Short Stories - Life Writing.

Summer Poppies.

‘Do you ever think of suicide?’ I wonder now if your psychiatrist condemned me or liberated me when he asked you that question. Before we set off for your appointment I went into the garden and was greeted by the gentle beauty of the poppies, which had flowered in the bright warmth of the morning. Tissue paper faces of marshmallow pink, parma violet, rice-paper white and glorious cardinal red nodding approval against the rough-cast wall. The day before their engorged, warty buds had given no indication of their intent to bloom and their surprise appearance suffused me with an intense happiness. My delighted ‘Hello!’ had slipped out without warning and I had looked around, embarrassed that someone might have caught me greeting the poppies.
            ‘Yes,’  you replied, ‘every day I pray for the strength to kill myself’.  For some reason all I could think of was the poppies. Your head nodded in time with the shuddering sobs that reduced your great stature to child-like dimensions and all I could see was the nodding delicacy of those hopeful flowers.
            When we got home some of the fleshy petals with their inky veins had already dropped. I felt your dark despair reaching out to me with its treacherous fingers and while you lay on the stairs and cried noisily for yourself, I knelt silent in the sandy soil and collected the fallen petals. They were bruised and wilted and wasted and they left behind the vulnerable naked heads of the stems. Empty seedpods.
            That night the bedroom seemed unfamiliar and the cold silver light of the summer moon painted your face white as you slept. The air moved ominously in the shadows and like the sudden flowering of the poppies, the seed of dread that you had planted with that sentence burst into parasitic life. Poppies. Opium poppies. Drugs. There were enough in the house to answer your prayers. Had you already taken them? I leaned close to your marble features and held my breath as I listened for your breathing, felt your heart beating, so much slower than my own. I prayed to your God. I begged and bartered and I lay raw eyed and alert until the alarm clock forced me to leave you in the hands of a killer.
            After that the parasite took over. The danger was everywhere. I emptied the house of all of the pills but couldn’t take your daily cocktail of survival away.  Searching for pills in the bathroom my hand brushed the bleach and knocked your razor and the endless possibilities spewed into my mind. The knowledge of your danger engulfed me, and with it came utter helplessness. Fear was a blood-borne disease that infiltrated me. Spitefully reminding me of its presence with each inhalation, each exhalation. With each contraction of my heart I saw yours fibrillating to a standstill.  And each day you survived. Marooned in misery. Waiting for a tiny spark to give you the strength you needed.
            I remember the first dream. The first nightmare. It happened after I found you standing transfixed under the ancient sycamore like a garden statue. A light breeze fingered the branches and a cascade of winged seeds rained around you, and the old rope swing stirred. I was reminded of the early days, when we leaned into each other on that swing, heedless of the splintered seat. How we laughed as the confetti of sycamore seeds pirouetted around us. Your breath on my hair. My reminiscing was halted when you reached out and touched the rope and I realised you were assessing its suitability for a different task.  That night I awoke to find the bed cold. The next thing I knew I was standing beneath the sycamore. Again the moon had silvered your face and you swayed back into black hollows and forth into silver shafts. The rope was noosed into your neck and the confetti fell about us like tickertape. You swayed into silver and I saw that your eyes dripped blood and your tongue protruded, mangled in your frozen grimace. My screaming woke me to find you lying damp eyed next to me. Praying for the strength.
