Short Story: Doreen
Short Story: Doreen
Burt found himself happily retired. He lived alone in a small village nestled in the English countryside, but of course it hadn’t always been this way. Looking in the mirror, Burt let out a long-contented sigh and scratched his scruffy beard, something he often did when he felt like he was being observed. Glancing to the side, the picture of his late wife, Doreen stared back at him. She had delicate, flower-like features with an expression that was often hard to read. When she was alive, Doreen’s no-nonsense temperament had made their marriage feel like a battle at times. But battles are only highlights of a campaign, and little did Burt know – the war was still yet to be won.
Burt had always wanted to paint, but Doreen’s overbearing and critical nature made it impossible to find the time. Opening the window, morning birdsong filled the room and Burt declared to himself, “Today is a good day to start painting.” He began to gather up his easel and paints to take into the garden which, under Doreen’s rule, had always been trimmed to manicured precision. Now the garden looked wild and unruly, and Burt preferred it that way, smiling as a blackbird emerged from the overgrown hedge, slicing through the morning air with its call.
In the centre of the garden was a huge, beautiful willow tree that Burt had spread Doreen’s ashes under. Weeds had taken hold and one had even begun to climb up the tree itself.
Burt fell into moody introspection for a moment and could almost hear his wife’s voice telling him to “Tidy up the garden you lazy sod!” Burt sighed and set up his easel while his ears filled with the sounds around him. Somewhere, a dog barked and set off another; not too far away, the low throaty growl of a tractor could be heard coming and going.
Burt smiled, feeling content. But then a strange sharp sound pierced his happiness.
“Burt!” screeched a shrill voice that made Burt spin around, looking in all directions.
“Burt!” it screeched again in an even higher tone, as sharp as an axe.
“I must be hearing things,” Burt muttered to himself, sorting out his paints and also trying to ignore the strange waft of something familiar entering his nostrils.
“Burt, don’t you ignore me!” the high-pitched voice bellowed.
Burt stopped and retreated to the house for a cup of tea, where thankfully, the stinging voice could not be heard. The only sound was of a wasp raging against the window trying to get out. Burt obliged and as soon as the window opened the scathing voice snapped back like a rubber band, “Burt, look at the state of this garden, all my hard work and this is how you repay me!”
Burt crept back into the garden where the birds had all gone surprisingly quiet.
“Doreen?” Burt called out apprehensively.
“Look at the state of you ,” the voice piped up again. “What’s that fuzzy beard on your face, you look like a yeti!”
Burt tried to follow the sound, but it was hard to pinpoint. Instead, he followed his nose to where the scent of his wife’s perfume became the strongest. “Where are you?” Burt inquired with open arms.
“Where do you think, you nitwit.” Burt walked over to the willow tree where he had scattered her ashes and looked at the ground solemnly. All he could see was a weed climbing up the tree.
“I can’t see you,” Burt admitted in a hollow tone.
“Dear, dear me,” the voice muttered, and Burt crouched down to where the weedy climber had grown up the tree. A single purple flower looked directly at him, its petals formed into a tight trumpet – like shape for a mouth. The petals all n arrowed together and in a scrutinising tone, asked, “When was the last time you brushed your teeth, Stinky?”
Burt nearly fell backwards, and ran back to the house, while the little flower continued to boom at him, “Where do you think you’re going? Get back here, Burt!”
Burt decided there was only one safe place to go; it was opening time and he needed a drink to steady his nerves. Down the road, Burt pushed open the door of ‘The Old Nag’. His friend Stan was sat at the bar, nursing a pint.
“Burt, me old mukka, how do?” he asked.
“I’ll have a double whisky, barman,” Burt ordered, slightly rattled.
“Everything all right?”
“I’ve been thinking,” Burt answered in a jittery voice, downing the double whisky and raising a finger to order another.
Stan looked at his friend with a knotted brow. “‘Bout what?” he asked.
“Oh,” Stan took a long pull on his pint and stared straight ahead in silence while Burt held his double whisky in one hand and rubbed the bridge of his nose with the other.
“I can hear her,” Burt admitted, with a deep shuddering breath.
“Understandable,” Stan said simply. “You were married a long time.”
“I can hear her in my garden.”
“Burt,” Stan began, giving his friend a pat like he was his favourite dog. “Perhaps it’s time to get back on the horse.”
“The horse?” Burt downed his drink and got the barman’s attention again. “I’m on the horse, but I think Doreen’s become a flower in my garden!”
Stan gave his friend a long look, then changing the subject asked, “How’s the painting going?”
Burt made a noise that was part grunt, part affirmation. “I knew she would come back to haunt me,” he whispered fearfully.
“Now look here,” Stan cut in, turning to face his friend. “It was an accident, she slipped, fell, hit her head, right?”
Burt downed his third drink and a complicated look passed across his face.
“You want my advice,” Stan went on, “I would go easy on the drink, old boy.”
Burt nodded gravely.
“Maybe go home, have a lie down.”
“Right,” Burt agreed, getting up to leave.
