Ladies of the Soil

He takes up his spade and digs deep, he heaves up the soil and grunts as he turns it over. He breaks up the clods and sees something white in the dark earth, he pulls his spade aside and suddenly there she is; red rosebud lips, hair the colour of straw, and a bonnet gilded with gold. He picks her up and lays her in the palm of his hand, there’s only her face and her bonnet, the rest of her is broken away. He rubs the dirt off her face with his finger and puts her in his pocket. He thinks of the others he’s unearthed and taken home. She washes them in Fairy Liquid, and arranges them on the dresser in the kitchen, ‘Ladies of the Soil,’ she calls them. 

 He shades his eyes and looks across the bleak allotments at three black silhouettes working on their plots, bending and straightening as if genuflecting to the land. The soil is dark like furls of chocolate. Most of the plots have been abandoned already, they sit strangled in weeds, their sheds falling apart, waiting for the diggers, waiting to be transformed into a new housing development.  There’s a bonfire, he sees a thin line of smoke going straight up into a sky so blue and clear it makes his eyes ache. Red apples hang like ornaments on leafless trees. It won’t be long before she hears about the allotments. He breathes in the cold air, thinks he might make a fire later and tackle the nettles, watch them burn. 

 Last night when he put her cup on the bedside table she said, You’ll be all right, won’t you. 

He plumped up her pillows and watched her face relax as the medication began to work. Don’t worry, he said.

 She rolled her head towards him, her eyes were closed. You always say that.

  I know, he said. He watched her while she drifted into sleep. 

He digs his spade down hard into the soil with the heel of his boot and lifts up the heavy clay and turns it over. The trick is the rhythm, dig in, turn it over, dig in, turn it over.  He forks compost into the trench and tamps it down walking along its length as if he’s on a tightrope, heel to toe, heel to toe. 

Your grandad used to cross the river like that, his dad had told him. On the metal rail above the stone parapet.  He used to hold a long piece of bamboo in front of him with both hands for balance and inch along like that, heel to toe. I never saw him do it but that’s what they said. That was your grandad, the mad bugger. 

He steps out the trench and knocks off the layer of compost which coats the soles of his boots.

 Did he ever fall in? he asked.

 Only the once, his dad said.

 His dad had shown him how to double dig and compost the allotment as soon as he could hold a spade, and when to plant out runner beans and dig up potatoes. He told him about the earth giving things up, pushing them back above the soil, and he thinks of the bottles and jars in his shed, and the small blue phial. 

They said your granddad did it in his bare feet, his dad told him, when he inched across the river.

  Did he drown? he asked.

  What do you think? his dad said.

  He picks up his spade and starts to dig another stint.

There is no weight in the silk softness of her dressing gown as it folds around her body, it complements her movements, makes it easy for her to glide from room to room. She has climbed the stairs and sits in the spare room on a three-legged stool. She rests her chin on her knees and wraps her arms around her legs. She sees herself sitting there as if she is being viewed by someone from the ceiling, as if she is that someone looking at a child in blue silk in a room full of treasures packed in cardboard boxes, among towers of books , protecting the child behind a barricade of adventure and imagination. She lays her head on her arms and hunches over pulling her legs closer in to her body. Her breath tickles the hairs on her arm. She listens to her breathing, in and out, in and out. A car revs up and drives away, and she hears the silence.  She feels as if she’s hiding, playing hide and seek. She remembers the creaky opening of a door , the soft steps climbing the stairs, and the leap in her stomach the moment before being discovered.  She remembers the cupboard under the stairs smelling of leather and shoe polish, and the chemical smell, like ammonia, of the hard plastic shopping bag. She sees her mother reach up to take the bag off the hook in the ceiling; sees her lift her head and clench her teeth as she ties her headscarf under her chin. She sees her put on the green mackintosh made of a shiny material which flashed purple as she moved, as if it came to life only when her mother wore it. Like a magic coat. Like Joseph’s Amazing Technicolour  Dreamcoat.

 Her fingers smell of onions and celery.  She’d peeled the brown papery onions and her eyes smarted and ran with tears as she sliced them. Once he’s dug them up, he lays them on the bench in the shed to dry then he strings them together and hangs them in the garage.  She’d washed the celery under the tap, running her thumb up and down the channel in the green and white sticks, and chopped them into a large heap. He’d never managed to grow celery.

