It was that hour of day where afternoon hadn’t quite receded and evening hadn’t begun. Iris was in limbo as she hovered by the back door just watching those violent streaks which soared across the horizon in dizzy swathes of violet and pink. In the distance she could hear the sound of a football being kicked, slightly hollow, which reverberated in her chest, dum, di dum di dum.
As if breaking from a trance, she sharply turned into the living room where she perched herself on the edge of the sofa. She only ever perched, like a small bird, as if unable to fully commit to sitting down and relaxing. As if she must remain in wait for some unknown event conspiring around the corner. She would open all the windows so that she could hear the orchestra of traffic and the schoolchildren on their way home.
The leave hadn’t really helped, she just wanted it to be over so she could get back to work and take her mind off things. He wouldn’t be home yet, he had football practice this evening, five-a-side, and so she would have a few hours to herself. She found herself at the cabinet which was teeming with bric-a-brac, it was the only piece of furniture in the house which she hadn’t gotten around to sorting through. She eyed the two metre high eyesore of budget timber with recalcitrant caution, preparing her attack. For, once she began clearing, she would feel compelled to finish the job. There were the piles of receipts, and then there were the countless pennies, and all the screws, how many screws could they possibly need? And the buttons too? She hadn’t bought a blouse or a jumper in years.
She took one of the ratchety chairs from the table and then she pulled it over towards the cabinet. The floorboard was loose so when she stood up on it, she felt her weight wobble precariously from side to side, imagining her head splitting opening in a foray of red on the kitchen floor and him finding her like that, a smashed pumpkin, only to sweep her up, his own wife like a £6.99 vase.
She steadied the chair with a wad of receipts. And then she began to shift the crap onto the table, that was what cleaning was after all, shifting from one spot to the next. It was only when the doorbell went that she realised she’d been at it for the past three hours, and that she had not tidied a single thing but had only transported it elsewhere, where it was more visible. She knew he had a key so she would wait. As she stepped down, a trinket fell into her palm. It was bronze and she didn’t recognise it from anywhere. It had rusted around the corners into a chalky aqua colour. She took the trinket into her palm and slipped it into her pocket.
Hey—he staggered in, exaggeratedly defeated from his game, his disproportionately long arms dangling limply by his sides. She liked to kiss him after a match, to taste that briny residue of sweat on his lips and on his neck especially. She lifted his shirt over his head and kissed his armpits, stinky, she murmured into the hairs. No no don't, I'm jumping in the shower. What happened? She asked, fondling the stain on his elbow, like a squashed blackberry. Slipped, going for a header. Then he was gone with his mud-stained rucksack over his head, and she was alone again, but now there was the sound of his ponderous footsteps and then the shower going. She liked that sound.
She made a clearing within the cacophony of their shared past on the table, placing the trinket down in the middle. It was of a tree in the middle of a field. And hanging from the tree, a wooden swing. She opened the lid, and there in the middle of a velvet cushion, were six or so tiny teeth, milk teeth, a little stained and brown. She gasped and almost tripped backwards on an atlas of Kent motorways. After she collected herself, she tipped the teeth into her palm and inspected them one by one. She could distinctly remember the incident surrounding each fallen tooth. Like a film, each episode unravelled one after the other as if they happened just like that, as if all the other bits of life in between had not made it into the final cut. The left one, the one that was a little cracked, happened at school one day when Henry was playing tag with his friends Ruben and Max. He’d tripped and headbutted Ruben and the tooth had become lodged in Ruben's head (or so she had been told).
Whether it was true or not, she was always fond of her child’s anecdotes and so she restrained her more discerning faculties and made herself gullible to the inimitable saviour of story; she relished escaping in his violent bloody embellishments, playgrounds turned battlefields, particularly because there never seemed to be a need for a victor nor a loser; the amusement was in the game. The second, no one could make up, because she was there to see it. It was loose anyway and looked much like an archetypal child’s tooth that one might see on posters for teeth brushing with googly eyes and a broad smile. He had been sitting there wobbling it with his finger throughout dinnertime. She had told him not to but he couldn’t help himself, and she couldn’t blame him, because she would be just the same, and then the next thing, he had poked his tongue into the jellied gap where his little molar had lain, and they had spent the rest of the meal on a feverish excavation for the missing tooth! Dinner had been ruined, but it was mashed potatoes and no one seemed too sad.
The last she will remember forever, and alas, she cannot know now whose story this is, his or hers, or a collective conspiracy, a shared susceptibility for the wonders of escaping, the front tooth: they’d been strawberry picking with friends of theirs, a mother and her little girl who happened to be the same age as Henry. She had never liked the girl, and even less her mother, there was something calculating about both of them, something watchful and brooding, but she had agreed to the trip nonetheless.
