The Asian Writer Short Story Competition – 1st Prize Winner
Never in a sari. On Sundays she’d always change first. Back from mass, she’d unwind the six yards of silk or chiffon, replacing it with her baggy black cotton tracksuit and her brown pumps. Even in those unflattering clothes, her black eyes and quiet grace shone through. Her features were as prepossessing and loving as her physical accomplishments in her garden. She’d look round with a satisfied smile at the fruits of her labour before coming indoors, where she’d infuse the house with aromas of jeera, haldi, cinnamon and cloves. Then she’d call out to us.‘Anthony.’ She get’d no response.
‘Angelo.’ Sometimes he would oblige if he wasn’t working on his Meccano set.
‘Maya.’ She was Ma’s best bet if she wasn’t in the shower or on the phone.
When no help was forthcoming she’d call out again.
‘You children. Can’t you hear me calling?
If we were together upstairs, or with Pa in the TV room, we’d mouth her words, and laugh. Then I’d be told to go.
All Ma wanted was for one of us to go out into the garden to pick – kari pattha – curry leaves which she’d throw into a saucepan of simmering curry. Actually, thinking about it now, Ma wanted more. She wanted us to look at her garden and her kari pattha tree. After she had thrown the kari pattha leaves into the pot she’d head upstairs, and change into a home sari: simple, comfortable and usually unembroidered. After lunch we’d watch some old black and white Hollywood movie in the TV room. Ma loved Rita Hayworth. Pa’d sit on his Parker Knoll, Ma in her armchair and the four of us squashed up together on the sofa bed. As the credits opened with the huge cymbal sounding, or the cock crowing, Pa would break into a gentle snore while Ma would remind us, for the umpteenth time, that Rita Hayworth was Indian.
When they returned to England, finding a house with a garden had been a priority for Ma. She wanted to make up for all the years she hadn’t had a garden in Hong Kong. Despite her affection for all that blossomed in her garden, Ma longed for a small kari pattha tree. She wanted something of India in her garden. Over the years she would take fresh kari pattha leaves, root them as stem cuttings, willing them to grow but, more often than not, they would droop and die.
Once when I was about eight, I came into the kitchen and saw Ma looking at her kari pattha with such sadness in her eyes. I remember rushing up and hugging her and telling her, ‘Don’t cry, Ma. They’re only leaves.’
‘Oh sweetie, but they remind me of home.’
‘But Ma this is your home.’
‘Yes, darling.’ She patted me on the cheek. ‘But I have two homes. You have three.’
‘This is my home.’ I straightened my back and stared at Ma.
‘Of course. But your Papa is English, I’m Indian and you were born in Hong Kong. So you have three places in the world you can call home.’
I remember walking out of the kitchen wondering whether I liked the idea of three homes or not.
Pa would make the four of us smile, when he complimented Ma about her garden. He knew how to take care of the gardener but never did any work himself. Whenever he saw the blossoms on the trees, the flowers in full bloom, he’d tell Ma her sunflowers were as rich as Van Gogh’s or her roses as red as her bindi and Ma would smile. When he told her that her jasmine or her oriental lilies, smelt as sweet as she did after a bath, she’d give him one tight slap. We were clear it was Ma’s garden, though we all enjoyed it in different ways. Anthony and Angelo played football when they were younger and sometimes if Anthony got into a huff he’d storm out, walk round, and return in a calmer frame of mind. When we were kids Ma would hide chocolate eggs for us to find at Easter. In the spring and summer we’d put out folding tables and chairs and friends would come over for lunch. She even filled the ‘hungry gap’ with leeks and curly kale until her spring vegetables were ready to harvest.
Ma’d try to cajole the four of us into helping her in the garden, and then when her grandchildren were old enough, she would try, unsuccessfully, to rope them in. Occasionally, one of us would cut the lawn or weed a bit, though it never lasted for long. If Maya or I had something we wanted to talk to her about: sleepovers, trips, parties, we’d wait till she was in the garden, and then we’d follow her round, chatting away before launching into whatever it was that we wanted. We were such fools; as though Ma didn’t know. She knew, but she just liked us following her round the garden. Unless it was something crazy like: Maya, at fifteen, wanting to go to the Kumbh Mela; with a few cautionary words, she’d agree.
Eventually Ma gave up on us all, and through St Xavier’s, the local Catholic Church, she found Malcolm. Malcolm was a quiet, broad shouldered man who, though originally from Dublin, now lived in Larkden. Malcolm became Ma’s gardening soulmate. They were always engrossed in discussions about: the soil, the compost, the frost, the bugs, the weeds, her new plants, Gardeners’ Question Time, or something they’d read about. When we were young, it was the sixties and though people ate curries they didn’t really know what went into them, and rarely cooked curries for themselves, so there was nowhere, in the little Hertfordshire village of Larkden, to buy Indian herbs and spices. Ma was determined to grow her own kari pattha but Malcolm, though he knew a lot about growing plants and herbs, had never heard of kari pattha.
