Marie O’Shea studied Sociology at UCC. She lives on the Beara Peninsula with her husband and three (biggish) children. When she’s not doing her day job, she’s busy trying to be a writer. Her short story ‘The Friendly Match’ was published in The Caterpillar/ stories, poems and art for kids. Issue 23 Winter 2018.
After The Fall
By Marie O’Shea
Nina’s phone gave a half ring and then went silent. On edge, she brushed a scattering of autumn leaves off the stone slab she was leaning against. It’d be Sarah. Oozing encouragement, coaxing her back to the department and the thesis she’d abandoned. Some half-hearted scraping at the yellowing film of lichen with her thumbnail uncovered a crumbling inscription. Further scraping revealed something indecipherable about the late Ambrose Neville, heir to the Whitley estate and founder of the garden she was supposedly researching. She didn’t want to talk to Sarah. The effort it would take made her bone wearyingly tired. As she reached to turn off her phone, she felt a quick flash of heat and recoiled. Puzzled, she cleared up the remains of their packed lunch, and glanced at Phil.
‘Up to you,’ said Phil, attempting to strap Cora in the buggy without spilling her raisins and failing. A solitary magpie swooped down, picked up a raisin and flew off. Arching and twisting to get a better view of it, Cora pitched her remaining raisins onto the ground, protesting loudly as Phil wheeled her away.
‘If you go down to the woods today be sure of a big surprise…’ He was the king of distraction. By the second verse, Cora was singing along, out of tune and sweetly raucous.
Checking the trail map at the intersection, they opted for the lower and less strenuous of the forest routes. She fell in step beside him, remembering the last time she had visited the garden. Eight months pregnant and ebullient. Intent on finishing the catalogue she was compiling of rare and exotic plants, trying to cram as much as she could into the little time she had left. Unstoppable- or so it had seemed.
And it wasn’t a fall. More of a twist and a lurch as she reached beyond her grasp, then the long days of bed-rest and the waiting and hoping, then the adjusting. She’d known before their birth that she wasn’t going to need the two sets of everything she’d assembled in her bottom drawer. Just one. She had Cora. Abruptly, she turned her head so Phil wouldn’t notice the spasm that pulled at the muscles of her left eye making it twitch and blink. Deliberately, she drew herself back to the lumbering of the buggy on gravel, the trill of bird song, the pull of air into her lungs.
As they ambled deeper into the woodland, golden shafts of sunlight streamed through the trees illuminating her daughter’s solemn, upturned face. The path was strewn with fallen leaves. Carefully, she selected the most perfect red leaf she could find and put it in her bag to bring home. When Cora got bigger, she would bring her here, teach her the names of the flowers and the way they liked to grow. The thought caught her off guard. Daring to think like this about an unspecified time in the future after the parsimony of measuring out hope- day–by- day, week by week, felt brave, expansive.
Catching up with Phil she linked her arm through his, resting her head on his shoulder. He had talked her into coming today. Encouraging her to pick up where she had left off. Testing the water, he’d called it. Staunchly believing in the person she used to be. Absorbed in her work, ploughing through her Masters, consumed by the Whitley and its potential as a demonstration site in the University’s outreach programme. After the fall, that person started to shrink. By the time Cora was born, she had disappeared.
Now it appeared that the game had changed. There were new rules. Cora would start pre-school in the New Year. Sarah said she could work from home, take things at her own pace. Ease herself back into the world she had left behind. Was it really such a bad idea?
Slipping her arm free from Phil’s, she let it swing. The late autumn sun flooded her eyes with the whitest of light, dazzling after the darkness of the undergrowth. She’d missed the garden. Of course she’d missed it. Admitting it filled her with a bubbling, fizzing sense of possibility.
The leaves underfoot were thick and dry. She stooped to pick a handful, whooping as she showered them over Phil and Cora. Phil’s eyes on her were eager, his face was kind. War like, he bellowed and beat his chest, ham acting retaliation, scooping up armloads and showering them everywhere. Cora’s screeched in protest, enraged and delighted in equal measure. Watching Cora made her weak. She sank to the ground, laughing so much it hurt.
As they approached the Eastern boundary, the track turned and narrowed making it necessary to walk in single file. She paused for a moment feeling the effort of the climb in the back of her legs. A heron flew across the treeline, breaking the silence with the heavy beat of its wings. She watched, fascinated, until it disappeared out of view. Then, from somewhere ahead she heard crying. Cora was crying. Automatically, her chest tightened and she quickened her pace to catch up.
