Peter van Straten Art by Peter van Straten

The Sword and the potato

George Belm sat in his kitchen, the setting sun warming his back. He was looking at a potato that lay alone on the kitchen table.

Perhaps, thought George, it might be incorrect to say the potato was lying there. It could, he reflected, be sitting, or standing. He realized that until one knew which side was the top of the potato, one couldn’t say with any conviction which position the potato was in. It was a lovely potato anyway, though admittedly not a vase of flowers.

He sighed, and turned to look out of the window behind him, expecting at any moment to see his wife appear, home from work. He was not disappointed.

He watched her as she walked up to the garden gate. He watched as she fastened the gate behind her and walked up to the house, looking as lovely as usual. He wondered, almost casually, who she really was. Marriage after all was a compromise, so that in essence, one lived with a sort of watered down version of one’s spouse. She would have been differently diluted had she married someone else. As would he – his soul, as it were, growing differently in different soil. George turned back towards the table. He wondered if it made any difference to the potato, that he had grown it himself.

His wife entered the kitchen, gave him a kiss on his bald spot, and put her handbag and grocery bag down on the table, knocking the potato so that it wobbled.

“And how is my husband?” she asked, filling the kettle at the sink.

“Well…” he replied thoughtfully, “a bit like a potato.”

“A potato?” she asked, amused.

“Yes,” George replied. “Actually like a specific potato. Like that potato there.”

He leaned back in his chair and pointed at the potato on the table.

“But how,” she asked as she started to unpack the groceries, “can you know how the potato feels?”

He was quiet for a while, content to watch her pack things away.

“Well,” he said finally, “I feel how it looks. Sort of roundish and not terribly exciting, and not knowing which side is up.”

Vera put a jar of gherkins into the cupboard then turned to look at him.

“Well,” she smiled, “there’s probably not much we can do about ‘roundish,’ but ‘terribly exciting’ I might be able to help with. And we can easily work out which side is up.” Turning, she gave him a wink of mock lasciviousness.

She cleared the rest of the things off the table, until only the potato was left. With her hands on her hips she stood, looking squarely at the potato.

George looked at her, amused and curious.

“All you need to do is roll it about,” she said, “and see which side usually ends up on top when it stops. And that will be its top.”

George smiled and, as Vera reached for two cups from the shelf, he obediently started to roll the potato about on the table. After twelve rolls he discovered that there definitely was a side that the potato preferred having up. So that was that.

Well?” said Vera. She put their tea down on the table and sank into a chair opposite him.

“You really are a clever old thing,” said George with emphasis. “That,” he pointed with one finger, taking his first sip of tea, “is the top.”

They sat for a while in silence, enjoying their tea and looking at the potato.

“Well now,” Vera broke the silence, “what’s to be done about ‘not very exciting?’”

She looked at George who looked at her, then back at the potato.

“Perhaps we can put it on my head,” she suggested, ‘and then you can shoot it off.”

“With what though?” replied George, as seriously as possible. “I only have the shotgun. It might be messy.”

“It would be exciting though,” smiled Vera over the lip of her cup. George snorted.

“Or,” continued Vera, “we could have an egg and spoon race, “only using the potato instead.”

George didn’t even reply to this and for a while they sipped in silence.

“Or,” said Vera, her tone altogether different, “we could play hide the potato.”

George looked at her, waiting for an explanation. But none came. Instead it was a look of profound mischief on her face that enlightened George. “Vera!” he shouted, “you naughty creature!”

“Other things go in there,” she replied, winking, and not the least put out, “so why not the lowly potato?”

George stared at her in disbelief. She enjoyed teasing him like this (he came from a rather proper background) and he blamed her behaviour on years of obstetric and gynaecological nursing. But really…

“Of course,” continued Vera, thoroughly enjoying his prudish horror, which she knew veiled a hidden delight, “we’d need to put it on a fork first, to help with extraction later… and of course I’ll need expert assistance…”

“Vera, Jane, Belm!” laughed George, standing up, “you are a shocking woman. And I am going for a walk.”

“Merely a suggestion,” said Vera innocently, taking her last sip of tea, her eyes twinkling shamelessly up at him. “I was only trying to help,” she continued, as she recalled the reason for this conversation in the first place.

George looked at her, and smiled.

“Darling,” she continued, “you can’t expect excitement in your life if you’re not prepared to do anything exciting.”

George said nothing. Of course she was right.

“Well,” she said, getting up from her chair, “you go for your walk and I’ll make supper. Maybe,” she laughed, “I’ll burn the house down – by accident.”

George gave her a kiss on the cheek, took down his scarf from its hook and left through the back door.

It truly was a marvelous evening. The earth and the sky looked clean, as if scrubbed. George walked through his vegetable garden, between the neat rows of growing things, through the skew wooden gate to the recently stripped fields beyond.

