The Foxglove Afterthought
Entry for NAC Short Story Competition:
Jeff did a little twirl, exiting as she did so, surreptitiously.
The house, wooden, was not nondescript. No one noticed it nonetheless. Anton shut the door softly, jingling the hanging bronze doorbell. He eased down the porch one still-shiny step at a time, taking care not to lose his purchase.
Jeff led the way, politely oscillating within a footstep of Anton. Fresh, dry and trodden-on flowers lined the quiet pavement, dissipating a scent that changed every time took a different step.
Anton paid no attention whatsoever. Jeff, however, seemed delighted.
The odd couple made their way to the town cafeteria, where good scones were baked and better coffee was brewed, next to the town centre where everything erstwhile happened. The dappled light played fairy-dance around the stoic fountain where mountain spring water hurried through the outlet. The area was host to a small group, not quite flock of pigeons and the occasional sparrow or two, but there were no tourists to feed them.
Anton took a minute, not quite long ago, and decided that stray birds were foes, not friends.
Anton sidled into his seat in the cafe that he’d been in countless times, in which few others ever sat. Presently, he heard footsteps coming from behind.
“Ah is that you Clio? I got here early”
“I thought I was late… I didn’t… bring my watch,” Clio took her seat, pausing mid-crouch long enough to scrape her cast iron chair closer.
Anton mirrored her action calmly.
“How are… the kids, Clio?” Anton ventured.
“Great… Coffee please, cream, no sugar… we just sent Lily to the airport yesterday. It’ll be a half year or so before we’ll see her. Meanwhile she’ll be enjoying her time away from us I presume.”
Her hands clasped gently about Anton’s.
Anton felt the beginning of calluses where her long fingers joined her palm; her short nails were all angles and no polish.
“Studying? Well I bet.” He pursed his lips when feeling the absence of her jade bangle. Clio hesitated. She looked hastily down at her rough hands. “Times have changed, Anton. Moving out of this town was probably the best decision I’ve ever made since I painted eyebrows on the fountain angel. Yes. That was when we were both in grade school.”
“Yes… As a matter of fact the brush was mine.” Anton mildly withdrew from the warm embrace of fingers.
Clio looked hard at Anton, then let her gaze drift beyond. His blurred image reminded him of his former self. She refocused her absent gaze on the bridge of his nose.
“Oh Anton you know I had to.”
“Use my brush?” he retorted gruffly.
“Leave this place!”
“Well we all knew that…”
Clio frowned, then slumped back on the cold, faded iron backseat.
“Perhaps that is why ZZ keeps longing to… get away as well”
Anton tried to sound bitter, but ended up sounding distracted. Jeff was making rounds about the fountain, observing the sparkles and enjoying the coolness of the water spray. From a certain angle you could make out a hint of a rainbow.
Anton felt rather than saw Clio recoil almost imperceptibly, but she recovered within her next sip. “Enough on that topic Anton. Let’s talk about your business. I heard you sourced a new batch of coffee beans from Borneo?”
“Mm? Yes, Liberica variety. No, not what you are drinking now,” Clio looked up hastily from her cup, almost embarrassed at her innocent faux pas. “That would be normal Arabica.” Anton steepled his moderately large hands almost in prayer, then retreated them palms down.
They talked business for fifteen minutes, in between sips of coffee and iced water. The sun continued its lazy climb as the shadows actively flexed and bent. Clio laughed occasionally, which Anton rarely acknowledged with an amused look that broke his otherwise dour demeanour. Although no one other than the cafe owner and aides were present, any passers-by could have imagined them as eight year old playmates, jabbering silly about things they thought were serious. Like children, neither mentioned the past – after all, children remember only as far back as last weekend’s trip to the beach, and anything more ancient is nonexistent.
As children, trouble followed them wherever they went, or perhaps they dragged trouble along as though it was their imaginary friend, or sometimes an unwilling conspirator. Carefree days were especially so when one got into trouble without thinking twice about the consequences. Over time, troublemaking played second fiddle to long walks along the edges of town, out of town, and deep in town where townsfolk passed by too often or not at all to take any notice.
