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Camellia Azalea Rhododendron and Reed

A short story by M S Clements

Camellia, azalea, rhododendron, reed, books, the rock and Stephen.

Is this all there is, all that is left when the bubble of memories pops in a blood bursting instance?
Weightless and free-falling, no sounds nor wind whipping back curls from my face. Do I even have a face?

Camellia, azalea, rhododendron, reed, books, the rock and Stephen.

There is no blackness. Black is the absence of light and I have light. I have colour. Did colour exist before the pastel, shell pink camellia unfurled within my vision?

Camellia, azalea, rhododendron.

A ball of petals rusted by rain. I yearn to stretch out and touch the fragility of its form knowing the gentlest of caresses will cause the flower to drop. So I look to its stem, entwining these imaginary digits around it. Hooked fingers forcing the flower towards me. Curiosity trumped by infatuation, and the bloom is released into the void that is me.
Crimson tips and bottle green leaves edged with fine auburn fuzz gather at my side. I grab the woody heart of the azalea, clenching it tight. A glossy mass of purple rhododendron flowers crowd me, pressing into me. It holds me and breaks my fall.

Camellia, azalea, rhododendron, reed, books, the rock and Stephen.

I scramble towards these words, uncertain to their meaning. Are they the lifeline, thrown down to save me? I’m sure of it, why else would they exist?
These are not conventional nor even substantial rescue equipment. Three plants, a building or maybe a person, inanimate objects, and someone. Stephen is someone, a person, presumably important to me, given his first name is all I remember. But what if he’s not.
Colour and light shift, elbowing their way between me and my saviour plants as though to say, ‘Look at me, you are ignoring me.’ The urgency of a narcissistic sense. It must come first, sight before anything else. I strain to create recognisable objects from the shapes and colours, but nothing is forthcoming. So, I take comfort in naming the colours, just because I can. Not out loud, at least I don’t think so. Blue moves from side to side. There’s pink and white, violet and scarlet too. A rainbow surrounding me, engulfing me, drowning me. To my right hand side, sits granite grey. Grey is watching me.

Camellia, azalea, rhododendron, reed, books, the rock and Stephen.

I scramble free of the bushes and they scratch me in revenge. I am tugged along by the summer scents, swirling between the blotches of colour. Tea rose, lavender blue with notes of summer grass, pungent and fresh. Is it the grass I smell or the worm turned earth beneath? I grab a handful of blades. They let out a high pitch squeak as I rip the slender leaves grasped within my palm. Evocative summer days and lawnmower cylinders whirling, throwing green confetti into the air. They tumble out of the nothingness and land in my hair, tickling my skull with images to bring me home. I examine my form. Invisibility has become visible, I am fleshed out and whole again.
May-time tans clothed in blue and grey. Soprano squeals and adolescent bodies lying scattered on the bank. Diana chic cuts and Baby’s chemical curls spreading across the freshly mowed grass. Kicked off shoes, left discarded and grey stocking-ed feet wriggling free. I glance down to where my own legs now protrude from a navy skirt. Between fraying grey socks and shapeless polyester, a pair of bony orbs toast in the afternoon sun. There is a scab below my right knee. I can easily guess how it got there, inexperience and a cheap razor. It itches to be picked, inviting me to flick off the dull burgundy and brown crust and let fresh scarlet blood seep free. Then I’d know I am still alive.
Vocal hushing waves through the recumbent girls and pale blue poly-cotton arms heave torsos to a sitting position. Girlish bottoms pressing expensive navy blazers into the ground. The edging braid catches the afternoon sun, sky blue with flashes of gold shining here and there. Those jackets swamped us when first we thrust our arms inside, now they only have to last a few more weeks.
Actors leap onto the grassy stage, and we giggle at their Elizabethan turn of phrase. Boys, all dressed up in wigs and frills? ‘Authentic Shakespeare!’ the crumpled pamphlet announces. A pair of espresso eyes turns to me and with his falsetto Helena, he breaks my childish thoughts, ‘Love looks not with the eyes, but with the mind,’

Camellia, azalea, rhododendron, reed.

You dare me to play detective? Catching this weightless and senseless being who is lost in a maelstrom of colour. I’ll play if that’s what you want. I’ll be your Miss Marple to unravel these clues burnt into my brain.
It must be late spring given the flowers and the heat bouncing off the Italianate mansion behind me.
Ericaceous planting encircle me, their roots gorging on the acid soil. Camellia, azaleas and invasive rhododendrons. A purple lined path that leads me to the Hall, Reed Hall.

Camellia, azalea, rhododendron, reed.

I seek the satisfaction of a puzzle solved but there is none forthcoming. Yet I feel the wrath of your complaint as the words wrap around my wrist, tugging back into the hidden paths. You can release me, I solved it. You can let me go now. My command is ignored, sucking me further into the planting, to the fernery and rockeries and forgotten relics of a studious and genteel life.

Camellia, azalea, rhododendron, reed, books, the rock and Stephen.

There is nothing more to solve. The other clues are irrelevant. They have nothing to do with the girl sitting in the late May heat. I don’t need you.

Books, the rock and Stephen.

I told you, I’m not playing anymore, let me go.

Books.

