Short Fiction by Josephine Jay
Just as she will allow none but she to cut the children’s hair and nails, so she will allow none but she to tend to her plants. Eight and possibly nine baby seedlings poke their small heads from the soil of the chilli plants container and she is delighted. For a while she had feared they would not grow, that they had been left barren, lonely and dormant in the damp, dark soil. Had they not come up that week she would have binned them. Now she is glad she did not.
She knows she planted her seeds far too late. They are still very weak and tiny. The tomatoes are doing much better, the radishes not so well. She worries the tomato seedlings are too tightly bunched. They will not grow if they are not spread out properly. They will strangle and crush each other in their panic to grow tall and strong in the garden and so she repots the smallest into egg cartons, twelve to a tray and the larger into yogurt cups taken from the children’s lunchboxes.
“Then,” says little Marie from behind her, hands on her hips copying her father, “Then, I shall have a beer in the garden just like Daddy.”
It is just as she had feared. In the three weeks since their sowing, the tomato plants have grown too close together, now triages of green leaves with their roots all twisted and knitted into one – they mock her for her efforts. It must be she who separates them, carefully, lovingly, root by root if they are to have any chance of survival. She must rip them strand by strand from the closeness of their infancy and teach them to grown alone. These are seeds of some exotic hybrid his mother had gifted them at Christmas, crafted of two types of tomato in her garden to be more resilient and more fruitful than either of the original alone. Her fingers buried to the knuckle in damp compost, she wonders if they are a metaphor for her relationship, a jibe at her children, perhaps.
She works on her knees in the grass, hair in a bun and soil scattered around her skirt. Behind her the children are holding and nibbling biscuits watching their father at work. All three of them are building their own garden to house woodlice the children collect. He is letting them take it in turns to knock nails into a plank of wood Marie has painted pink with ladybugs. Smiling, she sees James with a hammer in one fist and the other extended to the dog, waving his custard creams – ready to pull away quickly but the dog is used to his tricks and ignores him. Marie, seeing that her brother has already had a turn with the hammer whines, “Daddy, I want a go,” and James stops his teasing and turns around crying, “But I am not finished yet.”
From the corner of her eye she watches the man she has married mediate the two children and she wonders what their lives would have been like had they not met. In the first year of their relationship they had spent a wonderful weekend in a quaint little town in the north of Spain. She thinks back on it often at times like this — of the hot sun, the bronzed children of locals running barefoot hither and thither amongst hedges chasing small sparrows into the sky and beside her, he standing pale and pink against the blue heavens and yellow sand. Like a painting, she had thought then and, watching him grip nails in his mouth, so she thinks now. He had burnt quite horribly that holiday. She not at all for she never did.
They laugh about it now when they have the time and energy, think back fondly to the many half pints of beer they had drunk overlooking the sea, of plates of small anchovies swimming in olive oil eaten at the top of a hill as night settled in slowly and all around them the cicadas had started to sing.
She had told him she thought she might love him for the very first time that night and cruelly he had replied, “I love you too, sometimes.” He had said it softly, meant it as a joke but oh, how she had cried into her pillow when she was sure he had fallen asleep and would not hear her sobs. Ever since then, he has said those words again back to her many times and so perhaps, she muses as her fingers dig deep into rich damp soil, perhaps he has meant it at least once. That must be the sometimes he refers to. He only ever utters these words in reply, it has become a game of call and response between them, like James and Marie playing Grandmother’s footsteps in the garden. At the start she had waited so long for him to say it, bitten her tongue whenever she had felt the urge to let slip that she thought she loved and maybe adored him. She had been sure he was going to say it to her earlier that day on the beach, amid the cries of laughing children, the wind and the hot sand, for it would have been quite perfect a place. She had baited him with coy words and long looks, hoping for some unprompted affirmation of his affections for her, but he had remained as ever just as obstinate and oblivious in his silence.
Still, she is sure that he must love her. This she tells herself, again and again, her nostrils full of the peppery scents of the soil and baby tomatoes as she presses their roots delicately down into yoghurt cups.
He is not a man of very many words, and those three words she longs for continue to evade them. It is the little things though through which he shows his love to her – small admiring glances and she tells herself again and again that this is more than enough. He is a lovable confusion of contradictions; like her bush of hydrangea that one year flowers beautifully, the next droops in cowardice of the sun’s heat. He does not drink to excess, he is not violent, he is not ugly. No, she is very lucky to have found a man like him to love her.
