Compost, a short story by RM Clarke
A woman returns from London to her roots by the Irish seaside but her home is eroding
RM Clarke: her debut novel, The Glass Door, won the ‘Discovery’ award at the Dalkey Book Festival and The Irish Writers Centre Greenbean Novel Fair 2016
After rinsing them down in the sink she put her walking boots on a cool wash. When the machine was done she hollowed them out with newspaper and left them on the radiator to dry. A friend had told her that the dishwasher was better for keeping the shape but she had tried that last week and they came out with tide marks where the powder tab had not fully dissolved.
The tea had gone cold in the pot. She sighed and rose slowly and put the kettle back onto boil, the black cat was beneath her and calling loudly waiting to be fed. As the kettle lumbered up she thought about how to spend the long day stretching ahead of her.
Through the kitchen window the thin stamp of the horizon dominated. There was something menacing in the sea today, like a great muscle covered over with skin it could not be pulled apart into individual strands that would offer her some point of origin at which to place blame. In the garden, things had a withered look. The rosebush at the garden’s edge was browning at the petals. Closer to the house, the hawthorn was the only thing still bright with colour.
She opened the cupboard where she kept the kibble and the tortoiseshell who had been stalking her from the other room came running in, both cats threaded around her as she filled their bowls. She made a fresh pot for herself but discovered she was out of milk. She had butter and cheese but no bread. How did things disappear so quickly? It seemed unlikely, maybe even impossible, that she was responsible. She lived alone.
She wrote a list of all the things that needed replenishment. The friend who had advised her about the dishwasher and her walking boots had left their cup and the last biscuit, half-eaten, teetering on the windowsill. The clock beat loudly in the kitchen. The emptiness and quiet unbalanced her, as though when the friend left they had drawn from her something essential that was trailing behind the back of their car and pulling away. She would have to get out of the house.
At the end of the laneway she turned right, away from the beach. The roads were narrow and there was no path, she walked headlong against the rush of the oncoming cars and kept in tight to the verge. When she came to the small area of woodland that had been sectioned off by Coillte she turned up the steep rocky path into the solace of the trees.
The air was damp and she was out of breath quickly. The way up to the looking point was uphill but she persisted. She had worn the flat leather boots she usually wore into town and it was harder in them as they had much less grip. The trees here were not native and kept their green year round, the woodland floor was red with spines. The trees thinned out as the path grew steeper and she came at last to an open space on the side of a small mountain. Though the mist that lay upon it made drawing breath difficult and obscured her from sight she could see in the clear distance the sparse scattering of houses her own hid among, the thin curve of the bay between the houses and the sea and the town. From this distance the sea looked flat and characterless, entirely benign. She turned away from it and followed the path back down the hill watching her flat boots all the way.
After stocking up at the market stores in town she stopped at the bakery. She wanted a batch loaf, the tumid bread that went so well with the hard cheese she had in the house. She liked how the rigid cheese rested on the soft bread as though it were sleeping or being held, and the combined sensations of resisting and yielding they offered together as she ate. Sometimes, when she had finished eating, she was filled with an immense sadness.
The woman who owned the bakery was called Julie, she had named the shop after herself. She glanced quickly up as the door sounded, without speaking she turned and took the batch off the shelf and wrapped it in a striped paper bag with her name on it. Her name was everywhere, peering down from the labels on the shelves, calling from the bags, emblazoned across the apron she wore. Julie did not look at her as she asked:
How’s it going with the house?
She had not prepared herself but she did not know why; whenever she left her house she knew she would end up having to talk about it. Having taken her by surprise the question sent a wave running up through the soles of her boots and she bent her knees as gently as she could to balance against it.
Oh, she said. The same.
Julie turned her head to glance through the hatch into the back room where her husband did most of the baking. He did not seem to be there, or she could not see him from where she stood in the shop. With a sharp intake of breath Julie went on: Well, at least the insurance company will look after you.
