A short story by Melanie Jones first published in MIR11
I drain the cup and split in two.
At first I don’t notice. I enjoy the warmth of my head. I squint across the lounge and see Jack stumble. His laughter dances around the room and I try to smile as the fuzz in my stomach spreads out to the rest of my body, through my hair and up, up and away. It hovers above me and I watch it twinkle like rainbow dust, animated by a light that is long gone.
I close my eyes too soon. When I open them the world is bright, the sofa and Jack are gone. My pupils refuse to constrict and all I see is whiteness. I reach for something to hold onto but my fingers just flail in the air. It occurs to me that I am standing up. I feel different, shorter and a bit slimmer. The hairs on my arms are raised and there is a breeze. I wrap my arms around my body looking for something real and my fingers brush against stiff cotton. I am wearing a dress, perhaps floral, perhaps polka dot. The wind catches it and the spinning pattern makes me dizzy. I look up before I’m sick.
I am being held up. When I look to the side I see that I’m leaning against a slim spiral of metal, painted white. Shapes are starting to form and I see that this pillar and three others hold up the copper awning that is shading me from the sun. I am on my own front porch but in startling daylight. Morning has come too soon.
His voice cuts through the glare. He comes closer and I smile. Jack will know. He always has a grip on things. But as the figure approaches I see that it isn’t Jack at all. This man is broad-shouldered with a whisper of frailty. I don’t place his age until he steps into the shade. He’s thirty, maybe, younger than I thought. Brown eyes, sandy-coloured hair, a clumsy smile. He takes hold of my hands and a stiffness passes from him to me; it travels up my arms and rests in my shoulders. I want to snatch my hands from his and run inside. Perhaps Jack is still sprawled out in his favourite chair or perhaps he’s awake and cooking bacon. I try to remember coming out onto the lawn but there is nothing. My hands stay wrapped in the stranger’s and I don’t pull away. My limbs are frozen. I wait for him to break the moment.
I’ve lived in this house for as long as I’ve lived in London. In a section of it, anyway. It used to be one house for one family but people can’t afford to live in whole houses any more so it was chopped up and plasterboard walls were erected to section it off into flats. We rent the bottom right-hand corner. We’ve got half of the original kitchen and a new-build bathroom at the back; the old living room has been split to give us one bedroom and a small lounge. Three other couples occupy the rest of the building.
We were flat-hunting for months before we found it. On the day of the viewing we arrived early and stood on the other side of the road waiting for the estate agent. Jack leaned over and whispered in my ear, “That is the ugliest house I have ever seen.” I frowned at him. He’d already dismissed half a dozen Victorian conversions. He was right, though. Rose bushes tangled with jasmine and passion flowers in the front garden. Bindweed crawled around the iron railings that marked the perimeter. Trees grew at forty-five-degree angles.
“What a mess,” Jack said.
Attached to the side was a lean-to greenhouse that ran the whole length of the house and on into the back garden. The plants inside it were pushing at the glass. A copper awning, covered in patination, protected a large front porch. Wooden bunting hung from it and it was supported by struts that looked like twisted candy canes. The house belonged on a colonial homestead, not in London, not in Peckham.
But once we were inside, we forgot about the exterior. The space had been modernised. There was parquet flooring. The walls were a uniform white. Glass patio doors led onto a massive communal back garden that was in much better shape than the one at the front. It was bigger than anything else we’d seen and the rent was lower, so we took it. Perfect for a couple not quite ready to buy.
It didn’t take long for the house to become normal. When I was sitting inside on my IKEA sofa, I forgot about how it looked from the outside. Three years later, when Jack started saying things like, “We could always buy a Victorian house and just completely gut it,” I realised I had come to love it.
We were sitting on the bed scrolling through property search sites. Jack was excited about beautiful attic rooms and he bookmarked a flat with polished-concrete floors.
“If we won the lottery, I would buy this whole building and do a Grand Designs on it,” I said.
“Really?” said Jack.
“Well, no. But if that flat by Solomon’s Passage that looks like the Jetsons live in it is unavailable, then definitely this one.”
“What about Harefield Lodge?”
The detached Georgian villa overlooking Peckham Rye was on the market for 1.6 million.
“Well I guess it depends on how much we win. We’d need a rollover to get Harefield Lodge.”
A few weeks later we were waiting for the night bus when Jack kicked a stone into the road and announced, “I’ve decided that all of our friends are boring.”
He was always a decisive drunk.
“They aren’t all boring,” I said.
“They are grey and dull and boring. Every single one of them.”
“That’s not what I meant. I meant they aren’t totally boring – they all have boring and non-boring qualities.”
Jack screwed his face up.
“If they are grey, then what colour are we?” I said.
“We’re silver and red and laser green!”
We were on our way home from Rachel and Henry’s engagement party. Everyone had been pretending to be grown-ups. They talked about mortgages, they talked about their kids, they talked about their jobs. Rachel asked us about our weekend plans. Jack doesn’t like me to talk about it but I was bored so I told them. Rachel broke the silence that followed.
