The London Magazine
In the end it is the garden that saves her. But before that, there is only struggle.
Back-breaking work, slashing the brambles and hacking at the roots. Some of them can never really die, only lose their heads. They disappear underground and give themselves a good talking to. A day later they resurface, steely new characters in the same old costumes. She has had enough of it. She used to see beauty in the chaos of it, the constellation of weed, flower, blade and vine. Now she sees only ruin. She is suffocated by it.
It used to be a site of folly, this little patch of earth. A picnic blanket that never really travelled, a bottle of fridge-cold Chablis (another benefit of staying home on those scorching August days), lazing over a book or the papers, once or twice: sex, even.
Driving around the neighbourhood, she watches other lawns with envy: their plush, steady growth, their healthy, zany colours. They could win prizes, she thinks. But to her this perfection seems like an endurance test. Please refrain from walking on the grass. (It doesn’t like to be touched.) In her own garden, she is disgusted by the rotting, the breaking down, but fascinated too. She spends hours standing by the compost heap, lid heavy in hand, watching the writhing of it, the suck and stink of it. Making something secret, something invisible.
She thinks, is that me down there? I am in decline, she thinks.
She wants to reach down and feel it, plunge her hand deep into it.
She has never been afraid of decay. She knows that in decay, there is also renewal.
It has been seven months since John died. They were never married but still she clutches onto the word:
Things have improved from what they were, but she is only just beginning
to rearrange the pieces of her life into something admissible.
She is staring at the breadboard when John’s ex-wife – the boy’s mother – calls. Though they are on speaking terms since the funeral, she is still surprised to hear from her. Part of her will always expect to be reprimanded for the events of the past.
Hello Beth? the ex-wife says.
For a second, she wonders if she could get away with hanging up. No. Uh-huh.
The boy would like to see you, the ex-wife sighs down the phone. Her spirits sound even heavier than she might have expected.
She pictures the ex-wife leaning, head tilted back against the cool wall of that other kitchen, eyes closed.
She has been having dreams about the boy (which seems unfair since he is not her own, nothing to do with her, really). She still remembers his smell, his mad little laugh. But she hasn’t reached out, hasn’t asked him to come over. Not yet. She wants none of his father in this house if she can’t have it all. It’s too much to bear.
Would that be okay with you? the ex-wife says.
She does not reply immediately. Her heart is racing. She knows this is a test, knows this is a crucial question.
She feels the shame rising in her cheeks, scolds herself for trying, and failing, to forget the boy.
The ex-wife continues:
To tell you the truth I’m in need of a few days’ respite myself. It’s been – difficult.
Not my problem, thinks the widow part of her.
She closes her eyes, lifts a hand to her chest.
Sure, she answers, trying to sound casual, then realises casual is the opposite to what she should be striving for. Responsible is needed. Earnest is needed. It would be my pleasure, she lies. I could do with the company. As long as you think you can cope.
A sharp intake of breath in her ear.
I didn’t mean –
She can hear the squeak of embarrassment in the ex-wife’s voice. Of course.
It’s just –
Well – thank you.
The ex-wife pauses, sighs once more. You know, I miss him too, she says. They say goodbye and she stands by the window for several long minutes, looking out at the garden. The overladen arms of the willow drag and sway. When she looks down, John’s face swims up from the sink. It must be true: she misses the boy.
You can handle it, she tells herself. He is only an offshoot.
The boy, when he arrives, is a bother. But he is also her little commander. He counsels her, draws her out of the funk of her bed. He lets her stay in her pyjamas if she doesn’t feel like getting dressed. The boy is all for being laid-back.
He has one rule: They must go into his father’s study every evening before bed.
Creepy, she thinks.
They must take stock of his father’s things, handle the various objects on the desk. They like to be touched, he explains to her.
They are not precious, these things. Yet still she flinches, expecting a topple. The fear of that which is beyond repair.
They examine the photos of his father. The three of them together. They look like other people in these photos, she thinks. They look like fucking celebrities they are so shiny and giddy and easy. Her hair was never that colour, was it? Even her teeth look whiter. And the boy, he looks so young, so untainted. Like he has only just arrived on the scene. Like he has been shielded from everything that is to come.
She knows it’s normal, this failure of adults to comprehend the speed at which children grow, but still, this is something else. It has to be. Sometimes the boy feels like a stranger to her.
