by Aliya Whiteley
‘Decapitated,’ said Miriam.
‘Mmmm,’ said her mother. ‘Did you put your CV on that new site?’
‘Didn’t you just hear? A helicopter took the head clean off a veteran. Look.’ She held out her tablet. It showed a black and white picture of a young man in uniform, nearly handsome apart from the ears, and below it a photograph of a big pile of wreckage in what seemed to be a residential street not very different from the one in which Miriam and her mother lived. ‘He fought for our country, you know. He deserved better. It’s a tragedy.’
‘Was that nearby?’
‘Yorkshire. It crashed right into his house. A malfunction of something, it says.’
Her mother returned to looking at Facebook on her phone. Yorkshire was, in her mind, both geographically and figuratively miles away.
‘There should be some kind of campaign,’ said Miriam. ‘To stop helicopters from flying low in built-up areas. Wasn’t there an accident like this just a few years ago?’
Her mother stood up and left the living room.
‘Somebody has to say something,’ said Miriam. She signed into her online account as MizMim60060002 and left a long comment under the article about how rich and powerful people were manipulating flight plans so that they got to their illuminati meetings in time. It made her feel slightly better. Then she went upstairs to her room with the intention of perusing the job websites and coming up with good reasons why she couldn’t do any of the jobs they advertised.
Life is difficult when you hit that dull grey spot between being useful and being dead. The urge Miriam felt every day was not to achieve something, nor to actively stop other people from achieving. Instead she wanted a person to come along and make a particular effort on her behalf. If only a Hollywood star could have knocked on the door – Ryan Gosling, maybe, or Paul Newman fifty years ago – and said, ‘I see you, Miriam. I see that you’re struggling. Come take my hand, and we’ll climb this mountain together.’ It didn’t even have to be a supporter. Anybody would do, really.
But she knew, as she quietly closed her bedroom door and thanked heaven for the invention of wireless broadband, that nobody would come along unless she climbed that mountain herself. Then every happy idiot would rush up and congratulate her – ‘Look at us! The happy people!’ and they would all spring about like mountain goats in fresh, clean alpine air, ignoring the morass of melancholia far below them.
She hated being at the bottom of the mountain, but she didn’t want to be a smug goat either. So Miriam stood still. She stood still in her bedroom doorway and looked at the head in the centre of her bed.
It was an upside-down severed head, with a ragged, wet stump where a neck should have been. A mess of tubes, holes, and fibrous strands oozed blood, and a lumpy knob of bone poked upwards.
She made a low sound; no, wait, she wasn’t making any sound at all. Underneath that open wound, down past the crooked curve of the chin, the mouth was moving. It was speaking.
She couldn’t understand what it was saying. All Miriam could concentrate on were the eyes, beneath the mouth, that blinked and then focused upon her. They had that unsettling quality eyes get when they’re turned the wrong way around, and looked far too knowing and alien; Miriam doubted she’d ever feel comfortable with the concept of eyes ever again.
The eyes blinked, the mouth moved. The neck oozed, and her pink and purple duvet cover sagged in the centre under the weight of that head.
‘Garrruuummm babababa fffooom,’ said the head. ‘Fwop fwop fwop fwop fwop.’ The eyes stared and the eyebrows flexed, as if something very important was being said.
‘I don’t…’ said Miriam. ‘I don’t understand.’ But even as she said the words she realised that the sounds were self-explanatory. They were helicopter sounds. ‘Are you the veteran?’ she said. ‘The one in the… incident?’
‘Mmmyam,’ said the head. It frowned at her. No – she tilted her head and found it was actually a smile.
‘You got decapitated. Your head – how come – it’s, um, here?’
It didn’t reply. Possibly it was attempting to shrug shoulders that didn’t exist.
‘I’ll call the police. They’ll come and get you.’
She headed back downstairs. And there began a very difficult set of telephone calls with unhelpful officials who eventually informed her that the head in question had been located not far from the body in question, and was currently residing in the Pathology unit of Pontefract hospital.
‘It’s not,’ said Miriam. ‘It’s… escaped.’
It was the wrong word to use, apparently. The line went dead.
Her mother was in the kitchen, making cheese on toast with a miserable expression.
‘You heard all that then,’ Miriam said.
