The Weekend Read

Mulch

By Rebecca Ferrier



23rd Sep 2016

Mulch
Image: Cc: C.Adams
‘No, it was her. Swamp witch…’ Read ‘Mulch’ by Rebecca Ferrier…

The bedroom carpet needed watering again. It didn’t squelch loud enough under her feet; it had to be right, had to be ready. She wrestled the garden hose around the rooms, where silverfish slept in corners and spiders spun stars on the ceiling. The hall’s floorboards were lined with rot, with a glaze like primordial ooze. The hose pipe’s slither kicked up a smell, a damp smell, a good smell.

Plants don’t speak. That’s why Jay liked them, loved them, tended to them until they grew as high as her head and as thick as her thigh. She’d grown another baby once. It had cried too much and ended up back in the dirt. Fertiliser: no use, no good.

Her plants were youthful, plump and succulent. If only she was. Potato-coloured skin sagged at her joints. Whiskers protruded from her chin, where her jawline sagged into a bullfrog’s neck and hid the top button of her faded blouse. It was her lucky shirt, tucked into corduroy trousers; the same she’d worn last September at the Grower’s Fair. Her marrow had won a prize.

The biggest we’ve seen, the best we’ve tasted, the judges had said, with claps and ribbons but eyes narrowed in suspicion.

Jay lived in a valley with only fog and frogs for company. When the March rains came to Devon and flooded the fields, she’d waddle through the still mirror-water to the deepest part. Standing in the flat pool, two skies meeting on the same horizon, Jay was in a forbidden swampland, a battle-torn marsh, another life, born again, into a body that fit her mind. One as beautiful as all it created and cultivated. Yet in the fields, when the ripples stopped, she saw in her reflection only mulch. Not petal-bright beauty or the daintiness of a cornflower stem.

Her only visitor was the postman, who delivered bills and letters from Jay’s city-dwelling daughter (sell up, come live with me, it’s not healthy, we’ll get a good price, for god’s sake, mum, it’s not like you need the money). These days, the letters were always chucked on the compost heap, envelopes unopened. Once she’d lapped up every word. Not now. Concrete, cars, fumes, people, questions – no, she’d no need for any of that. The child had hated the village the moment she’d been squeezed out. Cried, always cried. It hadn’t been worth it, that teenage quickie behind the waltzers with a ticket-seller. The spotty boy had been kind. That’s all it took.

She remembers squelching grass, a wet bottom, fumbling hands in her school uniform, the broken elastic of her knickers, her first and last.

Mum and Dad hadn’t been happy. They’d died young, from disappointment, people said (or the belladonna that slept in a crack in the pavement behind the shed). The house was left to Jay and would’ve been left to her daughter, if she hadn’t run off. It was the carnie blood, it gave the kid an itch. When the girl was still inside her belly, Jay had seen them living together as wild things, wandering the moorland, bruising their ankles on rocky beaches and chewing on yellow gorse flowers. Only the sprog hadn’t liked the outdoors, said it was cold, hated the muck, sneezed in the pollen-heavy months and preferred gazing in the mirror than at the garden. Because she was a pretty thing, that girl. Jay could grow pretty things, but she’d never been one.

Now there was no need to be pretty, or lonely.

For at last she had Him.

In the conservatory, Jay pushed fingers creased with dirt into a long box heaped high with earth.

“You’ve grown.”

And I love you and you’ll love me and we’ll love and we’ll love and we’ll

The doorbell rang.

“Nearly time,” she croaked, ignoring the bell. “Nearly ready.”

A fist pummelled the door, muffled voices, adult sounds. Not the village brats then. They threw stones, broke whatever windows remained, called her names: swamp-witch, freak, slimy. Children were easy to scare off. This, on the other side of the door, was a woman. Through mouldy net-curtains, Jay spied and despised her. Too clean, nice suit, government clipboard. Jay shrank back and clawed her fleece around her shoulders.

“Mrs Irving? I’m Clarice from Social Services.”

The stranger drew out her vowels as though she were pulling teeth. The woman’s perfume, winding its way under the door, made Jay’s toes curl inside her Wellington boots. She picked up her garden shears; its weight a comfort, the varnish on the wooden handle worn away by her own hands over years. She’d sliced weeds, and roots and branches with these. A seedling of a woman would be no trouble.

“She’s not answering, Donny,” said Clarice to another, as though it was his fault. “Kick down the door.”

“We’ll get in trouble,” he replied, a watery-sounding man. “That’s breaking and entering.”

“She might’ve had a fall. She’ll need our help. It’s practically our duty to break in—”

“No, it ain’t.” Jay slung the chain across the door and eased it open a few inches, stuffing her face through the gap. “You’re from BioQull or Syniteche,” she grunted. “You want my plants.”

You want Him.

