March 1 to April 21
A Short Story by Cherry Smyth
Official Author Bio
Cherry Smyth is an Irish poet, born in Ballymoney, County Antrim and raised
Cherry Smyth is an Irish poet, born in Ballymoney, County Antrim and raised
in Portstewart. She has written two collections of poetry, a poetry pamphlet as
well as a book, essays and reviews on contemporary visual arts. She has also
published short fiction. Her debut poetry collection, 'When the Lights Go Up'
was published by Lagan Press, 2001. Her anthology of women prisoners'
writing, 'A Strong Voice in a Small Space', Cherry Picking Press, 2002, won
the Raymond Williams Community Publishing Award in 2003. A poetry
pamphlet, 'The Future of Something Delicate' was published by
Smith/Doorstop, 2005. A second collection called 'One Wanted Thing' (Lagan
Press) appeared in 2006.
Her poems have been published in 'Breaking the Skin', an anthology of Irish
poets, Black Mountain Press, 2002, the Apples and Snakes Anthology,
'Velocity', 2003, 'Magnetic North', The Verbal Arts Centre, 2006.
by Cherry Smyth
It started with the phone ringing in an empty house. It was an old-fashioned ring, sonorous with gaps of three seconds between each sound. But the house was not empty and it started long before that. It started with a look at a dinner party. Across candle flame and a bowl of golden rod and purple teasels. It started when a woman ran her finger over a teasel to see if it was rough or smooth. If she’d known its name, she would have guessed its texture. A teasel teases. It raises the nap on a fabric.
Melanie didn’t know her oranges from her pinks, her Mont Bretia from her hollyhocks. Caro had told her the teasel’s name. Caro wanted to send her a copy of the column from her dictionary: ‘tear into, tear-jerker, tearoom, tease, teasel, teaspoon, teat, tea towel.’ It seemed to cover their story from beginning to end nicely, from tears to teas and back again.
There were six people at the dinner. And there were no excuses. One was Matthew, Melanie’s husband. Then the hosts, Andrew and Luciano, and Caro’s ex-lover, Esme who kept texting someone under the table and chuckling to herself. Caro didn’t enjoy Esme’s chuckle half as much now that she was no longer its subject. Its throatiness was fake. Esme was not a throaty kind of person. Maybe that’s where it had started, with that first obstrusive beep between Esme’s thighs and her insincere apology. Saying sorry had never been her strong point which was one of the reasons why they were both single.
‘It reminds me of a sea urchin,’ Melanie had said. ‘I wonder what’s inside.’ She kept stroking the prickly head as if it gave her a sensation she couldn’t place. Like the taste of something quite familiar served differently in another country. She stared at Caro. She dark serious eyes, solemn till she smiled and then they glistened and her whole face changed. They were all a bit tanked, except Matthew who was driving, so Caro felt it wasn’t safe to watch his wife, though she found she wanted to. The bright pink nail polish on Melanie’s fingernail made it a hard-shelled little insect trying to find nectar in an inaccessible flower.
‘Was this your idea, Luciano? The flowers like this?’ Caro asked.
Luciano smiled and gave a mock bow.
‘They really are beautiful,’ Caro said.
‘Cut flowers make me sad,’ Melanie said. ‘Imagine what a day this teasel would have had outside on a day like this.’
‘It probably grew up in a hothouse,’ Caro said.
‘I grew up in a children’s home but I still saw the sun,’ Melanie said.
‘Oh Melanie,’ Matthew said.
Caro looked down at a slice of kiwi on a hem of meringue and cream on her plate.
‘It might as well have been. You couldn’t call it normal, could you? You couldn’t exactly say there were parents around.’
Everyone laughed. Andrew reached over to top up the wine glasses. Caro slid her hand over hers.
‘How many kids were there?’ Esme said.
‘I don’t know, I lost count after seven.’
‘Eleven,’ Matthew said.
Caro didn’t want to say anything else for the rest of the evening and when the phone rang a few days later she said, ‘Melanie who?’ ‘Luciano said you do gardens,’ she said. Caro could hardly lie. ‘I do.’ Melanie said they needed work doing and could she come over. Caro was busy. It was late summer, her busiest time. No, she said. Melanie said she lived in the same borough, that she’d make her dinner, that she wouldn’t have to do the landscaping just give them advice.
