Today is August Bank Holiday Monday. It is supposed to be hot and summery. Alas, summer has finished in Cumbria, and wind blows the leaves from the trees. I cannot say for certain that summer actually visited these regions. Autumn has certainly made an appearance, with more than a head round the door. I post an autumn-themed story published a couple of years back in Tears in the Fence.
The Closing Day
The man called on me again this afternoon with yet another bunch of faded flowers. I gave him the chamomile tea I have bought especially for his visits. Despite the fact that I have never expressly invited him to visit. Politeness, I tell myself, is why I invite him in. And to thank him for the flowers. Our conversations are limited. It is hard to know what to say to a man who brings me such sorry-looking flowers. He never stays long. As he left this afternoon, he pointed out that one of my curtains had lost its hook, and was sagging. It has been sagging for at least a year.
His cologne is powerful, reminiscent of church incense, and he leaves behind the smell of it, like a sad memory. After he has left, it is hard to distinguish the smell the from the smell of the half-dead flowers.
He developed the habit of visiting me on Saturday afternoons after saw me struggling with my overgrown front garden. He said that it had much potential, but was clearly a lot of work for one woman. He passed by a week or so later when I was putting my car away after shopping. It was raining very hard but he had no coat over his jacket. He did not seem particularly wet or inconvenienced by the rain, but, on impulse, I invited him in for a cup of tea.
‘Have you any chamomile?’ he asked.
I had none, and he declined my offer and sheltered in my doorway for a few minutes, commenting on the garden, which had not much improved since his previous inspection.
‘Do you realise that your gutter is leaking?’ he said, before stepping back into the rain.
As if I would not know that – it drips on my head as I walk around the side of the house. I just have not got around to repairing it.
The following week he came by with his first bunch of flowers – a bouquet of drooping pink roses. We chatted for a few minutes at the door, and he asked me if I had managed to fix the gutter.
‘Not yet.’ I told him.
He looked at me, and said, gravely, ‘You are beautiful, my dear, but need a man’s help around here.’ He smiled at his rhyme, then left, bowing in an old-fashioned way.
Since then, he has visited me most Saturday afternoons, presumably on his way to something else; maybe walking home from a regular appointment. Always, he has a bunch of faded flowers he presents to me gravely, with the invocation ‘Flowers for a beautiful lady…’ He comes into my kitchen and I make him chamomile tea. I have never asked his name, but that does not seem to matter to our relationship. Why he calls I do not know; it is surely not just to give me faded flowers and to tell me I am beautiful. But maybe he does not realise that the flowers he brings are faded, so I should question his judgement of beauty. That he tells me I am beautiful should be reason enough for me to tell him not to call, but I see no threat in his manner, nor do I register the significance of his words. His manner is not flirtatious. Perhaps I should tell him not to call when he next visits, but he always leaves before I can say very much. Nevertheless, I did buy that box of chamomile tea; I like the picture of the dainty white chamomile flowers on the box. And, as a living herb, I think it smells divine; apple-fresh and inviting, but, in my experience, the tea it makes tastes unpleasant, reminding me of the water I pour from the vase when the man’s flowers are well and truly dead.
I have only one vase, a cut crystal one that belonged to my mother, which was a wedding present to her from my grandmother, and I wash it carefully at the kitchen sink. The vase is wasp-waisted – reminiscent of a woman’s corset; its top edge crenulated like French lace. Washed, it appears underdressed and exposed on my draining board, water running down the cut surface like twisted wet hair. I imagine it with flowers inside – beautiful, fresh blooms, swelling over voluptuously. Light bubbles through the facets like laughter.
It is Saturday afternoon again and I am at home, glad to escape from my office and my love-sick PA, Daisy, who is behaving erratically now that she has become engaged. Now, I find that I have to pick up the pieces after her and am working longer hours than ever. I was invited out last night by my friend Constance to the launch of her exhibition, but had to work late and so did not make it.
Constance was, before her marriage, well known as an artist. She was quite wild, she said, until she met Mr Strong, who married her and made her the respectable Mrs Strong. But Constance has grown upwards into her respectability as she has grown outwards into her billowing skirts. She showed me a photograph of herself at seventeen – barefoot, slender, in a filmy kaftan, her hair banded like a squaw’s, false eyelashes like plastic stamens over her dreamy eyes, painted lips pouting like orchids and a long cigarette dangling in her fingers. She told me that it wasn’t tobacco she was smoking.
The man made his usual brief visit this afternoon, again asking about the gutter. He had limp orange chrysanthemums for me this time, resembling used dishmops. His visit meant that again I missed her exhibition, and I told Constance about him when I phoned to apologise, and she commanded me to describe him.
‘He is tall, thin, pale as death.’