  Maybe she will make some soup today, and maybe not. She reaches out to the McVities biscuit tin on the floor. She lifts it onto her knees and pushes the lid open with her thumbs. 

He throws the dregs of his tea into the nettles and kicks at their leaves. No time for them today, he must get home. He screws the cup back on his flask seeing her lift the kettle that morning, the blue silk sleeve of her dressing gown folding open like a bat wing.  When he thanked her, she turned her pale morning face up to his and smiled, and as he bent towards her she moved away, the hem of her gown caressing the green slate floor.  

In his shed, he pushes his fingers against the white bones of clay pipes and the jars and bottles he has dug up over the years. He will have to decide what to do with them, he might take them home, wash them, put them on the dresser. But not this one. He moves aside the tall bottle covered in glass stars which he rescued whole, behind is an inkwell with a chip out of it, and there it is, a tiny bottle, deep blue, no bigger than his little finger. He picks it up, it’s been on his mind, this bottle. He rubs a small hole in the cob-webbed window, and lifts the blue phial to the light. Etched in glass on the side are the words ‘Not To Be Taken.’ The stopper is still in, the inside caked with soil. His boots scratch against the grit on the floor as he turns from the window and goes outside. He takes his spade and buries the blue phial deep in the earth. He locks the shed door and puts the key in his pocket where it chinks against the thin porcelain of the crinoline lady.

I’ve made some celery soup, she says. He sees her flushed cheeks and her smile and all he wants to do is pick her up and spin her round the kitchen.

 He gives her a wink.  It smells good, he says. He lets himself think for the hundredth time that maybe everything will be all right. He hangs his jacket in the porch and pulls off his boots and lets them drop, the tiles feel cold through his socks. He watches her ladle the soup into two white bowls and he carries them to the table. He looks at his soiled hands and turns on the tap.

She sits at the kitchen table. The white soup bowls have dark smudges on them from his fingers.  She thinks of the white room and her scan journeys, travelling slowly on her back as images are taken of the inside out of her.  She watches him dry his hands on the towel, remembers how he used to come home and lift her off her feet, spin her round and tickle her until she cried for mercy.

He blows on his spoon and sips the soup. This is good, he says. He tears off a chunk of bread. She waits for him to finish. 

I found something today, she says, in that tin. She nods to where it sits on the dresser.

  He fetches it, prises the lid off. Seeds! he says. He shakes a packet of parsnips, they rasp inside. 

 He puts the soup bowls in the sink and spreads the seed packets all across the table. I’d forgotten these, he said.

 He flips them over to show pictures of broad beans and peas, of broccoli and carrots. She picks up a packet of dwarf iris. The delicate mauve flower has deep purple spots filing down its throat to its yellow stamen.  She holds it up to show him, and he nods and smiles.  He touches the packets in turn, peppers and chillies, swede and cabbage. He looks at her, she is holding the geranium seeds they got from the Isles of Scilly.  She shakes the packet and the sound is like falling grains of sand. She sees the flowers smothering the stone walls in the heat, turning them into masses of pink hedges.

 Well, he says, just look at them. He stands back, his hands on his hips.  She picks up a few runner bean seeds and turns their kidney shapes between her fingers then drops them on the table.

You must plant them, she says.

 He starts to gather the packets together and concentrates on stacking them neatly back into the tin.

 She thinks of him planting the seeds, watering them, watching them grow. Plant them , she says, just as we always have. 

He puts the lid back on, pressing it down so that it clicks on all four sides, he pulls at it with his fingernails to make sure the seal is tight.

You will though, won’t you? She asks. She looks up at him and he meets her eyes, he sees her pale blonde hair in frizzy wisps around her head. She tucks her hands into the sleeves of her dressing gown and leans her arms on the table.

I expect I will, he says. He is still holding the tin. She watches his broad hand wipe the lid, the veins standing out blue and swollen, the skin brown and wrinkled into fan- like creases in the space between his thumb and forefinger. She watches as he puts the tin back on the dresser and goes to the porch. She sees him reach into his jacket pocket and walk towards her holding out in his palm a white porcelain lady, in a bonnet gilded with gold, and the rest of her broken away.