It was one summer Sunday when I could have been no more than nine, so Maya was eleven, Angelo thirteen and Anthony fifteen. We came home from mass. Though not as stunning as Ma, we all had to wear our best for church: Maya and I wore dresses with coloured tights and the boys suits with ties. Pa stopped the car outside the house. Normally one of us had to pull up the garage door but that morning Pa told us not to. We got out of the car, grabbing the keys from Ma, ready to change into our shorts. As soon as we got through the door Pa reined us in as though we were cattle on the loose.
‘No dawdling. Change. Put on something comfortable but decent and be quick about it.’
We all stood there staring at him.
‘Why what’s happening?’ Ma asked
‘No questions. Hurry up now.’
We all stood there like statutes. It was so unlike Pa; on a Sunday he read the Observer from cover to cover before lunch. We each had our routine; Pa’s orders just didn’t make sense.
He pointed us upstairs. Anthony and Angelo put on jeans and a T-shirt, so Maya and I did the same. Ma put on a green going-into-town sari, not too fancy but nice enough, and Pa bundled us back into his sea blue zephyr without giving anything away. We whispered in the back, and as though to placate us, Pa put on Radio One, moving his shoulders about to the rhythm that made us laugh. We kept asking but he wouldn’t tell. When he’d had enough of Radio 1, he got us playing games. I remember us shouting and giggling in the backseat as we vied to see who’d win. After two hours Pa finally stopped and parked the car. We looked out but none of us was any the wiser. Then Ma threw her arms around Pa and we all looked at her in surprise cos Ma doesn’t do that kind of thing. Anthony and Angelo were more controlled and patted Pa on the back. Maya and I just smiled at him as we didn’t really know what to expect as we’d never been to KewGardens before. We understood it was for Ma’s benefit, though by the end of the day we’d all enjoyed ourselves. Our first stop was the café where Pa said we could have whatever we wanted so we had scones and ice cream, chocolate and pop much to Ma’s disapproval. Pa coaxed her into having a scone with her tea and we laughed as she struggled to open her mouth wide enough to bite into it. As we walked past the Pagoda, Ma saw an Asian gardener and she ran towards him. We were all rather shocked but followed behind and stood watching her. She told him her worries and he shared all he knew. It made Ma’s day; she was thrilled.
Not far from Larkden are a number of garden centres. The next day Ma went by herself and bought what she needed, cut the stem cleanly at the node, and pushed the cutting a few centimetres into a mixture of potting compost and aquarium gravel with three curry leaves above the surface, as he had recommended. She planted it next to her bay leaf tree having decided they would be good company for each other. Months later she called Nana in Poona to tell her that her kari pattha was growing well. We were chuffed. From then on, if it was cold she’d cover it with a blanket, and talk to it regularly, about India, I imagine. The result was she always had fresh kari pattha. When she retired, the love and energy she had devoted to teaching her primary school classes, was now focussed on her garden. When Pa passed away it was gardening, the piano and her grandchildren that gave her life meaning.
While we were working through Ma’s things: the boxes in the loft of ornaments, mementos, letters from India, from Hong Kong, from her travels around the world, her clothes in the cupboards, her saris in the Chinese camphor wood chests, I realised what would be lovely, would be something from her garden. We had to sell Ma’s house so I knew it couldn’t be anything that damaged its appearance.
I would have treasured the willow tree that drooped lovingly at the front of the house. Like most Asian families we had relatives scattered across the globe: India, Pakistan, America, Canada, Australia and Africa and they’d always want to be photographed by the willow tree. There didn’t seem to be a part of the world where Ma didn’t have relatives or friends. Once she’d settled whoever in, she’d sit with them in the living room, looking out onto the garden. If the weather was nippy, she would simply point things out otherwise she escorted them round, as though giving them a tour of a country estate, not a small back garden.
The removal men came and loaded up boxes, a sofa, a bureau and a leather portfolio of Ma’s paintings. She’d have laughed; her paintings of her flowers and trees that I have since framed, now line my staircase. I point them out to all my visitors.
‘These are paintings my Mother did.’
When I tell friends, ‘she didn’t start painting until she was eighty, and what she loved painting most of all were the flowers and trees in her garden,’ they look again with a tenderness that her work deserves.
Her eighty-fifth birthday, the last birthday she was able to celebrate, was here in my Tottenham flat. Her birthday’s in July and we were fortunate that year; it was a bright, sunny day. Her good friend, Ena drove her over. While we waited for my sister to pick up our Auntie Marie from Eltham, we sat on my little verandah looking across at the park. She advised me about my hostas, pink geraniums, and the elegant Japanese Acer she’d brought me three years previously for my birthday. When everyone had arrived, we sat out on the balcony. Ma pointed out all the new plants in the neighbours’ gardens and in the park ahead and finally when we’d finished off the birthday champagne, we came in for dinner. The grandchildren helped their Grandmother blow out her candles on the cake I had ordered from Belle Epoque, that she loved for the colourful garden design, I’d specially requested, and the others loved for the delicious melee of rich dark chocolate, cointreau and berries.
