The following story was originally written for radio.
Since I have been contacted with a request that I say something about the process of writing in general. I have added sections from a letter I wrote concerning Three Seeds and the effect I wanted the story to have. My letter was in response to a series of very helpful questions which made me clarify my thinking . But first, the story….
by Phillip Mann
Jessie knew something was wrong when her grandma did not come for Sunday lunch as usual.
When she asked where her grandma was, her father just said that grandma was not well … but Jessie knew that wasn’t quite true because last time grandma was not well, her dad had telephoned her and Jessie had spent a happy ten minutes telling grandma all her news, and what books she liked and what mum had cooked for lunch, and grandma had coughed a bit and told her she would see her next week and to be a good girl….
There was something else too. Dad and mum were talking in whispers in the kitchen, and dad wasn’t really concentrating when he took her to bed, even though he read her an extra story before tucking her up.
“When can I see grandma,” asked Jessie as she snuggled down.
“Soon,” said her dad.
“Can I go tomorrow?”
“No, not tomorrow.”
“Because she’s not feeling well… but I promise I’ll take you to see her soon.”
Then, just as her dad was turning to leave, Jessie asked, “Grandma is your mum isn’t she?” And dad nodded. “You can take her one of my books if you like. She likes the one about tigers.”
Her dad paused his face serious. Then he smiled, “Thank you,” he said. “She’ll like that. I’ll take it tomorrow. Now, night -night.” And he closed the door.
As it happened, it was Thursday when dad picked Jessie up from pre-school. When she’s climbed into her special seat in the back of the car, he said, “I’ve got a surprise, we’re going to see grandma.” But the way he took did not lead to grandma’s small flat overlooking the sea. He took another route and that led to the hospital… and Jessie remembered that building because she had gone with dad and mum when dad cut his hand and had to have some stitches.
After he had parked the car in the hospital car park, dad turned to Jessie and said. “Now I don’t want you to be surprised or worried Jessie, but grandma might not be able to talk to you. She might even be asleep, so we’ll only stay for a few minutes because she gets very tired quickly. And I picked these flowers from the garden for you to give her.” So saying he handed Jessie a small posy of white and blue flowers tied up with golden string which Jessie recognized from Christmas presents.
It took a long time to reach the place where grandma was in bed. They had to go up lifts and dad forgot to let Jessie press the buttons. And then they had to walk down long corridors with lino that squeaked under their feet. Finally they reached grandma’s room, but she was asleep with the covers up to her chin and her arms lying straight on the sheets..
“You can talk to her,” said dad, “She can probably hear you, but she may not be able to reply.”
Jessie tried to do that, but she found it difficult to talk to someone who didn’t reply, and so she perched on the side of the bed and held grandma’s hand.
After a few minutes, a nurse popped into the room with a small vase for the flowers, and dad said it was time to go. “Say goodbye to Grandma.”
Jessie leaned forwards and whispered in grandma’s ear, “Bye-bye grandma. I hope you feel better soon.” A second later, Jessie felt a tiny little squeeze of her hand and she knew she’d been heard.
In the car, on the way home, Jessie asked, “Is grandma dying?” Her dad seemed a bit surprised at the question, and didn’t answer straight away. “I mean like Mr Toughnut died,” said Jessie quickly, “and you buried him in the garden.”
Her dad was silent for a moment, and then he said slowly, “Yes. Yes. Grandma is dying.”
And Jessie didn’t ask any more questions then after that, for she thought she saw a tear on dad’s cheek before he brushed it away.
It was two days later that everyone suddenly became very busy and serious and Jessie knew what had happened. That night she heard her mother and father arguing. She could not hear everything that was said, but she heard her name and then her mother said, “She’s only five. You’ll give her nightmares.”
The next day her father said, “Jessie, would you like to see grandma for one last time?”
“Y…yes,” said Jessie uncertainly. It seemed a strange thing for dad to say. So they went on another car journey, and this time it was to a building where soft music was playing and the air smelled of flowers, but it was not a nice smell. They went to a small room were a polished wooden box stood on trestles, and her father picked Jessie up so she could see into the box.
What she saw looked a bit like grandma wearing one of her Sunday dresses and her beads and with her hair brushed, but it wasn’t grandma. Where was the smile and the sparkle and the quick voice and the welcome? Grandma was never so still.
After a few moments, Jessie whispered to her dad that she had seen enough and wanted to get down.
Outside the building the sunlight was bright and warm. Her dad asked, “Are you all right?” Jessie said “Yes,” and then she added, “Can we go home now?” And that was what they did. On the way dad bought her an ice cream for being a ‘brave’ little girl, and even let her eat it in the car.
At home, mum was waiting. “Well, what did you think of that?” she asked, and Jessie didn’t know what to say. She knew she had to say something, and so she said, “Grandmas was wearing her favourite dress and had lipstick on and dad bought me an ice cream.” That seemed enough. Her mother said nothing but just nodded.
During the funeral Jessie sat very still, looking at the photo of Grandma that stood on the coffin and listening while a lot of people said nice things about grandma… but the more she heard the sadder she started to feel and finally she could not hold back the tears. Jessie did not know words like ‘absolute’ and ‘finality’, but she felt as though a huge emptiness was opening inside her. Mum slipped her arm round Jessie’s shoulders and Jessie snuggled close.
It was a couple of weeks later when Jessie went with her father to help sort out some of Grandma’s things. Most of the furniture was gone and there were patches on the wall where pictures had once hung. Dad was clearing the kitchen, putting the things into a big cardboard box. At the back of one of the kitchen drawers he found an envelope and on it was written in grandma’s bold hand, “Flower seeds for Jessie.”
“I wonder how long these have been here?” he said as he opened the envelope and tipped the contents into his hand. There were three large seeds. “She must have been saving these for you. Perhaps she wanted to plant them on your birthday.”
“What flowers are they?” asked Jessie, poking the seeds with her finger.
“Don’t know. But your grandma, was forever picking flowers and seeds when she went to someone’s garden. She never knew the names of what they were.”
“Can I plant them?”
“Of course you can. They’re yours.”
And that is what Jessie did later in the day when she got back home.. She already had her own little corner of the garden where she grew radishes and marigolds and tall cosmos.
Carefully she cleared a space and made three little holes and dropped a seed into each one. Then she had a little ceremony of her own, talking to the seeds before covering them with soil.
Her mother and father were watching her through the kitchen window. “I wonder what she’s saying?” said her mother.
“We’ll never know,” answered her dad, and then he added, “What a kind and serious little girl we have!”
Two months later, when spring was well advanced, three shoots appeared. They grew quickly, with broad heart-shaped leaves, and Dad built a trellis for them to climb up. Then, one morning, flowers appeared and dad got out his gardening books. “Ipomoea” he pronounced slowly, “Morning Glory. Hmm. Might have to watch these. They could be invasive.” But this didn’t matter to Jessie. Most important to her was that they flowers were blue, brilliant blue, for this was Jessie and Grandma’s favourite colour.
Here now is my reply to the letter I received.