It is undoubtedly autumn. On the theme of falling leaves and the inevitable descent towards the winter solstice, I post a short story that appeared in my 2002 short story collection – Familiar Possessions. In 2011, it was anthologised in Murmurations – the Two Ravens Press collection of uncanny stories about birds.
The Rhododendron Canopy
Wren writes furiously with her fountain pen, covering two pages of heavy vellum with large, erratic strokes. She folds the paper crookedly, so it won’t fit into the envelope, and she has to fold it all over again. The envelope looks over-stuffed, but she smooths down the gaping flap with her fist. If she leaves the house now, she will just manage to catch the post.
She does not wear her coat, but it is warm enough to go without it; one of those mild October days when you can almost believe that it is still late summer, and only something in the smell of the air tells you that the year has made its irrevocable turn towards winter. Her shoes are the sensible countrywoman’s sort, and she walks briskly along the rough surface of the single-track road from her cottage. There is little traffic here and grass has pushed its way through the thin tarmac. Small bronze leaves have collected around the tussocks like confetti.
Wren looks upwards. There is a bare tree outlined in sunlit water with birds dotted along the branches. The water is like glass, and the branches almost invisible, giving the water the appearance of crystal filaments. It shimmers momentarily as an unseen startlement causes the birds to fly off, and a shower of water sparkles to the ground, leaving the tree in darkness.
She reaches the post box slightly out of breath, drops her letter into it and walks more slowly home. The glass tree is now dull and still. Birds fidget secretly in the undergrowth. Wren is aware that the wind is changing and leaves peel off in shoals from the tall trees flanking the road, each leaf returned summarily to the soil at the end of the year. So many individual departures. None escapes the shedding.
On the slate path to her doorway, Wren finds a dead mouse. She hadn’t noticed it before. It will be the cat again, she mutters to a weathered stone figure of Aphrodite. The cat is always around – you have to be careful.
She removes the small body of the mouse with a shovel and places it under the dark, sterile canopy of a rhododendron ponticum at the back of her garden. There are other small bundles here, desiccated clumps of feather, skin and bone. The cat is always at work. Wren knows the rhododendron poisons the soil, so that nothing else can grow around it. But even the cat does not come here.
Afterwards Wren makes tea in a small silver pot with teabags she bought from the supermarket. The porcelain cup she always uses has a small chip on the rim, and she holds it up to the light to check for cracks. Her tea is strong; she knows it stains her teeth, but she’ll polish them later. The china cup she cleans with special care, leaving no blemish. It goes into the cupboard, with a matching sugar bowl and jug – the last items of her mother’s favourite tea service. Out of the kitchen window she sees the cat and taps the glass, rattling the pane. The cat looks up lazily and saunters into the hedge. It hasn’t really gone away and Wren sees him watching through the cage of bare twigs. She remembers the spring – the hedge budding new green – and the blackbird’s nest, so carefully built, hidden within it. The young male blackbird had been attentive, gathering food for his mate. One morning, Wren had woken to find the nest dislodged, blue eggs scattered on the lawn, broken, with three scrawny chicks exposed. By the next day, all that had remained of the clutch were fragments of sky blue shell on the grass.
On the last Friday in October the phone rings. Wren answers in her best voice then, after the call, lowers the receiver carefully, but it slips from her fingers and clatters onto the rest.
For the remainder of the morning, she cleans the little house. There is much dust, and when she is finished Wren decides that she must bathe and wash her hair. Then she puts on a good dress. It’s an old one, and it still fits. Wren wonders if the green silk crêpe, with its low neckline, suits her now, but it will have to do. She puts her hands to her throat, pulling the skin taut, stretching her jaw forward.
There were once shoes to match the dress, but they have long since fallen apart and Wren wears what she has. She brushes her hair back and examines the strands of grey, frowning. There is nothing to be done about that right now, but from her dressing-table drawer, she takes some make-up she has had for years, and applies the caked foundation with a damp sponge, pleased that she can still do it. The iridescent green eye shadow reminds her of peacock feathers. She is careful not to use too much. Water loosens the dried-out mascara, but it clogs her lashes, and Wren wipes some of it away with a damp cotton bud, leaving her eyes slightly bloodshot.