Ma loved growth. She didn’t aim for a particular design just a feast of colour, as lavish as the precious stones of her noratin jewellery set, that I remember Pa buying for her in Bombay when I was six. Ma’s garden had bright yellow marigold, pale Lords and Ladies, red poppies and blue lilies, tissue paper white peony blooms. The flowering of her fuchsia rhododendrum bush always brought an outpouring of delight. When we came to visit we would sit in the living room, admiring the vibrancy and radiance of Ma’s garden and watch the robins, thrushes, sparrows or the occasional red cap woodpecker helping themselves to the nuts Ma provided for them in their very own bird house.
Before the removal men arrived, I looked in the back and front searching for what I might dig up and replant on my balcony. Something I could cherish. The others were busy going through drawers and cabinets, emptying and filling boxes. If I dug up the roses in the front, or the boastful sunflowers, the entrance would look naked. The clusters of delicate red begonias, purple hyacinth, orange cannas and pink chrysanthemum were so perfectly positioned. There was nothing I felt I could lift without doing irreparable damage to Ma’s front garden so I turned to the back, and just kept looking, till Kartini called, ‘Auntie Josephine your removal men have arrived.’
I took them into the kitchen for a cup of tea before showing them round the house.
‘What a beautiful garden your Mother had.’
‘Yes,’ I replied almost tearful.
I identified the stuff I wanted them to take and dashed round to the back garden again. I could’ve happily taken the white bird house, held up by a solid wooden pole. It could’ve leant against the railing of my balcony but I didn’t have the heart; Ma had already donated it to the birds.
Before long one of the removal men came out. He was a big, weathered man, with heavy, blunt hands and tattoos of something Gothic and dark running up both arms. He came and stood beside me.
‘We’ve put everything in. Is there anything else you want us to take?’
I stared at him, distraught. I couldn’t leave without something from Ma’s garden.
‘My ma passed away not long ago. I know it happens to us all, but it was the hardest journey I’ve ever been on, and I’ve been on a fair few.’
I remained there unable to move.
‘Are you sure there’s nothing else?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘You want something from this garden, don’t you?’
‘Yes. But I don’t have space for that slender silver birch or that dome shaped apple tree.’ .
His eyes travelled round the garden. ‘Where’s it for?’
‘My balcony. That’s all I have.’
‘Well what’s that next to the bay tree? There,’ he said, pointing at the kari pattha tree.
Knowing how Ma had struggled all those years to grow the kari pattha, it seemed sacrilegious to take away that little part of India that she had planted in English soil.
I shook my head.
‘What about that bay tree next to it? That’d fit in neatly.’
‘Yes,’ I said with relief.
‘Did your Mother keep her shovels over there?’ he asked pointing to Ma’s white shed.
‘Well I’ll grab a spade, dig it up then cover over the hole. I’ll wrap up the roots. We can pick up a pot and some compost on the way back to yours and I’ll replant it on your balcony.’
Tears streamed down my cheeks.
‘Is that not what you want?’ His eyes opened wide as he stared down at me.
‘No, yes. Yes, very much. Thank you.’
‘Well, why don’t you go in and check if you’ve forgotten anything and I’ll sort this out. My mate’s happy having another cuppa with your sister and brothers and the kids.’
Ma’s bay tree is now replanted in a big wooden tub on my balcony and how it’s grown; the leaves are a deep, dark, emerald green.
A year ago Ma’s house was sold and we returned to Larkden to sign various papers at the solicitor’s office. It was a relief to have finally settled Ma’s estate and once we finished, we had lunch in the Peking Chef, Ma’s favourite restaurant. Maya then suggested that we drive past for a last look.
‘What a good idea,’ Anthony said.
We jumped into the car and were off down the road and up the hill. We all smiled at each other as we turned the corner of Bellingham Lane into Turnstile Way.
Angelo was silent.
‘How could they?’
I just stared. They had ransacked Ma’s front garden. The willow tree, the gladioli, the roses, the clusters of delicate red begonias, the purple hyacinth, the cannas and the chrysanthemum, even the proud yellow sunflowers; all gone, destroyed, paved over; a grey mass of concrete and two parked cars.
‘I’m sorry I suggested coming.’
Anthony put his hand on Maya’s shoulder. ‘It’s not your fault.’
When I returned home, I went to the balcony. Under the dusty orange sky I stared across at the plants and Ma’s bay tree. I reminded myself that reality isn’t static; nothing’s fixed or permanent, but I was lucky; Ma had gifted me a garden full of memories.
The Asian Women’s Writers Collective was Jocelyn’s first writing home. In 2001, the Women’s Press published her first short story, Menaka. In 2011 she won a Jane Austen Short Story Award for Poske published by in Wooing Mr Wickham. Jocelyn is one of the Alumni of the Cultural Leadership Programme and was funded to attend the Jaipur Literature Festival in 2011. In 2012 she was one of the winners of the SAMPAD ‘Inspired by Tagore’ competition for Loud Music and the Asian Writer Short Story Prize for Sweet and Sour Masala. She is active in feminist, BME and socialist politics.
The Asian Writer Short Story Prize 2015 is now open for entries.