The Gardener

    Margaret had always been a suspicious woman.  Clifford knew it before he married her and believed it to be part of her nature.  Still, her sideways glances, tendency to over-question simple matters, and her frequent pensive moments didn’t dent the love Clifford felt for his wife.  Had anyone bothered to question him about his status in the marriage, he would have gladly told them that he followed her lead and was lucky that she had married him twenty –seven years ago.  Afterall, she was Oxford educated, had been a renowned surgeon for twenty years with several published treatises on medical procedures, before advancing to an administrative post at King’s College Hospital.  He had parlayed his political science degree into teaching spots at a few colleges.  He was also a school board member in the Camberwell district of south London.  Publically, they looked like a perfectly happy couple, comfortable with success on both sides of their threshold.

     However, Margaret’s suspicions had increased over the last year until they had become a legitimate worry for Clifford.  Her worries had gone beyond the usual ones about infidelity. Certainly, they had been through all of that before.  Margaret had suspected Clifford of having affairs with one personal assistant (whom he quickly replaced), a department secretary (whom upon investigation turned out to be a lesbian), and a nubile twenty-something who clerked at a local wine shop.  To confirm her suspicions, Margaret started to buy the wine.  She learned that the clerk was engaged to the heir of a shipping company.  She even met him one afternoon when she caught them embracing in the shop.  He had film star good looks and a debonair manner. Margaret considered Clifford to be handsome, but the slight heaviness of jawline and the greying temples were not likely to win out over this Adonis fiancé the clerk had captured.  In addition, the clerk could not distinguish Clifford from any other customer.

     Margaret had to admit – in part willingly – that Clifford’s marital record had been as crisp and clean as the Chardonnay they enjoyed each Friday evening after a long work week.  Still, her nerves were often charged with electricity over small things.  Hoping that a nurturing pastime might calm her mental storm, they both gardened.  She coaxed Clytemnestras to climb the trellis against the brick wall of their back yard; he fathered tables of fragrant herbs.  Alas, even this innocent past time became a strain. Once during pruning, Margaret couldn’t satisfy her eye.  She failed to get the rose bushes to the height or shape that she wanted, no matter what she did.  Soon she was furiously clipping full branches. They fell shocked and insulted at her feet.  What remained were a few scraggly branches that resembled arms trying to climb the wall to escape her rage.  Margaret burst into tears and ran to the bedroom.  It took most of the evening to get her to calm down and to agree to seek help.

     Her psychiatrist was quite discreet, important because Margaret didn’t want to lose her position at the hospital over rumors of mental imbalance.  The Valium kept her anxiety in check, although Clifford caught her on occasion mumbling to herself and diligently scrubbing a plate while washing dishes.  Still, Margaret made a game attempt to force a grin whenever she knew that Clifford was watching.

     As unsteady as it sometimes seemed, they got by  — until the world outside their brick walls invaded their lives like never before.  The papers were full of lurid stories of a serial killer, and the teley blared regular reports.  Scotland Yard was tight-lipped, but the MO was known.  The seven young women found dead in Camberwell and nearby Burgess Park had been strangled and their fingers neatly, surgically, amputated.  Everyone from pub keepers to fish mongers to reporters took guesses as to why, none of which was convincing. Unfortunately, Margaret had her own theory.  From somewhere in the smoldering coals of her psyche, rose the acrid fumes of suspicion.  She was sure that Clifford was the murderer.

     “Why did you do it, love?” she sobbed.  “How could you?”

     “I did nothing of the sort, Margie,” he assured with great calm. “Please dear, you must banish these foolish thoughts.”

     She cried on his shoulder.

     Clifford thought about her years of working at a high pressure career.  The years of medical college, accumulating degrees, publishing, and the razor sharp demands of being a surgeon, and now overseeing daily hospital operations with no margin for error – well, it certainly must have taken its toll.

     Margaret had to take sick time at work, and after a week of crying, agitation, and accusation, she consented with her psychiatrist’s opinion to take an extended leave for rest in a facility in the country.

     It was late afternoon on a Sunday when Clifford returned home from the country after his somber visit with Margaret. The house was noticeably quiet, void of sobs and suspicion.  Clifford felt the difference.  Of course he missed Margaret, but he couldn’t deny the pleasure of a quiet evening, free from accusations of infidelity, of murder.

     He had much to occupy his time.  There were lectures to prepare, but they could wait.  He had herbs to tend.  Clifford started for the back yard, but remembered that he had left his apron and shears in the trunk of his car.  He retrieved them, and traipsed through the house humming. Standing amid the rosemary and sage, he unrolled the apron and slipped it over his head.  He drew the shears from his pocket, wiping away a faint rusty-crimson trace.  Something else rolled in his pocket.  He touched it gently and chuckled at his oversite.  Clifford withdrew a perfectly shaped female pinky finger, the nail painted the merriest springtime green.


Frank J. Albert lives in Western Pennsylvania and has taught Humanities courses in several Pittsburgh area colleges.  His work has appeared in small press/literary journals including Cedar Rock, Wind/Literary Journal, and Black American Literature Forum.  Currently, he is working on a collection of short fiction.


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