‘Is she OK?’ she said.
‘She’s fine,’ said Phil, sugaring his voice. He was standing at the top of the ascent, positioned so that Cora could see the lighthouse on the other side of the bay. Below, the sea was a flat expanse of grey. Above, with outstretched wings and trumpet pointing heavenward was a white stone angel. The Angel of Solace, dedicated to the memory of Evelyn Neville. Larger than she remembered, the combination of its austere purity and commanding position was arresting.
Evelyn had died in childbirth. Like her, she had been expecting twins. Being here, in the shadow of the angel made it all the more poignant. Feeling the ache of loss as a heaviness in her own bones, she was grateful to sit for a few minutes and compose herself.
After Evelyn, Ambrose had thrown himself into the garden. Assuaging his grief through the meticulous planning of walkways, planting schemes and vistas, creating over the course of three decades a garden which now ranked as a classic of Victorian design. It was a selfless, generous choice. She liked that.
Would she have liked him? Forehead furrowed, she retracted the question. What did she really know about him? Little of any significance had been written. During his lifetime he had not sought plaudits, public attention or fellowship. He never remarried, had no heirs or direct family. After his death, Whitley had been gifted to the state.
She had discovered it by chance. Every five years, the estate management offered a bursary to fund postgraduate research on some aspect of heritage gardening. Knowing her interest, a friend of her parents had suggested she should apply. Initially reluctant, her resistance evaporated the moment she’d stepped through its gates. When news came that she’d won, she wasn’t even surprised.
Whitley reeled her in like a fish on a hook. It felt right she should be chosen. She had sensed his presence here from the first. Season by season, year after year, the changing colours and forms of the garden revealed something of him. The artist, the visionary, the broken man. He was the invisible hand behind it all. She harboured a secret fancy she shared with no one. At Whitley, she was apprenticed to the master.
‘Cora’s going to walk the next bit. Can you take the buggy?’
‘No problem,’ she said, seeing them in soft focus. Framed against the starkness of the white plinth, her daughter was a vivid shot of colour in the clashing pinks she had insisted on wearing.
As it sank lower in the sky, the sun cast ripples of raspberry red through the blanket of cloud. She was warming now to the idea of coming back, grateful for the space Phil was giving her to think things through, keen to explore possibilities. Throwing her bag in the buggy she rolled across an expanse of lawn towards the eastern gable of the big house. In the stillness of the late afternoon, Cora’s squeals of excitement carried in the air. Moments later, she found her rolling sausage fashion down the first of the slopes on the Beech Lawn.
‘Save me!’ she cried, backing away as Phil pretended to chase her then enveloped her in a grassy bear hug. Cawing like a baby crow, Cora ran unsteadily over to rescue her, clinging, limpet like to her legs.
‘Play some more with Daddy,’ she said, laughing as she extricated herself from their three-person scrum. ‘I’m going to look at the flowers.’
Rolling the buggy along the perimeter of the lawn, she stopped to investigate, first a gnarly strip of oak bark then the hanging seed heads of a clump of agapanthus. Deep in thought, she drifted through a gothic stone arch in the enclosing walls of the Winter Garden. Hands behind her back, she strolled at funereal pace around each of the four borders. Swathes of luminous red-stemmed Dogwood melded with spiky yellow Mahonia and the dark greenery of Hellebore. The artistry of it made her linger longer than she should.
As she looped around the far side, Phil burst through the arch breathless from running, his eyes darting everywhere and then resting anguished on the empty buggy.
‘Is she with you?’
‘No,’ she said, her stomach plummeting into free fall.
‘Cora,’ he was shouting now, turning one -way and then another, gangly and frantic in his movement.
‘She can’t be far. We were on our way down to you. I stopped to read the notice board….’ Unable to continue, his face contorted and she thought he might cry.
Catapulting into action, she scanned the paths checking behind a cluster of bedraggled lilac, then stupidly, pointlessly perusing the sprawling branches of a low slung crab-apple.
After a few frantic moments they ruled out the possibility that she was within the walled enclosure. Tentatively Nina cast her eyes beyond the arch, across the empty lawns, as far as the rising slopes of the forest walks and the enveloping clouds of evening. A dog barked somewhere in the distance. Cora was scared of dogs.
A sickening wallop hit her full pelt in the solar plexus, doubling her over, making her groan out loud. They should never have come. It was too big and spread out. Anything could happen in a place like this.
