Third Place in the Cambridge Short Story Prize 2020
…you wake to a bare wall, or him, if he is there. You prefer his side of the bed empty. A cold comfort. The wall gives you more.
Your hand reaches for an alarm that isn’t set. Why should it be, when there is no ‘work’ to go to. It comes to you, now, over air-waves, Wi-Fi. Pixels that break up then re-form. Nothing real – you can leave it for later.
So your finger probes air, surface, clicks the radio instead, and there… a story to please you. A ‘good news’ tale, the only kind you want right now. A voice that tells you… plants bounce back from crushing blows.
And there you are, back in the woods, corralling your students, the boys tramping towards you, while the girls tip-toe. And you watched as the boot of each male foot rose up, battering-ram/slammed down… the bluebell beneath cowering, bending, folding in on itself, snapping, crushed. Colour/sap-sucked, a ground strewn with bodies. Gone.
The voice says nothing about bluebells. An expert (do you know him?), talking about orchids, sweet-peas, impatiens. Bilaterally symmetrical plants, you remember; right and left sides mirroring each other, while the radially symmetrical suffer.
Ten to forty-eight hours, and they recover.
You look at the bruise on your arm, a daub of purple, now. It began with scarlet striations, soon amalgamated, then faded, then came back to this. It will change to yellow over the next few days, an ugly colour, sickly. Yellow, the colour of sickness. Is that right? You prefer to think of spring, with the daffodils, forsythia; the yellow season, you always call it. But a different turn of the spectrum for this blight on her arm.
The pain goes in time with the rainbow shades. It will take longer to heal than the plants. Besides, there will be another by then.
You think of his boots in the hall, standing there, pointed towards the door, like a dog eager for his walk.
Once, you laughed at them, picked them up and marvelled at the size (bigger than the boys’ in the wood), the heft of them. He took them from you, protective. They meant something you didn’t understand – a part of his journeying, who he is, you guessed. So they are for ‘outside’, unbeaten tracks, off/tourist-trails. Something to be glad of, glad that he wears no more than light canvas in here; light canvas, rubber soles, ridged. His feet still inhabit the same space, but the kick is not so hard.
‘Sorry,’ he said the last time. So sorry/it’s the drink/it’s being shut up in here/it’s the…
You recover, like the plants.
Sex plays its part, too, the expert is saying now. It’s a question of re-setting, re-orienting.
It’s what they do, too.
They re-set, and everything is fine again.
Cranesbill, campion; knapweed, betony.
Shut-eye, eyes shut, shut tight.
You count plants, instead of sheep. It is what you know, after all. You count plants, to try to sleep, trying to sleep, hoping he will stay downstairs. The nerves of your body rack with the waiting, the wondering, stretch from the bed, through the door, down the stairs, to the living-room. The muscles in your stomach clench, the fluid gathered there churns. Will he come up tonight, or stay down there on the couch, the glass growing lazy in his hand, his body slouching in time? Until… That’s what you want – the drunken stupor. Better that, than the footsteps on the stairs, the door slamming open, the flailing of arms and legs as they crash in beside you.
Yellow rattle, wild-carrot; harebell, scabious.
Wild flowers brought you together, you liked to say once. Chance, chance and wildflowers. A field-trip, taking you to collect seed from a forest in Borneo, while he was travelling there; a fortuitous crossing of paths. A miracle – something else you liked to say…once.
Valerian, chamomile, lastuca – these are the ones you should chant. The sleep-inducers. It doesn’t matter, it doesn’t work, anyway. And night shifts to day somewhere in the witching hours and you have the plain wall again, and must be glad of that. And you see now that the wall is not so blank any more, when you stare at it so hard, seeing the miniature furrows of a cheap, hurried paint-brush, the vague mottling of damp burrowing through. A crack, fine, yes, but one to be watched; a stain. Stains. You hadn’t noticed this before. A spatter of faint tear-drops, plum, no, grape, more – wine-coloured, of course, wine from the glass he threw at you. The colour of valerian, you could say. You must be glad it didn’t break.
Tomorrow, you will go to the park, the two of you. – I could go on my own, you tell him. No, he says. He holds your hand tight.
The flowers that run through your head are there, on the verges you pass.
– Look, you tell him, how well they are doing, because the cutting has stopped. Even better, if they wait till they’ve seeded, if this goes on much longer… The hand tightens around your own… except it won’t, will it?
So you don’t tell him the other things you want to say, what else is good in this other good news story. How the reduction in nitrogen emissions from vehicle exhausts will benefit the more delicate species. Verges are home to seven-hundred species of wildflowers, nearly forty-five per cent of total flora. How it helps the pollinators, too, such as butterflies, birds, bees.
You say none of this, because he needs to know everything will be back to normal soon, very soon. His life will return to what it was. The world will be his again, to travel and explore, while you go back to your growing things. And you need to know it, too, no matter how good this is for the flowers in the verge, the flowers anywhere. Wild, tame… any plants. All.
Cow-parsley, fox-glove, dandelion. Common. Rare…
This is all you have now, all you have left, from a bio-dome, a suite of labs, greenhouses, meadows. Three, the most precious, grabbed as you left. Three, on the kitchen window-sill. Still…
– I am like you, you tell them, as your fingers work their way over the stems, shoots, leaves, flowers; the blades, petioles, internodes, reproductive organs, when you have your botanist’s hat on.
You seek among their hidden places, searching out aphids, disease, blemish. Pluck, crooning all the while.
– tangled together… sorry… as you work to separate the fragile hanging buds of the orchid from the rampant, flopping intrusions of the hibiscus. Unwanted attentions – no, please, no.
