The parched ground beneath our bleached blonde lawn is cracking. I watch comb-footed spiders hide and seek among stems, and the ants that prefer to play Sardines in the flowerbed where we buried the cat last spring. The midday heat ripples beneath a swift’s soaring cry.
I listen out for the landline ringing. At the doctor’s surgery, they filled phials with my blood and told me they’d call before 4pm today. The vivid crimson brought to mind a pair of patent leather shoes I treasured when I was small.
“Do you remember the ladybird plague of ’76?” you ask.
The words erupt out of you so suddenly that I jump. It’s as though you’ve glimpsed the red gleam in my thoughts and misidentified the memory. I don’t bother to remind you that I wasn’t born then.
“There were so many that people were burning them off the sides of their houses.” Your eyes widen until I see the white lapping around your iris. “Imagine that! During a drought, people were literally setting fire to their homes. Anytime anyone went outside, ladybirds landed all over them – the blighters were actually biting!”
I’m not sure why you’re telling me this.
Neither of us has slept well since lockdown began. My own weight-loss and general itchiness hint at causes different to, yet as dark as, the pandemic. But of the two of us, I’m not the one who would elicit concern from onlookers. Insomnia has carved hollows into your cheeks and painted rain clouds under your eyes. Your eyebrows tuft like wind-stormed trees.
I shift my gaze, looking instead to the drought in our garden. Rose leaves freckle with blemishes and I notice holes where small gluttons have feasted.
I feel the weight of the secateurs in my hand and lift my arm, searching for any trembling signs of infirmity. In the pond, goldfish play grandmother’s footsteps with damselflies that mimic the glittered pins that nipped my scalp as a child.
“Everyone thinks ladybirds are great pest munchers, but it doesn’t take much for them to become the pests.” You lock eyes with me. “But it passed. They passed, the ladybirds. One day there were little desiccated husks on the ground and everything went back to normal.”
I envision cells mutating inside my lymph nodes, spreading outwards like a spilt cup of coffee. You reach out a hand and touch it against my arm. “We can beat this.”
Instead of replying, I step away and close the secateurs’ blades around a withered bud’s stem. It plummets and rebounds against the dry earth, coming to a rest with petals pointing skywards.
I touch one hand to my throat, aware of you watching me.
Swifts scream their siren calls as they arc by.
Judy Darley is a British writer who can’t stop writing about the fallibilities of the human mind. Her short fiction appears in magazines and anthologies. Judy’s short story collection Sky Light Rain is out now from Valley Press. Find Judy at www.SkyLightRain.com and www.twitter.com/JudyDarley.