Nightshade – a short story


Inside between the crumbling, grey panes of the greenhouse windows, Hilary watched the sun rise above the distant hills at 5:31 that morning. The great ball of amber soaked the sky with an orangey glow and stretched ever so slowly down to the land beneath it. It was touching every nook and cranny in its wake by 5:43. Hilary was already on her feet with fresh disposable gloves on by the time it reached the edge of the back garden. At 5:48 she checked her watch for the second time in five minutes. She was standing with her back to the door swinging her arms around impatiently, pausing every minute or so to give all four of her limbs and neck a proper shake, and then re-tie the knot of her dressing gown.

Frank had built this greenhouse for their 20th wedding anniversary 5 years ago to the day. It was supposed to be used equally by both of them and lay the foundations for a peaceful hobby in retirement. However, over the past year Hilary had found herself asking Frank if it could be her own private retreat. She enjoyed herbal tea and wanted to harvest fruits inside it to brew. Once Frank agreed, Hilary sealed the entrance with a padlock and threw away the other key. Frank did not question the matter further; he had not been one for noticing small changes like this in the recent years. Following the celebrations of his 20 years of marriage, Frank had been offered the role of Head Teacher at a high school a few towns away, and like the greenhouse, many of his prior commitments fell by the wayside.

At 5:50 Hilary let out a great sigh and retrieved a pair of scissors stored above eye-level on the shelf on top the door. She twirled the handles between her knuckles as she turned back around to resume her previous position. Before her in the very far corner of the small, but not cramped, greenhouse was a concrete black and brown plant pot resting uncomfortably stilly, unfazed by the glorious sunshine outside. Long and thick jade green stems shout out from every angle of the plant pot’s hollow rim, bearing hundreds of tiny, plum-coloured berries that looked good enough to eat. Nightshade. Hilary tip-toed over to it with the scissors in one of her out-stretched hands. She focused hard on her fingers that were shaking involuntarily as the blades steadied the most fruitful of the stems. With a quick snip it fell. Hilary’s free hand caught it even though the branch was slippery with sweaty condensation.

At 5:54 Hilary closed the door of the greenhouse remembering to lock the padlock and drop the key into her pocket for safe keeping. She walked along the wavy garden path –shining like the yellow-brick road in the morning sun – with the nightshade held steadily in her left hand. She’d remembered to leave the backdoor unlocked for convenience, and so she left the chilly protection of her outdoor trainers and slipped into her beloved sheepskin slippers in a matter of seconds. Momentarily, she was by the fridge door hunching down to the empty bottom drawer and disposing the berries there. At 5:58, Hilary returned to bed.

Hilary was stirred in her hazy dosing state at 6:15 when Franks alarm started croaking into the peaceful serenity of their bedroom. Without opening either eyelid she lay still like a stone sculpture on her back as she felt her husband shuffle and groan intensely on her left hand side. He silenced the alarm and paused drearily before climbing out of his side and staggering in the direction of the ensuite bathroom like something mummified – without so much as glancing at his wife to see if she was alright. (Hilary considered whether or not she’d prefer him that way.) He pushed the door closed behind him, without enough power to close it entirely, and it bounced back open just a fraction. Nevertheless, it was enough to enable a pool of light to flood into Hilary’s side of the bedroom. She pursed her lips in disbelief at his selfishness as the shower turned on. Moments later, he began whistling. Songs – songs of praise, songs from the charts, and songs from compulsory choir in school – bounced between the four walls of the bedroom like a shrill siren with no silence switch. Hilary kicked her quilt from her legs and lay exposed on the mattress with her fists clenched at either side of her hips, her eyes wide with rage. She wanted to twist his neck so tightly that the last noise he’d ever make would be a measly, airy whisper – lost in the condensation of the running shower. But she told herself to wait, and elegantly swivelled out of bed.

At 6:21, Hilary switched on the bedroom light and leant over to look at her face in the dressing table mirror. She pulled at her cheeks until all the wrinkles beneath her eyes vanished. Curiously, she gazed at the neglected laughter lines at the corners of her mouth and speed bumps on her forehead. She didn’t have enough hands to vanquish the rest of her wrinkles, nor enough concealer to erase the dark marbles she had for eye sockets. Frank hadn’t told her how beautiful she was for years. She released her red-raw cheeks and kicked the drawers of the table in rage, turning the light off as she left the room.

