Sunday, 17 January 2010

The Advance - Sophie Duffy

Late summer and the garden was a mess. Morley could see the state of it from his armchair in the window. Nothing wrong with his eyesight. He could make out the roses, branches splaying, petals scattered on a lawn in need of a short-back-and-sides. From the occasional venture to the vegetable patch he knew the courgettes were marrow-sized and there were enough unpicked blackberries to make crumbles for an army. He used to be on top of things. A keen gardener. Mulching. Hoeing. Now it had all gone to seed -- literally. Rheumatoid arthritis and a war wound had finally got the better of him. White flags came to mind.

Morley opened The Telegraph, focused on matters at hand; 8-Across.

If he had the money he’d get someone in, like his sister, Alice. She had a man-with-a-van who did her grass, odd jobs around the house. And a cleaner. Someone to dust the ornaments and rub away at the brass. What did she do with her time, aside from bridge and her wretched dogs? He had more time than he knew what to do with. Too much thinking. Too much remembering. Not enough action.

So the grass grew. The brambles spread. The weeds bloomed. One of them was threatening to take over and smother everything in its path. Not your everyday dandelion or ragwort. Not a native but one he’d seen before in another lifetime. Out East.

He tried to ignore its frothy white flowers, the slight queasiness in his stomach, and concentrate on the crossword.

Perhaps he’d get a man-with-a-van? Or a cleaner? But he was a pensioner. Needed to watch the pennies. Bad investments. Big old house. If Margery were here, she’d get things under control. But she wasn’t. He’d have to sort it out. Not easy stuck here in his armchair.

Morley pushed the paper aside and switched on the television. The news would be on soon.

September came and went. An Indian summer, the girl called it on the local weather. He’d never been to India so he couldn’t comment. He’d been in Singapore. Changi jail. Then Formosa. Marching through the jungle in that relentless tropical heat. Then Kinkaseki. The mines. Beriberi and dysentery. Lucky to get out of there. Most of them didn’t.

October. He battled his way across the ankle-deep lawn to the vegetable plot, a far cry from the regimented rows of the past. It was a riot of decay. The smell of rotting vegetation. Foxes. Neglect. The weed-encrusted soil was pitted with over-ripened berries. Too much even for the birds. He didn’t have the energy to pick the last few. Wouldn’t know the first thing about making a ruddy crumble. That was Margery’s domain. He’d provided the housekeeping, made appreciative noises where required, even taken on the drying-up once he’d retired. She hadn’t married him for his cooking. He couldn’t remember what it was she’d married him for, but there must’ve been something. She’d waited all those years, long after the war had ended. Waited for him to come back and jump-start the family she yearned for. But he came back a different man. Hardly a man at all.

Now he had to make do with a succession of meals-on-wheels for people with dentures. He still had a full set of teeth and a fine head of hair for a man of his age. Yet he couldn’t manage anything more strenuous than the cryptic, and sometimes even that was too trying, so he’d opt for the box. The news. The weather. Sometimes he’d keep watching, right the way through Neighbours and beyond. All nonsense. Then before you knew it, it was Countdown which at least got his brain back into gear. “Use it or lose it.”

He’d never be able to do the garden again. He needed help. Labour. Cheap labour.
He’d heard about the Poles from Pippa down at the post office. They were everywhere. Building sites, nursing homes, even wielding drills at the dentist. Happy to work for less than the going rate.

He had nothing against the Poles. A brave nation. A strong resistance, hiding out in the forests in all that bitter snow. And those camps. Worse even than the one he’d known. And there’d been refugees down the road after the war. Ilford Park. “Little Poland.” They’d always been here, but never this many. A new wave of them, chasing work. He could do with his very own Pole. He’d ask about it next time he shuffled down to Pippa’s.

Morley was absorbed in a domestic dispute between two Australian lovers when he spied him outside, a solid young man hanging about down the drive. The stranger soon abandoned his reconnaissance and advanced towards the house. Perhaps he’d batter Morley senseless and leave him for dead. It would be weeks before anyone discovered his mangled corpse. Nobody called these days, not since he’d cancelled the meals-on-wheels. He was fed up with the cottage pie, the hotpot, the liver and bacon casserole. Had enough of them at school. In the army. Though he’d have risked his life for one spoonful of English cooking in the camp. All that rice. Sticking like glue in your mouth. Gagging. But never enough to stave the hunger. The pain.
It wasn’t just the nursery food he was fed up with. It was the pitying looks of those busybody women. He’d had enough pity when he’d finally been returned to Margery in 1946. The busybodies knew nothing of what he’d endured. Though there’d been women out there. Women and children. Babies. Easy to pity them.

