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The International Writers Magazine: Dreamscapes

The Magnolia Agreement
• Chris Castle
Julie looked out of the window and saw his car pull into the driveway. The car summed up Mark; kind of falling to pieces and still charming. She watched as the car rode the curb in a vague way, before collapsing as much as parking. Out he came, wrestling the door open, ducking into the back seat. In his arms a turkey, over his shoulder a back-pack.


His hair was black and unkempt, his parka at odd angles on his shoulders. Today, Christmas day, he looked like a shambolic Santa Claus, maybe on his cigarette break. On any other day, a lazy cat burglar. It broke her heart how glad she was to see him.

He waved to her from the window and he tilted his head up as way of replying. Since Bobby’s death, Mark had become one thing and then another. First the grieving brother, then a friend. They shared the same small, painful things and spread their confusion out to one another with a bewildered sense humour. They had isolated others, Julie understood that, but she was surprised at how little she felt; cut off from friends that were more Bobby’s than hers, losing touch with relatives that she barely knew or understood. Both her parents gone, her lover dead, Mark seemed like a ghost almost, there to shore up the things that broke, one by one.
“Hey,” he said, setting down the turkey on the floor and dropping the ruck-sack. They hugged easily and he smiled at her shorter hairstyle, without saying anything about it.
“Hey yourself,” she said, scooping up the bird, as he looped his foot through the bag handle and up into his arms. “You did okay with the drive?”
“Hit the traffic, but it was okay. Three hours, I guess.” Bobby had been gone almost a year. Mark had told her he could not face Christmas with his folks, the endless relatives. He had not told her how they reacted to him choosing Julie’s place, or even if he told them. “People doing the family run I figure.”
They walked through to the kitchen and she dumped the bird on the kitchen surface. She had already heard the kids next door open their presents an hour before, screaming and squealing. Now, they were playing a computer game that echoed through the walls. Julie had sat listening to the family for the hour before Mark arrived, following the good natured confusion, fighting back tears as she pressed her ear to the wall.
“I asked the butcher, he said four hours at a good heat.” Mark slapped the bird and the loud ‘whipping’ sound echoed through the kitchen. “He seemed like a good guy; you should trust him.” He nodded to Julie and she nodded back, smiling as she crouched down to light the oven. It had taken a while to adjust to him; the things he said good-naturedly, things that made her laugh without him trying to be funny.

“I’ll trust him then,” she said, matching his earnestness. On the side were vegetables, stacked in small piles. Without asking she flicked on the coffee pot.
“We’ll start on the vegetables, if it’s all the same to you?” he said, looking from her to the food. He picked up the peeler and flipped a carrot over in his palm.
“Sounds like a plan,” she said, taking the knife from the cupboard and patting the stack of potatoes. The coffee started to gurgle and they went about the meal.

They talked as they worked, Mark telling her about the small problems of his gardening business, Julie swapping stories about the reports she processed, the articles written. As they talked the air began to gently warm and fill; first with the freshness of the vegetables, then the slow rise of the turkey. The heat was a good thing; it made the house feel something like a home for a short while; there was life in there, at work, happening. Pots were placed onto the stove and water brought to the boil. They drank more coffee; Julie wondered if next door heard her own good natured chaos as it happened.
“I bought some things,” he said, as they wandered into the living room; he fell into the sofa, pulling at his bag, Julie sat in the small chair, where she read most nights. “Decorations for the tree, I mean,” he said, pulling packets from the compartments.
“I didn’t buy a tree though,” she said, feeling herself blush. She looked around and saw how white the house looked, how blank. The street was awash with banners and trees, sprayed snow. Her place must have looked like a photocopy, a ghost house.
“For the magnolia tree, I mean. If that’s okay, Julie.” He didn’t finish pulling out the decorations from the bag. He went on looking at her and she saw him pale. She didn’t want that.
“That’s a good idea, Mark. Really.” She nodded and he went on pulling out the packets. The three of them had planted the magnolia tree in the back garden the day Julie and Bobby had moved into the house; Mark had driven it over in his truck and they had made an afternoon of it; Mark had told them it would be grow and blossom forever, like the two of them. She rose from the chair and sat next to him, holding up the garlands and rustling the tinsel in her palms.

It was cold by the time they wandered outside. Both of them put on their jackets, seeing their breath in-front of them. Carefully they began to hook the baubles over the branches, drape the lights in a repeated looping circle until it reached the top. The magnolia branches were smooth and thick and almost unreal. In the days after she had lost him, Julie had stood there, in the garden and touched it, the bark the same smooth texture as his arms. Later, she had almost taken an axe to it, to erase the whole feeling of him, but she let it slip from her hand as soon as she came within a foot of it. It held her in its sway now, the same way he once had.

They worked at it for almost an hour, hanging, re-adjusting, standing back and then crouching forward. Once, Mark had disappeared inside and turned on the fairy lights; they had stood for a long while, then both agreed they were draped in the wrong way. A second time, then a third and then finally it was done. The tree was cluttered and sparkling, cheap looking and still somehow beautiful. As they worked at it they talked about Bobby and when it was completed, the talk seemed to fade away. They went inside and opened a bottle of wine; it was red and heavy and they drank it slowly.
“When I was, I don’t know, seven or eight, I collected sea shells,” she said, as they set the table. She set down the cutlery, he folded the napkins.
“Yeah? I never knew that,” he said, folding a napkin into a triangle and slipping it under the fork. Both of them sipped their drinks.
“I made garlands and everything. Once I made a t-shirt. There must have been twenty of them glued onto the front. It was my favourite thing in the world for that whole summer.” The timer went off to tell her the food was done.
“I can’t remember why I stopped. Or when, even. I should get down to the beach again, or something,” she said and sipped her wine. Suddenly she missed the feel of them, the way they were brittle in her palm. She looked up and he smiled and Julie’s heart rocked; she could not remember if she had shared that secret with Bobby or not. 

