The Naming of Plants

Fiction
Gwenda Major


Photo Credit: Seán Ó Domhnaill/Flickr (CC-by-nc-nd)

Ok, so some people might think a graveyard isn’t a suitable place for a child to play. But I disagree. I’m not talking about one of those soulless city cemeteries. I admit they can be bleak. No, I’m talking about small church graveyards like the one near us in the village. I’d always loved it even before we had Molly: the lichen-encrusted slabs, the old trees and shrubs, the weathered headstones.

 

And since things started to go wrong at home I’ve been coming here a lot. As soon as I step in through the lych-gate I feel a sense of peace. All the emotion and anxiety disappears. I can sit for hours on one of the benches just thinking, trying to work out what to do, what the future holds. I know it’s a cliché but the graveyard really is an oasis of calm, a place for reflection and yes, even for dreaming. What might have been. What the future might hold.

 

Recently I started bringing Molly with me—only when she’s not at nursery, of course, maybe at the end of a walk or just when I can’t bear to be in the house anymore. To her it’s just a lovely green space to play in. Nothing morbid or sad about it. She loves to run about and play hide-and-seek behind the gravestones. When we came in the spring she picked wildflowers and we learnt their names together—buttercup, daisy, forget-me-not, dandelion, speedwell. I talked to her about the old trees and how some of them might have been there even before the church was built.

Of course, she asked me about the headstones and I told her the truth, that they’re to help us remember people who have gone away. I don’t believe in lying to children. Which is why I’ve been honest with Molly about what she hears at night sometimes, the shouting, the angry words.

“Mummy and Daddy don’t always agree about things, you see,” I told her. “Daddy gets cross and then he shouts because he thinks I’m not listening. But I do listen. I hear every word he says.”

“I listen, don’t I, Mummy?” Molly said. “Buttercup, daisy, forget-me-not, dandelion, speedwell.” She did a wobbly pirouette on the grass.

“That’s right my pet. Clever girl.”

 

Things got worse and worse at home. Martin was like a record stuck in a groove. Since he found out about me and Dan he’s been obsessed. I told him we all make mistakes, but you have to move on eventually, forgive and forget. But he couldn’t.

I have tried to make a go of it—for Molly’s sake. I really have. But I wasn’t sure how much longer I could go on like this. The atmosphere was poisonous. Not good for any of us. And whenever I tried to look ahead I just knew it was going to be up to me to make a move.

 

Autumn’s heading towards winter now. Gloomy days and even darker nights. The house was beginning to feel even more like a prison. So Molly and I were going out as much as we could when the weather allowed. Like we did a few weeks ago. We had a lovely walk together through the woods, scrunching through leaves, talking about the trees and flowers, dropping sticks into the little beck.

On the way home we had to pass the churchyard. I suppose I just wanted to delay getting back to the house, back to the inevitable rows and recriminations. It was only for an extra ten minutes or so as it was getting towards dusk but Molly had a lovely time racing around.

“Look, Mummy—look at all the different leaves I’ve found.”

“That one’s a sycamore and that’s an oak—you can tell by the curvy edges. And that’s a horse chestnut. It’s just like a huge hand isn’t it?”

“Can we take some back home for Daddy? He’d like to see them all.”

“Yes, that’s a lovely idea. I think I’ve got a plastic bag in my pocket you can pop them into. Off you go—see how many you can find.”

She skipped off and came back with a bagful of crisp autumn leaves, gleaming colours ranging from russet to yellow. She was so pleased with herself.

“Can I put some of these berries in the bag, too, Mummy? They’re so pretty. Like little red jewels.”

“You’re right, they are pretty. Yes, that’s fine—but not the squishy ones. Just a few of the nice round ones. Now we’d better go or it will be dark before we get back.”

 

My point is you can’t blame a four-year-old for something they don’t understand. I’m just so glad Molly was in bed by the time Martin started to feel ill. First he said he felt shivery so I told him he must have caught a chill at the weekend when we went to the seaside. But then, when he got up to go upstairs, he started to stagger and had to grab on to the banisters to stop himself falling.

“I feel so cold, Becky. Freezing cold.”

