Fiction · 02/26/2014

Tulips

Deirdre is looking into the brown paper bag. The face she has on her, you’d swear he was after giving her a bag full of fresh turds, though to be fair they don’t look like much.

— Fuck’s sake, Declan, I said diamonds. Diamonds is what you bring back from Amsterdam.

— They’re bulbs, Declan says. Tulips.

— Tulips me hole, Deirdre says. She tosses them out the open kitchen window, bag and all.

— Ah jaysus, Dee, language, he says, glancing at Amy.

— She has her head stuck in the computer, Deirdre says. She’s not even listening.

— Hello? I’m studying? Amy says. And I’m also 21.

Amy’s doing Classics at Trinity, Latin and Greek, whatever she’s going to do with that. Declan likes complaining about it to their friends. It’s all Greek to me, he’ll say, to get a laugh, though the truth is, he’s proud having a daughter in college doing something useless for four years.

He takes the De Beers box out of his pocket and hands it wordlessly to his wife. She snatches it like a starved cur and rips it open. Her eyes are glittering as she fastens the 11k diamond bracelet, the exact one she ordered, onto her wrist. She can barely take her eyes off it when she remembers to thank him, a dry brush of lips on cheek.

— Thanks Dec. It’s perfect. 

Then she’s gone off upstairs to get ready for her night out with the girls. Never mind that he’s been away for the last fortnight, breaking his balls with investor meetings. 

When she descends she’s as sleek a mink in a tight silvery dress that shows off her tan and, of course, her bracelet. She does a turn.

— Well?

— Very nice, Dee, he says, but the truth is she doesn’t care what he thinks.

When she’s gone, the house heaves a sigh and slumps into heavy silence. Or maybe that was him sighing, him slumping. It’s already news time when he notices the dusk settling in around him. He goes to the window. There’s a beautiful sky out there, colour of a Cadbury’s wrapper, an even deeper purple on the water. When you’re from the midlands you never get tired of looking at the sea. Fuck it. He’ll spoil himself, since no one else will.

He goes to the drinks cabinet, bypasses all the flavoured vodkas that the girls drink, and brings out the Middleton Rare. Good man, Declan, you fucking earned it, he tells himself as he pours a generous measure into the heavy-bottomed crystal. He takes it out to the kitchen and sticks it under the contraption on the fridge and it obliges him with a cascade of crushed ice. 

With his free hand, he unbuttons his trousers and lets them fall to the floor, giving his belly free rein over the waistband of his boxers. As he wanders back into the hall he stands on the toe of one sock and pulls the other foot out. On the second one he wobbles and some of his whiskey sloshes onto the white carpet. He wipes at it with the socks but the amber, smokey-smelling stain is still there. Fuck it, he can buy another. Carpet or sock.

At the top of the stairs, he goes to the far end of the corridor where another flight leads up from the extension. Up and over, he told John Joe, his foreman, when they were planning it. Everyone was at it. Convert the garage, put a room over, extend it out the back. In their case the extension was bigger, foot for foot, than the original house. There was one or two noses out of joint with the neighbours, but nothing a few bob couldn’t fix. Deirdre was royally pissed off that they didn’t just sell up and move to the south side, Killiney or Sandymount or somewhere, where all her friends were playing tennis day and night, by all accounts. But with stamp duty the way it was, he was damned if he was moving. It wouldn’t do to lose the run of yourself altogether.

She was happy enough when it was finished, going around in a whirlwind of shopping for curtains and cushions and chandeliers. She did a grand job, in fairness. Declan likes nothing more than showing visitors around. The tour always ends when, glasses in hand, they get to the top of the extension stairs and emerge out into the enclosed roof garden. They’re all wowed when he flicks a switch and, like a convertible, the tinted glass front wall and half the roof folds back (he chooses to interpret the house on steroids comment from Amy’s friend, Caoimhe or Aoibheann or whatever she’s called, as a compliment).