There was a gentle knock at the door. If Morley had dozed off, or left out his hearing aid, he’d never have heard it. Could’ve had his throat slit in his sleep and he’d have been none the wiser.

“Hello?” A voice wafted in. “Please I can come in?”

“In here, old chap.” Morley shouted back. “The door’s open.”

Come in and murder me. Help yourself.
Morley aimed the remote control at the box and dispensed with Neighbours. Heaven forbid he breathed his last to that theme tune. And there he was, standing on the threshold of the drawing room, looking so young. But then everyone did these days. Mooching around in clusters on the village green. Queuing up any old how in the Happy Shopper.

This chap looked less hardened than the locals. His grandparents – great-grandparents even – would have had their fair share of troubles but he wasn’t carrying their burden. An open face. Honest.

“Pass me my stick, would you?” Morley asked, trying not to make it sound like an order. “I’ll show you around the garden. Bit of a mess, I’m afraid.”

The young man complied, offering his arm for Morley to lean on. He accepted. Why not? It was hardly the action of a murderer. Though murderers could be sly. Or, downright blatant. He’d seen both sorts in the camp. No scruples. Not that anyone remembered that, tanking through the village in their Mitsubishi Shoguns.

“I hope you’re no stranger to hard work.” He led the way to the front door, didn’t even flinch when the Pole took him by the elbow down the steps. “And I can’t pay you much. I’m a pensioner.” He stopped and looked at the newcomer. “Do you understand a word I’m saying?”

They were standing on the lawn now, the dampness seeping round their ankles.

“I have good English. I am studying in the college.”

“Well done, old chap. That’s the spirit.” Morley said, clapping him on the back. “When in Rome.”

Though, he didn’t know if he believed that. In the camp they’d made their own little England. A chamber choir. Humming Elgar and Vaughan Williams. Birds of a feather. But it was Margery who somehow got him through the darkest, hottest, never-ending nights. Thinking of her peaches-and-cream skin. Her smile. Her Yorkshire puds.

They carried on to the vegetable patch, past the compost heap and the useless scarecrow.
When he’d returned from the East, he discovered there was more to Margery. The war had changed her too. She’d dug over the bottom of the garden and made it into this vegetable patch. He cried when he saw the strong green spinach pushing up through the soil, feeling its way towards the weak English sunshine. He knelt down and picked the leaves and he cried.

Margery made a Welcome-Home curry for supper that night. Spent hours at the range. Laid the table with their wedding service. Polished the cutlery. He couldn’t eat it. Not one mouthful. Told her he never wanted to see a grain of rice as long as he lived. Poor Margery. She cried then too. She cooked the spinach for him instead. He could taste the vitamins. The iron. He felt like Popeye. He was sick. Couldn’t keep anything down. It was weeks, months before he could eat a proper meal. That’s irony for you.

But he’d kept it up all these years, the plot. Good to pop out and pick runner beans for supper. They’d never go without fresh food. There’d been enough sacrifices.

And now, here was the Pole, examining the soggy leaves, sieving the soil through his fingers.

“What do you reckon to that?” Morley pointed his stick at the over-exuberant weed, its heart-shaped leaves and garlands of creamy flowers belying its ferocity. A cunning disguise. Camouflage.

The young man shook his head and said simply: “Japanese knotweed.”

“Japanese, eh?” Morley felt his mouth go dry. “Bloody Japs. Creeping up on you.”

The Pole looked at him.

“Can you get rid of it?”

“It is not so easy. I will try and clear it first. Dig up the roots and burning them. They come back maybe. They are very hard to kill.”

“Persistent blighters.”

The Pole stood still, listening.

Later they drank tea, sitting on a bench outside, wrapped up against the cold, watching a pale sun slip down a dirty-orange sky. The Pole – Patryk – had been there all afternoon, a heap of weeds to show for his work. A sprawling tangle of greenery. A pungent smell of earth and sap.

“Margery wouldn’t have given this knotweed the time of day,” Morley said, dunking a stale Digestive in his tea.

“Margery?” Patryk asked carefully.

“My late wife. Fine woman.”