They had filled their baskets full of strawberries when a shriek resounded, and the next thing, they had looked down to find a dog dead on the floor, a golden retriever frothing at the mouth. Henry had bitten down so hard that his front tooth had dispensed itself into his tongue. It wasn’t hard to remove, and there wasn’t that much blood, but the dog, the shriek, and what was it? Had the dog been poisoned? And why didn’t mother and daughter look the least surprised? They dumped their strawberries, reluctantly accepted the ride home, refusing any invitation from the Clarks thereafter with a series of limp excuses. She had no proof that they were behind it in any way, but they had become unwittingly associated, perhaps as easily and as fortuitously as she herself could have become incriminated, but that was by-the-by, instincts were instincts. One should trust the taste in her mouth, or the impulse to retreat when a stranger with dark eyes approaches.
She toyed with the pieces of what felt like small stones in her palms, things she could imagine in a museum with all the other small rocks, why did they not deserve to be there as much as any of that other stuff? The shower was still going. She didn’t know where the instinct had come from, what was coming over her but she found herself lifting the apron over her head and marching into the conservatory with her hand tightly clenched over the small teeth. She was undoing the key and then she was striding over the marshy land, over the uncut grass, and then she was reaching for a shovel, the closest she could find, her fingers grazing the rust on the handle, and then, in the middle of the garden (could she be less discreet!), she began to dig, the light was still on in the bathroom and she could see the steam kissing the window panes, and so she was safe, she would keep digging until she felt it was right, and then she knelt down on the damp earth and opened her palm at an angle. The six teeth slid from her palm into the open mouth. And then with her hands she heaped the earth over the void and sprinkled some of the dried grass over the patch.
When she returned into the house, he arrived downstairs, rubbing the towel over his head. What were you up to? He asked innocently, noticing the mud on her knees. We had a fox again, those scavengers–
They eat our blackberries.
They’re harmless–it’s the crows-
How would you know? Surprised at the extent of her irritation.
Ah c’mon, he kissed her on the head. After a shower, he looked so innocent, somehow naked, as if some sheen of adult world weariness had been lifted, leaving him soft, pink and unblemished.
I’m starving. That’s ok, she reassured him- Oh fuck, wait a second, and turning to the taupe ribbons of steam spilling from the wings of the oven, she leapt into the kitchen, returning with a tray of unidentifiable scorched veg amidst a plume of smoke .
She froze over the tray, the alarm resounding, as he skidded into the kitchen waving a tea-towel at the bleating siren, wrenching open every window at once so that the steam could escape. Iris remained paralysed, staring at the veg. He approached cautiously behind her, resting an arm over her shoulder. They both stood side-by-side, studying the tray beneath them gravely.
I, I don’t know how I could have forgotten about it…again.
It’s ok. He hesitated to rest a palm on her shoulder but decided against it. I’ll call the Chinese.
She smiled, unconvincingly.
And then at the table: What was happening here?
I was having a tidy up. Then it was his turn to look sarcastic, taking her into his arms. She looked pathetic. That night they ate chow mein in the living room on cushions as they watched a television programme about a fugitive on the loose after he stole his mother’s inheritance.
That night, she brushed her teeth, and it was only when she caught her reflection, that she remembered. She glanced in at the bedroom, his iPad rising and falling on his chest with the rhythm of his snores. She tip-toed downstairs to look out into the garden. The night was gentle and unforeboding. She looked at the patch of land, which, from here appeared indistinguishable from any other patch of land in the expanse of their garden. Her gaze was distracted by a small toy truck, tormented by rain and the elements, its front wheel twisted, its handle-bar cracked in two.
The next morning, she woke, surprised to find that she had not only overslept but had overslept by several hours and that she had not heard him leave. But the table was clear in the dining room, everything had been returned, it seemed, exactly to its original position on the cabinet shelves, even, including, the trinket itself. A part of herself wondered if purging the cabinet had been just another of her mundane dreams. Though when she fingered the little swing attached to the towering oak tree, and when she opened the lid, she found nothing inside, just a tongue of naked velvet, the colour of menstrual blood.
She slid into her slippers and ran out into the garden. On her way out, she caught sight of the neighbour clipping her hedges, raising her eyebrows suspiciously, as if in entering her own garden in a robe and slippers, Iris had committed an assault against public decency. She curtailed any potential conversation with a curt nod as she continued towards the centre. Against all belief, she found, in the patch where she had buried the teeth, a tall thin stalk protruding from the earth. It was a pale green and appeared soft, even with the suggestion of a thinner branch stemming from the neck. She did not dare touch it, but only observed, transfixed.
