When planted, potatoes are laid out in a particular pattern, like the 5 side of a die. Four corners of a square, each potato a foot apart, and then one potato in the centre. From a distance, you only see three parallel lines, the middle one slightly out of sync with the others. But up close, there are boxes, five potatoes in each, like a stamp, repeated over and over and over. I was told to lay each potato a foot apart. However, I could stand heal-to-toe in one of my father’s footprints at that age, and still have room.
Neither my siblings, nor I, ever showed any particular passion or talent for gardening. Years later, when my brother was caught cultivating a cute little marijuana plant in a flower pot, my dad joked that it was the healthiest thing he’d ever grown. But, being little, the grandness of any task was lost on us. In our muck-stained wellies and our ragged work clothes, we took to the fields with the enthusiasm of any kids getting to spend the day outside.
Sometimes, we’d be left to our own devices, free to play tag through the stone trimmed fields, or feed grass to any donkeys or cows we found. Other times, we’d be given tasks, important enough to keep us entertained, but never particularly draining. My brother might dig the beds, being older than my sisters and I, who lacked the necessary muscle mass. My little sister would do what toddlers do best, which was sit in her buggy and occasionally cry. Thus, me and my twin sister were entrusted with the planting.
Possibly because of the foot-measurement debacle, we usually didn’t have to lay the potatoes out. Instead, we were left the crucial task of burying them. This, my sister and I were especially good at. Each potato got a name. You pick the potato up, hold him or her in your hand, name him or her, lift a gap into the soil with a trowel, and bury the potato, wishing him or her well. At first, the potatoes got buried rapidly, one, two, three… James, Beatrice, Jeremiah… However, the process slowed slightly as our brains ran out of names. One potato could take minutes. We’d sit there, staring at these potatoes clenched in our hands, foreheads furrowed, sweat trickling down our temples…
After the potatoes are named and buried snugly in their beds, seaweed – used as fertiliser – is draped over them. Getting the seaweed for the potatoes was an unpleasant task. Going to collect it was once fun because Dad would let us sit in the trailer as he wove the rocking car in and around narrow, twisting lanes and up to the beach, but Mom had put an end to that when she heard. “Not safe,” she said, as if we cared.
The beaches we went to varied, depending on where the sea decided to deposit its gigantic heaps of seaweed. Once located though, an entire day – sometimes a few days – would be spent squelching through its slippery mass, gasping for air that wasn’t putrid, and swatting away the five-thousand flies that claimed the space directly in front of your face. If we pestered our parents enough, one of them would eventually relent, sigh, and wave in the direction of the shore where we’d willingly run to. Other times, they needed the extra hands, no matter how small, and so I would be compelled to stab my far-too-heavy fork into the smarmy pile of slippery eel-like sea-vomit and heave it into the wheelbarrow.
In the potato field, as well as the stink of seaweed, there were the bees to contend with. No one could ever accuse my father of not being innovative. Why did he choose to buy a beehive, when he knew next to nothing about bees? I do not know. But he did, and he learnt about them, and aside from a few mishaps and everyday hazards, by all accounts it went very well. The honey was always delicious. The major problem, though, rested in the few wandering bees who sniffed the smell of lovely floral shampoo, and dive-bombed your hair. My sister had it the worst, as her hair, by the time we were ten, flowed well past her backside. And let me tell you, there are few things more terrifying than having a bee stuck in your hair. That might be a contentious statement, I accept that, but if you haven’t experienced it, then you can’t talk.
All you hear is buzzing. It comes from everywhere at once, from all sides, like someone’s pressing two electric razors to your ears. You tear your hands through your hair but you’re deathly afraid of actually touching the bee. What can you do? You shake your head, like you’re trying to get the devil out of it – in a way, you are -, you sprint around the field, trying to outrun it, you scream heartily for help, for somebody, anybody to help, and the whole time, your Dad is shouting “Don’t let it sting you!” as if you’d be happy to let it, as if you didn’t realise the danger. Eventually, after an eternity, the demonic buzzing recedes, and you drop, breathless, exhausted, to the ground. You feel Dad’s semi-sympathetic pat on the shoulder. You hear your siblings’ laughter. And you once again pick up the spade, flinching at every minor sound, pale, eyes bloodshot, and you scowl at your father’s, the beekeeper’s, militarily short hair. Finally, you understand why there’s so much emphasis on the zzz sound in Beelzebub.