            The dreams began to infect my daily life. I was plagued with hideous premonitions. The depression was contagious and was reflected in the quelled spirit of that grey, wet summer.  The swollen rivers escaped their bonds to spill over the floodplains, rotting the crops and stranding the desperate livestock on ever decreasing spots of safe ground. High tide transformed meadows to great gushing lakes that uprooted trees in the torrents.
 At work I heard that a body had been seen in the Eden and I knew it was you. No reply when I phoned home. Again. Floating and slack like the sheep that had been drowned and washed away. Your spaniel eyes feasted on by fish. Your face, that face, deformed, blue and bloated. That slaughter house stench. I knew that when I got home you would be gone and felt the ever present parasite begin its manic dance. I left work early.  But I was wrong. You were there, lying at that point on the stairs. Where no-one could see if they looked in. Beyond sobbing now. But dry and safe and alive and for a second I thought my own heart had stopped as I lurched onto the steps below you. All encompassing relief that ignited a flicker of something else. I wonder if that’s when the parasite began to mutate.
            The day that you left your safe haven of the stairs, left the house and disappeared, was cold and the crisp air of a well established autumn lingered about the trees. Normally my favourite season, all I could see as I searched were endings. The trees discarded their last leaves and they fluttered hopelessly to the ground. The multitude of warm tones of the leaves had reduced to brown. Just brown and desiccated, decaying, while twigs snapped like fragile bones under my feet. In the woods a jay flashed his summer sky stripes at me and laughed. An omen. Or a joke. You were sitting by the railway line, too close. The galloping thud of my heart in my ears was drowned out by the commuter train flashing past and I could see you through the massive threshing wheels.  We walked home hand in hand even as the parasite breathed its poison into me and my jaw ached.
            Eventually I left you at the hospital, and as I drove away you gored me with those spaniel eyes. For twelve miles your gentleness assaulted me and your almost wave beat me and beat me and beat me. I lived alone for months while they wired up your neurons and shocked away the sorrow that had suffocated you. They played with your blood chemistry until you vomited their experimental toxins back at them. They oozed empathy and cited statistics.  There were occasional wrenching glimpses of an old friend but ultimately he was subjugated by the process .Or perhaps by the therapy. I don’t know who came home wearing your clothes but not your face.
            It was different this time. I found this stranger lying still in cold bath water with a razor blade poised in his hand, his mind in tatters and his skin in-tact. There was inwardly focused intent in eyes that were still brown but no longer spaniel like. No longer yours. Before it was the pills, the blades, the noose, the train-tracks but now the enemy had assumed a human shape. Masquerading as you. Deep in my core the parasite emerged as something hard and brittle. Guilt edged, it simmered and shouted for self-preservation, more insistent than any love of spaniel eyes and summer poppies.
It got its selfish way. The fear and dread of discovery ground me into submission. When you wanted solitude my voice was loud in its silence. I left you to your war and retreated to a safer place wearing my yellow dress and white feather. It was a tortuous demise, expecting the news that never came. Sometimes over the years I’d hear about you from mutual friends. Advancing, retreating, falling, re-grouping. Fighting your war.  Always fighting your war. And I wonder if the real you ever came home.
            And still, with the miles and the years between us, each summer in this different place, this different garden, the poppies flower and delight me and I remember the happiness of that morning before he asked ‘Do you ever think of suicide?’ and you replied ‘Yes, every day I pray for the strength to kill myself’.


