Saturday 21 June 2014

'Smells Like Geraniums' by Marie Gethins

Grandad planted practical things: neat rows of onions and carrots, pyramids of peas and beans. Herbs covered the front garden corralled by knee-high clipped hedges. Grandma cooked what he harvested, but left the planning and gardening to him. She flitted about their Ohio kitchen: baking, canning vegetables. I sat on a stool at the counter watching and listening. Girlish giggles punctuated the stories of her youth, tales from the time before marriage.
            He died when I was about ten. A shadowy figure, Grandad just seemed to fade away. I don’t remember much about it. No hospital visits, funeral or memorial service. “A very private man, you know,” Grandma said. “He didn’t want any fuss.”
Framed photos appeared on side tables.
            “Is this your wedding? Why haven’t I seen this before?” A young girl with dancing eyes, a tall man behind her.
            “Your grandfather didn’t like clutter. Wasn’t he handsome though? This one is from work.” Her finger traced the side of his face and down the arm of his lab coat. Grandma bit her bottom lip.
One Saturday I found the front garden beds covered in gravel, the backyard paved. Potting compost bags leaned against the shed wall. A line of clay pots waited to be filled. By the back door, new plants strained their plastic containers. I touched the curling foliage - vivid green or banded in white or bronze like trim on a cake. On long stems, flowers bloomed in miniature bouquets: pink, purple, burgundy and vermillion. Grandma stood at the wooden bench, dozens of plants by her feet, re-potting a deep red specimen.
            “Grandma, what’s going on?”
            She looked up and smiled. “When we were courting, your grandfather always smelled like geraniums.”
            She crushed a leaf, handing it to me. I didn’t need to lift it to my nose. The pungent, camphor odour swirled around my head. I grimaced. Grandma continued potting the red flowered plant, humming an old show tune.
            Over peach ice tea she told me how they met during the War. She 16, walking home from school as he left the Cleveland Plant.
            “A chemist he told me, tapping the side of his nose.”
            “A man of mystery your grandfather.” Her eyes misted. “I knew better than to ask. He liked that about me.”
             Grandma became known for her geraniums, winning local garden shows, seeking new varieties. She stole slips from public parks, private gardens – a master at deception.
            Studying WWII for school, I typed his name and the Cleveland Plant into Google. My throat tightened. Words seemed to rise off the page, boom in my head. Paragraphs and pictures jumbled together: mustard, chlorine, arsenic, lewisite, skin blisters, burning lungs, death, death, death. In a photo - scientists in a lab, a tall man at the back, face half in shadow. A public warning poster showed a gas mask, a red bouquet ahead of the pig snout. “Smells like GERANIUMS,” it said.

* Smells Like Geraniums came second in The New Writer Microfiction 2014 competition.

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