A text by Joe.
(Photograph by Ibtisam Alfarah)
He can’t tell you himself, so let me tell you the story of the man I love
He floated through an ethereal haze, crystallized wildflowers embracing his steady step against a peaceful dawn. I was beside him and he was finally wearing his Grandad’s floral jumper.
Apple Tree 4
He often sat beneath the towering canopy of his parent’s apple tree, for it was there, upon a weathered swing, that he could be alone in comfort. Unlike his meddlesome family, the lofty sentinel’s half-entombed roots and stolid trunk left him to his insular loneliness, and its twisted boughs, ever dancing amongst erratic winds, passed no judgement on his wayward daydreams and flighty fancies. No-one bothered him, his complex, solitary childhood happily left ravelled in the shadowy corner reserved him. It was where, in segregated confinement, he learnt how to bury himself in his own mind, to escape the expected. It was where he learnt to say nothing at all.
I return with eternal fondness to the memory of my peculiar first meeting with Joel Hall. Stumbling through an icy wood, a muted landscape of glittering foliage and crisp clouds, I unexpectedly came upon him ensconced on the white bank of a frozen stream. With a sad intensity I’d never before witnessed, he sat motionless, seemingly stuck in an all-consuming trance. Perched atop a furrowed brow, a shock of wild blond hair sat above wide, curious eyes, directly contradicting an anxiously fixated body, one evidently not yet at ease with itself. His legs were tucked to a youthful face, arms wrapped around his knees. He was handsome in a way, but too lost to notice. As if adrift in a photograph, he was completely still.
Perhaps the most perplexing thing about him was the subject of his acute gaze: a singular mushroom. Locked in some sort of never-ending vigil, to my notice his eyes didn’t leave its solitary presence once. He was evidently obsessed with it. Until, that is, he noticed me. Upon realising he wasn’t alone, his gaze lifted, fixating upon mine. He smiled at me without saying a word. I was wearing a floral jumper and he’d finally, after all those years, found something to save him from the all-consuming mushroom.
His grandad’s entrance to the private world he’d cultivated was the only one permitted: only he could sit with him under that steadfast apple tree. For his Grandad was not like the others: he loved with a softer heart. He didn’t tell him to talk, he didn’t tell him to make friends and he didn’t tell him to be okay with being touched. He would simply chuckle and tell stories of old, easing Joel in to a world he’d previously shunned: a world of friendship and gardening.
For Joel’s grandad was both his best friend and a gardener. Rarely seen without a pair of faded gloves or a mud-encrusted tool, he was at his happiest when surrounded by the world’s greenness, its abundant and fervent vegetation. It was his world, and in to it he invited Joel, for Joel came to be his best friend too. He showed him everything he could: how to take care of a withered, dying plant, one that without love had become bent and disfigured; how to grow and shape a plot of land in his own image; and how to get rid of the weeds that choked and damaged his most cherished creations. He even taught him about snowdrops.
By far his grandad’s favourite flowers, his deep-rooted affection for them knew no bounds. With passion he told Joel of them: of how they were the first flowers of the year, of how their pure white blossoms heralded the advent of spring, a time of hope and new beginnings. Most importantly, though, he told of how within their bell-shaped appearance he saw a mirror image of himself, of a living thing befit with abundant hope. And because his grandad hoped with such fervour, Joel began to hope too, a stunted plant born again under the tutelage of its patient caregiver. He came to love gardening and the snowdrop, to find a purpose and a place in that garden with his grandad. He no longer felt lost or alone. Until, that is, Joel’s grandad died and broke his heart in to many different pieces.
After my initial meeting with Joel, we spoke a little and began our quiet courtship in the summer of that year. A quiet, sensitive man, I found it difficult to pierce his reticent exterior. Much had happened he wouldn’t tell me of – he couldn’t tell me of – and I became frustrated for I felt helplessly incapable of soothing his anguish. He’d suffered a lot of pain, and as a result he’d been left with a wealth of deep-rooted scars. However, via the most peculiar of routes I did occasionally manage to learn something of his buried emotions: from time to time he would present me with a singular plant, and, as odd as it sounds, I soon came to realise it was his way of conveying his thoughts. An iris would mean he had good news, a red rose symbolised that he loved me and purple heather signified that he felt admiration for something. We soon settled in to this alternative, bizarre routine: him presenting me with solitary flowers in place of the words he so struggled with, and me learning what they each meant. And so it was with some concern that I received an abundance of Marigolds during that first sad year.
White Lilac 6
He was diagnosed with Aspergers Syndrome, a form of autism, soon after the death of his Grandad. He’d completely closed himself off at that point, cast adrift in a world willing to deny him his one earthly solace. Why try to tackle a cruelty so without rules, he’d thought. Know-it-all adults, fuelled by the misplaced arrogance that accompanies age, reacted by defining his grief, by placing it in convenient, clearly-labelled boxes. In white rooms populated by drooping white lilacs, men in white coats told him he could understand himself better now, but it was no use: he’d never understand why his grandad had gone. And that’s why Joel didn’t for many years utter another word.
