The church hall boasts its customary fête day smell; the mothballsy stink of old clothes from the jumble offset by the faint parmesan stink of the floor. It’s here, on Friday nights, that Sel’s twin ten-year-old daughter’s practice ballroom dancing barefoot. The women are fawning over the vicar, plying him with tea and macaroons. Sel wants to snicker aloud at this cliché but knows the vicar is handsome; a young thirty-something with bitumen black hair and brown beer-bottle eyes. He drops Dai Tablet’s beans on the pasting table set aside for the annual Abergorki long veg growing society show, then goes back to the car for his cucumbers. Cucumbers are Selwyn’s thing: gently boomerang-shaped, smooth-skinned, a bright Islamic green. He’s won every September for the past five years. If he can do it again, if he can win the competition one more time, he knows that’ll send the wheel of fortune spinning in the opposite direction; that his luck will change, everything’ll be alright. The smell of cucumbers, acidic and dusty, leaches out as he lifts the door. He heard once their scent is an aphrodisiac. Not for Susan; it’d take an earthquake to rouse her.
As he crosses the courtyard he sees Dai’s box van pull up in the parking bay, the stone chippings spluttering. ‘Am I too late?’ Dai says, clambering out, a package wrapped in newspaper held to his waist.
‘You’re alright,’ says Sel. ‘Time to set up. What’s that?’
Dai pulls the parcel closer to himself. ‘Something I’ve been experimenting with in the greenhouse.’ He drops the parcel to his side and presses his keys, the van locking behind him. Inside, he begins setting his produce out on the crêpe tablecloth, carrots and leeks expertly arranged in a balsa wood fruit basket, the newspaper bundle set aside. He’s wearing his Cardiff Blues jersey which he knows irks Selwyn no end, lifelong Ponty fan that he is.
‘Men?’ the vicar says, sidling to the table, toned pectorals distinct under his tightly-fitting cassock. ‘Would you mind exhibiting a little earlier? The WI are behind schedule.’ He checks his watch for effect. ‘One of the ladies has gone back for a flan.’
‘No problem,’ Dai says absently, spraying his water spritzer.
‘Back in three,’ the vicar says before turning to receive a bouquet of snapdragons from a child with a plaster on its eyebrow. ‘Let’s see it then,’ says Sel, eyeing Dai’s bundle. ‘Must be pretty snazzy for you to do it in secret. What is it? Spinach?’
‘If you must know—’ he reaches for the parcel, gently unfolding the newspaper. ‘It’s cucumbers, the luxury type, not the Burpless, a different variety to yours.’
They’re different alright; thirteen inches apiece, sleek and tapered. Spotless. Sel is thunderstruck. ‘Good work,’ he stutters while Dai leans over the fruits as if to perform cunnilingus on them. Sel feels his temperature rising, prickles moving across his sternum.
The vicar’s coming back ‘Where are we?’ he asks rubbing his hands together, eyeing the produce perfunctorily. ‘Let’s start with the beans.’ He points at Dai’s runners. ‘First prize to you,’ he mutters at him. No fanfare. No pomp. Dai smiles slyly to himself. ‘Thank you, vicar.’
‘Cukes, then,’ the vicar says.
‘Cucumbers,’ Sel corrects him. ‘Cukes are something else entirely, related to the melon family.’ The vicar shrugs; could not care less about long veg or its given names. ‘Cukes,’ he repeats himself, gesturing at Dai’s luxuries.
‘You’re kidding me?’ Sel is instantly apoplectic. He wants to step onto the table and stamp the produce down like a wine presser squishing grapes. ‘I don’t kid, Mr Griffiths,’ the vicar says.
Selwyn hears himself shrieking abruptly at the vicar, his Adam’s apple swollen: ‘You jumped up little arsehole.’ He chops him once in the midriff, his teenage karate coming back to him, unstoppable as light. The vicar doesn’t flinch. ‘Excuse me, ladies,’ he says, scanning the room. He draws his elbow back, the whipcord of a crossbow. In a second Selwyn’s on the floor.
