Wednesday 26 July 2023

Ilex Aquiflorium, Madame Briot by Liz Cox, a double brandy

 Jim stuck his spade into the roots of the holly bush, Ilex Aquiflorium, Madame Briot. It reminded him of his late wife Briony, even the name was similar. As he shovelled the earth, he wondered what had attracted him to it in the first place. It was not that he was a fan of holly. That went for his wife as well. She still haunted him, not literally of course, but the thought of the miserable years they had endured together bothered him.

The holly was a small bush but perfectly formed as they would say. When it was young it had purple stems, much like Bryony’s hair when they met. When they first knew each other, everything had been somehow full of colour, vibrant, noisy, and happy. That was the crucial word – happy.

When had happy stopped.

Jim recalled the night they met at a hedonistic party when they were in their early twenties. Both were trying desperately to be hippies, a role which never sat very easily with Jim, but Briony embraced it with both arms and then some. He was attracted by her huge blue eyes painted with spiky eyelashes and lashings of purple eyeshadow. It made her look exotic and when her blue eyes bored into his blood shot ones, he felt he had to challenge her.

‘What you looking at?’ he slurred, as he fell onto the sofa sloshing his pint all over her.

‘Not you, that’s for sure,’ she said, swishing her purple kaftan out of the reach of the liquid now dribbling onto the chair.

‘Come on now, you know you fancy me,’ he answered, holding his aching head in his free hand. The gentle notes of San Francisco by Scott McKenzie filled the room, and her eyes became dreamy, her eyelids fluttering. He thought that she was swooning over him; how wrong could he be. She opened her eyes with a jerk, furious.

‘I certainly do not, you’re a slob and the last man I would ever go out with.’ She closed her eyes again, but not until she had shot him a disdainful glance.

With the confidence of beer inside him, Jim was sure that he was in with a chance. He reached out and took one of her purple locks of hair in his fingers, rolling it around, feeling it, enjoying the sensation of its soft fineness on his calloused hands. She jerked away and in the process her hair came out in his fingers. The shock penetrated his beer fog and brought him to his senses.

‘Oh my God, look what you’ve done now, you idiot,’ she screamed, trying to pin her dislodged hair extension back to her own hair.

‘I’m so sorry.’ He could feel the warmth of a blush creeping up his cheeks. ‘Let me buy you a drink. Have I hurt you?’

‘You must be joking,’ she replied. ‘Do one!’    

She was prickly even then.

Despite the bad start, they eventually got married. Her mother wasn’t happy. Briony was. They had a suitably large wedding in the country, enough to make Jim’s own family feel inferior. They had Briony’s mother to thank for that. She thought Jim’s family were quite beneath her and especially Jim. Briony’s mother had her sights on landed gentry for her only daughter. If she thought Briony was going to meet such a person at the local tech she was off her trolley.

Not that Bryony wasn’t a lady; she certainly acted like one. Here she was stuck with Jim in a two up two down in the less salubrious part of town. But they were in love, certainly at that time, even after the babies came along. Fiona and Neil, two proper years between them the complete family, and Fiona was born eighteen months after their wedding. It was worth waiting just to see her mother’s pursed lips. She had been counting the days since the nuptials.

Then June joined Jim’s company. He supposed it was his thoughtlessness that made Bryony angry, but he didn’t see it at the time. One evening after Bryony had struggled to get the children into bed, Jim said.

‘Don’t you think June is pretty? She’s got a lovely figure and always wears the most beautiful clothes.’

‘Don’t know, I suppose so, but she hasn’t got two children and an empty purse,’ she growled. With that she slammed his dinner down on the table and gravy spilled all over his shirt. Sensing trouble, Jim quietly wiped the brown goo from his person and got on with eating his food.

That night she moved Jim into the Neil's room, turfing Neil out and into Fiona’s room. There were wails from Fiona saying something about it not being fair. Neil didn’t seem to mind.

It was her coldness that upset Jim most. He would rather they had a good row, so he could find out what he had said that was so terrible. Every meal was slammed down without a word which was worse than not having a meal at all. Bryony wore the air of a Christian martyr about to meet a lion in the Coliseum.

That night when Jim dropped June off at her house when they had had a drink in the pub after work, he spoke to her about it.

‘I don’t know why she’s behaving like that June. I don’t know what I said. I was only telling her that I thought you were pretty.’

June winced, ‘If you don’t know what you've done, you’re a complete idiot. I know how I would feel. I don’t think we should see each other anymore,’ she said gathering up her things and leaping out of the car slamming the door as she went. Jim shrugged.

When he got home Bryony was sitting in front of the fire, knitting a jumper for Fiona. The needles clicked at speed, every so often she would flick them into the other hand and turn the work around. At least Jim thought it was a jumper.

‘Evening love, sorry I’m a bit late. I had to finish some work.’ Silence. The needles clacked furiously, and the dark green garment grew.

Jim turned the television on, at least it would break the silence, and poured himself a glass of beer. He scraped his charred dinner into the bin, burning his fingers on the scalding hot plate. He turned the oven off.

‘Just popping out love,’ Jim shouted, as he opened the back door. He needed to eat, so he thought he would go to the local takeaway. Jim hoped Mei would be behind the counter, she was a lovely girl and the thought cheered him up. Silence from the sitting room.

He got there just as the shop was closing and Mei was locking up.

‘Hey, Mei, can I get anything to eat.’

‘Sorry Mr Green, I’m afraid we’re shut,’ she replied, a broad smile lighting up her lovely brown eyes.

‘Do you fancy a drink, Mei? We could go to the pub together; I might be able to get something there.’

‘I don’t think so Mr Green, I have to go home to my husband, he’s expecting me. Maybe your wife is expecting you too Mr Green.’

‘Not really, Mei, we’re not speaking.’

‘That’s a shame Mr Green; you ought to make up. Life’s too short.’ With that Mei waved and ran across the road to where her car was parked. She was right. He would go home and make Bryony talk to him, but before he went, he would need a pint to give him courage.

The Black Horse was just across the road, so Jim strode over, pushed the door open and entered. Who should he see there but June, sitting on her own, twirling a half-empty glass of white wine in her hand.

‘Hello June,’ he sidled up to her, signalling to the barman that he would like a pint, ‘would you like a drink? He could see she had been crying. ‘What’s the matter?’ Jim asked, laying my hand over her delicate fingers and admiring the silver nail polish. ‘Did someone stand you up?’

‘Don’t be a prat, Jim,’ she hissed, ‘I’m with someone.’

At that moment, the door to the ladies opened and through the door walked Bryony. How had she got here? Who was looking after the children? Jim stared as she slipped into the seat beside June and signalled to the barman to bring them two more white wines.

‘Hello Jim,’ she said, ‘meet my new friend.’

Jim stuttered, ‘How did you get here? Who’s looking after the children?’

‘My mother of course, it wouldn’t be you, would it?’ Bryony laughed and turned to June. ‘Now where were we June? Oh, I know, we were discussing what a loser Jim is.’ She turned to me, ‘Are you still here Jim?

 The look of disgust on her face made Jim angry.

That night was the last time Jim saw Bryony. Well not quite. He waited for her to return home.

Jim stabbed the spade even harder into the roots of the holly. It sliced through the earth until it reached a decayed green knitted blanket. Jim quickly covered it up and heaped more earth on top.

Looking back now, Jim realised that he was to blame in some way for when the happy stopped. 


About the author 

Liz writes short stories and poetry and is just finishing her first novel. She lives in North Yorkshire and at the time of writing is looking out over a very wet landscape. 


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