by Tamar Hodes

A single white camellia led to our worst ever row.

We were leaving Charlie and Adam’s house after one of those wonderful evenings where time dissolves like the sun slipping easily into the sea. Maybe it was Charlie’s French onion broth crowned with dripping, cheesy bread or the conversation about talk about travel and film but our laughter and storytelling defied the clock.

It was after two a.m. when we eventually left, none of us wanting to end the discussion. Before our hosts waved us on our way, they put on the outside light and closed the door, easing us from the warmth of their candlelit company to the cold of the early morning. Charlie and Adam gently shut the door, probably to go and stack the dishwasher, set it into action and slip, tired but happy together into their shared bed.

We strolled through their narrow garden, the light throwing a mysterious glow over the dark foliage. A camellia bush with waxy leaves, glossily brazen in the half-darkness, offered its white flowers as night lights marking the path.

As we passed the bush, Ginny brushed the leaves with her hand and then suddenly grabbed a bloom, snapped the twig supporting it and walked on.

‘Why did you do that?’ I hissed.

‘Ssh,’ she laughed.

I lowered my voice but repeated my question. ‘What did you do that for?’

‘Don’t be such an old maid,’ she said. ‘It’s only one flower. It doesn’t matter.’

‘But it’s theirs,’ I protested. ‘You shouldn’t have taken it.’

Suddenly our delightful evening curdled and we didn’t speak in the car on the way home, in the house or even in our bed where we lay, back to back, the space cold between us on a taut sheet.

This was not the first time that Ginny had shocked me. When I first met her, it was like dating a feral animal. She would run barefoot on the beach dangling her sandals in her hands, ribboning in and out of the sea; she’d thread daisies and scatter them in her hair; she’d rip the crust off bread rather than slicing it with a knife, dropping large spongy pieces in her mouth, laughing as they slid down her throat. In bed or on the floor or bathroom or wherever our lovemaking occurred, she was the most disinhibited partner I have had. She offered her body to me like a book open at its centre, letting me in. There were no boundaries with Ginny: everything was possible. It was what I loved—and loathed—about her.

But we often rowed and the arguments were always about this one issue: she would take what I didn’t feel she had a right to. In restaurants, she would take a spoon, slipping its glinting silver secretly into her bag or she’d remove a plate, a wine glass, or anything else she found attractive. In an art gallery, once, Ginny took a catalogue without paying for it, when the attendant was momentarily distracted.

Once home, she put the shiny camellia in a glass on the kitchen window sill as if to parade her illicit wares. Each time I passed it, its glossy whiteness reminded me of her theft, winking at me.

I began to wonder: where would her thieving end? Would she take a lover from a friend? Would she steal someone else’s husband? Would she lift a baby from a pram?

There was the seaside incident. We had had a great time collecting white shells from the beach; eating fish and chips perched upon a wall, gazing out at the crashing waves; covering each other with love in the B and B, ignoring the ghastly floral wallpaper and laughing at the plastic flowers cemented in a fake shell.

We were about to leave and then it happened again. Ginny took the miniature shampoo and bubble bath bottles in her bag: fine. But then she took one of the towels, ‘Bay View’ embroidered on it in red and slipped it into her holdall.

‘What are you doing, Ginny?’ I asked, as if I didn’t know. I had that gnawing pit in my stomach which her thieving always gave me.

‘Everyone does it,’ she answered.

‘No,’ I argued, feeling the happy days sour. ‘A bottle of shampoo, maybe, but not a towel. You always take it too far.’

‘You’re ridiculous, Matt,’ she laughed. ‘Your strict moral code. You’re so Victorian.’

‘That’s your defence. To ridicule me.’

‘Ridicule? You sound like a character from Dickens. Who even speaks like that?’

I began to feel anxious each time we went out. A shoe shop, a gallery, a chemist, a grocery: all of these made me scared that she was going to take something that wasn’t hers. I felt I couldn’t trust her. When she brought shopping home, I’d search the bag for the receipt and check it against her goods. Part of me wanted to shop her to the police; another part of me wanted her to get away with it as I loved her.

In spite of a shaky few months together, we decided it was time to meet the parents.

