A Hidden Spirit

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The children were always making wild claims for the magic of the garden.

“Look, we found fairies!” they gasp, brandishing handfuls of glitter that bounce of the sparks in their eyes. Feigning amusement at such games is one aspect of parenthood I don’t think I’ll ever perfect.

“I wish you wouldn’t come in with muddy boots on,” I hear myself echoing my mother, her voice querulous and knackered, coming from long ago; a dusk-lit kitchen, the smell of shepherd’s pie.

“But Daddy, fairies!”

Samantha is tugging on Tim’s arm so hard it’s difficult to tell if he’s enthusiastic or just wincing. I concede to the whole performance and find myself led up the path to the back of the garden, noting the places where serious weeding needs to be done. When was the last time I ventured in this far? Ever since Emma left there seemed no point to mowing the lawn; the children love the grass when it’s long. Sometimes, washing the dishes at the window I’ll watch them, pushing each other and laughing. Tim’ll come in like clockwork, ten minutes later, eyes streaming with hay-fever.

“Right kids what is it I’m supposed to be seeing?”

“Fairies, you big oaf.”

“Fairies, huh? What do fairies look like then?” Wearily, I crouch to their level, the old knees stiff from last night’s squash match (Michael swamped me with that backhand of his).

This time, Tim pipes up. “Lights. They’re lights.” It’s dusk and the garden is full of shadows. When they were tiny, I used to take them up here, hand in hand with the torch. We’d have a fire and tell ghost stories till Emma called us inside, pronouncing it too chilly to just sit. She wouldn’t even try the fire.

“What kind of lights?” It’s cold enough now. Summer almost over, the promise of autumn frost, school uniforms to iron…

“You have to take a picture.”

“Come on, Daddy’s getting tired now.” I straighten up.

“No really. You take a picture and then the photo shows them up. They’re ever so tiny.” Samantha with her matter-of-fact tone, a hallmark of Emma’s.

Tim scrambles up the ash tree and whips a polaroid camera out of the birdhouse. I marvel at the way he leaps down and lands like a cat on both feet.

“Where’d you get that?” They exchange a glance which I take as suspicious, significant.

“You have to be very still,” Samantha warns me. Obediently I stand there in the dusk, straining my eyes to see. Beyond the garden fence, beyond the slope and the rooftops and chimneys, Emma and I are up at the top of Kildoon Hill, a blanket stretched before us, her face bathed in violet starlight. Or maybe it was the town that was bathed, the way the bluish dusk mixed with all the flickers of those amber streetlamps. We’re eating sugared strawberries, because it’s summer and everything’s ahead of us.

“Daddy! You’re not paying attention!” Samantha snaps.

“OK OK I am now. I’m watching.” After a nod from his sister, Tim creeps forward. I’m not sure what I’m supposed to be looking at. There’s a swarm of midges clustering around the nettles, whose ominous stalks are taller than Tim himself. Tim lunges forward at once and takes a snap. The flash floats briefly in the air, like a white glowstick spilt underwater, slowly melting away into nothing. The darkness rearranges. Jackdaws rustle in the leaves above us.

Excitedly, Tim shuffles over to me and holds out the polaroid while the picture develops.

“We saw something about this in a book,” Samantha explains, “how cameras can capture a hidden spirit. Who knew we had fairies right here, in our garden? It’s a remarkable discovery.”

The picture pulls out fully. Tim hands it to me and watches, nose dripping eagerly, while I examine it. There’s the sinuous shapes of the shrubbery, the black slant of the shed. Most of the image, however, is taken up by a cloud of tiny lights, pulsing in my shaky vision like silver orbs, millioning gleefully. I’m not sure if it disappoints me that the children are enraptured by a throng of glowing midges, caught momentarily as fairies in their camera flash. I think about what Emma would say, anxious about the questionable origins of the camera itself, about Samantha’s magpie-eye for shiny things out of reach in shops. Isn’t there a film about this, two girls faking photos of fairies in their garden? What are they trying to prove?

“Well?” The kids are impatient. I’m impatient too, waiting for my own reaction. Samantha rolls her eyes.