In the bathroom, Wren scrubs her teeth with abrasive paste. They look translucent, slightly blue, like egg white. Finding a stub of lipstick, she paints a careful outline with a straggly brush and fills in her lips with colour, but the lipstick has become granular, and bits flake off, making it difficult to apply. But with much dabbing and blending, the result is passable, although the colour is rather too bright for her now.
Wren does not eat lunch and sits on her sofa, her hands clenched in her lap. By half past two, when there is a knock at the door, she feels composed. Standing in the porch is a tall, thin man, damp and windblown. She can see his car outside in the lane. It looks reasonably new. Not large, maybe, but a good model.
The man extends his hand and Wren shakes it, finding it cold. ‘I am sorry that I gave you so little notice,’ he says.
‘It is no problem, do come in,’ she replies, holding open the low front door. The man steps over the threshold into the small parlour. He is too tall for it and his head brushes the lampshade, catching his fine strands of grey hair.
‘I hope that I haven’t inconvenienced you, but I have a business appointment in the area. I thought I’d kill two birds with one stone, as it were…’
‘So you said. You have not inconvenienced me. I had nothing arranged.’
Wren takes his wet raincoat and hangs it on a peg near the door. She sees a wisp of dusty cobweb on the peg, but covers it with the coat.
‘Would you like some tea?’ she asks. He replies that he would, looking down at Wren’s small sofa, its shabby cushions and the tassel fringe trimming that is coming away from the bottom. He bends his knees and sits down on the edge of the seat, his long legs collapsed like a frame and his arms resting awkwardly on his thighs.
Wren gets the tea things but she has only one cup, the one she always uses – he can have that. For herself she gets a pottery mug she keeps for measuring bird food. There is only one tea bag left and she hopes that it will stretch to both of them. She sets it out on a wooden tray and carries it through to her guest, putting it down on the low table in front of him. She sits in the armchair opposite. They both begin to speak. Just pleasantries, but their voices jar against one another’s and they fall immediately into silence. Wren pours the tea too soon, and it is very weak. The man clears his throat, and mutters thanks as she hands him the cup and saucer.
‘This china is very old.’
‘It’s Victorian, it belonged to my mother.’
‘Ah. I shall take extra care then.’ His voice is reedy, lacking resonance.
He sips, pursing his lips and dipping his hooked nose into the small cup. He makes some show of relishing it. Wren notices her lipstick has left a curved mark on the thick pottery of her mug that reminds her of a marigold seed.
‘I would have come sooner, but I have been unwell,’ he says, looking at her over the cup.
‘I am sorry to hear that. I hope that you are quite well again.’ Wren places the heavy mug on the table.
‘Your name is unusual, were you always called Wren?’
‘My mother named me Irène. It is the French pronunciation, after a distant relative I never knew. As a little girl I called myself Wren and it stuck.’
‘This is your house?’ the man asks. He looks around at the small open hearth with its smoky fire spitting from damp wood, the faded chintz curtains and the worn rug.
‘Yes, I have been here for some years. If you like, I can show you around.’
‘I don’t wish to intrude…’ But Wren stands and gestures towards the kitchen. The man puts down the cup and saucer. He follows her hesitantly, ducking his head under the low doorway. Bunches of dry lavender hang from the beams and the man has to dodge around them.
‘Here is my little kitchen. It has a good view out into the garden, don’t you think?’
The man stoops to look out of the window. There is a line of mould around the frames and Wren hopes that he does not notice it.
‘Is that your cat?’
Wren sees the cat, sitting by a molehill on the mossy lawn.
‘No, he just likes to visit; I’m not fond of cats.’
‘But I see that you’re fond of geraniums.’ He gestures to the row of plants in algae-coated terracotta pots on the windowsill.
‘Pelargoniums, those. I’m over-wintering them. Geraniums are the garden kind.’
‘Oh, you are an expert then.’
‘Never an expert.’ Wren wrinkles her nose. ‘I have no such pretensions.’
‘Have you ever been married?’
He does not take his eyes from the window.
‘Yes, a long time ago. Let me show you the garden.’
