Friday, January 20

Flower Bed

The neighbourhood stood white and clean in the enormous morning; a lane opening its eyes. The sun has dried the grass. It had been wet but now it is dry. It is dry everywhere except the small patch underneath the sleeping figure that is lying on the front lawn of an inconspicuous house halfway down the lane. The sleeping figure is Robert Knuckle and he has been there for five hours. He is half on the grass and half—his upper half—in his wife’s kempt and colourful flowerbed. His expression is of muddy sleep.
A neighbour, Mrs Redford, walks by with her son in tow, on their way to school—“Why is Mr Knuckle asleep in the flowers again?”
“Because Mr Knuckle went out drinking on a school night again.”
The boy was dressed smartly and stared at Robert from big pink cheeks—“Why isn’t he in bed?”
“I guess he prefers his wife’s flowers to his bed.”
The pair of them hurried down the street. Mrs Redford, her son having seen such a sight for the third day in a row, is concerned that he’ll get bad ideas and gives him a long talk on the dangers of alcohol for the rest of their walk to school.
The neighbourhood ticks. Cars pass, cars on their way to work, to school, the school-run. It’s the most active time of day for a neighbourhood like this. There is nothing like it. An hour of activity and then it all dies down. It subsides. The wives go home and while away the hours until pick-up. But, for now, Robert Knuckle is facedown in his wife’s flowers. He does not know the names of the flowers, only which ones are softest, which ones have thorns.
Bird song.
Julia Knuckle opens the front door and stares at her husband. She stares for a minute while checking for neighbours walking by—only Mr Higgins and his one-eyed Labrador. It is during this small moment that she comes to terms with the fact that her husband—the love of her life, the man her mother had warned her about—is systematically ruining all of her flowers night after night.
She is still in her night-gown and her hair is up. The silk flutters over her bareness. She reaches down beside her bare foot, picks up a pebble and, with careful aim, throws it at his sleeping head. He jerks. Another pebble and he is awake.
“You keep this up and you’ll ruin every flower in this garden,” she speaks quietly but he is used to it and hears her perfectly against the sounds of earth, “not to mention every shirt in your wardrobe.”
His eyes strained—“What time is it?”
“Couldn’t you’ve woken me earlier?”
“I thought you’d gone to work.”
She watches him stand up, dust himself off and walk, with very little shame, into the house. She turns and shuts the door behind her.
For the past week and a half Robert has been drinking after work and falling asleep in the front garden. Julia thought it was because he had found out she was pregnant. He was never very good at coping with things in a normal manner. Still, her half-full bed felt overwhelming and she missed his sleeping body beside hers.
He sat in the sunny kitchen and poured a bowl of cereal.
There wasn’t a sound in the house save for the radio that tinned whispering upstairs.
“How’s the baby?” he ate quickly. “Is it kicking yet?”
“I don’t suppose it’s much bigger than a jelly bean.”
“You know, you can sleep in my bed, if you want? I had you in mind when I bought it.”
“I’m sorry.”
He said nothing else. Dirt in his stubble fell on to the table.
He looked at her over his spoon and she looked at him over her coffee mug. Afterwards he showered, preparing excuses for his boss as he dressed. Then the house was silent and Julia, immersed in her worries, stared at the valves on the radiator.
It was two hours later before she was dressed and ready for the day. Once more she was staring at the valves on the radiator. She rubbed her belly to find some comfort but found none. A March baby. A husband who sleeps in the front garden. She would visit her friend and discuss the matter with her.
Evelyn wasn’t so much a friend, more the only other woman Julia knew with whom she might reveal her problems.
Evelyn’s podgy toddler sat on the carpet between them, gurgling like a blocked sink. Julia swore she wouldn’t have a podgy baby.
“You cannot bring a child into the world whose father sleeps in the front garden.”
Evelyn watched her child, her pride and joy. A podgy pride and joy.
Twenty months ago Julia had commented on Evelyn’s swollen belly in a cafĂ© and now she was swelling, her belly rising, her womb.
“I’m sure it will sort itself out by then. He always goes through these phases. His idiosyncrasies are part of what attracted me to him in the first place.”
“Um, his peculiar ways.”
“Not sharing your bed with your wife isn’t a ‘peculiar way’—something is very wrong here, darling, I don’t want you to get hurt.” Really, Evelyn couldn’t give a damn whether or not Julia got hurt.
“It will sort itself out by then. Robert’s probably just a little nervous about having a child to look after.”
“I was quite lucky like that,” snorted Evelyn, “Nigel was dying to be a father.”
Nigel sold windows. He sold them by the dozen. He was great at selling windows. All the windows in the house were by Nigel and they were kept immaculately clean. Every week at least two birds flew into Evelyn’s window. She always told Julia about them. Last week a seagull almost smashed its way into her bathroom.
The child was playing with a set of thick foam rings, each brightly coloured, and shaking them in the air, hammering an invisible nail.
Julia’s big dark eyes widened at an idea: “As a little girl, I remember the local cats used to pooh on our lawn and my mother would put down orange peel—anything citrus—to keep them away. What if I try that with Robert?”
Evelyn looked up from her podgy featureless toddler—“You’re
as mad as each other.”
