– Winner of the 2018 Grace Marion Wilson Prize for Fiction –
The sex did not bother Jane as much as the poppy seeds pooling in the cracks between the floorboards. She crushed them underfoot on her way to the bathroom, and they released their oil and penetrated the untreated oak, leaving small, sticky reminders of that other business, his business, the pink-haired, pierced impetus behind his sudden interest in baked goods.
Jane felt sorry for the girl, and disappointed in herself for referring to the girl as a girl. They were in it together, as far as she was concerned. Simon, on the other hand, was a hypocrite, although that was less feeling for Jane than fact. Simon, who knew that his wife appealed to other men, who was not jealous but sullen that he no longer wanted her as other men did, who saw kissing Jane like kissing his sister, watching her undress like walking in on an elderly neighbour who had missed a blouse button. Jane, the pragmatist, guessed the source of Simon’s discontent, and suggested they see other people, with full disclosure and consent; she left it to Simon to decide whether they should relax the bounds of monogamy alone, or as a couple. Simon, the dramatist, was appalled by either choice; the subject was dropped. Within weeks, Simon had stumbled across a new farmers’ market and, despite being cynical about this paddock-to-plate fashion and too easily distracted to cook beyond a three-minute egg, had come home with a prune and poppy seed danish and a revived carnal appetite, courtesy of its candy-haired creator.
Jane understood what the pastry signified. Simon did not have a sweet tooth and, from the day he arrived home with a second danish for her, extolling the virtues of the steeping process that made the prunes syrupy, she suspected they were sharing more than food. He had a symbolic way of confessing, but she recognised his language and could almost forgive him this accidental contradiction: she cared for him, but never missed his weight on her belly, never brought him to mind when she slid fingers inside herself. However, these poppy seeds, these tiny, gritty globes of evidence he scattered in his wake, were becoming a problem. Each Sunday he would lick the glaze from his lips, and she would restrain herself from wondering out loud why prunes that were so flamboyantly syrupy could not keep a small seed stuck to a flat surface. She ate her danish over the sink when he brought her one; the buttery pastry, the smooth vanilla custard and moist fruit, seduced her too, and made her consider the baker girl an ally, although Simon was hardly the enemy.
The poppies grew quickly. At first, instead of the usual soft crunch, Jane felt a cool, damp tickling beneath her heel. She turned on the light and shifted her foot to find a crumpled green seedling rooted between the cracks in the floorboards. Other, healthier specimens, were dotted down the hall. She trod more carefully to the bathroom, the infant flowers swaying in her wake. When she walked into the kitchen the following morning, Simon appeared to have been waiting for her there.
She made tea and toast and sat down at the table opposite him to eat. He nodded and returned to his oats; he understood her language as well as she did his. They were soon living in an indoor field: blooms of orange, red, and yellow surrounded them as they sat, slept, ate, dressed, undressed, showered, washed dishes. Filmy petals obscured the television screen and tickled bare legs as they stood at the sink to brush their teeth. Pollen married with the dust motes, swirling in the morning sun. Simon sneezed; Jane bought antihistamines and extra tissues.
As the flowers grew, so did Jane’s interest in the girl whose prune and poppy seed pastries had turned their home into a hothouse. On a mercy mission one Sunday morning – nasal mist for Simon’s allergies – Jane resolved to detour via the farmers’ market. She usually bought in bulk, or on special, and had until then found no reason to venture past the limits of her loyalty cards. The market was smaller than she imagined, less picturesque: trestle tables covered in frayed hessian, goods and stall owners alike in cluttered confusion. The baker’s stand was piled with teetering hillocks of seeded breads and brownies, and Jane could admit there was a charm to the chaos when paired with the girl, whose pink ponytail, half-crimped, half-frizzed, skewed itself to one side of her face, as if to balance the eyebrow ring on the other. Jane asked for two prune and poppy seed danishes. If the girl recognised her, if she had been to the house or Simon had shown her the wedding picture fused to the plastic window in his wallet, she showed no sign. She told Jane how she made the pastry from scratch, using hand-churned butter from a fellow stallholder. The prunes, the girl explained, were steeped in Earl Grey tea until plump with an exotic bergamot tang.
She pointed out the organic tea stand down the alley, and waved to the boy across the walkway, near-hidden by the tumbling mound of prunes, she told Jane, that were harvested from his plum farm and dried within the week. She did not mention the poppy seeds, but something about the girl, the pride in her self-taught skill, the passion for her ingredients, dispensed Jane’s desire to reason out the chain of events that connected one’s oven to the other’s hardwood floors.
That evening, Simon carved a path between the poppies to the kitchen table, to find Jane dishing up fresh angel hair pasta, tossed with small-batch mozzarella and homemade basil pesto, garnished with flat-leaf parsley and toasted pine nuts. He had spritzed his sinuses with the saline Jane gave him, so his taste buds were primed to appreciate this unexpected gourmet turn. The bag on the counter, its paper clammy from fat and syrup, told him that Jane had been to the farmers’ market and brought him his lover’s pastry; that she found something that she could share with him in lieu of sex: this food, this quiet accord, this drowsy field of flowers they called home.
