THE OTHER GARDEN
by BEN STALLWOOD
e felt abandoned” said the psychologist. Michael had been introduced to her as he was shown into the ward by the nurse, but he’d forgotten her name almost immediately. He sipped his coffee, and then sat still, feeling like a breakwater in the face of a wave. “A lot of his hallucinations were of doors that seemed to appear in the walls. He told us that the doors would slam shut when he went near them. I think he was scared of being trapped, and being shut away without anyone. I’m sorry, this must be terribly hard for you to hear.”
“No, it’s OK,” said Michael, not meaning it. “It’s better to know.”
“Oliver left a note. Were you aware?”
“I... no. It never occurred to me to ask.”
“Here. It’s not the original. We have to keep that for the hospital’s records. This is a photocopy.”
Michael got the impression the hospital staff were bending a rule for him.
“Thank you,” he said.
“It’s no bother. We were all very fond of your brother here. It was such a shock. And, Mr. Wax, I know this must be terrible for you to have to come to terms with. If you ever need anyone to...”
“I’ve had therapy, thanks. I don’t need any more.” Michael got up and left the room. In the car, with the rough tongues of rain smearing the windscreen, he read the photocopied note.
There are faces on the statues they remember who I am I am turning to stone time has not passed it doesn’t come here nothing grows the statues have faces my face is turning to stone
Even to Michael, the funeral was dull. Oliver Wax had been diagnosed with schizophrenia in his twenties and died on a psychiatric ward less than ten years later. He hadn’t had the kind of life that hadn’t left much to celebrate, and the celebrant’s monologue felt forced and disingenuous as a result. Michael was preoccupied with the phrase medical negligence claim, and found it hard to listen.
Oliver’s childhood best friend had died of an overdose in his twenties. The younger Wax brother had been single, unemployed and isolated, living the last years of his life between wards, rehab clinics and supported housing. He’d had no real friends, and the mourners were a mismatched bunch, Michael thought. He spotted the psychologist from the day before sitting awkwardly with a gaggle of other care staff who seemed fidgety and bored. Next to them was a scruffy group in cheap shirts, who Michael took to be former patients. Anyway, even if there had been anyone that Michael had wanted to talk to, he wasn’t sure if he had much to say about his brother.
Michael, a neurologist, was disinclined to invest a great deal of meaning in the contents of Oliver’s hallucinations, or his note, for that matter. He took the piece of paper out again and folded it back and forwards in his fingers. To him, the stone skin and the cessation of time that his brother had written about said nothing more profound than a dopamine imbalance. Oliver had probably been born mad.
He went home. Chrissie, his wife, hugged him and then told him she’d ordered a takeaway. Michael wasn’t sure if he could even sit down without falling asleep. The funeral had been draining.
“How was it today?” asked Chrissie, gently.
“Hilarious. I love funerals.”
“Michael, I’m being serious.”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
He took off his jacket and tie, and slumped into the sofa, not looking at Chrissie.
The next day Chrissie asked him again. She waited until they were out of the house as if she was worried Michael would say something bad enough to taint the place. They were walking their fat spaniel in one of the city’s sweeping, exposed parks, shouting over the wind, and Michael knew he had to say something, When he tried to think about the death, though, his mind went blank.
“So, how’d it go yesterday?” she asked.
“Well, I don’t know. It was a bit awkward,” said Michael. “I didn’t know anyone there.”
“What about Oliver’s friends?”
“He didn’t really have any.”
“Oh. And how are you?”
“Michel, you know what I mean. I mean how are you?”
“I don’t know, Chrissie. What do you want me to say?”
Chrissie was quiet and then, sounding almost desperate, she said, “It must be hard.”
“What about it?”
“Just... I was thinking about what you said the psychologist had told you at the hospital. It must be hard not to feel like... I don’t know. Like there was more you could have done.”
“You don’t have to feel like that, Michael. That’s what I’m trying to say. You’ve not done anything wrong.” Chrissie smiled and squeezed Michael’s had.
They trudged on in silence. It was raining lightly, Michael could feel the rattle of the water against the hood of his anorak. The park itself was nearly empty. Michael looked around him. If you ignored the sounds of the nearby motorway and the distant towers of council flats, you could almost kid yourself you were out of the city.
“I’m going to go back to my mum’s house,” said Michael.
“What do you mean? I thought... I thought no-one lived there anymore?”
