‘Weeds’ was shortlisted for the 2021 Commonwealth Short Story Prize.
Wee Boon Ho was no longer expecting any phone calls.
The first few days of lockdown, they had all called. One by one, they lit up his phone with a ringtone that he didn’t like but couldn’t be bothered to change. There were their faces—boy, girl, boy—frowning with concern, asking him questions.
Did he have enough food? Was he wearing a mask when he went out? Why was he going out? Then came the reminder: it was best not to go out, especially at his age.
Then the grandchildren appeared, their faces smudged with chocolate and snot. ‘Say hello to Ah Kong,’ they were entreated. But the little ones were boisterous and disrespectful, and soon their demands cut the phone calls short.
‘Speak to you soon,’ his children said, distractedly.
As the days went by, they spoke less and less.
It didn’t matter. Wee didn’t expect much from anyone, family or otherwise. Since the divorce, he’d come to accept that his children belonged more to their mother. It was, in some ways, a relief. He could look after himself, do as he pleased.
The days weren’t so different, anyway. Each morning, Wee woke up at 6.30am, and by 7am, he was out in the garden. His condo had nice, spacious grounds: a tennis court and swimming pool and a pretty pond filled with fish and shaded by trees. Wee walked around the pond five or six times before breakfast. Sometimes, he broke into a slow jog. He might be old, but he was still limber.
One morning, just as he was on his way out, Wee saw the notices. Several pieces of paper had been taped up at the main entrance to his block.
Due to the coronavirus risk, please do not use communal areas such as the gym, swimming pool and garden.
Guards will patrol the premises.
Residents will be fined.
Please report anybody breaking the rules.
Beyond the doors, one of the Nepalese guards paced here and there, a walky-talky slung at his hip. Wee was fuming. The world had gone mad! Was he a prisoner in his own home? Did he not have rights?
Back in his apartment, Wee tried walking around in laps. He strapped on his fitness watch and counted the steps, circling each room in turn. Around he went, again and again, feeling like a merry-go-round without a horse.
Outside, the sky taunted him with its blueness. The trees rustled, teasing lush leaves. From his living room window, he saw that the path around the pond was completely deserted. It would have been the perfect time to walk.
He sent a message to his children on WhatsApp. ‘Banned from walking outside! Cannot even go to the garden!’
‘It’s for the best, Ba,’ his eldest son replied, after an hour. His daughter sent a news story about a spike in cases, and his other son didn’t reply at all.
The days went by. Sometimes, Wee jogged on the spot, standing in front of the big window in his living room. He slid the glass pane open—mosquitoes be damned—and relished the smallest drift of breeze he could get. He smelled the greenness of the early morning.
Throughout the day, he noticed, the smell of the garden changed. Afternoon rain brought a briskly pungent aroma, a smell that reminded him of his late mother’s herbal medicine. At dusk, it turned to the smell of quiet, damp earth. Of the world settling down to sleep.
One morning, Wee arrived at the window to see a gardener working by the pond. The man was pulling away dried stalks from a bush, the leaves shaped like long, oval paddles.
Wee had always seen the gardeners around, but he had never really looked at them. They maintained the grounds of the condo, trimming the grass, watering the plants and culling coconuts before they became a hazard.
So you’re allowed outside, Wee thought, bitterly.
The man was young, probably in his twenties. He had dark curly hair, and his thin face mask was pulled down under his chin so he could breathe freely.
Wee watched as the gardener built up a pile of dead leaves. The man’s regulation orange tee shirt was damp at his armpits, his brow glowing with sweat. Finally, he gathered the old leaves in his arms and carried them away.
The next day, he saw the man again. This time, he was with another gardener, and they were watering the plants with a long hose. One man uncoiled the tubing while the other held the nozzle. In the afternoon, they swept up the leaves on the grassy verge next to the pond.
Each day, Wee looked out for the men. He moved from room to room, following their progress from different windows. He even gave them nicknames: Curly Hair, Tall One and Short But Strong. Sometimes he heard their murmurs, in a language he guessed was Bengali. But he couldn’t be sure.
Another week passed. Then, one day, Wee was putting away some clean clothes when his eye caught on something orange. It was a tee shirt he’d never worn—a souvenir gift from his daughter’s holiday years ago.
He pulled the tee shirt out, then fetched his khaki trousers. They were too smart, but they would have to do. Finally, he found a baseball cap to hide his balding head.
In his orange tee shirt, khakis and cap, Wee walked out of the condo and into the garden.
There were no security guards in sight. It was almost too easy, Wee thought. He should have done it sooner.
He walked around the pond three times and even stopped to raise his arms in a series of stretches. Birds chirped sweetly, and a turtle splashed from a rock into the water. Wee closed his eyes, feeling the sunlight on his face, hearing the trees talk to each other.
The gardener Curly Hair was standing a few meters away from him, staring. The man was wearing his face mask properly today.