First Love.

As you walk down Pear Tree Lane towards the stables the houses straggle out until they admit defeat to the countryside. The innocent white blossom of the hawthorn laces the hedge-row and its delicacy belies the lethal spars hidden beneath, capable of impaling three inches into unwary flesh. It towers into long thickets that are impenetrable to all but the most determined, or possibly the most desperate. Perhaps that’s how he felt when he made his den deep in the densest of the thickets. Away from the lane and camouflaged into invisibility. Maybe lair would be a more appropriate term given his intentions.
 You’re at a disadvantage when your stalker has been trained by the British Army in covert operations and surveillance. It’s probably best not to think about prowess in ‘seek and destroy’ missions and unarmed combat. Suffice to say that when you gaze at the glory of the English country-side in May, you don’t see that terror can lurk behind its beauty. But ‘you live and learn’ as they say. Just as they say that you always remember your first love.
            I remember mine. Tears or joy on Platform 4 at the railway station. Long months of waiting, yearning and short weeks of delighted discovery and whispered promises. Letters. It took four agonising days from when he licked the envelope at the Army Base until it dropped through the letter box. He wrote of love. I sent mine by return post.  He came on leave, bringing little gifts. I don’t remember him giving me the spectacles with their tinted lenses, but at some point I put them on and found that they wouldn’t come off. He was posted back to England. His wild, exaggerated stories were fun and I didn’t understand why people called him Walter Mitty and cooled towards him. Tales began to crawl, uninvited, to my home and I plugged my ears and insulated myself against them.
 Then came the call to Northern Ireland. A war zone. A dark place for a British soldier.  Fear swept in, drowning all other conscious thoughts. When casualties were  announced on the BBC news something cold and black slid over me, compressing my chest so that I couldn’t breathe properly. Finally, finally he called to say he was alright and the relief left me numb and older. But he wasn’t alright. Something in his world had altered, changing the workings of his mind.
            Home again, the stories became outright lies, impossible to ignore. He would be out of contact for days, before returning with no explanation. An enquiry would precipitate a strange shift in those blue eyes, a frightening stillness, like a dog about to strike. And it felt safer to placate. Yet still the view through those lenses persisted, faded now, like blown pink roses at the end of summer.
            That slow beat of life changed its rhythm on the day I got home to find two men waiting for me. Special  Investigation Branch. He had been under surveillance for theft and fraud and had gone AWOL. They showed me the letters he had received from, and written to, other girls, professing love, planning futures. Differing from those he wrote to me only by the name at the start. Dated back for the three years that we had been together.  The pink glasses cracked and shattered along with some deep, vital, honest part of me. They asked me to turn him in. If only I’d listened.
He denied it all. That now familiar change came over him. That stillness. But this time there was no retreat on my part and he drew back and fired his spittle onto my cheek as he pressed against me and told me that I’d never leave him. How he would make sure that if he couldn’t have me no-one would. Igniting a sharp fear. Then he was gone.
            Often my peripheral vision registered a familiar shape, but when I turned to look he had vanished.  The spark of fear began to smoulder. When I answered the phone there would be silence. I could feel his malevolence down the line. He only spoke once, to say he was watching me. When I saw him at dusk, boldly standing in the garden watching the house, the smouldering whooshed into a gut churning inferno and I ran to phone for help. By the time I called the police he was gone.
            Fear was constantly there, whispering to beware. He turned up at work, on the bus, always hovering on the periphery, waiting for an opportunity until I became reluctant to leave the house. But I had to attend to my horse. As I walked down Pear Tree Lane a breeze built up and hissed ominously through the leaves, warning me that I wasn’t alone. I dared not look behind but some deep instinct told me he was there. My chest felt as though it couldn’t contain my heart which was exploding into my throat. On leaden legs I tried to run and heard the footsteps behind me faster than mine, powerful, gaining on me, and I could feel his darkness bearing down on me with appalling speed. I raced screaming into the safety of the stable yard and the owner ran to catch me as my legs gave way and I fell sobbing to the floor. Again the police were called. Again he had vanished. Arrangements were made for someone else to care for my horse. My life shut down.
            When I was informed that he had been caught, freedom fizzed through me with each liberated heart beat. He had been living rough for months, bivouacked in the hawthorn by the stables. Watching  and waiting. I felt the delicious stability of safety. I began to live again and attended a friend’s work’s Christmas Party at a remote venue way out in the Pennines. The party was in full swing and I was squashed in the throng of revellers with Slade’s ‘Merry Christmas’ pounding away.  Suddenly he was in front of me, a pint in one hand and an odd smile below even odder eyes. Stunned disbelief halted everything. I grasped for my voice but it had deserted me along with my breath. He pushed me into an alcove. My scream was shut off by him grabbing my jaw and wrenching my head back, smashing it against the stone wall. In the red flare of pain I knew that he was going to kill me and understood what it was to be paralysed by fear. Holding me by the neck with his right hand he relaxed and looked straight into my eyes and for a second there was almost a connection. Then his mouth curled into a grimace and he lunged towards me with his left hand, still holding the pint. At the last second he diverted, driving the glass against the wall, inches from my face, covering me with broken glass and the lager stench of reprieve, then he turned and ran. Again he disappeared.
            The police found no sign of him and felt that it was safe to leave while they continued their search. My parents had arrived in a taxi to take me home. There was nothing around but the moon lying heavy on the hills illuminating the unmade track that led to the road. As we bumped along, there was a sudden blurred movement from the side and he leapt out of the night and clung onto the back of the taxi like something out of a horror film. His face was that of an animal. The driver accelerated desperately and the taxi bumped wildly throwing him off. Rid of him we sped home.
I have never seen him since. I’ve moved house several times but I know that twice he has traced my address. Nearly thirty years later I am still wary. He is still out there. I scan faces in crowds and watch the land around me. Who knows what lurks in the woods. I screen my phone-calls and choose my friends carefully. I like to see who is approaching my home.  As they say; you always remember your first love.


No comments:

Post a Comment