August Tulips

By Helene Andersson 

It was a scowl of a building. It had a dreadful blue door and low windows like squinty eyes.          

Houses say a lot about the people who live in them, and the crocheted curtains had thrown me at first. It looked like the home of an old woman or one of those big foreign families—whatever you call the Middle Easterners these days. I'd expected something more along the lines of bamboo blinds. I had walked up to the house twice already and tried to get a look behind them. I wasn't snooping. Whenever I approached the door my incentive faltered, my hands picking at the hem of my aqua summer jacket while my heart went off like a Geiger counter. I felt silly just being there, worse for hesitating. My yielding, middle-aged body had to work double shifts to keep the dignity the young get for free, so I was predisposed to looking foolish. Once more I turned and walked slowly down the street, frowning, looking at my phone, pretending to be lost. 

Twenty years earlier this whole area had been dominated by the waning moons of Hulme Crescents, a tangle of horseshoe shaped public housing projects. Now it was rows of squat, soulless little terraces in traditional Mancunian red brick, like IKEA cupboards mimicking Victorian cherry wood cabinets. Somehow new houses always look a little cheap. I suppose it's easier to install double-glazed windows than genuine British charm. 

On the way here the bus had seemed to waggle its way into every narrow little street—like taking our Birman on a walk with the cat leash—and the blue location-dot had danced teasingly around my destination on the Google Maps view. I looked at it now where it rested in the crossroads, trapped between the bus stop and the house. I retrieved the flyer with the meeting details from my purse. It had been opened, re-folded and replaced so many times that it had started to tear along the folding lines, and the words "Environmental Direct Action" now looked more like mental Direct ion. I laughed out loud and was surprised at how unpleasant it sounded. 

I decided I hadn't taken the bus to Hulme just to go back home. The third time I walked up the street, the neighbour who'd been glaring at me from a kitchen window no longer bothered to hide it. These people! One would think manners cost a fortune the way they’re growing scarce. 

I came up to the house and felt my repulsion against it rising. A yellowing strip of grass traced an unconvincing lawn along the front. Someone had made the reckless choice of planting only tulips. I suppose it seemed like a good idea because in spring tulips are such humble and cheerful flowers, but their season is short and they always end up looking downtrodden. This was August, so the leaves sagged and the bulbs were dry and withered. I would have gone for evergreens for a house like that. If you apply yourself, then there is really no reason to ever have an ugly garden. The trampled flowers made the whole house look unkempt, like it had just woken up from a hard night and hadn't bothered to shave. 

Before I had time to change my mind again the door opened. 

"You're coming in?" a man said. "Chat Moss meet-up?" 

"Oh... yes. Indeed, that's why I'm here. I... wasn't sure about the number you see. Why is it streets like this never display proper numbers on the houses? Well, it's a rental isn't it?" 

"Ah, I see, I see. Here, I'm Wally." 

"Rhonda James." 

His handshake was damp and feeble. He was going to call me Rhonda. I could see it in his eyes—he was the sort. Perhaps I should've introduced myself as Mrs. James. 

"Splendid. Rhonda, come in. Welcome! Can I call you Ronnie?" 

Christ. It was going to be a long night.

 

The flyer for the Chat Moss Meet-Up had flopped onto the door mat on a Wednesday at the beginning of the month. I got home at four to an empty house and moved it with the rest of the mail to the kitchen table, then forgot about it. Most evenings I'd wander around our townhouse in Sale feeling like a pebble in a shoe. Pete always worked late and Beth stayed with her boyfriend, who had his own shoddy flat in Salford. Adrian and I usually Skyped three times a week from his dorm. I suspected he worried about me being on my own too much, but we never talked for very long. 

The flyer had been addressed to Adrian. I suspected it was some remnant from his brief Greenpeace days. As a teenager he'd often felt overwhelmed and depressed by everything that needed to be saved in this world, but he never managed to keep at anything for very long. 

When evening came I felt like there was a weight leaning on me, waiting for me to move away or to fall over. Some evenings were like that for no apparent reason. Moody. Looming. A hollowness inside me that I couldn't quite focus on. I assumed I was bored. Pete hadn't been home but he'd called and told me he'd be late. I walked between the windows and watched the clock as the evening dragged on and the street started to smell of curry. Across the street the Pakistani family had settled together in front of a large flat-screen TV. I wanted to scream. My lungs were full of it; painful, cramped, bursting from the pressure. I sat down to look through the bundle of gaudy adverts, then came upon the flyer. It was photocopied in black-and white with a slanting margin, as if the slab of text was slowly toppling. The tone was dry and dense. Chat Moss, it said, was an ecologically rich wetland, historically speaking. Now it was just remnants of mosses, and farmers were still extracting peat that threatened the last pockets of bogland. A political decision was on the way, but the flyer called for direct action. Let us jostle the slowly grinding political processes into a joyous gallop! I stopped at the sentence and re-read it before I continued. Towards the end the text became increasingly rambling. I got the impression it was written by someone uncomfortable with heated calls for action. At the bottom the name Walter Henson-Ross Ph.D. had been printed in Comic Sans, together with a time and an address for a meet-up and a “direct action event.” I folded the flyer up to throw it away but was hindered by a feeling of unease. I didn't want to let it go. Rather than challenging the anxiousness, I decided to keep the flyer folded up in my bag the rest of the week, so that my fingers brushed against it whenever I grabbed for my keys. 

