Thrive – a short story

Thrive

 

A marrow is a courgette that has been allowed to grow too large.

A courgette is a marrow that has been harvested too early.

 

It had been John’s idea to ask her mum to come to the allotment. He’d come up behind her as she was chopping carrots, and placed the flyer on the surface next to the wooden board.

“I saw this,” he’d said. “What do you think?” He’d kissed her on the shoulder and turned away. Her chopping board was overflowing, a circle of carrot rolled off and fell on the floor. She glanced at the leaflet:

 

T H R I V E

A horticultural charity using gardening to improve physical and mental health, communication skills and relationsh—

 

She picked up the board and tumbled the carrot slices into the waiting pot of bubbling water.

 

A small part of Juliet had hoped her mother wouldn’t turn up. That she would be able to spend this day at the allotment herself, just the way she always did. But she had come. Juliet had been kneeling, bent over her seed box, when an unnecessary pair of wellies had stepped into her view.

“Juliet. Hello. I hope I brought the right tools.” Her mother placed a smart black bucket next to her feet. Juliet noticed that the little trowel, fork, pair of secateurs and roll of green wire were all good quality, and new. Each had a bright orange tag attached, labelling them as Gardener’s Essentials. There were a matching pair of gardening gloves folded into the pocket of her trousers, which had freshly-ironed pleats down the middle of each leg. Juliet knelt back on the balls of her feet and stood up. Slight tingles went through her legs.

“Mum, hi.”

They stood on either side of the seed box for a minute, until Juliet offered her mother a cup of tea.

“Do you have coffee? I tend not to drink tea anymore,” her mother replied.

Juliet offered instant.

There was a brief pause before her mother accepted. “Where do we have it?” she asked.        Juliet said they’d have it outside, just there, and that she’d be back in a minute.

 

Behind the safety of the car, Juliet rested her hands on the tailgate until the steamy clouds of her breath came less regularly. She poured water from a Thermos over the coffee granules, spilling some as she did so. The hot water hit the bottom of the cup and turned a dark brown. She hesitated over a sachet of sugar, before picking it up anyway.

 

When she came back her mother was sitting on the closed lid of the seed-box, oversized and floundering. Juliet handed her the coffee, and sat down cross-legged on the ground beside her. She fiddled with the sachet of sugar. Juliet asked her mother if she had found the place alright.

“Oh, yes, yes. Quite alright. You know me, I like to travel,” her mother responded.

Juliet said it had been hellish getting here since the roadworks started. Her mother sipped her coffee.

 

Juliet’s mother and father had gone through a messy divorce. She’d been sixteen at the time, so Juliet was asked by a kind, elderly judge that had reminded her of her chemistry teacher at school, which parent she would rather live with. Juliet and her mother had not got on well during her teenage years. She had chosen her father. At the time, she had thought that that was what her mother would have wanted too.

 

After the divorce, Juliet had spent every other weekend with her mother, visits that after the first night felt awkward and endless. Her mother ran out of questions about her father, and Juliet ran out of replies. They sat there, turning the pages of the books and magazines they’d picked up to read, but were not. Juliet’s mother bent books backwards along their spines every time she turned a page. It drove Juliet mad. Her mother, in turn, was unexpectedly glad to see her father when he arrived to collect Juliet. He took the warm welcome as a sign of forgiveness, and recognition, rather than relief. When Juliet moved away for university, the bi-weekly visits became impractical and were replaced with phone calls that opened with one warning the other that they couldn’t speak for long. By the time Juliet came home for summer, the calls had been replaced with texts, and there was no suggestion of resuming the visits over the holidays.

 

Her mother adjusted herself on the lid of the seed box. It squeaked.

“So, how long have you had this allotment, then?” she asked.

Juliet told her mother how the allotment had belonged to friends of hers, who had given it to her when they moved too far away to maintain it. She told her mother that a few years ago, she had started selling the chutneys and jams she made from the vegetables she grew, and that sometimes she held a supper club on the driveway in the summer. She didn’t tell her mother how as a baby, her daughter Cleo had lain on a tartan rug in the soil by her side, grinning at the clouds and issuing sporadic bursts of gargled speech as though there was a private joke between her and the sky. She didn’t tell her mother that a few years later, after Cleo died, looking after the allotment was the only thing that kept Juliet from folding inward. Instead, she told her mother that they should start on the vegetables, as it got dark early at this time of year.

