It is one of those hot summer days Daniel will dream about when autumn comes. He is ensconced in his favourite garden recliner beside his little table: beer, book and biscuits; all, he tells himself, he needs from life. Beside him, the gnarled bush rose his wife so loves and tends that it never seems to ail or fail is a mass of flowers, drawing its audience of apis mellifera with the accomplished confidence of a garden celebrity. Beyond his outstretched feet and across a flagstone path a cotoneaster is enjoying attention from a much larger crowd of smaller but more dextrous bee creatures. The cotoneaster is another ancient hero. When the plant was young Daniel set a trellis for it to climb. He has kept it trimmed to shape through the years so the trellis host, rotting now, is kept erect by its mature guest. Timber entwined with timber, each supporting the other, neither able to fall. Daniel feels comfortable here, in this place, attuned to the humming of bees and the dappled shade of the sycamore tree that watches over him, protection against the day’s naked heat.
This garden unites them, Daniel and Rachel, man and wife. Among flower beds by the patio Rachel is tending her hostas, plucking snails from their leaves after morning rain. Sipping his beer Daniel watches his wife’s wiry, dedicated figure as she works, and he laments, quite idly, the cruelty of their years. If only Ella could be here to share it with them…
He bears these wistful moments with greater equanimity now. They no longer hurt him as once they did. But sometimes, now and then, when his mind is free of more urgent thoughts, his memory will pluck a picture of an excited little girl in her white dress, laughing as she runs to him, warm and vibrant in his arms. And he will weep – yes, there are still tears – to think of her, before he can shut her from his mind.
“It was a long time ago.”
He must have closed his eyes, for Rachel is standing, looking down upon him with the critical coldness of a stranger, her bucket of unhomed snails clutched in her hand. It is an expression he recognises.
“I still hope, you know.” He tells her, and his eyes say ‘I’m not heartless. I remember’.
Rachel frowns. They have not spoken of Ella for a while. “You shouldn’t;” she says brusquely. “Not now. Not after all this time.”
“She was my little girl.” He says. “I miss her too.”
“There’s no sense in thinking about it.”
“She could be out there, somewhere. She could be married, or something. We don’t know!” He insists.
“I think we do. Drink your beer before something dies in it.” Rachel snaps. “Stop resurrecting the past.” She turns away. “I have to lose these damned snails.” And she walks briskly down the path, heading for the garden gate.
Daniel watches her, awake now. His mind is bursting with the accusation ‘you shouldn’t have left her’, yet he bites upon the words. It is a poniard too often thrown, one which has found voice frequently in the past – in the twenty-four lonely years. His little girl. His little Ella. She was left to play by herself in the front garden, his little girl. Rachel was in the house, doing…what, he doesn’t remember: it doesn’t matter, now. She was not there, and he was not there, and Ella was gone.
The effort of suppression is too much. The bubble of his anger finds a way to rise: He calls after his wife’s retreating form: “Why did you leave her on her own?” and he sees her freeze in mid-stride, which pleases him in some perverse way. She has to grieve as he grieves. She has to be suffering, too.
“How many times?” She rounds upon him, clipping her words icily. “How many times have we gone through this? Whenever you get one of these moods…”
Daniel’s resentment is darkening now. “I couldn’t be there. I was away, working. I wasn’t there.”
“You weren’t there. Twenty-four years ago, you weren’t there, and I was…”
“And you left her alone.” He feels the tears well up inside him. “My little girl!”
“Our little girl.” Rachel reminds him, expressionless. She is returning to him, to his bloated form slumped in that disgusting chair, wondering with every step by what device she has ever loved him. “Our little girl, Daniel.” Wondering how they are still together, still man and wife; as if the ugly, knotted rope of their guilt, far from releasing them, binds them to each other in this garden.
She stands above him, glaring down. “The gate was shut. She couldn’t get out of the garden. It wasn’t the first time she had been allowed to play out there. I was no more than a few steps away, in the kitchen…”
“You left her alone!”
“Yes, I know. And she was ‘your little girl’; I know that. You never cease to remind me. But I also know ‘your little girl’ was autistic, and much as I loved her there were occasions when I had to get away, even if it was only for a few precious minutes. You know that too, don’t you, Daniel?” Her clenched fist bangs down upon Daniel’s little table. His beer glass hops and gyrates dangerously on the wooden surface.