“I have girlfriend, Karolina. She is the fine woman also.”

“Lucky chap.”

A week later Patryk returned, bang on time, sputtering up the drive in a battered van – a Ford Bedford, no less – bringing with him his girlfriend, Karolina, who was indeed fine, with dark glossy hair like the horse that used to graze in the field. She was armed with an arsenal of cleaning fluids and cloths, asking politely if Morley wanted any cleaning done, very good price.
If Alice could have a whole workforce, then why couldn’t he?
Karolina brought him a cup of tea in the drawing room, nice and strong like Margery’s.

“I have cake.” She announced in her thick accent. “Is Hippy Shopper cake. Very good. Your wife not want you … er … like the stick.” She pulled in her cheeks.

My wife. How Morley longed to say those words about the real Margery. The living, breathing Margery. But there was only the photo on the television. Margery in her bridal gown. Margery in black and white. Margery the memory.

He wanted Margery his wife.

He realised with embarrassment that he was crying in front of the Polish girl. He hadn’t cried since Margery died last year. He couldn’t remember the last time he cried. Maybe the spinach moment, kneeling in the dark red earth of his home. But there was something so poignant about the Happy Shopper cake.

Tears fell on his hands. His old arthritic hands.

Karolina gave him a tissue from her apron. “You must eat cake.” She said. “Is very good.” And she smiled. No pity. Just kindness. She left him then, to grapple with the kitchen which was as under threat as the garden.

He closed his eyes, thought of Alice with her wretched Labs. Dog hair everywhere and chewed-up newspapers. But perhaps she’d got it right. Those mutts were protection for her. Company.

Morley cried some more.

A week later he found himself looking out the window, waiting for the Ford Bedford to sputter up the drive. There were potholes everywhere. He’d get Patryk to fill them in.

As the Australian lovers were having yet another tiff, the van appeared. Morley zapped off the television (Decca, none of this Sony nonsense). He watched Patryk and Karolina walk towards the house, she with a Happy Shopper bag, he with a pot of some sort.
He met them at the door.

“We have brought the lunch. To share. Is Kentucky Fried Chicken bucket. You like?” Karolina tried out her English, more confident.

“I have absolutely no idea but let’s give it a go, eh?” He led them to the kitchen. Even dug out a table cloth. “Chicken, you say?”

“And fries.”

“Chips,” Morley corrected. “In England we say ‘chips’.”
Morley sat in the drawing room, in his armchair, full on chicken and those thin little chips. Rather enjoyable. A family bucket! They’d devoured the lot. Karolina sent him in here with tea and cake. He’d completed the crossword in record time. Use it or lose it.

He folded the paper and watched Patryk set up a bonfire, gathering in the fallen leaves, the dead wood. November fifth was approaching. He might struggle down to watch the fireworks on the green. The smell of sulphur in the air. Flashes in the sky. He could even throw a little soiree for his new comrades-in-arms. Show them how things were done. He could shove some jacket potatoes in the Rayburn. Open a can of beans. Grate a bit of Cheddar. Margery would approve. And he’d fork out for some of those sparklers they had in a glass cabinet down in the post office.

They were young. They’d like sparklers.

The bonfire was ready. Patryk took some matches out of his jacket pocket and was about to strike one when he stopped and looked up into the fading sky. Morley looked too, at the flock of swallows advancing south. Migrating. Birds of a feather. They were late. Should have gone by now. But then who was he to talk?

No doubt it would creep back, the vicious weed, but Patryk might still be here to keep on top of it. If they stayed on, Morley would show this young couple how things were done. It would be Christmas before you knew it. Turkey and tinsel. Mince pies and crackers. He’d ask Alice down for a few days. And the wretched dogs. She knew nothing about Kentucky Fried Chicken. He’d fill her in. Meanwhile, Margery would have to hang on. But then she was used to waiting. A fine woman.

-Sophie Duffy's short stories have appeared in various anthologies and publications including Dark Tales and Momaya Press. In 2006 She won the Yeovil Literary Prize with her novel The Generation Game which led to her signing with agent David Smith from Annette Green Agency. Her current work-in-progress, This Holey Life, was runner-up in the Harry Bowling Prize last year. She has an MA in Creative Writing from Lancaster University where she studied with poet, Graham Mort. Sophie lives with her family by the sea in Devon.

-Photograph of farm in Peconic, Long Island, N.Y. by Christopher Barrio.