“Look, if you’re worried about the camera, it’s just a present from Mum.”

“Oh.” The force of this blow is surprising. I glance over at the midges, still humming away beside us, indifferent to the available flesh of our faces. Tim’s expression was devastating.

“You don’t care,” he whimpered. I tuck the polaroid photo in the breast-pocket of my shirt.

“Aw kids, of course I do.” I draw him towards me, folding him tight the way I’ve seen him hugging the neighbour’s dog, craving that sense of what I’d forgotten. His hair smells of grass and it needs a wash. Samantha looks bemused at our clumsy embrace. She’s pretending to play with the camera now, but I catch her eye without meaning to. There’s a spark there, a flash of something I know is mine. We both smile and I think she half believes me.

Maybe that’s the magic of the garden.

/ Maria Sledmere

(fff prompts: exposure, <photo>)

Superlunary

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Superlunary 

“When we die,” he said, curling his fingers in mine, “we are wrapped in a shroud of light.” I thought: here it comes, a chunk of religion he’s kept thus far firmly hidden. I’d have to take it, eat it, accept it. Suffer later the indigestion.

“What d’you mean?” Magpies were clawing at the windowpane, eyeing us greedily as we lay in our bed.

“Imagine how blissful it is to feel every nerve in your body pulse with lights. For the silkiest muslin to cover your skin. No more pain, suffering, worry. Just softness and pleasure; a life past the prospect of death.”

The religion seemed to sweeten then. I didn’t know what it was, where the incantations were coming from; but it sounded beautiful, the way he said it.

Yesterday, in the garden, he was smoking from the glass pipe while I did my daily contortions. I can twist my body through numerous systems of geometry. I am a star, a polygon; a rhombus, parallelogram. Over time, my muscles have memorised the precise patterns, the necessary relations of limb upon limb. He often forgets I can do this, though yoga magazines litter the flat. I contort until my body is sore. I breathe and whimper in the manner of Bjork, imagining my skin stretching over thick ice.

Sometimes in the bath he helps me with the excoriations. We rub pink crystals of Himalayan salt over my arms and thighs, marvelling at the waxy flakes that drop off in the water. He won’t let me return the favour.

I come home late at night and half the time he’s still high, asking me for another performance. I can make my feet touch the ceiling. He sprinkles stardust on my breasts and there’s a moment when gravity ceases to matter.

Recently, he’s found this new spirituality. I watch him portion white powder for his lashes, flickering in the mirror. He is so pale I could sink into him, inhale his whole being, its celestial vapours of nicotine.

Sometimes, when I am a triangle, he says he wants to bite me like Toblerone. I break off for him, offering a choice piece of my life. We exist like this, my body and his mind. The magpies casting their beaks to the grass where we lay, pecking at the loam as if for treasure. We emanate treasure.

I give him a layer each year to convert into light. At night, we smooth out in circles, going over and over, trying to cheat time.

Eventually, all of this will be just one straight line.

/ Maria Sledmere

(FFF prompts: curtain, light)

cherry melancholia

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Photo by Manuela Hoffman

cherry melancholia
Maria Sledmere

rain on the lawn; the greenness
dark and deep. a handful of shells
clotted in the mud with the blossoms,
the pink ones
from the cherry tree.

she walks out slowly,
snow petals swirling round her,
silent.

in the garden she will lie
where the grass is softest. she will lie
staring at the glass sky,
a sleepful of memory.

just love, the garden will say,
just love.
she forgot the place where he kissed her once—
it wasn’t here

but she returns anyway,
the grass feels sweet underneath her,
the air tastes golden, the first taste
of crab apples in autumn. love
set her going in spring, a silk cut
from a willow tree.

smoke rises in the distance
to the smell of cherry pie.
once he kissed her eyes, her cheeks;
he told her she was cinnamon.

in the garden now she is older,
older as the trees are, ring after ring
in each year, each reel of string
that she unwinds.

they come to bind
the sweet peas with twine.
bitter berries,
summer wine.

she is older
and the pie in her mouth now
is cloying; she is older
and the leaves are dying,
falling with the raindrops, the poor branches.