She took the paper bag from Julie’s reaching hands, the soft and certain weight of the dense loaf was inside it. She preferred it in this state, still whole from the oven, before the knife had set to it and dismantled it into pieces. There was a problem with the insurance. Something to do, they said, with Acts of God. She had spent almost a year after it had happened on the phone to different insurance officials, to brokers, to her local TD who had redirected her to the Emergency Commission. She had bought a combined fax and printer to save journeying into town to the library photocopying machine each time an official wanted something from her. She had dutifully given everyone what they had asked for, yet she was still waiting.
It’s not looking good, she said.
She did this shrug she’d perfected for such conversations, a gentle inward twitch of the shoulders like two arms closing around her heart. It felt difficult to move then though she knew she must, she could not go to the door in good grace; she was waiting for Julie to come up with something to say as though by doing so she could offer her some measure of judgement or absolution. Julie rang her up on the till.
Well, she said. I’m sure it’ll all work out in the end.
She nodded and paid for the bread. Julie disappeared into the back of the shop. She began the slow walk back up through the town to her house.
She had lived and worked in London in her youth. When she rode the blue vein of the Victoria line from Walthamstow into the city she would stand at the doors even when the train was empty. At each station the doors would open and she was exhilarated by the possibilities that stretched off in each direction in that brief pause, when she could continue onwards in a straight line to the city and her work or simply step off. It was a thrilling feeling that she could in each small interval of time walk into an entirely different life, that whenever the doors opened and she hovered over the precipice of empty and uninhabitable space between the train carriage and the platform a threshold existed that could offer at once to pitch her forward into unknowable possibility and recall her back to her childhood, when as a girl she would climb to the highest point of the cliffs so she could look down into the troubled sea rocks and imagine taking flight.
She had served in a nice restaurant in Soho then. A man with very brilliant black hair neatly combed came in for lunch most days and ordered soup. He was a perfumer who owned a small and exclusive shop near Bond Street, when he came into the restaurant he left behind him a trailing line of fragrance that was almost visible. One afternoon after months of order-taking and small-talk he had arrived to lunch with flowers. They were irises, their sharp blue tongues thrusting out of green mouths like poison darts, the sharp and cold of a gas flame. After her shift they had walked together in Kensington Gardens and she leaned upon his offered arm which he held stiffly and aloft for her to balance upon as if she was in some way dependent upon it to stay upright. Beneath the fine layers of fabric that clothed it she could sense the taut workings of the ligaments and she longed to tear apart the prim sleeve and touch the skin directly. He asked her if she had liked his gift.
Did you expect me to bring you some other flower perhaps? he asked.
I expected nothing, she said.
He had chosen irises because they contained a component in the root that harmonised and brought together into one all the separate notes in a scent. When they met there again the following week he gifted to her a vial of a perfume that had been created some decades before and which remained his favourite, a small bottle with a typewritten name: Iris Gris. Pausing beneath the turning leaves of a horse chestnut he had tipped the vial onto the fourth finger of his left hand and trailed it softly along the line of her jaw and again in the jewel of her throat. When it touched her skin and the aroma released it was as though the flowers themselves were burying her. The iris root, the perfumer said, which he called reverently orris, was the true emblem of romance. She had agreed.
She moved back to Ireland when she was still young and came back to her mother’s house, built on straddling soil where Wicklow gave way to the county of Wexford. Her mother was a proud and gifted gardener, and tended to the flowers in her garden every day as though they were friends. Living with her again she soon cultivated a habit of drinking tea and looking out the kitchen window at the rise and fall of the sea beyond the garden gate and following her around with the two kittens trying to learn from her a gift with green things she did not possess. She had given the rosebush to her mother on her last birthday, and in the months before her sudden passing it had flourished under her adoration and care.
After her mother had settled into the earth a crash had awoken her one morning; it felt as though the house was trembling in fright. When she opened her bedroom curtains still in half-sleep she did not know what was wrong at first. It was later when she was making tea and looking out the kitchen window that she noticed there was something giddy and off-kilter about a view she had come to know like a reflection. She put on her walking boots and went out. The cats who had been skittish all that morning kept a safe and curious distance behind her.
