Life is hard when half your blood has turned to earth. People just don’t understand. Perhaps they think I’ve got good, loamy soil in my veins. The type that crumbles easily with a smell like autumn in the woods. But I haven’t. I’ve got great clods of the stuff. Especially in my shoulders. I can feel stones in it, and stiff, severed roots. It clags around my elbows and at the back of my neck. Sometimes I think I can smell it, and it’s sour and slow to drain.
They go round thinking, these people, that I’ll be able to help them with their jumble sales, their charity teas etcetera. Well I can’t. It’s not that I don’t want to. I’ll write letters. I wrote a marvellous one to the press about the golf course. I didn’t just cite the planning laws. I quoted poetry about oaks and bluebells. I would have organised a protest if necessary; ribbons round the trees, young people with guitars and so on. I can help with my brain. But not with my hands. Not with all this earth clogging up my blood. Take jumble sales. People think I don’t like the smell. Well it’s only damp church halls, cheap washing powder and such like. Just because I’m educated they think I’m a snob. My hands are the problem. They have to be everywhere at a jumble sale, darting in and out of the churning clothes, rattling through the change box for pennies, holding up some ghastly negligee to the light. My fingers seize up and then the sensitivity goes. I patted Janet Hayes on the back after the last jumble sale and she staggered forwards as if she had been slapped. I was only trying to be kind. This year I’ll design the poster and that’s it.
I think it has always been there, this earth in my veins. I remember dabbing at Mother’s knee when I was very young. She would slap me off as if my hands were cold. In school I found it hard to raise my hand. I knew all the answers but my arms were just too heavy. Perhaps I was afraid the teachers would slap me down too. They said I was insolent and told me not to stoop. Then there were the headaches in my teenage years. The dull throb as the blood silted up behind the clods of earth.
I gave up on the doctors a long time ago. They’d give me leaflets about depression or say that we all feel tired sometimes. None of them offered me a blood test. As for the homeopaths and chiropractors etcetera, they’re no better. I tried an aromatherapist last year. It was Janet Hayes’ idea. She’s always had a penchant for wind chimes, crystals and so on. She calls it spirituality but I find it lacks a certain intellectual rigour. So when this Brenda Simpson set herself up in the back room of the DIY shop, she urged me go. I only went because she wasn’t called Moonbeam or Crazy Tree.
She said I had knots. She prodded my shoulder blades and I felt the soil scrape against my flesh.
“Ooh,” she said. “You’ve been holding onto this for a good long time!” She suggested a course of ten massages. That’s £300 I thought, as she pressed down on the sediment in my neck. She said there was an ancient blockage there but she didn’t say what it was. For £300 I’d expect a proper diagnosis. Venous Venenatis for blocked veins, or Terra Sanguis for earth in the blood. It has given me a hunch. I used to cover it up with silk scarves but I don’t bother now. Nothing unusual about a dowager’s hump at my age. Not that I’m a dowager of course. My money didn’t come from some man. I worked hard for it. And I won’t be giving it to Brenda Simpson so that’s that.
But no one understands how hard it is. Now Janet Hayes wants me to help out at the unit for the Elderly Mentally Infirm. They got some fancy garden designer in last year. She made all these mazes and scented arbours and so on, but none of the residents use it; the nurses don’t have time to take them out. Well, I could have told them that would happen. That’s the sort of help I can give. But people never ask me to use my brain. And now Janet Hayes has made a rota, and wants me to go and wheel someone about up there. It’s not my kind of thing, adjusting blankets and pointing out shrubs etcetera. But when I tell her she just tosses the end of her tasselled scarf over her shoulder.
“Come on, Monica,” she smiles, “the etcetera might be the best bit.” She’s always smiling, Janet Hayes. She wouldn’t if she had earth in her veins. My shoulders have seized up already. There are clumps beneath my armpits, a bog at the back of my neck. But she writes my name down anyway, next to Brenda Simpson’s, and says she’ll meet me Thursday.
So here I am in the lobby with the pair of them. It smells of urine and room spray. Somewhere in a side room, a man sobs.
