Spines

Bethany Cody


She mothers a sharp garden. At the base of a steep, rocky hill lies her sprawling backyard, a flowerless forest of tall and unusual cacti.

“June?”

He’s hovering in the doorway.

She’s never liked the way he says her name. Forty-three years of hearing it uttered in his weak voice and it sounds just as pathetic as it had when they first met.

“Yes, Robin. I’m ready.”

It’s a short walk from their backyard to the front door, out onto the sloped suburban street and into the driver’s seat of their car. She feels it watching her from the backseat as they drive – glassy eyes observing the sweat collecting on the nape of her neck – the teddy bear with his furry frown.

She should’ve burned it.

Robin wouldn’t let her.

She should’ve burned him too.

They’re too far into retirement now.

Suzanne would ask, “Where’s Robin?”

She’d have to think quick to avoid the stares of their friends at bowls club.

The mailman would get lonely and start asking questions when Robin wasn’t there to meet him at the end of their driveway for their weekly gossip.

What would she tell them?

How he pleaded for his life, begged on calloused hands and gammy knees, how he started to cry, rivulets of saltwater slipping down his reddened cheeks, into the coarse greying hair of his beard, how he pissed himself…

“June?”

“Yes, Robin?”

“Shall we go now?”

She nods.

She hesitates, glancing back at the impressive marble headstone resting beneath the gumtrees. So wrapped up in her vengeful thoughts, she hadn’t said anything to Margo. She feels the first flutters of emotion, heat rising to her cheeks, a prickling sensation at the paper thin inner corners of her eyes. She coughs, curling her fingers painfully into the fabric of her handbag before walking to their car, overtaking her husband.

At home, they track flecks of graveyard dirt through the delicate cream of their living room carpet. Robin hobbles over to the cupboard to start vacuuming the floor.

Before powering it up, he asks, “June?”

“Yes, Robin?”

“Cup of tea?”

She nods, keeping her back turned and goes about her garden pulling up weeds, trimming, watering, getting lost in all the different shades of green. He’ll be a while.

On Thursday she drives through the winding Adelaide hills to pick up more cacti from the plant nursery, a hidden gem tucked into the side of the mountain, just off the main road. She’s looking for something new, something exotic, something exciting. They regularly have new collections of florae – a plethora of fruit trees, Australian nettles, rows of pungent roses, multi-coloured hydrangeas, award winning camellias with velveteen petals housed in the shade of a small rotunda. After making her purchases she sits with a cup of coffee and some scones in the cafĂ© attached to the grounds.

This is her favourite place now that Margo is gone. She yearns for it, the suppleness of skin, the scent of warm milk, baby’s breath, floral shampoo and sunblock, her favourite place now no longer tangible, touchable only through memories.

The overbearing South Australian sun chases her home.

She carries the cacti from the car on her hip and goes through the house to the back verandah. She tears pages from Robin’s newspaper on the coffee table and deftly wraps them over the thorns, careful not to snap their delicate, bone-like protrusions. Once unearthed from their containers, she rehouses them in large ceramic pots and fills the edges with dark, aromatic soil, scattering ashy coloured pebbles over the top.

He never understood it.

She never tried to make him.

He’s too ham-fisted for gardening.

They sleep in separate beds now. He has a habit of snoring. She has a habit of waking up with her fingers wrapped around his lapel, creeping ever closer… Robin is a heavy sleeper, a lump of immovable meat. He never wakes up, not even as she tightens her grip, awake enough to know what she’s doing.

They’re too old for it now.

In her twenties June had been the successful middle child of a loveless marriage. Her parents had divorced, her eldest sister was living in another country and her youngest brother had turned to drugs. She dated several men with varying levels of success. She’d been married twice and fell out of love just as fast as they had cheated and moved on. She was the mayor of the city of Rostrevor when she met Robin.