Nine years old now. He has grown up. Where he displayed a placidness before, now there is a budding brutality to his strength, a ferocious
determination. To see him hurtle down the stairs is quite something. Yet:
He appears with a yellow duster one night, itching to intercept, to take action. It’s getting bad in there, he says. You can’t just let things go like that. The same could be said of her.
There was a time when she would walk into a room and people would see her coming, step back and let her pass. Get a good look at her. She would catch herself as she was driving, or pausing at the oval mirror in the hallway, buttoning her coat. She would balk at the strange vitality in her eyes, her mouth, even her hair. She did not recognise it.
And what about the way she moved her body when she was around him? Every part alive. They didn’t feel laboured or calculated, these poses, though she conceded it must all amount to a performance of some kind. She was involuntarily affected by him, quite taken in. Even when she didn’t feel like having her insides publicly exhibited, her moving parts would be out there on display, doing all the talking for her. They had a life of their own in his presence.
When they, the new couple, entered a room – her looking starry in a flowered sheaf, earrings dangling, long lashes darkly painted; he in a quiet navy jumper and unobtrusive shirt, enough in his own gentle presence – her friends would turn and look and say well, here she is! This had never happened to her before.
Unfair to be exposed to this sort of attention and then gone again so soon. Widowhood is nothing like it. No flushed cheeks or enraptured gasps.
They clean the study from top to bottom. The boy wants to remove all the books from the case, make them into a tower on the floor, so they can get at the shelves properly. This seems unnecessary but she goes along with it anyway.
He is unusually careful as he straightens the papers and sharpens the pencils. He frowns. Why on earth would someone keep all of this? he says, rummaging through drawers she hasn’t opened in years.
Well then, you didn’t know him at all, she thinks. Not even close.
The view from the study window was always her favourite, but still she let John have it. Her green-fingered darling.
He who had the ability to produce peas. He would press them into her palm while she reclined in a deckchair. She dropped them into her mouth. When his back was turned, she smiled to herself. No word of thanks.
Outside, the boy dribbles a football, reclaimed from the border. She watches him from the window, sees him kick up the ground in anger. Stop it, she thinks, though she does not say anything.
The window is cluttered by the roses that climb and nudge around its frame. I really should cut them back, she thinks, but in truth it has quite a nice effect. An illuminated rectangle. A landscape darkened at the edges, like a cinema screen opening onto another world.
The glass is old and thin and prone to condensation. She imagines a prehistoric landscape: boggy and fragrant, vapour rising from the impatient earth. The real benefit is the birdsong. Sometimes she believes the birds are in here with her.
The front of the house looks out onto the street and that side of things is intolerable by comparison. The cars and vans and bikes and buggies trundle past, on their way to work and school and the supermarket.
She has left that marching parade for the foreseeable future. The lipstick and the fitted clothing and the clip-clopping heels. Unthinkable. She cannot believe the blatancy of it: public life. The sheer indecency.
The garden is like the floor of a cave. That is how she feels when she is standing within its walls. She is contained, a willing prisoner. A penny dropped in a well, an egg sunk to the bottom of a pan. She looks up and sees the fragile, seeking arms of the birch. They are holding up the sky.
She sits on the edge of the mattress to say goodnight to the boy. Lingers while he talks about machines and murder. She is able to detect the vague smell of mulch, a whiff of his younger self. She smooths the duvet, kisses his forehead. He bats her away.
The wind is stirring up the night. She waits for rain to come. It takes a long time to arrive, as if the wind is forbidding it to fall.
Not yet. It circulates in the clouds, swirling and grumbling.
She pours herself a drink, dims the lights. Listens to the low moan of the
wind, the creak of trees. Winces at the occasional jolt.
She thinks of cows, heavy and groaning. Of bodies in protest and pain. When the air finally submits to rain, it batters the house. The sky is torn. She can hear every molecule hit the earth.
She falls asleep on the sofa and dreams of John. Dreams of the time before he separated from his wife.
The day they walked along the canal. The day he told her it was over, that they could begin.
It was as if they were boarding a ship. More dazzling than she could have imagined. They were pushing off from the dock, the other people getting smaller as they got larger, filling up the frame.
It seemed preposterous, what he had given up. For her. Unthinkable. But there it was: she was the path he had chosen. The reluctant star of the show.
She wakes on the sofa, senses its familiar lumps in the blackness, its faintly musty smell. Sour taste in her mouth. All the lights are off. So dark she thinks for a moment she is gone.
No, still here.
A shame, she thinks. Then,
You should be ashamed of yourself.
She remembers the boy sleeping upstairs before she hears him.
