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      home : book reviews : The Age of Wire and String by Ben Marcus


A suburban noir by Johnny Petrol

Tony Mitchell, Mitch to his friends, stood on the patio and surveyed his lawn. It was another hot dry day in a summer full of hot dry days, but the lawn was green and luxuriant. There was a ban on using hosepipes in the region but Mitch didn’t care about that. Why should he let the water company tell him what to do? It was the water company’s fault that there wasn’t enough water, not Mitch’s, and he was damned if he was going to let his lawn go brown and get bare patches just because the water company let all that water leak from its pipes so there wasn’t enough to go around. The water company took Mitch’s money, so they could damn well give Mitch the water he paid for. So every evening as it was getting dark Mitch would come out here to the garden and set up his new Whoosh! Power Sprinkler. He’d found that if he placed it just so, not quite in the centre of the lawn, it would water every part of the lawn and he didn’t need to move it again once he had started it. He could just open the tap and let the Whoosh! do its thing right through the night, or else set the automatic timer/volume-flow mechanism to shut Whoosh! off when it had sprinkled just the right amount of water onto the lawn.

Some of the neighbours had given him dirty looks about it at first, but Mitch wasn’t the type of man to let his neighbours get to him like that. Mitch was a respectable member of the community, not a criminal. He took the argument to his neighbours and persuaded all of them, or nearly all of them, that it was no crime to water your lawn at night. After all, how else would their lawns stay green and luxuriant through the summer? And what was the point in having a lawn if it wasn’t green and luxuriant in the summer? The summer was when the lawn was used the most and what would they prefer? One big patio without a blade of grass in sight? And it wasn’t as if they were living in California where those poor American people had to spray-paint their lawns green. This was England. This was a green and pleasant land. No spray-paint here, except on cars and garage doors of course. Most of his neighbours agreed with him and Mitch had organised a bulk purchase of Whoosh! Power Sprinklers so every neighbour could have one at a discount, all except the young couple in 43 who read the Guardian and let their kid run around all summer with no clothes on – no clothes and boner most of the time, which took some explaining to Cassie their youngest, though Mitch had let Suzy deal with that.

So, the grass was green and luxuriant and Mitch was quite a happy man when it came to his lawn. Today he’d mown and rolled it, just like he did every Saturday afternoon. There had been a patch of moss growing in one corner, where the lawn was shaded most of the day by that big tree from next door, so he’d sprayed that with some Moss-Cide and next week he’d pull out the dead moss and put down some more grass seed. That big tree was beginning to annoy him. It seemed to get bigger and bigger every year and in the autumn it shed its leaves right onto Mitch’s lawn. Mitch found that quite annoying and he had wanted to talk to the Pringles next door about it, but Suzanne told him he was being silly and anyway, she liked the tree because the Johnson boy at the back was always trying to spy on Lisa in her bedroom and the tree had practically stopped him from doing that this summer. That would save Suzy from having to go round and make a scene with the Johnsons. The Johnson’s were good people and it wasn’t their fault their son was a little pervert. Mitch had grumbled a bit because he would have quite liked to tell Johnson that his son was a little pervert. Johnson was always going to church and Mitch thought the whole thing smacked of double-standards and hypocrisy. There was nothing that annoyed Mitch more than double-standards and hypocrisy, especially when it came to little perverts and Christians. Personally Mitch thought that all Christians were probably perverts anyway and he thoroughly blamed Johnson for his son’s perverted behaviour.

When he’d finished surveying the lawn Mitch bagged up the grass cuttings and threw them into the bin. Suzy was always telling him he should have a compost heap for grass cuttings and the like, but Mitch always said that compost heaps smelled bad and why else did they pay their Council Tax if it wasn’t so rubbish could get taken away instead of festering in the back garden. A back garden was no place for household refuse. And a couple of weeks earlier Suzy had said he should leave the grass cuttings on the lawn to fertilise it. As Mitch had pointed out, what was the point in doing that when he was already using an excellent liquid fertiliser from Homebase which did a much better job and soaked right in instead of making a mess everywhere with grass cuttings which, if you left them on the lawn, always got trampled into the house which would make even more work for Suzy. It didn’t make sense. Suzy was going a bit weird on him like that. It was Lisa’s fault because she’d decided to go veggie on them and kept on at Suze about organic farming. Still, Mitch saw it as a hormonal thing and thought they’d both get over it eventually. Women’s hormones were the bane of Mitch’s life.

