The woman cannot leave the apartment, and now, after what’s happened, the man cannot stay.
…….The man collects his things; his books from the bookshelves, his mug from the sink, his dirty socks and underwear from the bedroom floor, and places them all into a black bag. It’s too big, and drags lumpily from his left hand. When he has collected his things, he puts the bag down in the hallway and goes into the bathroom to use the toilet. Without flushing, or washing his hands, he steps over her body, where it lies still on the floor, and through the front door. He doesn’t pause. He doesn’t turn around. He locks the door behind him, and slips the keys back in through the letterbox.
…….The woman stays on the floor, in the living room, next to the sofa. A show about an Irish Airport is playing on the TV, but she can’t see it. She hears a tinny, metallic echo repeat ‘We’re sorry for the delay’ and remembers the shiny floors and open spaces of an airport she was once in, the rooms subdivided by glass walls, and the people that sat there on plastic chairs, holding their bags and things in front of them, their boarding passes and passports in their hands, staring out blankly, just waiting, while a voice on the loudspeaker repeated: ‘Passengers for the flight FR9044 to Barcelona, please wait at Boarding Gate F. We are sorry for the delay.’
…….She lies on her back, eyes staring up at the ceiling. How has this happened? she asks. He’s left, and he’s never coming back, she thinks. And tears fall from her eyes. She is on the floor, on the carpet, in the living room, next to the sofa, sort of collapsed there. There’s a wetness around her middle, but she can’t remember what happened to cause it. Her skin cringes away from the heavy fabric of her dress, the elastic of her underwear. Cold seeps into her body through the thin carpet. The air is darkening, slowly, night arrives. The wall to the left of her is lined with heavy cabinets and bookcases filled with paperbacks and tat. Porcelain dogs and cherubs, a few marbled glass trinket dishes, things she’s picked up from charity shops or the 99p book boxes that appear at random points along the river. From where she is, on the floor, next to the sofa, collapsed, the cabinets look like they’re leaning forward. That would hurt, she’s thinking, eying them vaguely, imagining herself underneath them. And she’s thinking of the man, coming back, and finding her here on the floor, just where he left her, bloodied and not moving, crushed by the books and the baroque figurines of winged babies. She’s imagining him shaking with shock and fear, then flinging himself at the fallen objects, ripping them off her body, and crying. She’s thinking of him saying ‘Sorry. I’m sorry for leaving you.’ And then she wants to laugh, because that would be the day, she’s thinking, that would be the day. But she can’t laugh, there’s not enough breath in her. She lies there, still, staring upwards out into the darkening room. Incense ash and dust coat everything. There are grey specks even on her clothes, and bigger blotches on the monstrous, red armchair that’s placed at an angle in front of the bookcases. To her right is a glass coffee table, but it’s been knocked onto its side and glossy exhibition catalogues and scented candles are scattered across the floor. She’s uncomfortable. The bones in my back feel like stones, she’s thinking. It’s like they’re jutting into me, rather than out of me, she thinks. She is a small woman. Her hair is dark, her mouth is purple, and her eyes are blank, leaf-like. Black and white botanical prints stare out of frames on the walls. All around her in fact, are plants. They watch her, their faces smiling, their stems gossipy, arching through the air to get a better look at her. ‘He is gone,’ they whisper, and ‘He is never coming back,’ they say. Her thoughts come to her slowly, with difficulty. She lies there, like an abandoned doll, on the floor, next to the sofa. And the plants seem so much bigger than her, so much heavier than her; they surround her. They sit on the windowsills, or casually drape themselves over bookcases, or hang from the ceiling, swaying gently. Some have striped skin, or purple undersides. Some are spotted white, and are strangely freckled. Some sit in pots on the floor, and they stare at her. Leeringly, greenly, smilingly. Their leaves, some shaped like crude hearts, some like teardrops, some like flames, some, like arrowheads, outline themselves against the walls or, from where she is on the floor, stencil themselves against the sky beyond the windows. They watch patiently, just as they always have. And the woman somehow sees a picture of her from when she was just a girl. And in the picture, it is her birthday. She is wearing a chocolate-brown satin dress that had been specially sewn for the occasion. Ma had stitched her and her sisters the same dresses, they all got dresses, even though it was her birthday. The dresses were long and straight with delicate slits at the knees. The neckline was round and the sleeves boxy. They all had them, all the girls. But it is just her in the picture, the woman, when she was a girl, and she is alone. She is small, maybe nine or ten, and her hair is a sleek bob and curled at the ends. She has a thick fringe that falls into her eyes, and she is glancing through it, at the person behind the camera shyly. A faint blue shadow of hair is visible on her upper lip, made more obvious by the dark chocolate-coloured lipstick she wears. Around her neck is an