Beyond the rosebush where the rest of the garden once stood now opened into the great mouth of the sea. Her mother had built a pond there between the roses and the garden gate, it had been filled with lotus flowers. Beside it a cast iron bench where her mother had rested throughout the day had looked out towards the horizon. Its sudden amputation from her world seemed impossible; the afternoon before she had come to the bench after lunch to work, had opened the garden gate to walk to the edge of the low cliff that overlooked the narrow beach below. She stood at the brink of her revised garden and looked down into the water, the drop was not far enough to imagine she could soar above it. The cast iron bench lay intact upon the rubble, the sea swallowing and revealing it with each swell and recession. She could almost reach it. There was no sign of the gate.
She did not go out that day but watched the view through the window and counted the hours down on the kitchen clock. She checked the little yellow book her mother had always kept in the cutlery drawer: high tide was not for another eleven hours. She made tea reflexively but kept forgetting to drink it. When the tide turned it had grown dark but she could see it, glistening a few feet beyond the rosebush in the dark. In the morning at the garden’s edge was the fine white silt of dried salt.
Coming back the long way from the town with her shopping she came to the high point of the cliffs overlooking the beach. When she stood here as a child the sand used to stretch along for miles, the walk from the sand grass to the water was measurable. Now at high tide the water swallowed it almost entirely.
The road sloped steeply down towards the house and the laboured breath of the sea grew louder. The cats greeted her as she opened the door. She dropped the bags in the hallway and sat on the couch to rest. The tortoiseshell jumped into her lap and unfurled his long golden limbs, reaching and retracting against nothing. Since her mother had died the cats who before had been relegated to floor level and the outdoors had expanded their territory to every other surface in the house. The black cat waited expectantly beside her bowl in the kitchen.
At first when she had shown an interest in his work the perfumer had humoured her. It was a delicate act he said, to work with scent was to walk a tightrope every day. Each note had its own signature, which he called weight. A heavy weight craved its opposite so it could coexist peaceably within the ordered chaos of the perfume, but it could also consume it were it not correctly measured. The orris was the go-between, the anchor.
But it does not always work out, of course, he had said.
What do you mean? she had asked, turning to him. It had been spring then, the cherry blossoms along the avenue in Kensington Gardens were almost full. He had looked straight ahead when at last he answered, as though he could see between the logs before him a new pathway opening up.
Some weights will always pull in opposite directions, he said. They will resist the balancing act, they will always want to fall. The orris cannot merge them indefinitely.
What do you mean? she had asked again. The words would not pass through her, she had become resistant, impermeable; the bees at work on the blossom above them consumed the air around her. She remembered, still, his cuffs pulled cleanly down to the lines of his wrists, his fine, muscular hands knotted tightly in his lap.
She put the bags on the counter and turned the kettle on. On her way to the kibble drawer she paused at the radiator. Her boots were dry again and she put them on and a cardigan that draped down to her knees. The cats slipped out ahead of her as she opened the back door. In the shed she found a spade hiding in the corner on the door’s side hoping to go unnoticed. As she descended down the garden towards the rosebush the mud rose up to her laces. The sea was roaring, its long white fingers reaching toward the roots, the calm blue face betraying nothing.
The roots came away from the sodden soil without effort, the brown petals danced down to the earth and had no scent. As she lifted it airborne the rosebush held together loyally. The light was fading again and the birds were returning to their nests in the Hawthorn, its radiant fruit was calling them home. Behind the tree, the compost heap was growing.
RM Clarke began her career as an actress in 2006, later moving into voiceover and writing. Her stories have been published in Spontaneity, Losslit, The Open Pen Anthology and written for Dublin 2020. Her debut novel, The Glass Door, won the ‘Discovery’ award at the Dalkey Book Festival and The Irish Writers Centre Greenbean Novel Fair 2016. She is editor of and contributor to The Broken Spiral anthology in aid of the Dublin Rape Crisis Centre, published in 2017 with the assistance of Dublin Unesco City of Literature. She was part of the 2018 XBorders:Accord writing project in association with the Irish Writers Centre and Arts Council Northern Ireland. She lives in Wicklow