By Matt Ingoldby
Police have pulled me over twice this week about my orchids. They think I can’t see the road through the forest on the dashboard and the trellises over the back windows and the pots hanging from the wing mirrors. I say jungle predators have the best eyesight on the planet. They say not on the bypass to Grinshill.
Both times I’m let off because Mr Car smells so much of fertiliser and my laundry and sleeping bag. And I keep the windows up because chids need body heat, especially in winters like this. All the same, once a week I roll one down outside Maud’s new semi-detached.
On the freezing lawn, my son Jeffrey guides ants into a more efficient path. He recoils a bit when he sees me, but not much.
His back says no thanks. Not a talker, our Jeff, but Maud says he’s treated well at the new school, has laminated his timetable and stuck it on his bedroom wall, with annotations.
Steve’s marching out in his bathrobe. “What do you think you’re doing?”
“Nothing! It’s me, Steve. Jason.” My hands have gone up.
“I know it’s you. Stop harassing my boy.”
I can’t tell if he’s joking. “He’s my son, Steve, come on.” Obviously he knows that’s my son.
Two fourteen-year-olds crash outside, hoofing a ball: Steve’s sons from wife number one. The ball whacks Mr Car.
“Careful!” yells Steve, forearm on my roof. Jim and Marcus pound upstreet, laughing.
“Just like my Jim and Marcus,” I say, pointing out Orchid Jim and Orchid Marcus, hardy twin dendrobiums. Steve pats my roof.
Now Maud appears in the coat I bought her in Aberystwyth. My heart goes watermelon. Maud could shave her head and wear a binbag and still no one would believe she married me.
“Here’s your sustenance.” Maud scowls. But a wonderful smell escapes the tupperware she hands through the window.
Steve rocks Mr Car until curry slops onto my lap.
“Steve, come on! There’s Jeffrey’s inheritance in here,” I shout.
That’s a fact. Splicing Jim and Marcus has produced a breed native only to the glovebox of Mr Car. There’s no research to oppose it; Orchid Jeffrey must be worth a fortune.
“Just jokes.” Steve lets go and spanks the boot. “Enjoy your free meals.”
Mr Car stalls the first time, as per tradition. Maud puts a grin into Steve’s back. Steve puts his foot on the bumper and Mr Car lurches off like a supply teacher with his shoes tied together.
In the overhead mirror, Jeffrey catches my eye, looks at the dirt.
The best nutrients for orchids can be bought online for scary money or gathered for free from the bowels of ordinary chickens. I drive forty miles to a stretch of the Severn where a battery farm ejects waste into the river and crack my window to let in the fumes — only a smidge. It’s the coldest night of the year, and brown ice nudges the banks.
I'll sleep here tonight.
Later, almost midnight, the motion-activated lights of the compound blaze. I wake up and scan the riverbank, thinking: am I in trouble? Then I see—
Oh my god. Jesus Christ.
Oh my god oh my god oh my god. Where’s my scarf? Jesus, oh my god.
“Catch it! Catch the end!”
Oh my god oh my god please.
Oh my god Jesus.
Oh my god Jesus he’s so cold. He should be shivering. God what do I do. Push his chest. Hand over hand. Ha ha ha ha staying alive. The whole song or just the chorus? Please god, I only know the chorus.
With a spasm, the young man barfs himself alive. He lies back and pulls the scarf that saved him tightly over his eyes.
I pile Jim and Marcus on the backseat, Maud and Steve on top of them, then the young man into Mr Car and set off for the hospital, at which point he rouses, pulls out a drowned lighter and starts flicking.
“Hey, come on,” I say, “the fertiliser in here is very flammable.”
He tosses out a drowned pack of cigarettes. “Buggered anyway.”
Then he stares away at the hedges, curled under the seat belt like a blanket.
After a while he mutters, “I only meant to scare them.”
“I didn’t think the whole house would go up. He should’ve kept away. I told him, my sister isn’t made for his harem. And now my life’s over, because he wouldn’t keep away, now I’m dead and where’s my seventy-two virgins, because he wouldn’t keep away?” He coughs. “Stinks in here.”
“Sorry. It’s the fertiliser.”
He begins to notice—and be impressed by—the sheer volume of plant life inside the vehicle. “You a druggie?”
“Far from it,” I laugh. “The one you’re squashing is Mrs Hayes, my old Geography teacher. By your elbow is Megan, my aunt who slipped me a fiver every Christmas. I keep them going and they keep me going. It makes you glad to live when you matter to this bunch, believe me.”
“Of course it works. Why even ask that? Of course it works. I’m not the unhappy one.”
Too much. He flings off his seatbelt. “Stop the car.”
“I don’t think I’m allowed.”
“Stop the car or I’ll rip these plants up.”
I pull over on the hardened slough of a gulley. Dark fields hollow out the moonlight, vast and still as the ocean floor.
