‘124 was Spiteful. Was Harold spiteful?’
Rebecca sat waiting for an answer. Her pencil hovered over the clipboard like a dog waiting for the order to fetch. Her eyes searching, eager and bright.
‘Yes, sometimes. Look, why are we doing this again?’ Said Mary.
‘It helps with the processing. It helps us build a picture so that I can help you overcome your grief.’
Mary glanced out of the kitchen window. On the lawn, near the composter, a spade stood buried in the soil. The spade was the last thing Harold had planted and over which he’d hung his gardening coat and cap. She thought this effigy of her late husband looked like a scarecrow, but it didn’t scare her: it just made her sad. Each morning Mary resolved to remove it but she never did.
‘Two months it’s been since..,’ Mary trailed off.
‘Since his death?’
‘How many more questions do you have?’
Rebecca shifted in her seat.
‘I have nothing but questions. You choose which ones you want to elaborate on. For example, when I asked you … let me see … number 89, ‘Was Harold caring?’ you spoke at length about his affinity with nature, how he loved to grow plants from seeds, nurture them, feed them and protect them. You never once said that he cared for you. That, I felt, was a cathartic moment. Other questions you brush aside. 124 is a case in point. Shall we delve a little deeper do you think?’
‘Was he spiteful?’ Mary mulled.
Rebecca glanced at the clock on Mary’s wall: half an hour into the session and she’d managed to coax nothing of any worth from her client.
‘Yes let’s concentrate on that shall we?’ said Rebecca.
‘Well, he never hit me. I thought that abuse was physical, a punch or a slap that sort of thing. God I prayed for him to hit me. That way I’d have something concrete to pin on him. I’d have a way out. But I guess he knew that.’
Mary brushed the pleats in her skirt, then met Rebecca’s gaze.
‘Is that wrong Rebecca?’
Rebecca’s day just got better. She knew it! Hadn’t she said as much in her journal? Her experience told her that this revelation was just the tip of the iceberg. Hadn’t she sensed domestic violence lurking beneath the surface? Mary wasn’t sad that her husband was dead. She was sad because she felt relieved.
‘Abuse doesn’t have to be physical Mary. Verbal abuse is a real thing. Tell me more.’
Mary glanced at the scarecrow, a creature of questionable potency, but a physical reminder of the power her husband had once wielded over her. Why hadn’t she taken it down? Why leave it there? Perhaps because its fate lay in her hands, she had the power to destroy it swiftly or leave it to rot slowly without dignity?
‘Did you notice the oleander hedge as you came in the drive?’
‘Yes, I mentioned the oleander on my first visit; don’t you remember? Why do you bring it up it now?’
‘I’ll get to that. I’m going to tell you something I think you already know, then I’m going to tell you something you might not know. My husband bullied me … always, from the moment we were married. It wasn’t what they call ‘gas-lighting’ either. That would have required patients and subtly. No, his method was far more direct. Outside the home he was charming, he never forgot a person’s name, or a detail about their lives. He was considerate and pleasant with other people and they liked him. I liked him outside the home. I would look at this man and think I’d like to take him home. Leave the bully out on the street and just have this one. But the nice guy left me at our threshold, every time. Instead, I lived with a spiteful, nasty man who got immense pleasure from…’
Mary pushed her thumb into her knee until the knuckle went white.
‘Putting me down.’
A black cat entered the room through a flap in the door, sat and took a look around. He was moving on. The prevailing mood here smelt rancid, over cooked and – this was only his opinion – sanguinary. No, he’d found a new place to live just a few doors down, comfortable and sweet smelling. He’d check in here from time to time but only to make the transition easier for the widow. The cat sat on the mat between the two women, neither lap looked accommodating.
‘How did he put you down Mary?’
‘He just had a way of making me feel small and insignificant. Constantly mocking me. Why? Why would he do that?’
