When I was a boy, I loved books and I hated beans. My dad adored beans. Especially his beans: runners, grown on bamboo poles, that should have made excellent wigwam structures, but instead would provide endless months of hairy, stringy, mottled, tooth-clogging torture; or so it seemed to me.
This love of books and hatred of beans collided when I was about nine. The start of the daily bean harvest was in sight: the beans had grown through the initial stages of dead larvae and dried locust until they approached the appearance of wizened witches' fingers, at which point my dad would declare them perfect. And at this same moment – in one of those synchronicities of which so much great history is made – I had borrowed from the library a book about the French Resistance. Parts of that book have stayed with me: a partisan who cut his own throat in his cell so the Nazis couldn't make him talk; a mother who smothered her baby, because its crying would have cost the whole group their lives; but also, more importantly for this story, several chapters on sabotage.
I have my doubts about the ability of children to reason between right and wrong. Clearly we know that most of the time most of them can. But we can also say with some certainty that they do not do it in the same way as adults do. That is part of what being a child means. So as far as I recall, through the frosted front-door glass of time and memory, I did not think I was doing anything very reprehensible, as I went into the garden with my penknife and carefully severed every single stem. I must have known that what I was doing was wrong. But I lacked the empathy to see why that was, or who it could hurt. It didn't seem to me – while enacting my Lilliputian recreation of beanstalk-cutting Jack – that my family would be any worse off, with inedible green gristle missing from our daily diet.
The childish mind is also evidenced in the transparency of crime. An adult – in the unlikely event of one being so set upon vegetable vandalism – might have used weed killer, or made it look like the dog had done it, or at the least sliced beneath the soil line and covered it up. I'm not sure how I thought that the demise of all the beans would pass as a natural event, or how the penetrating gaze of blame would possibly look towards anyone but me.
Normally my mum didn't much go in for the "Wait till your father gets home" style of child management. Generally she did her own shouting and punishing and seat-smacking. On the occasion of the discovery of the beans she did both: she delivered what I considered to be disproportionate vengeance, for what was after all just some beans, and then sent me to my room to await the wrath of Dad.
To await the back door opening, to await the muttered increasingly angry voices, to await four feet accelerating up the stairs.
I must have somehow bristled as I stood at their entry into my room, because I remember very clearly my mum saying: "Don't you square up to Dad, you're not ready for that yet, not by a long shot."
Which struck me as very strange, because not only was I not aware that I had done so, but her words carried within them the sense that one day such a thing would be possible, that one day I would square up to dad and that notion seemed very strange indeed, to a nine-year-old me.
I was reputed to be the third or maybe fourth toughest boy in my year at school. But that said considerably more about the size of the diminutive village school than about my martial prowess. The lurking oedipal ponderable that I might one day fight my father had never occurred to me, even while watching Star Wars.
Thankfully, that event never did arrive. I never grew strong enough to beat him, until long after the time I grew sensible enough not to want to, if I ever did at all. Recently I opened a jar that he couldn't – that's about as macho as it gets in our family. And even then, I put my victory down to superior technique rather than strength. My dad, after all, in his sixties, is still the men's singles tennis champion; though that may also say something about the size of the diminutive village tennis club.
I have a garden now myself. And though I don't grow beans or kids, I can empathise with the pleasure of watching little sprouts grow into bigger things. Even if your produce is somewhat flawed. Even if your little sprout might one day square up to you.E
John Llewellyn Rhys Prize-winning author, Jonathan Trigell's new novel, 'Genus', is out now in paperback, published by Corsair. To order a copy for £7.49 (usually £7.99), including p&p, call Independent Books Direct on 0843 0600 030
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies