Trigger warning: emotional abuse, gaslighting
“First sign of spring, that is.”
I looked up from checking the time on my phone to see whether I’d make the bus.
“I’m sorry?” I asked Leigh Street’s answer to Chris Packham, swallowing my annoyance while I watched the bus going by over the tops of the neighbours’ fences.
I followed the direction of my neighbour’s hand. Indeed, the skeletal magnolia tree was now dotted with little oval buds, glistening with dew.
“Lovely,” declared Mr Critchley, as though he’d planted the tree himself. I didn’t mention the snowdrops I’d seen a few weeks ago. Surely those had been the ‘first sign of spring’. I didn’t have the time to start that debate. So I agreed, and wished him a good day.
I was now not only late, but rattled.
Rattled in the way that only magnolia trees (thankfully only short-blooming) could manage.
Why have one in my garden then, you ask? Because the garden doesn’t belong to me. It’s my landlord’s. Hashtag Generation Rent.
To passers-by I probably looked like I was now calmly waiting for the bus, but inside I was wrestling with the memory of springtime two years previously.
It went like this.
I woke up to a text from Erin. We’d become fast friends since I had to train her on my Sunday supervisor shift at Worn To Be Wild, the vintage clothes shop down town. Mostly I trained her to drink a lot of coffee, as she was always tired. She kept strange hours. I noticed the time of the text: 2:21am.
The message was an overwhelming stream of consciousness but I gradually managed to get the gist. She was raving about magnolia trees and how they only bloomed for a few weeks. And did I want to make a trip to Etching Park to see many of them in full glory. “Like so many bridesmaids at a dance” she’d said, which made me smile (and it's hard to make me smile in the morning). I quickly lost my smile, however, when she suggested we ask Isaac to drive us.
I was fine with it, but I knew who wouldn’t be.
I re-read the message. She’d convinced herself near the end of it.
“I’ll just message the group chat on Farcebook, I’ll be easier to arrange that way! Mwah xxx”
I groaned. I hadn’t added him to the group chat yet.
I was still making my mind up about my new beau at the time. Not what some people would call ‘new’, what with it having been nine months, but it was still fresh to me. Probably because each day brought surprises.
Sometimes it would be a dessert he knew I liked picked up from the supermarket on his way home after work to have after he cooked us dinner. Sometimes it would be a soft toy, usually a fish, which had become an in-joke after I used to complain about the scaly skin on my elbows. Or it would be a book I'd mentioned having read an article about, lovingly inscribed to ‘My favourite Elizabeth’ – another in-joke, as he’d dated someone of the same name in his teens. Sometimes it would be big demonstrations of protectiveness, like when he threatened to murder a man for smiling at me when I allowed him to go first in the queue as he was only buying one item. Or the time he grilled me about the heart-shaped necklace, asking why he hadn’t been shown it before and demanding to know who gave it to me, when the truth was I’d forgotten about it in a jewellery box I rarely went in and I had bought it for myself.
Y’know. Every day surprises.
The trip to Etching Park was organised without a great deal of input from me. I’d learned early on to put my mobile on silent, so notifications wouldn’t cause him to tut and ask who’s that and why are they messaging you.
For days I agonised over this. How to tell him, when to tell him, asking myself why I was twisting myself up like a pretzel over something that should be A Fun Day Out With Friends.
I finally got the courage to broach the subject one evening, after making love that I hadn’t particularly wanted to.
Turns out I misjudged the post-coital ambience. What followed was akin to the interrogation scenes in the crime show we’d both been hooked on at the time, so much so that even in the torrent of accusations I pondered whether his entire way of acting was all learned from watching television.
I was plotting against him. I was having ‘secret conversations’. He allowed me too much freedom. I clearly wanted to sleep with Isaac.
On and on it went, all evening, until he’d finally worn himself out.
The next morning, I was a ‘loveable rogue’ and he said he was looking forward to a day out with my friends. “If only to make sure you don’t sleep with them.” That hilarious quip was accompanied by a playful poke on the shoulder. It ended up leaving a bruise.
We got through the day, admired the trees, took the pictures for Farcebook. When they pop up again with someone having shared a memory of the day, I remember how I was grinding my teeth behind the smile.
So, that’s why I get a little sad when I see magnolia trees.
The next morning, Mr Critchley was out there again. I wondered whether he was doing this on purpose. Was he keeping a little diary of all my comings and goings, lying in wait for me? Then I tell myself it’s just paranoia. That not everyone is like him.
“They’ve opened up a bit this morning,” he said, this time gesturing with a trowel.
I turned towards the tree, already molding my features to make an oh-yes-how-fascinating mask.
“How nice,” I said, already fishing around in my handbag for my phone, intending to shake it to indicate my lateness like a retail worker version of the White Rabbit, when a movement in the tree caught my eye.
One of the branches had developed a tremor.
Because a tiny bluetit had come to perch on it.
“Ah, wouldja lookit that,” said Mr Critchley, ignoring the fact I already was.
The bluetit looked at me. I looked back.
The palest delicate pinks and whites, suddenly animated with a pinpoint of beady-eyed wonder. The feathered one gazed at me steadily, so proud in his yellow bib and royal blue coat.
“One of the first signs of spring,” I said.
“You’re quite right my dear. Quite right.”