Mary’s Folly

When Martha had the second stroke, Mary knew her folly-building days were over for the foreseeable future. The stroke robbed Martha of her speech and put her in a wheelchair. It was a disaster, because of the garden.

Their parents died within a year of each other, the one of dementia the other of a stroke, and the sisters had lived together ever since. Strokes seemed to run in the family. Martha was the eldest by three years. For reasons different but not discussed, neither had ever married. The arrangement suited them both, though Martha found Mary aggravatingly airy-fairy and Mary found Martha somewhat rigid and overbearing.

This difference was reflected in the garden, which they both loved. It was a huge garden, by modern standards, the sort that would nowadays have a five bedroom mansion somewhere in the middle of it, rather than a two-bedroom bungalow giving onto the street.

Martha was in charge of most of it. Mary had the bit at the back, where the garden path wandered through the damson hedge. The damsons made a nice screen, to Mary’s way of thinking; out of sight, out of mind. Here she could work on her folly, whilst Martha manicured the lawn, pruned the trees overhanging the fish-pond and weeded around the rose-bushes, expansive and military. Martha needed that order.

What Mary needed was to climb up her stepladder and glue on broken china and other bits and pieces – an old clay pipe, a blue scent bottle, a discarded medal with the Angel of Mons on it, charred in some long-ago bonfire. If anything like this turned up in the garden Martha it put by for her, in a shoe box in the greenhouse, although she never admitted to any ‘putting by’. Mary’s folly was the height of – foolishness and Martha ought to be discouraging it. Nevertheless, she saved things.

Mary would make herself available to act as gardener’s assistant if, for example, Martha wanted to prune the apple tree or dig out a new flower bed. Martha did not make many such requests, for Mary was a dilatory worker, prone to day-dreaming, and as soon as she was dismissed, she would slope back through the damson hedge.

After the stroke, there could be no more sloping. Martha sat about, a blanket over her knees if it was chilly, issuing instructions. It was difficult. Her speech was impaired but Mary was good at working out what she meant and, without exactly appearing to do so, acted as interpreter when they had visitors. And in spite of her dilatoriness and inefficiency, Mary did seem to be managing Martha’s ‘half’ of the garden quite well. She must have picked up more knowledge whilst acting as gardener’s assistant than either of them realised.

It took up all of her time, but she had anticipated that. The lawn remained mown, if not manicured. The apple-tree remained pruned, though she had had to ask a nephew to help her with the heavier branches. The roses, though not up to Martha’s standard, remained alive and pleasant-scented. Mary even planted a couple of new ones, to fill in gaps, and planted underneath them with hardy geraniums: a living mulch, according the man at the garden centre.

The day of Martha’s funeral dawned cold and rainy. It was what you would expect of early February. Mary put on a thermal vest under the black suit she had had to buy for the occasion. She wrapped a thick scarf around her neck, only wishing that a woolly hat had been appropriate. As the coffin clunked its way in through the silk curtains they played something by Bach, about sheep. Martha had apparently liked it. She had left a list of such details with her will. She had left Mary her half of the bungalow, as expected, and the contents of her deposit account: more than expected; the interest would cover the cost of a professional gardener once or twice a month.

After the funeral, whilst friends and family consumed sandwiches, tea and cakes upstairs in a hired venue, Mary slipped away. They might wonder where she was, but probably wouldn’t care over much.

It felt too dank for wandering up and down the High Street so she ducked into the tea-shop and had a coffee on her own: a little time to think. There was a charity shop across the way. She made a start there, coming out with a stack of mismatched saucers and an imitation Clarice Cliff teapot. She loved Clarice Cliff, and fake was just as good. In another shop she found a tiny, broken doll; in yet another, an ashtray with pink and blue flowers and ‘Gran Canaria’ painted in wobbly black lettering. The first shop had given her a bag-for-life, but after an hour or so it started getting heavy. Time to go home, where hammer and glue awaited her.

Spring was just around the corner.

(flash fiction: 833 words)

Featured image: Clarice Cliff Crocus Tea-set, 1931

Red Sky In The Morning

If you have never been to Britain, maybe this is your image of a British winter. All powdery snow and happy, cold-pawed doggies, a heavy hat of snow on car bonnets, lych-gates and wall … what do they call those little brick-built tower-things at the ends of low garden walls? No doubt there is a technical term.

It’s all very Christmas-cardy. Any minute now, one feels, a carriage and horses will appear, complete with overcoated coachman. Any minute now, Santa’s sleigh. Any minute now a fat robin will flutter down and arrange himself, scenically, in the foreground on a red post-box. And surely, all over Britain, there must be villages exactly like this. Surely it can’t all be wishful thinking.

When I was at school, as part of English lessons, they used to occasionally attempt to teach us creative writing, only it was disguised as Composition. (Editing was disguised as Précis, and proved much more useful in later years than Composition.) It was before the Seventies and they weren’t into all that stuff like inspiration-producing heaps of photos or magazine cuttings, inspirational tracks of music, mysterious works of art. In those days the teacher turned her back and chalked up on the board something like “The Life History of a Penny”, “Ten Minutes To Wait” or “Seen Through A Window”. Prompts, in other words. The internet is heaving with them now.