He curses. “The handle’s covered in something.”
Fertiliser. I get out with bad grace and walk around the back of Mr Car. It wobbles as he shifts seats. Then Mr Car makes a grinding sound and rampages off down the lane.
“Hey! Come on!”
I stagger to a halt, watching the headlights define the forty-mile maze of hedges into town. In seconds, a fly-style buzz, then nothing.
Coldest night of the year. My chids are gone and I’m left in a t-shirt.
Just like that.
I want to cry.
My name is Hugh and a hilarious thing about me is I’m alive. I’m on fake time and everything’s funny.
Do I feel bad? Of course—more gunge for the guilt pit. But I have a positive plan about that, which is: Drive to the sea, hide on a ship, goodbye fucking Hugh. The plants love it, cheering every pothole. He was right about them. Endorphins in the spores.
Then I think: The Syeds’ house must be news by now. Footage of me on social media. My sister. But if I’m gone, she’s safe.
The green choir cheers: Go faster while you’re still free!
Coldest night of the year, no phone and no shelter, I, Jason, am up turd creek. Homeless folks die on nights like this.
Is this it? Is this how I go?
Would anyone care?
Shut up. Two Jeffreys depend on me.
Nonetheless it’s forty miles back to town, no way I’d last the trek, plus why would he stop there? He might sell Mr Car to be compacted in a strange town, Jeffrey’s frail stem crushed...
Sobbing! Sobbing now!
By the river there were lights, meaning warmth. I cut through fields, shortening the distance. Lot of gleaming eyes in this one. The next one, all dark. I stub my knee on a watering trough, thinking: something drinks here. Yup, I hear thunder. I’m over the hedge, minus one trouser-leg, when the bull crunches the gate like celery.
After two miles I’m numb, shuddering with cold; then I smell ammonia. I glimpse the battery farm by moonlight, circle it twice, shout and wave and cause the floodlights to come on. I even shake the fence, but nothing comes out except more wind.
I think: Something comes out.
I fight the wind to the riverbank and look down. There’s the pipe. Wide enough, and no grate.
I look back at the compound: About forty metres.
Forty metres of unthinkable hell. Otherwise, death by exposure.
I suddenly recall Jeffrey’s sweet head back when it bobbed, too young to support itself. This here is in no growers’ manual, but this is when it counts. I squirm into the slimy reeking darkness of the pipe.
I never ever wish to talk about the pipe.
A heavy grate gives into a darkness wonderfully warm. I strip off my slime-chilled clothes, hearing sleepy warbles echo like prayers in a cathedral. I stand in a bleak channel between huge cliffs of cages, each holding a dim sort of lump whose feathers spill down like snow.
Something furry brushes my calf.
All through the pipe I felt followed but that was paranoia. Oh Christ, it wasn’t. That’s a fox, zooming up the cagefronts into the gloom.
Trespassing’s bad enough, but letting a fox into a henhouse is jail time for sure. So up I go. Before I rest and consider how to rescue Mr Car and Orchid Jeff, I might as well catch a fox with my bare hands.
A rattle eight feet above, a rebounding cage door... I reach it and insert my head and, yes, there’s a fox inside, hissing because the cage is empty.
Get in! And then—
I can’t remove my head. It went in like nothing, now my ears are trapped. The fox hisses and claws my nose; I scrabble, kicking cages and triggering a gothic choir of panic. Cornered and now deafened, the fox mauls my face in earnest; I scream, causing chicken bedlam. The fox resumes the onslaught till I scream again, this time because my toes have slipped and I’m hanging by the ears. The fox cringes back from the noise.
Up close, its snout is crossed with deep scars. In its eyes is a frank, unhappy need which reminds me of someone I never think about, or try every minute not to.
From her loose hair and raw skin I suspected she might want free drugs/compensation. Nurses were trained to look out for it. Her symptoms were unprovable; I gave her an embellished prescription and, feeling good, moved on. An hour later I was called to the head doctor’s office to answer the allegation that I had performed a rectal exam for my own perverse gratification. “Are you sure?” he asked three times. Of course sure. I was extremely married to the eighth wonder of the world.
It spiralled; a cloud of suspicion turned to thunder; whispers became torrential. In the canteen, colleagues edged away or fled. Still, nothing came, no follow-up, no baseless inquiry. It didn’t matter. I was sweating through my scrubs and hearing voices next to Maud at night. When I finally surrendered my employment, everyone—including those who showed furtive sympathy—was grateful.
Go on, piece the rest together. Maud left, took Jeff, remarried in less than a year. I kept my chids and Mr Car, my last friend.