I went into the kitchen to boil the kettle for a hot drink to take upstairs with him. By the time I got back he’d collapsed, lying sprawled across the bottom of the stairs. His colour didn’t look good and I could only feel a really faint pulse.

I don’t know why the ambulance took so long to arrive but it’s no use blaming anyone now is it?

Of course they had to do a postmortem as it was all so sudden. Taxine alkaloid ingestion, they said. Had I any idea how Martin could have eaten yew berries?

I explained that Molly and I had been in the churchyard and that she’d collected leaves to bring home to her daddy. “She must have popped some yew berries in, too,” I said. “We had fruit salad for dessert—maybe she added her berries to Martin’s dish while we were out of the room? She probably thought they looked pretty. She would only be trying to please him.”

 

Everyone agrees the main thing is not to burden Molly with any feelings of guilt. No one wants her to have something like that hanging over her for the rest of her life.

So it’s early days but I think she’s beginning to accept that Daddy is in the churchyard now with all the other people who have gone away.

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Gwenda Major lives in the Lake District in the UK. Her passions are for genealogy, gardening and graveyards. Gwenda’s stories have featured in numerous print and digital publications. Most recently her short stories have been published in Dodging the Rain, Toasted Cheese, Retreat West, Brilliant Flash Fiction and Bandit Fiction. Gwenda has also written four novels and three novellas. Her novella Offcomers won first prize in the NAWG Open Novella Competition in December 2016 and others have been either shortlisted or longlisted in national competitions. Email: gwendamajor[at]hotmail.com

The Dare

Fiction
Gwenda Major


Photo Credit: Mark Morton/Flickr (CC-by)

“Excuse me. I wonder if you’ve heard the news. The Russians have launched a missile. The world will be ending soon.”

His name was Alfred and he was smiling. The two children exchanged a look of fear.

Dad said he couldn’t help it. Alfred was to have been a doctor, Dad said, but he’d had a breakdown, ended up here in their market garden doing odd jobs and labouring. He had a way of approaching very quietly. They’d turn round and he’d be there. Always smiling. And talking evenly in his polite, expressionless voice.

At the beginning, the children had stood transfixed by curiosity, giggling, unsure how to react. But gradually the smooth flow of his words began to scare them, so now they ran from him, chasing each other, pretending it was all part of a game.

The market garden was the children’s own beautiful dangerous playground in which they knew every inch of the acres of land and greenhouses. It was another world, a world of space, secret hiding places, smells, and dangers. When they went home at teatime they felt caged, their nerves still taut, senses alert. Now Alfred had intruded on their world and for that they hated him.

Freddy was nine and Hazel two years younger but she kept up with her brother in most things, ran as fast, climbed as fearlessly, played as wildly. If they found a new game, it was Hazel who dared Freddy to do it. She had a way of looking at him without words, throwing down the dare.

Their new game had been to build a shack out of old broken boxes and bits of wood. They furnished it with empty diesel cans and filthy sacks, rigged up a roof from old tarpaulins. The finished construction was foul-smelling and crawling with insect life and well hidden behind the tractor sheds. As the children emerged at the end of the day they came face to face with Alfred; he was standing there smiling, a spade balanced over one shoulder.

“Excuse me. I don’t know if you’re interested but I’ve just received a communication. The Martians have finally landed. They’ll be taking over any day now.”

Hazel gave her brother an anguished look and they ran, breaking apart to pass on either side of the intruder. Why couldn’t he leave them alone?

The next day they decided to explore the greenhouses. As they tugged open the first door, they were hit with the overpowering heat and ripe reek of the tomatoes. Balancing on the heating pipes they walked the length of the greenhouse, brushing their fingers along the hairy fragrant stems of the plants, occasionally breaking off a small green tomato. They lobbed the fruit into the water tank, disturbing the weeds and scum.

The other day they had watched Dad and Ned beat a rat to death here. It had swum frantically from the tank through a connecting pipe into the tank in the adjacent greenhouse, over and over again, mad in its frenzy to escape. At each end, blows from a spade and a shovel met the animal and in the end it was dead.