“But it’s opium,” she said. “It’s basically heroin.”
“There are opiates in diarrhoea medicine,” I told her. “There are opiates in codeine and cough medicine. You are taking opiates all the time. It’s no stronger than weed – it’s not even as bad as drinking lager. It grows in the garden. It’s just a really really good herbal tea.”
“It’s not addictive?” Henry said.
“Not really. I mean, you might get a bit sniffly a few days later but it doesn’t last long. Not like a coffee addiction.” Or a breeding addiction, or a pay-cheque addiction, I thought.
They laughed. We were back on common ground. The conversation moved on and Jack decided it was time for us to go home.
“They were all smoking pot at Rachel’s birthday party,” I said as he checked the bus timetable on his phone. “Amanda brings a bottle of absinthe out at the end of the night whenever she’s had a bit too much and I know that all of them have taken speed. People just have this paranoia about opium.”
Jack rolled his eyes. The bus was coming and we don’t talk on buses.
As we walked up the hill towards the house, Jack bit a hole in the bottom of the plastic bag and rained seeds in the borders of all the front gardens. They were easy to plant. There was no need to dig down in the soil so he just peppered the surface. He chose sheltered areas so they wouldn’t get blown away by the wind or waterlogged before they took root. They took a long time to flower. The shoots developed into thick stalks and then buds appeared with heads pointed down towards the ground. They hung there for weeks until, just before the end, they turned their faces up to the sky and opened. We had bags and bags of seeds. Enough to fill every one of our flowerpots, enough to waste liberally in cakes. Enough to populate the neighbourhood. Jack rolled them into slices of bread and catapulted them onto the wasteland behind our building. There were already field poppies growing everywhere so he didn’t think anyone would notice if a few more interesting varieties cropped up. The tangled mess of our own front garden has germinated hundreds.
The garden is just lawn now, the only plant is grass. My stomach rolls as I bring myself out of heavy memory and into the bright sunlight. The stranger is still gripping my hands. I want to cry. He starts to speak.
“I’ll cut the turf out along the front for rose bushes. We can plant an apple tree on each side to give us a bit of shelter from the road. Plenty of space for a greenhouse. Cucumbers love a greenhouse.”
The greenhouse hasn’t been built. There is no Jack waiting for me inside with a bacon sandwich. The man is grinning and pulling me away from the safety of my leaning post. I want to tell him that I am not who he thinks but my voice has dried up in the back of my throat, my tongue is pasted down. I peel my lips apart and suck in the air. He hears the intake of breath and turns with an expectant, indulgent smile.
“Poppies,” I say.
My voice sounds like a croak and he tilts his head, confused.
“Plant poppies in the borders.” Softer now.
He looks back at me for a moment and then grins.
“Yes. Lovely,” he says, before leading me into the house.
Inside there are no plasterboard walls and no parquet floors. Instead there is carpet, navy blue with flourishes in green. I feel like I’m standing on a damp towel, like I’ve just stepped out of the shower onto a dirty bath mat. I want to flick this carpet off my feet like a cat flicks water off her paws. The man drags me into the undivided living room. He leaves me standing there while he polishes the mantelpiece with his handkerchief, showing me the colour hidden under the dust. He’s eager for approval, but it isn’t me he wants it from. I think about running but I don’t know where to go.
I follow him into the kitchen, enormous now that there is no separating wall. There’s a tiny window over the sink that looks out onto the back garden. I think about our beautiful patio doors and the light that streams from them into the whole flat. One day someone will realise how much better this room would be if the bricks were replaced with a wall of glass.
“You can look out while you do the dishes,” he says, beaming.
I want to turn away from him but my feet are sinking into the floor, it’s tugging on my ankles. My face feels like it’s smiling. I am slipping into his world.
Jack bought some dry pods from a florist. They were huge, rattling with seeds and on long stalks like maracas. But they’d been washed. Lost their potency. The tea left me aggravated and whiny.
“It’s not working. I feel noooooormal.”
They always worked on Jack. He floated away from me, sending fluffy platitudes my way until I shook him awake and demanded popcorn. He didn’t mind, he let me flit around him until he fell asleep and I watched the polar bear show again and again until four in the morning. Home-grown were always better.
It was clear that we needed to restock. A few nights later, we set out to harvest the neighbourhood pods. We took a rucksack and some carrier bags along with two pairs of kitchen scissors. We waded through the wildflower meadow on The Rye but none of those plants were ready. There was too much competition; greedy coltsfoot had sucked up all the nutrients.
There were plants growing in our own front garden but I was reluctant to harvest them. The tenants from one of the other flats had seen us sowing seeds in the borders and asked us if we had permission from the landlord. I was worried that they might suspect what we were up to. But it was gone midnight when we returned and no light was coming from any of the windows.
“Everyone’s asleep,” Jack whispered. “We’ll be fine.”