At first she didn’t mind his shyness and she didn’t notice his quirks until after they were married. His front teeth were too big, clinking against mugs of tea and beer bottles. As they grew older, her fury manifested as huffs of hot, angry air. He stopped noticing them when he went a little deaf, so she found other ways of showing it – a lack of eye contact, clipped sentences, neglecting to do his laundry. She watched him struggle from the window, seeing him bend down to stuff the front loader with his smelly, urine soaked underwear. His prostate had grown along with his stomach before self-destructing decades ago and no amount of laundry detergent helped smother the stink.

And yet he was the only one who gave her a child.

“June?”

He’s hovering in the doorway again.

She turns her head slightly, listening.

“Um, when should I pop dinner in the oven?”

“I don’t know, Robin, whenever you start to get hungry.”

He leaves her in the garden.

Half an hour passes before the savoury scents of roast beef and buttered potatoes swirl out into the night air from inside their small kitchen. When she comes in for the night and joins Robin to eat dinner in front of the TV, she half hopes he’ll choke. She’s disappointed when he clears his plate and leaves, the sounds of snoring from the other room starting up what seems like only seconds later.

It happens on a Tuesday afternoon.

She can’t say she never thinks about it – it crosses her mind several times a day – but their visit to the cemetery solidifies it in her mind. They’re standing by Margo’s grave, paying their respects, talking to her in their heads, when June glances up and sees Robin watching her. A young woman is just a few plots over, sitting on the gravel beside a drab, concrete headstone. She’s alone, dressed in a short, black pencil skirt and openly weeping. Her dark hair dances about her face in the wind as she weeps.

June feels sour, stinging with something unspoken, something acidic. They leave Margo and drive home in silence. The teddy bear strapped into the backseat seems to radiate heat, directing it into the small of her back as they drive. She turns the airconditioning on and leaves it on despite Robin’s shivery protests.

Inside Robin asks, “Cup of tea?”

She nods and enters the garden.

He wanders outside onto the verandah with a mug of black tea in each hand – a dash of milk in his, about a quarter of it in hers. No sugar for either.

“Nice day for it.”

He rests their mugs on the coffee table and pulls a chair out for himself. Before he sits down he hovers next to her, watching her watch the thorny garden.

“They’re coming along nicely.”

It just happens.

She pushes him into the forest, their spines glinting with violent intent.

“June!”

He collapses on them, surrounded on all sides, stuck, skewered, confused.

It was his fault.

“June, help me up. I can’t get up.”

She watches him struggle.

Worm on a hook.

“June, help me.”

He’s frightened. His eyes are wide and wild, taking in his situation, imploring her to move. She’s stuck too. It looks painful. She wonders how many spines he’s snapped with the weight of his portly body.

Finally she steps closer.

“I can’t get up.”

His breathing is shallow and fast. His squirming drives the spines deeper.

She raises her foot, planting the sole of her shoe in the centre of his chest, bearing down.

“June?”

She presses further.

“June, stop. Help me up.”

There’s tears in his eyes now.

She doesn’t stop.

“June, please.”

She bears down again.

Eventually he’s flat on his back in a tangle of collapsed cacti and dirt and half-broken thorns. He hasn’t pissed himself and he’s not dead either. He’s crying, gasping for air in between sobs.

“Oh, June…”

She flinches.

His entire body convulses with the effort of crying, spasming on the concrete pavers.

“Why?”

She doesn’t know what to say.

“Why, June?”

She can’t help him, she doesn’t know why she did it. It hasn’t changed anything, it hasn’t brought Margo back and she isn’t sorry for doing it.

“Ow…”

He’s bleeding; it trickles down his arms and hands, his weathered, wrinkly neck.

Suddenly weightless, she sits down in the chair Robin pulled out from the table and sips from her tea, watching him struggle to get to his feet. It’s barely lukewarm now, not as nice as it would’ve been hot.

“Oh, June.”

It’s breathless, carried away on the breeze as it snakes through her spiny garden.