TENDER CARE – A SHORT STORY BY ELISSA SOAVE
Gavin parked the car, jumped out and ran to the other side to open Sheila’s door and help her out.
‘Careful now,’ he said, as she eased herself out of her seat, holding the little thing against her chest. ‘So tiny, Gavin, we have to be really gentle,’ she said, as she took her newest and most prized possession into the flat. Gavin followed with the carrier bag of purchases, all essential, according to Sheila. She’d tutted and raised her eyebrows when he’d wondered aloud how something so small could need so much.
In the flat, Gavin dropped the bag on the kitchen table but didn’t take off his jacket. ‘Give me a call if you need anything. OK? I mean that. You’re not on your own you know. I’m here. Even Molly, she’s… well, she wishes you all the best anyway. It’s just the kids, you know how she is with them…’
‘She doesn’t want them near my unwholesome presence, I know,’ said Sheila, then immediately regretted it. ‘Listen, I’ll be fine. I know this is it for me this time, my last chance. But look, now I’ve got my lucky little jade plant to talk to. Maybe I’ll call her Molly Jade,’ she smiled at him, still cradling the pot with its fragile contents close to her chest. Gavin shook his head, said nothing. She sensed he was keen to get away, back to his own life, with its difficulties and routines. He was a good brother but he had been stretched to the limit in the last year.
When he’d gone, she placed the cool, grey pot on the window ledge, angling it towards the light so that the nascent stalks could peek out from the rich soil. She stepped back to admire it, like she’d been told. ‘It’s important, Sheila,’ the counsellor had said in week two or maybe three, ‘it’s essential to appreciate the world around us. Look up and see the stars every once in a while. Buy a plant, tend to it. Make connections, you see that, don’t you?’ She’d looked away, fiddled with the kettle and the coffee sachets, and said nothing.
She dipped the top of her finger in the soil, checking for moistness. A long-ago image came to her of stubby fingers squelching in the soil, shouting to her to come and check, come and check, Mummy, if the plant was growing yet. She wondered whether she’d run to him straight away, and matched his enthusiasm with her own. She hoped she had, prayed she hadn’t told him to wait, she had more important things to do.
She woke from a Mogadon sleep around ten the next morning, and got up to make coffee. She poured boiling water over the granules and bit her fingernails. She thought she heard the postman clunking the letterbox of the flat next door so she stood behind her own door, coffee in hand, waiting. No corresponding clunk at her door. She headed into the living room to tend to the plant. Although Sheila had bought enough plant food and weed killer to tend the Botanic Gardens, the woman at Homebase had said the plant needed nothing more than very occasional watering and sunlight. Sheila thought she could provide these things, was almost confident that she could.
‘Good morning, Molly Jade,’ she said, touching the soil around the plant. She thought it was a little dry, perhaps it needed liquid. She brought the jug through from the kitchen and drizzled water round the stems of the plant. There, she smiled, marvelling at how easy Molly Jade was to please.
She looked around her living room, tapped her fingers against the ledge then sat down with the newspaper. She read that local woman Sarah Penney had given birth to quadruplets and all were doing well. Lidl would have strimmers at £19.99 this Thursday. She microwaved a cottage pie, checked on Molly Jade, then went back to bed with two Mogadon.
The postman avoided her door again the next day. She took her coffee to the living room and gasped with delight at two delicate buds that had appeared on the plant. ‘Well done, Molly Jade,’ she said, examining the tiny fists of foliage, private and tight as boa knots. A little drink, she whispered, tapping the bottom of the water jug so that it let out single droplets of water, falling slowly on to the succulent leaves.
She spent the morning with the crossword but some words seemed to be lost to her forever. Fourteen across – cast doubt on earliest gospel, what’s the point? She drummed her fingers on the arm of the chair, heard Isobel next door leave with her granddaughter, thought about the clue some more. Matthew, was he early? Mark maybe? But the answer eluded her, and surely she used to know the social ritual embraced by weird ancestors in five letters, at ten down. She bit her fingernails and grasped at words that refused to be pinned down, then threw her pen across the room, and got up to give the plant a drink.
Question mark, she thought suddenly, as she made her cocoa to take with the Mogadon. Fourteen across – question mark. She swallowed the tablets and went to bed.
No post again. That meant there had been nothing from her son for eighteen days. Of course, he would be busy, she thought. It was still early here so he would just be getting up in Cassino now. His nonna would take him down to the flagstoned kitchen for a bowl of warm milk and a chunk of panettone. Carlo wouldn’t be up yet, wouldn’t see that as dad’s time. That’s how she imagined it was anyway. People always said what a hands-on dad he was, by which they seemed to mean that he occasionally did some of the things that were really her tasks when it so happened she wasn’t there to do them. Possibly that meant she had been a hands-on mum too, at the start, though no one had ever said that.
She poured a jugful of water on the plant. Was she imagining it or was it less bright today, less upright?
‘What’s going on with you, Molly Jade?’ she whispered to the plant. She bent closer to finger each of the soft leaves and wrinkled her nose slightly at the beefy odour coming off the soil. She swatted away a couple of flies buzzing around the buds then watched as they knocked their heads, useless as shadows, against the glass.
