map The King of Ivy

by Steven Earnshaw

Published in Issue No. 188 ~ January, 2013

Photo by Pietro Izzo (Torino, Italy)


In a relatively short space of time Dinky Taylor became the King of Ivy. It was his doing and his downfall, though it began simply enough.

He and Theresa had moved in together the year before, just before she gave birth to Grace. Dinky had been attracted to Theresa because of her name, which he thought Catholic. His affection for her grew from this shallow observation. For Theresa, Dinky had materialized at just the right time, as she drifted in and out of drugs and the Brighton scene. Dinky had cleaned himself up six months earlier and was able to show her the way ahead, otherwise, as she knew very well, she would backslide. They decided to move North where it was cheaper, colder, more honest, as they saw it. In the South, everybody was your friend, but the friendships were shallow, never took hold, everybody drifting in and out. One day, lazing on the pebbled beach, looking at the burnt-out pier they loved so much, the sun behind setting over the sea at Hove, Theresa six months pregnant, they pledged their love to each other and upped sticks.

A year on from when they first met, with Theresa confident in herself and as a mother, the power in the relationship shifted her way. Dinky may have had the strength to put bad habits behind him, but there were no good habits to cling to. When Theresa was still vulnerable, she had filled the vacuum, and even though there was Grace to keep them occupied, Theresa monopolised the child and Dinky couldn’t find consistent work. He odd-jobbed, skilled in nothing, building sites, shifting rubbish. She knew she had to feed his ego, fill his time, make him feel useful, although as we will see, her hold on him changed throughout the year. And there was one genuine thing she hated about the house, which was the ivy on the wall.

Dinky had been attracted to the street because all the houses were covered in ivy, and this made it olde worlde and distinctive. The area had been created at the end of the nineteenth century, and the rows of terraces had an unappealing uniformity. The story of this street was part of the estate agent blurb. The Master Builder had planted a tub of ivy against the wall of his house at the top of the street at the top of the hill. Over the following century the ivy had gone from top to bottom so that the forty-seven houses on that side of the street were covered in what from a slight distance looked like a plush, dark green carpet.

But Theresa hated the ivy. She had kept quiet because she had been desperate to move. A previous boyfriend had tracked her down to Brighton (she came from St Austell) and he was a nasty specimen. He had once thrown boiling water at her, and her right leg remained scarred. In a hurry to get out of Brighton, and with the pledge of love boosting her sense of esteem, she had agreed to the ivied street in a South Yorkshire town. There was the confidence to get out of Brighton, but it was to take a year to get Dinky to tackle the ivy. When it came to it Theresa didn’t beat about the bush and after a few months within that year she had told Dinky she hated the ivy and that it had to come off her house. Dinky knew he couldn’t contradict her. The way she said it he knew it was a thing that had to be done some time.

At the beginning of the year in the new house, although Theresa knew in the future that Dinky would have to get the ivy off the house, she initially suppressed her hatred for the ivy. This was so that the birth of Grace would be a beautiful affair. The pregnancy had been trouble-free, and their mutual fear that poisons from their previous lifestyle choices might have lingered in their blood streams and dna and be passed on to the foetus appeared to be unfounded. Pleased by the baby’s steady progress along the line of a medial centile, in the odd hours of the morning – one o’clock, three, five – when Grace hauled her out of bed for a feed, Theresa thought about the ivy’s growth. She had seen the tub at the front of the Master Builder’s house. It was hard to believe that such a small beginning should end up so monstrously. Just three stems came out of the pot, hardly sufficient to feed the ivy on all the houses. Bit by bit she gathered in information about the ivy, that the leaves took in the sun’s energy and fed the plant, that in times of drought the ivy sucked the moisture out of the walls. One person who shared her hatred of the ivy (not from the street) told her not to look on the internet for information. Everybody there said you couldn’t kill ivy, you just had to live with it. Other neighbours, proud of the ivy, talked of how it brought the houses and people together, it was eco, their lives organic. One joked that there was more plant than brick, and that if you removed the ivy the houses would crumble. Another agreed that the ratio of plant to brick was in the former’s favour, but believed the brick could be removed to leave houses made of ivy. Another said that their type of ivy was rare, native to South Yorkshire and North Derbyshire, taking refuge, and that the amount of ivy had passed a necessary tipping point some time around the Suez Crisis, and so each house had its own self-sustaining microclimate which meant that none of the ivy needed the tub to survive. At these times of night as the baby suckled and drank her dry, Theresa would fall into a half sleep and confuse Grace with the ivy, insatiable in their need for nutrients. And here she saw how the ivy was forcing its way through the small window frame. It must also be forcing its way through the walls, and she started to fear for Grace. Like the ivy, she had an inkling that Grace was forcing her way in to Theresa’s life, growing, growing, growing, and in the night this was at Theresa’s expense. Each morning though, in the newly bright April light as it were, things returned to normal, except for her terror of the night, and looking up at the house from the outside, with her back set against the univied houses across the road, it was too much, too much. There came a point when daytime had little reality and it was the nights which had her full attention.

