By Katherine Vik
We plant the bulb at the beginning of spring, follow the instructions just like it says on the label. Bury loosely in soil and then water. Place away from direct sunlight and cover with clear plastic to retain moisture. When the stem starts to show, remove plastic film and water every two to three days. The mottled green pot slots inside a matching tray; a perfect fit. When we finish we rub our fingers together above the plant, grains of dirt flaking away. I brush the hair from his speckled blue eyes and he kisses my lips as we gaze out at the empty London street.
In the morning I wake alone to hear shouting beneath the window. A man shuffles down the road, eyes glued to the pavement, dog scampering by his side. He barks segments of sentences to no one in particular, occasionally punctuated by a “Shut up!” and a “Shit!” and a “Fuck!“, tugging on the leash to make the little dog jump. Shouty dog man can be heard from a block away and never stops at the crossing to check for cars. He wears blue jeans and trainers of no discernible brand, prescription black rimmed glasses, and a beard which has a look of permanent disguise. The dog is small with a kind face, possibly part corgi. I patted it once when it was still a puppy and it licked my hand before being abruptly yanked away. These days it sits obediently when the man stops to shuffle in his pockets. Exactly thirty minutes later the hollering returns from the opposite direction. There are more people on the street now and his volume increases to compensate for the noise of the growing traffic. Distracted, I pick at a scab on my arm as the dog and his master patter on staccato-style, past the corner and out of sight.
* * *
A few weeks later the curved tip of a bud protrudes from the pot, pressing against the layer of plastic, like lips breaking through a bubble to blow a kiss. The little plant is coming to life. I scrutinise its thin, round crescent, which shimmers like a fingernail painted smooth with a slick green varnish. The soil has dried out so I water just enough that the surrounding earth bounces back when pushed. I prod my fingers into the dirt to feel the moisture collecting around the base of the bulb. It seems to throb at my touch, its smooth surface stretched to bursting; a belly full with promise.
That night I wake to screams and breaking glass. The restaurant two doors down is open way out of hours again and the party spills out into the street. Two men bellow at each other in a foreign language, break away from the mob and face off in the road below my window. One brandishes a rum bottle, the other a Peroni. Behind them their cheerleaders; two young women worse for wear in short skirts and clackety shoes. The men sway in total disregard for the swerving traffic and the beeps of exasperated drivers. Their eyes are red, tongues protruding from their mouths, unquenchable. Tugging at their torn shirts the women urge them to walk away. One succeeds in pulling back her man, clasping her arm around his waist like a handcuff, easing him back onto the pavement where he spits and swears. Then, suddenly he breaks free and, smashing the Peroni bottle against the gutter, lunges at his unsuspecting rival. There are screams and the uncontrolled clatter of running. A bin, knocked over, spews its guts all over the road – then more screaming, and the piercing sound of sirens. As brakes screech I pull the curtains shut.
* * *
I check on the growing bulb, anticipating my lover’s return. His absences have become more regular, creating a distance between our meetings that seems longer still. I remember that he’d once accused me of being incapable of looking after anything. Too selfish. Irresponsible.
“You can’t even look after your garden. Look at those plants out there dying, year in and year out. Each season you drag me to the garden centre to bring home a new set of victims and then you forget they’re even there.“
I want to show him that I can handle commitment. It’s true I get distracted, who doesn’t? It’s not easy being stuck in this apartment. I don’t get out as much these days. What’s the point? Freelance jobs arrive daily by email, groceries are delivered direct to my door. Disconnected from face time, conversations clatter through the keyboard, laughter explodes in anagrams and a colon right bracket. It wasn’t always like this, the anxiety every time the doorbell rings.
My wrist starts to itch as I think of the time, just before Christmas, when he had come over for dinner. As he handed me the little box my heart pounded with anticipation. Too big for jewellery, not heavy enough for perfume, my disappointment was obvious. He’d put his arms around me and laughed. “It’s an amaryllis, red like your temper. If you can prove to me you can look after something that needs proper attention, in two months I’ll consider moving in.“
* * *
I try to get on get on with work, but there is rarely an undisrupted moment. Outside people stroll by, anonymous. Three simple steps and they are around the corner and out of view. So transient. The man in the wheelchair is making his way up the street again, to park up by the cash machine. But it isn’t money that he’s after. Months of watching and I still don’t know why he does it. Maybe just the simple human interaction? He has a hard face, a nose that has been broken many times and one of his legs is missing, amputated above the knee. His teeth are chipped and shoulder length hair is swept back, scraggly amber in the sun. Nestled in his chair is a can of Tenants Super. When he catches someone’s eye he starts screeching, “oi oi Oi Oi OI OI!” getting louder and more urgent as they get closer and walk hurriedly past. Once I smiled at him in the street and mouthed an embarrassed “Hello”, only to be serenaded with a loud chorus of “Oi’s” as I sprinted on. He sits there for hours, many people walking past, not one stopping.
