Phyllis towers above big galvanised buckets of orange, pink and yellow dahlias, big blowsy peonies, shining vermilion, and smaller glass vases of posied purple anemones. She’s impressive and elegant: big-boned, blonde. Now, she buries her pale traveller’s mask with its carefully drawn red lips into a huge bunch of frilled scented tulips. The petals curl delicately upwards, licking like flames, yellow and orange and red, the leaves sharp and green – and she thinks of Dido, Queen of Carthage, on her funeral pyre. She cannot help such odd, anachronistic thoughts, she tells herself. For she has taught Latin (among other subjects) for twenty-seven years, and what with these hot knives slicing away in her belly the idea does not seem so out of place.
The flower shop at Schiphol draws her in every time. It’s a kind of buffer state between destinations: a no-man’s land where the usual boundaries of times and seasons don’t apply. A garden, open all hours, that’s always blooming. She’s left the dry hot season of Malawi’s October days and she’s making for the freshening autumn winds of Ireland. In the airport flower shop it’s always calm, always spring. She takes the tulips to the till. Those are for her mother. She’ll also have a small net sack of mixed daffodil bulbs for her aged parents’ garden.
Phyllis pushes her trolley straight through the green channel at Belfast Airport: Nothing to Declare although she’s not entirely sure about the rules on importing plant matter, bulbs and corms. And the knives – she hopes – are well hidden. She’s never had so much dubious baggage. Nothing to Declare. She pushes on, in a warm wave of tulip scent. At airports, like all border posts in her experience – and she has experienced a few – truth is measured to fit the purpose.
So much uncertainty is new to her. She likes to know for sure. She’s the headmistress of Mwasondeni Mission School for Girls and it’s her business to be in complete control of facts. And while her years in Africa have taught her that she cannot plan for everything: she tries.
Her father meets her at the airport and although she has only one reasonable-sized suitcase, a handbag, the small sack of daffodil bulbs and the glorious tulips, she and her luggage fill the car. It’s his new baby, and she smiles as he brushes the flaky bits of bulb, already straying from the sack, off the pristine back seat. He trades his cars in every two years – which coincides more or less with her home leaves – so there’s always another new small family saloon to protect from her eccentric battered luggage, grubby from dangerous African airports.
-This one’s got a digital radio, he says. That’s the latest thing. I thought you’d like that.
And she’s ashamed of that silly smile.
He’s sorted the insurance out, he says, so she can drive it while she’s home.
A small tenderness that stirs her knives.
The warm, cloying air meets her in the hallway as she hugs her newly-permed mother and puts the tulips in her hands.
-Oh, how beautiful, what beautiful flowers, so many, so many.
-But it’s great, just great. It’s great to have you home.
-Tea now, says her father, what about a cup of tea? She must be dying for a cup of tea.
-I said to your father you’ll be cold, after Africa.
Africa: never Mwasondeni, rarely Malawi.
-Your mother’s turned the heating up for you.
And then the fly-cloth’s pulled back on the tea-trolley, it’s wheeled across to the comfy chair, and there are all her favourites: soda bread, egg sandwiches, strawberry jam, scones, seedcake.
-Two days, she’s been baking, says her father.
Her mother watches like a rabbit, liquid eyes, ready to be startled. Waiting for her to enjoy. Willing approval. But Phyllis isn’t hungry in the least.
-Maybe you’ve eaten darling, I should have asked you.
-No, no, says Phyllis, reaches for a slice of soda bread and spreads the jam.
A wide-rimmed teacup from her parents’ wedding china hangs from her thumb and forefinger: it feels so light and far too fragile in her hands.
Ireland, like that old beloved jumper she just can’t bear to throw away – it’s the wrong shape. Is she too big, or has it shrunk? It’s no longer comfortable, sometimes she feels she’ll pull a loose thread – say the wrong thing in the wrong tone of voice – and rip the thing apart. But it’s pressed to shape and matted and won’t come apart so easily. It’s her who’s awkward, bursting out, hot and simmering in the kindness of her parents’ welcome.