The lawn was looking really quite good and Mitch was pleased. It was the annual Mitchell family barbecue next Sunday afternoon, and it was very important that the lawn was at its best for the annual barbecue. Mitch always encouraged their barbecue guests to go barefoot on the lawn so they could feel with their toes how thick and luxuriant it was – and also so that their shoes didn’t rip up the turf, but he never actually said that to his guests. Mitch cared about his lawn, but he also had a sense of propriety when it came to guests at the annual barbecue.

When he’d finished bagging up the grass cuttings, he fetched the Gro-Spray from the shed. Mitch loved Gro-Spray. He just needed to pour some in the Whoosh! Power Sprinkler’s special reservoir attachment, and let her rip. The whole lawn would be fertilised in minutes. Sometimes Mitch thought that Gro-Spray and the Whoosh! Power Sprinkler were the greatest labour-saving combination ever invented. He filled up the Whoosh!’s reservoir attachment now so he wouldn’t have to do it in the dark later on, then he tidied away the lawnmower and the roller. In the winter he kept the roller in the shed but in the summer he couldn’t see much point because it was quite heavy and Mitch wasn’t getting any younger. Lifting the roller in and out of the shed every week just wouldn’t do, especially since he’d put his back out a couple of years ago and the doctor said he shouldn’t go lifting heavy things, or if he did he should lift with his knees. The roller wasn’t something any man could lift with his knees unless he was a professional weightlifter, and although Mitch had lifted a few weights in his time he’d never lifted them on a professional basis or lifted anything like as heavy as the roller with his knees. He had to put the lawnmower in the garage because Suze said it got in the way in the shed. Mitch couldn’t be bothered to argue about that even though there was obviously enough room in the shed for the lawnmower and Suze, and anyway what was the shed for? It certainly wasn’t for Suze to sit around in. In fact, thinking about it Mitch didn’t have a clue why Suze needed any room in the shed at all because she mostly did her potting in the kitchen anyway and just used the shed to store things, which was exactly what the shed was there for. He made a mental note to ask her about that later, though he reminded himself that he had to ask her in a diplomatic, non-threatening and non-confrontational manner just the way that marriage- guidance counsellor had suggested. Whatever.

Suze was at the shops in town with Cassie and Lisa and Lee was playing cricket for the first eleven. None of them would be back for a while, so Mitch decided to mix himself a drink and enjoy his lawn. He went inside and fixed himself a large vodka and tonic, took off his shoes and walked around the lawn for a while, sipping his drink and enjoying the feeling of green, luxuriant grass under his feet and between his toes. He was really quite pleased with his lawn, though of course he knew it would never be as perfect as some of those really old lawns they had. That was what a lawn took, really: years and years, centuries even, of mowing and rolling and watering. It seemed a little unfair to Mitch that even the quality of a man’s lawn depended on his social and financial standing, but at least even if you couldn’t have a really great lawn on a salesman’s income, you could have a damn good one just by putting a little work into it. Work. He’d tried to get Lee interested in the lawn, but at seventeen Lee had other things on his mind. Pussy, mainly. Which wasn’t to say Mitch didn’t have pussy on his mind now and again, too, just not all the time. And Mitch was quite relieved that his son had grown up as a bona fide red-blooded male. He’d grow into lawns. There had been a time when Mitch and Suze had wondered about Lee’s inclinations that way, but they moved him to a mixed school and that seemed to sort that out. Mitch had always thought a boys- only school had to be unhealthy, though for Lisa and Cassie the girls’ school was only right. How were girls supposed to study if boys were chasing them the whole time, after all?