The garden speaks
now she is older, the rings round her eyes—
old pools of light, cherry pie,
speaking
of melancholia.

(prompts: eloquent, garden)

The Magpie and the Spider

- Micolo J. https://www.flickr.com/photos/robin1966
– Micolo J. https://www.flickr.com/photos/robin1966

Lucy had a secret. A secret she hadn’t told to her father or mother or even her best friends.

She knew a magpie that came to see her almost everyday. She had a special connection with this magpie. She would feed it scraps of bread or handfuls of seeds, and in return, every now and then, it would bring her little treasures. Sometimes it was just a paperclip or a pin, but Lucy’s magpie had also brought her marbles, tacky rhinestone bracelets, a plastic heart charm, a set of silver keys, a heavy metal screw, chain necklaces and once a solid gold wedding band. Such a magical time it had been when the magpie brought her that wedding band; he had dropped it in their hiding place behind the garden shed, where it glinted happily amidst the filth and compost. Scraping away the crumbling mud, Lucy had tried on the ring. It was beautiful and heavy, though somewhat too big for any of her fingers. She had not stowed it away in her special drawer along with all the other gifted trinkets, but rather wore it on a rope of string around her neck, hidden beneath her t-shirt. A few days later, she had heard her parents talking about an advertisement for a missing ring in the local newspaper, but Lucy had not said a word. The ring was hers and while she wore it she felt safe; she knew she had the luck of a magpie’s love.

The magpie had been coming to see Lucy for years. At first she thought it was just chance that this bird decided to reward her efforts at sneaking food from the kitchen, but she had entered into a psychic relationship with the creature. She swore to herself that she could read its thoughts. Really, the magpie wanted the same things as her. A secret, special friend. The magpie never came to the garden in a pair, unlike the other birds. He was always alone.

Even in these winter mornings, Lucy would get up early to wait in the garden for the magpie. She would leave piles of crushed-up crisps or cereal out on the tree stump at the back of the garden. A little chaffinch danced on the branches of her mother’s apple tree, tentatively shuffling its wings as if deciding whether or not to fly. Nasty, pecking blackbirds would often swarm upon the lawn, digging their sharp beaks in the dewy soil for worms. With the wedding band thumping against her chest, Lucy had to chase them away so that they would not eat her magpie’ s breakfast. For the magpie was truly her soulmate, and she would not let other birds pillage her precious offerings.

One evening Lucy was returning to her room from brushing her teeth when she saw on the wall above her bed a massive spider. It was obviously a remnant of the winter spiders, who occupied her parents’ house from September to March to find shelter from the cold. It was late at night – too late to wake her parents – and Lucy could not go to bed with such a thing in the room. It was a horrid blot upon the perfect cream of her bedroom walls; a blot that unfortunately was often moving. She watched with disgust as it extended its creeping legs, wiggling the black mark of its body. Sometimes, the legs lifted and bent and lifted again as if they were pincers. Lucy was really starting to feel quite sick.

It was too high up to catch in a jar, and there was no use throwing something at it because it would only fall straight down and bury itself in Lucy’s bed.

So she clambered onto her windowsill and pulled open the heavy window. The night smelt fresh and cool, almost like a summer night, though those were still far away. There were the usual suburban sounds, the glow of other windows; but nothing more, nothing more at all. Underneath her nightie Lucy stroked the ring for comfort, beginning to sing her favourite song. Her voice left the house slowly, the haunting melody travelling through the night like a fly struggling through thick black molasses. There was a thin moon watching her. It was the only thing in the universe that knew that Lucy was calling, calling out for her magpie familiar.

And it came. It landed on the dark grass and looked up at her with its flashing amber eye.

“There’s a spider in my room. A nasty wicked spider. You must kill it for me, Mr. Magpie.”

The bird screeched with its habitual rattling cackle. It tilted its head just so.

“Please Mr. Magpie,” Lucy called out. She held her arms out to the dark night and with this beckoning the magpie suddenly swooped up and flew right past her into her bedroom. Squawking loudly, it flapped about with an air of mania until Lucy switched the light on. She pointed to the slowly-moving spider on the wall.