He’s wowed himself every time he comes up. His wrangles with planners and rows with his engineers, and the squabbles with Deirdre, all fall away when he lowers himself into the jacuzzi and lets his gaze roam out over Bull Island and beyond, across the whole of Dublin Bay. This is the life, he thinks. This is the fucking life.

+

Spring 2009. Goroko is Nespresso’s limited edition pod, according to the pack, and Amy is standing at the counter, waiting for it to stop dripping.

— Green shoots, she says.

If he was honest, Declan still prefers instant. It’s what he has when he’s on the sites. But he wouldn’t dare say so at home.

— See, I told you there was nothing to worry about, Deirdre says to Declan, imagining that their daughter is listening to the radio which is droning away in the background with its endless talk about the economy. As if, as Amy might put it herself. Amy rolls her eyes instead. According to Amy, Ireland is going down the tubes, and her generation is going with it. There’s already talk going around her class about emigrating. She never misses an opportunity to tell them about her new victim status.

— That’s bullshit, Deirdre says. Isn’t half of Eastern Europe coming here still? Isn’t it, Dec? You still have projects going. The Condos? The Florida project? Right?

— Right, Declan says. Credit willing.

Credo. It’s Latin, Amy says. It means I believe.

— No one believes anymore, that’s the problem, Declan says.

— Maybe we’ll take a jolly over, see how it’s progressing, Deirdre muses, as if she hasn’t heard him. Get in a bit of shopping.

Well, nearly no one believes.

— I meant, Amy says, and even with her back to him Declan knows her eyes are skyward. There. Green shoots. In the garden.

She picks up the tiny cup.

— And Mum? You need to go to BT’s. We’re low on pods.

+

When Declan gets back from Florida Deirdre is still thick with him for not bringing her, but he’s not in the mood for a row. He pleads jetlag and goes to lie down, but he can’t sleep. Even across the Atlantic, the investors are getting nervous with all this bail-out stuff. He has to sell at least half before he can finish even the first phase of the apartments, and buyers are down to a trickle.

When he gets up an unrestful few hours later Deirdre is nowhere to be seen.

— Spa, Amy says. She’s curled up on the couch with her computer.

— What? Oh, right. Spa used to mean something else when he was growing up.

There’s a purple tulip in a vase on the coffee table, nearly black.

— That’s nice, he says, for something to say.

— The black tulip?

There’s something not completely innocent about Amy’s tone.

— Yea.

He remembers the bulbs he brought from the Amsterdam trip.

— Was it one of . . .?

— Mm hm? she says. You were being ironic, I presume?

— Ironic?

Sometimes his daughter makes him feel thick.

— The whole tulip mania thing?

— O that? O, yea.

They contemplate the flower between them in silence. After a few moments, Declan says,

— Nearly a shame not to leave it grow all the same.

— You may be mistaking it for a beanstalk? Amy says.

A beanstalk would be nice, growing up past the kitchen window, past the extension, up into the clouds, one that he could climb to find a golden goose at the top.

He looks it up later. The little lightweight computer is really Deirdre’s, and his fingers feel too big for the keys. But it’s all there, how the Dutch went mad for tulips, convincing themselves that a single bulb was worth the price of a house. There was one poor fucker, a cobbler, who owned a black tulip — Declan wonders if it was like this one, or could you get blacker — anyway, word gets out that your man has this rare tulip. The big shots don’t like it so they send around a bunch of henchmen. Declan pictures them arriving, decked out like the grim reaper in dark hoods and cloaks. He must have been shitting himself. They want to buy his bulb, and he doesn’t have much say in the matter. But they offer what was a small fortune back then, so he accepts. Then they take his bulb and grind it into the ground and tell him he could’ve had anything he’d asked for and they’d have given it to him to make sure they were the only ones who had a black tulip. Your man supposedly drops dead when they leave. Feckin’ eejits, Declan is thinking, even while the penny drops.

