General Fiction posted May 7, 2016

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End of Splendour

by mfowler

Flora allows the red and rusted leaves to flutter and whirl about her.
The breeze skins the remnant foliage from the oaks and birches, ginkgo bilobas and liquid ambers, creating a magical kaleidoscope of autumn colour. She shivers a little, but lets the filtering light and unrehearsed symphony of dancing leaves, delight her.
This is one of her favourite times of year, her garden peaking before the sleep and slop of winter. This allows her to be totally absorbed amid the beauty, away from Reg, whose aversion to all things horticultural keeps him inside reading the daily racing guide.
She moves to the hothouse by the fernery. The tomato seeds have germinated and Flora lovingly transfers the tiny plants into larger pots. The winter sun will provide enough warmth in the hot-house for the seedlings to be ready for spring plantings.
Flora removes her gloves and finger-picks tiny weeds from the potting soil. Stubborn little pests, she thinks.
Tiny black insects have taken residence on the underside of her aubergine seedlings. She dusts them with a light coating of white powder. She reads the label on the box which boasts in bright orange letters: Guaranteed to remove pests with the minimum of fuss.
Flora knows that garden pests aren't easily discouraged. They come when the plants are at their happiest, plunder life, and slink away. It's the bane of the gardener - the bane of her life.
'Flora!' calls Reg from the kitchen door. 'It's time for me tea.'
Flora shudders; wonders how an 85 year-old man can't make himself a cuppa. He's made this same demand for tea at 11:00 am ever since they pensioned him off from the steel mill thirty years ago.
'Coming, Reg,' she grumbles.
Inside the kitchen, Flora sees him at the table.
'You know I like to have me tea while I listen to the early races,' says Reg, circling a certain loser in Race 1.
Flora waits for the ancient kettle to whistle. She looks at Reg's bulbous head from behind. She can just make out the partial ridge lines where his skull had been fractured during an industrial accident. It shows through the few grey hairs left on his shiny, uneven pate.
The beginning of the end, she thinks, remembering the dramatic change in Reg's amiable nature after the accident. At first he'd been sullen, self-absorbed with his problems. In time, frustration at losing full mobility and the matey satisfaction of working at the mill, made him irritable and aggressive.
SS-s-s-s-s-s-s-s-s-s! The kettle's whistling startles her from momentary malaise.
'Make it stronger, woman. Yesterday's tasted like dishwater.'
'Yes, Reg, I will.'
'And don't stay out in that plurry garden too long. I want me lunch at 1:00.'
'I might pop down to the nursery...pick up some veggie seeds. You know how you like a good veggie stew in winter. I'll leave a sandwich in the fridge.'
Reg slams the race paper onto the table, stands, and his large, hirsute body looms above Flora's diminutive frame. He reaches for her right arm, bends the lower half skewiff to the upper, and declares, 'You're not goin' to the bloody nursery until I get me lunch. I like it fresh made. You know that, you silly old bitch.'
The pain is acute. Her most recent injury, a bruised right shoulder, still smarts when she twists. She dare not whimper or show disdain, or the pain will be much greater.
She struggles to pour his tea, and then retreats to the safety of her garden.
'One ham and cheese sandwich,' says Flora. '1:00 pm on the dot.'
Reg's ruddy face looks puzzled. He lifts the top layer of bread. 'That's cheese and silverside. I like ham...don't I?'
Flora shows him the packaged ham slices. 'Oh,' he says, and eats.
'See you later,' she says, as she picks up the car keys. She hopes he's too occupied to notice.
'Where are you going?' he asks.
'Nursery. We talked about it earlier.'
Reg nods and stares blank-faced at his papers. His 'episodes' have been more frequent over the summer. They're disturbing, but Flora finds his mental absences to be relief from his angry ways.
As she backs out of the driveway, she slows to admire the show of heritage roses among hollyhocks, clematis and Shasta daisies, growing in a bed alongside the Macpherson's fence. She stops for a moment, and her eye is taken by the burgeoning spread of oleander bushes overhanging the fence.