“Anton, have you considered moving?”
Anton paused infinitesimally, then got up. “It has been a pleasure meeting you. Once again.” He paused again, and as abruptly, turned around to grasp Clio’s outstretched hand awkwardly. He squeezed it almost violently, in a bid to stop himself from embracing her. “Goodbye.”
He didn’t pause a third time.
The coffee aroma followed him a good distance, and by the time only floral scent remained Anton only retained the company of sundered blossoms and Jeff trailing sprightly beside him, blissfully unaware of the awkward but not unpleasant meeting. Absent-mindedly, Anton made a mental note to call Clio the moment he returned home. As they neared the outskirts of town, Anton extended his walking stick purposefully.
“Hey! Hey Mr. Sun!” It was a clear voice which wafted on the breeze.
Anton half-turned towards the voice, then had a moment of realisation. “No school today?
The voice’s owner shook his head, then hastily mumbled “No”. He had a boyish grin detailed on a precocious visage, the eyes of which reminded one of a pixie who had grown too old. Jeff peered intently at him, wordless.
“Haven’t seen you in a while, Mr. Sun. Who made you sad today?”
Anton harrumphed, hiding his disconcertment at this uncanny, intuitive character, his rough edge smoothed by surprise. He kind of liked the boy, who was unlike the other little monsters who tried to trip him and steal his stick whenever he rested by the road. Of all the names children called him, Mr. Sun was probably the nicest, yet most ironic, of all. His default mood, nowadays at least, was frigid – the only thing he could associate with this nickname was his pair of thick, bold but unattractive sunglasses.
The boy’s collar rustled faintly as he cocked his head. Anton felt compelled to answer, so he did – “Oh, just an old friend. Friends upset each other sometimes. How about you Shawni?” he added as an afterthought. Shawni nodded slowly, hastily adding “Good as always. I see… you’re going out south, sir?” Anton paused as though considering the question, then nodded deliberately. He suddenly felt weary, as though his breakfast of iced water was insufficient for his sustenance. He wandered unsteadily towards Shawni and sat down heavily. He heaved a silent sigh.
They spent a moment considering everything, and nothing. Of course Anton had more to consider. Shawni wondered how much he would have to consider when he achieved Anton’s age. Shawni looked up at the weathered facade consisting of strong facial bones, an aquiline nose and that unique pair of dark glasses. He mussed Jeff’s hair, earning a contented wiggle of her head. Despite the air being mostly still, Anton felt somewhat refreshed. By the time he became conscious of that, a soft unquiet had already begun to pass through the little crowns of the trees above. Shawni was unsure of saying anything so he looked at Jeff questioningly. She offered no answers. Shawni fingered his lips.
“Mr. Sun, whenever I get into a fight I’ll always try to make up later; maybe not today, or tomorrow, but still I’ll try…” Shawni trailed off. So his intuition had not yet matured into a keen sense, thought Anton.
“I did not get into a fight today, although I must admit I have left this problem fester for quite a while…”
“Some problems don’t have answers. At least not for me” Shawni spoke barely out of turn. “It’s alright if you don’t have an answer.” Anton pushed his dark glasses up a notch and rubbed his earlobe. “Mr. Sun, how do you make someone love you?” Shawni started boldly, then hurriedly covered his mouth as though he could recapture his words. “I’m… I’m sorry.”
Anton raised an eyebrow, unable to see the furtive gesture. He laughed out loud, “Well well well what happened here”. The irony was too much for him to take sitting down, so he got up and paced about, to the mild surprise of Jeff.
“Well, there… there’s this boy…” and Shawni told him what happened there. Anton was taken aback at his sudden reversion to character. More than once he had the urge to say something politically correct, something ironic about social convention, but more often than not he simply chuckled at it all. He thought about laughing out loud, but couldn’t find it in himself to act thus rudely.