She’s well used to small, hot rooms. She can sit at ease for hours in a tiny windowless house of unbaked brick in a room where an entire family will sleep, the grass mats and blankets neatly stacked in the corner. And she’s not averse to kindness. She’ll always accept the bottle of warm Fanta or the small enamel dish of roasted groundnuts set before her on a crocheted tablecloth. Then, she’ll listen and talk: mlando, a daughter’s school fees; the tell-tale first signs of illness; a plan for a promising future. These things are sorted out in small rooms like these.
There’s little sorting here but a long list of catching up to do. Two years of cousins, aunts, and friends – all over one slice of soda bread. It’s mainly done-and-dusted and just requires a nod, surprise, or sad, pursed lips. But it needs her full attention. It’s amazing how much gets left out of those flimsy blue air-letters -We didn’t want to upset you, darling. And how much emerges with incredulity -You must know that, she died last year. She mustn’t say -I wish you’d told me that. That smacks of lack. And always -Everyone’s asking for you, everyone.
-You won’t get a spread like your mother’s over there, says her father.
-Lovely, lovely to have you back, says her mother. Two years, my goodness, two years? Sighs and smiles and -Oh it’s lovely, lovely to have you back, dear.
-You look tired Phyllis. You’ll do well with a rest, says her mother, watching
Phyllis finishes her tea, it’s too strong and too milky – and is curdling against the swords in her belly – but her mother is still watching her: nervous that something might not be all right. That something might not please. So lovely, lovely to have you back.
Her bag of daffodil bulbs is in the hall. As she swung the sack, heavy and awkward out of the overhead locker, scattering brown flaky bits on the shoulders of her frowning fellow passengers, she had wondered at her wisdom, but now she knows it’s worth it.
-I brought you a present. Bulbs. Daffodil bulbs. For the garden.
-From Africa, how nice. You’ve got so many lovely flowers out there, all these lovely photographs.
Tricky. In thirty years, her mother has never visited her, and her father’s come out twice, alone. She’s too timid. It’s too dangerous. Too hot. Too many tablets to take already. She’s fine where she is. But she loves hearing all the wonderful stories. The wonderful people. The wonderful work. Phyllis, her daughter, is doing such wonderful work.
-I got them at the airport.
But that sounds too much like a last-minute gift. It sounds like forgetting, uncaring. And sure enough, her mother’s face is drooping towards her hard-done-by look.
-I came through Schiphol, and Holland is the best place for bulbs.
Planned, intended: nothing so thoughtless and unfeeling as a spontaneous
Phyllis finds old clothes and lugs the bag into the garden. It feels heavier now, and she senses she is about to climb onto a big wave of pain. She needs to do this planting today. If she is done-in tomorrow she can put it down to exhaustion after the long flights. There’s nothing unusual in sleeping off the journey.
Her parents’ front garden is a square of turf the width of the bungalow. Trimmed and neat. The grass is surrounded on three sides by the bed of drab evergreen shrubs and conifers. They’ve been there for years – as long as she can remember. In the summer her father grows four or five lines of sweet peas round the back, beside the washing green. He’ll spend hours out there, trimming, training, snipping the delicate tissue-paper blooms with his big hands, bringing in armfuls of flowers to her mother. -Cuttings, he’ll say. -Cuttings.
Niet geschikt voor consumptie. Do not eat, says the label in a dozen languages. Bulbs require winter chilling in order to complete their life cycle. That can easily be arranged in Belfast. Phyllis takes a bulb from the sack, enjoying the feel and the look of it, the cool weight of it in her hand. She seeks and finds the tiny pale shoot with her fingertips. Amazing that it has all the makings of a daffodil, so much life and colour stored in the chestnut-brown shell. It’s as drab and unassuming as the varnished skirting boards of her parents’ hallway.