“No, it’s been empty for years. I just want to see the old place.”
“Why?” Chrissie was starting to sound like a school teacher, Michael thought. “I don’t really think poking around in a bunch of old ruins is a good idea. You’re not a teenager anymore. It’s trespassing. You’ll probably get arrested.”
“I’m not going to go in, obviously. That’d be stupid,” Michael snapped. “I just want to try and remember him, that’s all. He lived there for years after mum died. It’d be a good place to go and connect with him”
“I don’t think,” said Chrissie, with exaggerated patience, “that an abandoned house is necessarily the best place to go to remember someone. It’s hardly a happy memory, is it?”
You left me here I turned to stone we buried her here her body is still here I’m still here the water is bitter the thorns are steel the earth is ash and mud
Michael went anyway. Out of the city, the roads were quiet, and when Michael turned into the town that he and Oliver had grown up in, he could scarcely see another person.
He found the street, right on the edge of the village, and pulled up in front of the little red brick cottage. It was raining furiously. Michael parked the car but he didn’t get out. He sat, and stared blankly out of the driver’s side window.
Their mother’s old house was the last house on a row that petered out into the waste ground on the edge of town. The nettles and mud looked like they were trying to reclaim it.
The house was empty now. When their mother had been ill, Michael had been away at medical school. Oliver had been spending his time taking acid and playing in bands. After she’d died, Oliver, with nowhere else to go, had lingered on in the old house. No-one had lived there since he had been sectioned for the first time a few years later. The paramedics had found him in the house, the neighbours had called the police after Oliver, in the middle of a psychotic episode, had tried to drill through the wall between their houses in the middle of the night.
Michael stared at the house. The front garden looked like a roiling sea of piss-smelling green nettles. The red bricks were blistered with moss, like sores. The windows were boarded up.
The blame was unfair, Michael thought. True, his brother had had it tough, but he wasn’t the only one who had suffered. For Michael, every stroke patient had seemed like mum for the first years in medical practice, and he’d stuck it out in case he could save one of them. Every time a patient’s teenage son had come on to the ward, lonely and guarded and looking ready to bite any hand that tried to feed him, Michael had seen his little brother. Oliver had spent the last ten years in oblivion, anyway, while Michael had tried to rebuild his life. What the fuck was it he’d wanted Michael to do?
Michael slammed the car into gear and tore out onto the wet road. Chrissie was right, it’d been stupid to come back here. It wasn’t how normal people grieved. It wasn’t what he wanted to remember.
“How do you feel?” asked Nikki, Michael’s private therapist.
“OK. Anger is good. Why are you angry? Do you mean you’re angry with the hospital staff for not watching your brother more closely?”
“No. I’m angry with Oliver for telling me everything was my fault.”
“In what way did he tell you that?” Nikki asked.
“His note. He said I’d left him there. The psychologist on the psychiatric ward told me he kept imagining people shutting doors on him. His whole illness was one big allegory for fuck you, Michael.“
“Anger is natural in bereavement.”
“Do you think your work as a neurologist has something to do with your mother’s death when you were younger?” asked Nikki.
“Yes. Obviously. That’s nothing new.”
“Tell me about your mother,” Nikki said. Michael tried to read her face and found that he couldn’t.
Mum had aged fifteen years in the six weeks between diagnosis and death. Hospitals turn everyone into patients; wrinkly and unkempt and weak and pale. But community care is worse; Oliver had once rung Michael in tears because the Doctor had turned up to examine Mum and brought a med student with him. Community Care turned the little house into a palliative care ward, in which Oliver had found himself living, feeling useless and out of place every time the carers or the district nurse had come to look after mum.
After a while Oliver had started to avoid the house, and he’d made a shit carer, as a result, Michael remembered. He drank and smoked weed and came home late, and mum had had to get up every morning without fail and get her own medication and breakfast from the kitchen. His cleaning was so bad that their mum used to wait until he’d gone out and then hobble around after him with the hoover and mop. Oliver’s guilt kept him out of the house for longer and later every night, but his obvious distress meant that he was never confronted. Michael didn’t know if anyone had ever told him that what he was doing wasn’t OK, although doubtless he knew deep down. He did some chores, though. It had been spring, and Oliver had raked the garden clear of litter and dug beds for flowers. One day he had bought mum a sundial. It was a hideous old Victorian-looking thing; utterly out of place in the tiny strip of lawn and the little, fifties style two-bed on the edge of town.