Mitch’s attention was caught by another small patch of moss on the lawn. It was just a tiny patch but it had to go, so he fetched the Moss-Cide from the shed and sprayed some on the moss. This was quite irritating because it meant there would be two bare patches in the lawn for the annual barbecue next week, and even though this was quite a small bare patch it was much more central than the other bare patch and would surely be noticed. He put the Moss-Cide back in the shed and sat down on the lawn to consider what to do about these bare patches and especially this one in the middle of the lawn.

Mitch considered the options for a while and then realised that his drink was finished, so he went inside and poured himself a slightly larger vodka and tonic than the first one and came out again and sat on the lawn. This was quite an intractable problem, but he thought he had the answer: if he extended the flower bed border into the lawn he could eradicate the bare patch under the Pringles’ big tree. And if he took just a little extra turf – turf with grass and no moss – he could use that to fill the small bare patch in the centre of the lawn. This struck Mitch as a very elegant solution to his problem with the lawn, so he knocked back his drink and fetched a spade from the shed. Of course, even with all the watering the lawn got, the earth would be quite dry and hard, so he knew this would be quite hard work. But Mitch wasn’t afraid of hard work, especially when it was as important as this was.

Normally he would have been very careful to use a tape measure and even a set square to ensure the border was absolutely straight and perfect, but Mitch was feeling quietly confident about his ability to measure the border by eye. He carefully jabbed the spade into the ground a few times until he had made a clear impression in the earth, then started digging in earnest with the full weight of his foot on the top of the spade’s blade. The ground was even harder than he’d expected and he felt the need for some additional fortification, so he stopped for a few minutes to fix himself another vodka and tonic and drank it quite quickly. Although it was late afternoon the sun was still hot and Mitch was perspiring profusely and breathing heavily. It made him thirsty. He wondered where Suzy had got to. At least if she was here she could fix a drink for him and get him a towel to dry himself off. Mitch felt a flash of irritation as he thought about Suzy, out spending his money on clothes and shoes. As if they didn’t have enough damn shoes anyway, though Suze and now Lisa were always saying how they needed a new pair of shoes, even when they’d just bought a new pair each.

The hardness of the earth was really annoying Mitch now, and he decided it was really time to deal with this border. He squared up to it, lifted the spade as high as he could with both hands on the handle, and slammed it down into the ground with all his strength. It was strange because at first he didn’t feel a thing, just a little tug on his feet, which he assumed must be the ground finally giving way. But as his eyes focused at his feet he had to blink and do a double-take. His toes, all his toes – not just the toes on one foot, or even just some of the toes on both feet, but all his toes on both feet – were scattered across quite a large area of the flower bed and the little stumps on the ends of his feet where his toes had been were beginning to bleed quite profusely. Mitch took a very deep breath. He knew exactly what to do in these circumstances, and thanked his lucky stars that he’d had a couple of drinks as that would help anaesthetise the pain which he knew was surely on its way.

Very calmly, Mitch gathered up his toes, counting them carefully as he did so, and hobbled inside the house where he found an old shirt in the laundry basket in the utility room. He ripped the sleeves from the shirt and tied a tourniquet around each leg. Then he applied large sticking plasters from the first aid kit in the utility room to each of the ten stumps on his foot. He washed his toes off in some cold water and packed them in a plastic carton full of ice-cubes from the freezer. He had read somewhere that this was the right thing to do. For a moment he debated whether to drive himself to the hospital casualty department or whether to call for an ambulance. He felt quite sure that he could drive himself even with his toes in a plastic carton on the passenger seat instead of attached to his feet, and he felt that this really wasn’t urgent enough to merit calling an ambulance, but he decided that the last thing he needed was another drink-driving conviction, so he decided to call a taxi. He mixed himself another vodka and tonic, and sat down on the kitchen floor to wait for the taxi to arrive and take him to the hospital. Altogether, Mitch decided, this had not been the best day of his life.

Copyright © Johnny Petrol 1996

This story may not be archived or distributed further without the author’s express permission. Please read the license.

This electronic version of Lawn is published by The Richmond Review by arrangement with the author.

Johnny Petrol is a seventeen-year-old concept.

For rights information, contact The Richmond Review in the first instance


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