Poison Ivy 10
Four years of solemn silence followed the unexpected death of his grandad. An intricate web of suffocating grief had seeped in to every crevice of his muddled existence, halting the engagement his grandfather had softly encouraged and stunting the growth usual for children without broken hearts. These children, distant shades populating a foreign world, grew straight, tall and strong, encouraged to flourish by lights shone upon them by nourishing caretakers. In stark contrast, Joel wilted: a shadowy darkness leaving him bent and disfigured. No light was permitted in to his contained world, its presence rejected.
That was until he found his grandad’s floral jumper. Upon the death of his wizened grandmother his grandad’s bric-a-brac house had been scoured for valuable treasures, picked apart by malicious vultures who’d for some time lingered with barely concealed anticipation. Joel, disgusted by the carnage, had found his escape in his grandad’s former garden. Wildly overgrown, poison ivy leaked up crumbling walls and decrepit fences, drowning its once verdant neighbours. Dry beds of starved soil yielded only cruel weeds, and swathes of uncut grass fought aggressively for dominance, an intimidating, knee-high jungle. There were no longer any snowdrops, their beauty too fragile for such harsh lands. It was through this wasteland that Joel waded, memories of his grandad accompanying each heavy footfall. He made his way towards his grandad’s old shed, for it was where he hoped to find a remnant memory or a lingering presence. As was the case everywhere he went, he hoped to again find his grandad.
It’s not easy to explain my love for Joel. I could see that to the outside world he appeared sullen and muted, a stranger engaged in practices unfamiliar. But to me he was intriguing. He was complex, impossible to understand completely, but he was also, in his quiet way, keenly aware. He saw me for who I was, and for that I loved him. And so it was that we slipped in to something serious. We moved in together, co-existing in a soft jasmine bubble of our own making. He wasn’t happy, though, I could tell. In his sleep he spoke of gardens and times of old, of snowdrops and apple trees. I never knew where it all came from, I didn’t ask. I couldn’t ask.
Upon gaining admittance to the shed his heart sank: it was not what he had hoped for. Dust permeated a clogged atmosphere, one punctuated only by dirty streaks of dull light, and what had once been a delicately maintained row of burgeoning potted plants was now a funeral procession of crumbling soil and clay. The air stank of decay and must. He sank inside himself, confronting familiar disappointment with trained resignation. It was not his Grandad’s shed, he would not find him here.
But then he saw it, hung upon the peg behind the door. Oddly without dust or dirt, it radiated a mesmerising glow, one that spoke to him. He took it down, feeling it in his hands and smelling it in. Patterned with a patchwork of oak leaves, snowbells and daises it gleamed of him: it smelt of coffee and washing powder, its knitted sleeves were rolled up twice and it had the soft, textured feeling of safety. It was a jumper of his grandad’s and it felt like home, a home in which he could freely revel in the comforting memory of him. With it he could almost touch him again. And so he claimed it. Every day he held it closely, embracing it – it was his one true solace. Until, that is, he lost it and his heart broke all over again.
I finally came to know him better on the eve of his 28th birthday. Returning home, laden with unwrapped gifts and trinkets, I came across an envelope at the foot of our bed. He wasn’t in so I opened it. Inside I found a letter and a Cyprus leaf.
I think it’s time to tell you everything you’ve wanted to know. When I was six years old my grandfather died and it broke my heart. He had been my best friend and without him I was ill-equipped to handle the life I’d always so struggled to understand. In his quiet way he’d shown me the value of communicating with the world and so without him I stopped talking, I shut down. As you know, I’m not much of a talker, but for four years straight I didn’t say a single word. I was held back in school, my parents gave up on me and I was shipped from clinical room to clinical room, a problem child no-one knew how to help. I found him again, though, when I discovered a floral jumper of his in his old shed. It wasn’t actually him, of course, but it made me remember him. I felt his presence once more and began to grow. I uttered a few words, I progressed at school, I satisfied my parent’s by-now low expectations – all because he was with me again. But then I lost it, I lost him. One day my parents decided it wasn’t healthy and so they took it from me. I didn’t stop talking this time, but I did shut down again, in my own way. I drifted through life – through the rest of my childhood, through my teenage years, through university – without purpose. What was the point? I’d lost home. But then you turned up and changed everything. I don’t know what it was – maybe it was the jumper – but the first time I saw you I knew you were him. I can’t explain it, but in you I saw him, and I immediately loved you deeply. Your presence in my life, whilst not filling the gap left by him, has saved me from my wandering and helped me remember him, my grandfather. So thank you, Eliza, thank you for everything – for your patience, for your calmness, for being all that you are.
With the letter in hand I left immediately.
I returned home in the early hours of the morning. It was his birthday and he was asleep, but I crept in to our room to wake him anyway. He was muttering something about Lotus’s, something I’d not heard before, but it didn’t matter. I nudged him awake and presented him with his birthday present, the one I’d spent the entire night finding. Dazed and muddled with sleep, he took it, confused. In his hands he turned it over, feeling its softness. He smelt it too, registering the faint hint of coffee and washing powder. He checked the sleeves – rolled up twice. He looked at me hard for a moment, searching for the words to express himself. I smiled at him. And it was then that he began to weep, that he let go. He didn’t stop until the dawn, at which point we went to the meadow and walked through the wildflowers together. He was once again wearing his grandad’s floral jumper and he would never again feel lost. We grew together and I came to know him completely, just like his grandad had.