When she started to forget, Mrs Flood took to cycling.
At first, she didn’t worry when she couldn’t remember people’s names, her nieces’ birthdays or what day of the week it was. “That’s just old age” she’d murmur to herself. But after a while her confusion cascaded and it frightened her.
On her better days she set simple tests for herself as she cycled the 30 mile round trip to the sea.
In what order do the following plants flower in the Spring? Is it snowdrops first, then tulips, crocuses, daffodils or clematis or are daffodils the first to peep through the frozen marl and black clay? When do the clocks change? When is the next Leap Year? Why is Easter not on a fixed date? How do you make Whitewash, Gooseberry Jam or Madeira Cake? When is the best time to chit potatoes?
Sometimes the answers drifted back.
Easter has to be a festival of light. Whitewash, strangely, works best if you add some blue dye. It’s best to leave the eggs for Madeira Cake at room temperature for at least two hours before you make your mixture. Add some Elderflower Cordial to your Gooseberry Jam for extra sweetness and flavour. In mid February put the seed potatoes in an old egg tray and leave on a warm windowsill. Pinch out all of the potatoes’ eyes except one. That will ensure a vigorous crop.
Every morning – at 5.30am to be precise – Mrs Flood wheeled her powder blue Ladies Triumph Three Speed Tourist bicycle through the rusty wrought-iron garden gate. Bubbling and blistering with rust, it hadn’t been oiled or painted in many years. In dry weather, its hinges wheezed and groaned. The once beautiful front garden was now so overgrown it was hard to distinguish between flowers and weeds. A few of the older neighbours could remember when the lawn was trim and tidy and its edges were so even they looked like they had been trimmed by hand with a kitchen scissors.
Mrs Flood grew all her plants from seed, cuttings or bulbs. The abundant flowers of late Winter and early Spring gave way to Siberian Wallflowers in March, tall willowy Bush Lupins in April and burnt orange and ochre French Marigolds in May. The Summer months saw lush pink Geraniums, red Roses, giant Sunflowers, English Daisies, trailing Petunias and yellow Dahlias in full bloom. It was said that Mrs Flood planted so many flowers that you couldn’t see an inch of the rich dark crumbling soil underneath. In season, there were even vegetables and fruits in abundance in her front garden. One local woman – Mrs Foley (who had an opinion on most things) – reckoned that this was because Mrs Flood had been inspired by a book she had once read about French potager gardens. Neighbours who stopped to chat with her over the wall would leave with their arms laden down with long sticks of pink Rhubarb, lush green Butterhead lettuces or neatly tied bunches of Spring Onions. If they protested, Mrs Flood would always say “Take them…I have more than enough…they’ll only go to seed or the birds or snails will eat them.”
Mrs Flood’s secret gardening weapon was the liquid fertiliser which she made from nettles gathered from a special place by the canal. Vague rumours abounded about her interest in magic and some people went as far as saying that she only cut the nettles during a full moon. Whatever it was, her Summer flowers lasted until early November and then she would start her annual planting cycle all over again. Back then, Mrs Flood knew the Latin names for all of her plants and although she was of a shy disposition, she would happily explain what each plant name meant in some detail, if you bothered to ask.
It was not being able to remember the name of her favourite plant which signalled the beginning of her slow decline.
For all she tried Mrs Flood could not recall the name of the bell-shaped Campanula Alpina. At first she tried to make little of her lapse of memory. “My head is like a sieve” she would say to herself as she stared at the flowers of deep turquoise nodding in the gentle breeze, trying hard to remember the little plant’s name. “It’ll come to me again” she’d whisper to herself. But the more she tried to remember the more difficult it became. Her keys would go missing. She’d lose track of what day it was. She’d forget to eat. Remembering people’s names was a particular challenge and after a while, she stopped gardening altogether.
After a while her neighbours became used to her leaving first thing each morning. The front door slamming, the gate groaning, the soft whirr of the bicycle chain-wheel, as she began to pedal, were as familiar to their sleepy ears as the clink of milk bottles being delivered or the low whistling of the bread man who deposited the still steaming batch loaves on the narrow window-ledges of Villiers Terrace. “You could set your watch by her”, “More accurate than the pips on the World Service”, “She’s never late, that one, always on time.” A smaller number of locals were more critical and would say: “That Flood one needs locking up”, “She’s not right in the head, you know” or “It’s in the blood. There was always madness in that family.”
Mrs Flood wasn’t locked up, and, after a year or so, her daily cycle to the sea attracted fewer and fewer comments. The police in the nearby town knew that she was harmless so they left her alone. Early morning joggers weren’t offended when she didn’t return their “Cold, but dry” or “A great day for it” salutes. Fluorescent silent road sweepers knew when to step out of her way. On most mornings however, stray dogs, watchful foxes or rummaging cats were her only companions as she started out once more on her journey.