‘Please,’ she said.
‘I’m sorry,’ Caro said. She had an image of eleven little mouths opening their beaks for food. Me, me, me.
‘Please,’ she said again.
Then Caro said, ‘I suppose you missed a garden when you were in jail.’
Melanie roared with laughter. ‘Touché,’ she said. ‘Bloody touché.’
A week later Caro was facing a sea of waist-high nettles, a choked raspberry, a suffering beech, a rockery and raised bed overtaken by ivy and weeds.
‘Let me guess,’ she said, sliding her pencil behind her ears. ‘You wanted the romantic back-to-nature look and nature ran riot.’
‘Now you want it tidied, but not fussy, and low maintenance.’
‘Well, yes,’ Melanie smiled. She looked embarrassed. ‘I hurt my back in an accident last year and Matthew gets hay fever so –’
‘I’m sorry,’ Caro said. ‘It’s just that some clients don’t realise there’s constant –’
‘I know. I plan to crawl.’ They both laughed and Caro caught the thought fly through her head, ‘God, this woman’s attractive.’ She was built like a boy with breasts. About thirty-five. She tilted forward a little when she walked as if she was about to break into a run or leap over something only she could see. Her hair was light brown and curved behind her ears in a short bob, like her garden, unkempt and shaggy.
‘Where are you from?’ Melanie said. She was chopping an onion in the kitchen. She switched the knife back and forth, as if she couldn’t decide whether to slice or dice.
‘You mean my DNA?’
‘My mum’s English, my dad’s Moroccan.’
‘You mean she’s white?’
Caro smiled. ‘Yes, white. Half-Jewish – but that was the half they decided not to keep.’
‘Mine kept it all with bells on. They’re orthodox. Hence the psychosis.’
‘You grew up in north London?’
‘Yep, Stamford Hill. Half the siblings moved to Israel and are living in forts on hillsides in the desert.’
‘Not exactly. You like artichokes?’
Caro remembered a wonderful smell of onions, bay leaves and pepper. Melanie said she couldn’t cook.
‘I just heat and steam and boil,’ she said, but she served the artichokes with Spanish olive oil and fresh squeezed orange juice which they chased round a saucer, then tugged the leaves through their teeth till their tongues went black. It was delicious. That sweet aftertaste that keeps surfacing on the back of the tongue.
Matthew was working late. They ate penne and pesto, drank a bottle of red and moved into the lounge.
‘So why did you and Esme split up?’ Melanie asked as she handed her a foamy espresso. Caro’s quick sketch for the garden lay on the table between them.
‘She had an affair.’
‘And you didn’t forgive her?’
‘She left me.’
‘Then she wanted me back.’
‘And you forgave her?’
Caro took a pause. She wanted to duck out of the firing line. ‘None of what she said was ever enough. It’s like trying to stick a tree that’s been felled back in the ground and thinking it will grow. You forgive but there’s no sap, no passion no matter how hard you will it.’
‘My father had an affair.’
Caro didn’t know whether to believe her at first.
‘With my mum’s sister.’
‘That must be the hardest. Did she forgive him?’
‘She went doo-lally when she found out. I came home on the tube one day and saw her running down the platform with her blouse on back to front and her head completely bald.’
Caro said nothing. She felt as if she’d seen this image somewhere years ago. She couldn’t place it. She didn’t know if she’d seen it happen or seen a photograph or a film of it.
‘What did you do?’
‘I tried to pretend I hadn’t seen her. Then one of my mates shouted, “Oi Mel, isn’t that your mum?” She was pregnant and tired and running. It was the worst thing I’ve ever seen in my life. She didn’t know me. She was talking in Polish and Yiddish and she thought I was her mother or her auntie. If she’d forgiven him she maybe wouldn’t have gone mad.’
Melanie’s eyes were full of tears. Caro wanted to sit beside her, comfort her. She didn’t move. She felt as though she was climbing up a under a huge wide tree where all the ground is dead leaves and mulch and darkness, where no sun has reached for decades. She’d lost her foothold and she was crawling and in some kind of pain she’d never experienced before.
This story is protected under international copyright law and cannot be printed or published without the permission of the author.
I am very honored that Cherry Smyth has allowed me to share this great stories with me readers.
She will be doing a Q & A Session soon so look for that.