There’s something about the story he can’t let go of. He clings to it like a penance. He starts browsing the web, finding out about all the tulip varieties you can get. The Latin names would put you off but eventually he finds a site where you can choose in plain English. You could still make an eejit out of yourself with the prices of rare varieties, but he’s not interested in finding a perfect black tulip after all. He buys his bulbs in graduating shades, from deep purple through blues, yellows, reds, and plants them in window boxes which he arranges in a semi-circle around the patio. Deirdre’s garden person is beyond annoyed. They have to go. Deirdre suggests the roof. Declan sulks, but when he’s sipping whiskey in his hot tub, surrounded by a rainbow of tulips she’ll see the magic, the way these dirty looking onions transform themselves into, well, what Declan thinks look like rainbow tears. And of course he’s enough of a fool to say so, which earns him a tolerant smile from his wife while she casts a glance in the direction of his glass.

+

A year later Declan keeps his posture erect as he walks out of the office, but when the self-closing door seals with a soft whoosh behind him he has to lean against it to steady himself. His heart is going ninety, and under the fancy suit his shirt is wet. In a daze, he stumbles across the hall to the gents. He hardly recognises the white face in the mirror. He splashes a few handfuls of water on it to try and bring a bit of colour back before he has to face the receptionist and later, Deirdre and Amy. While he was being slowly roasted, the girls were having a mooch around the Sales — shoes for Deirdre, though he swears Imelda Marcos has nothing on his wife, and Amy needs a cover for that iPad thing he brought back from Florida. The same bastards who couldn’t get enough of him before wanted nothing to do with him now. Extending his credit in the current economic climate would be foolhardy, they told him, smiling as if he was a simpleton. Did they think he didn’t fucking know that? All he was asking was enough to tide him over, just enough to finish the first phase of the Florida development.

— That’s what they’re all saying, Declan. I’m afraid my hands are tied.

This, from the same bollix who was practically begging him to take their money not too long ago.

Back in the lobby, he manages a weak smile for the receptionist. She doesn’t meet his eye.

He emerges out into the street gasping, as if he’s escaping from a morgue full of corpses, all spewing and hissing their gases at him. He can’t seem to get enough air into his lungs. When he first came up to Dublin he couldn’t believe how dirty the air was. He kept thinking he’d move back to his father’s few acres when he’d made a few bob. But when the work started coming in, and the good times kept getting better, he got sucked in until there was no getting out. And apparently this is where it got him. Jaysus, he wasn’t going to have a heart attack, here on Stephen’s Green, was he? Focus, Declan, he told himself. Focus. Sounds. Traffic, a jackhammer somewhere, music, All the single ladies, All the single ladies. Try harder. There’s voices, birds. A breeze starting to rise. Smell of horse shit on it, that’s those carriages over there, for the tourists. Smell of moisture too, the country boy in him recognises. There’s rain on the way.

He steps inside himself, and just for a moment he’s a lifetime away from cities and meetings, a boy again, picking potatoes out of the dark musty soil, brushing the dirt off their pearly skins, marvelling at the miracle of them. By the time he meets up with the girls in Carluccio’s he’s able to pick up the concertina of shopping bags they’ve accumulated, along with the bill for tiny coffees and tinier biscuits, without wincing.

— How did it go? Deirdre asks in the car on the way home.

— Grand, he said. It went grand. I’ve a big project on.

+

Everything you need you can buy from the internet. But this is something Deirdre knew all along, if her computer History is anything to go by. Herself and Amy are beyond in Spain. Good job Deirdre had the foresight to put the apartment in her name. Everyone he knows is trying to sign properties over now but that horse has well and truly bolted.

— Go for the summer, he encouraged. I’m busy here, but you girls should go, enjoy yourselves.

They took him at his word. Amy’s even talking about staying on to learn some Spanish.