By the time Burt got home the sky had turned grey with a rumble of thunder approaching in the distance. Burt peeped out of the window and the little purple flower was moving animatedly from side-to-side, trying to get his attention. Pulling his mind back together, Burt decided to face the music and head outside, approaching the purple plant cautiously.
There was a long pause followed by a series of disapproving tuts.
“You’ve been down that pub again, I can smell it.”
“Doreen, is that really you?”
“You’re as sharp as a spoon,” came the shrill reply, squeaking like an un-oiled gate.
“This is a miracle, you’ve come back,” Burt blurted, feeling more confident after a few drinks. “Is there something you want to tell me?”
“Yes.” The flower rose up to its full height and formed an angry straight line with its petals. “Get the lawnmower out and mow the lawn before it rains!”
Burt mowed the lawn. Then he cut the hedges back into cubic shapes, raked up all the leaves and weeded the entire garden, all except the little climber with the purple flower giving orders. When he was done, he wiped the sweat from his brow as the first drops of rain began falling.
“Go to the shed,” the little flower commanded. “Find a nice pot and a trowel.”
“Why?” Burt queried.
“I’m coming inside to keep an eye on you,” she told him. “Make sure you pick a pot with good drainage.”
After the storm passed, Stan, returning from the pub, decided to call in on Burt to see how he was doing. He tapped on the door and it promptly opened. “Burt?” Stan stuttered, slightly shocked.
Burt stood in the doorway dressed in a freshly ironed shirt, clean shaven, with his hair brushed neatly to the side. He looked presentable, but there was a distinct glint of fear in his eye. “Burt, are you all right?”
“I must go,” Burt hesitated, his face twitching. “I’ve got company.”
Stan smiled and let out a low whistle. “That’s right old boy, time to get back on the horse.”
The door closed and Stan decided to have a glance through the window. The television was on and Burt was inside rearranging the furniture, talking to himself. The room looked pristine, nothing out of place, except an unusual-looking purple plant in a pot, placed on one of the armchairs. “Strange,” Stan murmured to himself before stumbling off back home.
Days went by in a blur, jobs around Burt’s house were completed and each time Stan called in to see Burt, he looked more haggard than ever. “House looks nice, Burt,” Stan commented, looking at the freshly painted window frames. “You fancy a pint, squire?” Burt cocked his ear to an unknown sound coming from the house and the colour drained from his face as if he were receiving a reprimand. Shaking his head. Burt slowly closed the door.
Outside Stan peeped through the window once again. The television was on, but there was no-one watching. Stan scanned the room and had to double take. The purple flower looked much larger now and its creepers were spread over the chair like arms and legs. The flowerhead turned, looking directly at Stan, who let out a shriek and fled.
Weeks passed by and when Stan finally plucked up enough courage to look in through the window again, he found the television turned off and there was no sign of the strange-looking purple plant. Stan cautiously knocked on the door and Burt answered, looking a bit worse for wear. “How’s it going, old bean?” Stan asked.
Burt scratched at his stubble anxiously. “That purple flower,” Stan began and Burt’s eyes fixed on him.
“It was an accident,” Burt told him quickly, his lower lip shaking. “I couldn’t take it anymore, I had already painted the skirting boards three times that week!”
“The pot fell from my hands,” Burt admitted. “The flower turned brown.” Burt began to sob and Stan rested a reassuring hand on his shoulder.
“Fancy a pint, old boy?” Stan asked and Burt nodded, leaving the scene of the crime.
After the pub and a few too many ales, Burt decided to clean up the smashed pot and what was left of the flower, which had died off and turned hard. “Goodbye, my sweet,” Burt sobbed, scattering the flower around the garden.
Months passed by, the house and Burt returned to their preferred shabby state and before long, it was a whole year since the strange incident with the purple flower. Burt and Stan, over many visits to the pub, decided that it had all been part of the grieving process he had to go through.
Burt began to set up his easel again. The garden filled with birdsong, a dog barked somewhere and set off another, and in the distance the low growl of a tractor could be heard coming and going. Burt took a deep breath taking it all in, but then a familiar sound sliced through the air, “Burt!”
Burt shuddered with horror as a large purple flower rose up from the border. “Look at the state of this garden!”
“I thought you were dead?” Burt stammered. “The flower turned brown, I watched it wither away.”
“That was a seedpod you duffer,” the flower explained in a disgusted snort and just like that, more and more voices from his wife could be heard popping up all over the garden.
“Burt, it’s time to have a shave!”
“Burt, rake those leaves!”
“Burt, paint those windows!”
The garden was awash with purple flowers. Burt sighed in resignation and went to the garden shed to fetch the rake, but at the last moment something caught his eye. On the shelf next to the rake was a large tub of weedkiller.
“Burt, what’s taking you so long?”
“I’m coming, dear!”
About the author
Gregory Ballinger is an avid reader, doodler, dreamer, runner, gardener and sometimes, when he’s not doing all that, writer. He has always enjoyed writing, but since emigrating from England five years ago, he has been working on his short story writing skills. He has even found the time to finish his first YA fiction novel which he’s hoping to get published. Gregory is inspired by his family, travelling, his garden and his two spoilt cats, Mia and Loki.