‘Do you think he was insecure Mary? Male insecurity has a lot to answer for. In my experience a women internalises her vulnerability, takes it out on herself but a man externalises it, takes it out on others.’
Mary wanted to believe that Harold had been insecure, that he’d felt threatened by her in some way. Because insecurity counted as something, something wasn’t right with him, he had issues and so, not able to face them, he took out his frustrations on her. Yes, insecurity would be an excuse, however poor, but the truth was that he simply enjoyed tormenting her.
‘Like that damned cat there.’ Mary pointed at the cat on the rug before them.
‘What do you mean Mary?’
‘He toyed with me, tortured me in the same way a cat plays with a mouse. For fun, for his own amusement. But I felt helpless, incapable of fighting back, less courageous than a mouse. Years of effectively saying, ‘Yes, mock me, shout at me, insult me. Yes take away my identity.’ He belittled me, shamed me and I let him. I was complicit in my own misery. But…’
‘But what Mary?’ said Rebecca.
‘Go on tell her,’ thought the cat.
‘But I saved a part of me, a tiny part that, like one of his seeds lay dormant, waiting for the right conditions to grow.’
In the corner of her eye Mary could make out the coat and hat on the spade. It looked like him standing there watching over his garden. Watching over her. Why had she left it like that? Why not burn it, stamp on it, tear it to pieces? Did she really believe that allowing this effigy to rot would have any affect on him now? Or, and here’s a thought, did she leave it there because without that sense of him watching over her she would be rudderless? Bobbing about on a sea of uncertainty. Did liberty frighten her? Could she trust her own judgment after so many years of oppression? Destroying Harold completely gave her autonomy and God only knew what she might do with that.
Rebecca knew all about the part one keeps from the world and its tormentors, from its oppressors and rapists. That’s the part she shares with no one. That part never had secrets to keep, never had to hide the bruises. That part never lay terrified under the covers at night waiting to see if he would come. That part never attended her stepfather’s funeral and never accepted the offers of condolences with a thin, feigned smile. No, that part walked barefoot in the park and lay naked in the rain. It sat sifting warm sand through its toes while listening to the waves caress the shore, impervious to criticism, to betrayal or molestation. That part hummed cheerfully as the beast bore down.
‘That’s a good thing Mary. You kept some part of you away from your abuser, a part he couldn’t see, couldn’t touch and couldn’t hurt.’
‘Yes I did.’
‘And what did you do with it. This hidden part of you?’
‘I killed him with it.’
Silences were, Rebecca knew, a part of the process. They were necessary, they gave pause for thought, for reflection or recollection. Silence had to be managed though, allowed to alight upon but not infest a session. One should give it space but not too much. But, unlike any other silence, this one could be construed as her own.
‘Figuratively speaking, obviously?’ Rebecca finally managed to say.
‘Well, yes. It was the poison that killed him.’
‘Yes. When you live with a horticulturist you learn things. For example when Harold planted the Oleander hedge he told me that the plant was very toxic. If you were to ingest it you could die but few people make that mistake as it’s very bitter. I asked him if it was safe around children and he told me not to worry as we were not going to have any.’
‘Is that why you poisoned Harold? Because he didn’t want children?’
‘Goodness no! I don’t think so… Maybe?’
Before they married, Harold had said all the right things. He said he loved her. He said they’d have a family as soon as he got himself settled into work. He wanted to do things in the right order. Mary went along with him partly because he seemed confident and knowledgeable about the world and, partly because she didn’t want to upset him. She wasn’t afraid of him then. On the contrary she thought he was wonderful and that she was lucky to have found him.
‘He never wanted children; he lied to me. He didn’t want to share me with anyone else. He wanted me to revere him and him alone – to sacrifice everything for his happiness. I lost all self-respect in the process and any respect he had for me vanished too. Harold saw a craven, miserable women, a wretched creature that he’d created, and then, disgusted by his own creation he loathed.
Was he spiteful? Yes he was. Was he manipulative? Definitely. Do I blame him…?’