When mum had had the second stroke it had been early in the morning. She had woken Oliver up and asked him to call an ambulance, but he’d panicked and called Michael instead. When Michael arrived, Oliver and mum were sitting on the bed together. Oliver was reading aloud to mum. Mum was trying to talk but her speech had gone. She kept starting and then stopping, realizing sentence by sentence how many synapses in the language centre of her brain must have died in the night. How many words she’d lost for good. It was Michael who called the ambulance in the end.
Oliver had stayed in the hospital for fourteen hours a day for the last two weeks until mum had died, flitting between the stroke ward, the cafe, and the little shop to buy books and magazines to read to her. By that time, mum’s face had begun to melt and soften like candle wax, forming the classic one-side droop that Michael had become so familiar with in stroke patients. After mum had died, Michael went back to university, to grieve out of sight. Oliver went back to the house, his bereavement stuck on a loop like a scratched record.
“Sorry,” said Nikki. “I’m aware we’re in a very deep place at the moment, but I’m afraid that’s all we have time for today.”
Michael paid her, and left.
That night, Michael and Chrissie had a fight.
“Just tell me,” Chrissie said, percussively, “what exactly he did wrong all these years?”
“He was shit to Mum when she was ill. You know, he used to get up at midday and be drunk by the afternoon. Mum had to get all her own meals, all her own medication, everything. And he claimed he was her carer. Wouldn’t you be angry?”
“He was eighteen. He was probably scared shitless, and didn’t know what else to do.”
“Well he doesn’t... he didn’t have to blame me for it,” said Michael, sulkily. “He spent the last ten years doing nothing except sitting around and stewing. He hated me, Chrissie. What did I ever do to him?”
“You’ve got nothing to be angry about,” Chrissie spat. “Michael, your brother was sick. He didn’t know what he was saying. It’s not productive to get angry with him for what he wrote in his suicide note before he died. He probably wasn’t thinking clearly.”
“No, it doesn’t work like that,” said Michael. He didn’t care if he had a right to be angry or not. He just wanted to shout.
“Why are you sensitive to it? Honestly, you’ve been a real dick recently since all of this. I’m trying to help you. It’s like you still think you can prove him wrong.”
“I can be angry if I want. Don’t try and tell me what to think, Chrissie.”
“Fine,” Chrissie said with gritted teeth. “But you don’t have to take it out on me. Did you see your therapist today? I thought it was supposed to make you nicer, not more horrible.”
On the sofa, unable to sleep, Michael lay still and listened to the wind. It was shaking the windows so violently it sounded like something was trying to get in. Michael took out the note again.
You never came back you left me here time has not passed time has not passed time has not passed she died here we buried her here in the garden the garden the garden the garden the garden the garden where nothing grows time hasn’t passed the garden the statues are watching watching watching you left me here to wait for you Im waiting Im waiting Im waiting
Michael got up. He looked around him, feeling lost and exhausted by his own ebbing anger. In the dark flat, the street lighting outside made right-angled shapes of orange on the ceiling. Gently, Michael slunk into bed next to Chrissie.
They switched on a lamp, and read the note together. Afterward, Chrissie asked, “What does he mean about The Garden? What garden?”
“I don’t know. He mentioned it to me once, after he got locked up, but I never really figured out what he meant. There was a garden at mum’s house that Oliver used to look after for her when she was ill, just doing the weeding and planting some flowers and things like that. I guess it must have meant a lot to him.
“After she died and he started getting... you know, getting ill, he started to talk about this imaginary place that he called the Other Garden. He tried to describe it to me once; it was this place where... where time never passed, and nothing ever grew. It was in his head, you know. I guess it was some place where he could store all the guilt and bad thoughts and memories, somewhere where they couldn’t hurt him. I think he thought, after he started to unravel, you know, I think he thought that this Other Garden was where mum had gone. It was around then that he started to show psychotic symptoms. You know, I think it was then that his personality first started to split.”
“What did he mean about time not passing, though?” asked Chrissie, softly, putting her hand on Michael’s under the covers. “What’s the significance of that?”