“What plants, Mrs Irving?” Clarice was blonde, tall and slight. A woman who belonged in commercials and on runways, in private jets and cocktail bars. She was ill-placed on the garden path. Midges danced figure eights above her head and her heels sank into the gravel, as though the ground was trying to gobble her up.

It’d spit her out again. There’s no mulch in her. Nothing that’d rot good.

Jay held her shears tighter.

“I saw your slugs here the other day, with your wires and your beeps and your technology, trampling my begonias and stealing soil in glass tubes.”

“We need to see your living conditions, Mrs Irving.” Clarice’s bleached teeth flashed. “If you’d be a dear and let us in.”

Silence.

“We can help, Mrs Irving.”

“Liar.” Jay stuck her chin out, whiskers and all. “I’ve called the police, I have. They’ll be here soon, they will.” A lie to a liar, she wouldn’t guess, couldn’t know.

Clarice’s spine straightened. Jay could smell her fear over the perfume; a heady scent, like deer musk and brandy.

“There’s no need, Mrs Irving.”

“It’ll take Officer Reed fifteen minutes to get ‘ere from the village, I timed him once,” said Jay, peeling her lips back into a smile.

“Arrested your last bunch, didn’t he? The ones who tried smart polyester and shiny badges. I saw right through them, too. You going to offer me money like they did an’ all?”

“I’m from social services,” repeated Clarice, manicured hands worming around the door’s frame. Pretty hands, picture-perfect, petite and pointy. Nails, geranium red, extended forwards. “If you’d let me in, I’ll pop the kettle on and we’ll have a nice chat, shall we?”

Jay’s nails were broken and held mud in half-moons. Scars from thorns and sun-spots marred her flat fingers. She’d never have nice hands. But would He notice? There was a redness to her knuckles she would never scrub out – or was scrubbing the problem? She hadn’t scrubbed before Him. Hadn’t cared what she looked like before.

Nearly time, nearly ready, nearly time, I must be ready, nearly here

“Mrs Irving?”

Jay slammed the door. CRUNCH. Clarice screamed.

“That’ll teach you.”

For being beautiful. For coming here. For showing off.

Now no one had nice hands. And if He didn’t know what hands were meant to look like, He wouldn’t care. He wouldn’t call Jay names.

He’d love her. Because she’d grown Him that way.

***

Jay went to the closest village, Pilton. It had a ruin that was once a school and a blue plaque where the police station used to be. She never thought to enter Pilton’s teashop. The teashop was full of doilies and ironed tablecloths, scented candles and dusty, fake flowers beside lonely old women. Useless junk, unnecessary.

Nothing real, nothing alive, nothing growing.

Jay felt eyes watch her from the window. They followed her every step and tracked the mud that peeled from her shoes as she walked.

It was the charity shop she wanted. Giftam, with its wonky mannequins and musty smell. You never knew what could be found nesting in a forgotten coat pocket or gnawing at an old turban. It was like home.

“Can I help you?” asked a shop-girl, all nose-studs and purple hair. Too perky, too nice, too many questions. There was a trap there.

Jay turned her back, scanned the racks. Her hands sweated and left marks on the silks. There was a dress with roses and ribbons, as pink as her ruddy cheeks.

“For a special occasion?”

The shop-girl tilted her head to the side, the way dogs do when they’ve encountered a new obstacle or smell for the first time. Jay squeezed her hands together. Shame she had not felt since school – at her own appearance, her talk, her size – heated her face.

“If it’s a wedding, choose the blue one,” the girl said. “You’d look nice in blue, I reckon.”

***

Jay was ready. Hair brushed, face washed, and blue dress buttoned up. Evening sunlight haemorrhaged into the conservatory, through a glass roof mottled with leaves from seasons long past – browns, ambers, reds.

The narrow box was against the wall. The soil was breathing. Up and down, up and down. Jay could grow anything. Everyone said so. The judges at the Grower’s Fair asked about her secret, told her she had a rare gift. And they’d told BioQull and Syniteche too. Did they think it was the house that did it? The soil, the sunlight, the mulch? No, it was her. Swamp-witch.

Jay reached out, her fingers raking the nurtured soil, stirring up the worms.

“There you are,” she sighed. “Oh, I’ve been waitin’ for you.”

A hand met her own. Cold, damp, mushroom-white, it locked around her wrist. He had chosen her. That was love, wasn’t it? A hard pull wrenched her into the damp earth. Doubt came. Was it meant to be like this? Grit scratched her teeth and dirt filled her mouth. Compost muffled her coughs, her cries, as her head went under. No, no. He pulled harder. Wait. Fuzzed roots probed her nostrils, stroked the lines around her eyes, tucked themselves under her lids and sought the corners where moisture gathered. Don’t. Her feet were no longer on the ground and her violent kicks met only air. Please. Every limb was bound with vines. A fettering embrace. Her arms, her legs, everything belonged to Him now. It no longer mattered that she could not breathe, could not struggle, could not fight, for she was happy.

No one had held her like this in years.