“He has such beautiful eyes… well I’m sure yours are too Mr. Sun”. Anton stopped chuckling, but out of amusement.
“You know, people change. Whoever you l..”, Anton hesitated. “You may fancy this, shall I call him more-than-friend today but you are still young…”
“I passed my tenth birthday” Shawni retorted indignantly, sustaining his unfamiliar, uncharacteristic character. He then laughed at this realization, laughed at himself. It was a laugh that carried a golden hue of untarnished naiveté lined with a silver hint of worldly awareness.
Shawni got up and walked a few meters, balancing precariously on the edge of the sidewalk, tongue sticking out to the left. He hopped, skipped, and spun around with a grin, and just then lost his balance and had to fight furiously to regain it. “So I guess when this is over I’ll look back on it and find out how stupid but exciting it all was” he proposed. Anton nodded, “no one should know better than I do”. Unsurprisingly, Shawni had hit the nail right on the head.
They talked a little more, until their shadows turned fuzzy and blurred into the sidewalk. The weather became more pleasant but neither paid much attention to it. In good company, the good and the bad, the happy and the sad all fade away from consciousness. It was then decided that Shawni would meet the object of his affection that Sunday and find some sort of resolution. Anton had already reached his own. He suddenly remembered that he had someplace to go, so Shawni sent him on his way with a “bon voyage” and a rattling bag of sweets, to which he replied that he was barely taking a thousand footsteps out of town.
As he quick-stepped away, salience started out of Anton’s eyes, but not enough, such that they were hidden safely behind the black, blank shields locked in their golden frames. Apparently, no one had known him as well before he was blinded, save maybe Clio. Before this misfortune, he also had not taken the time to know anyone else well enough. His loss in sight however granted him, unrequested, a wealth of insight.
Anton was not one to believe in a divine Creator, or as the townsfolk were concerned, a god. It was odd then that he began believing after he was stricken with great misfortune, which devastated him and his eyesight. He had heard that people started being religious in times of calamity over the desire of salvation, yet he felt intangible divine forces more strongly in his despair than in his hope. He did not receive any blessing or, as of yet, peace from his changing beliefs, yet change they did for no reason nor rhyme. He could not believe such a paradigm shift could occur to him – of all people, the carefree, careless Anton, now also known as Mr. Sun.
Anton had become a believer.
A chill brushed past Anton’s cheek and he momentarily strayed from the path that led to Clairen’s abode. She had been staying there for two winters, but Anton was not one to count the seasons. As he neared, Jeff started to get restless in response to Anton’s unnerving fidgeting. She was a cool one ultimately, despite being rather sensitive. Along the way, she guided him to a patch of wild foxgloves, which he picked carefully with his hankerchief, then neatly wrapped a cone of note paper around. It was a tedious process, but Jeff was otherwise patient.
Anton clutched the makeshift, but commendably presentable bouquet as he approached Clairen. Jeff went to her favourite corner in the garden and left Anton and his adult world. Anton took his seat sideways, gingerly, next to Clairen. He opened up first, as always.
“It’s me, Anton.” He leant forward, taking his left hand off the tip of the paper cone and rubbing the white marble surface at his chest level. Polished.
“I’m still here and ‘m not going anywhere for the time being… or for quite a while actually. Business has been good all around. People actually talk to me nowadays. I can’t remember if anyone actually spoke to me for no… corporate reason before the concussion.” He prodded the tines of his glasses and smoothed the curls on the summit of his neck. “Oh yes these are for you.” Clairen accepted the purple blossoms with nary a word.
“Well enough about me. It was always about me. You’ve been here long enough to tell me about life outside town.”
“Well I guess it’s been cold out here, and not just the weather. I’ll bring coffee the next time, I promise. You loved… love coffee, still right?” The land was cooling rapidly and the air was racing from the scattered water bodies, over the subdued plains and into Anton’s barren face. He instinctively turned his head as though looking away.
