I was smoking in dad’s garden, pacing and stamping around. There were some seeds on Dad’s kitchen table and I had sprinkled them onto the soil. I might have fainted or tripped, the doctors say. I don’t know which.
Dad’s neighbour saw me, and she got me to the hospital. They didn’t want to send me home that night, so they kept me in a bed there. I listened to the same podcast over and over. It was about wild deer living on a housing estate on the edge of London. The deer peeped in the ground floor windows while people were doing their washing up. I must have listened to it five or six times. I kept forgetting parts, because of the concussion.
I didn’t realise I’d lost teeth at first – three of them. I don’t remember tasting blood. When I found out my teeth were gone, I wished I had them, even if they couldn’t be put back into my mouth. They would have had a reassuring, rattly feeling in my hand, like dice.
I took the 77 bus back from the hospital. I was barely awake, and I don’t remember much. My phone must have been dead by then.
Dad’s neighbour had left a note with her phone number on the doorstep, and some bread and cheese for me. I saw her peeping out of her window at me and I put up my palm to thank her. Then I went in and shut out the world and fell asleep. I was asleep a lot, lying in dad’s old bed. The doctor had told me to set alarms throughout the day, so that I would wake up; but when being awake was horrible. Light hurt my eyes, and eating felt strange. My bites in the white sliced bread showed the imprint of my new mouth, with its gaps. The end of February was intermittent: days and dark and sleep and light came at me, and I could do nothing to stop them.
By the time I was properly awake, it was the first of March, and spring was coming in. I’d been in bed three days straight, and on the sofa for a fourth. On the fifth day I went out to the garden. That was when I decided things needed to change.
The time before my concussion had been rootless and strange. Dad had died in January, and then there had been so much paperwork, and so much organising, and I had had people all around me – cousins and friends. And I’d been at my own flat, and organising my bereavement leave, and seeing people every day. And then my tenancy contract had ended at the beginning of February. And I’d come back to dad’s, and the days been dark purplish and empty, with too much to do all at once.
I’d started smoking again. That was why I’d fallen in the first place: because I was smoking; because dad had smoked here, and put things here; because the garden was full of his things. There were rolls of chicken wire, and bike frames, and rags. He’d made a forge from a metal bin, and a firepit from breezeblocks, and a raised flowerbed out of wood from the street.
He loved things from the street. When I used to come and stay he would come in loudly, stamping his shoes on the mat. The Street Gods have been generous, he would say. I think that this was his core belief: this giving and receiving of anonymous, unused things. He’d walk into the house sweaty and pleased, and holding up a lampshade or a cheese knife or a bale of chicken wire. I wish I’d talked about it at the funeral. It would have made him laugh.
If he was here he would have told me to stop mooning about and get on with things. He had hundreds of projects he was getting on with.
It was time, I thought. I’d be going back to work soon. Well, not very soon, but soon enough to plan for. And my head was getting better. It was time to begin sorting through dad’s things.
Standing up and bending down were still tiring me out, and I didn’t want to fall a second time, so I looked online for easy ways to garden, and easy ways to tidy. I read and read until the bright screen hurt my eyes. Closing the laptop, I realised that I was hungry, properly hungry, for the first time since my fall.
There was some of my food in the fridge, and there was some of dad’s old food in the cupboards and the freezer. He kept everything. Stored and safe, he would say. Sometimes he called it S and S to be efficient, and make himself laugh.
I heated some of his frozen stew, and ate it from the pan, using the wooden spoon I’d stirred with. It was tasty, but too hot on the gaps between my teeth.
After I’d washed up, I looked out at dad’s things: the hubcaps and the boots and the bike chains. I thought about dad trying to mend a button on my school dress. He used wire, which he said would be more durable. It was fiddly work, and the wire left indentations on my tummy. He decided to learn to sew after that. My mind was slowly making a decision. It was a painful decision, and so it took a long time. I stood in the doorway, waiting.
By the time dusk came, I had finally made my decision. I had a plan. It was what dad would have wanted, really. I would take the things, everything that dad had gathered, and I would put them back out on the street. I’d leave him, his things, for other people to take.
Dad had kept his seeds in a cupboard in the garden. Some were in packets, some in skin-cream pots and photo cannisters. They were all labelled carefully, in dad’s quick, upright handwriting. I decided that I would plant some of them, and once I had decided that, I wanted to do it right away.
I chose a pot which dad had labelled: Parsnips, V. Good. Plant: Ma, Ap, Ma. I chose a clear patch of the garden, where there wasn’t anything too heavy to move, just a few planks and lots of egg-sized pebbles. There were bits of pottery and metal too, and I cleared them into a bucket. By the time I sowed the parsnips it was night time, the sky was purple-orange and the moon was up.