The truth is, that if you can write you can write, with or without prompts. Indeed, you will write whether or not you want to, feel like it or are ever likely to be read by anyone. And if you can’t write, this sad fact will not be changed by any number of creative writing prompts. Those who can, do. Those who can’t, trawl for prompts.

Anyway, “Seen From My Window”.

Seen From My Window this morning is an untidy rectangle of lawn, thick with frost. At the far end of it, in the half-light, a fat blackbird and one of the Ratties are picking up yesterday’s overspill from the bird-feeder. The dawn sky is a strange mixture – streaks of almost-summer pale blue overlaid with streaks of pink and orange cloud. Bad sign. Red sky in the morning, shepherds’ warning. (And in case you’re unfamiliar, Red sky at night, shepherds’ delight.)

Behind that is, as far as I have been able to discover in the last seven years, anyway, the only beautiful house in the village. I am thankful, that I am the one who gets to gaze at her from her kitchen window in moments of abstraction. She’s kind of Tudor, with a multitude of weirdly sloping tiled roofs, and those black beams. I say kind of Tudor because she’s not. Probably 1920s or 30s.

However, she’s been here on this bramble-infested hillside for so much longer than any of the excrescences that surround her. She must have been on her own, once. Her new owner has managed to ruin the garden by chopping down a couple of trees, bulldozing most of the rest and installing a portable building-site toilet in one corner, but hasn’t yet thought to paint her white bits dayglo pink or jazz her up with a Roman portico. No doubt he will.

My green bin’s lips are sealed against me. I went out there in the almost-dark to collect the stray-cat dishes and put new out, and put the overnight black bag of waste into my green bin. Had I been keen and energetic I should have done like Canadian Sister with her post-box at the end of the Infinite Driveway – returned with special spray, chisel and whatever to do battle with frozen binny. But what I did was dump the black bag on top of it. Why struggle, when the sun will (eventually) be coming out?

Later, hopefully wearing slightly more than damp bedroom slippers, a worn-thin droopy nightie and a man’s velvetesque dressing-gown, I will have to brave the garage (assuming it will let me in) to fetch more cat food and the shopping bags. Sainsbury’s are delivering this morning, whoopee. A tiny moment of excitement.

Fungums

This is my new umbrella term, as sociologists used to love to intone in the sixties (along with ‘dichotomy ‘) for anything either unexpected or unwanted that suddenly appears in one’s garden. Above is something my mother would probably have called a honey fungus. I wonder how big it will get?

At the bottom is something disgusting and fungus-like which has begun to grow on an old cane chair I left outside. Maybe it is some exotic type of fungus that has lain dormant within the cane since it was imported from India or Malaya or wherever. Maybe it will be like Japanese Knotweed and gradually Take Over.

In the middle is a Something that my burly  next-street-down neighbour kindly left behind in my garden, having invaded whilst I was out in order to replace a fence panel. It’s too heavy for me to lift and too big to go in my car. I was quoted £50 or £60 to remove it, the dumping fee being £30.

Or, said the Quoter gently, seeing the look on my face, you could get out the secateurs and regard it as a Little Winter Project…

The day the war was won

Nan told me about the day the war was won,

How they stood on the back step shading their eyes from the sun,

How the aeroplanes came howling, howling by,

Scorching black patterns in the August sky.

After the aeroplanes, the song of the birds –

After the birds,

Came I.

 

The war grew in her garden – London Pride,

Poppies enough to drug the days away,

An air-raid shelter for a garden shed –

Tug at the door, feel the hot air burst free,

Sour with old earth, and poison for the weeds –

Those rusty spades, those trapped and shrivelled spiders

Hanging in corners.

spitfire

 

I was blasted in that garden before I grew,

A disregarded child who knew

Nothing, heard nothing, part of the scenery,

One with the nodding of foxgloves, the buzz of the bee.

I was never real at all, just one of their dreams,

Caught in the aftermath,

A kind of lie.

For Felix – with love and squalor

So I’m not moving. Yes, it’s all fallen through again. Story of my life.

Why has it all fallen through? The nail in the coffin I suppose was the central heating system packing up. A very nice man came and basically condemned the wiring that feeds the central heating boiler (don’t ask me, I’m only an electrician’s daughter…). Then the man who was buying my house sent a boiler man to do an inspection and then he wanted a large amount of discount to cover the unexpected rewire/new boiler. Understandably, but it made it not worth my while to move.

Anyway, I’m here, and facing my first winter without central heating or hot water. I say this now. I may be a tad less sanguine about it when the Gales of November Come Early or when Snowflakes Keep Falling On My Head (Oh no, that was Raindrops, wasn’t it? He was going round in circles on a bicycle and then he got shot.) At the moment, however, it’s fine. Hot outside. Quite a few kettles inside. Shower and washing machine still work. How are they still working? No idea. Expect they’re on a separate… whatsit.

