In this episode we read a short story by Ian Forth about an elderly woman who finds comfort in gardening and watches her memories and her present mingle like the flowers in her borders.
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Hello and Welcome to ‘Scintillating stories’ in this show we read short stories by a variety of authors. Today we venture into a tangled garden full of memories. They say that gardeners are truly altruistic because they work to build something for future generations that they will never see fully finished. Well, maybe some gardeners are luckier than others.
By IAN FORTH
The game is to dare each other to stop at number fifty-two and peer over the hedge. One of the children screams and runs off. Perhaps she’s brushed her leg against a nettle or a bramble, or disturbed the wasp nest that returns to life every summer. The other children cry with laughter.
The houses on each side of number fifty-two are swollen and distended with extensions, loft conversions and conservatories. Number fifty-two is unchanged from when it was first built, except the roof tiles are covered in moss, grass waves from the gutters, and seagull droppings spatter the cracked windows.
What used to be the lawn looks like a meadow recalled from childhood with metre-high grass browned by the sun. The borders of buddleia, fennel, and catmint are entwined with the grass, and clematis climbs over a dividing fence that sags under its weight. There is a patio cluttered with wreckage: pots and trays, an oak bench faded to grey, a rusty barbecue, bags of soil, and lop-sided plastic chairs.
In a sun spot is an elephant-eared fig tree, shiny and waxy, nourished by the sandy soil in this part of the south coast. Its leaves flap in the breeze. There are green-black figs tugging its stretched out arms towards the ground.
The house is empty yet there is no ‘For Sale’ sign. House prices are rising in the street, but the neglected state of number fifty-two is a blemish. The neighbours grumble about its worsening condition.
Flick and Snuffy Clay had lived at number fifty two from when it was built in the nineteen sixties; a time when TV villains wore nylon stockings on their heads, Christine Keeler was in her prime, and people ‘went to work on an egg’. After Snuffy’s death, Flick became reclusive and rarely left the house. However, there were signs to those watching - washing on the line, curtains opening and closing, the clipping of secateurs, the put, put, put of a lawn mower - that she was still in the land of the living.
Then one morning there was a protracted silence. No sound or movement came from the house. The residents reckoned that Flick had popped her clogs so the police were called. Flick’s coat was still on the coat hook. The windows were locked and there were no signs of disturbance. Her walking frame was by the side of her armchair next to her night time bottle. Flick had vanished.
The police looked through her address book but only found the names for her doctor and mobile hairdresser. An officer went up to the loft after the folding ladder sprang out and biffed her on the head. In the cobwebbed attic, there was a warm, fuggy smell of mouse droppings. Using her torch, the officer could make out two suitcases, a cracked mirror, and several cardboard boxes of curled up photographs, but there was no sign of Flick.
In the street, the neighbours prattled on far more about Flick than when she had been present and among them. ‘People don’t just disappear into thin air,’ they mumble in unison. Perhaps Social Services had called in the middle of the night to take her under their wing? Perhaps she had called for a taxi in the early hours to visit a relative and decided not to return. Did she have any relatives? No-one was sure.
Alternative theories included alien abduction, a secret tunnel, even spontaneous human combustion. But there would be traces, surely? Some charred remains. The only certainty was that Flick Clay had disappeared without saying a word or leaving a sign. The residents in the street took it personally. She had left behind a crumbling house that couldn’t be sold.
The very last person who had seen and talked with Flick was the local mystic, a woman who made a habit of calling on widows to offer solace and manipulate their grief for a few quid.
When the mystic called, three days after Snuffy’s funeral, Flick took forever to shuffle to the front door and even longer to find the strength to get her spidery fingers to turn the locks. The mystic had learned to be patient.
‘Hello, Mrs Clay. How are we today? Just thought I’d drop by and see how you’re doing.’
It was difficult for Flick to talk in sentences these days. When, like birds, words flew back to the coop, sometimes hours after required, they weren’t always the ones she was expecting.
Flick instinctively didn’t like this stranger who had bitter lips and a pudgy face, but a little conversation might help to pass the time.
‘Don’t stand there staring like a dog with no nose,’ Flick said, as she opened the door, her bright blue eyes inviting the mystic inside.
‘A cup of tea? Something stronger?’
The mystic was reluctant to accept any form of drink from her clients. She wondered what it was about ageing that made you fail to notice the cloudy scum that builds up on glasses and cups. She was also cautious because Flick seemed suspicious of her motives for calling round.
The mystic made small talk about Flick’s ‘lovely garden’, before getting down to business.
‘I know you are grieving Mrs. Clay. But maybe I can help ease your pain. I can help you to speak with … erm.’
‘Yes, your husband, Snuffy.’
‘Speak with him? He’s dead. How can I speak with him?’
‘It’s a gift I have. Can I call you Flick, Mrs Clay? I have ways of communing with loved ones in the world of the afterlife.’
‘I prefer Mrs Clay. The afterlife? Is that where Snuffy is now?’ Flick asked.
‘Yes. After the spirit leaves the body it is reincarnated in the spirit world,’ the mystic said pompously. ‘Don’t be alarmed. Your Snuffy is just as he was when he was with you. Still the same old Snuffy.’
‘You mean he hasn’t lost any weight after all that dying malarkey ? That’s a pity. What does he eat up there in spirit world?’
‘He’ll eat the same things he always ate.’
‘He loved goat curry and callaloo. Don’t think they’ll have that on the menu up in spirit world.’
Flick paused for a second. ‘And what does he do all day?’
The mystic hesitated. She realised she’d rushed into her pitch too quickly and should have done a little more detective work first.
‘He’ll be chatting with old friends who have passed away.’
‘Snuffy didn’t have many friends. We didn’t need friends.’