elastic choker of little white beads. The beads are small, and strung across in a single row, and from this row hang pretty loops of five or six beads. Within each loop, a single bead is dangling, like a drop of milk. The woman can’t see the girl’s arms or hands, or her legs, only her body above her elbows is visible. She can see she’s sitting in the corner of the front room. And her body looks very small, because behind her, spread across two walls is an enormous cheese plant. Ma’s enormous cheese plant. Each leaf, and there are so many leaves, is pinned up, cupped under the chin by white strings, invisible in the picture, but visible to the girl. And each leaf bears two, maybe three slit-like mouths, and they are all smiling at her, hovering behind her, staring at her. And they are much larger than her. In the picture, the girl looks at the camera, and the leaves look at her. They are green, and they are smiling. And the same plant, she is thinking, or at least, the same leaves, the same curved mouths, leering greenly, enormously, are looking at me now, as I lie here, a woman, on the floor. And these leaves that surround her go on and on she realises, there are so many of them. And they are shaking, she thinks, as if they’re moving in the breeze. And she looks up at them, and they look down at her. And she thinks she feels a breeze too, but she doesn’t move. She looks up, at the sky, and she sees leaves. Can they really all be mine, she wonders, from my plants? She has many plants. In the beginning the man had bought her plants too. That one, to the woman’s right, the one with leaves that stick out into the air like tapering fingers, he bought her that. Later he said she had too many plants and she felt hot and ashamed. Like he’d said she smelled bad, or didn’t wash enough. But she couldn’t argue with him. It was true, she had a lot of plants, and some of them she didn’t know how to care for. She had to agree with that. The ones that looked exotic, the ones with black or pink leaves, stripes or kinks or occasional, delicate flowers, she was never any good with. One after another they died, from overwatering, or the cold, or the heat, or drought, or being placed in a sunless corner, crumpled, forgotten. Some of these dead plants watched her from the pots they had died in, with their rubbery bloated faces, yellow from drowning, or wrinkled papery skin, made crisp with thirst. Other plants lived and lived, despite her. The woman always remembered too late, when she was already at the man’s place on the other side of the river, on the other side of the city, that she had forgotten to water the plants, forgotten to mist them, forgotten to put the blinds up. And she would go away for weeks at a time. The man would often tell her to stay longer, tell her to relax. And she would. Then, weeks later, she’d walk in feeling tired and empty, and immediately, almost as soon as she walked through the door, she’d see the plants. Their leaves glossy, would hang imperiously in the air, green, unconcerned by her absence. They’d bend towards her, glaringly, greenly. They would smile. How are you still alive? she would wonder then. And she is wondering this now, seeing their faces crowd around her. ‘He’s gone,’ they’re saying ‘He’s left you to us,’ they’re whispering. She looks up at them, and they look down at her, as she lies still and quiet, the stain on her middle spreading till it’s a hole or a void, a gap in her body. But she can’t feel it. And she can’t see it. She doesn’t blink, doesn’t close her eyes. She’s looking up, and she feels tears, or is it rain? She’s looking up into the sky, or is it the ceiling? She’s not sure which, and she is thinking, slowly, the same thoughts. I cannot leave. And he will never come back, she thinks. And the plants seem to nod, or again, is that the wind? They are green and they are glaring. They know it’s true. She thinks of the man’s rather large head, and the fair wisps of hair that trace along the outer edge of his face. And somewhere, she feels tender, and she feels sore. And from where she is, on the floor, collapsed, just spent, cold, unmoving, she can see trees all around her. She is in the mud and it is night, stones dig into her back. And she can’t remember how they got there. Or how she got here. She remembers the floor next to the sofa. She can’t remember being moved. But, there is rain in her mouth, and she’s in the mud. And he is gone, she’s thinking, and he’s never coming back. And she remembers the man, but she can’t remember his face, she’s not even thinking about his face, not exactly, but the shape of him, which she knows she will never see again. The shape of him, so much larger than her, so much harder and heavier. She’s thinking how the shape of him completely covered her when he lay on her. And it was this thing, the bigness and heaviness and solidness of him that made him exciting to her, she’s thinking. And made him so much more real than her, she’s thinking. When he got on top of her, all she felt was the smallness of her own body, she’s remembering. And she’s thinking, she didn’t struggle, she didn’t complain, she didn’t even try to resist. She just made herself go still, and quiet, she’s thinking. All she could feel was the smallness of her own body under his, and this was exciting to her. Eventually, her breaths became small too, until they stopped, she’s remembering. And when, after some minutes of him there above her, breathing heavily and sweating heavily on her, all over her, her body got colder