The Worm in the Bud by Mary Horlock
Her eyes are wide and red-rimmed. They ask a hundred questions. But it’s the mouth that bothers me, how it gapes, as if it could never form a single word. Does she even see me? Perhaps I could shout out a hello, though she probably can’t hear through the glass.
Still, I could knock – rat-tat-tat! – and break the quiet of our morning.
Next time I shall try, but not today, today I have too much to do. The house is a mess, there’s nothing for supper, and John does so hate an empty fridge. He will stare for hours at its bare but gleaming innards, as if trying to ascertain time and cause of death.
Then he’ll slam the door and say: ‘We have the fridge of an alcoholic.’
As if that were the worst thing.
John neither knows nor cares how hard I work to keep the house ticking over, but I mustn’t dwell, I mustn’t. The hours slip by so fast and the children will be back before I feel better.
I’m quite sure my old lady at Number 15 doesn’t have such worries. I always see her about now: awake and dressed and waiting. I bet you any money that her husband’s long dead, and someone brings her meals wrapped in plastic, ready to be re-heated in the microwave. Lucky her. Perhaps that’s why she’s standing by the window at about this time, always at this time. She is waiting for breakfast to arrive, whilst I rush to do the shopping, pick up the dry-cleaning, hurry to the postbox or newsagent. Everyone’s first customer of the day.
I shouldn’t stare. It’s not as if she’s asking to be looked at; she never stands slap-bang in the middle but rather to one side of the wide bay window. The way she holds herself, I fancy she could be an actress waiting in the wings before a performance, wringing her hands as she goes back over her lines. The glow from her room spills out onto the street like lights from a stage. It is a nice room, I’ll grant you, rather old-fashioned with those heavy brocade curtains, but there are always fresh flowers in the vase on her desk and more on the mantelpiece behind. Quite a feature. Perhaps the flowers are to congratulate her on a glittering opening night. No, I am being silly. I’m sure the flowers are from her children, wishing her a happy birthday or a get well soon or a sorry we couldn’t come but we promise to visit soon.
Mum always had freshly cut flowers straight from the garden. She dotted them in vases all around the downstairs rooms. Dad liked to joke that you could judge her mood by whatever lay in wait on our narrow hall table. Something sombre – lilies standing erect in a tall glass vase – meant he was in serious trouble. Lilies gave Mum such a headache. She grew them in pots all around the patio but they never took well to the beds. And it wasn’t straightforward with roses, either. One time I came home from school to find two punch bowls spilling over with ‘Carefree Sunshine’. Dad was puffing out his cheeks.
‘Are we having a party?’ he asked.
Mum, who had just come in from the kitchen, gave him such a look. ‘Don’t be stupid,’ she said. ‘They needed pruning, that’s all.’
Looking back, I find it hard to accept that Mum was right about anything, but she was right about roses. You can have roses in bloom all year round if you keep up with your deadheading. After I married John and we moved here, Mum was the first to inspect the garden. She didn’t think a London garden could be any good. I can still see her now, drifting around the garden with her secateurs, decapitating my roses like the queen in Alice in Wonderland.
‘Off with their heads!’
That old dear at Number 15 is nothing like my mother, which is why I find myself fighting the desire, more and more these last few weeks, to talk with her. Is that strange? She is probably perfectly content in her solitude, with her flowers. And she probably doesn’t stand at the window all day long, not in that precise place, not like I picture it. She lingers there on the right side for moments only, maybe, to finger the little cards stuck on the glass. Postcards sent from exotic locations, no doubt. She has a family and friends and they send her flowers. That’s a good sign, isn’t it? Someone bringing you a bit of life and colour. So even if she doesn’t go outside, she gets the smell of it.
I love the smell of early mornings. I am always up before the children to get a head start on the day. I really cannot bear it if someone is awake before me. The early mornings are my time, and I rarely see another soul except for my old lady. I don’t understand why she has to steal my thunder. She has nobody to fix breakfast for, no packed lunches to conjure, nor uniforms to iron. She could stay in bed all day if she wanted, and she is lucky to be so well cared for, to live in such a good part of London. This neighbourhood’s on the up – you can tell that from basement conversions and box hedges – everyone is cultivating their own private space, and my old lady does the same.
But today she has peonies, which is a shame. I don’t like peonies. They never last.
Peter brought peonies the first time. They were the colour of candyfloss, good enough to eat. He arranged them in a pewter mug, whilst everyone stood around, sipping their drinks. Mum didn’t know him, or at least that’s what she claimed. He was an artist – he’d been helping out at Dad’s work, drawing up plans for a new office block – but he wanted to make a living painting people. He told me I had a beautiful neck. At first I thought he said legs, because the party was getting noisy, and when he said it again I was disappointed.
