top of page

'Growing Pains' by Susan King

Susan King, LISP 2022 Short Story Finalist by 'Growing Pains'

Growing Pains

My neighbour is stealing my bees. She’s tempting them, luring them away with her new lavender hedge. If I stand on my ladder and look over the fence, I can see them buzz-buzzing, sitting on the flowers in a drunken stupor, too satiated to come back and get on with the job of pollinating my blackberries. If I can’t make blackberry and apple pie in September, I’ll know who to blame.

I’ve counted twelve loyal ones on my veronicas and marigolds. Twelve! Last week, I could hardly move for them. Something will have to be done about it.

Sometimes, I think I’m going crazy. I never used to be like this. We always got on Fiona and me, in a neighbourly sort of way, took in each other’s parcels, kept an eye on each other’s house when one of us was away. We even had a set of each other’s keys in case of emergency. We took them back when we saw the way things were going.

Back inside, I open Google, type in bee-friendly plants. There are forty million, three hundred thousand, five hundred and sixty-one results. Only the first twenty or so are relevant and out of these one jumps out; Nepeta × faassenii Six Hills Giant, a kind of catmint. Giant sounds about right. I order 24 plants special delivery. They’ll arrive tomorrow and I’ll have them in the ground before nightfall.

“And you’ll love them, won’t you Puddles?”

Puddles looks up at me and meows.

It looks like we’re sharing the bees now. It’s impossible to count them but both our gardens are buzzing happily. I suppose that counts as a draw. I need to forge ahead now before she thinks of something else. The men will be arriving tomorrow to take down the old summerhouse where the children used to play. They’re all long gone now but Alan stored all sorts of useless things in it. Anyway, the men will take it all away and the space will be clear for the next lot of men to come and install stage two of the project.

“Do you think it’s safe?” says Fiona when I meet her bringing in the wheelie bin.

“What do you mean?”

“You haven’t got it fenced off.”

“Why would I have it fenced off?”

“In case the twins fall in?”

I try not to laugh but really, her face is too much.

“You may laugh but two-year-olds get everywhere. They could easily fall in and drown.”

“Paul and Ashley never let them out of their sight. And it’s only a few inches deep. Would you like to come and see the toads? I’ve counted five already and my Yellow Flag irises are flowering beautifully.”

“Sorry, too busy,” she says pushing the wheelie bin into place and disappearing inside.

Busy? Doing what? Planning her counter move I expect.

“Don’t you think you should fence it off?” says Ashley. It’s another heatwave and we’re all in the garden. Paul is setting up the barbecue and Ashley is sunbathing on the lounger next to the pond.

“Nonsense,” I say. I wish she’d close her eyes and doze off so I can concentrate on the noise coming from next door. I saw the men arrive this morning carrying crates and tools and they’ve been drilling and banging ever since.

“What if one of the twins falls in?”

“Then we’d pull him or her out,” I snap. The banging has stopped now.

Paul goes into the kitchen to get the steaks.

“Another van’s pulled up next door,” he says coming back out. “Must be having something big done.”

The drilling starts again.

It’s no good, I can’t sleep. I creep downstairs and lean the ladder against the wall. I’m scanning the garden with the torch beam when a light comes on in Fiona’s kitchen and the back door opens.

“Is that you, Deborah? What are you doing? I thought you were a burglar.”

“I’m looking for Puddles.” At which point there’s a meow at my feet.

“Well, it looks like you found him.”

“Yes, thank goodness. Good night.”

“Good night Deborah.” Is that a smirk I see in the light from the kitchen?

I have to wait for Paul and Ashley to leave the next morning before I can try again. An hour after they’ve gone, Fiona gets in her car and drives off. She always goes to Emma and Ben’s for Sunday lunch, so I’ve got a clear couple of hours. No need for the ladder, Fiona never locks her back gate. Once inside, I make my way to the bottom of the garden where all the noise was coming from. When I see what she’s done, I have to sit down on the bench she installed after I put up a swing seat last year. What’s in front of me is so amazing, I want to cry.