For the winter I’ve got several of those big plug-in radiators. Luckily I moved them with me from house to house to house, storing them in sheds, garages and whatnot. Wipe away the cobwebs – good as new.

It means getting used to Being Here again, rather than Being There. It means appreciating what you’ve got instead of yearning for something else.

I was looking out at my garden yesterday evening – at the overgrown grass, the twisty path I foolishly thought it would be a good idea to rip up and grass over; roses, passionflower, honeysuckle and giant, vicious brambles running riot up the side of the garage, attached to a rusting bedframe. It’s way over my head now. Even at my height and standing on a chair I can’t reach them with the secateurs. All I can do is keep an eye out for brambles forced down by heavy rain and rush out there and snip them before they have a chance to recover. And yet, there’s a certain pleasure in that. In the brambles. In the snipping. In the unruliness of it all.

I noticed the neighbours’ orange bush had blossomed. They spend most of their time in France now and often miss the blossoming of the bush. It’s a moving sight, somehow – a fire of petals. I feel like Moses, witnessing something profound.

I watched the sparrows feeding on chunks of bread, not knowing, as I did, that Felix was lurking in the undergrowth. I love Felix. We have a bond. He’s not my cat, I cannot possess him; there’s no way he could be mine unless his owner should die of the Plague or meet with an unfortunate accident. (I try very hard not to think about this in case wishing makes it so.) But Felix is a beauty. Black and white, long and lean, he has the look of the wizard about him. And now, since I’m not moving, I can commune with him whenever he chooses to come into my garden. Leaving Felix would have been the hardest thing.

Even in winter, muffled up in layers of charity shop jumpers, woolly hats and the fingerless mittens I’m about to start knitting; even when there’s a gale blowing and those brambles are bent almost to the ground by the force of the wind but it’s too cold to go out and cut them; even when the sky is the colour of saucepans and great clouds race across it; even then I will know there are sparrows about, and Felix; even then I will know that the blossom is coming again.

felix

 

NaPoWriMo 15/4/16: Writing By Lightning

Writing by lightning, I’m

Wishing that we could share

Smell of paraffin,

Heat of the flame.

 

Beloved, is your garden

Incandescent green

And is the rainfall

Drowning your roses too?

 

Are you alone, or is she with you?

Do your fingers drift along that icy arm,

Hiroshima blue, then white,

Then blind again?

 

Whisper and I will hear you.

Lamplight will relay you.

Tonight the very air

Is charged with you.

Seven-league boots

When I was a child sitting on my Grandmother’s lawn among the daisies, in the perpetual sunshine of seven years old, I would look out over the hills. There were still hills in those days, not housing estates, and they seemed to be full of corn, with the occasional white cottage. And beyond that green fields, going on and on for ever. I would slit the stems of the daisies so that the juice ran up under my fingernails, and I would thread daisies and buttercups alternately so that the necklace should be long and contain both silver and gold for my journey. For I had seven-league boots.

When I grow up, I told myself, I will walk right round the world.

But something went wrong with my growing up. I grew up to worry what bus I would catch, what platform I should stand on, where I would buy toothpaste, and what if I were alone with no one to tell me what to do? What if I went away and couldn’t come back, or came back and no one knew me? They weren’t very interested in my anyway; if I wasn’t there all the time to remind them I would surely slip their memories altogether. And if I didn’t have them to remind me who and what I was meant to be, I might fade right out of existence.

So I read colour-supplement articles about treks across the Sahara and hang-gliding down extinct volcanoes and felt wistful without knowing why. My friend went off to France to steal tablecloths from cafés and sleep under lorries with strange men. I wrote a poem about her in my tea-break. And I wrote little stories that nobody wanted to publish. My characters all mysteriously ran away or underwent some kind of metamorphosis: an ageing drunken hippie pursues a girl with golden bangles to Zanzibar*; a giantess becomes a wave of the sea; a cripple becomes a bird and a dying witch entrusts her soul to a cat.

And I married a man who didn’t see the point of holidays, and I took as a lover a man with a fear of flying; and I never had enough money; and after I couldn’t have gone alone. I couldn’t have. Could I?

* See later post: ZANZIBAR THE STORY, ZANZIBAR THE POEM

  • SEVEN-LEAGUE BOOTS
  •  Once more I am a child on Grandma’s lawn,
  • Slitting the stems of the daisies and buttercups,
  • The green juice under my nails.
  • I thread them alternately, one by one,
  • For the chain must be long and contain
  • Both silver and gold.
  • For I have seven-league boots.
  • I am looking out over the hills,
  • And when I grow up I will stride out over
  • Those green and simple miles.
  •  But the sun goes in,
  • And inside me something fails.
  • If I should go, then who will mirror me?
  • If they forget, what homecoming can there be?
  • And the lawn becomes my prison, the hills the bars
  • And the world becomes as far away
  • As Mars.