‘But your neck is your best feature.’ He raised a hand to stroke it. ‘And you have such a lovely skull.’
I laughed then. Had I been starving myself for months to achieve a size 8 head? Maybe I had. This was back when my parents were together, but it was the summer when everything would change.
I remember I had bought a pale blue sundress with straps that cross at the back. The kind of dress that I wouldn’t wear now, since it was like wearing nothing at all. I knew I’d soon leave home and I thought Peter was my ticket. When we danced together on the patio I watched our reflections in the large French windows, with the lilies glowing behind us. Weren’t we a picture, I thought. My two young cousins ran between our legs, giggling hysterically, and I tried very hard not to mind. That’s another useful thing Mum taught me: pretend to like children even when you don’t. I wasn’t sure what I liked back then; I wanted to live up to that beautiful dress, acting a part for the man who didn’t fit in.
And Peter – being Peter – didn’t call, and those damned peonies, they taunted me. I remember thinking their swollen heads were too heavy for those skinny little bodies. I hated Peter so much. I picked off every petal of every flower and imagined it was him.
‘Artists make dreadful husbands,’ Mum assured me. Well, I’m glad I didn’t find out. But I did see Peter again. I saw him all the time. I couldn’t help it. We’d meet on Primrose Hill every Thursday, and smoke cigarette after cigarette, mostly watching the sunset. I saw such colours on those nights, colours I was sure I hadn’t seen before. Peter said it was because of the pollution, but I loved it all the same. I wanted to be his subject, to live on a surface, be daubed at, have all my colours heightened.
But art is short and life is long. He would have painted me and then he would have left me, and I couldn’t bear that. Should we only write stories once we know how they will end? Well, back then I wanted to. I cared more for the end than the beginning.
John brought me roses and they smelled like relief. John with his sandy hair and sloping shoulders. We have been happy, built a life together. We have this house and two marvelous children. A boy and a girl, or one of each, as people like to say, as if selecting ice cream flavours. We called the boy Peter – I really thought I had to. My Peter is wonderfully uncomplicated as boys often are, and terribly good at sport. My daughter, Emma isn’t quite so easy. She’s cleverer than I was, although that only makes it worse.
My poor brain, oh my poor brain has long gone to seed. I shouldn’t have stopped working when the children were born, but I wanted to stay at home. I had never earned very much so it made sense. John didn’t bully me into it, although I like to pretend that he did. But I do wonder about this business of having babies. Will it ever go out of fashion, like padded shoulders or flared trousers? Wouldn’t that be funny? If people just stopped having children, all at the same time, and said no, let’s keep the love for us.
It might have made my story simpler, if I am honest, because Emma was a sickly child. I felt I was being punished and I knew exactly why. We nearly lost her twice in the first year. That changes you, as a person. Every day I thought she would die, and they told me she could, so it wasn’t all in my head. I stayed by her side, holding on to every minute, every second of the day. I don’t think I slept at all. I just held her in one hand and time in the other, and waited. The doctors talked a lot about ‘failure to thrive’ and it reminded me of the lilies in our old garden. The problem starts in the bulb, Mum always said – the bulb of a lily is not robust enough. Lilies are fickle, they don’t care for longevity. Silly lily.
I have spent years keeping my children alive: feeding them, cleaning, them, breathing life back into them. Emma barely went outside for all of that second year. We wouldn’t risk an open window, even in the summer. I know what they say: ‘a bit of fresh air won’t kill anyone’, but London air might.
Now, though, she’s started school, and you wouldn’t think there had ever been anything wrong. Of course it was an enormous relief, but let’s not pretend I was as brave or noble. No, I remember feeling quite angry and confused. I grieved for the person I had lost, and that person was me. Me. Why, I remember we were at a party and someone referred to me simply as ‘Emma’s mother’.
I was so cross I said: ‘Yes, I am Emma’s mother, but I am also a brain surgeon.’
I thought it would be funny, only this young couple looked at me in wide-eyed wonder.
‘Incredible!’ said the husband. ‘What’s that like?’
I glanced about in a panic and then I saw them in the corner: peonies so perfect they barely looked real. ‘Oh,’ I replied. ‘Spectacular. There is nothing like drilling through some poor sod’s skull.’
I stopped going to parties after that. I prefer my early mornings and John seems to understand. We live together but have grown apart. He thinks I fuss too much, but the children still need watching. Last night I caught Peter sneaking out the front door at ten o’clock at night. Imagine that! And then the queer child asked me if I was a spider. A spider. Apparently there are some very exotic varieties that have four pairs of eyes, and two on the back of their head. Well, maybe I do need eyes in the back of my head. I told him he should count himself lucky that I wasn’t a spider, since plenty are known to eat their young.