— So you were right about emigrating, he said when she told him. He supposed, picturing his daughter lying by the pool in her bikini, plugged in to some language tape or other and imagining herself exiled, that he was being ironic. Amy’s Em, well, adios, Dad came not long after, making him feel bad about saying it.

Over and over, he clicks Buy Now. He enters the details of his credit card, whispers I believe, I believe, I believe, with his fingers crossed behind his back, and he’s only conscious of his speeding heart when Your Order Has Been Placed appears.

The gro-bags he was able to get down at the garden centre. The sweat was pouring off him, hefting them up three flights of stairs, but hadn’t he hefted plenty of bags of sand and cement in his time. His muscles feel good to be working again. He’s had to tighten his belt a notch already. He’s not eating much, and he’s even cut back on the whiskey. Had to, since he ran out and didn’t replace the bottle. He feels fitter than he has in years.

+

— How’s the project going, Dec? Deirdre asks. She looks like she’s been laughing with someone off camera. Now and again she glances over her shoulder. She looks good. Skype is neither here nor there, Declan thinks. You’re nearly better off with a telephone and a bad line.

— Grand, grand. Who’s there with you?

— O, just some of the gang. She smiles in the direction of the people he can’t see and half-raises her wine glass to them. Then she turns back to Declan.

— Everything all right? I like the beard, by the way.

By like, she means, What’s with the beard? She hates beards. But he can hear the edge of anxiety in her everything all right, and he feels a rush of sympathy. After all, it’s not her fault everything’s gone belly-up.

— Everything’s grand, he says.

— Everything will be all right, he says.

— I won’t keep you, he says.

+

It’s not the top of a beanstalk, but it’s the next best thing. He spends most of his time on the roof, even sleeps up there on the lounger cushions. There were lots of missed phone calls until eventually he plugged out the landline and stopped recharging his iPhone. He hears the doorbell ringing from time to time, but he just carries on working. When the dusk deepens and the street lights start to glow, it’s time to flick the switch, one that he installed himself, and instead of the roof folding back, the garden room lights up like a movie set. Then it’s time for this boyo to unwind. He steps into the jacuzzi and lets the hot jets do their thing. Over its gurgling and splash he can hear the sounds of traffic outside, rush hour winding down. The feathery leaves of his plants camouflage and envelop him in a verdant womb and when a helicopter passes overhead it occurs to him that he could be in Vietnam. Or one of the movies about Vietnam, at least.

He holds his hands up to the harsh fluorescent light overhead, calloused from his recent labours. Yep, he still has the green fingers. Come September, he’ll harvest these beauties. John Joe, his old foreman, knows someone who’s good at the marketing side of things, even has the plastic bags for the buds, baggies he calls them, ready to go. Got them from the same company that sent the seeds. Cannabis Sativa. It kept popping up in little boxes when he was on the internet looking for tulips and he sort of got a feel for the Latin, he explained to John Joe, scratching his head as if he couldn’t believe it himself.

— And will you be getting a feel for the weed too? John Joe asked.

He’s never rolled a joint in his life, but he’s seen enough lads on the sites doing it. He tries to imagine himself lying here in a few months time, pinching the Rizlas tidily around dried leaves and buds, licking them into place, neatly inserting the cardboard filter, touching the lighter flame to the thin paper ends, then the long inhale. He holds his breath thinking about it. His hand reaches out and lightly touches the nearest leaf, such a bright green that you can practically see the chlorophyll at work. That’s what he’s after; he likes growing things. The THC is strictly business. He’s doing it for Deirdre, for Amy. He’s not a smoker. Whiskey’s his drug of choice, and even that he’s gone off lately.

He lies back into the hot water, and his exhalation is one long sigh.

+++

Paula McGrath (@ViewReView1) writes fiction and non-fiction. She’s currently editing her novel in stories No One’s From Chicago for her MFA, and, with luck, the reading public at large. She has work published in Eclectica, ROPES Galway, mslexia, NecessaryFiction, gorse.ie and others.