The Rose

It is one of those hot summer days Daniel will dream about when autumn comes.  Daniel is ensconced in his favourite garden recliner beside his little table:  beer, book and biscuits; all, he tells himself, he needs from life.   Beside him, the gnarled bush rose his wife so loves and tends that it never seems to ail or fail is a mass of flowers, drawing its audience of apis mellifera with the accomplished confidence of a garden celebrity.  Beyond his outstretched feet and across a flagstone path a cotoneaster is enjoying attention from a much larger crowd of smaller but more dextrous bee creatures.  The cotoneaster is another ancient hero.  When the plant was young Daniel set a trellis for it to climb.  He has kept it trimmed to shape through the years so the trellis host, rotting now, is kept erect by its mature guest. Timber entwined with timber, each supporting the other, neither able to fall.  Daniel feels comfortable here, in this place, attuned to the humming of bees and the dappled shade of the sycamore tree that watches over him, protection against the day’s naked heat.

This garden unites them, Daniel and Rachel, man and wife.  Among flower beds by the patio Rachel is tending her hostas, plucking snails from their leaves after morning rain.  Sipping his beer Daniel watches his wife’s wiry, dedicated figure as she works, and he laments, quite idly, the cruelty of their years.  If only Ella could be here to share it with them…

He bears these wistful moments with greater equanimity now.  They no longer hurt him as once they did.  But sometimes, now and then, when his mind is free of more urgent thoughts, his memory will pluck a picture of an excited little girl in her white dress, laughing as she runs to him, warm and vibrant in his arms.  And he will weep – yes, there are still tears – to think of her, before he can shut her from his mind.

“It was a long time ago.”

He must have closed his eyes, for Rachel is standing, looking down upon him with the critical coldness of a stranger, her bucket of unhomed snails clutched in her hand.  It is an expression he recognises.

“I still hope, you know.”  He tells her, and his eyes say ‘I’m not heartless.  I remember’.

Rachel frowns.  They have not spoken of Ella for a while.  “You shouldn’t;” she says brusquely.  “Not now.  Not after all this time.”

“She was my little girl.”  He says.  “I miss her too.”

“There’s no sense in thinking about it.”

“She could be out there, somewhere.  She could be married, or something. We don’t know!”  He insists.

“I think we do.  Drink your beer before something dies in it.”  Rachel snaps.  “Stop resurrecting the past.”  She turns away.  “I have to lose these damned snails.”  And she walks briskly down the path, heading for the garden gate.  

Daniel watches her, awake now.  His mind is bursting with the accusation ‘you shouldn’t have left her’, yet he bites upon the words.  It is a poniard too often thrown, one which has found voice frequently in the past – in the twenty-four lonely years.   His little girl.  His little Ella.  She was left to play by herself in the front garden, his little girl.  Rachel was in the house, doing…what, he doesn’t remember: it doesn’t matter, now.  She was not there, and he was not there, and Ella was gone.   

The effort of suppression is too much.  The bubble of his anger finds a way to rise: He calls after his wife’s retreating form: “Why did you leave her on her own?” and he sees her freeze in mid-stride, which pleases him in some perverse way.  She has to grieve as he grieves.  She has to be suffering, too.

“How many times?”  She rounds upon him, clipping her words icily.  “How many times have we gone through this?  Whenever you get one of these moods…”

Daniel’s resentment is darkening now.  “I couldn’t be there.  I was away, working.  I wasn’t there.”

“You weren’t there.  Twenty four years ago, you weren’t there, and I was…”

“And you left her alone.”  He feels the tears well up inside him.  “My little girl!”

Our little girl.”  Rachel reminds him, expressionless.  She is returning to him, to his bloated form slumped in that disgusting chair, wondering with every step by what device she has ever loved him.  “Our little girl, Daniel.”  Wondering how they are still together, still man and wife; as if the ugly, knotted rope of their guilt, far from releasing them, binds them to each other in this garden.

She stands above him, glaring down. “The gate was shut.  She couldn’t get out of the garden.  It wasn’t the first time she had been allowed to play out there.  I was no more than a few steps away, in the kitchen…”

“You left her alone!”

“Yes, I know.  And she was ‘your little girl’; I know that.  You never cease to remind me.  But I also know ‘your little girl’ was autistic, and much as I loved her there were occasions when I had to get away, even if it was only for a few precious minutes.  You know that too, don’t you, Daniel?”  Her clenched fist bangs down upon Daniel’s little table.  His beer glass hops and girates dangerously on the wooden surface.  

