It might sound silly and horribly old-fashioned, but one of the things I liked most about Philip was that he gave me flowers. I’d had my share, before him, of gruff, TV-bound beer-guzzlers who’d have laughed at the very idea of flowers, never mind giving them. Philip lived in a miniature jungle, and his love of the vegetal kingdom seemed like the sign of something more, a passionate soul, a compassionate one too, in tune with the world around him. The few times I’d come to his apartment and found him in front of the TV, he’d always been watching documentaries about some jungle or rare species of flower of which only a couple of specimens had ever been discovered. The TV itself was hard to spot, half-hidden between the criss-cross of yucca leaves. When it was on, the broadcast greenery made it blend in even more, and it looked just like some weird draft made Philip’s plants shiver more in that corner of the apartment.
“That place,” I told Lisa, after the first time I went there, on our third date, “you could lose a tiger in it.”
“Grrrr!” she’d growled, clawing the air towards me. She’d seen Philip one day we’d met him by chance in the street, and she’d approved of his looks. By then I’d already brought back a pale pink orchid to the house we shared. It had sat for a long time on top of the fridge before dying. Some roses had appeared in the living-room too, and a pot of basil after I’d said, on our second date in an Italian restaurant, that I was mad about the herb. Each gift had come with profuse and detailed instructions, the gist of which I’d passed on to Lisa when I’d got home.
“Wow, a bit obsessive, your man, no?” She said after the third gift.
Which had been my reaction too, even though I had worded it in a slightly nicer way to Philip.
“Guilty as charged,” he had answered, raising his hands, and we’d laughed.
“I just love it, you know. Seeing things grow. The fertility – just soil and a little seed, and so fast, out of nothing, you have that tall, gravity-defying thing, alive, reproducing, flashing its colours proudly…” he’d trailed off, gently caressing the petals of an arum lily between his fingers.
I’d loved all these little quirks of his, in the beginning. There was something almost poetic about his love of plants. It was a bit much for me sometimes, the things he said, New Age rubbish about all of us animals and men and plants and the Earth being one, but at least he was different, enthusiastic, on top of being handsome and funny. Even Lisa thought the plant obsession thing was a small price to pay for the luck of finding such a sweet guy.
Weeks passed and we saw each other more. I often spent the night at his place. I even got to be on nodding terms with his next door neighbour, a grumpy, dishevelled-looking old lady who walked her cat on a leash around the neighbourhood.
Then of course, as is bound to happen, we hit the end of the honeymoon phase. It wasn’t anything in particular, or anything terrible, but I suppose I just got a little tired of the constant talk about plants. What at first had looked like a cute quirk was starting to sound like a boring obsession. And I don’t know if it’s just that he told me more about it now or that he was getting deeper into it, but he’d quote me passages from books on Native American rituals, or Zoroastrian air burials, about the cycle of life, the oneness of all biological matter. Once as we were walking through the park, he stopped and looked at the dancing branches of tall lime trees under which children were playing, and he said “You know, they’re alive, all of them. As alive as we are, if not more. And we feed off them, breathe their air, chop them down, and they hardly ever ask anything of us in return.”
I happened upon his neighbour, the cat lady, in the street one day. She seemed distressed, and when she recognised me, she came to me and said she was looking for her cat.
“He always goes roaming around on the roof, you know. I keep him on a leash when we go for walks, because I’m terribly afraid of cars, but up on the roof, well, it’s his turf…”
She said he might be hiding on Philip’s balcony. It was such a jungle, you couldn’t see anything on it. She’d tried knocking on Philip’s door, but he hadn’t answered. She was in such a state, I felt like I had to do something. I called Philip. He was all sugar when he answered, but I heard annoyance creep into his voice and settle there cosily when I told him why I was calling.
We’d had a small fight a few days earlier. I had started leaving clothes at his apartment over the previous weeks, to have something to change into if I needed it, and that day I’d suggested that maybe – just maybe, just a little thought in passing – it would be handy for me to have a set of keys so I could just call in and get the stuff I needed if he was out. He’d clammed up straight away, refusing to even talk about it. And now he obviously thought I was bringing it up again in a roundabout way, when I was genuinely trying to help the cat lady.
“She’s a mad old bint, I’m sure her cat just realised that and legged it. Must have been tired of being dragged around by the collar like a little doggy.”
I hung up, the cat lady looking at me expectantly.
“He’s not at home. Sorry.” She stayed there on the footpath, at a loss for what she should do next.
“Why don’t you put up posters in the neighbourhood?”
“Ah, I don’t know. You always see those around here, lost dogs and whatnot, but I don’t know if they ever work.”
She thanked me, and went on her way.
After that, Philip and I started seeing each other a little bit less. We were still together, still spent a couple of nights a week together, at his apartment usually, or going to the cinema or for a drink, but it wasn’t the same.