When the day of the meet-up arrived I'd already looked for bus routes and read up on background information. All I had to do was walk out the door. 

When I followed Walter into the house, a handful of people had already gathered in the living room towards the back. The room had heavy curtains, moss green walls, and a fitted rug that had seen better days. I shuffled my bag beneath a chair and sat down with a cup of instant coffee—a marginally more appealing choice than the sweet, milky Masala Chai that a gentrified hippie woman was serving from a stainless steel soup bowl. She kept smiling at me whenever I accidentally looked her way. I didn't fit into any of the gathering tribes—an assortment of students, post-hippie activists, and wildlife-enthusiasts. 

Walter Henson-Ross—I couldn't bring myself to call him Wally, it made him sound like a children's toy—was a biology professor in his late thirties. For someone who dressed in such a careless way he smelled strongly of soap, and his messy dark hair had the flimsy quality of cheap extra-volume shampoo. His face was constantly set in bewildered smiles, like he was looking around for some joke he’d just missed. A while into the general meet-and-greet the door opened again and Walter showed a young woman into the room. Her eyes met mine across the space and my hands tightened around the flyer. She gawked at me  the way a child stares at strangers on the bus—wholly unbecoming for a grown woman, but not unexpected. It was Lorelei Wardle. 

Lorelei was one of those unfortunate pretty girls who didn't know how to carry it. She'd wear too much dark make-up to work and silly platform boots that she couldn't walk in properly, lurching around the office like a three-o-clock drunk. She was a creative professional, shallow and gimmicky. Her desk was constantly stacked with old coffee cups and water glasses and she had one of those old trolls with spiky neon hair propped on her computer. I suspected she was one of those people who confused quirkiness with originality. 

The shock of seeing her at the meeting punched into my gut. I felt queasy. Her presence was blurring the lines in my life, mixing everything up. I felt like I had forgotten to lock the door of a public toilet and someone had just thrown it wide open. What if it came out that I had been at some radical environmentalist rally? I'd look like some sort of loopy old woman, marbles lost and rolling across the parquet! I looked back at her and met her pale face, struggling against the need to furnish her with some sort of explanation. I had no reason to excuse myself to Lorelei! She served me a dense little smile; I nodded and waved. 

I don't think I ever expected to follow through all the way to the protest action, but two hours later I was pressed into one of two crammed four-by-fours. The floor was full of squishy children's toys and a lazy-eyed teen was smoking cannabis out of the car window. I had barely been able to keep myself from calling the police on them when Wally explained—in a roundabout way—that we were going to sabotage a digger on one of the peat fields. Lorelei had looked at me like she expected me to fall apart, her face unbearably self-satisfied. Instead I grabbed a back-pack with tools and spray-cans and sat down in one of the front seats. 

We arrived at Chat Moss at dusk. The last of the daylight had retreated to beige strips just above the trees that lined the horizon, and the landscape had melted into flat black shapes. The area was more agricultural than wild, with the remaining mosses left in dishevelled wedges between fields. The lukewarm wind smelled of stale water and manure. We moved in a silent procession along field boundaries, my feet occasionally sinking into wet mud or tripping over tussocks. Lorelei swore whenever a shrub grabbed her hood. 

"It's just that I don't understand why you're here," she said. It was the first time we talked and I realized we'd fallen behind the main procession. "Do you even care about it? The marshland and the birds and that?" 

"Of course I care. I do have a garden." 

She replied with unconvinced silence. "So?" 

"There are plenty of good reasons to care about the local environment." 

"Are you having a crisis? Is that what this is?"

"I'm not having a crisis." 

"Please tell me you're not shagging Wally." 

"Christ! I am not!" 

"Well, you're not wearing your ring," Lorelei continued in a bored tone. "I can tell ‘cause you're always twisting and turning it when we talk. Like you're keeping track of the seconds. Tick-tock, tick-tock." She wagged her head to the sides. "And it's been gone for a while."           

