1. Her hands are like elephant skin, he thought, as he watched her crunching the soil with a garden fork. He remembered earlier family visits, where he murmured and smiled nervously, like someone who’d dropped their notes in the middle of a speech. He was nervous and young, tense from the foreign gush of words rumbling out of her mouth. He panicked when he went to the bathroom and saw there were teethmarks in her bar of soap.
2. On days inflamed with shrill insect screeching and the dead hum of heat, he would wait in her house for his parents to pick him up from school. Sometimes he would read her gardening books, streaming his fingers over the cold sheen of the shining pages. It was evident he never learnt much from these books, because one year he tried to give his parents a “White Christmas” by dumping salt all over their garden beds and expanse of grass.
3. School was about avoiding spitfires, which dangled like hairy black wriggling teeth from the bottom of trees, and avoiding the jab of bindiis when running “hippy-style” on the grass. He remembered sitting on the grass, eyes flinching under the glare of the sun, hands pulling out brittle green rips of grass. He wondered if the main reason business people went bald was because they advanced this playground practice to the domain of hair.
4. What he relished most about the gardening books, were the obscure lists of plant and tree names.
Aaron’s Beard, Bachelor’s Button, Bleeding Heart, Perpetual Spinach. Most of the others sounded like glitzy monikers usually assigned to big-haired, blazing-lipped soap opera characters: names like Claret Ash, or Strelitzia. He hoped Days of Our Lives would one day introduce a character named Perpetual Spinach, but he ruled it highly unlikely.
5. There were days where he sat in the garden and the trees sounded like they were having an altercation. He would watch the patterns of leaf and branch flitter and swing, gathering strange dimensions as their shadows flittered over and into the bristly, flat, rocky, contours of the yard. If, at the same time, she happened to be raking leaves, the brittle foliage would end up darting out of reach, leaving her to shake her head and tut-tut the unco-operative wind.
6. He liked to catch glances of the neighbour’s yard through the slitted images that slipped through the fence gaps as he walked by; flickering glimpses of a well-clipped bed of grass, the aged lustre of a spanner-grey tool shed, and the smattering of colour via the vivid buds and dangling heads of flowers would greet him. It was whilst maneouvring along the fence that he came face to (fragmented) face with you.
7. The couple across the street are flaunting their most revered possession at the moment. He lifts up the plastic-forged handles to have a look, and before it clamps down again with a smack, he’s slogged by the soggy puncture of six divergent smells. How could this – a wheelie-bin – call for such gloating?
8. Thinks. He thinks about you. Or remembers. Speculates. But mostly remembers. It’s been a blunt thudding through his bones, the last few days, but it’ll pass. He tries not to indulge in the cliches of remembering. He’d like clarity, but all there is is an avalanche of odours, pitches, utterances. A whir of emotions. The past is hard, stupid; static and faded like an old photograph. What he wants to know, about you, about him, lurches and leans on the fringes of his memory.
9. It is decorated with a layer of rose and leaf-patterned vinyl. This is what makes their wheelie bin so special. He laughs when he hears this, a million plastic wrinkles bending around the inside of his fingers, as he carries the shopping to her house. Two stray voices pause for a moment as he walks past their letterboxes. Then they continue, like the strain of the sun – “They’re not just any wheelie bin covers. They got them on mail-order. For only $50! And not only that, imported from England!” He keeps smiling, wondering if the poor performance of the dollar against the English pound has to do with the Poms’ raging wheelie bin cover industry.
10. A chalky coolness meets him, as he sits under the trees. Through the fence, he gleans a half-fragmented view of soap-white blooms and pink-fringed frangipanis. He wonders what he expected to see. You must have left so long ago, long before this visit. He keeps sitting, listening to the clashing foliage. This coolness, it reminds him of water shadows on a concrete wall. He doesn’t speak, but later, through the fence, he sees your father –  his walking spliced by a rapid flow of lines as he progresses through his yard. Like an archaicly-projected film.
11. Today he leaves. He kisses her cheek, still nervous, self-conscious. She gives him flowers to take – nodding and beaming. He feels his stomach lurch with wariness. Isn’t he too old for this? When her hand slips out of his, he sees that her fingertips are clouded pink.
The teethmarks in the soap – he recalls how much that plagued him when he was younger. He found her fearsome because he thought she feasted on soap, and his clamouring senses derived that soap-eating were only the tip of what he should be afraid of. Eventually he learned that she pressed her fingernails into soap to prevent dirt from seeping in when she was gardening.
12. The first time he had ever done this, his movements were jerky, uncontrolled. As he jutted the spade into the firm ground, he felt disorientation ricochet through him. This was supposed to be graceful, stonily solemn, but instead he was out of pitch with everything that happened around him. His nerve was snuffed out, like a flame consumed by a bell jar.
In all the stories he’d read, there was a divergence of things buried in the backyard. Jewellery and heirlooms were hidden away from plunderers. Teenagers protecting their stash of porn would resort to using underground space.  In
Bliss, Nurse wrote down everything on slips of paper and concealed them in the garden – like planting memories in the dirt. She wanted something like that. He couldn’t believe her. It struck him as sentimental and inappropriate.
13. Walking past the staring houses, he sees a hedge that never grew back after someone once cut it too short. Like a nightmare haircut frozen forever.
He casts an eye on the winding stretch of fences, and sees some wheelie bins perched along the end of the street to remind him what day it is. Some have house numbers perfectly stencilled on them to inform people what belongs to who. He thinks back to those 6 o’clock workdays when the garbage trucks used to be his alarm clock, and remembers that well-to-do suburb where the garbage collectors return the bins right to your door.
He breathes a bit, and walks further down the street. He looks at the crinkled leaves which  scratch along the ground and whirl in all directions – random, like memory.

Lee Tran Lam

Speak-easy #3, September 2000