Friday 23 February 2024

Harriet and Horace by Geoff Naumann, New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc

‘For the love of Horace.  You’re too much, and so are your feathers! Why didn’t you pluck pluck pluck the day you arrived? I’d’ve sent you straight back with the farm lady.’ Harriet couldn’t tell you if she was speaking out loud or only in her head. After all these years alone it was one of those things that just was. 


            She went to her notice board,  wrote: sweep up duck feathers and: clean up crap. Then stopped. Suddenly. Like going to do something important, but forgetting what it was. ‘For the love of Horace - next I will embroider a plush cushion with a farm yard scene. Gotta find a saying that fits. All the world’s a barn and we’re all merely animals.’ Chuckling, she exclaimed to Horace, whose wobbling head implied he had heard her this time: ‘I just made that up. Me!’


            After collecting a full dustpan of his feathers she twisted gently toward the cluttered kitchen bench and pulled a plastic bag from the over-stuffed bottom drawer; the feathers tumbled over each other floating up and down until finally settling at the bag’s base. Harriet swirled and knotted it. ‘Ha ha. You’ll come in handy after all you plucky plucky duck.’ Returning to the blackboard, she started a new column: Pillow with number 347 red barn, 3045 brown for the fence, stock up on the sixty-three DMC greens. ‘I’m going to need a larger To Do board!’


            She stepped over her sweater and house slippers shedded earlier and sat in her sun-faded, once-plump wing chair to carry on with her current embroidery project, another of those sayings. She pulled at her skein of stranded cotton removing three of the six threads to thicken the 311 blue of the capital letter T.


            Harriet looked to Horace from apologising eyes.  She really had thought to find him a companion. Didn’t happen though.


            Now just two old ducks alone; that’s what Kathleen from her work days says, anyhow. It was Kathleen who’d wondered about the duck’s name. Only other Horace Kathleen knew was Vandergelder, from that Hello Dolly show. But she knew after William passed Harriet was never going to get around to finding her own Horace, one who’d install new green window shutters for Harriet.


            ‘So long ago. Fifteen years. Good that he hadn’t suffered. But suddenly, alone? How can fifteen years apart still feel so together?’


            She again returned to her embroidering and chattering to Horace. ‘I’m doing one about today,’ she called through the screen door. She couldn’t recall if she’d read this one, heard it, or just created it from within. Kind of always knew it. She didn’t know the Latin for it though. Diem is integral, she nearly convinced herself; or is it?


            Harriet liked all those quotes. Fun ones. Old ones. I like all that olde worlde stuff, she would say. She was drawn indulgently to that Latin poet’s quotes. And that’s how she’d named the duck - ‘Yes you! A picture is a poem without words, that’s one of his,’ she informed Horace.


            After the words came the curlicues, then the flowers, culminating in surrounding the words with whole kaleidoscopic cotton gardens.  She was at that age where her eyes believed she was appreciating fresh flowers whenever imitation ones were in a vase. She’d redden every time she smelled them. Now she worried her embroidery blooms were themselves getting less realistic, not more. ‘Damn my eyes.’


            She remembered to thread her needle, she was up to the D: check, enter, exit, pull, again. Her daily pattern with a descant of bon mot murmured creatively. ‘A stitch in time saves mine. Mine? My what? Really?’ 


            Harriet still had plenty of shelves and tables and cabinets in the house to fill with her embroidery despite having attempted a garage sale after Bill passed.  Some of his bits and bobs had sold. She thought to sell the sadness with them. When she realised that didn’t work, she gave up.


            She’d been stitching, and making plans, ever since. Supposed to be calming. It was, sometimes, maybe.  To Harriet, the handmade pieces had become like presents; either birthday or Christmas, didn’t matter which; presents you eagerly await, open slowly but excitedly.  She loved revealing them thread by thread.


            Into this contemplation weaved the wonderment of that one day, long ago, when she just made it happen. She paused her needle, took a long breath. Exhaling slowly she felt herself walking into the boss’s office, recalled her trembling voice: ‘I need to talk to you.’ She distinctly heard the actorly quality of her boss’s response, sincere but rehearsed: ‘We heard about William, so sorry. Anything you need; take as long as you like.’ ‘Well that’s just it,’ she replied, just as rehearsed. ‘All the time, Today Tomorrow The Day After That, I’m taking it all, for me. I’m going. Now.’


