Highly Commended Entry
As You Sow, So Shall You Reap by Margaret Drummond
Elizabeth’s heart raced as she strode down to the vegetable patch. Entertaining solo was quite a new challenge but inviting Julia to lunch was entirely appropriate.
“Lizzy,” trilled Julia. “I often think about you. So lovely to get your invitation. I’d love to come but not a word to anyone. There’s a guy says he’s from one of the tabloids who’s following me everywhere. What a creep!”
Elizabeth rolled her eyes. Julia thrived on publicity and revelled in any drama. She only had herself to blame if a man was giving her trouble.
Recently Elizabeth had been thinking a lot about Julia. “Let’s have lunch, just the two of us,” she had written. “Like old times.” Elizabeth remembered how Julia had promised to visit after the funeral, but had not been surprised when she heard nothing from her that summer. Julia was always so busy especially after the success of the song cycle.
Naturally Julia had attended the funeral. She was, after all, possibly Ralph’s oldest friend or so she had proclaimed outside the church conveniently in earshot of the paparazzi who had turned out for the spectacle. Julia had been hurt, friends whispered, that Elizabeth had not asked her to sing, but she quite understood. Of course the family wanted to keep Ralph’s funeral simple.
“I remember your fantastic lunches, Lizzy,” said Julia. “All that healthy food, but no pastry or fattening food. Some of us have a public image to maintain. Believe me, it gets harder every year….”
“I have just the recipe, Julia.” Elizabeth heard herself saying. “Something I’ve been keeping especially for you.” Glancing at her reflection in the hall mirror Elizabeth barely recognised the face that stared back at her.
The vegetable plot was still fruitful in spite of the neglect it had suffered that year. Tendrils of beans danced in the breeze. There was plenty to harvest for this special lunch in spite of the half-hearted battle Elizabeth had waged that summer on the local insect population. The infestations had been particularly bad. Those late salad leaves would be ideal to add to Julia’s salad and Elizabeth planned to make a salsa with tomatoes from the greenhouse.
And of course the beans. The very last crop of the season! Hurriedly she picked the pods from the billowing towers.
She had not picked any produce from the plot that year but she had been loath to cut down those beans and consign them to the compost heap. The day Ralph had died she had been planting those beans. She had never seen the pain, nor heard the cry. She had simply found him, lying on the study floor, his hand on his heart, the sheets of music scattered about him like petals.
So it had always been- Elizabeth in the garden, Ralph working in his study- their cosy co-existence.
To outsiders it appeared idyllic. Elizabeth, the homemaker, nurturing just the right atmosphere for Ralph to flourish. She rarely entered the study- even before their wedding she had stopped singing in public. Ralph’s talent was big enough for both of them. At college she had never considered herself a serious musician. She had never been talented, certainly not as talented as Julia.
Nevertheless whenever she heard Ralph speak about his work her secret hope was that she might still be his muse. Sadly that was not to be. The song cycle was the only piece Ralph acknowledged as being autobiographical. He hated mixing the personal with the commercial. My private life is private he would say to the intense research students who visited. Then she would hush the children and supervise them in the garden as she weeded and pruned and coaxed tender perennials to flourish. Sometimes the students would venture out onto the terrace, admire the garden and compare notes on the best way to avoid black-fly on beans, but as for any musical conversation, any debate on form, tone or lyricism – that Ralph’s world, not hers.
But Julia visited regularly. She and Ralph were old friends and Ralph saw his work with Julia as a welcome relief from the dreary commissions for film-scores and adverts. The cycle Ralph wrote for Julia had been so well received internationally, and however much he derided it the commercial work paid well. But Ralph loathed the lack of control. He hated writing to a formula. And that was why he wanted to buy the house in Cornwall, he explained to Elizabeth- to have quality creative time on his own.
Angrily Elizabeth discarded some damaged beans. The house in Cornwall had been her big mistake. The children had been so small, her father had been so ill. She had never noticed, never suspected. It was her best friend who had hinted that perhaps Ralph was not always alone in Cornwall.
She waited months before tackling him. Like the spider stalks her prey, so she had stalked Ralph and Julia, searching for tickets-stubs, scouring bank statements, even phoning Julia’s number to check if her absences coincided with Ralph’s. But Julia was a professional singer, always out, forever on the road. Even the song cycle proved nothing. Was Ralph really that brazen- and Julia- who ate at their table and played with their children? The critics agreed that it was so right for Julia to make Ralph’s music her own- it suited her voice perfectly. Whenever Elizabeth tackled Ralph he always flatly denied it and there was never any definitive proof although there had been that unauthorised biography about Julia hinting at the true nature of the relationship, implying that Julia had not just been Ralph’s muse but also his mistress.
She remembered that dreadful scene when she finally confronted him.
“This is ridiculous,” protested Ralph. “I don’t love Julia. I love you.” But Elizabeth knew he was lying. She knew that there was a side of Ralph that he had never been able to share with her. She was the carer, the nurturer. Julia was his mistress, his fun. It was clear all along, but stoic Elizabeth had plodded on, always mindful of that old adage. “As you sow, so shall you reap.”
Now, looking at the basket, Elizabeth realised she had enough for the meal. It was late and she needed to spruce herself up for Julia. She always felt so dowdy in Julia’s presence, but before she dressed she needed to check the shed and remove the tin. If she placed it at the bottom of the dustbin today, when the bin-men were due, it would be at the refuse tip tomorrow. After Julia left she would uproot the beans and have a bonfire. Her neighbour had burned some garden refuse the weekend before. What was more natural at this time of year?
Elizabeth looked at the label on the tin. “Noxious substance,” it warned.”Use with extreme caution. Do not use on vegetables or plants destined for consumption.”
She would stick to the tomatoes. They were safe and went well with the quiche. Julia had specifically requested no pastry. She ate like a bird anyway. The insecticide could take a while to work, days in fact. No one would know. It was the perfect crime.
She washed the tomatoes separately and carefully rinsed the beans before adding the dressing. The dish had to look just perfect.
Later, freshly showered and dressed, Elizabeth imagined the scene that was to follow. She would greet Julia with a kiss. They would part vowing to keep in touch. The poison was slow working and in a couple of weeks she would hear that Julia had been suddenly taken ill. Internal bleeding, quite unexpected. The poison was apparently undetectable. If they discovered that Julia had visited, well, Julia was one of her oldest friends.
The doorbell rang and Elizabeth composed herself. Two dark figures loomed in the porch. For a moment she felt bewildered. Was Julia with someone? Surely not this reporter chap too……… then she would have to throw the salad away. Mass murder had never been her plan.
The two police officers looked apologetic.
“Mrs Lawrence?” vaguely she heard the words. “Your friend, Julia Raymond.. accident.. we believe she may have been followed…a stalker.” It was too much to take in. Julia was already dead.
A sea of blackness enveloped her. The younger police officer took over. “I’ll radio for a medic sarge,” he said capably. The sergeant wandered into the kitchen to fetch a glass of water for the lady. That rookie seemed to have everything in hand. Idly he shuffled over to the table and glanced at the meal laid out there. He had been on duty since the previous evening and now his stomach groaned in anticipation. The bean salad glistened enticingly with droplets of oil, speckled with pepper and chilli. Impulsively he took one of the forks and popped some beans into his mouth. It will only get thrown away, he thought as he filled the glass at the sink.