man, but the boy’s face was only scratched, not broken. The old man lowered himself to the ground with a sigh, tried to ignore the group anger around him, and waited for the police to arrive.
He was in trouble. Not the prison of broken faces, but instead – equally to the glee of developers and supermarkets and planning departments – declared unsafe to live alone. So he was moved to the old people’s home nearby, his house finally purchased for a nominal fee, the money used to pay for his care … and so returning to the council coffers week by week.
The old man’s face joined the other slack visages watching as the bulldozers and diggers and demolition vehicles moved in. It was surprisingly quick for all that history to be turned to rubble and carted away, the ground dug over, plants removed, foundations laid. As the speckled, flat surface was laid bare, so was the truth in the old man’s eyes: construction is destruction.
Up rose the skeletal steel structures that would house the new body, amid days of grinding and machinery and clanging and dust. Much of the work was hidden behind the billboards that lined the site, showing images of happy consumers gazing up at the completed shopping centre with the eyes of the devout, watercolour trees bordering the images in a fit of dishonesty (or imagination, as they called it in the trade). Hardly any graffiti graced those billboards; on the few occasions when a tag appeared, the council quickly cleaned it off. During the spring the electrics and plumbing and walls and floors were prepared, and the old man watched, and muttered to himself, and wished, and something stirred inside his heart. Something strange and vital, a concoction that took its flavour from whatever was added, past and present; that would grow whether hate was poured into it, or love. It could only be one or the other. That’s how spells work, and the caster makes the choice.
And he sat, and watched, and fed the thing inside. And when it was so big it felt like it would explode from his chest, he went to bed.
In some ways the story ended here.
But let’s go just a bit further. After all, magic always happens just beyond the normal boundaries.
It is a Sunday morning in mid-April.
The building site is quiet, too early for the weekend workers yet.
A mist hangs heavy in the air, clinging to the ground like a lover to their desire, knowing morning light means the night’s end approaches. It begins to dissipate as the world wakes, movement swirling the air currents and the sun burning away at hanging vapours. As it fades it reveals a changed landscape.
The first person is a morning runner, who jogs past the site while worrying about her throbbing shin splints, then retraces her steps to stare.
A dog walker joins her. The dog disappears into the new terrain, barking happily, and their human doesn’t notice, they are so busy gawping.
A newspaper delivery boy on his bike skids to a halt.
The first of the builders arrives. Instead of just staring, he heads over to the roots, examines them, looking for tell-tale signs of a digger. But if there were any signs, the moss and foliage hides them.
Groups attract others, growing the mass, increasing its gravity, until there are many groups staring and talking. Some whisper reverently, some jabber excitedly, many take photos and videos on their phones.
There’d been a vast area of concrete and steel the night before, with construction machinery and piles of beams and spools of cable and pallets of tiles and bags of plaster and cement. They are all gone. Poof!
In their place is a forest. A mature, native forest of old oak trees and yew and silver beech and ash, supporting wild undergrowth and a whole carpet of bluebells. The noise of drilling and shouting has been replaced with birdsong, and moving machinery replaced with the stirring of leaves in a refreshing morning breeze.
More people arrive. Some explore the woods and come out wide-eyed in astonishment, carrying some of the peace out with them, smiling at the gathering crowds. Reporters turn up. People are interviewed. Film crews aren’t far behind. A helicopter flies over, filming the site from above, the unbroken green canopy which has replaced the nascent Tesco/M&S combo. They share it on TV, alongside an image of how the site had looked a few days earlier. Many of those watching the news think it is a joke, and check to see if it is April 1st again.
The council staff arrive, along with the contracted developers. For once they don’t seem so smug. A huddled discussion follows, citing costs and delays, and orders are given to cut down the trees. The first construction worker refuses. Something shines in his eyes as he looks at the forest. Recognition, maybe. The second refuses as well. The third builder is offered a huge bonus, but as he climbs into the digger, thinking it might be easiest to break down some of the smaller trees and dig up the brush, there is such an uproar from the crowd that he switches off the engine and jumps down. “Not worth it,” he mutters.
The council works with the police. Cordons are set up. People are told to keep out of the beautiful woodland “for their own safety”. After all, isn’t it still technically a construction site? There are scuffles. Shouts that it is public land, that people have rights. More police arrive, more angry meetings held. Professional tree fellers are brought in. On seeing the forest some of them refuse too. Others agree to have a go. They couldn’t make much impact but they are told it will be symbolic. Do their best. The pay would be huge. Despite the booing and yelling from the growing crowd they succeed in taking down one of the trees after removing as many upper branches as they can first. It creaks slowly, as if moaning, resisting, but finally falls with an almighty crash, sending up clouds of leaves. The birds go quiet and the crowd is silenced.
Then the fighting begins. People who’d done nothing as shreds were stripped from green spaces, slivers peeled back here and there, criss-crossed with paths and roads like scars: suddenly they are incensed.
Many are wounded. Many break through and wander the forest in amazement. Prayers are made. A camp is set up at the edge of the site. People share food and drinks and stories and music, and bring their children, and always there is this reverence.
News of the situation goes global. It may have only happened in this one small place, a tiny, localised miracle in the grand scheme of things, but the feeling it touches in hearts spreads. If there’s love and magic then there’s also hope, and that’s often what people need. Advertising tries to sell it, but it’s always empty, dissipates like mist. For once this was the real thing, substantial as day. And the dream was free to all. The council would have a hard time pushing through their Regeneration Masterplan now, a plan that had cost the taxpayer £163,000 from a consultancy firm in London.
The scientists couldn’t explain it (but had fun trying). Other people said it didn’t need explaining. One woman, who looked like she’d been crying, told the camera crew, “The potential was there all along.” No one really knew what that meant but it made a nice headline, so various news outlets used it as their lead.
One of the smaller magazines, which went mostly unread, had a different take on the event: they pointed out that regardless of what amazing thing had happened here, it didn’t actually require a miracle to achieve it. People had the power to preserve or create the same anywhere. If we wanted miracles then we could have them in every backyard, every street. We just had to want them enough.
The news did not report on the old man who’d died in the care home facing the new forest, taking his last breaths the same night as the miracle happened. Why should they? He was just another old man dying in the background while bigger things happened, with no family left to write even the blandest obituary. But sometimes it takes one for the many. It’s the trick, not the magician, and that story ended as another began. As to whether people lived happily ever after … that’s for someone else to tell.
I recently taught a creative writing class on Myth, Folklore and Fairy Tales. One of my points was how those kind of things can be used as a framing for a more modern story, and this was an example of that technique in action, with its “once upon a times” and “happily ever after” echoes.
The story was also featured in the recent Autumnal Equinox Edition of eSPIN, the Scottish Pagan Federation’s magazine.