I stumbled over another tussock. Tiny mosquitoes had gathered around my body in a nervous, nebulous cloud. 

"Everything is as it should be," I replied in a sharp voice. "My fingers have swollen. My mother had the same problem—it's just water. I have to take it to the jeweller. It's good quality gold, so it's not the sort of thing you can just do. You really shouldn't be looking for drama where there is none. It's not very graceful." 

"Well, well. You sure had that answer all ready to go." 

I wanted to shove her into the stream. "I have no intention of speaking to you about my marriage." 

"Fair enough," Lorelei said. "I was just being polite. I know how you like to blather." 

The digger was a solitary thing. It stood lopsided in a hole it had dug itself and the toothy jaw was resting against its chin. Rich earth had been laid bare in a long wound; yellow water bled from the soil and collected at the bottom. On one side of the trench a large, flat peat field reached all the way down to a faraway farm, and on the other a potholed chunk of wilderness disintegrated into a shallow pond. Wally was gesturing towards some nearby shrubs. 

"This is where I spotted my blue-headed wagtail. The field ended way over there—just a few months ago. This whole area was just beautiful." 

The activists dropped their backpacks to the ground and picked out tools and spray-paint. I'd been handed a torch and told to aim it low, where the undergrowth might hide it from prying eyes. The soft, fuzzy spotlight caught disconnected scenes: a young man shaking a can of paint; Wally performing a Yoga-style greeting; a scraggly wheel and tracks stamped in the mud. Lorelei climbed onto the machine with a spanner in her hand. It was all very quiet until the tool crashed through the window. After that it was like a clock had started ticking and they were all hurrying against it, sloppier, angrier, disturbingly exuberant. The machine swayed and groaned beneath the weight of the activists. They crawled like bugs over a carcass, ripping at the flesh, pounding and pulling and rocking. My torch caught a tense grin, wide and predatory, across Lorelei's face. She was breathing hard. The rage and passion with which they attacked the machine was like watching a primitive dance around a new kill. The ringing of metal against metal sounded hard and carried far across the flat landscape—dong-dong-dong, like a drum. The air held a new, chemical scent of spray-paint. The machine had rocked itself further into the hole and the whole thing was tilting perilously, its maw aimed at the sky in a silent scream. 

I turned for a moment towards the farm and noticed bright, moving spots. I turned off the torch in shock. A large dog barked. 

"We've been noticed." I felt cold and dizzy. "Excuse me, Walter. I think someone's coming!" 

"Okay everyone, let's move out. Different directions, lay low." 

The group exploded mutely in all directions like dandelion seeds. Lorelei grabbed hold of my hand. She was displaying two rows of teeth pressed tight together and her lips looked thin and hard—a wide smile or a nervous scowl. I couldn't tell. We lunged into the peat moss where the water filled up our tracks, running clumsily as if in a dream. My foot disappeared into a hole and when I pulled myself out, my wellington remained sucked into the muddy embrace. We watched new, distant lights gathering around the digger while we retrieved the boot. They were lights from someone looking rather than someone trying to stay hidden. The farmer. 

"I hope he doesn't let the dog loose," I said. 

"He won't risk it. Do you think he ever took a chance in his life? I bet you a million this is his rebellion, this fucking field. He knows the authorities are moving towards a ban, so he starts to chomp away at the moss just to rile up the likes of Wally. Didn't you see the 'No Trespassing'-signs? Yeah, he's a right nutter." She moved her face uncomfortably close to mine. "What, are you crying?" 

I wiped my face. My mosquito cloud had nested closer and tried landing on my clammy skin, and there were flies as well, and insects that I couldn't name. A bird was keening in the distance. "I feel like a corpse." 

"You're alright," Lorelei said. "It's the comfort, you know. Not the money. That's why they do it. We're crapping all over the planet because we're comfortable." 

"I'm not comfortable. My feet are wet. And I think I hit my knee. Look at me, I'm just—I'm ruined." 

"Don't be like that. You're just a bit muddy, is all." She was talking fast. "You know, sometimes I go out and tag houses. Just normal houses, probably houses like yours. And I don't just have the one tag—I don't do it to practice like the kids do, and I don't try to be all smart about the location either. I just do it because, fuck them. You know? It's all pointless. Give it a hundred years and we've blown ourselves out of existence." She studied me long enough for my skin to start itching. "You're not a corpse," she finished. "Today you're so fucking alive." 

I'm afraid of the dark, that's always been my problem. It's the unknown, I suppose, not the dark itself. The unexpected. Lorelei and I traversed the knobbly fields mostly in silence. Occasionally we shared thoughts about common acquaintances, laughing hysterically like bubbly teenagers who realize its the closest thing to crying that doesn't ruin your makeup. We found we had a great deal in common when it came to disregard for certain people, if not in anything else. 

