Life would be more bearable if every so often you could take your body off, Jules thinks, as she attempts to heave her legs off the side of the mattress. If you could just tuck it up in bed and exist as dust or whatever souls are made of. Pollen seized by the breeze.
At 76, all her body knows how to do is ache.
Eventually, she gets both feet to the floor. She can feel the chill that has always lived in the bones of the house but it’s distant. This must be how those soldiers with their missing arms and legs feel. Phantoms in places that no longer exist, unwilling to give up on lost things.
Knock, knock, knock.
Jules hasn’t a clue who the visitor could be. The clock tells her it’s 9.34am, on a Sunday at that. Her list of potential callers, beginning and ending with the postman, narrows significantly.
It crosses her mind that maybe it could be Abigail but she quickly dismisses the thought. Abigail is in Palermo with her husband, sipping wine through their teeth and spitting it out before the good bit.
Jules tugs a heavy winter coat over her night dress, the sleeves stretching tight on her stiff arms. She remembers haggling for the coat at a market by the side of a cattle road. Richard and Abigail had been mortified. Undeterred, Jules had blagged it for £20 less than asking and worn it proudly ever since.
During those weeks when she first started changing, Jules had worn the coat constantly, covering every inch of herself in thick fabric and fervent denial. However, as time went on she found herself reaching for it less and less.
It’s amazing what a person can get used to.
Knock, knock, knock, knock.
Before leaving the bedroom Jules puts on a pair of woollen gloves; some of the leaves sprouting from her fingertips tear off and fall to the floor.
She’ll gather them up later. They’ll do for a stew.
As she hobbles into the hall, there is a clattering at the door. Darting eyes peer through the open letterbox. They spot Jules and quickly withdraw in surprise. The letterbox clangs shut.
Jules opens the door. A small boy around nine stands on the step, a rickety pink bike by his feet. His knees are dirty and thick curly hair explodes out of his head.
“Hi!” the boy shouted, as if he had already determined that because she was old she must have a hearing problem. “I was playing and kicked my football into your garden! Can I get it back?”
“Oh right.” Jules coughs, her voice coming out gruff from disuse. She’s not sure when she last spoke out loud. “One minute, I’ll fetch it.”
Jules heads back into the house. She makes it to the kitchen before she notices the boy following behind, close enough to take the slippers off her feet.
“Why are you walking like that? Do you have arthritis? My grandpa has that. He has this chair that goes up and down the stairs because he can’t walk. He lets me go on it sometimes but it’s super slow.”
“Something like that.” She replies. “Has nobody ever warned you about stranger danger?”
They step out into the garden where a morning sun is splintering through the trees. Her garden, buried in the heart of the woods, shrouded by green quiet. Here she was more likely to see a deer than another person.
The house used to be a small hospital. Why it was converted, Jules doesn’t know. If there’s one thing the world never runs out of, it’s sick people.
The past still resided in the walls. When they first moved in Richard had insisted on keeping some of the old features. He’d always been like that, romanticising the past, trying to build a house and live there.
“I like your garden.”
Jules turns to the boy who is over by the fence admiring some delphiniums. Near death a few days ago, they have rebloomed beautifully. Bloody right. Jules had used what was left of her fingernails to ensure it. Their vibrant purple spires beautifully offset the white jasmine climbers that tumble down the fence like the foam of a waterfall.
Her garden is almost perfect.
“Thank you, it takes a lot of hard work.” She replies, “Those purple flowers are delphiniums.”
“Del-fin-e-ums.” The boy rolls the word around in his mouth like a mint.
“Why do it if it’s hard?”
“Because I enjoy it. And because things are only worth doing if they’re difficult. You remember that. Any Tom, Dick, or Harry can do something if it’s easy.”
Jules reaches out to a lily growing by her hip and grips one of its glossy leaves between her fingers.
“Who’s that?” the boy asks but Jules barely hears him.
Veins of vivid red run through the green of the canna leaf . So alive. Not a hint of rust.
“I’m hoping to win a competition.” Jules says, mostly to herself.
“What do you get if you win?”
“The winner gets £5,000.”