I pull myself together and go back home. This is a call to arms. A challenge. Not beyond me. If Fiona can get herself a Japanese garden, complete with cherry blossoms, bamboo deer scarer, miniature bridges and pagodas, I simply have to come up with something to top it. There’s one section of the garden I can’t quite fathom, the bit at the back which is simply a layer of gravel and a few stones. I google Japanese Stone Garden and get two million, eight hundred thousand, four hundred and twenty-two results. The first one gives me the answer I’m looking for. A Japanese Stone Garden or Zen Garden is a garden where gravel and sand are raked into a pattern to imitate water ripples. Large rocks or stones are placed in the centre to create a sense of an island surrounded by water. What a load of nonsense but it makes sense. How better to one-up my pond than to build a water feature without water.

As I scroll through images of Japanese gardens, inspiration hits me. A must in a Japanese garden is a pagoda. What if I build a full size one? I change my search criteria and get five million, nine hundred and twenty thousand, one hundred and six results.

Pagodas are ridiculously expensive and range from miniature ones to skyscrapers. It takes me a couple of days to narrow down my search to five possible companies. I’m about to call the third on my list when the doorbell rings.

“Deborah, I have to talk to you about Puddles,” says Fiona standing on the doorstep.

“What about him?”

“He’s doing his business in my Zen garden. Every morning when I go out to rake it, I find a pile of stinking faeces. It’s meant to be a meditative experience and quite frankly, it’s stressing me out.”

“I’m sorry to hear that,” I say making a mental note to give Puddles an extra sardine later.

“Being sorry isn’t going to solve the problem. You’ll have to find some way to stop him.”

“By doing what?”

“I don’t know. Just think of something.” She makes a point of slamming the front gate behind her.

Fiona has got a dog. A Yorkipoo. It’s a cute little thing, I suppose if you like scruffy. If she’s bought it to scare off Puddles, she’s wasted her money. I see her taking it for walks. If nothing else, it might help her to lose some of that weight she’s carrying.

Number 23 opposite has been sold even though it’s a bit run down. Joe Brearly lived in it until he was ninety-two and a heart attack saw him off. His children never came round when he was alive, but were quick enough to put it on the market. I expect the buyers got it cheap.

I’ve agreed the plans for the pagoda, but I’ll have to have the beech tree removed first. It’s two weeks before I can get an appointment with a tree surgeon.

On the Tuesday of his appointment, I’m waiting for him to arrive when I realise Puddles hasn’t come for his breakfast. He’s usually wrapping himself around my feet, meowing interminably until I give in and reach for the tin opener. Thinking he’s got locked in a bedroom or cupboard I go round the house checking, calling out his name. No sign of him. So, I try the garden shed, check the greenhouse. Perhaps he’s wandered further than usual I tell myself; he’ll turn up sooner or later. I’m walking back to the house and stop when I reach the pond. He’s floating next to the water lily, his eyes glassy, his fur sodden like some travesty of a child’s toy.

The tree surgeon lifts him out and puts him in a plastic bag. I can see he’s upset for me.

“What happened to him?” he asks. “He can’t have drowned in there, it’s not deep enough.”

I can’t tell him what I’m thinking so I simply say, “I don’t know.”

The vet can’t help. He finds no evidence of trauma, no signs of limbs broken by a passing car, no bites or scratches, so the Yorkipoo is out. Finally, all he can come up with is rat poison.

“Perhaps, he caught a rat that had been poisoned or ate a piece of food put out as bait. The only way to find out is by doing a post-mortem. Is that what you want?”

I shake my head and pay the bill, leaving him to dispose of Puddles. I have a pretty good idea how it happened.

Someone left the gate of Fiona’s garden open and the Yorkipoo got run over.

It’s all go in the street. Workmen are tearing down walls, removing the kitchen and bathroom units in number 23. The couple moving in seems pleasant enough. He’s something in media. I don’t know what she does but they must have plenty of money. Cassandra, call me Cassie, and Josh Latimer. And my workmen have started erecting the pagoda. I’m a bit upset as it can only be two metres tall, but I know Fiona would make a complaint to the council if it was any higher. It’s going to take a week to complete what with all the little windows and balconies. It’s a model of the Great Pagoda at Kew only mine will be painted red with gold balconies. Fiona hasn’t been spying over the fence, which is unusual. We haven’t spoken since Puddles so I can’t mention it in passing. I notice she hasn’t replaced the Yorkipoo. She has, however, got her grandson, Oliver staying with her for the school holidays while Emma and Ben are in the States. He’s a bit bored on his own, spends most of the time kicking a ball around the garden.

The day the pagoda is finished, I’m dumping some of the workmen’s rubbish in the bin when Oliver comes home.

“I’ve been playing football in the park,” he says watching me hump bags of rubble into the bin.