She works systematically, putting in clumps of ten or twelve, pressing each bulb down to twice its depth in the cool black earth. She sprinkles the crumbly soil over each set and smoothes the surface flat with the palms of her hands. The bed is weedless and the ground is loose from a recent hoeing. The trowel slices easily into the denser earth below the surface; it’s not hard work. Even so, there are more bulbs in the bag than she thought and it’s getting late. She digs more quickly, shifting more earth each time. And then, she misjudges a thrust and the sharp edge of the trowel catches the side of a just-planted bulb. It cleaves to the blade. Spoilt now, its core unprotected from the damp, it can only rot. A sharp whack on a big stone, and she finishes the job, slicing the bulb through.
And there it is, so unexpected. The pale and tender yellow life, leaves and trumpet, still one, all folded together at the centre, and stored away. A secret hidden, but ready to stir, break out. Surprise waiting to spring. Phyllis presses the two halves together, tight, between her palms, willing it to mend, then buries the broken bulb, on its own, away from the rest.
She’s been using long-neglected muscles and her back begins to ache. She straightens up and looks across to the rows of grey houses, just like this one, that make up the estate. The sky is now pale pink above the rooftops but she can still make out the neat front gardens, clean windows, white net curtains. Here and there, wooden blinds signal younger tenants, but the idea’s much the same.
Beyond the houses she can see the tall iron railings of the New Presbyterian graveyard on the piece of flat ground backing on to the edge of the scheme. It was opened in the thirties when these houses were first built and there it is, ordered, clipped and neat, waiting to be filled. She knows her parents have reserved a plot for the three of them.
She works away. Still only half the bulbs are in. But she’s made a start.
She knows she’s at the age when women change, she tells the doctor cheerily. Hairs sprout, wombs shrivel, ankles swell, faces flush and breasts droop, you know. At first she put the symptoms down to that. Vague aches and pains, a bit of bloating, indigestion. But lately, she’s begun to wonder; the pain’s got worse. The red-hot needles – here
… and here.
-How lately? asks Doctor Angus.
… weeks, she says. Well, months I suppose. Six, seven months?
Indigestion, she’s sure it’s indigestion – as he lies her on the couch – but best to check it out.
They were at school together. He’s an old flame. There was a time he was intent on Africa himself. Nowadays he wears a red carnation in his buttonhole and drives a Merc.
He prods and pushes, kneads her belly. Takes her blood.
-I want to go back to Malawi, she says.
-I don’t think it’s indigestion, Phyllis. But I’m not an expert. I’d like to you to see someone.
The Mission Board won’t let her back till he declares her fit for service, and he’s getting her an appointment at the hospital.
First, though, she has shopping to do. Lists of things she can’t get ‘out there’ and needs to find. She’s kept it shorter than usual: good strong sewing machine needles; a new belt for the Singer; a new Scrabble set for the senior girls’ dorm; guitar strings; poster paints; paintbrushes; italic nibs; coloured chalks; a new netball; some tins of olives; and good strong sellotape. She goes shopping with her mother and it’s a good day. They laugh like girls and share the carrying of the bags and parcels back to the car. Her mother knows the music shop has moved and where it’s gone to.
Shoes. What woman doesn’t love shoes? She buys a beautiful pair of calf boots. They cost, but when did she last have new shoes? Not counting the cheap Bata imports that never fit. She needs something for the winter, she tells her mother. The leather is soft and the heel narrow, not high: she’s tall enough. They fit her ankles like gloves. Yes, she’ll have the light tan cream polish, the conditioner, the waterproofing gel. Yes, all of it.
They have tea and cakes on the top floor of Madison’s, a favourite extravagance. It’s a lovely place, all polished wood and leather chairs. They’ve done it up, but you can still get a good cup of tea.
Her mother’s getting old: her fingers tremble as she cuts her scone and her cup rattles against the saucer.
-Lovely, dear, she says, smiling up at her daughter. So lovely to have you back.
-Thank you mum, Phyllis says -thank you.
How can she foist her death and her dying on this tender woman? The guilt at not being able to nurse her; the journeys to the hospital; the bundles of soiled nightdresses to take home; the frail hand feeling for hers on the bedspread.