The boy looks at her, stunned. “That’s loads! You’ll definitely win. Your flowers are so cool.”
The compliment takes Jules by surprise. She watches the boy hop down the path to the pond.
“I don’t have a garden. We used to before me and Mum moved in with Steve, but it didn’t have flowers like this. We had a trampoline but it had a big hole in the net and one time I did three front flips in a row and accidentally fell through it and broke my collarbone so I got to stay off school for a whole entire week—”
The boy rambles on as Jules scours the garden for the missing football. She finally spots it amongst some squashed daffodils. Her body creaks like the incline of a rollercoaster as she picks it up. She carries it over to the pond and hands it to the boy.
“Here you go.”
He takes it, continuing to stare intently at the fish.
“You squashed my daffodils.”
“Sorry.” He replies without looking.
Jules purses her lips at the boy whose own mouth is slightly agape in wonder.
“Aren’t your friends waiting for you?” Jules asks.
The boy shrugs, “I was playing by myself.”
Jules turns to the pond, its veneer still like a painting despite the life teeming just inches below it. “Those fish swimming near the top with the white spots, they’re koi carps. They come all the way from Japan.”
She leans down and points into the water. “And see those fish at the very bottom, the light orange ones?” She sees the boy nod in the water’s reflection. “They’re golden tench but people sometimes call them doctor fish.”
The boy finally looks up. “Why?”
“Apparently they take care of the other fish in the pond and stop them from getting ill. Like doctors.” Jules pauses. “They also keep the water clean by eating the fish poo.”
The boy grins. “Cool.”
Jules straightens up painfully. The boy watches her with wide, dark eyes. She imagines he makes people nervous. There’s something unnerving about children who see too much.
“What’s your name?”
“Kieran. What’s yours?”
They turn back to the pond as a chagoi koi eagerly skims the surface of the water. It opens its mouth wide at them. Quick to trust, a chagoi will eat right out of your hand.
Soon the rest of the fish join it at the pond edge. The dull, copper chagoi is quickly swallowed amongst the brighter, more colourful fish swarming in a kaleidoscope like a pool of spilled oil.
After Kieran leaves, Jules rests on the bench underneath the pear tree. Eventually she will have to go back inside and start her day properly but for now she sits, the sun warming her face. If roots were to grow from her feet and she became stuck in this spot forever, it wouldn’t be the worst thing.
A swallow lands on the feeder beside her but upon finding it empty quickly flies off in further search. Jules keeps forgetting to buy more seed despite the notes she leaves for herself on the fridge. She forgets a lot nowadays. For two days she couldn’t remember what Richard looked like. Instead there had been a mushroom growing in her mind where her husband’s face should be.
Jules lifts her dress and stretches her naked legs out in front of her, etched with journeys like a road map. The bark which started at her toes has now spread up her shins, over her knees, and reached the joint of her hip.
She thought she had more time.
Her legs are almost beautiful in the sunlight. Crevasses intricately twisting across her thighs. She rubs her hands down to the place where rough bark turns to pallid, veiny skin.
What would she find underneath? She doesn’t think there would be skin anymore. Would there be bones? Maybe dirt? Could you chop her in half and count 76 rings?
Or maybe she’d be hollow, perhaps that would be worse. If inside of her there was a cavernous space things could crawl into. Where tree borers could make their home and lay larvae, eating their way through the last of her living tissue.
A long time ago they hung a swing on one of the trees in the garden. They hadn’t realised until too late that the branches were infested with clearwing moths.
It was almost dark. Jules had told Abigail to come inside but Abigail pretended not to hear. Moments later she screamed, the sound piercing straight through Jules’ ribcage as if it had come from her own lungs.
She found Abigail strewn across the ground, all jagged angles. The broken branch lay behind her and the swing between, connecting them where the rope was wrapped around Abigail’s limbs like a twisted marionette doll.
She always remembers the accusing look on Abigail’s face as Jules had tried to gather her back together again. As if the swing had been a trap to teach her a lesson. Listen to your mother or else.
The bones in Abigail’s arm never did heal properly.