A few weeks passed like that, in hesitant, reluctant intimacy, before I found out I was pregnant. It wasn’t the best of times, and instead of helping me work out how I felt about being with Philip, the way you could have thought it might, it just widened the scope of my indecision. One minute I was ending it and raising the child on my own, fatherless, the next I saw myself with Philip in a country house, the two of us cuddled up on a couch in a green-filled conservatory, our baby lying on his lap.
The next time I went to see Philip, I wasn’t quite sure what I was going to tell him. I was keeping the baby, no matter what. I was 29, after all, not as clueless as I’d been just a few years back, and even if it would obviously be tough, I felt like I’d be able to raise that baby on my own if I had to. The rest – his involvement, or lack of it – would depend on his reaction. Just as I was standing in front of his door, my fist raised and ready to knock, a door opened down the hall. The cat lady came out and greeted me. I’d been about to ask about her cat when I saw, looking shyly from behind her legs, a little ginger kitten, his collar tied to a leash. She had obviously gotten over her loss.
“How are you, love?” she said. “Tell me, would you ask your man to do me a favour and stop using whatever compost or chicken poop he’s using as fertiliser on his balcony? It stinks! I can hardly stand to have my window open!”
It was strange. She hadn’t said it in a nasty way, but rather nicely, really, and still the first thought that popped into my mind was “mad old bint, will you stop complaining?” As if Philip’s thoughts had sprouted seedlings in my mind. I smiled as the cat lady started down the stairs and I finally knocked on the door. Despite the dark mood of the past few weeks, I realised I still had strong feelings for Philip.
He was delighted when I told him I was pregnant – he wouldn’t stop smiling like an idiot. I felt bad for doubting him.
The following Saturday, he invited me for dinner, to celebrate. I arrived at his apartment, thinking we’d be going out to a restaurant, but I saw he had dressed the table in the living-room. Cream tablecloth, gold-coloured paper napkins, candles. He’d obviously made an effort, gone shopping for props. He popped open a bottle of champagne, poured it.
“One glass can’t harm anyone,” he said.
I smiled, accepted the glass.
“I’ve a surprise for you,” he said, picking up keys from the small table in the corridor. I thought for a second they were for me, for the apartment, but I saw then they were the ones with the big plastic key ring that said “Jonah’s Garden Centre”. He was on such good terms with the man at the flower shop that he’d been given a key to the back lot, so he could have access to the greenhouse and pick up tools, or fertiliser, if he needed something at strange hours.
“Let me guess,” I said. “A flower.” He smiled, raising his hands in a you-got-me gesture.
“But not just any flower – very rare, and fragile. Delicate, like you. You’ll be just perfect together. I wanted to leave it in the greenhouse for as long as possible, until I could transfer it properly. I’ll only be a minute.” He kissed me on the forehead, then rushed out.
When he was gone I went to the French windows with my glass of champagne. Two tiny sips and I could already feel the sweet weakening power of alcohol. I looked at the sky above the jungle of the balcony, how it reddened, in the mellow warmth of a late summer dusk. I remembered what the cat lady had told me the previous week, and looked at the balcony. I thought we might have dinner there, if only we could move a few things out of the way. I’d never touched anything in Philip’s apartment, never tried to organise the mess, but surely if we were going to do this, to try and be a family, I could allow myself to move a few things around. I unlocked the door. I’d have a surprise for him too, I thought, if only I could free enough room for the table to fit out there.
When I opened the door the smell hit me straight away. I gagged, and had to take a couple of steps back. The old lady hadn’t been lying. The smell was disgusting. What on Earth did he use for fertiliser? I took a deep breath and stepped onto the balcony. I couldn’t see anything out of the ordinary in the pots, until I reached further, next to the railings. There I saw it. That lady’s cat.
It still had its collar on. It was on its back, its belly opened from neck to ass and stuffed full with soil. A rose sapling sprang from it. Where the soil and the fur met maggots wriggled in and out. In its eye sockets too. Still, it almost looked alive with the vividness of its bared teeth, its paws frozen in the air. I put the palm of my hand over my nose and mouth, trying to block out some of the stench. When I looked around into the thicket of the balcony, I found other animal pots – birds, mostly. Pigeons feeding orchids, some so old only bones and feathers were left, amid little hillocks of earth. I saw what I thought was a small dog, before I gave up and closed my eyes. I heard the front door open then. I looked around, picked up a sharp, steel-pointed dibber from the floor and stepped inside, ready for him. We’d see who’d be pushing up daisies.
Issue #6 CONTENTS
MAKE DO AND MAKE MEND
STORM CLOUD RAIN, GRAVEYARD DIRT
THE BLUE BOY
MURDER AND CRUELTY FREE
S Van Sickel
A PROPER FOUNDATION
Armel Dagorn is now back in his native France after living in Ireland for seven years. His writing has appeared in magazines such as Apex Magazine, Lamplight and Holdfast, and is forthcoming in the anthology Haunted Futures (Ghostwoods Books). The chapbook of his story "Out-of-town Harry" is out now from In Short Publishing.
Find him at armeldagorn.wordpress.com and @ArmelDagorn