The sellotape, in the width she needs, is hard to find. She needs broad tape to mend the Latin textbooks. It’s their turn for fixing. She has gathered them in from cupboards throughout the school and stacked them in ordered piles on her desk awaiting her return. Besides the withered glue and the odd torn page, there are termites and red ants to keep at bay and it’s good to give the books an airing. The staff has instructions to wipe down the cupboard shelves with camphor soap; spray a little DDT into the corners; and kill the cockroaches. She’ll see to the mending herself when she gets back in January, before the girls return from Christmas. It’s a job she likes: removing the yellowed, hardened stuff she applied, what, five years ago? Smoothing torn pages with fresh, new sellotape. Then the spines: measuring and holding and smoothing along the angle of the book. She takes satisfaction in all this patching up and putting together.
Mind you, she’s been in two minds about Dido for some time now. The late, great dictator, His Excellency Ngwazi Dr H. Kamuzu Banda demanded that his impoverished people should receive a classical education. And now, years after his demise, The Aeneid is still on the certificate syllabus.
- Dido, she tells her girls, did indeed die for love. But let’s not romanticise it, she says, Deluded Women still die for love. Particularly in Africa.
- You she says, are educated. You don’t need to fall for such stuff today. Your destiny (and this she says with a lowered voice in case the chaplain, Reverend Matembo, hears in passing) -is yours to control.
- AIDS she tells them frankly, (and it’s important to be frank about these things) – is today’s infection, not love. The Queen of Carthage died by her own hands because Aeneas was so easily persuaded by the gods that he should go elsewhere. Sailed off into the sunset. Don’t be fooled, girls, men still do that.
She likes teaching Latin. She likes teaching. Though sometimes she feels like one of Dido’s old crusty goddesses, always thwarted by the big guys. Except, unlike them, she’s not to be found plotting love on a hot and humid day.
No, not plotting love but mending textbooks: running a thin finger along the spine of a Maths or Latin primer, trying to stem the tide of decay, holding futures together with yellowing sellotape.
The school: the teachers (some her own former pupils), the low red brick buildings with the shiny tin roofs, the milk tins planted with marigolds, the book cupboard stacked with well-thumbed textbooks. All this is her love. Her life. But she’s the one who’s leaving.
Click, click, click in her smart new boots, she follows the red line on the hospital corridor floor marked Clinics, through the swing doors and down the steps. There’s a lift for those too ill to make the stairs, but no route here marked Nothing to Declare. The green line leads to Wards, a yellow to Day Surgery, and a blue to X-Ray. But the red line branches off to the left and the clumsy and misshapen green, yellow and blue rainbow carries on through the double doors with a sign above that says Oncology. Click, click, click. She wonders if there’s another branch of the thin green line that branches out into Clinics by a back way and sucks out the newly-diagnosed desperate cases – people with no time at all to waste – straight into Wards.
She haunts burial places. After each trip to the hospital – the scan, the X-ray, even the day she followed the yellow line to Day Surgery and they put in the fibre-optic strands to take a look – she parks the car or stops the taxi some streets away, and walks along to the Presbyterian cemetery gates. In she goes, tracing the serried ranks of neat green mounds, well-trimmed graves, names cut with certainty in capital letters into black or grey granite stones. This is where their parish minister buries his dead. Properly and in order and – sprinkling sterilised earth from a little jar onto the coffins – in line with council regulations.
No rising above the crowd with arms outstretched here. No goddesses or saints or ghosts. No lying down among the long grass. There is no long grass. No mess.
In many ways she’d rather lie in the ancient Catholic cemetery – she goes there too. The gate’s stiff and hangs badly on its hinges. It’s set around a decaying Celtic chapel, all moss and rusting iron, and a famous Celtic cross. Cut in whinstone by sixth-century monks, scrolls and bosses still rising out of the worn connecting lines; ordered but mischievous. And right beside it, at an angle, the high mound of an old grave recently opened to let another coffin in. It’s been too lately dug for the tombstone to stand, and this leans against a wall, waiting for the ground to settle. The last one in is a mother, according to the message on the bunch of wilting flowers still in the cellophane from the garage forecourt.