‘Miriam, I’m begging you,’ said her mother. ‘Get a job. My pension only goes so far. I can’t afford for you to have a nervous breakdown.’
‘Come upstairs and look for yourself. That old man’s head is on my bed.’
‘I told you. I’m not going in your room. I’m not tidying up your mess or making your bed or washing your clothes any more. I took you in when they made you redundant and you lost your flat. I took you in. That’s what mothers do. But I will not be your slave. Not any more.’
Every conversation they had ended the same way, even the ones about the weather. It seemed to Miriam that the only thing enslaving her mother was her own thoughts, which inevitably always led in the same direction.
‘Fine,’ said Miriam. ‘Fine.’ She took out a bin bag and a couple of tea towels and stomped back up the stairs.
The old man’s head wore an apologetic expression. ‘Goash,’ it said.
‘No, it’s not your fault. You didn’t turn up here on purpose, did you? I’ll just tidy you away, and I’m sure everything will just… return to normal.’
‘Flaaah?’ it said, with something approaching hope.
She shook out the bin bag and moved to the bed.
Who was she kidding? The head of a war veteran, and she was about to put it in a bin bag, and take it outside to the street where it would wait for collection day, blinking and making odd sounds and waiting to become landfill. She couldn’t do it.
Up close to the head, it wasn’t all that gory, really. The blood had stopped pumping and the ripped edges of skin were curling to create quite a decorative effect, if you took it out of context.
‘Well, you can’t stay on the bed,’ she told it. She gathered her courage, and clamped her hands over its large ears. The skin was cold, and soft, and the curves and creases pressed against her palms. It wasn’t heavy. Very slowly, she carried it over to her bookcase, and placed it in front of her collection of Stephen King novels.
‘Thraaa,’ said the head, when she stepped back.
‘You’re welcome. Would you rather be the right way up?’
It was a very polite head. Easy to get along with. The next few hours were spent in pleasant conversation. She talked, and it gave the appearance of being an extremely good listener.
By the time the evening came around, Miriam felt much better about the head, the world, and herself in general. She microwaved herself a moussaka.
‘Have you found a job yet?’ her mother called from the living room, over the sound of the television.
‘Something better. I found a new friend.’
Silence. Well, that was better than an argument.
She tried feeding the head some moussaka, but it made a face and the aubergine dribbled up its nose, so she cleaned it up with one of the tea towels. It was really quite pink in tone, as if the body was off somewhere exercising rather than lying in a mortuary. And the stump looked different, somehow. It was changing colour, getting darker, and the messy bits looked brown and squelchy. A few specks of green were just visible. It reminded Miriam of a science experiment she’d done at school, growing beansprouts, documenting the progress of the tiny shoot up through the soil.
She was looking at the beginning of plant growth.
‘Um, I don’t know how to say this exactly, but I think something is growing in your stump.’
The head said, ‘Plah.’ It didn’t look upset.
‘Okay, well, just so you know. I might hit the hay now. Another long day of job hunting ahead tomorrow.’ But she couldn’t get undressed with the head watching her. In the end she apologised and then spread the other tea towel over it, rather like covering a birdcage at bedtime. It didn’t speak, so she took it as a sign that it really didn’t mind.
Lying in the dark, feeling very aware of what was on the bookshelf, Miriam thought she would never find sleep. But there it was, unexpected and welcome, and her dreams didn’t feature heads, or helicopters, or even looking for employment, which was a nice change. In the morning, the bottom of the head, or the top of the head depending on how you look at it, was visible under the tea towel. She could see the old man’s hair, thin and silvery, lying around the lines on his ruddy temple.
‘So you’re still here,’ she said. She got dressed before removing the tea towel, and there he was, with a very self-satisfied smile, and a big bush of green leaves stretching up tall from the stump of his neck.
‘Blimey,’ said Miriam.
His face was really very red, and the plant leaves had a strong smell that reminded her of the greenhouse in the back garden; at least, in the days when her father, rest his soul, had spent hours out there potting and planting and using his green fingers for a good purpose. The vegetables had been so delicious. Carrot soup, that was his speciality. Homegrown carrots.
The leaves growing from the stump were bushier than carrot leaves. She didn’t recognise them.
‘That’s amazing,’ she said. The eyes blinked.