They ate the food and poured more wine. The bird tasted good and the trimmings worked out well. There was a pudding sitting in the fridge but neither of them made a move for it. They pulled crackers and drank coffee. Sometimes there was silence, a quiet not filled by a television or music, but that was okay too. The light began to slip out of the day and she turned on the light. The phone rang but she let it ring out; he had a mobile phone somewhere but she did not know if he had it switched off or chose to ignore it. They walked the plates to the sink and let them sit in hot water, the knives at the bottom, the plates bobbing just below the surface. Both of them wiped their hands on the tea towel and then Julie began to kiss him and he kissed back. She thought how Bobby’s every kiss was a mystery and how Mark’s was an agreement somehow, but that was okay, too. Then she closed her eyes and kissed him again.

They lay on the sofa for a long while, holding each other and then dressed. Mark made coffee and Julie lay on the sofa, adjusting her clothes, her body a mess of soreness and warmth. He padded back along the bare boards and handed her the steaming cup. She followed him as he sat crossed legged in-front of her and held his in both hands. He could be so clumsy and so graceful, she thought. The coffee scent carried into the air, erasing what had gone before and that relieved her and saddened her, also.   

“I bought us these,” he said, pulling a plastic bag from his coat pocket. Two cigars sat in the baggie.
“I’ve never smoked a cigar before,” she said looking at them. He handed them to her and began to put on his shoes and socks.
“We’ll have to smoke them outside; the smell’s something fierce.” He nodded to her and she swung round, off the sofa. She slipped on her boots and he held the coat out for her to slip into. They walked towards the back door, the lights of the tree outside glowing palely against the glass. As they walked their hands slipped into each other’s; Julie did not notice if she reached for him, or the other way round.
“Here we go,” he said, lighting one of them, puffing at it and then handing it to Julie. He got the second one lit and then took a pull on it. Both of them looked at the magnolia tree, all the decorations sparkling under the lights. Someone in the street let off fireworks and a rocket exploded overhead in the sky. A few people cheered, a bottle cork popped.
“It feels weird,” she said, the smoke moving around her. The smoke mixed with her frozen breath; making her feel like she was eating the world.
“I think we could only enjoy it now in the cold. I wouldn’t like it in the summer, I don’t think,” he answered, looking up as another firework popped in the sky.
“I won’t be here in the summer,” she said. As soon as she said it, she knew it was what she had been waiting to say.
“You letting the house run out, huh?” he said, looking back from the sky to her. She nodded.
“There’s two months left. Then…I don’t know,” she shrugged. It was the truth.
“Around here?” he asked, holding her eye. His face was half-lit by the decorations and half hidden by the smoke. He looked like a stranger.
“I don’t think so,” she said. She dragged on the cigar again and blew out the smoke in a long, thick stream. There was another pop, louder than what went before and both of them flinched. When they looked up there was just a trail of dying smoke. The night was clear and stars began to fill up in the sky.
“It would be a good thing for you,” he said quietly. “Maybe you should go back down to the beach.” He swatted a bauble on the tree and when his hand fell to his side, their hands linked again.
“Maybe the beach then,” she said quietly. The sky burst again, but this time neither of them looked up. Instead they looked to each other. One after the other they dropped the cigars and stubbed them under their feet. Without the smoke they could see each other clearly. Then, still holding hands, they walked away from the stars and inside to the house.

Later, they talked and then he put the pack back on his shoulder. It was late and the roads outside the house were clear. He walked to the car and threw his pack into the passenger seat.

The sky was burning with stars and the air was well past freezing. He slipped on his hat, his gloves, so when they hugged goodbye she could not feel him and it was like he was already gone. Then he turned and walked down the driveway, back to the car. It reversed and then straightened out onto the road. She watched him steady himself. He raised a hand to her and she raised one in return. Then he drove down the street, turned left and gently slipped out of the street.

Julie did not notice the snow until after the car had gone. It fell gently at first and then with more speed. She looked at all the Christmas trees gathered in the driveways and closed her eyes; she imagined them all gathered together and dumped in just a few days time; maybe even tomorrow. The snow gathered and blew with more force, sweeping inside the house and over her skin. She turned and walked inside, closing the door, but not removing her coat.

Instead, she walked to the back door and out into the garden. The fireworks were long gone now and most of the street was sleeping. The sky was awash with snow now, the moon unseen. She looked away from it all, so she could be face to face with the magnolia tree. Slowly, taking no notice of the cold, she unhooked the decorations, unravelled the lights. She worked carefully, so as not to break any of the branches, or snap even a twig. The snow gathered around her, almost alive, as she worked; all the while saying Bobby’s name, sometimes out loud, sometimes under her breath.

When the tree was bare she reached forward. She peeled off her gloves and loosened the buttons on her coat. Julie put her palms onto the tree, and then edged closer, letting her body press against it. It was all still his skin; it held her, even soothed the red patches where Mark’s stubble had scratched her neck. There was no judgements now, no guilt. She held it closer, the snow enveloping her, feeling happiness and feeling sorrow. She stayed there for as long as she could; thinking about the past, the future. Then, as the snow subsided, she drew away and walked slowly to the door. The decorations had been carried away, the lights tangled against the fence. But the tree still stood. She looked at it one final time and then walked away, the house warm but cooling and impossibly empty once more. She sat in the chair, watching the tree sway and the stars burn. Then she closed her eyes, the night over and the new morning growing outside. There was only the future left and she fell to sleep with a tired smile on her lips, something decided, something overcome.

© Chris Castle June 2012

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