“Probably a member of staff,” I say. It’s a joke but they don’t laugh. People rarely laugh at my jokes. But I make them anyway, just like I dabbed at Mother’s knee, I suppose. Right now my hands feel thick and useless. I rub them and wince but no one notices. They look earnestly towards the door and a nurse ushers in an old man with a walking frame. He wears a navy blazer, the lapels speckled with stains. His hair is tinted like cheap vanilla ice-cream. He pauses every few steps to push his fingers behind his ears. Then he brings his hand to his nose and sniffs. Janet Hayes steps forward and smiles at him. He sniffs and she smiles. She keeps on smiling, right into his eyes but with all that sniffing of his fingers I can see there is no point.
Brenda Simpson is given a tiny woman, slumped forward in her wheelchair like a marionette with the strings cut. I’m told to a wait a moment while Nora, my resident, is lifted out of bed with a hoist. I peek into the room. She hangs in the sling, like a baby swinging from the beak of a stork. When the hoist is turned she calls out:
“Am I dead yet? Am I dead?” Her eyes are dark with panic.
I step back and look away; the blood pulls out of my hands. The nurse says:
“No, Nora you’re not dead. There’s a nice lady here to take you into the garden.”
I don’t feel like a nice lady. Nice ladies smile, peer into people’s eyes etcetera. I am too clogged up with earth for that. Nora is strapped into a huge chair with thick, diarrhoea coloured cushions. Her double chin wobbles like a blancmange and tiny strands of hair wisp upwards from her pink scalp.
I give the chair a push but it does not respond. I have to lean into the handle to get it moving. Earth surges and sucks at my elbows as I heave her forward. Then, as my hands fill with soil, their weight gives me extra force and we shoot out of the French doors. We lurch past Brenda who is manoeuvring the marionette’s wheelchair as if it were a trolley full of china. We hurtle past Janet and the sniffing man. Soon I get into my stride. The air is cool on my face and I’m glad of it. I think Nora ought to be too, after all this time in the overheated fug of the home. But she calls out to me in her quavering voice:
“Are we going to the cemetery? Am I dead?”
I don’t say it of course, but I think she may as well be. It’s actually rather beautiful in this garden but she doesn’t notice a thing. The daffodils are out, and there are wide sweeps of them around the pond. I stop a while and try out some poetry. I’ve heard it works wonders with the old, but I’m hardly onto the golden hosts before she interrupts.
“Is this a eulogy? Am I dead?”
So I march her along the lavender walk and and round the box maze. All too soon we’ve been round every corner, paused at every vista and so on. We arrive at the fountain to find the others on the benches, laughing together.
I can’t imagine what’s funny. I’m feeling thoroughly depressed with all this talk of death. I park Nora and sit, more heavily than I mean to, encumbered as I am by the swamp in my chest.
Janet’s old man has stopped sniffing his hands. He holds them out now, cupped like Oliver Twist and she presses leaves into them one by one. Brenda has the marionette’s hands clasped in her own. I knew it would be all about hands up here. And I know too that if I don’t do something with mine Brenda will take note, and start thinking of her £300. So I turn to Nora and give her a little pat.
Maybe I’ve done it too hard again, or maybe Nora has sensitive skin. At any rate, the moment I touch her she screams. It’s not a quavering little cry either. It’s a full blown, horror film scream that brings the nurse running.
“Has she gone off again?” She squats beside Nora and smooths down the wisps of hair. I notice the nurse doesn’t make her scream. Nora clings to her and wails:
“Don’t make me hold hands with the dead!”
I have to go home then. I’m quite shaken. I think for a while that it’s killing me, this Terra Sanguis. I spend two days in bed, and for some strange reason, I keep wanting to cry. I don’t give in though, and the earth cakes around my heart.
The next week when Janet Hayes comes to fetch me, I tell her I can’t come.
“My arms hurt,” I say, “Give me your rota and I’ll marshal you a team for every day of the week.”
But she smiles at me as usual and holds open the car door.
“It’ll do you good,” she says.
“It’s meant to do the residents good, not me,” I think Brenda Simpson must have broken confidentiality and talked about my blockages. Janet starts the car.
“Don’t go off on your own this time. You missed out on all the fun.” It turns out the old man knew the botanical names of all the plants and the marionette sang Sex Pistols songs. Janet Hayes pauses for laughter here. She wants me to be delighted but I’m not. She swings the car around the narrow lanes and my shoulders ache as I try to hold myself still.
“Brenda’s found their greatest hits for her but I can’t work out how she knows them. She must have been pushing fifty when the Sex Pistols were big. I’d love to know if she went to any gigs.”