On the walk home—in immaculate day, in holy sun—she thought about the orange peel. She rubbed her belly with glee and spoke, under her breath, to the unborn. The plan was genius. Why hadn’t she thought of it before? The orange peel would sting his eyes or the smell would wake him up … and if that didn’t work then the very sight of it would confuse him enough to seek out his bed. Yes.
Excited at her idea, she stopped off at the greengrocer’s and paid for a bag of oranges. The brown paper bag rustled between her fingers. Her marriage was saved.
Her marriage was saved.
The oranges would save her.
She and Robert would laugh about this in years to come. And the child would laugh too when it had grown up from a jelly bean.
Sun littered the leaves of the local school. Dustbins overflowed. Everything sparkling heavy, dry, opaque and pale. She was happy. The jelly bean in her watery womb swilled and smiled.
She leaned on the work surface and ate every one of the six oranges. At first they were sweet, delicious and juicy but by number four she was feeling full yet she kept on until all that remained was a pile of peel. It was thick and deeply orange and the inside was the colour of ivory. Her belly queasy and she felt ill.
She scattered it evenly among the flowers, all the way around, and then she stood to pick out any spots she had missed. The peel really improved the flowerbed. Another vivid colour. The damaged flowers looked at her and said, “We hope this works, Julia.” She rubbed her belly and hoped too.
The hours passed. He wasn’t home for dinner.
Evening. Still not home.
“I’ve gone out for a drink. I’ll try not to wake you when I get in.”
Alone, Julia went to bed and it spread out before her once more as if she had ridden a plane to above the clouds and all around was bleak white. She tried not to miss him. He would sleep in the bed tonight, she thought. How can he keep sleeping on the lawn? I am better company than flowers.
She stirred and awoke. Grey hissed around the edge of the curtain. She stood up and went to the window. The sky was indigo and the clouds were tossed everywhere like phantoms.
There he was.
There he was in the flowers.
The grey morning light all over him, facedown. Split from his sides, in the square of the flowerbeds, was the orange peel. Even now it was clear. It had not worked. Of course. He was not a cat, of course it would not work. A ridiculous plan.
Back in bed: she could not sleep for a while as she lay on her back.
Eventually, a couple of hours later, she woke him up and he came inside for breakfast, his stubble longer than before, and he ate and he showered and he left and Julia was sad. She rubbed her belly.
“I don’t know what to suggest,” said Evelyn on the phone. She was preoccupied with something else, Julia could tell. “Marcus, get away from there, darling. No. Get away from there … I don’t know what to suggest, Julia. Have you considered counselling? It could help. Talk to him about it.”
“Robert doesn’t like to talk about such things.”
Evelyn sighed.
Julia, her fingers intertwined in the paler ends of her hair, breathed deeply and gazed outwards, into the world, over and above her flowerbeds.
“You’re a fool, Julia Knuckle.”
Her big brown eyes did not move. They were steady. They were unmoveable. Daydreamed.
“I said: you’re a fool, Julia Knuckle.”
Julia put down the phone.
She rubbed her belly.
The house, well, the house just varnished over her in silence and she held on to it, walking through and out of the front door into her cursed garden.
She stood there and the flowers rippled like a stadium crowd. They sung and chirped and swayed. They taunted her. She knew they taunted her. Their pretty circular faces grinning.
She wasn’t angry. It was difficult for her to be angry. Her eyes watered.
Without haste she bent down, dug her fingers into the soil and pulled out a flower by the roots. The flower began to flail. It was very unhappy at being disturbed. It shook and cursed.
With dirt dripping through the gaps in her fingers, she took the flower upstairs to her bedroom.
She made a good bed. It was something her mother had encouraged from a young age. “Your day will be as flawless as your bed is made.” Julia made a good bed; took her time; got the creases out. But now she pulled the duvet and the sheets back and placed the flower as delicately as she could on Robert’s side, the left side as you looked at the bed.
Sunlight peered through the window and wondered what the hell was going on.
Julia went back down to the garden and uprooted one flower in her left hand and another in her right, and again she took them upstairs and positioned them on Robert’s side of the bed. She repeated it again and again. Her thin body and her tumescent womb gliding up and down the stairs, the colourful cargo in her hands.
When it was done, she stood at the foot of the bed and rubbed her belly, charring the silk with soil.
Now—her side blank and his a mess of dirt and flowers.
“I have some things to do at work and then we’re going out for a drink. I’m sorry, sweetheart.”
He sounded sorry, not for the drinking but for something else.
The bed waited for him.
She went to bed and slept and she waited with the bed.
So unused to his presence was she that as soon as she felt the mattress twitch she snapped open her eyes and saw in the black his naked back lying on to the flowers. He did not notice them: the flowers or the soil. He lay, in his nakedness, upon them and his heat struck her side and the soil rolled under her and she disrobed her night-gown, comfortable and smiling, to drape an arm over his shoulder. The whiskey in his snore.
The dirt was very hard to sleep with. The flowers, too. They crunched. The stem snapping and the stamen fractured and the petals folded. His warmth penetrated her once more. She rubbed her belly and her fingers caught the soil that stuck to it.

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