Flora and Pomona
The two mediators are late. Karen has lit the fire and run upstairs twice to try and find the email confirming the appointment. Perhaps she was meant to go to their office? She finds the office number and rings, leaving a message, apologising if she’s got the arrangements wrong. She goes to the slot by her bookcase on the desk and rifles through bank statements, bills and notes to herself. It is there, the letter. They are coming to her. She goes back to the fire. She wonders if they are coming to her from the neighbours. She tries to imagine what’s happening on the other side of the wall and pokes the red crust of eco-coal to release a flame or two.
A woman is peering through the glass and still knocking hard on the door as she opens it. Behind her is a younger one and she flattens herself against the wall to let them in. It’s cold outside. The first apologises for traffic and not allowing enough time to find the house. So they haven’t been next door then. Not at all, in fact, or they’d have known where she lived. She’s their first visit.
She offers them tea or coffee but they want to get on. They introduce themselves – the dark haired one is Joanna, the younger one is Roxanne. Roxanne asks if she can take notes and explains they are there to listen. Joanna says how lovely the fire is and warm and they are fine in the sofa facing the heat.
The house is quiet, even the cat has stopped rushing around chasing invisible tails and wings, scratching at the carpet or pawing at curtains to see out. She remembers times she’d been invited into strangers’ homes. The two women remind her of Jehovah’s Witnesses, door knocking in pairs, pairs of patrolling police officers and wood pigeons that sit in the trees in her back garden.
They are here for her. To help. So now Joanna invites Karen to tell them what happened. It will be confidential. The others won’t be told what she says. They just want to hear the story from her side.
She looks at the painting above her fireplace, a 60th birthday present, two women talking with books behind them. Ah yes. The two sides. And she begins two years ago. Is it already that long? She always had trouble with dates. It was the summer before last.
She starts with the noise. The noise is still drowning so much out and she won’t remember to say anything about the morning when she opened the curtains, naked, to see a man on scaffolding a couple of feet away – the decorator. She won’t remember, either, to say how she passed the builder, hunched on the pavement with his trowel, doing something to a wall, the rain pouring over his head, shoulders, back, said something about his dedication to the job and how he’d scowled back at her, silent.
Of course he had because later that week a friend of hers was surprised the wall still hadn’t been fixed, it was a day’s work. She doesn’t mention how it carried on raining and he was there every day with his hood up, getting soaked, as if he was chained there for a sin.
Strangely, too, she doesn’t mention the dust that came with the noise and that she wasn’t able to put her washing out because of it and when she did, the builder got the hose out to wash down the roof and she had to bring the sheets in again. She doesn’t mention the young lad who worked with him saying loudly, ‘She’s back’ as she walked up her path one afternoon, so loud that she heard and looked up at the two of them on the scaffolding.
In the way she’s been trained, she tries to keep to facts, although she mentions her own sensitivity to noise, which has got worse as she’s grown older, and the fact that she works from home, so there was no escape. Yes she knows Rebecca and Dave had every right to get the work done but it dragged on so long and she’d have gone out to avoid the screeching if she’d known when. She never knew though and by the time it started, it was too late to make decisions.
At 110 decibels, an angle grinder is just 30 db below a jet engine at take-off and louder than a motorbike or nightclub. The angle grinder is being operated on a shared chimneystack, a roof away from where Karen works. She sits at her desk. Behind her, on the scaffolding, is an advert for reliable erections. This, at least, makes her smile. She’s trying to concentrate but she’s lost what she’s working on. The noise of the angle grinder has become the vortex a passenger plane creates in the sky, leaving its own trails. She feels the trails of all that is being moved around – her blood, her pulse, the neural pathways in her brain. She can’t hear the sparrows in the hedge, the clock, her own hands on the keyboard. She tries to make a cup of tea, thinking it might be better to go deeper into the house, away from the roof but the vortex claims the whole of the house, outside and inside. It throws itself over the street, the back wall.
Perhaps she wants to please the mediators, wants them to trust her. Is this why she sticks only to the main events of that summer? She’s conscious of time. They’re volunteers. They’ve left homes, partners, children maybe, cats, dogs, rabbits, to come out in the dark and cold. She’s conscious of how absurd it sounds as she tells them why she wrote the letter leading to this meeting, how these people turned their heads from her in the garden and in the street, how she tried to have conversations over the wall but it was no good. She’s ashamed she couldn’t ignore them, pretend they don’t exist. She’s ashamed she cares. She doesn’t know what the snapping point was for them. For her – a call she made and realised she was on speakerphone when she heard Dave laughing in the background at what she was saying.
Joanna leans forward, her hands together, her coat on the sofa behind her, sometimes looking into the fire. Roxanne, angular, thin, and probably in her early 30s, takes notes.