‘What if someone’s taken her?’ Her voice came out as a whisper.
‘There’s no one around to take her.’
‘We don’t know that.’
‘This is stupid,’ he said grabbing her by the arm and looking deep into her panicked eyes. ‘I’ll go back to reception. If someone’s found her, that’s where they’d bring her.’
‘What’ll I do?’
‘Circle outside the walls, then check the lower lawn.’
He turned and sprinted in the direction of the entrance gate, misjudging his footing and crashing into the side of a recycling bin.
She took a deep breath, thrusting her trembling hands into her pockets, striding forward. They had a plan. If she followed the plan she would find her daughter and they could go home. There would be soup, blended with no bits. Then, smelling of talcum powder and wrapped in something soft, it would be story time and bed. By the time she herself went to bed everything would be in order.
Unless it wasn’t. What then? An abyss darker and more terrifying than the one she’d already had to claw her way out of loomed. Forcing herself to focus, she called Cora’s name, paused, then called again. Over and over. Robotically. Walking in time to it, swinging her arms, making of it a mantra. Two sounds punctuated by silence. To her own ears, her voice sounded reedy, thin. Inadequate.
Then from within her pocket, her phone binged, prolonged and insistent. She stopped. Trembling, she checked to see if it was Phil and found her phone was dead. She pressed the ‘on’ button. Not a flicker. She shook it and tried again. Nothing.
The ratchet cry of a magpie, close by on a trailing limb of cedar made her start. So close, she could detect a hint of petrol blue in the blackness of its wing and tail feathers. Unabashed, it held her gaze for a beat too long, then flew up and away in the direction of the terraces. Dazed, she released her grip on the phone replacing it in her pocket. The force of her conviction was tsunami like. She needed to turn back. She was on the wrong track.
Retracing her steps, she returned to the far wall of the Winter Garden. Running blindly, she continued along the gravel path onto a paved platform. Pausing at the top of an ornate set of steps, she scanned the terrace until her eyes alighted on the twisted loops of the knot garden. Pressing her palm to her heart, she bowed her head. Amid the dark green of clipped box, crouched beside a stone sundial in the centre, Cora’s pink clad form stood out like a beacon. Could it really be this simple?
‘Cora,’ she called, half sobbing, half laughing. ‘I see you.’
At her words, Cora jumped then scuttled backwards, hiding her eyes behind her hands, shaking with suppressed laughter.
‘Where can Cora be?’ she said, playing along, flinging herself down the steps two at a time, swooping her daughter up in her arms, inhaling the apple fresh aroma of the shampoo she had washed her hair in that morning. Was it really only this morning?
Lightheaded with relief, she leaned against the sundial. But for the weight of Cora in her arms, she had the oddest sense she might just drift off and away someplace else.
Then, from the upper level, she heard the crunch of rapid footsteps on the gravel.
‘Phil,’ she shouted, waving frantically, jubilant. ‘I have her! We’re here.’
As he made his way down to join them, Cora wriggled out of her arms, launching herself at him like a determined terrier.
‘What brought you down here?’ he said, beaming as he hoisted Cora up into the crook of one arm, reaching for Nina with the other, pulling them all together.
She exhaled slowly. Something had happened. Something born of the connection she had with the garden. Something beyond her ability to articulate.
‘It doesn’t matter,’ she said, twisting a lock of Cora’s hair around her index finger, ‘they’re going to lock up soon. We need to get going.’
Cora’s head slumped on Phil’s shoulder as they made their way back to the arch and the abandoned buggy. She’d probably sleep in the car. They might watch a film later. Do something ordinary. Reclaim normal. A new normal. One without the crushing fear that pulled her out of bed night after night, hovering over the cot-bed, checking and rechecking.
A flurry of motion caught her eye as a bird launched itself up into the evening sky, circling for a brief moment, then fading out of view. Roosting, she guessed, wherever it was magpies roosted at this time of year. The grass, damp with dew, was springy under the rubber soles of her shoes and she was buoyant. In the space of two short hours something fundamental had shifted inside her.
At the top of the steps, she turned and cast a grateful look back at the dark outlines of the knot garden. Love, loss and redemption. It was the message encrypted in each loop and twist. A message from someone long gone. Someone who trod the same path as her. The connection made her feel safe. Next week, she thought, with a flutter of excitement, she’d come back and begin her work. It was time to move on. She was ready.