Nuns and Harlots by Elizabeth Stott

Sarah would buy flowers and not take care of them, just plonking them in a vase, often without removing the wrapping. The latest lot were a supermarket bunch – dwarf gladioli and stocks, rescued from the reduced price bucket. Some of the gladiolus blooms had not opened properly, sticking out like brazen little orange lipsticks on the keeling stems, like drunken old harlots. The stocks had already shed white petals over the sideboard. Hilary imagines untidy nuns who had cast their white headpieces on the floor, too lazy to put them in a laundry basket.

She pulls away the rotting portions and trims the stems. The bunch is reduced and sorry-looking in the large vase. Now they remind her of refugees, given someone else’s clothes by well-meaning social workers. Maybe Sarah will be pleased that she’d sorted them out – if she even notices. Then Hilary remembers that Sarah won’t be home tonight, she is on a course in Winchester, staying at some chintzy hotel.

Hilary wraps the decaying trimmings in newspaper, and throws them on the compost heap. Both of them, theoretically, are avid composters, but it is usually Hilary who does the hard bit with turning it and emptying the fruits of the year’s decay. Last year, she found one of her good garden gloves amidst the previous season’s harvest. Sarah had sworn she hadn’t borrowed the gloves, despite the fact that her own had worn-out fingers that let her hands get muddy, and Sarah hated that. Hilary had bought Sarah new gloves for Christmas, but they had not yet been used, despite the fact it was May. Sarah’s responses to questions like ‘Shouldn’t we weed the rose beds now?’ were often elusive, masked by a newspaper and a vague promise that if Hilary started, Sarah would be out there soon. Hilary would return, stiff-backed, to find the newspaper on the arm of the chair, its crossword complete and Sarah not changed into her gardening clothes. There would be no cup of tea in the gardener’s mug, no crumbly biscuit on the old plate they used only for the garden. There would be an argument and Sarah would slam out of the house and drive off in her nippy little car.

In the absence of Sarah this evening, Hilary tidies the house. She ranks the shoes (mostly Sarah’s) in neat lines on the hall stand and sweeps away the dust and bits of leaves and grass that always seem to accumulate behind the rack. In the kitchen, Hilary puts away things that Sarah had carelessly left out on the work surfaces. It starts to look like that cosy little kitchen that had attracted them both to the house in the first place. She notes the linen in the laundry basket, and will iron it later to Mozart and a glass of something. Sarah hates classical music.

Sat at the dining table, with one place mat set, eating a simple risotto of leftovers, Hilary regards Sarah’s flowers. They have not benefited from her trimming and cleaning. Already, more petals have fallen onto the sideboard.

This is the dining room with the dining suite that had taken half their savings; they had chosen it with such love and care. Now it looks shabby, and is dusty along the tops of the drawers. There is a scratch on the sideboard where Sarah had plonked one of her box files when she was working in here. Leaving her meal half-eaten, Hilary takes a duster and polishes everything in the room. She is disappointed that the finish has already started to fade on the chairs nearest the window. They hadn’t been able to afford the expensive things that Sarah had admired, imagining extravagant dinner parties. But they invite friends seldom these days, finding it difficult to agree on a mutual circle. Sarah’s flighty friends would not get along with Hilary’s sensible ones. Hilary polishes around her plate, lifting it, remembering the last time they had invited friends here. It had been before Christmas. The evening had not been a success, resulting in another of their arguments.

She runs the vacuum cleaner over the carpet, but it suddenly makes a hideous noise, and she finds a large paper clip stuck in the beater; another one of Sarah’s work things. It takes Hilary ages to worm it out of the mechanism, and replace the rubber belt.

Sarah can’t do things like this, saying she is hopeless with machines. But Sarah is the successful one, now a qualified accountant. Hilary won’t go much further in local government, despite being the one with the good degree; and she’d worked bloody hard for it. Sarah had whooped it up, leaving with a third, but had somehow managed to fit an accountancy course around her job with the council, even getting them to pay for her to have time off to do the final part of it. Now she had upped and left to work for a brokerage firm at almost twice the pay. But Hilary stuck it out, despite the threat of redundancy, putting it down to loyalty to her colleagues.

Sarah’s flowers lean drunkenly in the vase, like fancy dress revellers who have partied too hard. Hilary thinks of Sarah at the bar in the chintzy hotel, having a good time. She wonders who Sarah is with. She should have phoned by now, but there had been no ring, and no message had been left. Had Sarah called whilst the vacuum cleaner was going?

It is dark outside, but Hilary takes the vase and empties it onto the compost heap.

She starts on the ironing. But when she looks into the ironing basket, it contains mostly Sarah’s things. Hilary takes out the few items that are her own and irons them carefully. She leaves Sarah’s things in a crumpled ball.

Elizabeth Stott has published stories and poems; most recently – The Warwick Review, Tears in the Fence and a Nightjar Press chapbook. She has a collection of short stories: ‘Familiar Possessions’ and a Kindle book: ‘This Heat’.

Photograph of the flowers courtesy of

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