“Well, they say time heals, don’t they? I guess he was scared that if time wouldn’t pass then he wouldn’t be able to move on. In some ways he never really grew up, you know? He was only eighteen when mum died. All his friends went off to university or got jobs and families, and he just stayed behind in that house and got more and more stuck in the past. I guess the world sort of left him behind. That must have been what he was trying to tell us.”
“What about the statues?”
“Fuck knows,” said Michael. “You know what he was like. It was probably just a bad trip or something.”
Chrissie didn’t reply, but Michael could feel her wanting to say something. She nudged his shoulder with her head, settling down into the crook of his arm. Michael suddenly felt angry again. He felt hemmed in by her body on his, like something bad was about to happen and she was blocking his escape.
“Michael, I’m sorry but I’ve got to ask. Do you ever feel... you know, guilty? For Oliver?”
“Why would I?” asked Michael, coldly. Chrissie was transparent sometimes.
“I’m not saying you should. Honestly, that’s not what I meant. But it’d be natural if part of you, you know, blamed yourself for not being there.”
“Thanks, Chrissie. Thanks a fucking bunch.”
Chrissie tried to apologise, and in the end, Michael pretended not to be hurt until she left him alone. He could almost feel her, fishing around inside him for some of the feelings she wanted him to be feeling. He rolled over and, eventually, went to sleep.
Michael dreamed he was in a garden. In his hand was a shovel, and in front of him was a freshly dug pit. Lying on the earth at his feet was a figure, made of stone.
Michael was up again before it had got properly light. He got dressed. Chrissie rolled over, sleepily, and muttered, “Where’re you going?”
“Back to the house. If I’m going to be thinking about it anyway I might as well go and visit. I won’t be long”.
“Michael, don’t you think...”
Michael shut the bedroom door quietly, knowing that Chrissie wouldn’t try and follow him. He didn’t know the name of the feeling that was making him want to go back. True, it was a painful memory to have to re-experience. To Michael, reliving this piece of the past was like a sort of self-harm. But this addiction to grief was, Michael thought, how Oliver must have lived his whole life. For Michael, self-flagellation brought a feeling like kinship with his brother. He wanted to see through his eyes.
Outside, the sky was turning from dark blue to stony grey. It was raining again. Michael ran to his car.
He found the last street in town and pulled up slowly. The nettles and weeds in front of the house dripped rain water like venom. On the stony wasteland behind the house, Michael could see a shopping trolley and the remnants of a fire.
Michael got out of the car, and, the raindrops stinging like insect bites, mud, and gravel sticking to his shoes, he picked his way across the untended path to the front door.
The porch was narrow, barely wide enough to shelter Michael from the rain. He pressed himself flat against the front door, letting his body grow comfortable pressed against the brown laminate and hollow plastic. He could just make out the outline of the house number, pale against the exaggerated grain of the fake wood. Soft cobwebs hung like foliage across the whole door; Michael tried to pull away and felt them sticking to his jacket.
And the door, Michael discovered, was unlocked. Why, he didn’t know. No-one had lived in the house for years although, Michael mused, it was possible that it still belonged to Oliver’s estate. Michael heard the creak of the hinges as if something was drawing breath. Then he stepped inside and slammed the door shut behind him with a rattle.
On his right was the kitchen, barely bigger than a cupboard once the oven and fridge were accounted for. The lacquer on the sides was cracked, showing the fleshy chipboard underneath. Straight ahead, past the kitchen, was the little house’s one downstairs room, and past that, the staircase. Oliver had lived out of this room, Michael remembered. He’d hated going upstairs in the house; he used to piss in the garden rather than go up to the bathroom.
Michael thought he knew why. Mum’s bedroom door had been firmly shut the day she’d died. Oliver suddenly found he couldn’t walk across the top floor landing. The shut door looked blank, like a dead eye, and it was left to the imagination to picture what might be in the room behind the door. Oliver had told Michael once that he sometimes thought he could still hear mum’s voice coming through the door, coughing and calling out for a glass of water. Even Michael, without Oliver’s delusions, felt a little chill when he saw the staircase. He edged into the room uncomfortably, trying not to turn his back on the steps.
The downstairs of the house was completely bare of furniture. Most of it had been sold to pay for the costs of Oliver’s care, in the latter years of his life. The one room looked bigger, as a result. The thick green carpet let out bursts of dust where Michael’s feet fell, snaking around his ankles like smoke. On Michael’s left was a heavy black-out curtain over the tiny window.