The kitchen door was still open from earlier that morning. Hilary glided in, arms folded and threw four slices of bread into the toaster, slamming the levers down hard. She paused before getting the butter from the fridge to gaze at the magnets on the door. There were 30 or 40 €2 holiday magnets they’d collected over the years. Frank never let Hilary have the final say on which ones actually made it to the fridge. After grabbing the Lurpack and slamming the door closed, Hilary walked back over to the worktop to retrieve four slices of perfectly brown toast from the toaster and started buttering them on the chopping board – making extra effort to conceal the ‘H + F’ on the bottom right corner, idly carved by Frank sometime in their early 30s.

At 6:27 Frank entered.

‘Tea today?’ Hilary asked.

‘Flask it,’ said Frank. Hilary took a moment to notice the grey hair escaping between the two open buttons on his shirt, and frown. ‘I’m in a rush this morning. Parents’ Night’s this evening. I said I’d help Linda…’

‘Parents’ Night not last month?’ asked Hilary.

‘No. Well, yes,’ he stammered. ‘Last month was year 3’s. Today is year 2’s.’

‘I see,’ said Hilary, clicking on the kettle. ‘And Linda?’

‘She’s just a colleague,’ Frank insisted sitting down to put on his shoes, his hands out flat in front of him in defence.

Hilary watched him for a moment as he squeezed his foot into a freshly polished shoe without untying the laces. She thought about how much this bothered her, subconsciously crumbling a piece of toast in her hand as she lifted it onto a plate for Frank. Frank’s face was now buried between the pages of a book on voting systems in the UK.

‘Is that why you’re reading Linda’s class texts now?’ she said pushing a plate to him.

‘It’s Curriculum for Excellence, love. I need to know my shit. Plus, Linda’s into all this. Thought I’d… make the effort. Reach out to my colleagues and that. Oh, no toast for me. I need to get moving.’

At 6:31 Frank left the kitchen mumbling something about brushing his teeth. Hilary stared blankly at the plate of toast on the kitchen table without acknowledging the click of the boiled kettle. Idly she staggered over to the kitchen fridge, lifting a pair of disposable gloves on the way and squeezing her hands into them. Suddenly a pang of pain erupted across her ring finger on her left hand. She looked down and noticed that a large, angry bubble blister had formed where she’d been holding the nightshade earlier that morning. She whimpered as she reached down to the bottom drawer and plucked the berries from the stem of the plant and carried them to the worktop surface.

Placing the berries in a barley crusher, Hilary ground with all of her weight to turn the nightshade into a purple puree. Midnight coloured, potent juices squirted to all angles of the table as though each berry was a miniature, deformed heart being ripped apart, as it began to look less and less like fruit. Satisfied, she filled Frank’s flask with boiling water and scooped all of the nightshade in it to brew. She thought about the poisonous liquid running down her husband’s throat and a sickly-sweet smile snuck onto her face as she screwed on the flask lid.

At 6:41, Frank returned to the kitchen wearing his suit jacket, a further button undone on his work shirt and more grey hair clawing at his collar.

‘See you later,’ Frank said in the doorframe as he turned swiftly on one heel for the front door.

Suddenly, he paused and turned back towards Hilary. He removed a small turquoise box decorated with a silky white ribbon from his pocket. He walked over and handed it to her – the £11.99 price tag still stuck to the bottom – and placed a kiss upon the hairs of her cheek, so lightly it might not have happened at all.

‘Happy anniversary, eh?’ He said.

He lifted the flask from the worktop and unscrewed the lid. He took a long deep swig of the nightshade tea and let out a great, satisfied sigh as he lowered.

‘Happy anniversary, Frank,’ said Hilary, ‘And here’s to many more.’

At 9:01 Frank text: ‘What kind of tea was that this morning? Let Linda try some. She liked it.’

At 10:03 Frank text again: ‘Change of plan. Coming home at 3. Not feeling good.’

At 11 o’clock the school left a voicemail on the house phone: ’Hi Hilary. Sorry to contact you on this special anniversary day, but you need to come down to the hospital. Frank and another colleague were admitted this morning. They can’t find a pulse. Could be serious. It’s ward 108.’

Hilary smirked and let out a hum for a giggle as she sat down at the kitchen table. She took a bite of the cold, crumbly toast and watched the fruity glare of the mid-morning sun light the pathway to a brighter future.

By Rachael Rites

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