The Afternoon Walk by Rachel Moffat

There is a familiar quiet across the gardens, the usual character of a Sunday afternoon in autumn. Visitors are thinly scattered across the grounds, the tea room and the house. There is no guided tour of the house at this time of year; people wander round in twos and threes. They speak in low voices to each other so that they are nearly muffled by the sounds of their own footfalls. Their shoes knock slowly on the floorboards and receive creaking replies.

From time to time these respectful investigators descend to the more robust environment of a tea room in the cellar. The café is hardly noisy today but its jumbled collection of sounds are a lively contrast after muted discussions about paintings, furniture and history. Drinks orders and conversations compete with the frothy squeal of a coffee machine and the chiming clatter of crockery. A few children play around the tables, their high voices occasionally jumping above the quieter rumble of adult hubbub.

Hidden below the house these sounds of commerce and refreshment are buried like a secret. No clink or chatter intrudes in the gardens. People walk in the sun identifying the sound of wood pigeons and magpies, or discussing the autumn planting and making comparisons with their own choices. Conversations are not hushed, as in the dampening mustiness of the house and its wood-panelled rooms, but both voices and birdsong rise thinly up into the air, escaping into the space.

The rose garden is empty except for one couple walking round it, locked in muted but desperate argument. Gripped by the intensity of their speech they take in their idyllic surroundings only as a scene which jars against their anguished words. Yet another afternoon derailed by the bitterness between them. The composed beauty of the country estate offers no sympathy towards their situation; the ugly chaos of their argument standing in direct contrast to the calm and pretty order arranged about them. Finches squabble on the path in front, darting away from their feet. Beyond an arched doorway of this garden within a garden a pair of spaniels trot along on their leads, past people resting on benches punctuated along the gravel walks. Separately, the man and woman regard the last of the roses against the dark red brick walls. The walls are old and crumbling but supported by sympathetic repairs which keep them in arrested antiquity. Even the chaotic threat of time’s natural process of decay is controlled here, preserved within the definition of the picturesque.

All this time the man and woman are talking. The rose garden remains empty and they take a bench by a wall. The privacy of the roses prompts them to contain their argument, not carrying it into a more populated space, quiet though they are. Each maintains an angry silence while the other talks, clearing a space in which they are only apparently listening. They wait for a hook on which they can hang their furious counter-arguments and wait for their turn. Goaded by the stability of the order around them, the man and woman descend further into a maelstrom of emotions, digging out furthest-buried hurts and grievances which have been nurtured to grow from the tiniest seeds.

Still their conversation appears subdued but anger surges and roils, creating wounds with a bitterness which has been sent beyond control. Now they are deliberately seeking what damage might be done when recriminations smash through boundaries of reason or compassion. And in this brutal release, the force of their struggle suddenly exists around them. Words move out from their epicentre with the force of shock waves from an earthquake, so that now they watch the gravel sweeping from their feet, scattered from them. The grass is flattened and rose bushes are crushed; petals swirl, wild and angry. The carefully preserved walls begin to crack and crumble at their most antiquated points of weakness. Climbing roses and ivy shiver downwards as bricks twist free of their powdery mortar. Red and yellow dusts begin to rise and mingle, the walls disintegrating as the couple trade accusations and reveal their unspoken thoughts.

In this new environment, which responds to their anguish and reflects it, the couple stand to face each other and allow their voices to rise into the chaos. The intensity of misery and anger is a huge roar and the couple’s surroundings crumble in submission. Beyond the falling walls of the rose garden the landscape descends into chaos, disturbed by a force of emotion which buffets the trees until the branches splinter. Birds fly in cacophony upwards, past the ragged leaves. Water in an ornamental pond leaps and thrashes, spilling lilies. People rock and totter, falling on hands and knees or stumbling backwards. The murmurous hum of conversation has been replaced by cries of alarm and spaniels barking. A tremor reaches the mansion, splitting mirrors and delicate furniture. Valuable china ornaments chip, crack and smash. Likewise, in the basement stacks of crockery topple to a sliding crash as people hold on to tables, or huddle over their startled children.

When everything necessary and unnecessary has been said, the man and woman pause in their accusations and contemplate the chaos. Everything in their sight has suffered something of the impact of their truths and decisions. The rose garden, the private field of combat, is a destroyed arena; a mess of broken plants, turf and rubble. Petals are strewn about in some awful parody of a romantic gesture.

They say nothing to the stricken people cowering on the ground and staring in speechless, horrified confusion at such reckless destroyers. The man and woman stare back, returning the collective gaze impassively. They walk away from the ruined garden in silence.

***

Rachel Moffat

Banner Image: Pixabay.com

11 thoughts on “The Afternoon Walk by Rachel Moffat

  1. So true to real life, for me this illustrates how oblivious and selfish people can be, whether it is a domestic argument or views of ignorant politicians, and how so engrossed they are on their own pettiness that the world around them suffers.

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    • Many thanks! It was interesting to see the selfishness emerge inevitably as I focused on how closely their misery was mirrored in their environment.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I know an amazing writer when I read one! A perfect contrast between the beautiful and the ugly. James is so right. The quarreling couple are not just their own enemies – they are our enemies. Beautifully done, Rachel.

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    • Thank you, that’s so kind! I really appreciate it. Lovely to have such encouraging comments to take forward. I need to go and work on dialogue and story endings now so that everything works together and doesn’t lose impact. I love flash fiction for giving scope for crafted snippets – I need to get things more rounded as I expand the snippets or add dialogue to them.

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  3. Hi Rachel,
    I am not the biggest fan of descriptive writing but this appealed. This was a very vivid, perceptive and clever piece of writing.
    Negativity and conflict causing disruption and decay is sadly so relevant.
    The imagination you have is amazing so any spark of a story will be easy for you to evolve.
    All the very best.
    Hugh

    Like

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