Ginny’s family home was ramshackle chaos. The front garden (if you could call it that) of the Victorian terrace was a jungle: long grasses, unkempt weeds tangling and knotting each other like unbrushed hair; the window sills unpainted and cracked; half the tiles missing so that the roof looked like a dentally neglected mouth; the outside of the house a reliable indicator of the tip inside. There were some lovely charcoal drawings, ceramic pots and hundreds of books reclining on any surface they could find. Drawers were left open; piles of washing everywhere; curtains hung awkwardly from broken rods; fruit shone blue with mould in dusty bowls. Her parents were friendly enough, her step-dad’s beard as tangled as the garden; her mum wearing a colourful dress and brightly coloured wooden beads. She was warm and effusive but I noticed that her nails were dirty. Food-encrusted pots bubbled on the stove. Lunch which arrived after four o’clock was a combination of mismatched options: hummus, salads, vegetables which I didn’t recognise; rice congealed in sticky balls; dishes served cold when they really needed heating; meat in glossy sauces which I worried would give me food poisoning. There was laughter and discussion and if you wanted to speak, you had to create a space for yourself. Photos slipping out of ill-fitting frames revealed half-siblings and multiple marriages so complicated that even Ginny seemed unsure of her own genealogy. I sensed that her parents found me stiff: the more liberal their comments, the more buttoned-up I felt, their looseness bringing out the fogey in me.

My parents’ home could not have been more different. Ginny stared in horror at the ubiquitous cream and beige theme. Every object from a teaspoon to a photograph to a tea-towel had a place, be it in a drawer or frame or cupboard. My parents were civil to Ginny but I could sense my mother’s disapproval at her floral bandana stretched across her forehead, her long top which couldn’t decide if it was a tunic or a dress and her loud laugh. My parents looked as if a wild pony had galloped through their pristine home. Lunch was bland and Ginny unsubtly ground salt and pepper onto her food as if desperately willing it to have some flavour. There was no conversation, just an occasional commentary on the food such as ‘The meat’s nice and tender’ or ‘The potatoes turned out well.’ My parents referred frequently to my older sister who had married an accountant, produced two dull children, owned a tidy house, a big car and even the petunias in the front garden were colour-coded.

Ginny’s mum, Dru volunteered at the donkey sanctuary so one day we went there. To my mind, the donkeys were a mangy lot: large doleful eyes; straggly coats; skinny bodies and the place stank like a sewer. Ginny chatted happily to the volunteers and stroked the donkeys. It seemed to me that she was as comfortable among the urine-soaked straw as she was in an art gallery. Dru, in her wellies, mucked out the stables, fed the animals and brushing their manky sides. She looked as unkempt as the donkeys. She was clearly a good woman, spending her spare time helping others: running drama workshops in prisons, helping out in schools in deprived areas. I couldn’t help feeling, maybe uncharitably, that she should have spent more time with her daughter and stepchildren enforcing some boundaries.

‘Matt,’ laughed Ginny. ‘The donkeys love you.’

‘Really?’ I said, miserably.

When Ginny and I arrived home that evening and showered, trying to scrub the poo and straw smell from our fingertips, we fell into bed and I was grateful that Ginny knew no barriers. We only stopped our kissing long enough our kissing for me to tell her that she stank like a donkey and we laughed.

On another occasion we met my parents at the fruit farm, my folk in matching blue anoraks and Ginny in one of her don’t-know-if-it’s-a-dress-or-top outfits, bandanna orbiting her head and a cornflower tucked behind one ear.

‘Alan! Sue!’ she called as she ran to embrace them. They did their ironing board imitations and did not bend to her hug. Mum and Dad had a system for fruit-picking, up one side, down the other. Ginny skipped from row to row, spending more time eating and licking than actually putting anything in her punnet. Her fingers looked as if she had dipped them into a bottle of red ink and her lips were pink and swollen.

As my parents’ punnets filled up, I could see them looking at each other and I knew what those exchanges meant. They thought that Ginny was out of control and her parents probably found me stiff. Was this ever going to work?

Standing at the edge of the field, watching my parents’ regimental routine and Ginny’s haphazard skipping, I froze. I didn’t know which side to join. I found myself doing nothing and I felt desperate: a school teacher who wanted to write a novel but had never quite managed it; a man in his mid-thirties who had not committed to anyone; someone who was still trying to work out who he was. Watching Ginny’s body weaving in and out of the leafy rows, I wondered what on earth someone so delightful and vivacious could possibly see in me? When I was with her, she seemed to release the person I was hoping I might one day be.