Later, the huge rhubarb house became their haunt. It was a vast, corrugated barn kept in total darkness by thick, creaky wooden shutters. One of them would go inside, watching the sunlight narrow to a crack as the other swung the big heavy door shut and threw the bolt across. The dare was to endure the pitch blackness as long as possible, mastering their rising terror of all the groans and creaks. Three steady knocks meant, ‘let me out,’ and each time Hazel lasted the longest.

The third week of the summer holidays was unbearably hot. The cracks in the soil were like open wounds and the sky was an unbroken blue. Near the water tanks a dead frog lay flat and stiff.

They had played all morning on the roof of one of the old concrete shelters. By propping a plank against one side wall they could run straight up onto the roof and lie spreadeagled on the sloping concrete. The overhanging branches of an old oak tree allowed them to swing down to the ground. Eventually the concrete was so hot it became unbearable.

“Let’s go to the tractor shed,” Hazel said, but once inside they realised it wasn’t such a good idea after all. It was even hotter in there, the air heavy with the stench of oil and machinery. They took turns bouncing on the driving seat of the biggest tractor, twisting the wheel to and fro, the coarse sacking of the seat prickling their bare thighs.

“It’s my turn now, Freddy. Come on,” Hazel said, but her brother was staring straight past her. Hazel followed his eyes and saw Alfred standing in the doorway, leaning on a big shovel.

“I heard voices,” he began conversationally. “I wonder if you’d be interested in my discovery? I’ve been digging in the big fire hole and I’ve come across a live landmine from the war. I expect it to explode in about fifteen minutes so you’ve plenty of time.” Alfred turned and walked away, dragging the shovel along the ground with a harsh, grating sound.

At first Hazel and Freddy did not react. Then Hazel said, “Let’s go.”

“Are you sure?” Freddy hesitated.

“Yes—we’ve got to.”

It wasn’t far to the fire holes, deep brick pits that housed the coal furnaces to heat the greenhouses. The children were strictly forbidden to climb down but often peered in, drawn by the glistening heaps of coal and the fierce crackling heat coming from the black furnace doors. Alfred was already standing on the edge of the biggest pit, wiping his forehead with a large, greasy handkerchief. He turned and smiled at them.

“If you stand over there,” he began, “you’ll be able to hear it ticking clearly.” He looked so pleased and welcoming, his eyes smiling brightly behind his round glasses. Alfred waited patiently, a tour guide presenting a marvel. Beyond him the sun glinted on the heaps of coal.

Hazel looked at Freddy and he glanced away uncomfortably. He knew that expression. It was a dare.

Freddy forced himself to look at Alfred, still standing smiling on the edge of the fire hole. Without warning Freddy ran forward and pushed Alfred with a short jab. The man stumbled backwards, his hands clutching at the air. He looked surprised but made no sound as he toppled and fell. Hazel stepped forward and saw Alfred’s head strike the corner of the furnace. Then he lay still, his hands still outstretched.

Hazel caught hold of Freddy’s arm and nipped him hard so he squealed.

“Come on,” she said. “We’d better tell Dad there’s been an accident.”

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Gwenda Major lives in the South Lakes area of the UK. Her passions are genealogy, gardening and graveyards. Gwenda’s stories have featured in numerous publications, both in print and online. She has written four novels and two novellas; Offcomers won first prize in the NAWG (National Association of Writers’ Groups) Open Novella competition in December 2016 and three others have been either shortlisted or longlisted in national UK competitions. Email: gwendamajor[at]hotmail.com

Travelling With Ashes

Beaver’s Pick
Gwenda Major


Photo Credit: Enkhtuvshin/Flickr (CC-by)

When Bob dropped down dead as he was hoeing between the rows of leeks, the last thing on Ellen’s mind was the trip to Budapest. And yet here she was, sitting on the balcony of the Hotel Gellert with a cup of tea and looking down on the huge squat tourist boats gliding along the sparkling Danube below.

“Do you think Dad realised how noisy it would be when he booked this hotel?” Rebecca sipped her tea and sighed again as a long yellow tram squealed and creaked its way off the Freedom Bridge and on to the riverside rails. Rebecca had been doing a lot of sighing since she and her mother had arrived on Tuesday.