He cringes as though the assault is personal. “She could be difficult.”
“Difficult? Difficult! You were never at home. You never saw how she was with me – what she did to me, nearly all the time.”
Rachel spins on her heel, stalking angrily away towards the gate, swinging the bucket so hard its unwilling passengers rattle within it. Daniel, daunted by her sudden temper, watches her go. She is right, of course, he reflects. It is a scenario they have replayed so often down the years. The gate he made for their front fence, how he set the latch high so Ella could not reach it: the quietness of their road, the attentiveness of Mrs. Partigan, their neighbour, who missed nothing that passed her window. Yet she had seen nothing that day; had been ill, she said, so she hadn’t even noticed Ella playing in the garden, although she thought she recalled the child’s voice, raised as it so often was. Otherwise a peaceful day, like so many peaceful days when he was far from home, a peaceful day when Ella was taken away from them forever.
And Rachel never wept! Even when the police said they had no clue, and warned them to prepare for the worst, she remained dry of tears. Instead, she closed down – drew the shutters over her emotions and entombed her soul. He saw it happen, watched helplessly as grief took out her heart and put it somewhere far beyond his or anyone’s reach, so only ice remained. Oh, yes, he remembers!
Another confrontation, another failure to pierce that armour, yet still he will seek a way to hurt her. Her retreating back infuriates; he wants to stab at it, prise open those doors always barred against him. He has never found the weapon, but he does not cease to try. His eyes cast about him, seeking ammunition, something new and untested. His anger settles upon the rose.
“I’m sorry.” He calls after her with affability that does not disguise the cunning in his voice. “To change the subject, then. I think it’s time to replace our elderly friend, don’t you? I’ll dig it out this afternoon.”
This time Rachel’s progress is not halted, but there is hesitation in her step. “What ‘elderly friend’?” She asks drily.
“Oh, the rose.” The rose – her rose. The rose she planted as remembrance, she said, in the weeks that followed Ella’s departure. Crooked and deformed as his marriage, he is suddenly offended by it and would remove it from his sight, but most of all he would destroy it because it would hurt Rachel. The voluptuous blossoms are vulgar and blousy, the rattle of bees is loud and disturbing; but more than that, Rachel loves it.
“Not the rose!”
Is it the guttural change in her voice that alarms Daniel? She has stopped, turned to face him once again. This time the bucket slips from her hand, scattering its cargo on the path as she quails beneath the weight of his threat. Her pallor is the colour of calico, her hands shake. “Do not ever touch the rose.”
“It’s coming up!” He says. “I’m going to dig it up this afternoon!”
“Why? It’s flowered better than ever this year. Don’t, Daniel.”
He taunts her. “I’m tired of it. It’s time to move on. It reminds us every time we look at it – it’s like a tombstone…”
And he knows.
Rachel does not have to stagger towards him, her breathing short, her limbs barely carrying her. She does not have to grab his shoulders, almost falling onto him, implore him in frothing gasps. “We agreed! It’s her memorial. You mustn’t! You mustn’t!” The tiny seed of suspicion that has lain dormant in the tilth of his memories is stirring. First shoots of an awful truth are germinating in his mind.
Like a tombstone.
Daniel should be consumed by fury, yet somehow he cannot feel anger, only pain. He rises, ready to catch Rachel as she collapses, and guides her into his chair. For once in twenty-four years he sees tears coursing down her face, and for the first time in all of their years together he sees her helpless, unable to cope. He hugs her close to him, saying, perhaps without thought: “Never mind, dear. Never mind.”
“I couldn’t tell you…”
“I didn’t mean…it was no more than a push…she fell. It was the table, Daniel. She hit her head on the kitchen table…You wouldn’t have believed me. No-one would have believed me.”
“It doesn’t matter anymore.” Daniel says. “I won’t disturb her.”
“She’s so peaceful, Daniel.”
“I know. I feel that. I know.”
They both fall silent. He draws up another chair, and they sit together long into the evening, bound to one another by their garden and embraced by the outstretched branches of the rose.
© Frederick Anderson 2017. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content.