Of course I love my children – how could I not? – but I also like the solitude they leave me with, the quiet before and after the storm, when they are out at school, off doing their own thing. In the colder months I’m almost greedy for their return. There is something so romantic about winter, closing the windows tight and making the house so hot the Christmas tree turns to kindling.
My old lady – what does she do over Christmas? I must remember to check on her. It’s hard to know what she’s doing most days, what she sees in the empty air. Today is a fine crisp Friday morning. But you know, I’m almost excited for the prospect of afternoon, dark at half-past four, getting up to close the curtains, burning my hands on the radiators. If only the house could tidy itself. John’s things and my things all muddled with the children’s. Our lives have overgrown together. I don’t know how much we cultivated, how much we left to chance. I don’t have the answers, I only have questions. Where is Emma now, for instance? I spent so long keeping her alive – has she forgotten? The least she can do is telephone to say what time she’ll be home. Peter is the sensible one whilst Emma is the scatterbrain. She doesn’t take care. We were all at her beck and call and so she never cares, didn’t learn to care. Poor Peter, he put up with an awful lot, no wonder he sneaks out.
Roses are the easiest to grow, which is partly why I like them. There was my mother acting like it was an art form. She said roses need a lot of space to themselves; they don’t like to compete with other plants. I used to wonder if that was why she left me so alone. Maybe I started a family just to get my own back. I wanted to leave her stranded and see how she liked it.
But she liked it fine, as it turns out. She didn’t want to see her precious grandchildren very much. If I was lucky she came up to London once a year, took them out to the theatre and stuffed them full of chocolate. Roses thrive on rubbish, by the way. There’s nothing like well-rotted compost to keep them lustrous. They like the city, too. They aren’t bothered by pollution.
Everyone should have a rose or two in their garden. I’m not sure we all need mothers.
My mother was a selfish woman. Why do people say: ‘Never speak ill of the dead?’ Surely it is the best and possibly only time to speak ill of them. I have been to plenty of funerals where people whisper: ‘To be honest, I never much cared for her.’ I can say it now, can’t I? Mum didn’t understand my hurry to do things, she called me careless when really I was the opposite. She never understood.
The old lady never smiles or waves at me. I suppose I should take the initiative. We could strike up a conversation one of these days, come summer when her window is open. Perhaps I could bring her roses from my garden.
Not lilies, though, lilies are best for funerals. When Mum died there were lilies all over the church. She would have been furious! I was surprised to see Peter there. Surprised but glad. Glad to see him older and have my fantasies crushed. He told me I looked just the same, and then he met the children. I suppose it is right that he finally saw my Peter. He would’ve known straightaway, of course, since it was as plain as a reflection.
Yes, he was the artist, but he wasn’t the only one able to cultivate a likeness.
Should we only write stories when we know how they will end? No, of course not, because it is only in the writing that we find a new direction. Today I shall do it. Today I will wave and greet her. A quick smile and a lifted hand – really, that’s all it takes. And she does precisely the same, as if she’d been waiting all this time! Oh, how good to have a connection. It’s as if we see other for the first time and I laugh, a silly nervous laugh that surprises me in the silence of this room. I tap my fingers to my mouth and press it closed. I steady myself on the desk, my desk.
Sometimes I get so muddled, it’s as if the whole day is a blur.
But there are my reading glasses beside the vase, all bent out of shape again. I reach over for them. I was rather upset when I realised I needed glasses, but it comes to us all, doesn’t it? It comes to us all. My Peter should be back, back any minute, to tell me of his adventures. He has a fabulous job that involves so much travel, and he sends me flowers when he can’t come himself.
But the children, they are naughty. I wish they wouldn’t stick these silly notes on the window, it takes me hours to pick the sellotape off. And to write in such large letters. They must think I am blind as well as deaf!
I take a step back and breathe in the warm air. The lady in the window does the same. She is looking at the cards, reading the words.
‘YOU CAME HERE SIX MONTHS AGO.
THIS IS YOUR HOME.’
The scent of the flowers is a little too strong.
I’m quite exhausted, maybe I’ll give the children their baths and then have a lie down myself. I always feel better when the light starts to fade. I was never afraid of the dark, in fact, darkness is a comfort.
Because then comes the morning.
Mornings are the best time.
When it starts all over again.
Mary Horlock, author of The Book of Lies and forthcoming Joseph Gray’s Camouflage has been commissioned to write a short story to accompany Mark Fairnington’s exhibition at Handel Street Projects. The commission has been made possible through funding from The University of the Arts London.