“I don’t know love—but it wouldn’t have bothered him anyway. You know how he loved to watch traffic. Just look—you can see trams, cars, buses, boats and bikes—and there’s even a metro entrance over there. He would have been in heaven.”

“Mum—that’s inappropriate” Rebecca chided, frowning. She’d also been doing a lot of frowning in the last few days.

“Sorry—just a turn of phrase.” Ellen did not want to get into a pointless argument about semantics with her daughter. There was enough tension in the air already. “Can I get you another cup of tea? And aren’t you glad I packed the travel kettle? Why is it they never have hospitality trays in the rooms?”

“No, thanks—the tea just doesn’t taste the same—I suppose it’s the water.”

Rebecca had always been hard to please, reflected Ellen. Even as a little girl. I don’t want that dress, I want this one. I don’t want gravy on my vegetables, just on the side. I don’t want to see a film, I want to go ice skating. Contrary by nature. Bob doted on her of course. Couldn’t do enough for her. And Rebecca had always known she could wind him around her little finger. Just a pout or a frown and she’d get her own way. Ellen had given up arguing with Bob about it after a while. Saw it was useless.

 

The sad thing was that Bob had always wanted to see Budapest. “One of the best public transport systems in Europe,” he’d said. And had then added in a tone of wonderment, “and eighty percent of the city was destroyed after the Second World War.”

The Hotel Gellert was his choice too. Naturally he wasn’t to know he would die from a sudden massive heart attack only two weeks before their departure date. Which was a blessing really. No one wants to dwell on their imminent mortality do they?

Ellen had initially thought that setting off only days after the funeral seemed a little hasty. Lacking in respect somehow, but Rebecca had persuaded her—“Dad would have hated the idea of wasting the flight and the hotel booking,” she said. And going together meant they could share memories of Dad, make it a sort of tribute to him. Ellen had her doubts on that score too but said nothing. But when she mentioned she was thinking of bringing some of Bob’s ashes with them, Rebecca reacted with horror.

“I thought you said he always wanted his ashes spread at Morecambe—on the sea?”

“Well yes he did—where his family spent their summer holidays. And I will—most of them. I just thought it would be a good idea to bring some with us, so that a small part of your dad will have made it to Budapest after all.” In actual fact Bob had never given any indication of where he wanted his ashes spread—he hadn’t quite reached that age where it seems sensible to consider such matters. Ellen had thought the little white lie might be helpful to Rebecca, give her a focus for her grief. She should have known better of course.

Ellen stuck to her guns this time but then Rebecca went and googled ‘travelling with ashes’ and discovered it was recommended to carry a copy of the death certificate as well as the cremation certificate, plus a statement from the crematorium confirming the ashes belonged only to the person named. As if you would mix them with someone else’s, Ellen thought. The advice went on to say it would also be a good idea to inform the airline and possibly even contact the embassy in your destination country. “So you can see it’s out of the question mother,” Rebecca concluded with a note of satisfaction.

“That’s ridiculous” Ellen had argued. “I’m only bringing a token amount, not the whole contents of the urn. Nobody will be any the wiser.” She was quite firm about it so there was nothing Rebecca could do—except sulk. Which she did and was still doing—on and off.

 

Ellen gazed across at Gellert Hill. She’d read that Saint Gerard had been thrown off from the top in a barrel in the eleventh century, poor man. And further down was the entrance to the caves that had been a chapel and then a field hospital for the Nazis. It seemed Budapest had been invaded by all and sundry over the centuries. So much misery and pain. No wonder a lot of the Hungarians looked glum. Not surprising after what they’d gone through.

Rebecca didn’t seem very interested in the history which was a shame. She seemed to have decided that her being there at all was an act of great sacrifice on her part and that she was only doing it for her father. Whereas Ellen suspected she hadn’t been able to resist the idea of a free holiday—especially after her split with Mark. Maybe I’m being uncharitable she thought—but I do wish she would stop finding fault with everything. Like the hotel for example—the exterior of the Gellert was unquestionably magnificent, rising in its Art Nouveau splendour above the banks of the Danube, but it couldn’t be denied that the rooms were very dated and on the edge of shabby.