Oliver had drawn all over the downstairs walls in coloured chalk, and the contrary effect of the bareness of the room and the chaos of colours on the walls themselves made Michael feel like he was seeing something impossible, like watching water burn.
At the far end of the room were the sliding doors, and behind these, dark in the cloudy daylight, was the garden.
Michael stared. It was a tiny piece of land, barely five metres square. The fence had fallen backward into the undergrowth, and from the house, it was hard to tell where the garden itself ended and the wastelands behind the house began. Nettles and thorns pressed all the way up to the glass doors, nearly the height of a person, like something peering in. Through the thicket, Michael could see the yellow-grey and moss green outline of the old sundial. It was a chunky, ancient thing, it’s bronze needle and dial blue-green with copper oxide rust and smeared white with cobwebs and bird shit. It was too big and too grand for the tiny garden, Michael thought, and for the small, low-mortgage, poorly built, fit-to-die-in house in the shadow of which it stood.
Michael suddenly became aware of a sound that he’d been trying to ignore. A fat, black fly was rasping against the glass doorway, trying to get out. Michael reached for the plastic door handle but then stopped himself. The thought of actually opening the door seemed suddenly impossible as if the garden might spill into the house. He turned around, trying to ignore the sound.
Oliver’s drawings on the walls were mostly indecipherable. There was some text, written in blue and red chalk over the yellowing patterns of the fifties-style wallpaper; mostly these were lyrics Michael recognized from Oliver’s favourite teenage bands, and poetry that Oliver had apparently written himself. The drawings, though, were strange. Oliver seemed to be preoccupied with the features of the house itself; the heavy line drawings depicted windows, doorways, steps... Oliver seemed to have a good if basic understanding of perspective; the doorways and windows were set at the end of long, sloping corridors and twisting staircases, apparently leading away into nothing. Michael thought about Oliver being alone in the house, growing over-familiar with the surroundings, craving extra corridors and windows, and doors to get out. Michael suddenly remembered the empty space of the staircase behind him. He felt his skin begin to prickle. He resisted the urge to turn round.
Around a particular patch of graffiti, on the right-hand wall that partitioned the house with the adjoining one on the terrace, Oliver had drawn thick, white lines. Michael stepped back.
It was a doorway. Not just a picture of a doorway but the actual outline of one. Oliver had drawn a rectangle, roughly seven feet high and about three across, and the shape was unmistakable. Around one line, Michael noticed a gash in the wallpaper. He remembered what the police officers who had taken Oliver away had said, about Oliver drilling into the wall with a power tool, trying to tunnel through.
In the garden, something moved.
Michael spun round. The undergrowth was still, moving only with the wind outside. He stared, in panic, through the glass doorway. In the garden, he saw a sudden flash something grey-black in the thicket. Michael cried out.
But the thing wasn’t moving. It was only the sundial and a trick of the wind. Michael turned round, looked once more over the empty room, the staircase, and the garden, then turned to leave the house. Michael heard a cough behind him. He paused and then, once again forcing himself not to turn around, he stepped towards the front door.
On his way out he stopped, suddenly. The fly had stopped buzzing. In the kitchen, sitting in the sink was a spider the size of a rat.
Michael slammed the door behind him as he left.
We buried her in the garden brother you left me in the garden brother time doesn’t pass in the garden brother come back to the garden brother
In the hospital, not the leafy, discreet psychiatric unit in which Oliver had died but the sprawling, town-sized general hospital where Michael worked, Michael leaned against the wall on the stroke ward and listened to the registrar and the ward sister go over discharge plans. He’d not slept the night before; he’d had a nightmare in which a stone figure was knelt down in front of him in a pose like it was begging for its life. He’d woken up at three am, unable to go back to sleep, and now, at nine am, on the overheated ward with its sweet smell of sanitizer and sickness, he was finding it hard to see straight.
In one of the bays, a patient was screaming. The voice was slurred and indistinct, like stroke patient’s often are, but Michael could make out the words help me and home. He vaguely remembered the patient; an older man with yellowing skin and cumulative strokes that were beginning to cause dementia. The ward sister rolled her eyes at the shouting man in the bay, and said, scoldingly, “Has anyone told him he’s not the only patient here?”
It was a slow, routine day’s work. The older man in the bay carried on shouting for help. Michael overheard two of the nurses saying I cannot stand that man to each other.