He tightened the scarf around his neck, and smiled.


He felt a warm surge of gratitude towards her. Were he alone, he reflected, he would have bored himself to death years ago.

He suddenly wished he could do something for her. Something to honour her.

But what?

He stopped, and looked up across the fields, towards the river, hidden from view by the dense grove of poplars and oaks that lined its banks.

He would find something for her! Something unusual and beautiful. Out here, in All This, he felt suddenly sure, something was waiting to be found.

He walked on across the field, his pace quickened by purpose, his eyes alive to every possibility. The sun looked about half an hour from setting, its gold leaf wrapped halfway around each lump of soil, each stone. Shadows, like the elongated fingers of a black glove, groped across the land. There was a crisp delicacy to everything; it was as if some invisible genius had sculpted it all from the very stuff of evening stillness.

He approached the river, walking between the trees like a ghost into the cold mist that was already forming along its banks. His breath became beautiful before him and all the while he searched. He walked carefully over fallen branches, eerie limbs in the falling light, until finally he stood on a raised, spongy bank overlooking the quiet, snaking presence of the river. He was about to walk upstream to where the bank was less steep when he was stopped dead in his tracks by the strangest sight. But such was the trance-like state into which he had fallen over the duration of his walk that his mind altogether skipped the normal reactions of disbelief and confusion. Indeed the greatest absurdity of all was his acceptance, albeit awed, of what he saw before him: twenty metres away, on the river’s sandy bank, half hidden in the mist, stood two little men, about five meters apart, solemnly facing each other. They were much shorter than midgets, and unlike midgets their proportions were those of normal men. In dress however they differed altogether. The one on the right looked to him like a Viking. He wore armour of leather and mail and a shining helmet of bronze from which two tiny horns protruded. The one on the left however wore a thin blue body-suite, and it seemed as if the fabric from which it was made emitted a faint glow. Each of them held a sword at his side.

George stood as still as a tree, his breathing shallow. The frozen tableau produced in him an overwhelming and mysterious delight. There was no aggression in their faces but the intensity with which they focused on one another was awe inspiring. He literally thought he could see them lean towards each other, in defiance of gravity, such was the uncanny, unwavering magnetism of their mutual focus.

Then, as if preordained, a crow overhead gave a “caw,” cracking the twilit stillness and at once the two little men leaped at each other, swords out. George gave an involuntary gasp, and in mid flight towards one another both men turned their heads towards him and on impact vanished into one another. They were gone.

George stood stunned and alone on the misty riverbank and only gradually grew aware of where he was. There was a ringing in his ears, his eyes ached and he was cold. The sun had set and the forest was growing rapidly darker but he felt an urgent need to go down and look at theriverbank where the men had stood. Making his way carefully down the steep embankment he approached the patch of sand with stooped, breathless reverence, hunting for any signs that what had happened, had happened. The mist was growing thicker, so he crawled on hands and knees. He was just starting to feel truly panicked, unreality looming over him, when he found it: A sword, about thirty centimeters in length, infinitely delicate, and shining with the same faint radiance that its owner had emitted.

George was too stunned to pick it up. On all fours, his nose nearly touching the blade, he started breathing in gasps. Jerking up his head, he looked this way and that, as if caught in a crime. Then, reaching out, ever so slowly, he touched the little blade with one finger. It was hard, it was warm. It was real. With ears ringing and mind numb with wonder he lifted the sword in both hands, as carefully as if it were made of ash. As he raised it, sitting on his haunches, he felt as if he were going to pass out, and realized that he had stopped breathing. He slowly stood, and like a zealot with an icon held the sword before him, the magnetic pull of home suddenly overwhelming as he held the treasure in his hands. As he walked away from his miracle, away from the river, stumbling over rotten tree limbs in the dark, his eyes darted up and down between the glowing blade in his hands and the distant lights of the village. On the relative flatness of the stubble fields he increased his speed. He walked as if he were carrying something terribly heavy, anxious to reach his destination before its weight overwhelmed him. The night was upon him with stones under foot, but the lights of his home gradually wobbled closer. His wife, his wife, inside those lights! Waiting for him.

He was shot through with the most urgent madness by the time he reached the vegetable garden gate. Transferring the sword to his right hand, he fumbled at the gate latch with his left hand which shook so badly it was almost useless. He didn’t even bother to close the gate but ran straight up to the back door. He turned the knob and burst into the warm electricity of his kitchen.

Vera was laying plates. She looked up at her husband as he burst in and she froze, instantly pale at the sight of him. George stared at her, a crazed grin on his face, and slowly he raised his right hand. Vera looked at his face, hanging slack on one side, and then at the stick he held triumphantly aloft.

George looked at her face, read the alarm there, then looked at his hand.