“Just look at that bath, Mother,” Rebecca had declared, pointing at the brown water stain below the taps. “And that shower head isn’t fixed on the wall properly.” Within minutes of arriving she had started to make a list of all the defects: the chipped tiles around the toilet, the rough surface in the bath where the enamel had worn away, the threadbare areas of the carpet, the dreary curtains. “I’ll do a review on TripAdvisor when we get back,” she said with grim satisfaction.

“Faded grandeur,” Ellen attempted in the hotel’s defence. “I agree it could all do with an update but I like it.” She wandered around on her own on the first morning, taking in the marble pillars, the luminous stained glass on the stairs, the wrought iron work and wood panelling. It’s like stepping back in time, she thought.

For the first few days they did the tourist round—a tour of the city on an open-topped bus, a cruise on the Danube, a trip to Margaret Island in the river with its water fountains and parks and a funicular ride up to the Royal Palace and National Gallery. On each trip Rebecca would murmur, “Dad would have loved this” or “poor Dad, he’ll never see this now” with a sniff and a wistful look. But she refused to accompany her mother into the famous Gellert baths next to the hotel, saying it would be a breeding ground for bacteria, so Ellen found herself sitting alone in the hot outdoor pool watching the dappled sunlight dance on the water. Later on she padded down to the tiled splendour of the thermal pools. I feel like an ancient Roman, Ellen thought to herself as she stretched her legs luxuriously in the forty-degree water, smiling indulgently at the sly kissing cherubs above the tiled doorway.

 

On their fourth morning Ellen crept out of bed at six and dressed quickly and quietly in the bathroom. She thought about leaving a note for Rebecca but decided she’d be back before she was missed. She eased the door open carefully and walked softly down the wide corridor. There was nobody about. Rather than use the lift she tiptoed down the graceful staircase to the lobby where a sleepy receptionist nodded at her without curiosity. Outside Ellen paused for a moment, breathing in the fresh chill air with its hint of sulphur. A hazy mist floated over the metallic surface of the Danube. It was very quiet. Ellen crossed the road and started climbing the steep concrete steps that wound up Gellert Hill. After ten minutes she reached a spot where there was a view down over Freedom Bridge and right along the river towards the Chain Bridge and the Parliament buildings. Her heart was pounding with the effort of the climb but her mind was clear. Carefully she took out the little Tupperware box from her pocket and prised open the lid.

No one can ever know what goes on inside a relationship, Ellen thought, and she had no intention of trying to tell Rebecca now. She had her own image of her father and that was only right. Bob had not been a bad man but he had been a difficult man, a bully who lacked empathy and consideration, a man who had never made Ellen feel wanted or happy. Perhaps she had been wrong to stay with him all these years. She accepted she was partly to blame.

 

Ellen shook out the contents of the little box on to the grass that sloped down on the other side of the railings. The ashes descended in a powdery cascade and then lay in a silvery sheen on the dewy grass. “Goodbye Bob,” she murmured. Ever since the funeral Ellen had still half-expected to hear his car on the drive and his voice shouting, “I’m home.” But now she finally knew he was gone. The sense of relief was overwhelming. Ellen gently tapped out the last of the ashes—let the bad go with the good. And then, taking one last look at the view, she turned and made her way cautiously down the uneven steps back to the hotel.

“Where on earth have you been mother?” Rebecca’s voice was shrill. “I was worried sick. I was just on the point of phoning Reception to report you missing.”

“Don’t be silly, Rebecca. I wasn’t missing. I just thought I’d go and spread your father’s ashes quietly on my own. I didn’t think you’d mind—we can do the rest together at Morecambe when we get home.”

For once Rebecca seemed to have little to say. Sitting up in bed in her pyjamas she looked more vulnerable and much younger. “What were you thinking of mother?” she wailed.

Deliberately misunderstanding her daughter Ellen replied, “Well, actually I was thinking how nice it would be to do one of those river cruises. After we get home I might look into it for next year.”

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Gwenda Major lives in the South Lakes area of the UK. Her passions are genealogy, gardening and graveyards. Gwenda’s stories have featured in numerous publications. She has written four novels and two novellas; three have been either longlisted or shortlisted for national competitions. Email: gwendamajor[at]hotmail.com