In the morning I looked out at the front of the house, and saw that the neighbour had left me some more food: bread, and satsumas, and milk. Thank you, I thought. I drank some of the milk right away, as soon as I’d brought it into the house. Drinking it made me feel like a loved, growing child. Then I made myself some toast and got to work.
I started with the porcelain that I’d picked from the soil yesterday. I labelled the bucket Vintage Mosaic Pieces – Help Yourself! The next thing I carried out was a hub cap. And so it went, carrying things out and resting them outside the front of the house, beside signs which said Free and Vintage and Help Yourself. I brought out Dad’s pliers and chisels, his empty plant pots, his buckets, his bike wheels, a bag of plastic bags, a heavy bag of sand. After I had carried each new thing out, I stood back and looked at the collection. It was as though it were a shrine to dad’s gods, the Great Street Gods, and I was taking offerings to it.
I carried things all morning, until I felt hungry and woozy. Then I made cheese on toast, and looked out through the kitchen window as I ate my lunch. It felt so gentle to be here in Dad’s kitchen, looking out at the twisted metal and the swishing grass and the blue-lilac sky.
In the afternoon, I cleared the soil beside the parsnip-patch. I filled another bucket up with stones. Around sunset I planted leeks in the smooth, new soil. When I looked out from the front of the house, before I went to bed, I saw that people had helped themselves to dad’s things from the street. From here I could see that a bike wheel and a chair had definitely gone.
I felt sick, appalled, for a moment. Then I untangled myself. The Street giveth, and the Street taketh away, I thought. Dad would have liked it. I went to bed reminding myself of that.
The days passed, and I kept getting better. The weather was good. Seedlings poked out of the soil, and I didn’t know what they were. They might have been things dad had sown, they might have been things I had sown. I felt reassured by their bravery and green.
After a week indoors, I went to the dentists on Lavender Hill, to see if I should get implants. With her fingers inside my mouth, the dentist asked me whether I’d been stressed. She could tell that I’d been smoking, or clenching my jaw. Or maybe it was the missing teeth. I couldn’t answer because she had her fingers on my tongue.
I came out of the dentists feeling clean and sort of blank. I went to the Sainsbury’s at the top of Queenstown Road to get a snack. I hadn’t been to the shops since I’d fallen, but I didn’t really need anything. There were flowers by the entrance of the shop, and I bought a bunch of orange and yellow flowers to give to dad’s neighbour.
I held the flowers tightly, and realised that I didn’t really want to knock on her door. I didn’t know what to say. I hadn’t spoken much without my teeth, and I was nervous, suddenly, to be all alone with this woman who had helped me. I was just going to leave them on her doorstep, like she had done with the food, for me. But she saw me and swung open her door, and looked down at me from her front steps. I hoped that she didn’t feel sorry for me.
‘Thank you,’ I said, before she could speak. .
‘You look so much better, darling,’ she said. I smiled up at her, and then closed my lips to hide the missing teeth.
‘Must be all the heavy lifting,’ I said, and she laughed.
‘Richard would be really proud of you,’ she said.
‘You must be almost as strong as him now, eh?’ she said.
‘Yeah,’ I said. It was hard for me to talk. ‘Not as sweaty as him, though,’ I said. She laughed.
‘Anyway,’ I said, and I nodded and began to step away from her.
‘Thank you for these. My favourite,’ she said. She was looking at the flowers. ‘I’m always here,’ she said.
‘Thanks,’ I said. I was glad I’d spoken to her, and I was tired out.
I slept well that night, and stripped the bedsheets in the morning. I tidied dad’s bedroom a little bit, although it was harder than doing the garden. The room still smelt of him – soil and cigarettes and pleasant sweat – but the smell drifted out each time I cleaned the house, or opened another window.
There were four compact mirrors and lots of pretty wooden boxes on a shelf in his room, and I started with those. I took them out into the street and some girls in school uniform picked them up as I went back into the house. They were giggling. One was drinking a can of Monster Energy. They smiled at themselves in the compact mirrors as they walked away.
That was how it went, I carried objects out into the street, and people took them away – mostly when I wasn’t looking. I picked egg-sized stones out of the soil. I ate what there was in the freezer and the cupboards.
I planted chives and parsley at the start of April. There were big mosaiced mirrors in the garden, and I carried them out to the street. I also carried out a gnome, and a stone fairy, and a barbecue on wheels.
