Winning Short Story - 'See you later'
The beginning of May is always an exciting time for permaculture and gardeners. If you don't know what I mean, check out any permaculturist's Facebook feed on the first weekend of May. Yesterday was World Naked Gardening Day. And today is International Permaculture Day. It is always a joy to see what everyone else in our lovely community is up to on these two days...
Our first short story competition on the topic of 'How permaculture can help us in an uncertain future' came to an end at Easter and we are pleased to announce the winning entries of this competition.
1st prize: 'See you later' by Shu Ren Sharon Toh
2nd prize: 'Ready or not' by Tim Darby
Two very different but both wonderful stories. We are looking forward to having Sharon on our next Permaculture Design Certificate Course! Over the next couple of weeks you will be able to read these two, plus an extra story from Russ Grayson.
This week, we present the winning story to you:
‘See you later’
A short story by Shu Ren Sharon Toh, April 2021
I am trembling all over and there is a lump in my throat that grows each time I swallow. They say hindsight is always perfect; they didn’t mention that it’s even clearer when you’re twenty-odd metres above the ground. Why wasn’t I this certain before climbing up here that trying to take that troublesome branch off the acacia all by myself was a poor idea?
Before I can decide on a strategy for my descent, the branch beneath me groans ominously. In an instant I am airborne, whoosh-thwacking through branches, watching them recede from me and feeling remarkably calm for someone who might or might not be breaking her neck in a few seconds. Suddenly everything goes white and I hear-feel a thump. That’s all. Lights out.
I wake up, I’m not sure how much later but it can’t be that long. The sun isn’t even overhead yet, so no more than four hours. I try to move my extremities. Nothing seems to be broken, and I can still wriggle my fingers and toes. I sit up slowly and roll my head this way and that; I don’t even have a headache. For someone who just fell such a distance, I’m in surprisingly good shape. I’m not dead, am I? The dramatic side of me demands to know. I pinch myself hard in the side and yelp involuntarily. I’m sure my pain receptors would have stopped working along with my heart, so no. I’m not dead.
Turning back towards the house, I pause and do a double take, shut my eyes, count to 10 and try again.
Did the rooftop solar crew come out and install our panels while I was out cold, not even bothering to come to my aid? How uncaring, I think indignantly. What if I’d been badly injured? How did I not even hear them arrive?
I walk towards the house, increasingly puzzled. We haven’t even paid the deposit on the solar installation yet. Did Hooj confirm the job and pay for it as some kind of a surprise to me? I hope we haven’t spent too much on what looks like the latest thing in photovoltaics. I’ve never even seen anything this futuristic.
I turn the corner and gasp at the sight of a fully established veggie garden, bordered by an edible hedge that must be a good decade old at least. This can’t be. We haven’t even finished putting all the veggie beds in yet. We decided we’d concentrate on finishing the house and settling in, then we’d tackle the garden.
Even more bizarre, the southern fence has been replaced by what looks like a wall of water, teeming with fish and lush plants of all colours. I can’t tell what’s holding the water in; the water’s side shimmers and ripples with the wind just as the surface does, so it’s not just a giant acrylic tank. I’ve never seen anything like it. There are solar panels over this contraption, too, and what looks like a pump with lines leading out to the veggie beds and beyond… oh, look at what’s beyond. There’s our tiny, suburban-scale version of a fruit orchard, the trees all established and in various stages of flower and fruit. I rub my eyes. No, I didn’t imagine it; there’s the orchard.
The orchard we’ve only just begun planting saplings in. “Saplings” is a bit generous; some of our trees are barely twigs. But here they are, their boughs spread wide and trunks several metres tall. Fully grown. Producing. I feel a little woozy now. I’ll think more clearly after a cup of tea, I decide.
I go to open the door to our house and find our lock and doorknob have been replaced with a flat, smooth stone. Tentatively, I run my hand over it and it lights up. A beam of light passes over my face and a voice from the panel says, “Welcome home, Sunny!” before the stone goes blank again. The door opens and I walk inside. At least that lock or whatever it is has assured me that this is indeed still our house.