He opens his eyes, the lids slow and sticky. His vision is blurred, woolly patches of purple on the lens. He makes out his bare legs, resting on a Terylene sheet, stretching out into infinity. He’s tall, he remembers, 6’3. At the seatbelt factory they called him ‘the Griffith’s tower.’ He turns to see an overweight man in the hospital bed next to him, long seashell-white hair curling where it meets his shoulders. ‘Oh, it’s you,’ Sel says, as if he’s known him all his life, though he’s never met Georgie Pugh, not properly. He lives a few metres away from Selwyn in an area known colloquially as ‘the villas’. The council sold the majority of the seven-bedroom properties off at the height of the housing boom. It’s a sought after cul-de-sac, the prices reaching into the millions, but the Pugh family were too numerous to be re-housed in the flats further down the valley. They remain a comical presence in number 7, infamous throughout Abergorki. Georgie’s been cautioned by the police for the eighth time recently, having continuously allowed his seven-year-old granddaughter to ride his cherry-coloured mobility scooter unattended around the grove.
Noticing Selwyn gawping at him he says, ‘Iesu Mawr, butty! That’s what I’d call a shiner.’
‘You should see the other guy,’ Sel says thinking for the first time about the vicar. Turn the other cheek by Christ. Susan’ll have Sel’s balls in the smoothie-maker for this. He knows she’s got a soft spot for the vicar herself, knows it by the way she insists on taking the girls ballroom dancing at the church when clearly they hate it.
‘Never had you down for a slugger,’ Pugh says. He throws his blanket aside, his feet hitting the linoleum with a slap. ‘Must be the stress? The redundancy and what not?’ Sel casts his cloudy glare around the other men on the ward; greying creatures packed into their bedclothes like caterpillars in chrysalises. ‘What do you mean?’ he says, his voice a cranky whisper.
‘Well,’ Pugh raises his volume rather than lowering it. ‘You must have been on a tidy wage down there. Floor manager? Those villas don’t pay for themselves.’ Sel hadn’t realised that gossip can work both ways, that Georgie could detect and repeat his misfortunes the way he did the Pugh’s.
‘It’s only a touch of concussion,’ Pugh tells him. ‘Come downstairs, have a fag.’ He smiles, baring toothless red gums, pulling a navy housecoat around his fleshy pink bulk. ‘I don’t smoke,’ Sel tells him.
‘Yes, you do, you fibber,’ Pugh says. He points with an archer’s fore-and-middle finger at his sunken eyes. ‘I’ve seen you on your decking in my bins, quarter-to-midnight every night, same time that barmaid from the RAFA gets back and into the shower. Duw, there’s a pair of apples on that one, ey?’ He lifts a hand-rolled cigarette to his lips and turns, scuffling out of the ward. Selwyn thinks he might be dreaming when in Georgie’s place he glimpses Susan, grappling through the double doors, loaded with the full five-piece set of Samsonite luggage they’d purchased for their Mediterranean cruise two summer’s ago. She drops the hatbox. It hits the floor with a crack and opens, his work ties springing out like joke snakes from a can. She approaches his bed, arms swinging. ‘I swear you’re the stupidest man who ever lived! And pretty soon you’ll be the sorriest.’
Sel hasn’t had time to devise an explanation. ‘Just got a bit out of hand, that’s all.’
‘The vicar?’ she says. She’s wearing a knee-length summer dress, poppy print on beige. She’s got a cracking pair of legs on her, Sel’s wife.
‘Just because he’s a vicar, a man of God. Doesn’t mean he is God. He wouldn’t know a good cucumber if you stuffed one up his jacksy.’ Susan claps her hands over her nose, mortified. ‘Listen,’ she says. ‘They phoned and asked me to bring your things.’ Man and wife gaze momentarily at the heap of suitcases blocking the gangway. ‘All of it,’ Susan says. ‘I’m filing for divorce..’