“She might have hated them,” I say. “Her neighbours might have been thumping them out, night after night.”
Janet Hayes laughs. She keeps the laughter going, ostentatiously, so she can bring it into the home like a bunch of flowers.
We find Nora strapped in and ready in her chair with a Minnie Mouse blanket over her knees. The nurse tells me she’s more lucid this week, but to push her slowly, to keep her calm. I feel like she’s telling me off. I follow the others through the French doors and in less than five minutes we stop at the fountain.
“Why here?” I say. “There’s more round the corner. The lavender walk, etcetera.”
“Oh, you and your etcetera.” Janet Hayes laughs. I don’t know why it’s funny. I explain, for the umpteenth time, that I only say etcetera when it’s obvious what I mean.
“Ah, but supposing it’s not!” Janet says, still smiling. “We can’t all know what’s round the next corner.”
I look about me at Nora’s sparse hair as it wavers in the breeze. At the old man, creeping about with his fingers trembling under his nose. At the marionette who is shrinking away from Brenda’s headphones, batting at them like cat trying to escape a collar. It’s obvious to me that death is round the corner. Not a nice thought, and I don’t voice it, but Nora seems to read my mind anyway. She turns her head towards me, alert as a cat that has spotted a bird.
“I don’t want to be dead, you know. It’s much nicer to be alive.”
Well that wipes the smile off Janet’s face. It gives me a chill, if I’m honest, and sets the earth shifting in my veins. Only Brenda seems pleased. She steps towards us, hands open for an embrace.
“Well that’s a lesson for us all, Nora, thank you.” Nora retreats into herself. Her chin quivers and her eyes turn cloudy and vague. And I realise it is me that Brenda wants to embrace. She places her hand on my shoulders, just where the clods are most heavy. It would be rude to move away, but I hope she doesn’t expect payment. The marionette stirs. She jerks her head to the music and sings in a low, gruff voice.
“We’re so pretty, oh so pretty…”
“Aren’t you glad you came, after all,” Brenda says to me, in her aromatherapist’s tones. “When you get pertinent little gems like that?”
“We’re vacant,” the marionette growls, “pretty vacant.”
That seems more pertinent to me, but I don’t say so. Instead I hold up my hand to show how stiff my fingers are. I want them to know that I’m not unkind. I would smile at everyone just like they do, if I wasn’t in pain.
“It’s so hard,” I say and Brenda presses down on my shoulders, her head cocked in sympathy. “This Venous Venanatis is the bane of my life.” Now she steps away, confused. “You know,” I press on, “Terra Sanguis.”
Now it is time for the old man to perk up. He claps his hands and his face shines with sudden comprehension.
“Terra Sanguis?” he says. “You could grow something in that.” He has a deep, surprisingly cultured voice and he shuffles towards me. “Flowering currant likes a heavy soil,” he says. “Why not try Ribes sanguineum?” He rumbles out a long chuckle and Janet and Brenda look delighted. They nudge him and giggle but I’m quite sure the joke is lost on them. They won’t have made the connection between sanguineum and my blood but I have. He beckons me closer. “Acer palmatum?” And he winks. “Bloodgood they call that.” He’s really rather clever, and I have to admit I am amused.
“What about Mock Orange?” Janet butts in, smiling as usual. “I’ve read somewhere they’ll grow anywhere.” I was right. She didn’t get the joke. And now the moment has passed. He pushes his fingers behind his ears, brings them to his face and sniffs. He is lost in his sad, deteriorating senses.
“Philadelphus,” I want to say to Janet. “Mock Orange isn’t the real name.” The marionette cranes forward in her chair.
“Never Mind the Bollocks,” she says. I’m not sure who she’s addressing but I decide not to correct Janet after all. It would sound snobby. And so I look over at the old man. I wonder what else I could coax out of him. There are many plants that thrive in heavy soils. Perhaps we will list them together, when I visit next week. Bluebells, lily of the valley, syringa. All spring flowers. The ones with a lovely scent.
About the Author:
Harriet Kline won the London Magazine Short Story Competition 2013 and the Hissac Short Story Competition 2012. She was highly commended in the Manchester Fiction Prize 2014 and has been shortlisted and longlisted elsewhere. Two of her short stories have been also been broadcast on BBC Radio 4. She reads at least two short stories every day and her website is harrietkline.com.