 

Juliet’s allotment was small; eight square patches of soil with stone paths between them. When her friends handed it over to Juliet, to mark it as her own she’d painted the low picket fence that edged around the perimeter a bright, sunflower yellow. As it dulled over the years to autumnal mustard, she’d planted Jerusalem artichokes up against it, their glowing yellow flowers shining like spotlights on the weathered wood. The artichokes had been Cleo’s favourite; when she had grown out of the tartan rug in size and ambition she used to wriggle down between their spines, and gaze up at a sky full of suns. Next to them were Jack and his beanstalks, sprinkled with red flowers running skyward. Cleo would hide in the ten-foot stalks, believing her bright purple jacket invisible amongst the protective giants. After the beanstalks, the crops sloped downwards in size, a living green slide Cleo watched aphids and ladybirds bounce-fly over. At its lowest point lay her favourites, the motionless bulk of the marrows, solid on the soil like giant sedated slugs. Juliet used to pick them when they were small, sweet courgettes – no wider or longer than her lower arm. But one year, to amuse Cleo, she’d left one to swell into a bloated marrow. The candle-skin grew a darker shade of green each day as it thickened. She hadn’t thought it would ever stop growing; Cleo climbed over it and sat there, chubby and proud of her gluttonous steed. Her smile had been so broad Juliet let another one expand and spoil into a marrow, then another. Soon there was a whole herd of fat, green slugs. Juliet stopped selling courgette chutney; it hadn’t sold well anyway.

 

Juliet showed her mother around the allotment. She pointed out the sections that got the best sun, and those that seemed doomed, no matter what she planted in them. Her mother asked polite, pertinent questions. Juliet wondered whether one of her neighbour’s would see them together. She imagined they’d look at odds, two grown women shuffling around an allotment barely large enough for one. The younger, in tatty plaid and with flyaway hair, showing a primped, elder woman that you can get black spot on cabbage, not just roses. Her extra height would offset her mother’s neat, curated clothing, at least.

“You know, you should meet Peter,” her mother said, “he loves to garden.”

Juliet repeated his name, quizzically.

“Yes, yes, Peter. Oh, of course you don’t – well, he’s a sort of boyfriend I suppose. A lawyer. Wonderful man. Anyway, his great passion is gardening. Oh and Mandarin. He’s teaching himself, it’s quite impressive. But I’m sure he’d love to help out here, he’s an absolute greenfingers.”

Juliet said she’d love to meet him, though she knew she never would. Every January, Juliet received a sporadic burst of emails from her mother; dying to get back in touch, desperately wanting to see more of her, longing to know all about her life again. A New Year’s resolution to remember her daughter. She already went to the gym and only drank on weekends, Juliet supposed. Year after year, the only difference between each email was the man’s name; one year it was Charlie who absolutely must meet Juliet, the next it was Mark who quite insists on it. Different names prefaced the same description of a successful, always slightly younger, man. Juliet would read the emails to John, imitating her mother’s clipped voice until she was rewarded with his welcome laugh.

This year though, he hadn’t laughed with her. They’d been in the bath together, the weight of her back resting against his chest and stomach, his legs secured either side of her. Juliet had held her phone aloft, flicking to her favourite bits with a dry hand. He’d interrupted her, resting his chin on her head.

“You know, Jul, I think you should reply this time,” he’d said.

Juliet snorted. Dropping her phone onto the bath mat, she bent her legs up and slid down into the water. Her floating hair rested at his crotch. She looked up at him, took a gulp of water and aimed it at his face above, giggling.

“Don’t be a kid, Jul. You should tell her –”

Juliet hadn’t heard what he’d said next; he’d climbed out of the bath, stirring a roar of water into her ears. The next evening, he’d made peace, as ever, with a kiss on her shoulder and the ‘THRIVE’ flyer on the chopping board. Chided, she’d promised to make contact.

 

After showing her mother around, Juliet suggested they start by planting the new patch of squash. It’s easy, really, just putting seeds in the soil, she said.

“Good, then we can focus on chatting,” her mother said.

Juliet smiled, and re-read the instructions on the back of the seed packet.

They knelt opposite each other, with the empty bed in-between. As Juliet worked, the soil stuck under her nails. Her mother wore thick, rough gardening gloves, but Juliet preferred being able to feel the soil on her skin. Passing her mother the packet of seeds, her fingers brushed against the gloves. They felt like the gravelly lick of a cat’s tongue. The seeds rattled in their paper packet as her mother ripped it open. She did this forcefully, but precisely. Juliet watched as her mother pressed the seeds into the soil. The earth slowly turned her green gloves into a mottled brown. Juliet was glad, they had outshone the green of her vegetable patch. She scattered the squash seeds into her own palm.