Her hand is touching something wet, something seeping. She moves her fingers. They tap a glass. It rolls away from her, makes no sound as it falls to the rug.
The boy is calling for her. The air is strange and warm. The house splutters, it simmers with it. With what? She doesn’t know.
She reaches down, retrieves the wine glass. Fiddles with the lamp. Nothing. Stands up and reaches for the light switch, but no light comes. Hobbles her way into the hall, feels for a knob. The cupboard door creaks open and she gropes for the torch.
Upstairs, she expects to discover the boy crying. But when the torchlight finds his face he is pulsing with excitement. His eyes meet hers like an
animal’s, eager for a tumble. He is ready to fight.
(In the past, when she cooked him meat for supper, he would growl in anticipation.)
They go the window together, kneel down.
In the torchlight he nods for her to part the curtains. They are reverent as prayer-makers, kneeling at the altar. His face is solemn, watchful. She takes his hand, frightened, and he lets her.
The weather is driving at the English soil like it has never known such ignorance. Think you’ve witnessed plenty of wreckage? I’ve got enough devastation to last you a lifetime! the wind crows as it whips and snaps, brutal as an axe.
The storm deals discord. Its fluid, skilful fingers pluck conifers, fling wrought iron furniture over demolished boundaries. A flying shed is evidence of a whole nation’s timid pursuits. Ridiculous.
More than once, they spring back from the glass in unison, as the surface strains under their fingertips, threatening to shatter. They think they see a hole where the willow was, the dawn pushing into its place.
So, the ruin is coming then.
And she actually thinks:
Perhaps we shall die. Me an unmarried widow, and him fatherless. There are worse things.
The boy looks frightened, as if he can sense her thoughts, feel her unravelling.
Get a grip, she says, and ruffles his hair, playing the funny one.
They sleep side by side, his hot legs curling towards her. She cries at the heat of his body. The humanness of it.
They walk around the garden the next morning. They marvel at the damage. She is laughing, a nervous laughter.
The boy climbs onto the felled tree. Weather bomb! Weather bomb! he yells. He leaps into the air. Lands and clambers up once more. Repeats. Leaps and lands again and again. She does not stop him.
It’s all fallen down, she thinks. It’s all come apart. Then,
You’re not so special now.
The boy convinces her to leave the house. He wants to see the cratered roofs, the toppled chimney pots, the crushed car.
He dances along the street but knows to be quiet, almost professional, in the presence of others. He’s a good boy, knows when he should show respect. She senses that inside he is tingling. Something in the way he wears his coat.
They eat spaghetti hoops on toast for lunch, the boy hovering by the patio doors, tapping the glass in between orange mouthfuls, hooting, See that! Did you see that!
Then back outside, coat forgotten. They inspect the void.
I always wondered what you looked like, says the teenage girl who appears at the end of the garden, standing in the place where the fence used to be. They stare at the girl. Nice to meet you too, she finally offers, the boy lurking shy behind her.
I heard about your boyfriend, the girl says, playing with her hair. Must have been awful.
Hmm, she replies. Thinks for a moment, then gestures to the leaden trunk. And now this. When will it end!
It was supposed to be a joke. But the girl looks confused, frightened even. She takes a step backwards.
I – um. The girl motions to the house behind her.
She meets the girl’s eyes. That’s right, she says, her voice a little too loud. Walk away.
She can’t believe what she is doing. She can’t believe she’s having fun. Keep on walking and don’t come back! the boy shouts and they run inside laughing.
The storm has made her dizzy. When the lines are fixed, she calls her friend. What’s wrong? her friend asks immediately.
You mean apart from my partner dying?
You’ve been so quiet about that, I worried it was something else.
Well, there’s an enormous tree horizontal in my garden. Will that do?
That calls for wine, says her friend.
It’s two o’clock. On a Tuesday.
I have a child here.
Well he’s too young to drink.
His mother would appreciate that, I’m sure.
It’s imperative we toast that tree.
Right you are, she says. She closes her eyes, feels the heat of the phone at her ear. Her friend is already on her way.
Nineteen people died in the storm. It is not enough, not nearly enough, she thinks.
The boy is flapping around her. She hushes him, waves him away. She is trying to work from home today, trying to make all of this work. So, this is why she never wanted a child of her own.
But concentration is difficult regardless of the boy. Still she is plagued by their beginnings:
1. She desired John even though she knew he was married.
2. She was in no way deterred by the fact.
3. She was proactive in quenching her desires, dedicated even.
She cannot help but feel she is now being punished.
