the autogeography of a no/body

Jun 11

The Women Who Collect Nettles

“People,” said Isabelle, “are like milk, don’t you think?”

“Milk?” said Laura.

“Yes. Have you ever drunk milk freshly drawn from a cow?”

Laura shook her head, “Not as far as I know”.

“Oh, you’d most certainly remember. Quite delightful. Like a baby, completely unmitigated. And then they take it and pasteurise it. God knows why anyone wants to drink that skimmed stuff, worse still homogenised. Dreadful.”

“Everyone’s concerned about their fat intake,” said Laura.

“And yet they carry on getting fatter,” said Isabelle. “Children are pasteurised. They start off with muddy knees and messy hair, running around in the back garden, naked as the day they were born, until we send them to school. By the age of eight or nine they’re quite curdled with order. I regret that. Somehow we process the life out of them, separate the cream from milk, until everything is thinner, watered down. Do you remember gold top?”

“No,” said Laura.

“It was before plastic, when milk used to come in bottles. And what were those cardboard containers called, they had a special name? The man who invented them made millions. You had to peel back the wings and then fold out the spout. Never bloody worked. I always ended up tearing the damn things”

“I don’t know,” said Laura.

Isabelle sat back and looked at her granddaughter. “Sour cream,” she said, watching the young woman’s eyes staring through the French windows and into the garden. “You used to play out there.”

“I remember … with Peter …” Laura bit her lip.

“Swinging on that old tyre hanging from the silver birch, Sheba barking at you, trying to herd you as if you were sheep.”

A small, sad smile crept onto Laura’s face.

“And Grandpa,” Isabelle let out a long sigh, “pottering about in his greenhouse with those bloody orchids”.

“Phalaenopsis,” said Laura.

“Quite,” replied Isabelle.

The two women sat opposite each other, Isabelle in a high-backed armchair, Laura on the couch. It had been a while since they last met, three, maybe four, years. Laura had moved from Birling to live with her boyfriend in Australia. That didn’t work out as expected; but, for one reason and another, she didn’t come home, not on a permanent basis.

“How’s your mother?” said Isabelle.

“You know …”

“Yes, too wrapped up in her own …” The older woman checked herself. “She always did take everything terribly personally.”

Laura tucked a stray strand of hair behind one ear. “Do you still keep the kitchen garden?”

“Not as I’d like. Ted comes up from the village and gives it a quick once over every month. He takes most of the herbs and vegetables back with him. Age is a funny thing, so full of life that you can’t possibly manage anymore yet no capacity to actually live.”

Laura looked at the floor, her gaze following the patterns on the rug.

“At least people indulge you,” said Isabelle. “When one’s old, one’s afforded the luxury of wittering. Memory becomes story becomes history.”

A woman with carefully coiffured blonde hair popped her head round the sitting room door. “You two all right in here? Do you want some tea or anything? The vicar’s going shortly, I expect he’ll want to say his goodbyes and pass on his sympathies.”

Laura nodded to her mother.

“We’re fine thank you Jennifer,” said Isabelle. “Send the penguin in as and when.”

“I thought that was nuns,” said Laura, “penguins?”

“Ah, another privilege of age, errors are just silly mistakes.”

“Do you think he did it by mistake?”

“No,” said Isabelle, “I think Peter did it quite on purpose”.

“But I don’t understand why,” said Laura.

“You don’t need to. It’s not about you, or your mother, or me, or my mother. It was his decision, one he took on his own and executed on his own.”

“But he could’ve talked to me.”

“He didn’t want to talk to you,” said Isabelle. “He didn’t want to talk to anyone. Some of us are talkers, some of us are doers. Unfortunately, Peter falls, or rather fell, into the latter category.”

“How can you be so …?”

“Dry? Philosophical? Unemotional? Of course I’m not. He was my grandson. I loved him. Do you remember the time he took a tumble into those nettles at the bottom of the garden?”

“Yes. He was climbing the apple tree,” said Laura.

“Poor little sod. I told him not to eat the cooking apples, but he didn’t listen, writhed around for hours with belly ache afterwards. He was such a headstrong boy. Do you recall how I treated the nettle stings?”

“No,” said Laura.

“More nettles. You have to really grasp them, strip the leaves off, open up the stems and pull out the pith. What injures you most awfully can also ease the pain.”

Laura rose. “I think I might get some air in the garden Grandma.”

“Sounds like a good idea, my girl.”