– it is too light for you, you tell one – it is too dry for you, you tell another. But this is all I have, this is all I can do for you.
Your fingers reach into the pots, feeling the soil, what little is there, between the tangle of root-fibres. Their roots firmed too tight into too small a space.
– our roots crammed into too small a space.
– once, I dreamed of putting down roots, dreamed that he would stop travelling, that I would work less, that we would buy a house in the country, where we would have children, a family. Grow my flowers in a garden instead.
You thought this would be good, a practice run for the both of you, who had hardly spent more than a week or two together, since your honeymoon.
– the water I give you pools on the surface, then flows over the edge. Sorry.
– just hold yourselves close, make yourself dormant, harbour your nutrients. You can do that, can’t you? Just wait it out. You can survive.
Who are you talking to now, you wonder?
Photos appear on your screen. Images you want to touch, seeking out the blue/white/grey streams of air between the arterial swirl of green and brown, yellow. Filigree, tracery, lace. Zooming in, you find yourself lost in an Impressionist painting. Out again, they are the floating islands of the Sudd, or countries seen from space. Or…
You know what they are, you have seen them before, though trees are not your ‘thing’.
Crown disengagement, or tree crown shyness – words you and everyone else prefer, especially now. So perfect for these times! Nature playing at social distancing, knowing what’s good for it/them; knowing how to stop the spread of disease by eliminating the bridges between them,
or… allelopathy, trees talking to each other, warning the next one to stay away.
Is this what you should do? Mark out a space for each other? There is a box-room you could clear, which you/he could move in to. Take meals separately? Hard, so hard, in such a small space. But if it helped…
You lose yourself in the patterns on your screen again, zoom back in, zoom out again, so that you see it, now, like the inside of a kaleidoscope. More turning of the colour-wheel, more breaking of the pixels. Or the in/out of the microscope, homing in the centre of a flower, into the ovary, the ovule, through the integument, the nucellus, into the… Seed. Another life, there. Your hand moves over your belly, kneading the tender flesh. No.
Images flash past your eyes, through the glass.
Brazil, Borneo. Pine forests in America’s northwest.
Places he has been to.
Should you show him? Say – look, aren’t they beautiful? These places are beautiful. Why don’t you tell me about them, like you used to do, enchanting me with tales of mountains, rivers, forests in far-flung places, until I fell under your spell for good. Lost.
Will he say – yes, I have been there, I have seen those tree-tops just like that, lying under them in the moonlight, looking down on them from a string-strung aircraft, beautiful, but not as beautiful as you? Like he used to say.
Or… will the lines between his brow tighten and grow dark, and his fingers clench to fists as he remembers where he should be, instead of being here? Caught, trapped, between these soul-less walls (though not so empty, if you look close), with not an inch of earth, beyond what cossets the plants, not a tree in sight, no sky to be seen, no air…
And will the fist lash out at the nearest thing? The only thing. You.
As if you are the one who…
You understand how he feels – how the four walls are closing in on him, how he cannot breathe – yes, you understand all this. But…
Your fingers return to the screen, play around the pictures again.
Say/don’t say; tell/don’t tell; yes/no. A tightrope slung between these branches. One foot, two feet, tread gently, go so slow. The knot in your stomach, looping and threading tighter and tighter. If that’s what it is.
You switch the screen off and turn away.
Plants bounce back from crushing blows, you tell them, as you crouch beside them, your feet grating the soil particles into the cracks between the tiles; your hand rummaging through shards of terracotta and broken leaves, stems, flowers. Tendrils of root not so different from the fretwork of tree canopies float in the breeze of your movement.
You try to gather what’s left of the earth in a dustpan, but too much has gone, and there is no more. It doesn’t matter. There is little to salvage, there is nothing left. The ball of his foot, round and round, grinding the orchid. Sap, a stain, shreds of flesh, that’s all; even less than the bluebell wood. His hands shredding the petals of the hibiscus, his fingers stained with their blood. But plants don’t bleed, do they? Your hand touches the soreness on your scalp.
– I shouldn’t have tried to stop him. I shouldn’t have got down beside you, trying to save you; a mistake, then, to fall, to curl up.
A defence mechanism, like the plants; one that didn’t work.
You brush the remains into the bin, then wipe over the floor, go to run the cloth under the tap. And there, on the tip of your finger, a smudge of dust. Or… a cluster of orchid seeds, somehow saved, somehow clinging to life. It’s not that they’ll survive, if that’s what they are – you know that, you know how hard germination is; it’s what you do, after all. But you take it as a sign, a reminder, as you dab them into your tear-soaked tissue, and your other hand rubs deep into your abdomen again.
– seeds are more important than anything, you say as you put the tissue and a few clothes into a bag. It is what you’ve always said – to colleagues who deal with blowsy flowers or giant trees. ‘A seed is where it begins!’
– I am bilaterally symmetrical – all humans are – like the plants that make it through, you tell yourself, as you slip through the door, glad, once more, of the drunken slumber.
– and the ones that bounce back are the ones that matter.
You thought you didn’t matter, and maybe you didn’t. But a seed is different, even a single one.
– there are those where an individual can re-orient on its own.
This is what you will do.
Diana Powell’s stories have won, or been featured, in a number of competitions, most recently the 2020 Society of Authors ALCS Tom-Gallon Trust Award (runner-up), the 2019 ChipLit Festival Prize (winner). Publication credits include several anthologies and journals, including the Best of British Short Stories 2020 (forthcoming, Salt). Her novella, ‘Esther Bligh’, was published in 2018 by Holland House Books. Her short story collection, ‘Trouble Crossing the Bridge’, was published last month by Chaffinch Press.
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