There was an old glass fish-tank in the garden and I kept it. I used it as a kind of greenhouse for the coriander seedlings. I planted coriander seeds in pots and sheltered them in the tank. I liked to watch the seedlings growing. Some of them grew with their seed cases perched on their leaves, like little hats.
Most of what I had sown grew up in neat rows. But there were also things growing in a scattered way. I wondered what they were. They might be weeds or anything at all, I didn’t know.
In May I planted squashes and cabbages. The garden was much clearer by then, and so was the house. I weeded away nettles, but I let everything else grow. Some of the plants were feathery and fragrant, and I pulled one up out of curiosity. I saw that it was a carrot – half-grown and greenish-orange. I wondered whether it was me or my dad who had planted it. I tried to jam it back into the soil, hoping that it would keep growing.
Things were changing. Even if I held on tightly I couldn’t stop them. In July I would start work again. I would have to. There was no more time that they could give me.
In August I would have my denture fitted. September would be my birthday, and then dad’s birthday. In October the food that dad had made – the chutneys and stews – would begin to go off. In November it would be a year since Dad got ill. December would be very dark. In January it would be a year since dad was gone.
But it was June, now, and I was working in dad’s garden. I was planting peas and radishes, and sorting through the flotsam in the soil. It was much clearer, except for sharp, pale flints and lively worms. There were birds that sang in the neighbour’s plum tree, and there were butterflies scooting through the air.
The house was clearer, too. I was eating my way through the foods. I had put lots of the kitchen things out into the street. A woman had come and taken saucepans and chopping boards and two garlic mincers away in a big binbag. Then she came back and knocked on my door to thank me. She gave me a pebble that she had painted. I didn’t really want more things, but it was a pleasant shape, with a sweet little chicken painted on it. I put it into the garden, and it was gone not long after. Maybe an animal took it.
July began, and I had to go into work for a meeting. It was the day before I actually started back. They called it reorientation. I took the bus to Clapham Junction, and the train from there. It was strange travelling into work that way. I was used to travelling in from my old flat, in Hither Green.
I took two big Asda bags with me, of things from dad’s house: dictionaries and reading glasses and rulers and pens. Dad had kept them just in case, and they’d be good for our donation boxes, at work. We give useful things like that to the clients.
‘There’s more where this came from,’ I said to my boss when I arrived. I’d been planning that line, but I didn’t know what to say afterwards. I’d been expecting her to say something. But she stared at me, awkward. I realised that she hadn’t seen me with my missing teeth. I was used to them by now, so I didn’t mind.
‘So good to see you,’ she said at last. She touched my arm very nervously. She bought me Pret for lunch and said ‘My treat.’ I don’t think she knew what to say to me.
I didn’t mind. I looked through WhatsApp on the train home. I wasn’t ready to reply to any messages yet, but I was ready to read them.
It was the last evening of this part of my life, I thought. I should make the most of it. I walked through the rooms of dad’s house. I didn’t know what I should do. When dusk came I realised I was hungry. I ate a tin of fish from dad’s cupboards, I had it on toast. I ate standing up, looking out of the kitchen window. When I was done, I walked into the garden. The moon was already out, hung up high among the pale evening clouds. There was a light wind, and it ruffled my work clothes as I knelt beside the carrots. They’d be ready by now, I thought. I could tell by looking at the tops.
The soil smelt good, gentle. With my bare hands I worked the first carrot free. It was straight and neat and easy. The next was crooked, and harder to get free. There was something lodged in it, it felt like. Just like a tree can grow around a barbed wire fence, holding the sharp wire inside itself; the carrots were holding onto sharp things from the soil. When I pulled the carrots up, they brought these sharp things with them. Some carrots held shards of pottery and tiny pebbles. But three of the carrots were split in very small places. They were holding my three lost teeth.
They’d been brought back to me.
I looked up at the moon, and down at my lost teeth; and then I reached into the spaces in my mouth. My mouth was very wet, and in fact my whole face was wet.
I knelt there, in his garden, with the moon getting higher. And then I put the carrots down and stamped around the garden.
I was thinking about all the things that had been in his garden, his things, when I stamped around before. Those things were gone now, lost and given away. Dad would have liked that. I thought about my dad standing, smoking, sawing or painting something, looking over at me on a Sunday evening before school. He’d be laughing his head off.
Phoebe Thomson (she/her) is from South London. Her work has appeared in Best Small Fictions 2021, Litro Online, It’s Freezing in LA!, Bandit Fiction, Brixton Review of Books and Flash Fiction Magazine. In 2020 she completed an MA at Goldsmiths in Creative & Life Writing, through the Isaac Arthur Green Scholarship.