Awh! Oleander, end-of-splendour, she mutters. She has no real reason to hate the pretty pink and white flowers of the shiny bush, apart from her mother's aversion to the plants. 'Oleander, end-of-splendour,' is what her mother would say whenever she encountered the plant.
Her mother was a stoic woman who saw the world in black and white, even when it came to pink oleanders. She raised Flora to love gardening, to stick by her man, and to care about the hygiene of her children. An odd mix, but Flora truly admired her mother's discipline in taking care of her alcoholic father through the bad years of their marriage.
Flora's journey is to the library, not the nursery. Her white-lie emanates from Reg's unexplained mistrust of books and learning. She wants to research garden plants, enjoy a cappuccino in the Atrium Cafe nearby, and if she's lucky, speak to other human beings for a while. The topics aren't important, just the warm feeling of belonging to the human race now and then.
She borrows a copy of  Good Plant - Bad Plant by Benjamin Blevin. She spoons the froth from her cappuccino as she reads about oleander: Nerium oleander is an evergreen shrub or small tree in the dogbane family Apocynaceae, toxic in all its parts.
'Hi, Mrs Bunder,' says a friendly voice. 'It's me, Olive...from the library.'
Flora is away with the botanical fairies and splutters on the froth from her coffee. 'Oh, hello, Mrs. Groves. Have a seat.'
'Can't chat long. I start soon. Call me Olive by the way...How have you been? Has Reg been any better lately?'
Flora hasn't seen Olive for over a month and can't remember what's she's told her.
'You know, his moments.'
'Oh,' says Flora. 'I'd forgotten I'd told you...More frequent than ever.'
'Have you had him checked out?'
'He won't see a doctor. Never will. Not since the accident. I daren't suggest it.'
Olive asks, 'Does he have any physical problems? He might go if he's uncomfortable.'
'There's his heart. Always complains it's pumping too fast.'
Flora thinks about Olive's suggestion and ponders over how she might broach the subject.
Flora hides the book in her handbag.
'Pick any winners, Reg?' she inquires, on entering the kitchen.
'They're all bloody fixed,' snaps Reg. 'Where have you been, woman? I'm hungry.'
'To the nursery?'
'I told you earlier.'
Reg raises his arm and backhands her across her face. She falls like a shot bird, landing awkwardly. Tears form, but instinct holds back the screams.
'What's for breakfast?' he asks gently.
The winter's cold, and wetter than usual. Flora's garden survives because of her diligence and love.
Reg's lapses of memory and mood shifts, make his presence in the house a constant nightmare. When she suggests a doctor's visit, he rages through the afternoon about the mess they made of his head, so she never brings it up again.
The hothouse becomes her refuge. There she sits and reads her botanical books, or cares for the tiny plants struggling to stay alive.
In July, the vegetable plot shows signs of a flourish. The cabbages and cauliflowers, pumpkins and zucchinis, survive the frosts and offer a generous harvest.
'Here you are, Reg, a veggie stew, just as you like it.'
Reg stares at the healthy serving. 'Do I?' he asks. He pushes the bowl away.
'It's the only thing you like in winter that comes from our garden.'
Reg roars, and throws the bowl at the wall. 'That plurry garden. You're always goin' on about it.'
Hot liquid from the flying food partially scalds Flora's pallid face. She covers it with a tea-towel.
'Give me meat, woman!' he shouts.
With each eruption Flora becomes increasingly nervous. She finds it hard to recognise her Reggie anymore. Before Bonny died from measles during the '59 epidemic, Reg was a fine father, a devoted husband, and great company. His work gave him purpose after Bonny's loss, but the mill accident left him bereft of motivation.
As she pulls the winter weeds near the naked trees of winter, she looks up at the oak. That was you, Reggie, she thinks. You were strong enough for both of us, before...Bonny. She feels a tear forming and weeds faster.
Each night, Reg eats the veggie stew with pieces of meat stirred in.
One night in August, Reg pushes the bowl toward Flora. 'Bloody bitch! I told you, no meat, just veggies. Are you tryin' to kill me?'