He held in his hand a stick. A normal stick such as one might pick up on a walk to throw for a dog. When he saw what he held he fainted. He fell like a stone, hitting his head on the edge of the table before falling to the floor.

While Vera phoned the doctor and busied herself with poor George’s faulty body George’s consciousness soared without a care through the roof of the house, sword in hand, into the night sky. Up through a tiny hole in the clouds he flew, majestically alone through vast white space, aware of nothing but the air. After some time however he knew by the feel of the air about him that he was gradually descending. Soon he was flying over an endless expanse of water, perfectly, indescribably blue. Lily leaves appeared here and there, pristine green circles on the calm expanse. As he descended he realized that they were not lily leaves at all, but islands, perfectly round, each about an acre in size. In the center of each, where the wedge of water narrowed to a point, stood a house. Each house was different, surrounded by flower gardens or vegetable gardens or meadows, where animals grazed.

Flying lower and closer he saw sailing boats moored at some of the houses, while here or there other boats sailed between them. Lower and lower he flew until eventually he could have touched the surface of the water with the tips of his shoes.

Gradually his flight slowed almost to walking speed and before him he saw a row boat drifting towards the house on the island ahead. Up to this boat he glided, until he was directly above, then sank into it. It rocked at his landing, but it didn’t change course or speed.

He drifted happily along the narrowing wedge of water and looked up at the house towards which he was floating. It was an old farmhouse of honest wood and brick with a large verandah facing him. As he sat in his boat, watching the approaching house, there stepped onto the veranda one of the little men – he of the glowing clothes! Except that now – at least from George’s way of thinking – he was of normal height. The boat whispered into its sandy destination and George got out.

The man on the verandah smiled down at his guest and as George reached him, held out his hand.

“Elmer,” he said, shaking George’s hand. “Thank you for coming,” he continued, “and thank you for returning my sword.”

So entranced by this place was George that he had quite forgotten the sword. Dazed, he raised his hand, and there it was.

“Please,” said his host, taking the weapon without any fuss, “come and sit.”

He gestured with the blade towards two stuffed chairs on the weathered verandah planks.

“And what will you drink?”

“A cup of tea would be nice.”

“Milk, sugar?”

“Milk,” replied George.

The little man, as George still thought of him, vanished into the house.

George sank pleasantly into the chair he had been offered but the longer he sat there waiting for his host to return, the more his sense of comfort gave way to a vague unease. It occurred to him that really he had absolutely no idea where he was and since he couldn’t ever remember not knowing where he was the experience unnerved him. In the hope of soothing himself he turned to look at the garden surrounding the house. A rhinoceros, its body so pale that the animal seemed almost to be made of moving glass, grazed in a patch of lilac irises. The sight of this rhinoceros was too much for him. For the first time it occurred to him that he might be in a landscape of his own invention. Then to make matters worse the rhino lifted its head from the agapanthus stalks, and looked at him. George sat dead still, hardly breathing, afraid to blink. And then the rhinoceros said “George.”

He felt nauseous.

“George,” said the rhino again, and now he saw that its face was starting to resemble that of Dr. Eggers, his general practitioner.

“George?” said Dr Eggers.

The old man’s face was close to his, and the doctor was shining a light into his left eye.

George rolled his eyeballs to the right and there was his Vera. When he looked at her she smiled, and although it was everything one could ever want from a smile, he could tell by her eyes she had been crying. They just kept staring at each other, haunted by the proximity of a vast emptiness.

George gradually felt the reality of their room solidify around him. Words began to appear in his mind, one by one, like birds on a telephone line. He felt profoundly calm. He felt as if he had realized something enormous, but its essence was slippery.

“There you are,” said Doctor Eggers, making eye contact with a conscious George for the first time, “back from your travels. It was a stroke by the looks of things,” he turned to Vera, “but a very small one. You might even call it,” he smiled, turning back to George, “a stroke of luck.”

The doctor did his tests but all the while George and Vera lived in each others’ eyes, held entranced by the understanding of how close they had just come to losing one another.

George closed his eyes. He dimly heard Vera and Dr Eggers talking in the entrance hall and then the front door opened and closed. He drifted off.

He was awoken by Vera leaning over him with a tray. She stooped to kiss him on the forehead, then placed the tray on his lap. On the tray was his supper: chicken, broccoli, and salad, and on a little side plate a potato, still raw. He recognized it at once. It was his friend from earlier that afternoon – so humble, and yet so majestically, triumphantly real.

He looked up at Vera and he realized that he had found her present long before he had set out to look for it.

“I couldn’t cook it,” said Vera, letting out an involuntary laugh, and wiping her cheeks with her sleeves. “It knows which side is up.”

And George Belm nodded because, for the first time in his life, so did he.

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