“There,” she whispered. The magpie seemed reluctant at first. It turned its head to gaze at Lucy. And how could any human being fathom what that strange bird was thinking; what lay behind the opaque brilliance of those amber eyes? But Lucy knew; Lucy knew her magpie would do whatever she asked. She watched as it raised its wings and soared into the wall, clutching the spider in its gnarled claws and crushing it into a tangled ball. Lucy watched with a kind of horrified delight as the magpie shrieked triumphantly, before swooping through the window again and out into the darkness, bearing the spider with it. Trying to stifle her laughter, she slammed down the window and admired the lovely canvas of her clean wall. Not a trace of death; not a trace of the spider. She climbed into bed and slept like a baby, oblivious to the distant rumbles of a gathering storm. In fact, only once did she drift from her slumber, seeing her window lit up with fiery lightning; but quickly she fell back to sleep again.

In the morning, Lucy awoke to mellow sheets of sunlight pouring through her window, and the sound of her mother knocking on the door.
“Come in.”
Her mother entered and handed Lucy a glass of milk.
“What was all that commotion in here last night?” she asked, her voice tinged with a hint of dread.
“Oh, what commotion? It must’ve been the storm,” Lucy said innocently. She drank the milk hungrily and wiped the traces of it from her lips.

Once she was dressed, Lucy headed into the garden to put the washing out for her mother. The storm had left behind a perfect day, with fair blue skies and the twinkle of birdsong and blush of hopeful crocuses. Spring would be coming soon. In her bare feet, Lucy stepped across the grass, which gleamed lushly with beads of rain and felt soft against her skin. The sun was warm on her cheeks as she pegged up the damp scraps of washing.

When she had finished, however, she noticed a scorched patch of grass and something dark at the back of the garden, by the shed. Perhaps the ground had been struck by lightning in last night’s storm. But as she crept closer, Lucy’s heart seized up like a frightened animal. Just there, lying on the grass beside the burnt patch, was her magpie. For the first time she noticed the fine jewelled beauty of its feathers: the blue, green and burnished red that gleamed in the sun like powdered sapphires. The glossiness of its black and white body, the marble jewel of its knowing eye. With shaking fingers, Lucy lifted back its wings, and alas it did not respond to her touch. She was certain it was dead; but that was all she knew. A bead of a tear escaped her shining eyes. Kneeling down, not caring now that the neighbours might see her, she took off the necklace with the wedding-band. Carefully, she placed it beside the magpie, and turned it gently over to face the sky. As she did so, a tiny spider crawled out from underneath its body, scarpering out over the scorched soil.

And there was nothing or nobody to hear Lucy’s frightened cry.

Prompts: spider, treasure

by Maria Rose Sledmere

Transition

I open my eyes and find myself in a garden. It is slightly familiar but I am sure I have never been here. It looks like my grandmother’s garden with its old apple trees and the flowerbeds overflowing with wild cornflowers, poppies and marguerites but it stretches as far as I can see and neither the ivy-overgrown well nor the wrought-iron bank would have found a place in granny’s garden. I don’t see another person but I can hear voices and laughter behind the hedges that surround the piece of grass I’m standing on. What is this place? And how have I come here?
I try to remember what I have done before opening my eyes but I cannot recall. I don’t remember the day of the week or what I have had for lunch this day – I am not even sure whether it has already been lunchtime today. When I check my watch it is quarter to eleven but the second hand does not move. My watch must have stopped working and I don’t know when. At least the sun is shining so it must be day but the light is awkward and as I lift my eyes, I don’t only see the sun but also spot the moon and stars on the light blue sky.
“Welcome to the Garden of Time!”
I wince and turn around. A man, neither young nor old is standing in front of me. He must have approached really silently because I haven’t noticed him until now. He wears something that looks like a blue habit but I don’t think he is a monk because instead of a cross, an hourglass is dangling from his belt.
“Welcome to where?” I ask. The whole thing is getting more mysterious with every minute I am here. Wait a moment? How long have I been here? Opening my eyes after having done whatever feels like ages ago even though I cannot have been here for long. Or can I?
“The Garden of Time” the man repeats smiling. “Don’t worry, you will get used to this place and you will meet the other visitors if you want to.”
“How did I come here?” I ask. “And when did I come here?”
“I am sorry but I cannot answer these questions” the man says. “Everyone finds a different way to enter the Garden.”
“But… if you’ve just welcomed me, it must mean, I have arrived recently, doesn’t it?” I ask desperately.
The man shakes his head slowly. “Time stands still at this place. It does not make any difference if you arrived five minutes ago or last week. You do not feel any different.”
“Is this why I cannot remember what I did before I came here?” I ask. The mist in my head seems to lighten a little. I still don’t know what exactly this place is or how it is possible that time stands still but if I accept that it does, that explains a lot.
“You are right” the man says smiling as if he is glad that I have finally figured out something about this place.
“I have one more question” I say. “But you will probably not be able to answer this one either. How long will I stay here?”
“Oh, I can answer this question” the man says looking more serious now. “You will stay in this place until the doctors find a way to wake you up from the coma. Welcome again to the Garden of Time. Enjoy your stay.”