* * *
The amaryllis has grown much taller and its large bud now emerges from the bulb. The stalk protrudes by a good five centimetres. When I reach to push open the window the head droops against my arm. I tip my glass of mineral water over it, alarmed. All plants need minerals – maybe this will make it grow faster! The stalk is a fat finger of bright vivid green, smooth and hairless, you can make out fine furrows along its length, stringy contusions of plant cells. Over the course of the day I water and watch so closely that I’m sure I can see it actually growing, actually moving, creeping higher and higher towards the windowpane.
Through the glass I spot a familiar woman hobbling past with her little dog in tow. Stopping just across from the window she ties the dog up outside the corner shop. As soon as she is out of eye line the dog yaps and yaps until eventually she comes back out and hits it with her stick. Every week she will get up and go to the post office, get out her pension money, go to the shop, whack the dog and walk back off down the road muttering curses. A single glimpse into her grey blue eyes infects you with her misery. Her jaw juts out, forcing her lips into a permanent state of openness, revealing two rows of tiny teeth, like the bars of a jail cell door through which kind words cannot pass. Last time I smiled at her she yelled “What do you think you’re looking at!” and whacked her poor dog again. A stench lingers in the air after she has gone: there is nothing that enrages her more than the happiness of others.
* * *
As I wait for my lover the plant grows taller and bolder. The sides of the bud begin to unlatch from the core, symmetrically folding outwards, to each side in turn. Encased within are brilliant red petals, slowly peeling, stealing away energy like embers too hot to touch. At last he arrives for dinner, his favourite; roast chicken, and he is amazed at the progress. Growing tall and fine, the amaryllis is burgeoning with new life.
“I never imagined you’d do it.”
He seems perplexed behind the smile. I get excited.
“Do you remember your promise? Maybe we can move now, be together, away from all the noise, the madness.”
“But I thought you liked living here. You called it… vibrant!”
“I was younger then. Excited by different things. I don’t leave the flat these days. It’s too dangerous, not a place to start a family.”
“You know I’ve already got a family to look after, I’m not interested in starting another!”
“Sorry! I guess I just want us to go away somewhere, be together.”
“Maybe. Well… there’s plenty of time to talk. We’d better get stuck into this delicious chicken. Wouldn’t want it going cold after all your hard work!”
I pour the wine as he slices up the bird.
* * *
Disposing of the chicken carcass the next day I spot the black dwarf who hides in between the tall grey plastic bins with his crazy smile and distant eyes. He waits for the children going off to school, and then, just as they are about to pass by, jumps out and roars “BOO!” From my vantage point I watch him unnoticed. He is dressed in a black suit and wears a black and white American baseball cap. As I sip, he pokes his head out from between the bins. Then all of a sudden… “BOO!” The children jump, scream and hurtle away. One of them drops his school bag, not going back to retrieve it. The dwarf leaves the bag to lie in the middle of the pavement, then, beginning to look sad, wanders away. I’ve seen him down by the tube station on my hurried walks, and sitting in the old churchyard with a can in a brown paper bag. One morning, when I went out to get the milk, he was standing at the bus stop opposite, commuters studiously ignoring him as he pulled on his cap to hide the welt above his eye where blood and pus had crystallised to form a painful looking crust.
* * *
The first flower breaks free from the amaryllis bud, cracking open like the beak of a baby bird. Once pierced, the green folds away as flowers grow, first to the left and then to the right, the tall stalk swaying, dancing with each new emergence. Petal by petal there is a peeling away from the centre and a fanning out, then curling backwards, until four perfect trumpets raise their belled heads up towards the sun. I have not seen flowers so flawless before. So vibrant in colour, bright red and shining, soft and silky to the touch. Tending to her I check the soil, careful that this moment of flowering stretch out in defiance of time. I want to savour my triumph in breeding such a gorgeous and perfect specimen.
Amaryllis is the centrepiece of the table for my lover’s next visit. Everything else on offer is towered over by her uniqueness, her beauty. But he looks at the table, sighing, and eats his meal in nervous silence as I talk excitedly about how the plant has made our relationship flourish.
“I’ve shown you how committed I can be.”
“Yes. Of course…”
“Is something the matter?”
He has been offered a promotion in another town, three hundred miles away. I beam.
“That’s perfect! We’ll be away from this place, we can make a fresh start.”
“Perhaps. It’s been a crazy week… I just need some time to think.”