Long ago, on a yellow beach in Spain she had persuaded herself she did not need the falsities of courtship to bolster and flatter her ego. They are only silly little lies she would have liked him to utter, only sometimes she wishes he would at least have the decency to try and deceive her. No, she is very lucky, she tells herself to have found such a fine man as he. Lucky that he does not gamble nor swear at the children or wander into other women’s gardens to repot his allegiances. They have been blessed with these two perfect children of theirs. Marie – herself in miniature only more perfect and more porcelain than she had ever been. Marie’s thick dark hair and brown eyes are her own in mid-tones of chocolate and in James, his father is echoed back clearly in the boy’s blue eyes and light hair. His hair will surely darken, her husband tells her confidently. His was just the same when he was younger. Those curls will straighten, those tiny ringlets will be lost, and yet, she wishes they would not. “Must they grow up and leave her?” she laments, her fingers working stray soil into the pots.
She had once been foolish enough to say this out loud. “You’ll grow up and leave me one day,” she had said sadly one bedtime watching the children make faces in the mirror as they brushed their tiny teeth. And Marie, full of childish stubbornness had crossed her arms, foam bright on her lips and stamped her little feet saying, “I won’t, I won’t, I won’t,” and oh, how she had wished for that to be true.
Not to be outdone, James beside her had said, “I shall stay here forever and ever. I shan’t leave not ever, not once. Not even for swimming.”
In the next second she scolds herself for allowing such a dangerous platitude to enter her musings. What more could she ask for? She poses this question to herself harshly. Nothing at all she answers promptly. And yet, even as that thought creeps across her conscious like a weed in a flower bed, half a dozen dark and terrible whispers root their replies in the corners of her brain reminiscing of long Spanish nights and of different men knocking nails into pink painted wood.
James is a sickly child, but still both grandmothers’ favourite – one for his sex, the other for his fairness. Named for his grandfather, he is prone to coughs and fevers and even now is fighting off a lingering summer cold. It is he who looks up at her nightly with those large blue eyes of his and asks, “Māmā, will I get better soon? Can we go swimming tomorrow?” and it is she who smooths his hair back against his pale forehead and says, “Maybe,” when she knows for certain they will not. It is a wonder, she thinks that his eyes are so blue. All of her pigment that has come out so clearly in little Marie has been lost on James. She had been allowed to name Marie herself, an homage to her years in France and a dream that her daughter might have the same flighty continental adventures as she.
James is quite as fair as his father and grandfather before him, and still she can see a whisper of her own father in the thickness of his lips and eyelashes. He had been born too soon, she muses. Repotted before he was ready – torn from the tight embrace with which the twins had clutched at each other inside her womb and not yet recovered. She is sure that they resent her for it; their premature removal from her body but they do not voice it. They are not yet aware of that most primordial of grievances she worries will rise up in adolescence and turn her adoring children into hateful monsters. Sometimes, late at night, she thinks she sees a shadow of this begin creep over little Marie’s face. She will be the first to leave her, she thinks. When, at bedtime just before the lights are to be put out and Marie screws up her face in tiredness and asks, “Māmā, do you love us?” and she replies, “Yes, darling, yes. Of course.” She strokes her daughters head and puts her to bed saying, “Of course I do. I always will. Forever and ever. Always will and always have.”
But this is not quite true. Marie had been too big; she had taken up too much space in her belly squashing poor James up against her ribs until he really had had no choice but to start breaking them. She had not loved them then. That is why they had been repotted.
“Daddy ought not to be such a brute,” says Marie from behind her and she is sure from her tone that she is pouting. “It’s my turn now and he knows it.”
For her husband sister and her children, she puts five of her charges into one of the plastic pots the blue trailing lobelia had come in. Surely five would be enough. One each for the children. They couldn’t possibly kill all five – at least one of her little darlings must make it to adulthood. Their daughter, the slow wayward one she muses. Yes, she will be a handful when she is older. She can see it now. She will be heavy handed and crush these plants before they have even the chance to grow. Not like her sweet little Marie, who is so gentle and tender with her plants. Little Marie who even now is growing a patch of rosemary on her windowsill, turning them daily so they would not grow unevenly and watering them from her own cup after meals.