At the time of their coming out, so to speak, she kept waiting for it to arrive. The knock at the door, or the brick through the window. But it never came. It’s the right thing – for all of us, John had said, holding her face in his hands.
Easy for you to say, she replied, turning away.
She was self-absorbed, moody, basked in his attentions.
He held her face steady and said: You are in no way to blame. I am the one who did the sneaking.
Sneaking, she giggled, thinking of an audacious mouse, of cartoon burglars. She worried he was taking on too much of the responsibility, their joint
responsibility, himself. She fretted every time he went into town to meet with his lawyer, or his wife called to discuss arrangements for the boy. With every obstacle, she worried he might change his mind. But she loved him for keeping her out of it.
He was a good man. She trusted him to make a good job of it, and she was thankful for the reprieve. What use would she be anyway? She with so little knowledge, so little experience of this and that. Sometimes she felt like a child.
The first time he brought the boy to meet her, she was so nervous she thought she would vomit. Everything before that day felt like a dream. She was in no way prepared for this. She told herself she was still too young for domestic responsibilities, though she was not. She was only selfish.
She worried the boy would recognise her immediately for what she was (a fraud) and always remember who she was not. She was not his mother. Not yet.
Never will be.
What kind of a dress is that? the boy had said right away, and she blushed, and his father clipped the back of his head. Then they all wet themselves laughing and she knew things would be okay.
I guess you could call it a smock, she said. She was used to being judged by other women, just not by children.
He’s got a point, John said. Has a bit of a provincial look about it.
She swiped at him and the boy cackled.
She liked John teasing her, found it unbearably sexy.
Smock, the boy muttered. Like it was a dirty word. Then without warning, took off across the common at a feral pace.
He raced in front and they strolled behind, not really trying to catch up, just taking him in. The speed of him, the darting figure he cut against the yellowed bank, the lonely boulders. Her eyes followed his weightless strides, his flying sandy hair. He sprinted along the path, then circled back across the grassy slope. Greyhound, she thought.
Months go by and it seems the storm has changed the ground for good. Integral layers have been swept away, pulled apart. There is no one to put them back together.
For a while she does not bother to tidy the debris scattered about the garden. They seem to signify something she is not quite ready to address. Then one day she calls a man and the felled willow is carved into logs. She distributes them among the neighbours, moving from door to door with her old lady shopping trolley, enquiring to each who answers about their capacity for fire. She is a friendly saleswoman, an apologetic resident. She is determined to make up for the times she might have been better, been kinder.
After John died, they had to dig her out of the ground. She was hiding in a hole, unable to climb out from under the pain of it. The weight of it. The shadowy angry thump of it. Boots on earth. Stone on earth. Earth on earth. The rain fell on her for months and months. Her sorrow was dense with it. The earth was so tightly packed around her body that nobody could see the shape of her. Couldn’t make out arms nor legs nor the bulge of her breasts nor the mound of her stomach, all of which had seemed so vital before, all of which had seemed so terribly present before.
Then, an itch.
A finger at first, just the crook of a finger.
A whisker of light entered the hole. Needled her.
Drown it out!
She tried. Her sobs were long and ugly.
Stuff it up!
She tried. The earth made a fine blindfold.
Weeks went by.
The sun grew stronger and shone on the pesky spot she jokingly called her grave. The earth started to crawl with the heat of it.
Started to sprout.
Tender, it felt, to her calloused hand.
Slowly, tentatively, she coaxed herself into a seated position.
She rubbed her eyes, cracked her knuckles and massaged her calves.
She stood up (it took a few attempts) and peeled off her filthy nightgown. Bypassed the mirror. Showered for days to eliminate the ingrained stench, the grubby contours of her dilapidated flesh, dingy moons smuggled under her nails.
Stood dripping in a towel trying to remember the order of things. Toothbrush, she thought.
The garden has been cleared and the boy comes over. He has grown even taller. Immediately races outside, whooping as he goes.
Frowns, kicks the fence. He is disappointed by the new situation, though pleased to see she has kept the severed stumps in memory. They form a ghostly ring.
She watches him from the kitchen. Sees him hurl himself between the scarred woody slabs, the broken islands. He is hollering her name.
She thinks of her two weathermen. One invited, the other a gift. Considers the situations they can and cannot predict. Thinks, they are a tiny family still.
He flings open the kitchen door, trainers muddying the tiles.
She holds her hurricane boy and for once he is still.