Bitter, Horned

Bitter, Horned
Oxalis Corniculata

Picture Credits: Sandrine Rouja

So in the story of his life he will not be the bad guy after all. Just look at him now, a shining knight in white armour, speeding down the motorway in a brand-new van stamped approved with a company logo, a logo with a spade held like a sword above luminous green lettering: Weed Whackers. That’s what he is now, a weed whacker, come to rid the world’s gardens of tangled, straggly things, and himself of the tangles of his past.

They took him on, they saw through it all, the frayed cuffs and scuffed trainers, the patchy employment history and unfortunate police record. They saw the real self his mother waved off as he went with his lunchbox like Dick Whittington down the piss-smelling tower-block stairs to school, before he got involved with the boys who hung about there sniffing glue, the dropping out of school and the subsequent necessary petty thefts and scams.

The day is bright. He skims a sea of green fields, the road’s a causeway taking him away from the choked inner suburbs, the rented room with the mould creeping like an animal behind the sofa up the wall, the leak in the corner with its shit-coloured, blood-coloured stain, the calls to the agent that get nowhere, the constant worry that the next job won’t come to save him from eviction, a threat ready to fall like the roof tiles that smash on the front path amongst the litter and overturned bins. And then the dying of his own van one night on the moor, all his chances sweeping away in the rain and the dark.

But his luck has turned. Or no, his real self has triumphed. He spent nights poring over the manuals they gave him, in a way he never did in school, he did the training and he passed. He has a head full of new knowledge, a catalogue of weed types and specific chemicals to control them and the ways to use them. He has a van chock-full of equipment, canisters and spray pumps and protective clothing, all provided, bestowed on him, by the firm. To those that have a proper job at long last shall be given more.

Little clusters of modern housing flicker pink through the trees across the fields. If he does well this summer they’ll keep him on, perhaps, renew the contract. He could rise through the firm, build up contacts, one day maybe start a firm of his own… He can envisage a future now in one of those little houses, with a wife in jeans and a ponytail leaning on the shiny units in the kitchen, a wife who’s a pal, and kids who high-five him when he drops them off at school.

Here’s the junction. He turns onto the sliproad and takes a lane with hedges. The houses come up: a coil of twelve or so modern fairytale cottages basking beside a coppice. And there waiting on the grass is the client, a very old woman. Already from the van he can see the dark patches invading the lawn’s bright green.

She doesn’t look pleased to see him. She looks annoyed, in fact, ready to do battle. She looks like a troll, who’s that about to tramp on my middle-class lawn?

*

Watching the bright white van coming into the close like a shout, pulling up with its shouty logo, she feels invaded. She sees straight away it’s not the same man as last year. There will be no continuity. He won’t take responsibility for the failure of last year, the persistence of these eruptions all over her lawn.

He gets out. He’s a big man, dark and bristly.

She wishes she didn’t have to deal with this, that she could just be left in peace in her otherwise perfect garden and home.

She feels her house at her back, the place she came to after her husband died. The roses over the porch, the pure-white Nottingham lace on the windows, the sparkly china ranged on the dresser and shelves inside – Mum, your house is like a china shop! – the velvet curtains she made herself, the embroidered cushions – Mum, how can you bear to spend the time?! – all collected and cherished over the years, the china washed once a month, the furniture polished with good old-fashioned lavender wax in a tin – How can you be bothered? –  the contours of each so familiar to her hand, and each, as she touches it, releasing a memory. The lace tablecloth she made when she and her husband were first married and poor, in preparation for the life she always trusted they would have in the end. The gold-painted bone china tea-set he bought her when at last he got a white-collar job, a job with a company car, standing proud as she unpacked it, the gold-and-and white glinting through the straw. The honours he received as a businessman and pillar of the community, the golf trophies and Masonic shields that sat on the marble mantel in the big house where they spent his final years. The culmination of a life of ambition, and husbandry and care. Everything neatly placed and displayed to its best aesthetic advantage.

Everything perfect, apart from her lawn.

She should have trusted her instinct from the uncouth name – Weed Whackers – that this firm wouldn’t do a proper job. Last year there were just one or two bubbling patches, a weed with tiny purple-black leaves she’s never seen before, though she thought she knew them all, growing up as she did in the country all those years ago. The man last year spot-sprayed it, but the patches still spread and others formed. She called him back, and he sprayed again, with a different chemical. But now the dark blots are everywhere, encroaching and pooling thick near the house, like old blood. It is as though her lawn is bleeding. She’s tried pulling it up, but it’s too invasive, with runners creeping and tangling through the grass and sending down roots all along their length. It puts out little yellow flowers that quickly turn into sharp cone-shaped seed pods that explode like grenades, sending shrapnel to embed across the whole lawn. Every morning she must go out and bend down and snap the flowers off, but by lunchtime, behind her back, like an insolent guerrilla army, more will have appeared.

*

What do you think it is? the old woman asks him.

He crouches down and examines it.

He doesn’t recognise it. As far as he can remember, it wasn’t in the colour plates in the section in the manual on broad-leafed weeds.

He remembers, though, a mention of a weed resistant to herbicides.

It must be speedwell, he tells her.

It isn’t speedwell! she cries. Speedwell has a blue flower!

She looks disgusted. Exposed in his ignorance, he feels a welling panic.