She used to pretend with Cleo that the light-brown seeds were sailing boats. She’d stick tiny twig-masts to them with mud, and let Cleo float them around the allotment before sinking them in the soily sea. Juliet still occasionally found one of Cleo’s wreckages – a squash seedling squawking for life amongst the cabbages, or the furry fronds of a carrot fizzing amongst the red spines of the beetroot leaves. She wondered what the seeds looked like to her mother, who was using a little piece of green wire to measure the gaps between each seeds’ sinkhole. Juliet noticed a little mound begin to form underneath the soil, near one of her mother’s floating seeds. Crumbs of earth fell over each other as Juliet recognised the surfacing of what Cleo used to call her pink submarine. She’d had an army of them. The worm wriggled up, protruding like a fleshy periscope into the air. Juliet felt it was directing its enquiry towards her mother, investigating the unexpected weight of an extra pair of knees pressing on its loamy roof. Her mother noticed the intruder, and flicked it away with her trowel, never taking her eyes off the divisive green wire as she did so.

 

When Juliet’s parents had been together, their house had had an expansive garden, which backed onto a wild, sprawling wilderness. The front had been her mother’s pride and joy; a manicured display of roses and box hedges, fountains and gravel pathways. The back had belonged to Juliet. She would spend hours scrabbling around the tangled bushes, turning up rocks and logs to find the bugs and beasties hiding underneath them. She took jam jars to the jungle, and filled them with twigs and grass to make glasshouses for the creatures she found. Her favourites were slugs and snails – pretending she was a spotter on safari, she’d trace their sparkling trails across the ground until she found the owner at the end. Her mother said the hobby was gross and childish; Juliet shouted that she was a monster. When one of Juliet’s glasshouses smashed, and the slug it contained slopped a glistening trail across her bedroom floor, her mother told Juliet to get the salt from the kitchen. Juliet watched as her mum scrunched the salt mill around and around. The slug fizzed and frothed like the sherbet they sold at Juliet’s school’s tuck shop. In art, she made a picture of it, the slug painted the purples and yellows of her favourite sweets. It won a prize.

 

The sun sank. Juliet realised her hands were burning with cold. Cross-legged in the dirt, she had been sat listening to her mother tell her stories about her childhood. She couldn’t remember when she had stopped gardening, and started listening. Her mother was mid-flow, energetically retelling the story of Juliet’s first prize-giving. Apparently, she’d been so scared, she’d clung to her mother’s legs for half an hour. Juliet rubbed her hands, suddenly aware of the chill of the ground she sat on. Her mother looked at her, a silent enquiry after her lost attention.

Juliet said they should call it a day.

“Oh. Well, yes, OK then,” her mother said. Her hands, clinging in mid-air to her own imagined legs, fell to collecting her things.

Her mother walked across to the patch of marrows. Juliet thought she looked beautiful in the evening sun, like she did in the photograph Juliet used to have on her chest of drawers. It was a close-up; her mother’s face, turned over her shoulder towards the camera, mouth parted and the tips of her ears rising into a smile. A large pearl earring sat like a luminous moon on the lobe of her ear. She wore the same pearls now; they pulled gently on her earlobes as she leant over the patch of marrows. She glanced over her shoulder towards Juliet, frowning disapproval.

“Really, Juliet, I meant to say, what a waste! Marrows taste of nothing!”

Juliet said she liked them as marrows – she couldn’t taste the difference, anyway.

Her mother, comfortable, tutted around, commenting on the improvements she could make. Bent over the bloated marrow patch, she looked up at Juliet.

“These need picking,” she said. Her face was flushed, expectant.

Juliet said she needed a piss, relishing the wince on her mother’s face.

 

When she came back, conversation was not struck up again. Both women loaded their cars, and drove home. Juliet realised she did not know where her mother was staying.

 

The next morning, when Juliet pulled up, her mother’s car was already parked at the top of the gravel path that lead down to the allotment. In the morning light, Juliet could see that the car was big, and shiny. The number plate was French. Juliet pictured her mother in a flat on the Champs Élysées, with high ceilings and a light, spacious interior. She’d thought her mother hated the French.

 

She walked towards the allotment, where she saw her mother bent over the marrow patch, both feet wide apart and rooted to the ground, supporting a heavy load she was lifting. A dark mass of similar objects lay neatly against the picket fence. Juliet’s lips parted, frozen, as she watched her mother pick and pile Cleo’s marrows, one by one. She returned to the car, and reversed away as quietly as possible.

 

Juliet pulled over at the nearest inlay. She leant forward, folding inwards onto the wheel. Her vision was a watery haze. She sobbed until she opened the door, and dry-retched onto the roadside. Five minutes later, her eyes composed, she drove back to the allotment. Her hand shook on the gearstick.

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