I confess all this and more to the fox, who scrabbles at my face when I fall silent. I tell him/her about my son Jeffrey, bright as Einstein, about Maud and Steve, tight as two peas, about Orchid Jeffrey whose rareness guarantees a big return. And the more I talk, the hotter my eyes get, the stiffer my throat, because I never talk about myself, not ever, and what I’m hearing is like news from outer space. Things aren’t going well. I’m not happy any of the time. This isn’t something I can write off as funny: homeless, naked, head stuck in a cage, facing feral claws. And I’m fighting, I realise, every day, fighting just to stay afloat, be a punchline. Why? What universe reserves this situation for you and cares if you keep fighting?
For the first time in a long time, I make a decision about myself: No more. This is where it stops. This is the lowest I can go.
Whoever you are, wherever you find yourself, whatever you’ve lost, know this: Morning comes.
Two guys with torches find me dangling eight feet up, nude and ranting about divorce law. They have questions.
Once assured that I’m not here to steal, shag or contaminate the livestock, they manage to free me with soap. The fox is then captured with a handheld trap like a big webbed pair of tongs and presumably set free.
I reveal the big truth distilled from my night of hell: “I must find my car and be near my son.”
“Dressed like that?” says the moustached one.
So I pull on my cold, sopping clothes. Moustache agrees to drive me towards town (where he has an errand) and drop me near the rag-and-bone yard to start looking for Mr Car.
Hope’s pilot-light burns slowly through the mist around the van. Fields rear like wings in the slow updraft of light—all is becoming dawn.
“Can’t see a damn thing,” Moustache moans, projecting his ire at me through the windscreen.
“It’d be good if we were panthers,” I say, seeking common ground. “Jungle predators have the best eyesight on the planet.”
“That’s eagles,” he snaps.
Well, not a biggie. Still got hope.
Around a bend, tyretracks crush a five-foot hedge and slew towards a misty oak. Against the oak, a blackened, crumpled car lies smoking.
“Stop, please, that’s him! In that field.”
I hare through the ridged earth towards the oak. Mr Car’s airbags have turned to ash and the chassis is a cartoon concertina. A skeleton sits charred at the wheel, hands stuck to former rubber. Squares of plastic remain of my beloveds.
I reach through the smashed window and open the glovebox. Orchid Jeffrey’s stem is in bits, miraculously green. Dead without knowing it.
The pilot-light gutters.
You try, don’t you, you try and try but you’re always worth a good kick because there is no bottom to it, how much you can take. It’s always a joke; that’s your role.
“Don’t cry, man,” Moustache says, “I’m calling the police. Just wait and we’ll see you right, okay?”
I dry my eyes because my arm can still move up to my face and dry them.
“I’m going to see my son,” I tell him. “Don’t bother, I can walk from here.”
…Into the low sun for nine miles, through hedges and hoarfrost and spider-hung lace, past barns and broke-backed cottages, into neighbourhoods with garden furniture and Christmas lights. Maud’s new semi-detached has robins on the roof: bright jittery apples. I’m going to see my son.
“What happened to your face?” Maud asks on the porch.
“A fox bit it.”
“A fox bit your face? One fox?”
Steve rumbles downstairs in his bathrobe.
“It was a fox,” Maud says, pointing.
“Try to shag it?” Steve jokes.
Maud asks, “What happened to your clothes?”
I take a deep breath and come clean. “Orchid Jeffrey is dead. All of Jeff's inheritance is gone. I effed up.”
Steve sighs and grips my shoulder fondly. “Well, no one gave a crap, so that’s fine.”
I begin to thaw. It’s fine.
“I’m going to see my son,” I announce, and brace myself to come to terms with why not.
Maud and Steve share a mild shrug. “If you want a shower, left is hot, right is cold,” says Maud.
Jeff is in his room, walls neatly tessellated with maps and diagrams and, bizarrely, the station timetable of Gare du Nord. I loom awkwardly, keeping my toes between the lines in the carpet.
“Hey buddy. It’s me, Jason. The fact is I’m your father, like it or not, and I haven’t been a role model, I hope I haven’t, but I love you and you should have a better life than me because my life is rubbish and I love you so much.”
Jeff doesn’t turn from his MacBook Pro. Defeated, I sit on his bed.
“What are you working on?”
He says, “The cross country tournament is biased against Year 8 who race first after lunch. My model accounts for relative rates of digestion.”
What a kid. I don’t deserve him. But I know now to try.
“Could your model apply to the cultivation of new orchid seeds?” I ask.
“I think so,” says Jeff, after thinking. “But the model is based on numerical metrics, so I’d need that. And you probably need to drive off.”
There’s no criticism in his voice but my heart picks up its own dagger, taking aim.
“No more,” I tell my son. “I’ve got nowhere else to be.”
Matt Ingoldby left a Welsh sea breeze for city smog and never looked back (too much smog). His stories have been printed in the UK, USA, Canada and Australia. He works as a website manager for a charity.
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