Now that Wee had opened his eyes, the gardener didn’t seem to know what else to say. But as they looked at each other, Wee had the chance to confirm that his own orange tee shirt and pants looked remarkably similar to the gardener’s uniform. The only thing he was missing was a pair of gloves.
‘Residents tak boleh,’ the man said, after a while. ‘Residents…cannot outside.’
Wee shook his head. ‘Takpe, takpe,’ he said. He waved the man along, as though he had some kind of special authority.
The man frowned, shaking his head. Then he seemed to decide it wasn’t worth it and walked away.
Wee circled the pond one more time, then went back inside. He made a mental note to order some gloves online.
The next day, it was cloudier and the air more humid. Wee felt himself sweating almost as soon as he stepped out. His mask chafed with damp against his lips.
He was just approaching the pond, about to pull off his mask, when he saw a security guard heading towards him. Quickly, Wee dropped down to his knees and pretended to be plucking at something on the grassy verge.
He kept his head bowed until he was sure the guard had passed. But then he heard footsteps closing in, and a shadow fell onto the grass before him.
He turned around. Very slowly, still crouching, he looked up. It wasn’t the guard standing over him; it was Curly Hair again, this time with Tall One.
Curly Hair pointed further along the path. ‘Sana, bukan sini,’ he said.
Wee slowly got up and looked at where the gardener was pointing.
‘Ini weed,’ the gardener said, walking over to the edge of the path. Where the pavement met the gutter, there was a running crack where greenery had sprouted.
Wee thought he could explain. He could tell the man that he was only pretending. He just wanted to walk and stretch, he would say. He had rights as a resident and property owner. This was his garden.
But he didn’t say any of this. Instead, he found himself moving over to the edge of the path and crouching back down to look at the weeds. From the corner of his eye, he saw the two gardeners glance at each other, as if bemused. Then they walked away.
There were clusters of weeds—tiny, fern-like fronds and wild sprouts—all along the edge of the path. You wouldn’t notice them unless you looked, but once seen, you noticed them everywhere. How persistently they thrived.
Wee plucked a couple. Then he kept plucking, working his way around the pond. After he had pulled up as many weeds as he could see, he considered the sad little heap he had accrued. He didn’t know where to put them, so he carried them back to his apartment and threw them into his own bin. It was only then he realised he’d been outside for two hours, and his tee shirt was soaked through with sweat. He would need to wash it in time for tomorrow.
The next day, when Wee went to the garden, he found Tall One pruning a large bush with purple flowers. For a moment, they locked eyes. Wee knew he should keep walking, should pass by. But instead, he slowed until he was standing next to the gardener. He watched the man’s hands at work, the slow and steady rhythm of the shears.
At first, Tall One ignored him. Then, after a minute, he called out.
The shorter man—the one that Wee called Short But Strong—emerged from around the corner. Tall One spoke to his colleague, and Short But Strong listened, then waved Wee over toward him.
‘Tak kerja, tak kerja,’ said Wee. But the man still beckoned as if his words were irrelevant.
Wee followed Short But Strong to the part of the garden on the other side of the condo. Here there were bushes of pandan, raised beds of lemongrass and mint. Residents sometimes came here to pick herbs, but Wee himself had never done so.
Short But Strong passed him a bucket filled with dark mulch. With big gestures, as if he thought Wee might be stupid, the gardener took a handful of soil from the bucket and then scattered it around the lemongrass.
‘Kompos,’ said the gardener. Then he handed Wee the bucket and walked away.
This was going too far, Wee thought. His gloves hadn’t even arrived yet. But he scooped up a handful of the soil nonetheless, finding it surprisingly soft and velvety between his fingers.
Mimicking the gardener, he added handfuls of compost to each bed in turn. When it started to rain, he tucked the bucket under a piece of scrap metal and retreated.
The next day was Sunday. The gardeners didn’t work on Sundays, so Wee let himself sleep in later than usual. He was tired. The muscles in his back and legs creaked with weariness, but it wasn’t an unpleasant feeling. It was like receiving a letter from an old friend who lived far away.
He was having a late breakfast when his daughter called. She reminded him that yesterday had been his grandson’s birthday.
‘You forgot, didn’t you?’ she said.
Wee had indeed forgotten. The grandchildren were always growing, the birthdays never-ending.
‘I’ll send you some money online,’ he said. ‘You can give Ah Boy the angpao from me.’
‘So busy, meh?’ his daughter said. ‘We hardly hear from you.’
‘Not busy,’ said Wee.
‘What are you doing?’ she asked. ‘Are you staying inside?’
Wee stood at his window. He forgot to answer his daughter as he looked, with satisfaction, at the path around the pond. How neat it looked now! No more weeds creeping at the edges!
Tomorrow morning, he would go out again. Perhaps there was more weeding to be done, or perhaps the gardeners would ask him to help with something else. Perhaps, tomorrow, he would learn their names.
Subscribe for new writing
Sign up to receive new pieces of writing as soon as they are published as well as information on competitions, creative grants and more.