I sit cross-legged and admire my work. It won’t last long, someone will come along and move a perfectly placed copy of Troilus and Cressida. They might even buy it. It’s Saturday, no one traipses up Cardiac Hill on a Saturday. Saturday is for student naps and pearl twirling Sloane Rangers planning an evening’s entertainment at the Cowley Bridge Inn. No, the shop is mine, to organise and preen over like a possessive mother. I gaze proudly at the spines of the Arden Shakespeare, today they are in original publication order, no reason, just felt like it. Next week I’ll rearrange them into themes or alphabetically, see how I feel.
Ice cold air hurtles in from the opening door and up through my cotton blouse, slapping against the warmth of my back. Irritated, I turn to see who dares interrupt my peace. Students; an essay crisis I expect. It’s cold outside, October’s wind has grey November in its sight. Amateur assassins disguised in green and white striped scarfs, their tweed caps pulled down low. Manicured hands hide deep within Barbour pockets, while braying voices disturb the solemnity of my perfectly ordered shelves.
‘Jonny’s pa’s down, thought he’d take us out for a supper, you up for it Matt?’
I tune them out and spin on the pay desk chair. One is waiting, a copy of ‘How to win Friends and Influence People’ slammed onto the desk. I want to see his face, but all I get is a scarf and the bitter black coffee eyes examining me. I can tell he is smiling though.
‘Are you hoping to influence someone?’ I ask, out of politeness really.
‘Maybe, depends.’ comes his muffled reply.
He waits for me to say it, but instead I ring through the sale and take his money.
I turn away and hide the rising blush. And there he is again, friends mucking about on the steps down to the library, jostling and elbowing each other. I am captivated by the impulse to spy on him through the plate glass windows. But, these are not my people. The boy with the book stops his game. He turns around, I do not move. His hands lift to the scarf, lowering it away from his mouth. A new game begins. He smiles. I fall.

Camellia, azalea, rhododendron, reed.

Stolen embraces in hidden places. Autumn leaves and chill winds shaking the deep foliage around us. Hands, warmed by waxed jacket pockets, escape and touch my skin. Innocence lost in paradise found.

Books, the rock and Stephen.

Is that what this is? A journey back to loves first folly? Well you made a mistake. Furious heat ignites me. The game is over, he won that one. I win this one. Let me go.

The rock and Stephen.

Unbind me and let me be. The mystery solved. I was young, I fell in love. That was then and there is nothing more to discover.

The rock and Stephen.

I’m not playing anymore. Go away.
I concentrate on the indistinct people. Blue ones wandering hither and thither. Pink and scarlet, purple and white, one comes close then fades back too soon to distinguish features. There is a freshness about them, eager and with the heady, sweet scent of youth. The grey one does not possess that. I study what I see, taking advantage of his immobile posture. His thinning hair reveals the top of his skull, glossy spots where the light bounces off his uncovered flesh. His head is inclined scanning the white square on his lap. And I see eye lashes. They are not grey at all. They are a solid ridge of black.

The rock and Stephen.

You’re not listening to me. I told you this game is over.
I watch a grey arm lift, a living human then, or perhaps a humanoid, turning the pages of the white square. He reads. He breathes.

The rock and Stephen.

He holds me close. Rain pelts the stone path and beyond the low wall, shop lights glisten, and drenched Valentine hearts hang limp in the February night. We shelter below the reproachful eyes of St Peter.
‘Did you enjoy the film?’ he whispers in my ear.
I want to turn around, look at his face. His arms clamp around me, hands pressing against my stomach. His thumbs hook into my waist band and with the slightest of pressure he inches me into him. I feel his breath on my neck, masculine lustfulness firm against my back.
‘Well? You should answer me at least.’
I half expect to see a flying car hum past. Are these shoppers real or replicants? Is he a replicant? Or maybe it’s me.
‘Yeah, it was great.’ I lie.
‘Jonny said he’d hire Fatal Attraction next?’
His whiskers barely tickle my skin, he uses his nose to nudge away my curls, opening a space for his lips to kiss my neck. I smell him. Familiar Anaïs Anaïs and Eau Savage blending together. I feel sick. The fine hairs on the back of my neck prickle as medieval statues glare at me below their eroding feet. Rain trickles down my face. I am cold, and I am wet.
‘This isn’t where I want to be.’ I say pulling away.
His arm crosses my chest and holds me close again. ‘We should go home then and let me be with thee.’ He lets slip his past, elocuted away, but there it is, charming and disarming me with pinpoint accuracy.
No time for contemplative reflection, as he splashes through puddles, breaking all the distorted valentines in his hurry to catch the late night bus.

The rock and Stephen.

I told you I don’t want to do this anymore. Let me go.

The rock and Stephen.

I solved it, now go away and leave me in peace. St Peter is the rock. Release me.

Stephen.

Stephen, the actor, Stephen, the student and Stephen, my charming valentine. There’s nothing more to say.

Stephen.

It meant nothing, and this game means nothing. I’m tired now, leave me to sleep.

Stephen.

‘Let me go!’ I cry out.
The man in grey looks up, a warm hand reaches out clasping my wrist. It is soft, gentle and scares me still. He stands and approaches my side. Eyes closed, he bends his head to kiss me, then whispers,
‘I knew you’d never leave me.’
His eyelids lift, tipping espresso darkness into my vision. Inside that bitter swirl I see the choices I thought were mine. Words that held me, words that stopped me, words to influence, convince and confuse me.
‘The children are here too, see. We won’t let you go.’
Cameron and Leah, shell pink frills and scarlet tipped nails. And there are the boys, Dennis and Reid, rampant purple rugby tops and stately white collars, standing tall. Their father’s children, ‘My rocks.’ he says with paternal pride. Mine too. Rocks to bring me down to earth. Rocks and words keeping me where I belong.

Cameron, Leah, Dennis, Reid, words, rocks and Stephen.

***

‘Camellia Azalea Rhododendron and Reed’ was written in 2019.

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