Beyond the window, the lazy clouds reminded her of holidays in dusty villages and long days on the beach. She remembered when he was stung by a jellyfish and he ran to her, certain as she was, that she could heal him with a kiss. But she remembered other times too, when she stumbled downstairs to wave him goodbye as he left for a playdate or a birthday party but he’d left before she came down so his friends wouldn’t see her. Like a puzzle of silvery scars, those days would be with her forever. Other days were hazy. Had he been at school the first time she’d been taken in, bloody and confused and shouting for her husband? She thought she remembered being there, proud and preening, when he’d won the Endeavour Prize. And surely she had held his hand while they fitted the brace that would make his teeth equal like a comb? It was so hard to remember through the fug of all she’d been taking.
The counsellor had probed gently at how it had begun. She tried to explain the disconnect – the love for her baby son, yet the sheer boredom and drudgery that such love seemed to demand – but she struggled to claw the facts of it together herself. She couldn’t describe the afternoons as vast and pointless as landfill, counting coloured blocks and sticking fragments of paper on to larger pieces of paper. She remembered coffee mornings with mums the same age as the students she used to teach about the Cold War and the Special Forces, Britain’s declining role on the global stage; none of which mattered when set against new teeth and nappy rash. And who really cared if she drank a glass too many when her son was sleeping, her husband indispensable at the Rome office? Or later, the fights in taxi queues, skinned knees, the bars she’d never been to before but now made her own, a drink in the morning, the ravine of need. Bars and fellow barflies whose surnames were unknown to her, whilst her husband and son slept, irreproachable, at home.
She woke up one morning and they were gone.
The paper with her crossword was trembling, the letters jumbled and indecipherable. She called Gavin.
‘Hello?’ she said into the silence, ‘Hello, Gavin, are you there?’
‘It’s Molly,’ said her sister-in-law. ‘Gavin’s at work. Can I… was there something in particular?’
‘No, not really. Hi, Molly, hi, no, just tell him I called, will you?’
‘Of course,’ came the reply, followed by silence.
Sheila put down the phone and talked to Molly Jade in whispers instead.
She checked on the plant again before bed. The blossoms seemed drier than yesterday, almost parched. She went through to the kitchen and changed the milk jug she’d been using to a large gravy boat. She filled it with water and emptied the entire contents on to Molly Jade. The soil around the plant heaved and dipped, muddy water pooling round the stems and splashing a little over the edge of the pot.
Sheila went to bed at half past eight.
She woke up at ten the next morning and made coffee. There was no post. She watered Molly Jade, a good drenching, and sat staring at the crossword.
She called Gavin.
‘I told him you called, Sheila. He’s very busy at work right now.’
‘Of course. I understand, just… tell him I called.’
Silence in the flat, and that meaty odour floating over to her from the window ledge. She approached the plant. She waved her hand to disturb the dozen or so fat flies whizzing round the foliage and noticed that one of the buds had opened slightly to reveal yellowing petals, ribbed and oniony. The other bud had drooped into the soil. Sheila lifted its face so that it was momentarily secure, then lost again when Sheila took her finger away. ‘Something to drink, little Molly Jade? Would that help? Is that what you need?’ She poured half the gravy boat of water on to the plant, then dipped her hand into the jug and splashed more water from her fingers on to the leaves at the top of the plant. One of the flies landed on her neck and rooted into her skin.
At ten the next morning, she got up and made coffee. The post! The metal flap opened like a magic money box and deposited her winnings on to the laminate flooring. Sheila grabbed the postcard from Cassino and held it against her mouth, quaffing down the scent of him, his little tongue on the stamp. She turned it over and read that he missed her but he’d started a new school and Elisabetta was living with them now so she took him there every day and… Sheila dropped the card on to the hall table, her son’s words playing in her head like a nursery rhyme on a loop, for the rest of the day.
She got up at ten the next day and made coffee. She watered the plant, so thirsty. Toyed with the crossword.
She watched the clouds and dreamed of the school run she’d never do.
She got up. Made coffee. Watered the plant, so thirsty.
She spent the day with the paper and wondered who bought all the gardening implements Lidl had to offer.
Got up. Watered plant.
She called Gavin’s number. No answer.
She sat at the kitchen table. She drummed her fingers, looked out of the window and tapped her feet. She started to whistle, looking over her shoulder then biting at the cool skin of her wrist, eyeing the empty veins beneath. She glugged two jugfuls of water onto the jade plant then grabbed her purse and left the flat.
The unravelling took four days – old haunts and older faces, daylight hours drowned in cheap reds and sour whites; thimblefuls of golden liquid, so warm it singed the throat even as it numbed. The nights belonged to bloated corpses and the tongues of strangers. When she slept, she dreamt of three-legged dogs and cruel nuns like scraggy crows. Her limbs twisted in the hot sheets, her throat bamboo-dry, something thrumming and heavy behind her eyelids; her eyes leaked. She could smell Molly Jade, cloying and calling to her from the next room. She turned her head to the wall and hummed a tune she remembered teaching her son.
On the fifth day, Sheila headed heavily towards the living room, a pint of water and three Ibuprofen in her hand. As she jerked her head back to throw down the last of the tablets, movement round the jade plant stopped her. She narrowed her eyes as she took in the swarm of black flies buzzing in dizzy circles round Molly Jade. She dropped her glass on the floor as she ran over to the window ledge, flapping her arms at the gnats, trying to disperse them and keep them from gnawing at the tender insides of the jade plant.
‘Get away,’ she cried, ‘Get away from my plant.’
It was no good, they homed in on leaves which Sheila could see had grown flaccid and heavy with too much liquid. Soggy petals lay about the edges of the pot, pumped full of stagnant water. The once proud stems were drooping, their shamed faces dipping into the swamp. Next to the plant pot, Sheila could see the paper with last week’s crossword gaping up at her, silty and undone.