            Threading her needle with a double strand of 18 yellow, she questioned waiting until he’d gone? ‘We could’ve enjoyed the garden, cottage, sitting, doing nothing, together?’ She was up to the Y.


            Fifteen summer’s ago, as an anniversary gift, William had dug a little pond. Harriet had always wanted a water feature, maybe some day would add one of those quaint bridges you could buy at the pottery shop. It had been rewarding hard work. He had loved doing things for her. ‘She keeps dreaming up all these garden ideas,’ he’d tell the neighbours, ‘pergola near her potting shed is next.’ This pond project meant shifting the area’s notoriously heavy clay soil. Barrows upon barrows were piled against the fence (weed the clay mounds is actually on Harriet’s blackboard). William lined the pond, bought specially-ordered aquatic plants. ‘The old girl wants to bring the whole country’s wildlife to our section,’ he mockingly complained to all who listened. The final inclusion was the solar water spray, to aerate for life more than art or enjoyment.


            The pond flourished into a picturesque wildlife scene - but only after he’d gone. The ambulance came quickly, but was too late. Their local country doctor came too. He said it was one of those things: ‘Could have happened anytime. Hearts tick like windup clocks.’ William’s heart just chose to seize that day. 


            That was a Sunday, her day was the Monday. Life was going to be full she’d decided.


            William’s pond agreed. The water hawthorn was prolific, the jointed twig rush whistled in the wind, the golden creeping jenny dotted the water with its summery yellow flowers. Harriet and Horace knew a little green and golden bell frog had made its home. Harriet was once inspired to start a Monet-like embroidery, but the pond became so full of life, it wasn’t visible. Her muse was hidden. She had not written, clean up the pond, on her blackboard.


            Harriet glanced up from her embroidery and out to the verdant labyrinth. That’s what started it all. That pond, now lurking murky within the muted green threads of rushes and weeds.  


            Horace’s scratching and pulling disrupted her pondering. ‘More? Seriously?’ She yelled at her retirement companion: ‘Go and pick up your own feathers, you messy thing.’


            Then it was finished. Things do tend to just finish. She set down the linen. Turned off the standard lamp. Sat. Those dark moments seemed to go on, far too long. Shallow breathes threatened to overflow. Turning to the deck door she saw the thin sideways moon smirking at her.


            Now is the time to drink! Horace’ - never a question with Harriet, always a statement. She turned on the lounge room pendant light. She draped this newest unframed embroidery over her grandest Ibsen stitchery of a thousand words that commandeered the fireplace.


            She collected a bottle of sauvignon blanc from the fridge and a glass from the cabinet. A small rustic pine frame, hung with heavy twine on the knob, swung as she opened and closed the door - In vino veritas, that was one of the earliest ones she’d stitched. Her first brimful glass always ran effortlessly and swiftly, submerging the past.


            Harriet circled back into the lounge room, placed the glass and bottle on her side table and stood with hands-on-hips, facing her latest wordy garden piece: If it’s worth doing today it’ll still be worth doing tomorrow.


            ‘For the love of Horace,  I misspelled today!’ 


            Harriet bent to the side table to seize the glass. Posed like Lady Liberty she exclaimed another of her favourites, ‘Carpe vinum,’ as she raised a toast to TOADY.


            With bemusement, crossed with a little frustration, she plonked into her chair. Harriet gazed beyond the deck to the small garden. She imagined the moon’s soft light illuminating the wind-strewn mottled green swirls of duck weed on William’s pond.


            Horace was pacing; waddling sentinel-like across the deck; surprised at the late night attention. Who there?; he raspingly called in his low base notes; Who you? ‘We are two funny old ducks,’ Harriet replied, confirming the obvious, ‘M’lady and mallard.’


             Harriet, consoled, smiled. Horace, reassured, plucked.


            As she allowed her droopy eyelids to close, Harriet looked back to that decisive fifteen-year-old Monday: ‘Every duck has its day…..that was mine.’

About the author 


Geoff retired, early, from careers in the theatre, hospitality management, and marketing since "there wasn't time to read". Now in phase two of retirement Geoff is attempting to gather his own words into stories. Geoff is an Australian who migrated in the atypical direction and now resides in New Zealand. 

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