She can hear her father -Catholics are like that. No control.
Phyllis loves it, ancient and new all jumbled up together. But she knows they’d never put her there.
-The tests are conclusive. He opens the buff folder and prods the pages as he speaks.
-I can’t die here, she says.
-You’ll not live long in Malawi, he says. -If I send you back I’ll be signing your death warrant.
-My life warrant, she says. -I’ve told no one. Nobody knows.
She’s ready for this battle.
-Please, says Phyllis, calmly.
He takes his time, thumbing through her notes, shaking his head. Turning pages, letters, test results: turning pages in the quiet room. He taps a figure here, a paragraph there, with the end of a lacquered fountain pen. Making his case. It’s a strangely peaceful scene. She knows she’s won.
-I wonder why I didn’t go myself, he says. Africa. India. I always intended to go. Sometime. Dr Angus extracts the top sheets from the buff folder and hands them to Phyllis, then takes the top off his beautiful gold-nibbed pen. -I’ll give you a prescription for the biggest dose of morphine I can manage without being accused of murdering my patient, he says.
She finds a good, old-fashioned stationer and buys her rolls of sticky tape.
Her father helps her put the bulbs in. They kneel together, slicing into earth that’s growing colder by the day. Till they’re all in, and there’s nothing but a few rotten bulbs and the scatter of flaky skin at the bottom of the sack. There’s been a change of plan: she has to go. Before Christmas, not after as she’d planned. Before Christmas.
Her mother helps her pack, laying their Christmas presents for her to open on the day squarely on the Scrabble set they bought in town. The other things are harder to fit round. The netball makes an awkward shape. Then that’s done too.
She hasn’t lied. If they had asked, she’d have had to say. But the shadows and the sharpening bones are there for them to see.
Her father helps her into the car. Nothing on the back seat now.
It’s the hardest thing in all the world to let a lovely daughter go.
At Schiphol again, and she’s back gazing beyond the peonies. Today the shop is full of poinsettias: Christmas cacti in red and white and gold. In Malawi she has a whole hedge of them, running along the bottom of her garden. There, they’ll flower in June: dry season bushes. It’s a beautiful shop. Not like an airport shop at all. It’s filled her head with scents and colour and ideas. Like a garden. Like a garden.
As well as cut flowers there’s a stand hanging with packs of bulbs, tubers, corms and pips.
-Would you deliver these? she asks.
-Of course, Madam, says the assistant. A special service.
Then she’ll have them gift-wrapped in that thick red paper, and tied with gold and purple ribbons.
-Oh yes, we do that too.
For her mother. What to say? Some snowdrop bulbs. Lovely. They’ll come before the daffodils she planted. That’s easy. And they’ll last and last.
Angus. She must send something to Angus. After all, he stands to take the rap for this. Arum lilies? No, white and perfect, clean and classy, but far too much like death. And then she has it: there at the very top. She reaches up for the Gloriosa Superba, three tubers, thin and dry and crusty in the transparent bag. Flame lilies. The crinkled petals, fine red and yellow flames, licking upwards. In Africa it grows wild on a thin and tumbling vine, appearing only where it pleases. It’s as likely to appear above the weeds beside a dusty village track as in a well-kept garden. For Angus.
And dahlia tubers for her father, what else? Decorative and Cactus Mixed. They’ll come bright and beautiful, sturdy and reliable, in yellow, pink, red, orange and white, all the way through the summer. He’ll make a bed of them next to his sweet peas and watch them come from the kitchen window. The tubers will need careful tending: lifting, drying, placing in sand over the winter. He’ll see to that. And then, after the splitting and the starting off, the planting out – for months there will be flowers for cutting. For bringing in and laying gruffly on the kitchen table. Cuttings, he’ll say to her mother who’s already reaching for a vase -Cuttings.
© Hester Ross