But that’s not to say that my father didn’t get his own dose of suffering at the hands (feelers?) of the bees. It was an average Summer’s day, a day Dad, my siblings and I had all spent in the potato field. Finally, Dad had said we could go home, but that he had to check the bees first. He told us to go wait in the car. Worn out, we did, gladly. All four of us squished into the backseats, and we waited. And waited. And waited. Losing patience, my brother turned on his seat and stared out the opened back window, willing Dad to come. Minutes passed, each excruciatingly long. The windows were pulled down all of the way, the sun lightly roasted the paint chipped exterior of the vehicle. A breeze, smelling of grass and flowers, drifted in and around us. We waited. Then, suddenly, my brother cried out: “Look!”
Instantly, we spun in our seats and on our knees, we peered through the window. Down the long, grassy, overgrown lane our father had finally appeared and he was running, sprinting, he was waving his hands around his head frantically, he was screaming. He was the spitting image of a madman. We started to laugh. He kept running. With tears of laughter streaming down his face, my brother asked softly “What’s he saying?” Because he was saying something. Further up the lane, closer to us now, we could hear him, once we’d suppressed our hilarity, we could hear what he was saying and there was something else we could hear also. Something diabolical. Buzzing.
Like a shot, on either side of me, my brother and sister leapt out of the car. My sister, on the right side, ran wildly down the lane turning right. My brother, on the left side of the car, ran wildly down the lane turning left. Unfortunately for my brother, seconds later I watched the frenetic form of my father, engulfed in a swarm of bees, dart passed the car, and turn left. For myself, I crawled into the front seat with my little sister, and we huddled over, as though we were in a bomb shelter. The screams, the buzzing, all faded. A passing bzzz every now and again made our hearts stop. In a half-daze, we watched one infernal bee wander in through the open window and hover, bzzzing, above us, while we held our breaths and wide-eyed, watched it leave through the opposite window.
If my father had been allergic, he surely would have died. Red and bulbous, he sat in our kitchen while my Mom tended to his thousands upon thousands of stings. I realised, dimly, that the time I’d been stung by a batch of nettles when I fell off the trampoline paled in comparison. Like a line of military soldiers, we stood around our father who had been gravely wounded in the line of duty. All four of us were ready to salute. Not one of us mentioned the laughter.
As we grew older, we went to the field less. It didn’t seem as wondrous as it once had. A few of us had developed a phobia of the bees. The weather was bad, normally. There were rats. The journey in the car was long. The lanes up passed the sharp, ascending turn where our land rover had once sat overturned for a day, were savagely bumpy. Still, I tagged along every now and again. I laid the potatoes out, and measured a foot and a half between each. I brought my book and left it in the car, just in case. I put my earphones in. One day, possibly out of boredom, possibly just out of an enjoyment of maths, I calculated aloud how many potatoes we would need, as a family, for the entire year, and how many, therefore, we’d need to plant, working all of the variables, from blight to dinner guests, into my sums.
I don’t still name the seeds as I plant them. Actually, I haven’t planted potatoes in a long time. I went to school, I got a summer job, my parents worked less in the gardens, I went to college. We still have our own home-grown potatoes, and I surreptitiously pack some in my bag whenever I’m back for the weekend. But they weren’t planted by me.
But I was on the bus home the other day, sitting in the back. Listening to music, my mind was wandering, and so were my eyes. At one point I looked up. Above me, there were the dials that are above all bus seats. There were five circles; two lights, two air conditioning vents, and one circle with the switches in the middle. Five circles, laid out like the five side of a die, and they stretched out along both sides of the roof of the bus, like a stamp, over and over again. And I thought of potatoes.
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