‘No, my husband died. Shortly after we were married.’ She looks at the man. ‘My garden is not elaborate, but I take some pride in it.’
‘I’m sorry, it must be painful for you to talk of your husband.’
‘I have been alone for many years now; I have come to terms with the facts. See, the rain has stopped.’
She tugs the door, which has swollen with the damp, and it judders open. In the garden, the stone paths are shiny with water. They go outside without coats. Although it is not actually raining, there is a mizzle and their clothes are soon felted with fine droplets. He remarks on several molehills in the lawn.
Wren replies, ‘Moles are common in this area. I’ve learned to live with them.’
‘You did not mention that you were a widow in your letter.’
‘It all happened a long time ago, an accident. It is almost as if none of it ever happened.’ She points to a large shrub, ‘Most of my flower beds are empty now, but I have some winter colour with the holly.’
‘That is very sad, I am sorry.’
‘I hope that you are not cold without your coat.’
Wren shows the man her perennial border. ‘Asters,’ she says, pointing to a clump of purple star-shaped flowers. ‘Prone to mildew, but they survive.’ In the hedge behind, Wren is aware the cat is hiding.
‘That’s a thorny hedge.’
‘It’s a mixed hedge of blackthorn, bramble and dog rose – rosa canina. Some elder. I make elderberry jelly.’ They walk between a pair of gnarled and lichened apple trees, to where the rhododendron ponticum spreads its broad canopy. The rain comes on more heavily. Wren knows that under the canopy the little bodies stay dry.
‘We had better get back inside,’ she says. ‘I’ll show you the rest of my house. There is just the upstairs you have not seen.’
They quickly walk back, and Wren leads them into the kitchen, her dress clinging awkwardly. Her hair sticks to her face and her make-up is running. She offers to take the man’s jacket and brings out a wooden clotheshorse from a corner and sets it in front of the fire in the living room. Without the jacket he is scrawny, and his shirt falls in vertical folds over his chest. Up close Wren can see a small tear above the pocket of his shirt. It has been mended with tiny, cleverly worked stitches. She sees his breath rise and fall and the shallowness of it. He wheezes slightly, looking cold and miserable. She sits him by her meagre fire.
‘I’ll make us some more tea,’ she says, remembering then that she has none to offer. The used tea bag does not look promising, but she covers it with boiling water and snaps the lid onto the teapot. Through the kitchen door, Wren can see the man is shivering. She hastily dries her hair with a hand towel.
She carries in the tray and sets it on the coffee table. ‘I can see that you are cold. I am afraid that this is not a warm house. I have no heating apart from the fire.’ She puts on a log, but it does not catch straightaway.
‘Whilst the tea brews, I’ll show you the upstairs.’
The man rises slowly, and eases his damp trousers away from his legs.
Wren indicates the narrow staircase that leads from the living room and the man has to lower his head at the top. They stand close together on the small landing.
‘There are only two rooms up here. The bathroom, see…’ She opens the door. ‘It was a bedroom once; the bathroom is not original, of course.’
The man glances at the room. Wren is aware that it is shabby.
‘And I suppose the other room is yours.’ The man looks uncomfortable. ‘Please don’t trouble yourself…’
‘It is no trouble. Here, let me show you.’ She opens the door wide, but the man scarcely looks.
‘It is small, but adequate. I don’t generally entertain.’
For a moment, Wren looks at the man. He towers over her in the confined space but without his jacket, there is no substance to him. It is as if his strength is diminished by his height. Wren finds that this inclines her to despise him. He looks disconcerted at her expression; Wren is aware she has a habit of rubbing her teeth over her bottom lip. She allows the man to walk downstairs and quickly checks her appearance in the bathroom mirror. Mascara streaks her pale face and her top incisors are smeared with the red lipstick. She tries to repair the damage, but her eyes remain smudged and the lipstick has marked the thin enamel of her teeth with a faint tinge of red that she cannot remove. Her hair hangs about her face in tatters.
Wren hears the man cough from her living room and runs downstairs.
The tea comes out almost colourless.
‘I hope that you do not like it strong,’ she says.
The man does not reply to this, staring into the fire, which shifts and drops ash through the grate. He speaks without looking at her.