“I shouldn’t have told you I loved you, back in our early days together. In a way I was trying to become the normal man, and not stick out amongst my peers. I had little trouble doing that as a kid. I just needed someone could make me feel normal, not even so much as being loved. You tried to make me feel special, but all I wanted to be was normal. You talked to me, teased me, made me feel like any other person would – well you might not take that as a compliment but I meant that as such. I can’t say my intentions of living together were based on anything such as love, or god forbid, lust. Friendship might best describe it. You of course took it to heart when we decided to get engaged. And I was a bad lover. A lover is worst when there is but the semblance of love but none in substance whatsoever, like an apple pie which was baked without apples and gets thrown out after the first slice is tasted. Ah what a ludicrous analogy!”
“You worried yourself sick yet the fault was mine…” Anton couldn’t continue. He never got the past these words, even in previous visits. He knew though how Clairen thought he found her inadequate. Oh, she was fine with her fingers, a marvel at flower arrangement, embroidery, all things little girls should have learnt but most somehow forgot once they started discovering boys. She kept herself drunk on foxglove brew, believing that acquiring a slimmer figure would warrant the reward of Anton’s love, yet the prize of her proverbial battlefield which claimed her casualty was naught. The doctor called it digitalis poisoning. Anton knew belatedly that her heart had stopped beating. Perhaps it was proverbially dead already. His own heart was pounding as he rushed her to the physician, a fine professional. That was when he had tripped on the last strides up the leveled steps to his clinic. He had awoken unable to see, yet he found reality had completely revealed itself to him.
It was unlikely then, but not unthinkable, that Anton started inexplicably became devoted to Clairen after she had passed on. It was not a disgusting or perverse love of the dead, or something he did in return for an emotional debt, but something he ascribed to simply as god’s will, for he had little explanation for it. Every Friday since he had woken up from his concussion he would visit her and say some things, make the small talk he was unable to invent, caress her headstone in ways he was unable to touch another before.
To a bystander, he was literally insane. To Anton, he had never felt such lucidity his whole life.
In life, he would see her, look into her eyes, look through them, and think “how nice” and nothing more. Now, words could not express each encounter with her. Perhaps the memory of someone would always be better than someone. Anton could only wax nostalgic, internally, of the memory of her, and of himself, and imagining how it would have been had he been less of a fool in school and more a fool in love. He blamed himself for being level-minded in treating Clairen, who clearly did not reciprocate his lack of feeling. He had taken someone who did not belong to him and who he did not want taken, but who was willing to be and loving the ideal for all of her unfortunate life. Anton looked down, dreary, exhausted as the glorious sunset bathed the serene corridor along which were lined the vessels of lives long and recently past.
Anton made a circuit round the graves, pausing at the line-markers’ tombstones to feel the engravings with his numb fingertips. A new one had been added since last he came, so he took the time to feel. He was pleasantly surprised to run his index finger over what resembled a roughly hand-etched “XOXO” at the bottom right counter of the rectangular limestone slab. The bag of sweets was then promptly placed on the limestone like a multi-coloured ornament. He returned to Clairen’s and lay supine beside her, hugging his knees to his chest as the atmosphere stilled a degree or two. By the time he remembered that he had a phone call to make, only a jagged crescent of the ripening sun was visible above the cloudy hills.
“Let’s go, Jeff.” She had found her latest amusement picking berries.
Note about Foxgloves
Digitalis, or foxgloves, are herbaceous plants that have flowers in a shape that fit over fingers easily. Some species, including the Common Foxglove, complete their life cycle in two years. The plant is toxic, with effects on the heart rate, rhythm, and contractile strength and derivatives are used in cardiac medicine. Side effects including loss of appetite have led to abuse by people seeking weight loss.
In the language of flowers, the foxglove represents divergent ideas including insincerity, a wish for the recipient to heal. It has its place in Greek Mythology as the flower that Flora used to impregnate Hera with the “fatherless god, Mars”.
(Sources: Wikipedia and flowerinfo.org)
I thought the premise for my protagonist’s behaviour was quirky to say the least, but upon reading this Postsecret I felt a little vindicated.