When he leaves the kiss on the doorstep lingers longer than usual. The hug is perhaps a little too tight. I go back upstairs and move Amaryllis back to the windowsill, where she keeps watch over the road below as I pick at the rash on my wrist and lie, distracted and sleepless.
While the air is thick with change, below recognisable faces stream past. The man with the long ashen face and ginger beard, clipped unevenly to middle length, haunts the nearby churchyard like a parody of Jesus with translucent skin, like all of the blood has been sucked out of him. Could almost be that he’s come right off that churchyard cross, stepping down here to test us all. Our ability to give, to do unto others. Always polite, he searches each soul with hungry eyes. Some days he walks the main road selling the Issue, other days he collects for charities – whether real or fictitious I can’t be sure. I’ve seen him down the back alleyway, heard him talking conspiratorially to the local dealers. Watched him hurry past the window with some mean looking guys, stumbling and staring blindly. He once told me he likes to write poems, when he can find the time.
* * *
’Belladonna’ they call her on the packet. Amaryllis belladonna, the beautiful lady.
Although asexual, this plant can’t be anything other than woman. Her sister is nightshade, deadly. Dangling my future on a thread, Belladonna watches me from the windowsill, head bowed with suspicion. I could come in any day and cut her up, chop off her glorious red head and what would she be then? I could put her in a vase and watch her rootless, legless body shine briefly, only to wilt and die. But I prefer to leave her intact, life lingering longer. To watch her suffer.
He is not returning my calls anymore. My messages have become briefer and more abrupt. Has he gone away without me? I even consider leaving the apartment. Making the journey across town to the large house in the photograph. I imagine peeking through my lover’s window as he plays at happy families. Imagine ringing on the doorbell and delivering a flower, just one solitary stem wrapped in tissue, blood red and perfect.
Still I find myself staring out of the open window as night draws in, wind bruising my cheeks. On the opposite side of the road a man with an imposing presence is prowling. Black and thin and built of muscle, he wears his jeans ironed with a crease. He must be over two metres tall as he towers over a young man in a suit who is rushing home from work. A champion of intimidation, he stops people to ask them for change, staring into their eyes with a pleading look. Once the purse is out he will clock how much money is there and push up the amount he’s asking for. Then he becomes insistent, following his victim down the road, walking too close, all the time asking for money, his giant shadow gradually overwhelming their bodies, growing in stature and menace. If they don’t give in he starts to get threatening, almost violent but never quite making physical contact. These streets are easy pickings for this delicate art of intimidation. Tried it on me once, but seeing him coming I had adopted the rule: look down, walk fast, and hope he finds someone else to collar.
* * *
Belladonna has moved off the windowsill now that frost coats the ground. At close inspection I can see her radiant petals starting to crinkle. Ruby cells distressed, able to suck in no more water, no more nutrients. One by one the petals darken and distort, recoiling from centre stage, beginning a final collapse inwards. The stamen protrudes until the very last, desperately seeking pollination. She will stay barren, my amaryllis. She will wilt in the darkness watching the world pass by outside, knowing that she is never going anywhere. She will give her last gasp right here before I finally give in and cut her loose and she returns to the bulb. Returns to dirt.
* * *
The seasons are starting to turn. We live in a state of limbo, retracing our steps day after day. The pot by the window is empty; cheap green plastic shelters a solitary shrivelled bulb. At night I draw the curtains to keep out the streetlights, the noise and the neighbours. But even asleep I can’t escape them, they seep into my dreams.
This particular night they’re having a party. Shouty Dog Man and Menace are doing a rap together, one vibing off the other in a tirade of “oi’s” and expletives while Wheelchair Guy does stunts to impress the others. Shouty’s corgi-cross is getting friendly with Cruel Stinky Woman’s terrier, together they rummage through the contents of her shopping. Sausages and fish guts are strewn across the street. She doesn’t notice – she is berating Menace, who tries to mug her for her pension as she attacks his ankles with her stick. He moves forward, she whacks, neither gives in – they circle each other in a vagrant’s waltz. Jesus stands by the wall on an upturned wooden box, stroking his beard and bellowing poetry, chest puffed up proud like a regular Ginsberg with his borrowed verbiage. Black Dwarf pulls his baseball cap to the side and chuckles, then clears some space to do a moonwalk in the gutter. I run down the stairs, laughing as I open the door to step into their party.
Then it is me reading the badly phrased poetry, speaking in coagulated stutters with Ginger, showering the wall with an arc of White Lightening. I dance on the corner, careful to avoid Cruel Woman’s stick and Menace’s stare and chuckle with Dwarf as the children leave for school, wide eyes shocked at our bacchanalian nightmare. We luxuriate in this world we have created, dancing a shambolic line down the middle of the road. Until, inevitably, the sirens come.