In the days that followed Miriam charted the intense growth of the plant-head. It flourished, the green shoots whizzing up and then developing a gentle curve as they grew thicker and heavier, to droop down and form a curtain around the old man’s head. When she parted the curtain to say hello to him, it took him longer to focus upon her, and it soon gave up talking. It seemed to be quite happy becoming a plant.
She researched it, looking up the growths on gardening websites and comparing leaf shape, but no – it was, as far as she could tell, an absolute original. A brand new genus. And it had come to her for discovery.
She took some cuttings and moved them down to the greenhouse, cleaning the filthy glass panes until they admitted the bright sunlight once more, buying compost and pots and even a fancy watering can with the final few pounds from her redundancy pay. The cuttings took, and grew, and became healthy plants of their own. They began to bear flowers.
The flowers were small, and blue, and very beautiful. They looked a bit like forget-me-nots. They had a most wonderful smell.
The flower deserved a name.
Back in the house, her mother was halfway through a packet of biscuits and a daytime television special about attics.
‘Where’s my tablet?’ she said.
‘I don’t know. Don’t ask me to find your things for you. What have you been doing out there, in the greenhouse? You’re meant to be – ’
‘I’m too busy for all that.’ She found the tablet behind the cushion on the arm of the sofa. A quick search brought up the details she needed. An article about an old man who had lost his head in a helicopter accident. A man who had deserved better. Well, now he had it. And his name was Sergeant Neville Makepeace.
‘Makepeace,’ she said. ‘Perfect.’
Newly christened, the Makepeace flowers continued to do wonderfully well. Miriam tended them, and they filled the greenhouse. After a while, the idea came to her to make little individual bouquets. She formed them with great care, wrapping little scraps of lace around the stems, and took them to town. On the street corner outside the Post Office, the scent of the flowers touched the noses of those passing by, and she sold out in no time at all.
That evening, back in her room, Miriam found that the head would no longer open its eyes for her.
‘Neville,’ she said, and gently stroked his cheek. ‘Neville, wake up.’
But no. Neville was quiet, and the face looked calm, and happy. It looked done.
Downstairs, her mother was looking through the kitchen window at the newly cleaned greenhouse. ‘You put a lot of work into that,’ she said. ‘What are you growing in there?’
‘What about some veg? Your dad used to do great veg.’
‘I remember. But I like flowers.’
‘Miriam,’ said her mother. ‘Flowers aren’t going to feed us.’
‘They might and they might not. But they’ll definitely make me happy.’ Happiness was no longer a difficult concept for her. It turned out it wasn’t a mountain to be climbed at all. You didn’t look up at it and wonder how anybody ever reached the summit. You simply ignored that mountain, and went wherever your feet wanted to take you. It was so much easier than she had ever expected. ‘And they can make you happy too.’
‘Please, can’t you just…?’
‘No, I can’t,’ Miriam said firmly. ‘Now come on.’ She led her mother down the garden path to the greenhouse, and ushered her inside. The little blue flowers were dotted everywhere, like specks of a perfect sky. She felt the scent sink into her, and work its magic.
Her mother smiled. It was a miracle.
‘How lovely. You’ve got a little nursery down here, have you? I wonder if you could start selling them.’
‘I already have. Not for much. It’s not really about the money, is it?’
‘No,’ said her mother, surprising them both. ‘It’s not. Well, look at this, Miriam. I think you found yourself a job.’
‘Not a job. A vocation.’
Her mother looked into Miriam’s face, and nodded. For once, she could think of nothing to say.
Aliya Whiteley was born in Devon in 1974, and currently lives in Sussex with her husband, daughter and dog. She writes novels, short stories and non-fiction and has been published in places such as The Guardian, Interzone, McSweeney's Internet Tendency, Black Static, Strange Horizons, and anthologies such as Fox Spirit's European Monsters and Lonely Planet's Better than Fiction I and II. She has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize twice, and won the Drabblecast People's Choice Award in 2007.
Her recent novella for Unsung Stories, The Beauty, was shortlisted for a Shirley Jackson Award and a Sabotage Award, and appeared on the Honors List for the James Tiptree Jr Award. She blogs at: aliyawhiteley.wordpress.com and she tweets most days as @AliyaWhiteley.
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