He cringes as though the assault is personal.  “She could be difficult.”

“Difficult?  Difficult!  You were always away.  You never saw how she was with me – what she did to me, nearly all the time.”

Rachel spins on her heel, stalking angrily away towards the gate, swinging the bucket so hard its unwilling passengers rattle within it.  Daniel, daunted by her sudden temper, watches her go.  She is right, of course, he reflects.  It is a scenario they have replayed so often down the years.  The gate he made for their front fence, how he set the latch high so Ella could not reach it: the quietness of their road, the attentiveness of Mrs. Partigan, their neighbour, who missed nothing that passed her window.  Yet she had seen nothing that day; had been ill, she said, so she hadn’t even noticed Ella playing in the garden, although she thought she recalled the child’s voice, raised as it so often was.  Otherwise a peaceful day, like so many peaceful days when he was far from home, a peaceful day when Ella was taken away from them forever.

And Rachel never wept!  Even when the police said they had no clue, and warned them to prepare for the worst, she remained dry of tears.  Instead, she closed down – drew the shutters over her emotions and entombed her soul.  He saw it happen, watched helpless as grief took out her heart and put it somewhere far beyond his or anyone’s reach, so only ice remained.  Oh, yes, he remembers!

Another confrontation, another failure to pierce that armour, yet still he will seek a way to hurt her.   Her retreating back infuriates; he wants to stab at it, prise open those doors always barred against him.  He has never found the weapon, but he does not cease to try.  His eyes cast about him, seeking ammunition, something new and untested.  His anger settles upon the rose.

“I’m sorry.”  He calls after her with affability that does not disguise the cunning in his voice.  “To change the subject, then.  I think it’s time to replace our elderly friend, don’t you?  I’ll dig it out this afternoon.”

This time Rachel’s progress is not halted, but there is hesitation in her step.  “What ‘elderly friend?”  She asks drily.

“Oh, the rose.”    The rose – her rose.  The rose she planted as remembrance, she said, in the weeks that followed Ella’s departure.   Crooked and deformed as his marriage, he is suddenly offended by it and would remove it from his sight, but most of all he would destroy it because it would hurt Rachel.   The voluptuous blossoms are vulgar and blousy, the rattle of bees is loud and disturbing; but more than that, Rachel loves it.

“Not the rose!” 

Is it the guttural change in her voice that alarms Daniel?  She has stopped, turned to face him once again.   This time the bucket slips from her hand, scattering its cargo on the path as she staggers beneath the weight of his threat.   Her pallor is the colour of calico, her hands shake.   “Do not ever touch the rose.”

“It’s coming up!”  He says.  “I’m going to dig it up this afternoon!”

“Why?  It’s flowered better than ever this year.  Don’t, Daniel.”

He taunts her.  “I’m tired of it.  It’s time to move on.  It reminds us every time we look at it – it’s like a tombstone…”

And he knows.  

Rachel does not have to stagger towards him, her breathing short, her limbs barely carrying her.  She does not have to grab his shoulders, almost falling onto him, implore him in frothing gasps.  “We agreed! It’s her memorial. You mustn’t!   You mustn’t!”   The tiny seed of suspicion that has lain dormant in the tilth of his memories is stirring.  First shoots of an awful truth are germinating in his mind.

Like a tombstone.

Daniel should be consumed by fury, yet somehow he cannot feel anger, only pain.  He rises, ready to catch Rachel as she collapses, and guides her into his chair.  For once in twenty-five years he sees tears coursing down her face, and for the first time in all of their years together he sees her helpless, unable to cope.  He hugs her close to him, saying, perhaps without thought:  “Never mind, dear.   Never mind.”

“I couldn’t tell you…”

“No.”

“I didn’t mean…it was no more than a push…she fell.  It was the table, Daniel.  She hit her head on the kitchen table…You wouldn’t have believed me.  No-one would have believed me.”

“It doesn’t matter anymore.”  Daniel says.  “I won’t disturb her.”

“She’s so peaceful, Daniel.”

“I know.  I feel that.  I know.”

They both fall silent.  He draws up another chair, and they sit together long into the evening, bound to one another by their garden and embraced by the outstretched branches of the rose.

© Frederick Anderson 2020.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

Picture Credit: Manfred Richter from Pixabay

Birdie

It’s time I returned to the archives for another short story. Here’s a favorite…

Birdie?  Yes, I knew Birdie.   