It’s welcomingly cool in here after the fan-forced oven heat outside, typical of the Perth summer; better yet, it’s welcoming. I may not know exactly what’s happened to me since falling from the tree but at least I’m back in the house that Hooj and I have worked hard for and have been working even harder to turn into a passive, self-sustaining concern.
And at least all of our planning paid off. A thrill goes through me as I look out the full-length windows we put along the house’s north face, allowing our living room and offices to escape the worst of the summer scorchers while capturing precious sunlight in winter. A contented sigh escapes as I walk further in and see the atrium I’m dreaming of putting in next to the kitchen. Just as I pictured it: dozens of herbs and dwarf spice trees are growing happily in a little sunken garden, sunlight streaming in at a gentle angle through a skylight. All the tropical plants from my childhood that I’ve killed on repeated tries with my wishful thinking that I could acclimate them to the extreme heat and cold of the Swan Coastal Plain, thriving in their little indoor microclimate here without any artificial temperature control.
The house isn’t exactly as I remember it; it’s better. It feels… grown up, I conclude. It’s definitely our house, but it seems to have come out of all the initial hiccoughs and glitches we’re still ironing out, or were still ironing out, before my fall.
I know how to find the information I need. I head for the kitchen, for the “command centre” we set up last year in an effort to synchronise our schedules and remember all the little and large tasks around the place. Unlike my husband, I’ve never got used to the digital organising tools on my smartphone. Hooj has kindly put up with my idiosyncratic, low-tech need for a paper calendar; meal planner; separate calendar for the animals’ vaccinations, birthdays and grooming requirements; perpetual calendar containing all the family’s important birthdays and dates; an exercise book filled with handwritten notes and planting schedules for the garden. He was the one who mounted the rustic pegboard to the wall and installed hooks to hold up each of these, and an old tin holding an assortment of pens.
Sure enough, the command centre is still there. At least, I think it is. It’s the same size, anyway, but has the same smooth stone-like appearance as the lock on our front door. I touch it hesitantly.
Again, a beam of light moves down my face and the screen lights up. “Hello, Sunny!” Then it switches to… hey, it’s my old command centre! Or what must be a hologram of it, complete with the tin of pens, all my old-fashioned paper organisers. I reach for the calendar but of course, I can’t pick it up. The entire screen turns into a calendar that looks like the printed one I’m accustomed to writing in. It’s 21 January 2060. There’s a summary of the weather and what looks like our tasks for the day.
I blanch, my hand on the date. It’s one thing to piece fragments of information together and come up with a hypothesis, just as I’ve slowly arrived at the conclusion in the back of my mind that I have somehow landed somewhere or somewhen different after my fall; it is quite another thing entirely to be shown, point blank, that you are no longer in your own time.
No way! I think. This is the sort of thing that happens in the campy 1980s time-travel movies I binge-watched an embarrassing number of times on VHS tapes in my childhood; not in my real life. It’s 21 January 2020, I insist to myself. I woke up this morning, watched my husband toss belongings into his suitcase and dash around madly looking for toiletries as though this wasn’t a routine he’d performed every ten weeks for several years. I kissed him and waved as he got into the airport shuttle containing three of his mates from the mines. Turned around, rolled up my sleeves and climbed the acacia with the wonky branch. And then, I guess I can’t get away from this plot twist in my own story, I must have fallen about 25 metres down…
… and 40 years forward.
Leaning my forehead against the wall, I try to process. Eventually, I decide I’ll just embrace it. After all, going by everything I’ve learnt from my time-travel movie marathons, at any given moment something could happen to return me to “my time”. Anytime now, our cat Pickles might pounce on my toes, waking me up. Perhaps I’ll figure out how to play music on whatever futuristic gadget is in this updated version of our house, and a song from our present might lob me right back to my landing spot. Or maybe I’ll go to my wallet to see if people are still using bank cards in the future, and a coin from 2020 might fall out, waking me up from my concussed faint. Which time-travel trope will I end up fulfilling? I wonder as I look around the kitchen. This is fun now that the shock is wearing off.
I have no idea how this happened or how I can go back to where I was, trying not to fall from a tree in our still new-to-us property, so I’ll make the best of this. Let’s start by making that cup of tea, I think, and then I’ll go explore.