Wracked by indecision, I chose neither option but stayed, punnet empty, rooted to the spot until they all returned to me, like kids completing a treasure hunt to show their spoil. My parents’ punnets were full, the beady fruits blinking in the sun. Ginny’s fruit seemed squashed, as if the ruby spheres had congealed into a sticky mess.

Back at my parents’ home, we washed the fruit in their white kitchen, and boiled the globes before straining them, the pips stuck miserably in the sieve, and putting them into jars. My mother had cut out little green and white checked cloth tops and unnecessary labels: ‘Raspberry jam.’ I was worried that Ginny would put her sticky fingers on Mum’s work surface or that she would say something inappropriate or steal one of Mum’s figurines.

I was pleased when we got home, Ginny clutching her labelled jar from my mum as if she had won the tombola. Ginny unscrewed the lid and dipped her finger in.

‘It’s not ready yet,’ I said. ‘It has to set.’

‘Oh,’ said Ginny, dabbing a blob of jam on my nose, ‘how I love you and all your little regulations. Kiss me.’

The camellia incident left a bad taste in my mouth for weeks. Each time we had to recover from an argument it became harder. Ginny progressed with her dissertation; I taught my classes. I found it hard to concentrate. I felt torn in two. I could marry someone sensible and live a beige and cream life like my parents. Or I could stay with Ginny and we would love and dance and sing but she would shock me from time to time by her flouting of rules, by her feral galloping into forbidden places.

One day, Ginny came back from the garden centre with dog roses. From a brown paper bag, she drew out a rambling plant, the flat pink flowers wobbling on stalks like little plates.

I watched from the kitchen window as she dug a hole in the earth. Her hands were caked with mud. In the hole, she placed the bush. The roses danced around her head as if she were wearing the flowers in her hair, as if she had lost herself happily in the plant.

The relationship, I felt, was grinding to a halt. Although I loved her, I saw obstacles lining our future like black lanterns at the edge of the path: the wedding; the children; the many decisions that lay ahead of us were going to be laden with difficulty and conflict. Every step would be hazardous, my family not agreeing with Ginny and mine not agreeing with hers. I felt bleak.

Washing the plates, I gloomily recalled my failed relationships: Corrie, an actress, dedicated to her work but not to me; Rowena, fun but unreliable; Sue who my parents loved but I didn’t and Naomi who took but gave nothing back.

I felt love flooding back to Ginny. I watched her straighten up and admire the bush, her face brightening. Her green wellies were too big for her so that she looked like a little girl, in borrowed (or stolen) boots. Her hair was scrunched into a messy bun; her cheeks pink; her flowery dress hung unevenly below her coat. I thought: she belongs to no season and to every season. She looks as if she has grown out of the soil.

I abandoned my washing-up, the dishes shipwrecked in foamy water and felt my body fall towards her as if she were a magnet calling me, drawing me through the glass, over the lawn and to her side. I lifted Ginny up, my arms around her waist and l spun her round and round till we were both giddy with the spinning, dizzy with love. She laughed and threw her head back as if she were on a carousel, her hair flayed in the air. Although we were dancing, my mouth found hers and we kissed, determined that our lips would stay together.

Above and around us, the dog roses sprang and bounced, refusing to be tamed, free, their dusty pink discs leaping this way.

And that.

Tamar Hodes was born in Israel in 1961 and and lived in Greece and South Africa before settling in the UK in 1967. She read English and Education at Homerton College, Cambridge. For the past thirty two years she has taught English in schools, universities and prisons. Her novel Raffy’s Shapes was published by Accent Press in 2006 and chosen as the book of the month by Waterstones in October of that year. It was followed by The Watercress Wife and Other Stories in 2011 and later The Water and the Wine described in the San Francisco Review of Books as ‘a fine treasure.’ Tamar has had stories on Radio 4 and others in anthologies including Salt’s Best British Short Stories 2015The PigeonholeYour One Phone Callthe Ofi Press (Mexico), and MIR online (Birkbeck College). Her novel The Mauves was shortlisted for the Wells Literature Festival children’s writing prize; her story The Boating Pond longlisted for the Frome prize, and Letter to the Sea was a runner-up in Elle magazine’s short story competition. The City of Stories won third prize in the Retreat West Flash Fiction competition.