They would not let them breed the dog, the vet had said, for her hips had been too narrow. Not with a poodle, a spaniel – nor with any other breed they had suggested. That was why they had had her neutered. She had looked so very sorry when they had collected her; belly shorn with her head hanging low in a heavy plastic cone. The doctor had said something similar to her, her hips had been too narrow, one ovary defunct, and yet she had just about managed the twins. They had been her last chance at motherhood, her final shot at fertility.
Done with her work, she turns her attentions to the dog stretched out on the lawn. She brushes the dog and lays her fur out on the garden hedge for the blackbirds to take for their nests. Sweet little birds, James said he should like to shoot one and Marie had bitten him for it.
The radishes did not like being replanted. Already they are protesting. They lie back limp and flaccid against the soil – épuisée. She brushes them gently with her fingertips, hoping to soothe their pains and whispering, “t’inquiète pas,” under her breath. Of course she speaks French. She had had a whole life before them, full of trips to Spain, Greece; a year spent in the South of France and her children find this terribly queer that their Māmā was ever a person before she was their mother.
Oh dear, she thinks; I’ve killed them. But then again, they might still recover. In the night she hopes they might find the strength to stand back up and all might not be lost. It is all her fault, she knows it. She had not read the instructions on the back of the packet before planting only upended the seeds and scattered them this way and that in pretty patterns. The packet advised spacing the plants carefully, two inches apart and no less, laying the seeds one by one in furrows with a pair of tweezers. Now, under her carelessness they have grown leafy and uneven, all fighting for sun with the little ones trampled below protected maybe from the bites of the slugs but hidden from sunlight. These she repots with tenderness.
Marie will be beautiful, she thinks. Everyone says so, so long as she does not get fat. They had said this of her even before she was born that she would be. Those type of children always are, they said. You know how it is. Funny the way their eyes get that light brown look sometimes – like a printer run out of ink. Even now Marie’s beauty is starting to show. She had secretly worried that she would not be and at the same time that she would and she would dislike her for it; that her daughter would maybe be too beautiful and eclipse her. This had troubled her throughout her pregnancy; an awful thought that was never to be admitted out loud to anybody.
“Quoi, Bijou? Qu’est-ce-que tu pense?” she asks the dog. Of course she speaks French to the dog, she is the only one left who listens to her and beside her the children roll their eyes in exasperation at each other. They already resent the intrusion of two languages thrust upon them and are mutinous at the idea she might try and introduce a third.
Once upon a time, before James’ illness had taken hold, he had taken the children swimming while she lay distracted in bed with one of her dizzy spells. Marie, angry at being made to leave the pool had stamped her little feet and cried out pointing at him loudly just as she had been taught to do at school – stranger danger refusing to allow him to take her away with him. The lifeguards had all come running over. They had made no comment about James, timidly wrapped around his father’s legs like a kitten, but for Marie – is she sure she does not know this man? He looks nothing like her. It was only after a long talking too she had finally recanted and shrivelled up like a prune allowed them to leave shamefacedly with the glares and muttering of all the poolside mothers ringing in their ears.
There is a new weed in the garden, blow over from next door. She must ask the gardener to kill it. Perhaps she will persuade the children to pluck them, make a game of it. First to pick five will get to pick a prize. Perhaps Jacob will join in and humour them all. It is in his nature to be childish; to entertain her in these frolics, just as it was in hers to indulge him.
Does he resent them? These flimsy little creatures who had yowled and squealed in the night turning her into that moody, obsessive maternal creature whose kindness towards him turned sharply into harsh words and weariness had displaced him in her affections.
They had agreed one was more than enough. They could not afford a second, and so as they watched the twins grow so they watched their savings trickle slowly away on yoghurt cups, nappies and small, useless trainers for hot little feet who were not yet ready to walk. They both understand now, to a greater or lesser degree that their lives are no longer their own. They are now dedicated to the two children squealing barefoot in the grass — their future and their happiness and they merely tertiary characters in their own narratives.
That evening of conception, the sowing of the twins had been a last, desperate act of passion, pressed up against the washer, the spin cycle winding down with a low hum. Theirs had been a quiet movement of desperation as they moved — he pressing her into the woven rug until its image imprinted into her stomach and thighs. Lustful movements that had very little to do with love and everything with fear.
“They say it’ll be 27 degrees on Tuesday,” she says and he says nothing in reply but she does not blame him. “Better put the sprinklers on, better check the soil around the amaryllis and check the dog for ticks – I saw her itch.” When did we become these people we swore we never would, she wonders. He says his mother has noticed a black boy hanging around the garden gates – ought they to be worried? No, she thinks. Not now.