She wonders what they do as day jobs and why they volunteer for this. They let her talk and don’t ask questions. Not even, the what-happened-next kind of question. She is talking as if she is the fire, just getting on with heating the room. She knows she won’t remember what she says and wonders if she should have taken notes, or prepared something beforehand. It didn’t occur to her. She feels like she has put on a coat inside out, the wrong shoes for the weather, tights without elastic.
She has to do this and then there will be a meeting between all of them. She is sitting to the right of the fireplace, handing the two women what she thinks are waymarkers, signposts to track back to the angle grinder, the builder in his hood with his flickering eyes. She takes them back to a time when the children were small and were in and out of the two houses, when her front door was open, when the garden wall at the back was low enough to jump over.
She doesn’t tell the women she went out the back when her Rebecca and Dave left a card saying they’d be putting up a fence. She took photos of the wall, uneven and badly built, a wall as messy as a mouth of bad teeth. She took photos because the ragged wall was her past – Dot picking blackberries in the top corner of the garden and handing them over in a small bowl, enormous marimbas musicians brought through her kitchen one summer and played for her children and their friends, Dot and Winifred leaning out of a window at the back, clapping.
She doesn’t tell these two women how the back garden was open all the way up the hill when she moved in. How the children would complain about being kept awake by a crow and a wood pigeon. She doesn’t tell them how their old cat Bonny turned up one bank holiday weekend and wouldn’t leave. So Roxanne can’t write the word marimba in her notebook, or apple blossom, or peonies.
Joanna says she sounds hurt. She agrees. Joanna explains the important thing is looking to the future, not going over the past. She tells them this what she hopes for, this is what she wrote in her letter. Joanna says she hasn’t read the letter. That she and Roxanne will believe whatever she tells them, as they will believe whatever her neighbours tell them.
As the women put on their coats and pick up their bags, moving to the front door, Joanna stands to admire the tiles and says she discovered a fireplace in her house, behind a sheet of hardboard. The two women look at the plaster reliefs above the tiles – Flora, the Roman goddess of flowers and spring, and Pomona a wood nymph, cultivator of fruit trees. They smooth their hands over them, as she does sometimes and she explains they are goddesses of the home. She watches their backs on the path in the dark, taking their notes on her with them, like hairs on the back of a coat or a jumper, and she wants the fire to crackle into flames.
The next time she sees them it is in the basement of a tower block – layers of flats pressing down on them….three women this time, a flip chart, no tea, Rebecca and Dave and they each have 10 minutes to talk, uninterrupted.
Karen says she’s put what she wants in her letter. She doesn’t have anything to add, not even that she only wants to clear this all away. But Rebecca takes a sheet of paper out of her coat pocket. She explains she has prepared and timed her 10 minutes. That it’s something she has to do. She starts to talk, describing years of confrontations, of abuse.
Rebecca’s rehearsed speech catches Karen around the neck, a lasso. She is immobile. She can’t look up at anyone. She doesn’t recognise the person Rebecca is describing.
At the end, the older mediator asks Karen how she feels. Attacked. It’s the best she can do. One word. And does she want to respond? No. She can’t. Can we move on?
The third mediator is poised with a marker pen to make a list on the flip chart of how they will move on. Karen is reminded of office meetings and mission statements. The other two mediators come up with phrases and number them. These will be in the contract everyone takes away.
Her eyes feel out of focus when she signs each copy of the contract. The room smells of nothing but she thinks there’s a far-off banging as if someone’s hitting a pipe. There are no seasons in this room, no windows looking out. They all take a lift to the ground floor.
She walks back alone through the narrow, terraced streets, built on cholera graves and without foundations. She used to take the kids on the double decker bus that teetered down the steepest of these streets like a roller coaster. It was cheaper than the fair. She remembers the adrenalin.
At home she opens a bottle of wine. The cat comes to her as it often does when she’s upset and sits by her on the sofa, purring. The cat follows her to bed later and when she wakes up in the morning, crying, the cat stays close. She sobs, feels better, sobs again. She can’t understand why. She feels as she did when her brother rang her from a layby after their father had died and shouted as if it was her who’d killed him, and she listened, unable to hang up.
Now she can say hello and they have agreed they won’t look away, they will answer. Rebecca and Dave gave her a hug before they left the mediation room. She doesn’t know why. Was it to ensure that their version of her and her past stayed somehow attached to her shoulders? Was it to thank her for listening?
She wonders if she’s crying for an old version of her, like an operating system with software that’s no longer supported and she wonders if now she should leave the shrubs in the garden to grow higher, if she should do as they did and pretend she hasn’t seen them, if that is what they wanted and she should have respected that. She realises expecting to talk to them was stupid and at this point in her life she should be pretending she has the wrong glasses on and her hearing isn’t what it was.