‘Don’t be fatuous, woman,’ she replied. ‘You have no idea who you are admitting to your house. For all you know, he could be Death himself.’
‘So he called me beautiful and said my gutter needed mending, and the curtain hook… But I’ve done that. Does that make him dangerous?’
‘Next time he visits, call me. I’ll come immediately.’
I promise that I will go to her exhibition next Saturday – the closing day.
I have to work on Sunday morning, but Constance sends her husband, Harry, to repair my gutter on Sunday afternoon. He comes with a set of ladders, and, with much creaking of aluminium, for he is a heavy man, he applies mastic to the joints. He assures me it was a minor repair, a question of basic maintenance.
In my office on Monday, Daisy cries because her fiancé has left her. I give her the day off and tell her that there are more fish in the sea. I have an image of her as a cormorant gulping a bright silver fish whole. In the park at lunchtime I walk the perimeter three times, breathing deeply. Autumn is here. Summer has gone, and the leaves have turned to gold.
Daisy has been off sick all week and I have go to the office on Saturday morning. Over a late lunch, I remember Constance’s exhibition and am putting on my coat to leave when the man arrives. He stands there holding a bunch of shrivelled asters with a single sad lily stem. I am drawn into the musty embrace of his cologne and cannot find the will to send him away. One of the lily buds falls to the parquet and lies there like a smooth, green-striped beetle.
‘You’d better close the door,’ I say, ‘You are letting in the cold.’
He steps forward, crushing the bud under his foot. The sound it makes could well be the sound a beetle makes when crushed.
‘I brought you some flowers.’ He hands the bunch to me. They are almost dead; the petals fall in purple showers to the floor. His eyes are the pale luminous blue as the light from a spirit burner, but with no heat. I invite him into the kitchen.
‘Why do you bring me flowers?’
‘But you make chamomile tea for me…’
He does not like his tea hot. It cools in a china cup upon my kitchen table. I have made myself some, but cannot drink it. His flowers stand in the crystal vase, bent and awkward, and they dust my table with deep violet shreds of aster petals. He sits opposite me, looking at my curtains. His hands are faintly blue-grey. He picks up his cup and holds it tightly, but there is surely little warmth to be had from it – the tea must be almost cold.
‘You should go out more,’ he says to me.
‘Is that an invitation?’
‘That would be inappropriate.’
‘I’m sorry if I have offended you.’
‘You have not. My wish is for you, not for myself.’
The smell of his cologne reminds me of a day I spent with a lover a long time ago. We had visited a tropical plant house. The scent of the flowers seemed to me redolent of death, their beauty as artificial as the painted faces of courtesans.
‘I should leave now.’ He stands.
I can see how thin he is, how his clothes do not really fit him, despite the apparent good quality of the materials. He is a scarecrow, a man of poles and straw. I cannot imagine his body. Looking into his eyes is like looking into the open sky through broken windows.
‘You should eat something…’ I want to say. But I do not. I could make him a meal, but am sure that he would not eat it. In my hallway he is almost invisible in the poor light. I put my hand outside to test the weather. The afternoon has turned to rain and my skin and sleeve glisten with drops. My gutter does not appear to be leaking. He notes this.
It is four o’clock. Constance’s exhibition is over.
Constance buzzes in at six.
‘You didn’t come, I was disappointed.’
‘I had a visitor…’
‘That man called. He gave me some more flowers.’
‘I wondered what the smell was. Those flowers are rotting on the stems.’
She stares at the flowers, transfixed by the sight of them. ‘Wait…’ she says. Constance fetches her sketchbook and pastels from her car. Without a word, she deftly draws the brittle stems, the stumps of the lily, the shreds of purple aster and the sharp divisions of light and dark that give it form. As she draws, I make her black coffee. Constance works quickly. I have never seen her working before and am surprised at her skill. She has a strength and surety in her hands that seems at odds with the softness of her body.
When she has finished, Constance holds the sketchpad at arm’s length, inviting me to look.
‘It is so unlike your other work,’ I say.
I associate Constance with full-fleshed cornucopias, buxom fruit in fulsome bowls. But this is the grim reaper at work, his counting house of he loves me loves me not in dying petals on the table.
‘There is such a thing as commerciality, I paint what people want to hang in their cosy little parlours.’
She looks at me over her glasses. Then, without another word, she carefully tears the page from her pad of Ingrès paper and starts a new one. In moments she has sketched me. On the paper is a smudge of tones and shades, lines and shapes. It is like looking at myself through a magic looking glass.
Constance says, ‘I am good at this. That man is right, murderer or not. You are beautiful!’
I am at a loss. Constance hands me the picture.
‘Does Harry ever say that to you?’ I bite back my words, but it is too late.
