March 2016 Competition Winner


Colette Coen

It was months since the funeral, and the grass and weeds had taken full advantage of a wet spring. As she drank her morning coffee Cynthia gazed out into the garden. The once manicured lawn now sported dandelions and wild red poppies spread through the beds. Martin had devoted half of his life to it, pruning roses and clipping hedges until a coping stone, broken hip and pneumonia cut him down.
She knew that the neighbours looked on the garden as a sign of her mourning, as if she was too depressed to leave the house and pick up his tools. The young man next door had even offered to help, but she refused and handed him whisky instead of a spade. She had no desire, she told him, to carry on Martin’s futile battle against nature.
She did clear out his shed though, opening the door as if it were the entrance to Aladdin’s cave. But there was no porn, no whisky bottles, no sign of any peccadilloes whatsoever that might have explained its mysterious hold over him. An ordinary garden shed with rakes and trowels and weed killer. An ordinary garden shed which had become more attractive to him than her.
He had found her one May Day morning, face down on the lawn, washing in the dew. He used to understand her ritual, now he muttered ‘Drunk’ under his breath and stepped over her. She spat out the grass, added droplets of salt water to the ground and felt hate for him for the first time. She could not be shaped like a privet hedge, or trained like clematis, so she had been discarded like a dug up annual. Thrown on the compost heap and left to rot, emitting heat and stink as she did.
In July her son visited again from Manchester and spent his entire weekend putting things right. As a child he had created mud patches as he practised his dribbling skills up and down the grass. Now he powered up the lawn mower for the first cut of the season; pulled out the weeds and wildflowers with no thought to their usefulness. And with outward respectability restored, he returned south to his own suburban idyll.
Within a fortnight the weeds had sprouted again, and Cynthia laughed until she cried. The garden had increasingly become a barrier between them. Even on good days when she wanted to enjoy the fruits of his labour, sit with a G&T and a book; throw the odd compliment about his dahlias; he seemed to resent the intrusion. He would Latinate the flower names in response to any query and snap off any attempt at conversation.
There was a time when they gardened together; pouring over library books; making joint decisions in the garden centre; agreeing on a new theme. He used to cut the floribunda for her and for days the house would be rejoice in their colour. But he hated watching the cut flowers die, so he dug out the roses and replaced them with potatoes. Then he pulled up the hydrangeas with their watery hues and replaced them with pebbles, hostas and hardy shrubs. But the worst thing that he did, on the last day they gardened together, was to pull out the swing set and take it to the dump. ‘Robbie’s too old for swings now,’ he reasoned, but she screamed at him as he drove away: ‘We’re not finished with them yet. I’m not finished with them.’
When night frosts were forecast, and her feet remained cold, he would rush out to the garden and lay newspapers and blankets over his precious shrubs. Then he would tramp his mud into her kitchen and soil her sink with his blackened hands.
Even when they were parted by the walls of the house he could irritate her. The gentle snipping and purr of the lawn mower, that had been the sound of their early years, gave way to strimmers and cutters and blowers, all plugged in and turbo charged. There was no peace to be had for miles around, but jukeboxes and bingo callers could drown out the noise.
Autumn came and the leaves lay where they fell and turned to slippery brown mush. Mice settled down for winter in the compost bin, and the vegetables rotted in the ground. She kept herself indoors plumping cushions and dusting ornaments, but also began to search more frantically around the house for evidence that Martin was ever there. It was always her domain, but she had never appreciated how little impact Martin had made, or maybe how little impact she had let him make. She began to question if she had excluded him from the house, in the same way that he shut her out from the garden. Maybe he stopped bringing her flowers when she complained one time too many that the petals made too much of a mess when they shed; or that the smell of the flowers was overpowering the Glade. Maybe she made the house too claustrophobic for him, with all her nick-nacks and needlepoint. Maybe the way she had watched him from the backdoor felt as though she was blocking the way in.
At dawn on the shortest day Cynthia scattered Martin’s ashes on the frost-covered grass, keeping him a thaw away from his beloved soil. She raised a glass to him, then threw back the whisky that she had used to fertilise her life, now realising how it had shrivelled her at the very root.
Next spring she would collect seeds of wildflowers and plant forget-me-nots and bushes that would give berries. She would put up boxes, baths and sugar-soaked sponges and would watch patiently for the bees and the butterflies and the birds to come. They would fly, flutter, sing and pollinate and with new life resplendent, she would move on.