Then a mischievous question flew into Flick’s mind.
‘Does Snuffy get much sex up there in spirit world?’
The mystic hesitated.
‘Um …yes, they always have sex in the afterlife. Everyone is happy and joyous.’
Flick had a faraway look in her eye.
‘My Snuffy was a sly adventurer between the sheets. I’ll tell you about our first time. Are you sure you don’t want a cup of tea?’
The mystic glanced at a photo on the mantelpiece of a man with a warm, dreamy face and a child-like smile.
Ten minutes later, the mystic scuttled briskly from number fifty-two.
When Snuffy died, Flick wasn’t the type to mourn and weep. She’d known he was fading away for months and was prepared for the end. What worried her was taking on responsibility for all the chores that Snuffy did to keep the house in order. Without Snuffy around, what was the point in fixing the taps, replacing worn carpets, or changing flickering light bulbs? When the hot water cylinder packed in, she boiled water in a kettle for her daily wash.
A condescending estate agent had suggested that she downsize and make a fresh start. The last thing she wanted was a ‘fresh start’. She wanted every room to remain as it was with all her memories in place. She didn’t want to imagine other strangers with loud voices, living in their house, throwing out all their belongings and knick knacks, gutting the bathroom, filling the place with plaster dust, laughing as they cleared out the clutter from the garden sheds, feverishly re-painting and erasing all traces of her life. No, she was determined to stay as long as she had breath. She’d let the roof tiles slip, she’d smile at the sound of the dripping sink, she’d laugh at the cracked paint. Both she and the house would get old and wither away together. That’s the way it should be.
The garden was her escape from the circling questions which her mind couldn’t answer. Whatever the weather, and while she still had strength, she spent every minute weeding, cutting, pruning, and carrying the leaves and weeds to the compost heap at the bottom by the privet hedge.
She stayed in the garden until sunset, her hands scratched and bleeding from trimming bushes, her nails black and her arms streaked with earth. Kneeling down in front of the plants and shrubs for hours, she let her memories roam freely, one image leading to another. She remembered when she and Snuffy had first moved in, when her mother had moaned about the drafts, and the time when she caught Snuffy making strange smelling roll-ups in his shed, and a thousand other fragments that filled her day.
Being on her knees for hours, she often found it difficult to stand up; her dry bones locked rigid. She sat like a statue looking up at the sky smiling at her body’s reluctance to move. If Snuffy were with her, she’d call out and hang onto his arm as they’d make their way to the patio for a drink.
Flick discovered that the best way to get up was to lean over onto her side and fall with a soft thump. Then she would lie there taking slow breaths before crawling along the lawn and pulling herself up with the aid of a garden chair.
Soon, she began to enjoy rolling onto the lawn, her face landing in the moist soil. She lay enjoying the texture of the silky-gritty particles. She was aware of tiny movements brushing against the hairs on her cheek. She stuck out her tongue to taste the earth between her lips. She giggled like a child when blades of grass tickled her nose.
Snuffy looked down at her from his spirit world. He laughed at her splayed out like a shameless sun-bather on the beach. She thought about the mystic woman with a face like an old potato in a cheap wig. She reflected on her words that Snuffy was just as he was when he left her. She preferred to imagine him as he had been when younger; light-hearted, frivolous, never taking anything seriously.
Snuffy had planted the fig tree in the sunniest spot of the garden. ‘Let’s grow something exotic and magical,’ he said. It was his pride and joy. Now, the tree was taller than Flick, two metres wide, and its meandering branches were thicker than her wrists. She regularly watered the tree. It was always thirsty. Sometimes, while doing other tasks in the garden, she became aware of a slight movement of its leaves or a woody perfume when it was in the full glare of the sun. Sometimes, she thought the tree was beckoning to her. Feeling foolish, she would approach and stare.
‘What do you need from me?’
One evening, she felt a strange tiredness, not the sleepy kind she felt after a hard day gardening, just a feeling of lightness. When she stood up, she felt dizzy, but managed to step outside, lock the door, and bend down to place the keys under a plant pot.
As the sun was setting, the sky was streaked with bright purple, yellow, and inky blue. She went to the fig tree and listened. She could hear a trickle of water like a distant mountain stream. She parted the leaves and looked at the tangled mass of branches and then, enjoying the caress on her skin, she pushed aside an opening and stepped inside.
Flick turned around to look out at the garden through the tree’s greeny prism. It was as if she was watching herself. She saw her basket and gardening gloves by the border where she had been sitting that afternoon. She saw the table where she had left her cup of tea, and the rickety wheelbarrow resting by the compost heap. Then she thought she saw a couple holding hands and laughing. She closed her eyes to check she wasn’t seeing things. When she opened them, the couple had gone. Flick sighed. It’s hard being on your own.
She began to feel unsteady as if she were going to pass out, so she held onto one of the branches to stop herself from falling. Her heart started to slow down. She had never felt so tired. Leaning back against the rubbery trunk, she rested. Gradually, the darkening came. She needn’t worry anymore. Flick shut her eyes as the tree closed around her in a protective embrace.
Another child clamours to get the chance to peer over the hedge.
‘Let me see,’ she yells. ‘I’m not scared. I want to see.’
The little girl stands on her tip toes and stretches her neck so that her nose pokes over the bushy hedge.
‘Well, can you see her? Can you?’ a boy asks.
The girl scans the garden and the patio.
‘Look by the green tree in front of the wall on the left. On the left. Look there. Can you see the face? Look for the blue eyes,’ the boy whispers in a mock-creepy voice.
But the girl can’t see a face. All she can see is an overgrown garden that has gone to seed with tall grass swaying, and clutter rustling on the patio.
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