She looks down at her heavy body and holds out her thick arms encased in her baggy cardigan.
‘I wondered often why you married him.’
‘Then you have never been in love, you poor foolish girl.’
I put my arms over her shoulders and hug her. She smells of expensive perfume and linseed oil. She is warm and solid, not like the frail girl in the photograph. I think of the man. That he, who is so lifeless and faded, should call me beautiful.
When Constance leaves, I take the flowers and throw them away. I will buy some more of my own flowers to fill it. And some for Constance to apologise for my cruelty.
Daisy phones me at home on Sunday to tell me that her fiancé has apologised. She sounds elated. I say that I am glad for her, and look forward to seeing her in the morning.
Constance phones me at work on Wednesday. ‘I took the picture I did of those flowers to Gilly’s and they accepted it. Sold it this morning. £650!’
‘Well done, Constance. Treat yourself.’
‘I bought you some decent flowers.’
Constance has bought me a flamboyant bouquet of sunflowers and exotic grasses that does not fit the crystal vase, so Constance lends me one of her enormous opulent ones.
Later that night, I am working in my study. My laptop hums, my back aches. The room is gloomy. I stretch, feeling my sinews crack, and, like a cat, I prowl the room, imagining how it would be to leap out into the night and meet my mate, how we would howl and scratch. Some weeks later, I would have my kittens in a quiet place where no one would find them, and the whole business would start over again. But I am surely beyond these thoughts. I had my chance once. Constance does not know everything.
I turn on the main light, and the room is over-bright, stark and two-dimensional. I make tea, then decide enough is enough. Daisy is back tomorrow and will take the paperwork off my hands.
As I fall asleep, I believe I feel someone kiss my cheek and say goodnight.
Daisy sings as she makes coffee. She forgets to put in milk. She asks me if I will come and look at a wedding dress her mother thinks is too revealing. I agree, as we have some letters to take to the Post Office, and the wedding shop is on the way. Across the road, I see Constance with Harry. They hold hands and Harry carries the shopping. She does not see me as I step into a shop dedicated to weddings. It smells of silk and dried rose petals and I am surrounded by a snowfall of wedding dresses and champagne effervescences of veils and hats. The dress Daisy covets is tight, cut low over the bust, and I can understand her mother’s reservations, but young women today display their bodies with a bold, defiant pleasure, even at their weddings. She tries it on and dances around the shop. The assistant assumes that I am her mother, indulging me in my maternal pride with an understanding smile. She asks me what I shall wear, and I tell her that I have not made up my mind. The dress makes the girl happy; she looks beautiful. Her mother should value that.
Afterwards, I take Daisy for lunch. My treat. We sit in the café and she skims the menu for something that she can eat. Suddenly, it is impossible for her to eat anything fattening. Whilst we wait for our order, a man strides by the window. He is tall and full-fleshed and has wavy grey hair to his collar, I pause with my drink halfway to my mouth as Daisy watches me. ‘Do you know him?’ she asks.
‘He could be someone I knew a long time ago.’
That afternoon, Daisy makes many silly mistakes; I end up irritated and am glad to get home.
The man arrives shortly after I return. It is an unusual time for him, but he looks tired and I invite him in.
He sits at my table and contemplates Constance’s flowers.
‘They are lovely,’ he says. ‘Appropriate colours. I am sorry, I have no flowers for you today.’
‘These were a gift from my friend Constance. She sold a painting.’
On the table is the portrait Constance sketched. I had left it there, not sure what to do with it. The woman, admittedly mature, has the colours of a tigress, golden and wild.
He looks at the pastel portrait of me. ‘The same artist? She is talented.’
‘Yes, she is. But you look very tired. Are you ill?’
He smiles warmly for the first time in my presence. ‘No, I am not ill. Merely fading!’ He chuckles softly. ‘I shall not be visiting you again.’
I can think of nothing to say. I find that I do not particularly wish to see him again.
‘Goodbye then. I am sorry that you must leave. Thank you for your visits.’
‘You are a beautiful woman. Don’t let life pass you by.’
‘Why does that matter to you?’
He looks at me as if to reproach me. ‘You should have that portrait framed to preserve it.’
He walks out of my door and along the garden path. Outside the canopy of my porch light, he fades into the evening and I do not see him open and close the gate. Nor do I hear his footfalls.
A light rain is falling; just enough to make a whispering sound. Harry’s repair seems to have held up.
The path to my house is covered in fallen leaves. I am sure there were not so many earlier. Amongst the golds and browns I see the bright-coloured petals of fresh flowers – purple, violet, orange, yellow, red, pink and white. I bend down and scoop a handful and they fall through my fingers like wet confetti. In the rain, the summer colours leach away, leaving only the colours of autumn.