The third house from the end, on our side of the street; that’s where Birdie lived, and had lived ever since I could remember.  He was a part of my growing up, someone I either met, saw or heard every day from my first walk to school right up to the time when I moved to the city.   Birdie was an institution, a fixture, a feature of the street.  If you wanted to sell your house to someone, you told them about Birdie.  He added color.  When friends came to supper, they asked about him.

“How’s Birdie these days?”

“Oh, fine.  Same as usual.”

Birdie played a piano accordion:  not well, but enthusiastically.  When you walked past, you’d suddenly find your steps being matched by a loud Souza march.  Looking up, you’d see Birdie’s grinning face at his window and his fingers flying across the keys as he belted the music out of that old squeeze-box, completely unashamed of the odd missed note.

Most people who lived in our street had attitude where kids were concerned.  I blame that on Baz.  Baz was my mate, and we still communicated, if you know what I mean, right up to five years ago, although Baz had trouble with words of more than one syllable and he couldn’t spell even those.  Text-speak came as a lifeline to Baz.

Baz’s problem was existence.  His, I mean.  If he didn’t turn up, everything went fine.  When he did, nothing went fine.  Baz could make a discussion out of ‘hello’.  Baz could make an argument out of any discussion, and Baz’s arguments always ended up with Baz hitting someone. So most people in our street had attitudes where kids were concerned; because kids meant Baz, and Baz broke windows – and legs.

Now Birdie never shared those attitudes; somehow, when us kids went visiting Birdie, Baz would become as quiet as the mice we knew lived in Birdie’s kitchen, although they never came right out and admitted it.

Birdie loved kids – no, I don’t mean in some covert, perverse way – though if he had I don’t suppose we would have realized.  He somehow knew what we were tuned into, he could read our needs and fulfill our dreams in his inimitably simple way.  He was the one who discovered Baz’s love of magic, so he took a lot of trouble making boiled eggs appear behind Baz’s ears, and setting up the card tricks that always, always mystified my poor, really very susceptible friend.  Mara, he understood her love of fairy cakes, so every time Mara and I popped in the door, there’d be a plate of cakes somewhere about the place.

Mara’s girth underwent subtle expansion with the years.  Her parents could never figure out why, but I knew.

As for me, I was an absolute junky for science fiction – anything that could fly was a spaceship, and Captain Kirk was my all-time hero.   The first time he found out, Birdie stopped playing his accordion (he was halfway through ‘Danny Boy’, just at the ‘it’s I’ll be here’ bit) and took me by the shoulder.

“Feel that?”  His hand was gripping my collar bone.

“Nah.”  I said; then:  “Feel what?”

“The tingle, lad.  The vibration.”  And do you know, I thought I could, a bit.  Birdie’d do that to you.  

“Whoa!  What’s that then, Birdie?”

“It’s the residual charge at the periphery of a force-field, lad!  There’s a very powerful anti-matter disturbance.”

“Wha’ – in here?”

“Yes, son, in here.  This house was built – wait for it – on the very edge of a time-space continuum!  Aye!”  Birdie struck a dramatic cord on his bass keys.  

Humor him.  “Aw!  It’s close, is it?”

“Aye, very.  In a different dimension, mind you, but close.  No more than a couple of miles below us!”

“Why can’t we see it?”

“Because I keep it contained, lad: I have to!  There’s a worm-hole leads directly from this room!”

In spite of myself, I felt I was seeing Birdie’s room for the first time.  I looked everywhere, and a little, believing part of me wanted to see that worm-hole, even though I didn’t really know what it would look like.  “What happens if you step on it?”  I asked.  

“Oh, I’d never do that!  And neither must you.  One touch and you’ll drop through into another universe!  You’ll never be seen again!” 

“That’s not safe!”  Mara had been silent all this time, busy demolishing one of Birdie’s cakes, but one look at her told me Birdie had got her absolutely hooked.  She was standing staring at us with her frosting-smeared mouth open, and tears were rolling down her cheeks.

“Oh, it’s all right, lass!”  Birdie soothed.  “I told ye, I’ve got it contained.   That there table is right over the top of it.”

Saucer-eyed, Mara and I gazed at Birdie’s heavy old Victorian dining table.  A massive mahogany construction of prodigious proportions, it had been in the centre of the room for as long as I could remember.  In my recollection though, I had never before shown such interest in the stacks of wooden boxes jammed beneath it.  Crawling examination of Birdie’s worm-hole was not an option.

“You’ve never moved that table?” I challenged him. “Haven’t you ever wanted to see?”

“I daren’t, lad.”

“Scared you might fall in?”

