We children used to watch Mr. Mason from our bedroom window. Our house overlooked his garden, and it was there that the old man could be found come sun or shower, dawn or dusk. Mr. Mason’s garden was as fine an example of composted soil as could be seen anywhere in England, I’ll be bound. So it should have been. The soil was worked relentlessly with pitchfork and spade, a churned mass of aerated, loamy mulch. Once he had worked his way from one wooden fence to the other, Mr. Mason would simply take a sip from the canteen in his trouser pocket and begin working his way back again. Penelope, my sister, said he was mad.
I can remember standing with my siblings, our breath climbing the cold window in front of us. We would bang on the frosted glass and then hide before the old man turned to look up. Once or twice, I returned to the window whilst he was still scanning for whoever had interrupted him. Mad Old Mason’s face was inscrutable, his eyes creased against the setting sun, before he returned to his weeding, his cloyed fingers digging deep into the clay for stubborn dandelion roots. It wouldn’t have been so interesting had our neighbour planted something, anything. All he appeared to be interested in, however, was in uniform brown – a windless lake of umber.
Children will be children, though, and what we lacked in solid narrative we made up for in rampant imagination. Penelope told me once that Mr. Mason was reburying all of the bodies that he had brought back with him from the Great War, that every time a bleached-white bone poked through the topsoil he frantically scraped dirt on top of the evidence. Ma was less romantic. She said that Verdun has turned him simple, that the shells had shaken loose something inside his head. My father would just shrug as he chopped wood on the front stoop, muttering that some things just can’t be fixed.
The old man was long dead by the time I returned from my own miserable trek across Europe’s churned battlefields. The new owner had replaced the sod with lush grass, and the garden had lost its childlike sense of mystery. I felt I understood what Mr. Mason had been trying to feel as he recovered from his ordeal – the beauty of order as opposed to chaos, of having something entirely within your sphere of influence, even if it is only earth. I understood the affinity the veteran had with the soil, protecting him as it had in the sodden trenches. I also understood what Mr. Mason understood as he saw the morning mist clinging to the bare soil – that the promise of what might be far exceeds the reality of what is.
Matthew Richardson is a writer of short stories. His work has featured in Gold Dust magazine, Literally Stories, Near to the Knuckle, McStorytellers, Penny Shorts, Soft Cartel, Whatever Keeps the Lights On, and Shooter magazine. He is an absentee member of the Glasgow Writers Group, a PhD student at the University of Dundee, a lucky husband, and a proud father.
Not necessarily in that order