“Mmm,” I say.

“I won’t be able to practice in the garden much longer. Nan is going to dig up the lawn and put in a swimming pool. The men are coming next week. It’ll be cool.”

A swimming pool! The woman’s gone mad. I go inside and pour myself a gin and tonic. As I sit on the patio and admire the sun glistening on the gold spire of my pagoda, I decide it’s a trick by Fiona to wind me up. I help myself to another drink, watch the sun set behind the pagoda and feel much better.

The painters are now at number 23. Cassie says they plan to move in next week. It’s nice to have friendly neighbours again. Especially as the diggers have turned up next door.

I’m cross with Oliver. He’s kicked that blasted ball over the wall every day this week. Twice it’s gone into the pond. I tell him I’ll confiscate it if it comes over again.

“I’ll tell Nan if you do,” he says as if issuing a threat. As I walk away, I hear him mutter stupid old cow.

I had Fiona round last night. She demanded Oliver’s ball back. I refused, said I’d taken it to the charity shop. She threatened to call the police if I did it again. I said I’m going to call the council about her swimming pool. “Ha,” was all she said.

I’m on the phone with a woman in the council who insists that Fiona doesn’t need planning permission for her pool when I hear a loud crash. I look out of the window to find one of the pagoda’s windows smashed. Oliver is climbing up my trellis, his ball under one arm, trampling my clematis Jackmanii as he goes. Before I can get to him, he’s disappeared over the other side. The little bastard. I run next door, through the back gate and into Fiona’s garden. A ladder is propped up against their side of the wall, Oliver stepping off the bottom rung. He’s walking around the edge of the hole dug out for the swimming pool when he sees me. I follow him, see the ballast at the bottom of the hole, at least six feet down. Oliver backs away, finds himself trapped between the garden wall and the digger.

“I didn’t mean to,” he says. “I’m sorry.” His eyes, wide now.

Sorry won’t do. I step towards him, backing him against the digger. Reaching out, I grab his arms, making him drop the ball.

“Let me go,” he says as I pull him towards the hole.

“I’m home, Ollie,” shouts Fiona. “Come and help me unload the shopping.”

I stand still for a moment, giving Oliver time to shout out. I drop his arms, turn round and walk past Fiona coming in with a couple of Waitrose carrier bags.

“What are…”

“You’d better tell that boy to be careful,” I say before returning inside and slamming the door.

The police don’t stay long. Just a misunderstanding, I say, I’m sorry the boy was upset. I’ll have a word with his mother. Make sure it’s smoothed over.

Whatever they said, it hasn’t satisfied Fiona as she’s on the doorstep, ringing my bell and banging on my door. I suppose I’d better answer it.

“If you come anywhere near---,” she says but I’m not listening. A white van has stopped outside number 23. On its side, there’s an image of an olive tree and the words Cassie Latimer, Garden Design for the Discerning. A man in a green uniform with an olive tree printed on the back of his jacket gets out and opens the back doors of the van. He starts unloading sand-coloured rocks, piling them in the front garden.

Fiona stops talking, turns to see what I’m looking at.

The man unloads more rocks.

“She cleared all the weeds last week,” says Fiona.

“A van delivered soil and grit yesterday,” I say. “I watched him pour it onto the garden. I thought it was foundations for paving.”

Cassie climbs out of the passenger seat and waves to us. She disappears into the back of the van and comes out carrying trays of plants.

“Wait here.” I go into the house, returning a couple of minutes later with a pair of binoculars.

“Alpines,” I say, adjusting the focus.

“Alpines,” says Fiona.

We look at our front gardens. Mine is paved with a tub of fuchsias standing starkly in the middle. Fiona’s is concreted over except for one corner where a hydrangea is in bloom. The man is now taking some shrubs out of the van.

“They look small,” says Fiona.

“Bonsais”, I say.

We stand in silence watching as Cassie and the man continue to unload the van, vibrant Japanese maples in flaming reds and orange, stone tubs, prostrate Junipers. The man in the green uniform drives the van away. Cassie goes inside and closes the door.

We look at each other.

“I’ll call the builders,” Fiona says.

I nod. “I’m thinking Formal.”

“A Knot Garden.”

“Or Persian.”

“With a fountain.”

She nods back. “Ten minutes.”

“I’ll put the kettle on.”

I go back inside, leaving the door open behind me.



bottom of page