“Scared what might come through from the other side, more like!  I’ve heard noises, lad.  I’ve heard them trying!   In the night-time they come.  Its a good job that table’s heavy as it is, mind.  They’d be through!”

“What – aliens?  Like, real aliens?”

“Must be, aye.”

Just then, Baz’s football thumped against the outside wall of the house, which was Baz’s usual way of announcing himself, and the spell was broken.  By the time I came to remind myself of Birdie’s science fiction tale, it had reduced to a pleasing exercise of the imagination; no more or less than all his other tales.

I suppose our parents must have had ambivalent feelings about Birdie, even in those innocent, far-off days.  They enjoyed deriding his rough, untutored music, or making social capital out of his eccentric dress (he never wore socks, for example), or his untidy home.  When he ventured out into the street, which was rare, his loud, yellow check trousers prompted my Dad to call him Rupert, though I never found out why.  His brown cardigan had leather patches on the elbows, and holes everywhere else.

Mrs. Purberry from number 42, ‘Dunborrowin’, pronounced her usual verdict upon anyone who lived alone:  “What that man needs is a good woman.”  Others were less kind, but suffered his proclivities because his love of us kids gave us somewhere to go on wet afternoons when our Mums needed a ‘bit of peace’, so no-one would ignore him if they met him in the street, and no-one could ignore that piano-accordion when he began to play.

These are old memories.  As the years passed my friends and I grew out of that childhood wonderland at the third house from the end.  I confess, with sadness, how readily Birdie was forgotten.  Maybe others took our places to listen to Birdie’s playing, I can’t say for sure.  I went to University, Mara went to Art College and Baz went to jail.   The best part of twenty years passed before I chanced to ask my mother, on one of my occasional trips home from the City, about Birdie.

“Still wears those bloody awful trousers!”  She said cheerfully.  “And still playing that bloody awful squeeze-box of his.”  Then she added darkly:  “He’s married now, you know:  or at least, he says he is.”

“Birdie!  Married?”

“Well, let’s put it this way.  No-one in this street was invited to the wedding, if there was one.  But if you’re visiting, prepare yourself.  She’s a gorgeous girl!  Middle eastern, I think.  We all believe she’s a mail order bride.”

That was it!  I set off as soon as I decently could for the third house from the end.  The differences in the place were obvious; curtains in the windows, new paint, a gleaming blue car standing outside.

Birdie answered the door, looking a little older, maybe, but he had one of those faces that belied the years.  “Why, if it isn’t…  You took your time, lad.  I thought we’d lost you!  Come in, meet the wife!”

Admitted to that parlor where so many fantasies had been spawned, I absorbed the shock all grown-ups must accept when they return to the places they knew when they were young:  how small it was, how unlike the room I remembered.   The gargantuan table that had seemed so formidable was just a table, and it no longer dominated the centre of the room but was placed against the wall.  There was no sign of the wooden boxes.   

“No worm-hole, then, Birdie?”

Was there just a brief hesitation before he laughed at me?  “Why no, we closed that up long ago!”

“I didn’t think you could.”  I answered lamely, feeling foolish.

“Terrible things, those wormholes!”

“Yes.”  I felt awkward, beginning to wish I hadn’t come.

“Here’s the wife!  Let’s have some tea!”

As she floated in through the door from the kitchen, I could see why my mother had guessed Birdie’s wife was Eurasian, though I knew instantly she was not.  Her skin was not quite olive in color, her height exceeded her husband’s, yet she was impossibly slender and elegant in build; almost wand-like.  Her greeting was augmented by a slow smile and she extended a hand to me.

“You’re meant to place it on your cheek.”  Birdie said.  “That’s how we greet each other.”

So I took her two-fingered hand in mine and her warmth coursed through me; the same warmth, I was sure, that gave her a soft green glow in the twilight of the curtained room.  “Hello.”  I said, as soon as I trusted myself to speak.  I raised those fingers to my cheek and the tingle, the vibration Birdie taught me to feel all those years ago flooded my being once more.

“So you did let someone through.”  I said.  

“You’re right.  Just one.”  Birdie said.  “We can’t close worm-holes, but Araguaar can.”

© Frederick Anderson 2020.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.

Photo Credit: Romberger Sound Productions on Pixabay

The Circle of Time

“Existing outside the circle of time.”  Bartolemy said, placing drinks he had bought on the table next to his friend.  “Imagine what that would be like!”

“Complicated.”  Hoenig thought.  “Didn’t I ask for lager?”

“Mrs. Brandleby-Hogg says that’s what spirits do.  Her spirits, anyway.”