Jules shakes the memory and stands. She walks inside to the kitchen where she takes a sharp knife out of the drawer. She should fix those daffodils now, before she forgets.
The football snapped several of the stems and crushed most of the flowers. Jules doesn’t have any fingernails left but even if she did they probably wouldn’t be enough to do the job.
Luckily, blood works better than fingernails.
Two months ago, Jules had slipped while deadheading a tropical canna lily. The shears she’d been holding sliced through her glove and deep into her palm.
What had surprised Jules was the blood. How much there was. How hastily it ran.
It dripped in thick surges down the slopes of her fingers, cascading off the tips. She remembers watching with reverence as it flowed out of her to the dry soil where it was swallowed up in a desperate thirst. Something told her to let it bleed.
A day later the dying lily had rebloomed.
Trial and error has taught Jules that while blood works best, she only has so much to spare. Therefore, for plants that just need a pick-me-up, wrapping strands of hair around the roots does the trick. More serious problems like leaf spots or root rot require fingernails buried beneath the soil like fertiliser.
Plants that should be beyond saving, call for blood.
Jules holds her hand over the daffodils and brings the knife to her palm. She slices carefully, reopening the barely healed scar. A little should do it.
She moves the knife away but no blood comes from the wound. She closes her fist tightly and squeezes. It doesn’t hurt the way she expects it to. After a moment, a viscous amber liquid slowly oozes out.
Jules watches, too stunned to move, as the amber pours over the daffodils like syrup.
This isn’t right. She thought she had more time. One more week. That was all she needed. Just one more week.
Jules sits at Richard’s old computer in his office. The air around her is stale and deathly still. She rarely came in here even when Richard was alive. The office had been his and the garden hers.
In this room he was a stranger. It was only at the end of the day when he would emerge overworked and gentle, and they would meet back in the kitchen that they would recognise each other again. He would unbutton his collar and she would wash the dirt from her hands and they would sit together eating dinner, chairs pulled close.
Jules has eaten life, right down to the rinds. But if you were to ask her if there is a moment she’d like to go back to, it would be a moment like that. She would go back and hold it with both hands.
After several attempts Jules manages to turn the computer on. She won’t make it to the shops, she can barely make it to the toilet. No, she’ll have to order daffodil bulbs online if she wants them in time for the competition. She just hopes that when they arrive she’ll have enough hair left on her head to give.
A couple of days later Jules hears a splash in the garden. She looks out the window and sees a football floating in the pond.
There is a knock at the door. Jules puts on her coat and gloves.
“Shouldn’t you be at school?”
“Nooo,” Kieran drones, as if it’s the most obvious thing in the world. “It’s the summer holidays!”
He must be telling the truth, the weather seems about right. Jules has lost things like school holidays to the spores of mould flourishing in her brain.
“Let me guess, you’d like your ball back?”
They make their way through the house. Kieran drags his feet, peering around curiously at the walls.
“You had gloves on last time as well.”
“You’re very observant.”
“What’s that mean?”
“You’re good at paying attention.”
“I’m nosey. That’s what Steve says.”
Jules turns to Kieran and wiggles her gloved hand in his face menacingly.
“When you’re old your fingers turn into carrots. So I wear gloves to stop rabbits from nibbling on them.”
“That’s not true! My grandpa doesn’t have carrot fingers, they’re just really wrinkly.”
In the garden Kieran spots the ball in the pond and rushes over in panic. Jules follows, stepping carefully on the wet stone.
Kieran looks up at her, eyes brimming with tears. “Where are the fish? Did I hurt them?”
Jules peers into the water. “No, no, I think the ball just gave them a fright. Look there’s some hiding behind the rock. See?”
Kieran nods then rubs his eyes roughly with his sleeve, embarrassed. As he bends to gently lift the ball from the water, his t-shirt dips and covers his skint knees. It’s two sizes too big with a hole in the collar.
“Do you want to give them names?” Jules asks.
“I’ve just been calling them fish one, fish two, orange fish, fat fish… They deserve proper names.”
Kieran examines the fish, a crease appearing between his eyebrows. Finally, he points at the chagoi that has bravely swam out from under a water lily.