I came home from the meeting to a dark house on a quiet street. I stumbled on the carpet, knocked my toe against the table. My feet were wet. I took off my boots, and the socks slapped against the floor like I was wearing fins. If I turned on the light, then Pete would rise from the burrow of dune like a bear woken too soon. He would have questions for me, valid questions with complicated answers. It seemed ridiculous that I would stumble in the dark to keep a greater darkness at bay, but it was a situation I had put myself in. I choked back a sob. I was probably tired. I bundled up my ruined blue jacket and squashed it into the dustbin. 

I turned to the table and there was a sprawling, spiky shape on it. When I moved closer I saw a subdued assortment of colours, the weak stalks and drooping leaves of a big bundle of tulips. They were low quality greenhouse tulips, yellow and red and purple, and the outer ring was already sagging. Expensive off-season flowers forced to life by marketing forces, stupidly opening their buds to the artificial light because it was the only thing they knew how to do. Their heads flopped over the side of the crystal vase. I touched the waxy leaves and realized, in one startling moment, how much I hated them. Tulips in August! The gullible fools! This was no longer their season; the sun that nourished them was not their sun. It had been over for ages. 

It was the force of it that threw me. I remembered Pete's dry kisses, chilled by the night, those times he'd come to the bedroom still dressed in his bloody trench coat. I'd pretended to sleep. Then there were the inexplicable receipts I'd found in his pockets and silently sorted into the paper recycling bin, and the bundles of sorry-I'm-late flowers from the petrol station. Beth had stopped looking at me and Adrian's voice had turned soft, like he was handling a weak, broken thing. It was this that I had found hardest—not the rejection but the humiliation. The damn pity! I couldn't stand the way this all made me look—the sorrowful, lonely ghost of a middle-aged woman haunting a house which was already too large. 

I looked through the window but I only saw what was always there when darkness fell outside: A fool's reflection. 

Pete was asleep when I came into the bedroom still reeling with the sudden, blinding clarity. He looked like a roadblock. A snow-covered stone—a snow-covered anything. A corpse. A regret. I could hear him snoring, a rumbling as from a lawnmower. I remembered when he'd bought one of those large electrical mowers for us. I had told him it was silly, what with our patch of grass being so small and lumpy, but he wouldn't have it. Won't a man be allowed to be a man? A man, with his little pleasures. He'd looked so pathetic next to that big, clunky thing. Let him have it, I'd thought, if it makes him happy. Only it never did. Every season he'd cursed it and every season I'd reminded him that I had told him as much. I wondered now if that was how the resentment started. The small jabs—there were never any big arguments. Then last summer he'd gone out and got us a robotic one instead. It circled around the lawn like a prisoner exercising in the yard, trapped by its invisible fence. I would watch it go around and around. 

I continued to undress in silence. Pete flipped onto his back and the cover slid off him. His mouth was gaping open. I dressed in my nightgown and brushed my teeth, washed off the make-up and rubbed night cream on my face. Then I sat down on the bed and he stirred. 

"Rhonda? Where have you been? What time is it?" 

"I had tea," I said. "With friends." 

"This late? It's two in the morning!" 

"I guess we had a glass of wine. How was your day?" 

"Mm? Oh, I worked late. Middle management is barking up my arse again." Christ, even now he lied to me. "Hey, I bought you tulips." 

"Yes, I saw. But this season? The price cannot have been reasonable." 

"I know, I know. I wanted you to have something beautiful. I know how you like them." 

"Do you? I see." 

I could have pressed on from that. It was right there, like the blue door of the house in Hulme. I had walked up to it. It was closed, but unlocked. Just a few words away—keep your damned tulips! It had looked so easy just a moment ago, but now? My hands were sweaty. Perhaps things were different when we both had secrets. The hollow sensation that had followed me around the past weeks—no, months, at least—perhaps it'd just been the sensation of being at a disadvantage. 

I crawled beneath the covers, longing for the warm embrace of a clean bed. 

"Your feet are cold!" 

"Oh. I walked in a puddle, that's all." 

Pete sat up and grabbed my feet with his large hands. He put socks on and rubbed my toes until they didn't feel cold anymore. Then he lay back down behind me, his body spooning mine. Eve though I was exhausted I lay awake for hours—trapped, hugged, smothered, comforted. Before he fell asleep he murmured that I was beautiful. I wondered if he was reminding me, or himself, or if he was talking to someone else. His voice was slow and drowsy, his hand distracted on my thigh, my stomach, my waist, until he fell asleep and turned into a weight that rocked languidly on deep ocean breaths. His arm was heavy on my body.