Georgie Pugh is back from his cigarette-break, loitering in the corridor, squinting through the frost-striped window, ogling Susan’s calves. She turns on her sandals, heading for the doors. Eyeing Sel over her shoulder, she says, ‘Don’t bother coming back to the villas,’ a touch of head-mistress trickling into her voice. ‘I’m having the locks changed. I might even get the vicar to do it.’
‘La-dee-da,’ Georgie says, swinging his hips, trying to impersonate Susan and her hard-boiled femininity. It comes off cretinous; a bit pantomime dame. ‘Smile, mun,’ he says to Sel, throwing his smoking paraphernalia into the bedside drawer. ‘Tea trolley’ll be around in a minute.’
The tea is scalding, irritating the emergent ulcers on Selwyn’s tongue. After three sips he sets it on the overbed table, giving up. ‘Now’s our chance,’ Pugh says purring conspiratorially at him from the adjacent bed. ‘After they’ve come for the cups. Before the visiting starts. The nurses change shift. We can sneak down for some fresh air.’
‘I told you. I don’t smoke.’ Selwyn turns away from Pugh to look at his neighbour on the left. A man in his nineties, features eaten away by age, a catheter tube running from under the blankets into a bag propped on the bed’s frame, half full of a glowing yellow liquid, the exact colour of the energy drink the girl’s love. Suddenly he can smell the hospital; disinfectant, winter vegetables boiled to mush.
Georgie’s spare dressing gown is short and wide. Sel can wrap it twice around his torso while the hem barely covers his testicles. He holds the material to himself, his arms crossed rigid below his waist. Georgie leads him towards a metal cabin at the edge of the hospital grounds. He invites Sel in with a swoosh of his arm, loose flesh shaking. He stoops, rummaging in a plastic bag hidden under the desk, coming up with a flagon of cider. ‘Cheers,’ he says, loosening the cap, bringing it to his mouth.
What has it come to? Sel, a loser, for the first time in six whole years. Jobless, wifeless, humiliated by the vicar, freezing his bits off in a disused shed. His only friend, the cider-swigging village idiot.
‘Have you ever worked a day in your life?’ Sel asks Pugh.
‘Nope!’ Georgie says proudly. He hands the bottle to Sel and licks at a cigarette skin. ‘Model aeroplanes, I do.’
‘You don’t want to work?’ Selwyn asks. Georgie lights his roll-up. ‘What’s the point? No work about for a person of my below-par breeding. She made it that way, Thatcher. I would have gone down the mine, after my grandfather. We were built for that; short.’ He holds his hand flat at his chest, as if measuring a child’s height. ‘Capitalism is a kind of anarchy, mun. Everyone out for what they can get. Maybe you thought you’d got a little bit at your manager’s desk on the industrial estate. They fool you into thinking you can climb some ladder then they kick it from under you. Not for me, boy.’
‘Fair enough,’ Selwyn says. He doesn’t want to get into an argument about dignity. Self-respect.
‘What are you going to do with all that money, anyway? Go on holiday and come back moaning about the queues at the airport? I can look at the Med on the TV.’ Georgie sucks thoughtfully at his tobacco. ‘Model aeroplanes,’ he says.
‘Cucumbers,’ Selwyn says, as if from nowhere. He lifts the cider to his nose and sniffs at it, the bubbles pricking his nostrils. He takes a sip, sweeter than he’d expected. Suddenly he sees it, his future laid out in front of him. A shop on the High Street, the shelves heaped with every kind of cucumber, the exotics; Indian, Armenian. Susan in a French maid’s apron bagging them up. The restaurants in Cardiff coming to buy in bulk. Never had a thought come to him so pure and lucid. That’d teach ‘em. Dai, the bloody vicar. He had a bit of redundancy money left too. He looked at Pugh, his face reflected in his pupils, Pugh’s reflected in Sel’s, their images replicated in one another over and over, ad infinitum. ‘Cucumbers,’ Sel says again, his voice a whisper.
© Rachel Trezise
All rights reserved by the author.