He ate alone on his lunch break. Suddenly, sitting at the quietest table he could find, in the corner of the hospital cafeteria, the full weight of Oliver’s death seemed to hit him without warning. He’d felt nothing but numbness since the funeral, but now, it was as if the months and months of pain and impotent anger were making themselves felt all at once, cold and engulfing. Michael left the cafeteria, shaking, and sat in his car, crying out of sight. His hands itched where he wanted to smash something.
“It’s like he’s not dead,” Michael sobbed into the phone, to where Chrissie was cooing soothingly on the other end of the line. “I mean, I know he is but I feel like he’s not, you know?”
“I know, Michael. I know.”
“I could almost swear he’s still alive. Like I’ll turn a corner one day and he’ll just be standing there in the street. It seems so unreal.”
“How did it go at your mum’s old house yesterday?” Chrissie asked. Trying a joke, she said “Any sinister statues or magic gardens?”
“No,” Michael laughed, wetly. “Just the old sundial, and the normal garden at the back of the house. No other gardens or anything like that. It was so strange going back there. Honestly, Chrissie. I really freaked myself out.”
And after work, Michael went back to the house again. Chrissie had tried to call, and he had switched off his phone. He felt sick and shaky; a nagging feeling at the back of his mind as if some sort of time limit was running out. The rain had eased up, but it was getting dark by the time he reached the ring road. The lights of other cars made red and orange smears across the windscreen, like flames. Michael drove like he was dreaming, expecting at any moment the road to collapse underneath him, or the sky to turn red, or something else impossible to happen.
Michael parked on the street by the wasteland on the edge of town. The neon cones of light from the streetlamps didn’t reach that far down, and the little cottage was in darkness. He took out Oliver’s note from his wallet, where it had been for the last month since Oliver had died. The paper had grown thin and shiny with wear, like old skin. The creased edges were beginning to blacken with dirt. Michael unfolded the creaking paper and read the last line, where Oliver’s handwriting began to deteriorate into a desperate scrawl.
I’m still here I’m still here I’m still here I’m still here I’m still here I’m still here I’m still here I’m still here I’m still here I’m still here I’m still here I’m still here I’m still here I’m still here I’m still here
Oliver was dead, Michael reminded himself, but even when he’d written the note, even when he was still alive, living his last few days in a haze of chlorpromazine and waking dreams, Oliver had thought he was somewhere else, trapped somewhere ten years ago where time had stopped passing and all the people he had known had turned to stone. Where was he?
Aloud, Michael muttered, “Where are you, Brother?”
Michael got out of the car. He threw Oliver’s note into one of the overflowing drains and watched it get sucked under, like a dead gull at sea. Michael looked at the tiny, dark cottage in front of him, the low-rent two-bedroom in which his whole family had been destroyed, and then, swearing, he took a step towards the front door.
Something touched Michael’s neck and he shivered, convinced for a moment that someone had run their fingers down the back of his neck, but it was only the head-high nettles and weeds brushing against him. His skin was raised and hot and itchy around his collar where the nettles had stung his neck.
Inside the house it was dark enough to make Michael panic. The wind tore the door out of his hands and slammed it shut behind him, leaving Michael in the sightless corridor fumbling for his mobile phone and trying to control his breathing. In the weak light of the phone screen, the bare inside of the house looked hard, grey and concrete.
Michael crept into the big downstairs room by torchlight and sat down on the ground. He crossed his legs, put his head in his hands, and, in the total dark, began to cry quietly. Around him, the draft from the poorly fitting windows and roof moved the dust in the house like a miniature sandstorm, brushing his face and eyes with the stale stench of the old, moulding building. Michael felt his eyes begin to sting.
What had happened to Oliver? He remembered visiting the house when his mother had still been alive, although she’d been sick then. He’d come back from university to stay and had brought flowers and baskets of fruit, had paid for a taxi to take mum up to visit her favourite museum and had held the frail woman’s arm when she got too tired to walk. Meanwhile, Oliver, eighteen years old, had stayed home, angrily washing dishes like he was trying to strip the paint off the china, and never saying a word to either of them. Michael had taken Oliver to one side and said, Listen, mate, you know mum’s not very well..., like it was that simple. And then Michael had gone back to college, a hundred miles away. Looking back, ten years later, Michael began to realise exactly why Oliver had hated him so much.