It’s a bit like an oxalis, she says, and bends – pretty nifty for such an old woman – and picks one of the little leaves.

He racks his brains. Oxalis… Yes, he remembers that: a bushy plant with light-green leaves and pink flower. Nothing like this.

The leaves are the same shape, she is saying.

He stares at the leaf in the palm of her hand: tri-lobed, almost black, like an ace of spades.

He squeezes his brains. No, he is sure there was nothing like this in the manual.

How could the manual have been so inadequate? He feels a spurt of anger at being sent to his job ill-equipped – while, it goes without saying, being held responsible if the client complains. With sudden clarity he sees himself caught between a business concerned chiefly with profit and the impossible demand of this middle-class woman in her neat expensive little house, cushioned in her leisured, well-to-do life, with nothing to worry about but a bit of weed in her lawn. All at once he feels suffocated by the neatness, the gleaming paintwork on her door, the regimented flowerbeds around the blotched lawn.

He pulls himself together. He goes back to the van for the client record.

They used contact herbicides last year, he tells her. I could try you a glyphosate.

Is that stronger? She is deferring to him now, and he feels a little easier.

It’s systemic. The plant absorbs it.

She nods.

But she hangs around, plucking the odd dead head off the roses as he dons his protective overalls and fixes the spray pump to the knapsack container. She’s keeping an eye, she doesn’t trust him.

He tells her, with the wearying sense of having to do battle: I need to ask you to keep out of the way while I’m spraying.

She stands her ground. I want to show you where I want extra spraying, where it’s thick there, up by the house.

I can’t do that. He quotes from the manual: Even spraying is essential to avoid contaminating the soil.

He thinks of the consequences: the grass dying and failing to grow back again, the old woman complaining…  And a future opens up: eviction from his room, a sticky pavement, a grubby sleeping bag in a doorway…

No, sorry, I’d be out of a job.

*

An image rears up for her. The chipped enamel basin in the sink in the bedsit they moved to after her husband was demobbed. The dripping tap, the smell of gas from the two-ringed stove. The constant frantic search for work, the moves from rented flat to rented flat, dragging along two, then three small children… The story of her life she had never expected when she met the laughing, charming soldier, that even then, at the time, she would never accept, sewing lace tablecloths and embroidering cushions for the different life she was meant to be in, and which, when at last her husband made good, she was.

She shakes away the memory.

This gardening man is clearly a novice, he doesn’t know what he’s doing. She’s the customer after all, she’s in a life, now, remember, where she’s the one who pays and can call the tune. She tells him, I’ll take my chance with it.

Well, it’s not just your lawn. It’s insects, bees.

She has a squeeze of guilt, followed by deep panic. Surely one little patch, just that patch near the house, out of all the millions of gallons that must be sprayed on the fields and verges and streets every day… just one extra spray, and then she’d be free of this dark curdled stain on her lawn, erupting as if from a hidden place underground…

The man towers above her, alien in his stark-white overalls, robotic and mechanical with his canister on his back and his mask propped on his head like horns.

And another image comes to her, her husband towering over her, hand raised in anger, taking his frustration out on her… Things zooming towards her as she falls from the blow, the chipped enamel basin, and then later, her beautifully polished low rosewood table, Masonic trophies and ornaments toppling around her to the deep-pile floor…

*

She stands looking up at him, a tiny frail woman, thin legs, back rounded by her incredible age, wisps of ghost-coloured hair trembling in the breeze. She looks frightened. She is frightened of him. He feels horror. He is the bad guy after all.

He says, Well, OK, if you promise not to tell that I’ve done it.

And she smiles, for the first time, a small relieved and grateful smile.

And she goes away as he’s asked, and he pulls down the mask and begins spraying, and the little leaves and yellow flowers of the unknown weed tremble in the mist of spray, and up near the house, where he sprays again, they bend and spring with the weight of globules dripping into the soil.

*

OXALIS CORNICULATA: Creeping wood sorrel. Flowers roseate, yellow. [Oxalis: via Latin from Greek oxys, “sour, sharp bitter”, referring to the sharp-tasting leaves; Corniculata: Latin cornu from Greek keras, “horn”, pertaining to its upright pointed seed capsule.]

Oxalis Corniculata is resistant to herbicides.

Sometimes called Sleeping Beauty.

*

That night she dreams of the cornfields when she was young, untouched by herbicides and streaked with red poppies and dotted with deep-blue cornflowers, when there were meadows of wildflowers, hot buttercups and frothy meadowsweet and pale-purple cuckooflowers. And in the dream she boards a train, and the flowery fields slide by the window, and the train gathers speed, taking her like a princess off to a different story of her life…

*

And he dreams too, while the drip ticks in the corner of his room. He is standing in a bower of trailing yellow flowers, bees bobbing around him and trembling the flower heads. Ahead through the opening a road leads to a city in the distance on a hill, golden in the sun. He takes a step, but a trailing stem catches his ankle. The bees begin dropping around him like soot. The city glows in the distance. He tries again to step forward. He can’t move.

Elizabeth Baines’ stories have been published widely. She is the author of two collections, Balancing on the Edge of the World and Used to Be, and two short novels, Too Many Magpies and The Birth Machine, all available from Salt Publishing. She has also written prizewinning plays for Radio 4 and fringe theatre. A story will appear in Best British Short Stories 2019 (Salt).

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