She spent the rest of the day in a dizzy fuzz. With renewed vigour, she did all the things she had been meaning to do for months but had not quite got round to. She paid off the income tax and booked the MOT on their cars, they arranged for that much needed hair appointment and eye test, arranged for an electrician to come to fix the lights on the front porch (it took her several minutes longer at night than it should do to enter their home on account of the lock being enshrouded in complete darkness). More than once, a neighbour had nosily tip-toed onto their front step to check that Iris was not a burglar trespassing her own home. She gave a lick of paint to the wall above the fireplace, she replaced all the toilet rolls, the originals of which were thin as bible paper and always tore against the serrated edge - just one of her small daily triggers. All of that was done before five, so she even had time to bake a banana bread and have that sitting ready on the dining table.
No, now it was not even so much that she was ready to go to work, there were things to do, a house to tend to, a garden to tend to. Even her body, which had, until now, felt like a burden, a sack of unsympathetic rocks weighing her down, an unsentimental blot in a notepad that is life, an antagonist to her mind (which really did feel free), now felt like her compatriot, her comrade, they had silently addressed each other after dark, shaken hands, broken bread, and now she could move on with herself and be happy and lithe.
He noticed it too, and that night, they fucked like never before. She panted like a jungle cat and he sweated from places from where she had not before seen sweat, pores she did not know existed. After they bathed in the cornucopia of their shared passion, she tore the sheets from the bed with satisfaction, as if something had been expunged from her, some liquid evil and now she could be fresh and new. This is what sex would become for her, an expungement of some misdeed that had nested itself uninvited in her body. No, it was not a by-product of love nor lust, it was a human necessity, like defecation or purging.
He watched her closely as she peeled the sheets. She could feel his circumspect gaze, perhaps she had been too hasty, until now she had never been one for cleaning, not least after sex, but he didn’t say anything, and so neither did she, just drowned out his suspicions by turning on the washing machine in the bathroom. She perched on the unwieldy machine as its reverberations shook her whole body, from head to toe.
I've decided, she declared, the next morning, that I'll extend my leave.
Oh, really? You can do that.
But you seem, you know, a lot better.
That’s exactly it. I don't think that office is good for me, being around those filing cabinets and emails and gossip. Such a toxic workplace environment.
But you loved it there, the meetups, the rounders every Friday—
Babe, I put up with it, there’s a difference. I'm no more a clucking hen than you are. I’ve realised that nature is what I need to be around, what I’ve got to dedicate myself to.
You mean that tree?
It’s not just any tree, she thought, violently, she could have lashed him there with a whip if she had one. He was such a moron when he wanted to be! How could I marry such a cretin! I bet he’ll call me green fingers now. Though she could remember it as close as if it were yesterday, how she had mocked all those friends of his mothers who proudly trotted off to their allotments at the weekends and bragged about flower shows and who could grow the biggest romesco—all those sanctimonious green-fingered gloaters. But she was different from them, because her tree was not just any old tree, it was unique.
Contrite, he approached her, taking her hands in his own, Well, actually, I think it’s a great idea, if you do.
Somehow she found his amenability suspect, it was a game, it all was. Let her have what she wants, she’ll tire soon enough.
I do, she replied, stubbornly.
They were marrying there and then, though it was less a conjuguality than a concession on his part to her whims. Her grief had manifested like a giant egg in their house, he was stepping on the shells, her heart was a yoke, ready to explode, and he would be swallowed in the eruption if he wasn’t careful. What decree of kindness, or preparation could he have planned for this eventuality? People had suggested many things, a dog! A golden retriever, a golden retriever, they are so cathartic. He had gotten so fed up with that word, that patronising one- size-fits-all word. And besides, she had shuddered when he had suggested it, he hadn’t realised she was afraid of dogs, but she had been adamant, and no it's not like that she added, noting his misconception, not like that at all, as the dead dog with his lolling tongue reared itself amidst a field of strawberries: just another thing to lose.
One night, some weeks later, they lay side by side, both too lazy to initiate when Iris pulled him on top of her. They fucked mechanically like robots automated to know where everything is, every cavity and obtrusion, they fit together perfectly, hand-in-glove. Their lovemaking was akin to pushing buttons, to guaranteed pleasure. When they finished, she left it a few minutes before changing the sheets, their breathing in unison.
Did you hear that? She whispered, fondling her ear.
That, that noise. It sounds like, like a baby crying.
He paused, lending his ear deferentially to the perceived source of the noise.
No, I don’t hear anything.
There, it is again! She sat up sharply, pressing her ear to the wall.