What were your prompts?: garden, time

by Rut Neuschäfer

Watercolours

He came here for the first time long ago. At least, long seems the correct word to use now: long rolling off the tongue in the way that time bites back, elastic. It had been so long since he had first sat on the dewy grass with his watercolours, filling the crisp blank pages with the scenes around him. Long, languid days with the pleasures of easy tranquillity. The quaint arrangement of herbaceous borders, trellises, lush tufts of beard-grass clumped by a pond of goldfish. Silken ripples of afternoon sunlight, passing its lustrous smile over neatly-cut lawns and the silhouettes of apple trees. With fine calligraphy, he had captioned each sketch with a mood or a month or a colour indicative of the season. People had a lust for the simple indulgence of words. Later, he had that early sketchbook bound in purple velvet, and now it waited in his study, collecting dust. His clients never wanted the old works; he was always grappling with their desire for the new.

*

The roses slithered from the flower beds, their speckled petals shrivelled and dying in memories of summer. The fountain, once a glory of sparkling granite, gushing forth its streams of silver, has frozen solid. A sheet of white ice is splintered with little cracks and fissures that pattern it in suspended rivulets. An old woman leans over the edge, muttering so quietly that she cannot be heard over the brisk chatters of the breeze. No such breeze should pass through these gardens. She draws her finger over the ice, gathering the frost crystals under her nails.

She remembers the first time she saw those magical watercolours. A time before, where glissades of daylight would pull her from her dreams and she would look in the mirror and have her little wish. But the world, of course, would have to corrupt her. There was no going back to this Eden; no matter the stacks of platinum she wore on her fingers, no matter, no matter…

You penetrate the ice: the water gushes forth, cold and sharp. It slushes round your nerves and bubbles like boiling blood, slushes around till you’ve forgotten what it was. Fire and ice; cold and hot. Stop.

The garden fills with new light; conscious light, collecting a clarity not quite recognised. The roses have left their earthly bodies, and the worms burrow up through the untilled soil. The roses’ spirits lift the leaves from the trees and scatter them like sloughing flakes of a giant’s skin. A sigh escapes the sultry violets, the ones he captured once by blending blue and red. The red poppy is a pretty thing, but she is unborn yet. A mulch of memory overturns as day decides to end.

*

Icicles snap from the tips of the fountain; their glass cracks fragments over the pink paving stones. It is still too cold for them to melt. They will remain, like chips of colourless chrysoberyl. Each one indifferent; each one, alone.

*

She feels herself glitter and fizz in this garden; she is a girl once again. She picks up a piece of ice and holds it tight until it melts. The water bleeds from between her fingers and she looks to the sky, gasping. There is no sky; no heaven in this garden. Everything liquid and melting. She feels herself falling upwards, upwards into that long, azure void. The water drips down and she smells it dissolve through the earth. She too will return to that earth.

The first time he showed her the sketchbook, she thought he was mad: mad to depict such a place of perfection, a place that could not exist. The others turned out their pockets and spent fortunes on the paradise he sold. Now, they were nothing but the spirit wisps of clouds in the sky. A sky she no longer knew.

