Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree...
By Liane Smith -
I parted the branches of the hibiscus to get a better view of the alien plant. Its stem projected upward from the centre of a dark leaf rosette and its thrusting tip was aimed straight at the overhanging blossoms of the apple tree. It made me think of a missile on a rocket launching pad. There was nothing exploratory about its habit – it sat there, as if expected, a prearranged gap in the border waiting to be filled, like the numbered outline in a child’s drawing book.
My garden was not large and it needed careful planning. Not for me the random scattering of wild flower, part-mown lawn, the untidiness of naturalised crocus. There was no more space in my garden for unscheduled arrivals than there was in my life.
“You may have to go,” I said to the interloper, wondering where I’d put the spade.
The phone rang. Emmy, in her usual state.
“It’s her again!”
“Hi, Em,” I said. “What was that you said?” I reached for the coffee tin, buying time – it sounded like a two cup conversation.
“I’m sure he’s seeing her!”
I put the phone on speaker and filled the percolator with water.
“What makes you think that?”
“He’s too explicit with his excuses – too much detail.”
“D’you suppose he’s remembering last time, when you were convinced she was back and it turned out he was meeting the kids, planning that surprise birthday rave?”
“This is different. Then, he was – smug and jokey. This time he’s …”
Her hesitation hung there, begging for a prompt. I measured three spoonfuls into the percolator basket and put the lid back on.
“So, tell me, what’s changed, this time?”
“Just – oh, like I said, just too – rehearsed. It’s like listening to a recorded announcement about train delays.”
“Well, he’s always been a bit OCD about punctuality,” I said. He had. I set the jug on the burner and pressed the ignite button but, as usual, it didn’t work.
“You say he’s obsessional – Anna, what are you doing, it sounds like a factory assembly line there – are you listening to me?”
“Of course I am,” I said, finding the gas gun. “Just a spot of bother with the cooker.” Ignition. “I’m all yours.”
It was a three cup conversation.
I’d taken the following day off in lieu, so when my plans fell through – nothing new there, then – I decided to spend it working in the garden, there was plenty to do. I’d transplant the spinach seedlings into those small organic pots, very satisfying. Stake and tie the tomatoes. Generally potter about.
It was only when I went to water the shrubs under the apple tree that I remembered the missile. The hibiscus had made new shoots, like a child’s fingers disclosing a secret, and the cotinus was waving its purple discs about as if disclaiming all responsibility. No sign of the alien – could I have dreamt it? I parted the hibiscus leaves – and there it was.
The plant seemed to have bent at the waist and was now growing horizontally, sheltering under the protective foliage as if it had heard my threat and was trying to hide itself. By chance, my hand brushed its evasive head and I drew back sharply – how ridiculous was that! I noticed that the sinuous tip resembled an anteater’s proboscis. Was it insectivorous? A cousin of the Venus flytrap, perhaps? A robin hopped over and we scrutinised the intruder together. Below the head were a series of scaly ridges, followed by a defensive skirt of sharp bladed leaves: it rather reminded me of Alice with her undulating neck after she’d nibbled too much mushroom. Hey! I thought. This is no Wonderland, this is my small garden.
The robin flew away. I let the branch spring back and went inside to check out giant hogweed. No resemblance. I was about to Google flesh eating plants when the phone rang.
Emmy sounded hysterical.
“I’m absolutely certain it’s her again! I’d been so sure I was rid of her after that time last Christmas.”
I reached for the kettle.
“You never had real evidence, did you?” I said. “Bill didn’t admit to anything.”
“So what does that prove?”
“Nothing, of course, but I thought you'd both agreed it was better to put it behind you, whatever it was, you seemed ok with that then – anyway, what makes you so sure she’s back in the picture?”
“It’s what happens with compromise, isn’t it?” She was crying now. “No-one’s really happy and now it seems like she was biding her time, just waiting for the gap in his defences …” The cliches showered down like summer rain. “Why did I go to that book fair? Your fault, persuading me – no commissions and left the field clear for her.”
I held the phone away from my ear as she blew her nose.
“It’s got to be her, that little cow from the Planning Department, the one I caught him out with at the party …” Her voice dissolved into self-righteous sobs. “How could he, after I’d been so supportive, driving him to work – how did he get that hernia, anyway? Heaven knows he doesn’t exert himself in our bed.”
I tried not to laugh. My sister was indeed supportive – like a clothes prop – carriage upright and stance inflexible. She called it keeping up standards but I called it being a prig. And, like a clothes prop, she was liable to fall over when the wind changed. While the kids were still at home things had been relatively steady: as the demand for illustrators became scarcer, she’d recast herself as ‘natural home maker’, but with my nephews gone there was nothing to cushion her reality – and her reality was unfaithful Bill. I felt a pang of sympathy.
“Anna, did you hear what I said?”
“Of course I did, how about lunch next Wednesday? We could meet at the RHS, check out the azaleas – what do you think?”
I knew the girl from Planning. Slender, bright-eyed, insubstantial – rather like the fragile flower that arrived in my garden a month ago, another uninvited visitor with a jointed stem like a carnation’s and, about four feet up, a purple star flower, spiked petals fanning out from a jewelled heart. Five flowers in all, each over in a day, its sepals closing like crossed fingers. After this brief season the plant leaned its spindly limbs against the bird bath and turned its seed heads towards the fence as if withdrawing from a troublesome conversation.