For Michael, their mother’s death had been a tragedy, but in reality now, it seemed more like a setback in his young life. He’d graduated from medical school regardless. His pain had brought nothing but a sensitive streak people seemed to like in him, and a passion for his work. He’d suffered, no doubt, but he’d survived, and grown stronger. He’d been able to like himself, to like his life, regardless, and from that standpoint of strength, he’d been able to move on. But for Oliver, the death had been a cataclysm akin to an earthquake. The whole trajectory of Oliver’s life had been derailed. He’d lived his last ten years like a man picking through ruins; his few achievements like smashed pictures re-hung on walls without roofs over them.
Oliver’s psychotic symptoms had been quick to manifest. The first, and most common delusion was the feeling that time had stopped passing. Michael remembered only months after their mother had died that Oliver had said as much to him. But this hallucination wasn’t far from Oliver’s reality. He’d never worked, or gone to college, or formed relationships past those he had formed as a teenager. For Oliver, every morning must have felt more or less the same as the one before. Oliver had hated the house he’d lived in, too, where every step and stairway reminded him of his dead mother. It was no wonder Oliver’s grief had grown so pathological.
Michael opened his eyes. On the dark floor, a rectangle of grey light had begun to form where the starlight and street lights from outside came in through the sliding doors. In the light, Michael could see the shadows of the garden; high weeds, a stooped tree, and the hard outline of the sundial played across the floor like the silhouettes of a crowd of people; with a twist, Michael began to feel as if he wasn’t alone.
And then there had been the Other Garden. It had been a constant theme in Oliver’s writing, and in his hallucinations, in the last few years. But why? Why a garden? Oliver had tried to describe it to Michael once, on a visit to the hospital when Oliver had been in one of his more lucid phases. The soil there was ash, Oliver said. The water was bitter like it had been poisoned. It was a garden where nothing grew, populated only by stone statues with the faces of people Oliver used to know. And buried in the soil, Oliver had said, was the corpse of their mother.
“Did you bury her?”Michael had asked, coldly.
“We buried her,” Oliver had replied.
A place where nothing grew. A place where time didn’t pass. Over the last few years of Oliver’s life, Michael knew, he had begun to live more and more in the space inside his own head. He’d retreated into the Other Garden. That must be where he was.
The shadows on the floor were moving in the wind. Michael looked up.
Pressed against the glass doorway, in the dark garden, was a face.
Slowly, Michael stood up. Like in a nightmare, the face didn’t move. It’s gaze remained fixed on where Michael had been sat. Michael walked over to the door. On the other side of the dirty glass, the garden was full of still, grey figures. They crowded around the doorway, peering into the dark house, their grey, stone eyes staring down at the light on the floor.
Michael turned around. On the inside wall, something glimmered. He shone the light from his phone.
It was Oliver’s drawing, the picture of a door that he had drawn on the wall and then tried to tunnel through with a drill. But the chalk outline, Michael saw, had vanished. Instead, Michael saw wooded panels and brass hinges. The glinting in the torchlight was a rusted handle.
Michael had asked Oliver once, in frustration, where exactly he thought the Other Garden was.
“You know, like, in a dream?” Oliver had said. “When you dream you’re in some place familiar except... except in the dream it’s different. There’s another place or another part of it that isn’t there in real life. It’s like in the normal directions, the normal three dimensions, everything is exactly where it should be. But in your dream there’s another direction, another dimension, that doesn’t exist in real life, and in that direction, there could be anything. That’s where the Other Garden is.”
Michael tugged at the handle of the door on the wall, the one that couldn’t really be there. On the other side was darkness. Michael tasted something like ash in his mouth.
“Brother, I’m coming.”
Ben Stallwood has published a handful of short stories in various zines and anthologies over the last few years; His dark fantasy novella The Lady of Carterhaugh was published in the now defunct Haunted Magazine, and two of his short stories (Extinguishing the Flame and The Salt Garden) were published in James Ward Kirk Fiction’s anthology Songs for The Raven in early 2013. More recently he had my debut novel, Sleep Still, Charnel Horse, published by up-and-coming small press 18thWall productions. He is currently guest-editing an anthology with the same company and is due to release a short story collection at the end of this year. When not writing, he works for adult social services, which has a big influence on his work. He also manages and edits a fiction zine called Empty Oaks, the first issue of which will be released in August.
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