by Sandra Arnold
Veronica loathed mess of any kind: muddy footprints on the floor, shoes dumped in a heap on the porch, jackets flung over chairs, the cap of the toothpaste tube discarded in the washbasin, cobwebs in the corners of the windows, dishes left draining by the sink, pens and papers strewn over the kitchen bench. Now that Marvin had moved out and moved in with the whore it was easier to keep the house tidy. But he’d always done the heavy work in the garden. Since his departure, Veronica’s efforts at gardening took too many hours and resulted in backache.
Of course, as often happened at this time of year, a few hours after she’d mowed the lawns, raked up leaves, dug and weeded the flower beds, a fierce wind blew all night and the sky opened up for hours of torrential rain. The next morning Veronica pulled on her boots and headed across the sodden garden, hoping there wasn’t too much in the way of fallen leaves and battered twigs to clear up now that she’d just finished making everything perfect. She limped up the path to the vegetable plot, rubbing her sore back.
Two days earlier she’d enjoyed admiring six perfectly straight rows of corn, three perfectly straight rows of tomatoes, and a row of plump, insect-free lettuces spaced exactly 15 centimetres apart. But now, as she came within sight of the vegetable garden, her heart almost stopped at the sight of the corn lying broken and battered on top of the tomatoes and lettuces. She sprinted forward and tripped over a fallen branch. Picking herself up she stared in horror at the 120 year old chestnut tree split in half with its branches sprawled across the grass, narrowly missing her nectarine tree. Hundreds of chestnuts lay scattered on the ground.
Blinking back tears she took a deep breath and told herself sternly to go and fetch the chainsaw. Then she remembered that Marvin had taken it with him when he moved in with the floozy, where, no doubt he was busy sawing up her firewood. Faced with the choice of buying a new chainsaw and tackling the tree herself, or ringing up Marvin and asking him for a favour, she steeled herself to do the latter.
Marvin sounded surprised, but pleased, and agreed to come over after he’d finished work. He arrived, complete with chainsaw, in the early evening. He looked her up and down and told her she looked great. She nodded, glad that she’d dabbed on some lipstick, hoped it wasn’t too obvious, and showed him where the wrecked chestnut tree lay.
‘Oh man!’ Marvin said, staring at the tree. ‘Musta been that heavy rain. And the trunk was probably rotten anyway. An accident waiting to happen, eh?’
Veronica remembered that Marvin’s habit of speaking in clichés had always annoyed her as much as the trail of mess that had invariably followed him through the house. Presumably the slattern didn’t mind. Or was too stupid to notice. She retreated to the kitchen while he worked, made tea and set biscuits on a plate. She knew he liked his tea hot, strong and sweet. ‘Just like you, eh love?’ he used to say with a wink.
They sat on a fallen branch drinking their tea. She watched Marvin close his eyes as he took the first sip. He opened them, looked at her, started to say ‘Just like y…’ then stopped and asked her if she’d met anyone yet.
She shook her head. ‘No time. Too much work to do.’ She paused and in what she hoped was a couldn’t-give-a-stuff voice, she said, ‘So…are you still with that…with Daisy?’
‘Dolores,’ he corrected and nodded. ‘Yup.’ He glanced at her. ‘She’s away at her mother’s this week.’
‘Oh dear! Trouble in the Garden of Eden?’ she laughed, instantly regretting repeating one of his irritating clichés.
Without answering he drained his cup, leapt up and grabbed the chainsaw again.
Veronica retreated to the apple trees to get away from the noise and watched him work. Watched his tanned arms, his broad muscular shoulders. His mop of curly black hair. Thought of all the times they… No! She wasn’t going down that track again. She wouldn’t ever forgive or forget that he’d left her. Her! For what? That cheap little slut with the dyed blonde hair and lips like bloated rubber tyres. The biggest cliché of all, she thought, feeling swamped by a tsunami of bitterness. So much for her efforts at suppression over the last eight months to prove she didn’t care. All that cleaning, polishing and gardening. Utterly pointless. She now regretted asking him to cut up the tree.
Marvin finished the last of the chain-sawing, tossed the sawn-up logs into the wheelbarrow as easily as if they were matchsticks, and trundled them off to the woodshed.
Veronica wandered over to where he’d been working. Now that the branches had been cleared away she saw a massive hole in the ground where the tree had uprooted. She wondered whether she should swallow her pride and ask Marvin to come back another day to fill it in. She thought again of his tanned face, his sparkling blue eyes, the way they crinkled when he laughed.
Marvin’s voice behind her. ‘All done now.’
Veronica turned and looked at him. Saw he’d brought a spade from the shed.
He cocked an eyebrow. ‘I could…er…stay longer if you like. Fill in the hole while you cook dinner. And…stay overnight…if you want.’
She frowned. ‘What about the…about Dolores?’ He winked. ‘No way she’d ever find out I’d been here.’
Veronica took the spade from him. Kept her voice steady. ‘Let’s scoop up the chestnuts first.’
Marvin grinned. He bent down by the hole and started scooping.
Veronica replayed what he’d just said. She stared at the back of his head. Stared at the spade in her hands. Stared at the hole in the ground.
Sandra Arnold the author of five books including The Ash, the Well and the Bluebell, Mākaro Press, NZ, Soul Etchings, Retreat West Books, UK and Sing no Sad Songs, Canterbury University Press, NZ. Her novella-in-flash The Bones of the Story will be published in the UK by Impspired Books in mid-2023. She has received nominations for The Best Small Fictions, Best Microfictions and The Pushcart Prize. She has a PhD in Creative Writing from Central Queensland University, Australia.