and stiller. And then he got up and went to the toilet. Then he left. That was how it always went. And now, after what’s happened, he won’t come back. No, she’s sure of that. And now she’s thinking it’s night, and she’s cold, and the leaves in the darkness around her rustle and whisper. They have dry tongues, some of them, they are cracked and they are crackling. She sees them move in the shifting blue and purple light of the TV, or the sky. Somewhere, the show about the Irish airport is still playing. She can’t see them, but the woman thinks she remembers the people in it, all of them sitting in their glass rooms, still holding all their things in their hands. She thinks she remembers a voice saying ‘We’re sorry for the delay’. The people in the rooms wait, eyes cast down on their bags, on the floor, on her. The woman can feel their eyes on her, just waiting. And she thinks she can hear voices, or whispers. Clicking sounds that are close to her ears and tickle her skin. Black little shapes, insects, clicking things crawl out of the armchair or a tree towards her, to where she lies on the floor, next to the sofa, or in the mud, just sort of collapsed there. It’s the stain at her middle that they’re crawling towards. And she can’t feel the hole, but can feel herself panicking, from far away. What now? she is thinking. What now? And she can feel the structure of herself, her bones, their weight as they press into the cold ground. She feels so cold. She feels stones. She feels three stones between her shoulder blades, two stones under her neck. And she sees herself, lying on the floor, eyes staring upwards, unable to move, like a picture. And she sees a face too, and it’s dark, and has dark, brown lips and it’s a strange face, as blank and impassive as a leaf. And she looks at this picture, at this face, for a long time. Then she looks up and she sees colours move softly across the sky, clouds and raindrops, she sees leaves trembling and staring, the moon smiling, and disappearing. And she looks at herself somehow, there on the floor, and she knows she is being covered now by black things, the clicking things, and the leaves and the rain. And if she concentractes, she can still picture the sofa, and the bookcases, and the table on its side, but now the leaves are everywhere. They are on the ground, and on the trees, yes, they’re sprouting from her old bookcases and her smashed glass table. Yes, they’re in the forest, and the apartment. And so is she. She’s in the mud, and in the sky. And fresh little green shoots are emerging every second from her old things, and they’re covering everything in sharp green teeth. And she can feel the green work its way through her. It’s growing through her chest, and between her legs, and she can feel the greenness blooming, like laughter inside her. And it’s more difficult for the woman to think now, but something about that laughter makes her see her body as it used to be. For a moment, in a flash, she sees herself as she was before. She sees that she is in her body, and she is standing, bent slightly over the bin in the kitchen, and she has one foot on the bin’s pedal, so the lid is open, and she has both hands held up very close to her face, and in them she is holding a large brown pear and its juices, which spray and drip as she bites into it, are streaming into the open bin. Yes. And they’re dripping down her hands and forearms and elbows, and onto the floor. And she can’t see her face, because her hair is covering it as she bends forward over the bin, trying not to make a mess, trying not to get the juice on her clothes. But she can see the creamy inside of the pear. The pear is so sweet she is thinking, and she is eating it like a feral thing, like a fox. She is slurping, grunting, feeling breathless, she’s licking her lips. She’s thinking ‘mmm yes’, ‘yes, how delicious’. And it’s just a flash, a moment. And then it’s gone. Then, for a long time, she sees just the sky, she sees its moods change, slowly, over time. Then sometimes, a face in the sky, a lavender moon, sick and staring from high above, pulling the leaves out of the grey arms and fingers of the trees. And they look like stubble at first. Then they grow greener, fuller, fatter, and they stare, and they smile, for a time. But eventually, they’re tugged to the ground, where they cover her, touch her dark hair, her dark eyes. But they’re the same leaf, the same exact shape, on a thousand trees, all growing, all falling, all at the same time. And she is in the mud with them, she is turning and she is unfurling. And a wind rises, and with it the trees laugh and shake, they are so much bigger and heavier than her, and she wants to be with them. But she’s in the ground, in the mud, and they’re in the sky, dancing, swaying with each other, whispering and laughing. And the woman can feel their eyes on her, can feel them watch her. They are green and they are smiling. They are edging closer, and they are saying ‘He’s left you to us’ and her face is a leaf now, and her eyes, they are blind, they are green, they are leaves too, and so is her mouth, it is dark and it is smiling. She whispers, she glares.
RZ Baschir is the 2021 winner of The White Review Short Story Prize, and 2022 winner of PEN America Emerging Writers Prize for her short story ‘The Chicken’. She lives in London and is currently working on her first short story collection. She is represented by Laurence Laluyaux of RCW Literary Agents.
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