A few of the seed pods still had petals clinging to them but most had fattened up, dark green and swollen. Jack scored the edge of one with the scissors and latex bubbled to the surface.
We were cutting stalks and dropping them into the carrier bag when I saw the curtains twitch. I gestured to Jack but he shrugged it off. I stopped what I was doing and folded my carrier bag over, ready to run.
“We’re just picking flowers that we planted,” he whispered.
A light came on in an upstairs window. Always the scaredy-cat, I gasped and scuttled to the corner of the street. Jack stayed where he was, finger on his lips, trying not to laugh. After a few minutes the light flicked off. Jack gestured for me to return and we crept through the shared entrance. I turned the key slowly while Jack shook his head in mock despair.
I helped him tie the stalks in bunches with the seed heads hanging down. I could feel them pulsing, the juices rushing away from the rawness of the cut. I’ve never managed to get my head around the magic of gardening. It’s a mystery to me that tomatoes spring from tiny white flowers. How do wispy roots that blow and break in the wind during repotting transform into carrots? It seems impossible that from the tiniest of seeds, drunkenly discarded, come bulging beauties, full of poison, full of dizzy calm, full of the memories of soil.
Jack checked the pods once a week. When they had dried out to his satisfaction he cut them down the middle and emptied the seeds into a jar. On the next available Friday, I left him in charge of preparation while I went for a run with Amanda. We were only on day four of the Couch to 5K, still too unfit to talk during the running sections. During the walking parts we compared date nights. She was on her way back to steak and a bottle of wine. The kids were with her sister. I told her I was heading back for meatballs and poppy tea.
“What does it feel like?”
She’d never asked me this before.
“It’s relaxing. We have such stressful jobs, you know?” I paused because I was still catching my breath. “I get home on Friday and I’m thinking about work and the meetings I have on Monday and the endless shitty phone calls I’ve had all day.”
She nodded. She’d known all about it before she had the girls.
“And that can last all the way till Sunday night. It’s just great to turn that off. Right away, on a Friday. Our jobs make us miserable, you know? We deserve to be happy on the weekend.”
She nodded again, infinitely supportive. I wondered if I could convince her to try some. She probably would have said yes a few years ago.
When I got back from the run, Jack was already making dinner. I went for a shower while he chopped onions and boiled the kettle. I could hear the metallic whir of the herb grinder above the running water and it set my teeth on edge. He was waiting for me in the bedroom. Tomato sauce was simmering. Meatballs were resting. Tea was brewing. We had twenty minutes. He peeled me out of the towel.
Alone on the counter, opium seeped into water turning it dark and bitter. But that wasn’t all that escaped. Things that had been deep and buried swirled in the water. The roots of older plants had tangled with the roots from ours. The ground remembered all the feet that had trodden it, the spades that had cut it away. It had listened to every conversation on the lawn and reached back to places older than I could imagine. The soil knew everyone that had ever lived here. It knew the forests that had grown before the house was built and the animals that had made their dens under watchful trees. It remembered the axes that had chopped those trees down and the hands of every young gardener growing older and older. It had tasted spilled champagne, spilled lemonade, spilled milk. The soil gave all of this knowledge to the plants and as they faded on the counter they gave it all to the water. It all added to the flavour, it all deepened the colour.
The taste of that batch was better than any we’d had for a while. It usually took me a few gulps to finish it, sipping Ribena in between to suppress the gag reflex. But that batch was sweeter, it barely needed sugar and there was far less grit. I drained the cup and . . .
There is nothing else to remember. The man pulls me towards the apex of the house. I’ve never been upstairs and I don’t want to go now. He walks ahead of me, holding my hand so I can’t drop back. The landing seems long but there’s only one door left. I try to drag my heels but my feet just keep walking, heel, toe, heel, toe. I want to dig my fingernails into the cracks in the wall where the paper meets but my hand lies against my side. I’m shouting, “No, I don’t want to go, this isn’t me,” but that’s in my head and in reality I’m smiling and compliant. Somewhere inside is a girl who can’t wait to see what’s behind the final door. I notice a skip in my step. I’m losing control.
I want to see the kitchen again and the view of the garden. I want to do the dishes and look out at all the plants he’s going to grow. I want to put my feet on the squishy, newly planted lawn. But on we go. He’s opening the door and light is jumping around the landing. Here are the dust shafts again, but there’s no rainbow. It’s just light. I follow him into it.
There’s a large window in this room. He raises the sash and a breeze lifts the skirt of my dress. I shriek and the man smiles widely.
“Isn’t this a beautiful room for a nursery?” he says, not waiting for a reply. “You can have a rocking chair up here for feeding, and that beautiful old cot from your mother’s house. And you can see right down into the street and watch everyone come and go.”
I look down through the window; the breeze is quelling the dizziness. Below me I see the lawn, uncut. Then I see the borders and the rose bushes, the lawn chairs and the garden parties, the children running across the grass through the sprinklers, screaming and laughing. I see it stretching on forever in this place where the walls hold you down and the only reds are the field poppies dancing in the wind.