For every time she awoke in the garden, old and wrinkled and frail as she was, she felt strange and new. She felt her own soul carried off in the milky rills of the river, carried beyond the borders of Paradise. She had no desire to leave the garden, not ever.

She plucked the dead head of a rose and sat it upon the fountain water. She felt the world drift away from her, growing evermore strange and remote. And then she knew that spring was coming, because the ice began to crack and the rose stayed afloat.

(Prompts: consumer, garden, time)

by Maria Rose Sledmere

The Shakespeare Garden

“Great work so far, everyone, but the Midsummer Night’s Dream forest needs something else…more vines and creepers maybe? It needs to be very mysterious and beautiful, perhaps a little bit creepy…at the moment it’s looking a bit sparse. And I think we need to get the lighting technicians back in. Maybe some purple and pink, very soft lighting, and more dry ice…”

The curator dismissed the workforce from their weekly progress meeting, and looked down at her iPad. Everything was on schedule so far.

She rode a caddy over to the Elsinore garden, and nodded with satisfaction at the moody castle façade, the moat (complete with dry ice mist effects), the ivy (carefully bred and cultivated), the Ophelia wildflower garden with its little stream, the graveyard with artfully planted ‘weeds’ bursting through cracks in stones…she placed a virtual tick on her planning app next to ‘Elsinore’.

She then took the caddy over to the Island, where the maritime botanists had created a beautiful underwater garden of corals, seaweeds, and other exotic ocean flora, visible through a glass panel. Then, there was Caliban’s Cave, with berry bushes and a pumpkin patch at the entrance, and a breath-taking collection of bioluminescent plants illuminating the inside of the little grotto. The jungle was a fairly middle-of-the-road assemblage of tropical trees and plants, made a little more interesting by the light and sound effects and the rain machine, which would simulate a wild storm at an entirely randomised time during each visiting period. She was happy enough with this garden so she gave a tick of approval.

One of her favourite gardens was ‘Fair Verona’. The main area was a courtyard, simulating the scene with Juliet at her balcony, where the star floral displays were a selection of meticulously-arranged window boxes holding all manner of exquisitely colourful Mediterranean flowers – oleander, lavender, bougainvillea, jasmine, cyclamen, geranium, lunaria, and of course, sweet-smelling roses of every colour, shape and size – and of any other name. There was also a wall of red ivy, entangled with passion flowers, clematis and grapevines, and some small, potted orange, lemon and olive trees adorning the courtyard several balconies. The scents of this garden were magnificent – heady, sweet, spiced, warm…if the feeling of falling in love had aroma of its own, this would be it, the curator thought.

Of course, behind the courtyard and the balcony façade, there was a garden dedicated to the darker side of this immortal love story. The Apothecary’s Glasshouse – a circular, glass building, with a dusty path surrounded by a tangle of thorny rosebushes and bindweed – held an enormous selection of poisonous plants: hemlock, aconitum, hellebore, belladonna…naturally, the plants were sealed off from the walkway through the glasshouse by glass panels.

Satisfied with the arrangements, the curator ticked off ‘Fair Verona’, and scanned through the list for the next garden that she needed to examine. ‘Dunsinane’.

She frowned. This was the garden she’d had the most trouble with. It was very difficult to simulate the feel of the moody, rolling hills and vast, sweeping heathland in such a relatively small space. She was happy with the selection of plants: heathers, bracken, thistles, Scottish primrose – everything wild and unmaintained, having been allowed to grow with minimum interference from the horticultural workforce. The various props were well-made – they had imported large slabs of basalt and sandstone to create a craggy feel to the heavily landscaped garden, and they used a large amount of this to build the Witches’ Cavern, and also the foundations of the castle, though the rest was a façade as with the other buildings in the Shakespeare Garden, with a scaffolded frame covered with plywood and then carefully painted faux stone panels. Of course, the curator’s primary annoyance was the impossibility of recreating Burnam Wood with real oak trees. There was neither time nor space, and so they had been forced to use synthetic prop-trees and painted backgrounds, and though much time, skilled craft and planning had gone into the building of the non-botanic elements of the display, the curator couldn’t help but feel that these elements encroached on the natural wilderness feel of the Dunsinane garden.