‘Do you blame him Mary?’
‘No, not really. I blame myself.’
‘But you were young and naive. You had no idea that men like him existed. You were ill-prepared. It’s a terrible crime, to trap someone emotionally, to gain their confidence, to convince them to trust you only to betray you. What a shock it is when you suddenly realise that this person, this man you have grown to love, to trust above all others has deceived you. And all for what? So that he can manipulate you, use you and, in the end, abuse you.’
Mary stood and walked to the Welsh dresser. She picked up the urn containing Harold’s ashes. A plain, ceramic pot with a small silver plaque on which one word had been engraved. The word came ready-inscribed with the plaque and the plaque with the urn. Mary would not have chosen that word herself. She would have chosen ‘Bully’ or ‘Liar’.
‘Harold was a bitter man and so, over the years, that hidden part of me developed a taste for bitter things too. There were a few areas of our life together that I had control over, like my domestic duties – excluding the garden, of course.’
Mary sat back down and, still holding the urn she addressed her husband’s remains:
‘I poisoned you with oleander leaves. I ground them up and put them in your gourd curry.’
Rebecca noticed a flush of red in Mary’s cheeks, she was ready to confront her oppressor and with a trembling voice filled with anger she continued.
‘But to be able to do that I had to first, over many years, re-educate your palette. I had to slowly introduce bitter foods into your diet. Not only that, I had to gradually make bitter your flavour of choice. I started small with broccoli, kale and other greens, then bitter chocolate, coffee and green tea. After these flavours had become established I experimented with spices and curries. Always adding more pickled lemon, more Fenugreek, more ginger. I knew that the time was right when you complained that a dish needed more Japanese eggplant! And so, as a special treat, just for you I made a bitter gourd curry with extra Oleander! My only regret is that I never saw you suffer. You gobbled down your food, grunted some sort of approval and left the table. You went outside, stuck your spade in the ground, felt hot I suppose because despite the chilly evening air you took off your coat and hat and hung them on the spade. I saw you disappear into the greenhouse, I cleared the table and made you a mug of Jasmine green tea. I put on my cardigan, walked across the lawn and found you dead in the green house, all sprawled out amongst your pots and cuttings.’
Mary looked up from the urn in her hands and sighed.
‘Would you like tea? I’m going to put the kettle on.’
‘Err no, that’s ok thanks Mary. May I ask what do you intend to do with Harold’s ashes?’
Never in her entire career had anyone admitted to murder. An alarming number of clients had expressed a desire to do so but none, to her knowledge, had actually followed through with it. And yet, Rebecca felt completely unperturbed. It was as if Mary had told her a fairy tale, a fantasy, something found between the pages of a storybook.
All she could think was, ‘Good for you’.
Mary looked at the urn as if for the first time.
‘I don’t know. I could bury them in the garden. Maybe plant a tree over the top. But I think I’ll just flush them down the toilet… You know, when the time is right.’
‘I see. And, if you don’t mind me asking what does the plaque say, I cant read it from here.’
‘It says ‘Beloved.’
‘And was he?’
‘He was liked, people were fond of him but I’m not sure he invested enough in others to be loved. I didn’t even like him. I didn’t like him for many reasons but mostly for the betrayal. The promise of a man that didn’t exist.
But that’s not important now. Those of us that remain, the ones that carry on, we are the ones to ask. Am I beloved? No not really. I’ve forgotten what that feels like. It’s an abstract concept when you live in a vacuum.’
Mary hesitated. She tried to look past Rebecca’s meticulously constructed professional facade, to see beyond the pinstriped, hard-shelled outer layer. She wanted to glance the soft, vulnerable fruit within – the part Rebecca went to such lengths to protect. Was it bitter or was it sweet? Did it show itself at all?
‘And what about you Rebecca?’ Mary asked. ‘When you leave here, when you put away your clipboard and pen, when you take off your mask, are you?’