The sex with the baker girl continued, although Simon stopped frequenting the farmers’ market, and Jane began. Jane was the better cook and she still brought him a prune and poppy seed danish every Sunday: they had established this with their usual wordless ballet, a taut, intimate, duet Simon imagined the less enlightened would envy. Their diet broadened as Jane improvised meals to suit the market produce: sheep’s yoghurt with urban beehive honey and fresh coconut shavings for breakfast, vegetarian sausages with wild mushroom gravy for lunch, organic lemon thyme risotto for dinner. Avocado oil and freeze-dried berries became pantry staples; marinated olives and hummus were paired with a local Gruyere and coarse-ground oatcakes as an afternoon snack.
Neither of them were capable gardeners, but the poppies stood firm against the twin deprivations of water and direct sun. Vases were consigned to the linen cupboard: the live, floral carpet in every room made the empty vessels look comical. Besides, to cut the poppies and arrange them in a vase would have veered closer to acknowledging the alien presence than either of them wished. The oddjob man they hired to trim the lawn and rake up wayward branches was not invited to give his opinion; had he been, he might have told them that the blooms had already exceeded their lifespan, and what began as a multicoloured carpet would soon end as withered brown mulch.
The sex bothered Simon almost as much as Jane’s refusal to recognise the poetry in their situation. His lover’s hair was pink; her lover’s hair was red, a relative shade. Hers sold the prunes that topped the pastries that his baked that sired the poppies that led them here. The boy was probably pierced somewhere too, beneath the bow-tied checks and distressed denim. He was more man than boy, but younger than Jane, so he lodged in Simon’s mind as a youth. Simon felt an itching disgust for failing to find his wife attractive, which he converted to frustration at her indifference to the symmetry they had established. There had been no tacit agreement, as there had been when the poppies appeared; she had simply stopped bringing home any fruit that was not a dehydrated plum.
On the day the first flowers began to droop, Simon trod to the kitchen, lured by the smell of Jane’s cooking. The bag that usually held his lover’s pastries was not on the counter, but he thought no more of it, and sat down to his free-range Moroccan eggs with rich tomato sauce. Jane placed a cooling rack in the centre of the table: there, on the rack, sat a half-dozen prune and poppy seed danishes. Jane commented on how fussy making custard to go with the prunes had been. Simon lost his appetite. He stood quietly and calmly, and just as calmly left the kitchen, without pushing his chair under the table. The message was clear, if Jane cared to receive it. She began with fruit cakes and steamed puddings, but the dried plums soon began to appear in savoury dishes: spiced couscous, grain-fed chicken pie, hand-cured bacon rolls – all came to the table adorned with the sweet dark flesh she bought from the prune-seller.
The poppies died en masse; not being keen gardeners, neither Jane nor Simon cut them back or cleared the mulch. Simon stopped eating dessert; Jane stopped coming home. Simon waited, kicking his shoes against the walls to dislodge the rotting flowers stuck to the soles, but she did not return.
Sunday came, the day of the farmers’ market,and it occurred to Simon that he had not heard from his lover all week. He knew instantly what had happened, and ran to the farmers’ market, knowing it was already too late. He would find nothing there: an empty stretch of concrete, pigeons searching the stones for insects, no food, no farmers, no shoppers, no sign it had ever existed. Gone, like the poppies under his feet, and Jane, gone with it.
The market hall was lively with people when he arrived, wheezing from the race. The pink-haired baker offered brownie samples to customers, the red-haired prune-seller scooped his produce into attractive mounds; people browsed, dogs sniffed, the buzz of food frying and conversation drifted to the roof, and Jane, at the boy’s stall, shifted the sacking to stop the prunes toppling to the ground. Simon was offended to find them there, to find it all existed without him. He marched up to Jane but, as he closed in, they turned on him. The baker, the prune-seller, Jane: all three looked at the walkway between them, the place where he stood, but they did not see him. They saw each other. He could not mistake their meaning. Not even he could pretend that he was right, but wrong in the detail, that it was he who had disappeared, not them, not the market. They had simply excised him and carried on.
Simon went home alone. He had no idea which of them he would see again or when. When hunger trumped the nausea he felt from the smell of decaying poppy petals, he scavenged in the fridge, and came out with a dish of six prunes in Armagnac sauce. One for each room. He ate the flesh as he walked through the house, floorboards creaking and settling behind him, and dropped a seed in each room as he went. The days passed; the seeds were dormant. A steady trail of ants moved in. Simon waited, but the orchard of plum trees he expected to sprout from the mulch never appeared. If he had asked the odd-job gardener, he would have known that the season for plums was past.
About Amanda Hildebrandt
Amanda Hildebrandt is currently undertaking her biggest writing project to date: a 100,000 word PhD on flight attendant uniforms. She has previously worked as a script reader and media analyst. She has been writing fiction and essays from the age of five, and her handwriting has not improved much since.