In truth, I suppose, Mrs Flood was always a bit of an oddity.
Although she never married she was called Mrs rather than Miss out of respect. She had moved from the family home in the town to the terrace on the outskirts of the village when her elderly parents died. An outsider all of her life, she didn’t bless herself as she passed the church or the big statue to Mary on Castle Street. She ignored what was on offer in the shop windows, whether clothes, chocolate or cheese and was oblivious to the ribbon of ugly new holiday homes being built along the coast road. Her status in the village rested as much on the locals’ fear of her supposed magical powers as on her fading class position.
Mrs Flood was a creature of habit and always took the same route to the sea. Staring straight ahead, her piston-legs pushed the pedals down and up and down and up and down. Typically, the journey from Villiers Terrace took just over one hour. If a day was particularly wet or windy you could add ten more minutes or so.
Mrs Flood was prepared for all weathers. In her basket she carried a Souwester hat, an oilskin coat and leggings. All neatly folded, these were only worn on the most inclement of days. In fact, she would regularly cycle in the rain without her coat. “It’s only a shower” was her usual response when asked why she did not cover up for her journey. If the rain was very heavy she would shelter under a tree or in one of the concrete picnic shelters by the beach.
In her head Mrs Flood divided her journey into three distinct parts. First she cycled out of the village, past the Traveller Halting Site, the Municipal Dump and over the hump-backed railway bridge. Here the land was flat, damp and boggy. It was home to Bullrushes, Lichens and Bog Cottons. After about four miles the landscape changed. The wetlands gave way to rocky outcrops and short stumpy hills which were covered by Heathers and Yellow Furze. In late Spring wild Primroses grew under the hedges of Fuchsia. It was the Chocolate Museum at the top of the hill which signalled for her the final stretch of her cycle. From its crest Mrs Flood could see the sometimes slate-grey, sometimes silver, sometimes blue-gem sea. For these last few miles the soil on either side of the road was sandier. The verges were populated with Thistles and Poppies, but Mrs Flood didn’t mind as she didn’t differentiate between flowers and weeds. It was all downhill so her journey was easier.
Mrs Flood loved the smell and sounds of the sea. The tangy salty air, the pounding waves, the crying seagulls, the ever changing colours of seawater, the fronds of brown, yellow and red seaweed draped over the rocks as well as the rippled sands all made her happy and on sunny days the sea seemed to wink back at her. She knew every rock and every shallow rockpool. She knew the times of the tides and when the Spring Tides were due. She knew where to find edible seaweed and the plumpest mussels and periwinkles. She knew that the best way to catch Razor Shells was to pour some table salt on the keyhole shapes they left in the wet sands. “You’d never go hungry” she was fond of saying to herself.
Being there reminded her of when the Floods kept a chalet at the edge of the sand dunes. The chalet had been built by her father who carried each individual plank of pitch pine by bicycle from the town. Mrs Flood’s mother moved family, housemaid and dog to the chalet for three months every summer. Mr Flood would cycle back and forth to his office on weekdays. Her two brothers would catch white sea trout at the mouth of the river which flowed into the sea. Just before the end of their holidays the mackerel would run and you could catch them by the bucket load.
Standing by the shore Mrs Flood retraced her childhood steps. In her mind she crossed the makeshift timber bridge which the council erected over the river each summer. She climbed the steep sand dunes to the chalet. Bathing costumes, buckets, fishing rods and nets were strewn on the small lawn in front of their summer home. Her father’s black Humber bicycle was propped against the chalet wall. The Billy-Can she used to bring milk from the nearby farmhouse hung on a nail outside the front door. She remembered all of these things and more. She remembered her father saying that on a clear day you could see Wales from the highest sand dune. She remembered when the Evangelists came to the seaside each summer laying hands and speaking in tongues under canvass. She remembered learning how to bury her clothes in the sand, tightly wrapping them in a towel when she went swimming in the rain.
At the sea she did not forget.
Eoin Devereux is a university professor by day. He has published short fiction in ‘Wordlegs’, ‘The Bohemyth’, ‘The Galway Review’ and ‘Revival’. His stories have been shortlisted and longlisted in numerous competitions including the Penguin Ireland/RTE Guide and Fish Publishing Short Story competitions. His first flash fiction story ‘Goodnight Scarlett’ received a commendation from RTE’s Arena Arts Show. In 2014, he came second in RTE Radio’s Bookshow On One 100 Words, 100 Books flash fiction writing competition. Two of his stories ‘@Wilde’ and ‘Press Button A’ were published in the anthology of LGBT writing ‘It’s A Queer City All The Same’ published by Limerick Writer’s Centre in 2016. His poem ‘The Cherished’ appears in ‘1916: An Anthology of Reactions’ edited by John Liddy and Dominic Taylor, published by Revival Press. He tweets daily as @profdevereux