“That one’s Sonic.”
The bulbs arrive three days before the competition. The delivery man gives Jules a strange look for how excited she is but she pays him no mind. Her garden is almost perfect.
Jules takes the bulbs into the kitchen where she puts ten into a basket and the rest in the cupboard. In the garden, she sits on the grass and rips hair from her scalp which she wraps tightly around the bulbs. Next, she plants them in a shallow pit and gently draws moist soil over them until they’re out of sight.
She hopes it’ll be enough.
Satisfied, Jules goes to stand but as she does all the air leaves her body in one sharp whoosh. The ground flies up towards her and she collapses to her knees. Clutching at her tightening chest, she tries to take a breath but it only makes it as far as her throat before it is violently spat back up again.
Her lungs are refusing to fill.
They’ve forgotten how to.
Jules presses her cheek against the dirt and tries to remind them.
In. Out. In. Out.
She’s running out of time.
Jules can’t remember Abigail’s phone number. She never bothered to write it down because she has always just known it, in the same way she has always known when Abigail would be home from school for the summer, or her own husband’s face, or how to breathe.
She flicks through Richard’s address book, passing names she no longer recognises. The pages seem to multiply every time she turns to the next, like some kind of cruel spell. It was hard to believe they had ever known this many people.
Finally, under ‘F’ she finds it.
FabbyAbby Home no.
Abigail had hated when he called her that.
Standing beside the phone, Jules tries to plan what she’s going to say. Words that will close the distance that’s been growing between them ever since Abigail flew through the air with nobody there to catch her.
Abigail my lungs have shrivelled to the size of prunes and my blood has turned to sap I’m pretty sure I’m dying I don’t mind that you left if it means you’ll come back we have always been too much alike it would be nice to see you one last time.
Maybe sometimes there are no right words, just words. Jules calls the number.
It doesn’t even ring.
“The number you have called is currently unavailable.”
She’s not going to answer, because it’s late and she’s about to start dinner.
Knock, knock, knock.
She’s not going to answer, because tiredness has rendered her blind and lame and the distance from here to the front door is much too great for just one person.
Knock, knock, knock, knock.
She’s not going to answer, because she isn’t his mother and it isn’t her job, not anymore.
Knock, knock, knock, knock, knock, knock, knock, knock, knock, knock, knock, knock.
Kieran doesn’t speak a word as Jules sits him down at the kitchen table. Dirty tear stains mark his round cheeks. His knuckles are burst and bloody.
The disinfectant she dabs on them makes him hiss in pain. He tries to yank his hand away but Jules holds it firm in her own.
“Sit still. I need to clean them.”
She dabs them again and this time Kieran doesn’t pull back. Instead he lifts his other hand and puts it on top of Jules’s.
“I knew they weren’t carrots,” he whispers.
Jules freezes. With everything that’s happened, she forgot to put gloves on.
Kieran strokes a rubbery leaf between his fingers, then follows to where the stem is growing out of Jules’s skin. It sends a shiver up her spine.
“Cool…” He says under his breath.
They sit quietly for a moment.
“Are you hungry?” Jules asks.
Jules makes mince and tatties. It’s what she would make for Abigail whenever she was sick. She chops up carrots, onions, and celery and fries them in the pan. She browns mince, and adds Worcestershire sauce, stirring until a familiar scent fills the room and trickles out into the hall, warm like someone’s home.
The windows fog and there’s nothing else but her kitchen where the food is piping hot and ready, ready to be plated, ready to be eaten, ready to be enjoyed. She hears the office door creak open, so she takes two plates from the cupboard and begins to scoop the potato in big, buttery heaps. Then with the back of the spoon she presses a small crater in the middle to put the mince in, just how he liked it.
It had always been their favourite. Hers and. Hers. And—and—
“Where is everyone?”
“Where is everyone?”
Jules shakes her head as if she could physically dispel the confusion currently clouding her brain.
“Everyone else who lives in the house. They’re never here when I come over.”
Her chest feels impossibly tight. She drops Kieran’s plate down in front of him with a thump. “It’s just me who lives here.”