He hurls the bowl in Flora's direction.
Flora ducks, and shuffles off into the garden. She hears him ranting inside. It's cold and dark, but she's too afraid to return.
As she shivers among the hessian sacks in the garden shed, something snaps inside Flora's mind. I've got to fix him before he goes mad, before I go mad, she thinks. The germ of an idea forms in her imagination.
Something Reg said, she thinks.
Winter passes slowly, and the veggie patch gives of its bounty. Flora weeds the gardens along the fence line. The softer sun of late August allows her to escape Reg's tirades.
Oleander, end-of-splendour, she chants happily, as she prunes Mrs Macpherson's oleander. She piles the clippings onto the compost.
'Mmmh! This is nice,' says Reg, as he wolfs the stew down that evening.
'Glad you like it, Reg..' Flora's cure, as she terms it, is a hit.
Suddenly Reg pulls out a small book. 'What have you been up to, you conniving cow?' he says, waving the library book at his wife.
Flora freezes. She has no defence.
'You've been goin' to the library behind my back.' He rises, raises his hand, but, just as quickly, sits down. He holds his head.
'Dizzy,' he says, and rests on the table.
He's forgotten the book momentarily and Flora passes by him, removing the contraband.
She knows she must continue the cure to bring harmony to the home.
As blue skies and warmer days return, Flora busies herself in the flourishing garden.
Reg spends the days in bed. Flora brings him the cure each evening, and each morning he sleeps in longer.
As the winter veggies run down, Flora decides to add three oleander leaves to the stew. Till now, she's only added one, diced and stirred in among the veggies and spices.
After his only meal of the day, Reg wretches over his bedding. His breathing becomes shallow and quick. He clutches his chest, and stiffens.
Flora is cutting roses near the fence line. 'Lovely oleander this spring,' she says to Mrs Macpherson who's walking up the driveway. 'Looks a treat.'
'Lucky to survive in this climate,' says Mrs Macpherson as she passes.
The death certificate says it was heart failure brought on by old age.
Only Flora and Olive attend Reg's funeral. The celebrant tries hard to eulogise a man about whom he knows little.
'A long serving husband, loving father to his deceased child, Bonny, a former soldier, a hard worker...' Flora listens and nods with each accolade.
Olive squeezes her hand, offers a tissue. Flora's sad at Reg's passing, but tears are a luxury she's relinquished long ago.
'Thank you, Mr Boyd,' she says to the celebrant. 'Reg'll be glad to hear those kind words.'
'You must have loved him to put up with his shenanigans for all those years,' says Olive as they leave the chapel.
'Did I?' she replies.
The garden is a picture throughout spring. Flora works diligently caring for what she loves.
Translucent green appears across the canopy of the garden. Flora kneels on the soft loam beneath the oak. She trowels a deep hole among the wide-spread roots.
'I do love you, Reggie,' she says, kissing the small urn, before emptying his ashes into the earth. 'This'll be a good spot for you, right next to Bonny...You won't believe how beautiful the petunias are along the path borders this spring.'
As she witters away to Reggie, she can't help but feel that this is the best they've communicated in years.


Story of the Month contest entry


Oleander is an evergreen shrub or small tree in the dogbane family Apocynaceae, toxic in all its parts. Oleander grows to 2�??�?�¢??6 m tall, with erect stems that splay outward as they mature. The flowers grow in clusters at the end of each branch; they are white, pink to red. They are often, but not always, sweet-scented. Oleander has historically been considered a poisonous plant because some of its compounds may exhibit toxicity. Among these compounds are oleandrin and oleandrigenin, known as cardiac glycosides, which are known to have a narrow therapeutic index and can be toxic when ingested.

oaks and birches, ginkgo bilobas and liquid ambers: all deciduous trees known for wonderful displays of autumn colours

plurry (adjective): Australian/NZinformal
used to express anger, annoyance, or shock, or simply for emphasis.
a euphamism for 'bloody'

skewiff (or skew-whiff): adj. turned or twisted toward one side
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