“I should think the evidence for the effect of spirits on Mrs. Brandleby-Hogg is clear.”  Said Hoenig.   “I’d say at least a half-bottle of gin administered daily, if last night was anything to go by.”

“I think you’re very hard on the woman.  She’s a professional medium.”  Bartololemy rebuked.  “She has many distinguished clients.  I enjoyed last night’s little soiree, personally.”

“Then the long black dress and the dolman sleeves deceived you.”

“She truly is a substantial woman.”  Bartolemy admitted.  “She has great presence.”

“I’ve never heard them called that!  Contents-wise, it was a disaster.  Summoning Moira Jenner’s partner back from the dead, for instance…”

“I thought that was remarkable.  He came through loud and clear…”

“Miraculous!”  Hoenig agreed.  “Especially when Mrs. B called her partner ‘Tom’.   Moira’s partner’s name was Claudia – she’s gay, for heaven’s sake.  Then there was poor Mrs. Bevis…”

“Oh, that was far too practical!”

Hoenig permitted himself a chuckle.“Practical?   All the woman wanted to know was where her departed husband put the key for their shed.   She’s been locked out of it for six months!”

“Better than being locked in it, one might say…”  Bartolemy mused.   “When by engaging a locksmith…Anyway, back to existing outside the circle of time.  You’re not a believer, I take it?”

“I’ve always thought of time as being a rather linear affair.  Begin at the beginning, stop at the end, sort of thing.   Hard to see how a circle could work.”  

“You weren’t listening to Mrs. B., then!   It’s ludicrously simple, really it is.   The circle is like a wheel, spinning in the space-time continuum…”

Hoenig stared:  “The what?”

“Space – time – continuum.   The  junction between time and space:  they’re linked, you see?  The circle of time is at the centre of it; sort of whizzing round.”

“How does she know?”

“She’s a very clever woman, Mrs. Brandleby-Hogg.  She’s an ‘Honorable’.”  Bartolemy was not to be deterred.  “Time and size are directly correlated, so in our perception time seems to pass very quickly for small forms of life like the mouse, or the fruit fly…
“Are they correlated?”  

“Shut up and listen!”  Bartolemy rebuked.   “And it passes much more slowly for large life forms, like elephants, or the blue whale.  Think of the little creatures as rushing by on the wheel’s rim, while the elephant watches from much nearer to the hub – turning more slowly.  Can you see how the elephant would perceive time?”

“It would be too giddy to perceive anything, I should think.”  Hoenig said.  “ And she believes that her spirits are standing outside the wheel, or circle, or whatever – without moving?”

“Exactly!  You’ve got it!   So you might have Henry VIII standing next to Einstein, or Attila arm in arm with Florence Nightingale.  It wouldn’t matter because time is meaningless once you die and leave your physical form behind.  We rush by, while they remain there forever.”

“Round and round.”  Hoenig frowned.  “ Do you think he would have fancied her?”

“Who?”

“Attila – fancied Florence Nightingale.  A perfect couple, I’d have thought.  Supply and demand.  So when they die, they fall off the wheel?”

“That’s it.  Sort of.”   Bartolemy conceded.

“And then they’re outside the circle?”

“Right again!”

“Must be crowded out there.  How come she can speak to them, Henry VIII, and those – if she’s on the wheel, and they aren’t?”

“I don’t follow?”

“Well;”  Hoenig was becoming quite animated.  “If you’ve no sense of time – none at all – you can’t speak to someone who has.  See, even the simplest sentence requires time to be spoken; take for example ‘How are you today?’  It took a second or so to say that – that’s a unit of time?  Even if you shorten it to ‘Ho-ay” it still employs an element of time.”

“I suppose…”  Bartolemy hesitated, then shrugged helplessly.  “I don’t know, do I?  That’s her skill, I suppose.”

“That’s the gin.”

“Yes – no.  No!”  Bartolemy was crestfallen.  “How am I supposed to know?”

“You knew about the circle…”

“I did.”

“…and standing outside it.”

“That too.  You do realise you’ve spoiled it for me now?”  Bartolemy lamented, thrusting despairing hands into his trouser pockets.  “I’ll never go to a séance again!”

“I’ve done you a service, then.”  Hoenig considered.   “What’s the matter?”

“I’ve found this in my pocket.  Did you put it there?”

“No.  I don’t go round putting things in people’s pockets.   What is it?”

“It’s a key.   A small key.”

Hoenig inspected the object.  “Looks about the right size for a shed.”