Well. It seems in 2045, filling the kettle and waiting for it to boil is passé. I have in my hands a cup of sweet, milky ginger tea exactly the way I like it. I watched the whole thing being brewed by the large appliance standing where the fridge used to be. It explained the process when I said “Yes” to that option on the screen and then thanked me for the meal when it disposed of the tea leaves, informing me that I had just offset 0.02 tonnes of carbon by having it brew me a cuppa. Somehow, even though the water was a perfect 95° to steep, it’s now cooled to a drinkable temperature in my hand minutes later. I swipe through the on-screen menu on the appliance, looking for the instruction manual. “Carbon-positive appliance”? “Fully home compostable food storage system-cooker-dishwasher-blender-mixer-oven, made from agricultural by-products”? “Powered by your kitchen scraps”? Maybe the future isn’t that bleak, after all.
“Can you catch me up on major events between 2020 and now?” I ask the command centre. I’m mildly uncomfortable doing this; if skipping ahead in a book has spoilt the ending irretrievably in the past, what will I do if I find out something equally earth-shattering that will spoil the rest of my life? “Please exclude spoilers,” I say hurriedly, hoping that the machine understands. Sure enough, when I peek through my fingers I can see the results on the screen changing.
I skim through headlines and snippets from videos. Water crisis averted since nationwide plumbing overhaul… Editorial: Why did we ever flush?... 2033, our family’s first year of full self-sufficiency… Food forests in the outback restore native vegetation and provide food security for Australia… “That’s not air-con, THIS is air-con”: Applause, congratulations abound as nation farewells the refrigerated air conditioner, made obsolete by passive design and biophilic cooling technology… Comment: Once upon a time, when we used more energy than we made… “That’s enough, thanks,” I say, not wanting to give away too much to myself but pleased enough with the general state of things in 2060.
For the next few hours, I wander around my own home as I’ve never seen it. I tread carefully past a mound where native bees have tunnelled, wondering if the luminous orb weaver in the gigantic web over the lilly pilly tree is a direct descendant of my present-day spider friend. The green roof, self-maintaining thanks to the pair of goats munching away contentedly, looks like something out of a storybook.
I’m happiest of all when I stand at the edge of the orchard, a good distance further in than it used to be, and see that we’ve allowed about a fifth of our property to return to the bush. It appears that our neighbours have, too, and you’d hardly know looking at the native trees and understorey that this entire stretch used to be manicured lawn and painfully neat hedges. And I can’t help but bounce in joy like a child when I see who’s living in a pond surrounded by paperbarks. A Western swamp tortoise pokes its head above the surface and holds my gaze. Those haven’t been seen in our neighbourhood for decades, and they’re critically endangered in 2020. I bite my tongue to keep from whooping when I see three, four, five hatchlings pop their heads up behind the adult. I watch transfixed for a while as they swim around, and then start back towards the house.
Back inside, the sun is making rainbows through the stained-glass western window that we retained when we retrofitted the old house to make it more comfortable and resource efficient. It looks as though all of our painstaking decisions back when we were choosing the materials and updating the design of the house have paid off. According to that new-fangled command centre, we won’t have any utility bills after 2033. That’s even sooner than we’d planned, but I’m not complaining.
A wave of longing for the reality I’ve left hits me. It feels ludicrous, being homesick for the exact spot where I’m standing, but it’s the time that I miss – not the place. I’m not ready to live in this version of my life just yet, and what a relief that I haven’t bumped into my older self or, more awkward still, an older Hooj. I’m struck with intuition: I’m not sure how, but I know I’m about to return to 2020. There’s so much work to do, but I’m heartened by the preview I’ve seen. We just need to keep going in the same direction, learning how we can live generously and harmoniously with the bounty of resources at our hands. And I am going to learn not to climb tall trees without a harness and a buddy.
I get up to walk back to the spot where I landed. Pausing at the front door, I look back and shut it behind me. “Bye, Future Home,” I whisper. As I stride towards the acacia, I hear the voice from the lock panel say, “See you later, Sunny.”