Kieran’s face screws up in confusion, as if he can’t comprehend how anyone could live all by themself. “Alone?”
“Yes. I didn’t—not always. I had a husband. He lived here with me, but then he got sick.”
Kieran nods with understanding, absentmindedly moving a piece of potato around with his fork.
“Do you have any children?”
“I have a daughter. Abigail.”
Kieran looks around as if Abigail might be hiding in the cupboard or under the stairs. “Where is she?”
“She doesn’t live here anymore.”
“Where does she live?”
“With her husband.”
Jules shouts before she can stop herself, “Will you just—!”
Kieran shrinks back as if he’s been struck.
Jules tries to take a steadying breath but her lungs come up short. “Just stop asking questions and eat your dinner.”
She turns away before she can see his reaction. She tries to heap some mince onto her plate, but the spoon shakes in her hands and the mince floods messily out of the potato crater.
Her bones ache.
“I don’t feel well.” Kieran says in a small, quiet voice.
Jules sighs. She hadn’t meant to scare him off but it seems that’s all she’s capable of.
Behind her, Kieran starts to cough uncontrollably. She turns to see that his face has turned a bright, blazing red.
Potato sputters out of his mouth and across the table. Jules rushes over to where Kieran’s writhing painfully in his chair. He looks up at her with wide, questioning eyes.
Jules doesn’t know what to do. She doesn’t know how to fix him.
Suddenly, Kieran lurches forward, his tiny body straining violently. Jules tries to hold him together as he’s sick all over the floor.
The ambulance takes the young boy away. The sirens cut through the silence of the trees long after it leaves.
It hadn’t taken the paramedics long to figure out what was wrong with him. It turns out the forgetful old woman had mistaken daffodil bulbs for onions and cooked them into the dinner.
They had assured the old woman that the boy would be fine, that he had puked out most of the poison.
So, when the paramedics leave, the old woman tidies her kitchen. She throws the leftover food in the bin, cleans the plates, scrubs the sick off the floor. Then she goes outside.
She looks in the pond at someone she doesn’t recognise. She gazes at the host of daffodils, their heads just beginning to peek through the earth, green and new, soon to be golden.
Then the old woman faces the house. Her house. Their house.
She imagines taking her body off. Shedding it like a heavy winter coat. Shucking it like a husk, along with everything else. The wilted lungs and decaying knees. The grief that has rooted itself inside her. The guilt that has stretched itself across her shoulders. She imagines taking it all off and placing it down on the grass, returning it to whence it came.
She imagines and then she is growing impossibly tall, stretching high into the air, almost amongst the clouds. From up here she can see over the house and everything beyond it.
From up here she can see her garden in its entirety. It’s complete. Perfect.
A man and a woman drive down a solitary road through the woods. They arrive at a house and park outside. They get out of their car and knock on the front door. When there is no answer, they knock again. The man looks at his watch. The woman checks her clipboard.
After the third knock goes unanswered they turn to leave.
A young boy cycles quickly down the road that the couple have just come from. When he reaches them he throws down his bike and they exchange a few words. The boy grabs the woman’s arm and pulls her over to a gate by the side of the house. The man follows behind.
The three walk through the gate and into a garden.
The boy introduces them to a fish called Sonic that swims in the pond. Then he guides them over to some purple flowers which he calls delphiniums.
The man and woman look at the delphiniums. They look at the jasmine climbers, and the pear tree, and the canna lilies, and the golden daffodils. The woman smiles and writes on her clipboard. The man nods and reaches out to examine a flower.
The boy walks alone down the path to a tall tree. The centrepiece of the garden. Hi, he says when he presses his hand against its trunk.
Not long later, the man and woman join the boy under the shade of the tree.
Caitlyn Morrison is a recently graduated Creative Writing Masters student at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, having also studied English and Creative Writing as an undergraduate. She has previously been awarded the Rose Cooper Prize for Dramatic Writing by Strathclyde University, as well as the Major Project Prize for her Masters Dissertation.
photo by song xiaoguang (via unsplash)