I know, he whispered into her hair, as she sat bolt upright, it's the neighbours. I'm sure I saw her carrying in one of those carriers the other day, for babies, and she looked about to pop anyday. Iris nodded, she was done speculating. And when he shuddered off to sleep, she lay there more calm now, though she knew it wasn’t next door or any neighbour, that lady was not pregnant, only fat, they both knew that, and more than that, the sound was not coming from there, but from the garden, where her tree quivered tall and resolute, it’s black canopy quivering in a paroxysm that spoke of some ineffable will—though it was a still night without a breeze. Her heart stirred and deliberated, she bit down on her pillow, terrified to make a noise.
One evening some months later, he arrived home to find Iris sitting placidly at the kitchen table. She was studying her hands, running her index over the small bones that always reminded her of fish bones. She clenched and unclenched her palms, enjoying the tautness of her golden skin over the gleaming knuckles beneath. Her hands had always been dainty and disproportionately small. But now, since her gardening, they felt stronger, almost not her own. He stood by the glass panel doors that opened onto the garden where all the plants, except the one tree, were dead, their rakish skeletons wilting plaintively from wall to wall.
Honey, that thing, what is it?
It’s a tree, darling.
But what kind?
Well that's the thing. She replied, without looking up at him.
Well, the neighbour came over this afternoon to take a look at it, the gardener for the National Trust House just across the river.
She said she’s never seen anything like it in her life, like, never ever.
Well, yeah, it's an enigma, one of nature’s enigmas. It’s like a new species or something, something we’ve never seen before.
Is that even possible?
Well things have to begin somewhere don't they, like language, nothing’s really made up, there’s a beginning and end to everything—
Her answers bore a child-like simplicity that served her own purposes of evasion. But she was more intelligent than that, they both knew as much, more inquisitive, never one to take the first answer her brain conjured for the sake of satiety and peace of mind. He huffed and slumped down on the chair, wan with concern as he looked out into the garden, or what was once their garden before it had been engulfed by a giant black obtrusion. Apart from the tree, tall and fleshy with his capering neck and full head of hair, the rest of their garden had near to expired. The blackberry bush, the fig tree, their geraniums, even the cactuses had shrivelled with dehydration, diminishing to just a tenth of their size, as if, somehow, the tree had appropriated all the nourishment that could be afforded in this single plot of land.
Later that evening, when he was sleeping, she crept out in the garden and sat beneath the tree, she liked to feel its cool uncompromising breath on her neck, liked to caress its juicy leaves, to feel the occasional droplet of dew drizzle down her palm, which she sucked, bitter-sweet like strawberry tree honey. She read books, not her own, but children’s books, and not to herself, but into the bark, which she caressed with her words, pressing her lips against the soft, pliable, earthen neck, which bent towards her and around her.
It was night-time, and the flat silver moon watched on as she slept soundlessly. When she opened her eyes, she did not immediately realise where she was. Noticing dawn poised to break, she stumbled from the tree’s embrace when her finger nicked the bark, and a ribbon of blood dribbled down her wrist. But she realised after a moment that she was not bleeding, that when she looked closely, it was the tree, the tree that was wounded, right in the heart, and that its breath was laboured. She tore off a piece of her nightie and pressed the wad into the open slit. She left the book in the mud and hauled herself to bed before he woke up.
It continued like this for some time, they had stopped having sex by some unspoken mutual contract, but slept unperilously side by side. They spoke amiably about things they once discussed with passion and verve. They were now co-partners in some sort of business of life, it worked, the wheels were oiled, he looked at her as a mirage of pastimes, and she looked at him as someone she might see around the office and make familiar jokes with. At night, she slept in the garden beneath the tree and in the early hours she brushed the mud from her skin and climbed back into bed like a fugitive.
Then one morning, she woke irritably, to the noise of a chainsaw. Who is chainsawing at 6am on a Sunday morning! She knew something was odd because the light had not entered her window in months now, owing to the obstruction of the branches and the beastial head of hair from her magnificent tree. But now the light flooded in and bathed her in a sea of lemon-yellow. Her skin was burning by the time she opened her eyes and offered herself to the new day.
When she looked out into the garden, the tree was nowhere to be seen. She stumbled down the stairs, her gown billowing behind her. The front door was swung open on its hinges, the raucous noise of a chainsaw roaring away. She could feel it in her bones. And there he was, begoggled in his lumberjack jacket, straddling a giant stump with a pulsating chainsaw suspended over his shoulders. She had never seen him look so determined. Surrounding him were the severed limbs of her tree protruding indecorously from a giant iron skip. She gasped and staggered backwards, tripping on her robe, finding herself where it all began. There was the hole, the giant hole, in the middle of the garden. She fell to her knees and wept, her tears like raindrops into the scorched earth. Only this earth was dead and buried, and nothing it seemed, would grow here, not now, nor for many years to come.
Photograph by Michael Howarth (2023)