The light was fading outside the huge Dome, and the curator knew it was time to go home. The Shakespeare Garden would only have a six-week run at the Dome – the world’s largest indoor, fully-climate-managed display garden – after which the next contender for the winner of the World Horticultural Show would have their run. The short time seemed especially fleeting considering the fact that these dream landscapes, themselves so transient, were based on such immortal works of literature.

(prompts: Shakespeare, ecology, technology)

by Rachel Norris

Paradise Missing

Granny used to take us to this park, when we were children. She’d walk us halfway across the city, her little court shoes clacking on cobbles. Sometimes she’d dodge across the road, not bothering to wait for traffic. Things stopped for her; she didn’t stop for them. She’d have one of us on each hand: James on the left, me on the right, both giggling with delight.

“Children!” she’d boom, “this is a splendid day! A golden day among millions, and not to be wasted!” People would stare at her in the street, stare at the crackling fire of her eyes and smile. Her special park was tucked away behind a labyrinth of secret paths and alleyways. There’d often be beggars, crouched in the shadows. Granny always had a pinch of a penny or two, a flick of silver that she’d drop in their cups.

“That’s for your tea, love,” she’d say smartly. They’d smile up at her in amazement, with her nodding back primly and us children wide-eyed as alley cats.

This garden, this park, it was roughly a kind of hexagon. I worked this out as soon as I could count, could place it in my book of geometry, a photo stamped from mind to page. Vines and sweet peas sprawled up the walls, while tulips and sunflowers and marvellous roses sprung out at you in lovely clusters. It was all so pretty and full of peace, a sanctuary from the busy city. And James and I, well, we’d run around crazy – chasing each other, rolling in the soft lawn, smelling everything, naming every bird and plant and bee as if we were Adam bestowing language upon Eden. Granny, on the other hand, would sit on a wooden bench shaded by this old willow.

“Resting my bad legs,” she’d say. We thought she was pretending, that she never needed resting. She watched us dance and laugh in play, smiling away to herself. I could never tell what she was thinking; was she happy, sad, did she miss her youth? When I got bored of James I’d sit beside her on the bench, and she’d let me plait her beautiful hair. It had once been a princess’, long and golden; it was still long, but now streaked with ash and silver.

“Rapunzel,” I’d sing to her.

It was only when the church bells chimed that we realised the real world. Granny would exclaim, “Oh gosh! The time!” and she’d rush along, as if terrified of worrying our mother. As soon as we left that park, we were never quite sure if we’d really been there; its verdant beauty seemed to melt into unwashed windows, bleak streets, the coarse grey of concrete.

On the way home, she’d stop at a fudge shop and buy us anything we liked. I always chose hazelnut praline; James scoffed white chocolate and Granny would take a rum and raisin and wrap it in paper for later. We always ate ours straightaway, our cocoa-smeared faces giving the game away, while Granny would wait until after supper. While we did our homework, I watched her out of the corner of my eye, nibbling the fudge and sneaking whisky into her tea. When she died, Mother found the empty stash in the old dog’s kennel, an array of oaky smells and bottles that glittered in brilliant green. It was just like Granny, the silly maid, Mother said. Always up to no good.

After work on Fridays, I still go back to that fudge shop, though the man that owns it doesn’t know me. Why would he recognise me, after all these years? Sometimes though, I feel like he senses something in me; a spark, something of Granny’s, maybe. Mother said she was always getting into trouble, having fun behind everyone’s back – even in her seventies.  The old man at the fudge shop – he must be ninety-odd now – always gives me free samples, throws them in gift bags, glints a yellow smile. But all that sugar is a hollow kind of sweetness, a brief comfort. Rain or shine, storm or snow, every Friday I’m always looking for that garden, wandering the city from road to road. When I find it, I’ll get back to her heart, get back to my youth. Until then, I can only remember and look, lost in my trapping gratitude – the memory of how lovely it all seemed. Yet as time goes by, I begin to think that the garden didn’t exist at all; that maybe it was one of Granny’s perfect dreams.

by Maria Sledmere

prompts: gratitude, generation, bench [picture]