As for the girl from Planning, there’d been a showdown, my sister storming up to the offices and demanding to see her: embarrassment all round. It had probably been no more than a grope in a cupboard but Em linked the unfortunate Gabriella with a long line of home-late excuses and in the end it seemed easier to let her deal with her anxieties by pinning them on a girl who could shrug and laugh it off.
I’d crossed my fingers that my sister would pick up her life and, wonder of wonders, she did just that – as if, once she’d extracted what she needed to hear from Bill, she could put it down to mid-life crisis and move on. She took up her freelance work again, went down to Cornwall for a book fair and had a great time, but it was that time away which was now the focus for her renewed suspicions. I thought again, what an idiot my brother-in-law was, why couldn’t he cover his tracks better, it wasn’t that hard.
The next morning was Saturday and I was up earlier than usual; it had not been a good night. Still barefoot, I went out to check the alien. Ridiculous, I know, but it had been on my mind off and on all the previous day and I’d only just stopped myself taking a torch down the garden when I got home – tired as I was.
I peered through the leaves of the hibiscus. The plant’s horizontal habit was more established. It seemed to be tunnelling through the shrub, the proboscis longer, the neck platelets separating, revealing bud-like pouches – containing what? Some venomous substance, ready to blister my arms? Or a host of tiny seeds, an invasive army that would take over the border, the garden, then the terrace and … stop! Time to put an end to this paranoia. I straightened my back, fetched my gauntlet gardening gloves and got the spade from the shed.
It came up easily, roots intact. I carried the rigid body before me, like a thing unclean. With one hand I lifted the lid the green bin lid, slid the corpse over the edge, heard the soft thud as it landed and, despite myself, peered inside. It lay on a bed of shrivelled borage leaves, the curved head, body and rootball forming a perfect question mark. As I lowered the lid I felt relief to have banished it from my orderly garden – and guilt, too – well, it was a living thing and the only crime committed had been mine. Never mind, it was done now. I peeled off my gloves and, like Pontius Pilate, went to wash my hands.
My sister was looking good. The skin under her eyes had a tautness that I envied her and she’d had her hair cut differently.
“Great look, Em,” I said.
“Ah – thank you – I’m really sorry for all the hassle, Anna,” she said. “Lunch on me, no arguments.” She reached across the table, grasped my hand and squeezed it. “You’ve been really patient with me,” she said. “I know how I witter on, but – oh, I can’t tell you what a relief it’s been to find out it was you, all along!”
A drumming in my ears made it hard to concentrate on what she was saying.
“How did you manage to keep schtum about it? Bill’s told me all of it now, how he got the firm to agree to my going with him for the summer conference, I can hardly believe it! You know how I’ve longed to go to St.Petersburg, the Hermitage, that extraordinary northern light – wanted to surprise me, he said, but once I’d found the tickets in his desk it was time to spill the beans.”
I registered the cliche but was having trouble, processing it. Her voice went on and on.
“Bill told me how you organised the visa photos, the jabs, everything – pretending you were me, how clever of you, Anna!” She leaned forward, tightening the pressure of her hand on mine. “No-one else could have done it, of course – you even ordered the special diet, thank you!”
My ears went into filter mode as my twin prattled on about blinis and Bogdanov and Bill. I pushed the remains of my wilted spinach to one side. Of course I’d checked with the hotel about the menus, why wouldn’t I? But not on my sister’s behalf. Mirror twins always have a lot in common: we had Coeliac disease, a love of gardens – and Bill.
“Funny thing, though,” she said, as we left the restaurant, “considering how super-efficient you always are – the visa application had your name on it – slip of the hand, I guess – but I spotted it and changed the name to mine, before I sent it off.”
As we parted, she thrust a carrier at me.
“I found it in the garden shop while you were in the loo,” she said. “It should be fine, though it’s really a bit late in the season.”
The plant that nestled in the folds of the bag was familiar to me in every respect but one: the upright carriage of its delicate head.
“It’s a foxglove,” said Em, as I looked questioningly at her. “A lovely one – should do well, under your apple tree.”
That evening, back in my garden, the robin drifted by like an autumn leaf and landed on the birdbath, tipping his head at me, his black eyes interrogative. Close by him the star flower had uncrossed its fingers and produced a single puffball. It took just two breaths to disperse the seeds. Loves me, loves me not.
Liane Smith writes non-fiction, children’s stories and literary short fiction with a thread of magic realism. She has been a shop assistant, a translator-scribe for government conferences, a speech and language therapist and, now in retirement, a crisis-line volunteer. Her children’s stories were published in a BBC collection, Bertha the Tanker, and a feature on autism, Communicating with Caroline, appeared in the Independent on Sunday. Recent short fiction publications include Never Forget in LitroNY Magazine; Felix and the Pigeons in Flash Fiction Magazine, After Hours Service in the First Cranked Anvil Short Story Anthology and a not-for-profit short story collection with The Broadie Magazine. You can find her on Twitter @LianeWaveCrest or on her website lianesmith.bigcartel.com.