‘My mother likes an open fire. She says that there is nothing like tea with homemade cake in front of a good blaze.’
‘Indeed,’ Wren replies. ‘I’m afraid that I do not have any cake.’
‘I did not expect that you had, I mean to say…’
Wren interrupts. ‘Your mother is still independent then, living in her own house?’
‘Yes, she is remarkable for her age.’
‘Does she live far from you?’
The man fidgets uncomfortably. ‘Not at all, in fact we share her house. I am away so often that it makes good sense. My father died over thirty years ago.’
‘You have never had your own home, a wife?’
‘No. But my mother has left me her house, which is substantial, although she could outlive me if she carries on like she is.’
He forces a smile. Wren can see that his teeth are crowded and discoloured.
‘What a sad thought,’ Wren says, looking over the man’s shoulder out of the window. It is raining quite hard now.
‘I must leave shortly,’ he says.
They stand in the porch; the man holds out his hand and Wren sees how pale his nails are – fine, like seashells. His coat is still wet, and she notices the musty smell of it, the smell of old age.
After the man is gone, Wren paces the kitchen, still in the green dress, which is now creased and limp. She catches sight of a fluttering in the hedge and runs out into the back garden, but the cat already has a bird in its jaws and runs off to the neighbouring garden. Wren throws a stone after it, but misses, hitting a paving slab and raising a chip. It is starting to get dark.
The next day, Wren finds the brown-feathered remains of a bird on her doorstep. With her shovel, she carries the dead creature to the back of the garden and places it under the rhododendron.
A week or so later, at the local shop, she buys a set of crockery in a nondescript pale pink, with a suggestion of a rose shape on the cups and the edges of tea-plates. She also buys a rich fruit cake and a packet of inexpensive brown hair dye in a shade called Copper Fire. Wren asks for some rat poison, which comes in a small cardboard box with a black silhouette of a dead rat and skull and crossbones. She is careful to keep it separate from the food.
Wren combs the dye to the tips of her hair and, after the specified time, rinses it out over the bath, staining the tub with rust-coloured streaks, which she has to scrub with scouring powder. Wren thinks that the dye is much darker than the shade on the packet. It has made her hair wiry and matted and gives it the appearance of tattered feathers.
The rat poison Wren puts into a dessert bowl that came with the crockery. She mixes it with some raw minced beef and leaves it outside covered with a large colander. In the morning, she notices that the colander has been displaced and the food eaten. Wren considers it wise to dispose of both bowl and colander.
It is now late November; there have been no calls. She doubts if the man will visit again.
The night is freezing, and Wren feels the cold, iron-hard through the thin soles of her boots. All smells are frozen into the air, which warms in Wren’s nostrils telling her the sad truth of the year’s ending. Only her feet make a sound, a soft grinding on the frosted blades of meadow-grass. The moon is almost full and Wren can see the leafless trees outlined in pallid gold. It is bright enough to see by, like stealing fire to light the dark, she thinks.
She stumbles over the uneven ground to the churchyard, carrying two heavy plastic bags and a small border spade. The wrought-iron gate is stuck and she has to push hard to open it. Through her flimsy boots she can feel the stones of the gravel path like lumps on her numb feet. Wren knows that there is a bare patch of soil near the yew hedge in the furthest corner of the graveyard.
It is very hard work, but Wren eventually manages to loosen the solid surface of the soil with the spade. Underneath it is still workable, although, by now, her feet and hands hurt with the cold. When she has dug a sufficient hole she lifts a wrapped bundle from one of her bags. It is stiff and awkward, but Wren manages to force it into the hole she has dug and cover it with chunks of frozen earth. Before she covers it completely, she opens the other bag and takes out a clump of hellebore dug from her own garden: Helleborus niger – Christmas Rose – and lowers it into the hole. It is pretty, but poisonous in all its parts. She has brought planting compost to bed it in. When she has finished, she tramples over the lumps, leaving a small mound she hopes will not be obtrusive. As she walks home, flakes of snow melt in her eyes.
Wren sits by the embers of her fire at midnight, drinking tea and eating a large slice of the fruit cake. Her hands and feet burn. In the spring, the blackbirds will nest again.