Dinky noticed little in the year. Having saved Theresa, having helped to produce Grace, still with the cushion of money from Theresa’s paediatrician sister in London which had helped them buy the house with some to spare to live on until they got themselves established, Dinky was sure he had done enough for now and that all was well in the world of casual labour. He was conscientious when he got the work, but he never sought it. Theresa alternated between irritable and quiet, and in his sensitive way Dinky made allowances for the new mother. He was often out now with his new friend Pete, and the more Theresa told Dinky the ivy had to come down the more he was out drinking. The money wasn’t an issue as yet. Knowing it would catch them out, Theresa urged him to get steadier work, or to work more steadily. In his own quiet way he resisted, saying there wasn’t much work about, or it didn’t pay well, or the weather was against them. Theresa began to spend the days as well as the nights in the attic, obsessing over the ivy. And now there was no difference between the days and the nights. With Dinky seeing Pete, Theresa left to her own devices brooded on the ivy inside the house as it began to replace the wallpaper. She kept the door to the room shut so that Dinky wouldn’t see the ivy inside, or rather, kept it shut in case he claimed he couldn’t see any ivy and so wouldn’t have to do anything about it. The ivy on the outside should be enough to convince him things had to change, she didn’t have to convince him it had invaded the interior. She wanted the ivy dead, certainly, and yet, beyond this, she feared it had become a part of her, and the room, and the baby. If she killed the ivy perhaps all of these things would die. But above all, she wanted to kill the ivy.

One day Dinky came back mid-afternoon with Pete after their lunchtime drinking session. Pete like road movies. He said they were pure nostalgia because the world was killing the car, and there would be a time when there were no cars, then where will we be?, we’ll be sorry. He’d got hold of ‘Vanishing Point’ and waved the dvd case at this inhospitable world as he climbed the hill and was struck and amazed when he realised the whole half-street was ivied. He’d heard tell but this beat all and then Dinky couldn’t stand it any longer and let it all out, bewailing Theresa’s withdrawal to ‘The Room’, her banging on about the ivy, wanting him to get shot of it.

The whole thing amused Pete. He worked nights stacking shelves and guessed why Theresa shut herself away when the dark was outside, the sense of your own active world enclosed womb-like against the becalmed world outside. He’d get back, sleep for a few hours, drink, sleep it off, go to work stacking shelves in the middle of the night and then come back again to sleep, to drink, to sleep, to work, what he thought of as an agricultural rhythm for no good reason. This, he intimated to himself, must be Theresa’s parallel routine. His friend looked distraught. Pete asked why he didn’t take the ivy down. Dinky, after the two of them staring like tipsy love-fools at the ivy for half-an-hour, confessed he had a fear of ladders. Nearly all the work he could do involved ladders, which was why he didn’t really get much work. There was always some time when they expected him to go up a ladder, and he wouldn’t, he couldn’t. Theresa had started to tell him to ‘man up’ whenever he shirked a job, a phrase she’d picked up from near Barnsley, and this should be her red rag to his bull. He told Pete he thought the ivy had got into her brain, on it, in it, instead of dendrites there were tendrils, Dinky’d looked it up on the net to see if ivy could grow in your head and the ivyhead site made it clear that the connections in the brain were to all intents and purposes ivy, or at least ivy-like. Pete died laughing.

Now that Pete wouldn’t take Dinky seriously as a man, Dinky had a waking dream in which he conquered his fear. So he got hold of ladders from someone down the road, and refusing all help, decided to work from the top down, from the guttering where it was pushing out the tiles on the roof. As he was establishing the feet of the ladder on the ground his immediate neighbour came out. Known to Theresa and Dinky as ‘Miserable Man’, he had never exchanged a single greeting. He asked Dinky what he was doing. Dinky was proud of himself for doing what he was doing, even if he hadn’t done anything yet other than get a set of ladders, and confidently told Miserable Man that he was removing the ivy. Miserable Man said he couldn’t because it was in the deeds of all their houses, handed down for a century as the Master Builder’s bequest. Dinky didn’t care, it was ruining his life and making his partner and child ill. It was his house and the ivy had to come down. It had got inside the house Theresa said and it was eating away at her. Theresa came out and gave Miserable Man what for, something she’d been desperate to do since day one when he didn’t return her new-to-the-area smile. Pete (another Pete) from the opposite house came over and put in his two-pennyworth.

To escape the brouhaha Dinky Taylor climbed to the top of the ladder. He could see right across the town, picking out mosques and churches, high-rise apartments and the hospital. The whole wide world was before him. Looking down he could see Theresa holding Grace and a small crowd of neighbours. On the wall was the lushness of ivy, varnished mottled green leaves stuck to woody dendrites. He tugged at the nearest branch and was astonished at how tightly it was fixed to the wall. It would take a relatively long time to finish the job. He knew he could do it. Down below they watched, Theresa proud of how he’d manned up and the baby.

Theresa phoned her sister the paediatrician in London as twilight drifted in. She told her that she wouldn’t believe the fantastic story she was about to tell her, about Dinky up the ladder, clinging to the ivy as if the ladder wasn’t there, as if he had become part of the ivy, his hands and feet clamped on fast, like Grace’s gums at the end of her breasts. She told her she had to come to see them, to see Dinky, King of the Ivy, and to see the baby who she hadn’t seen to this day. Dinky stared out across the town, astonished to be watching at just the moment somebody switched on all the street lights to replace the light of the sun. Theresa insisted her sister come up to see the baby, it wasn’t right that a paediatrician refused to see her own niece, as if she weren’t interested in kin, and Theresa proudly told her sister again and again of how Dinky was still working on the wall outside, this time of night.

account_box More About

Steven Earnshaw has recently published short stories in The Warwick Review and LabLit. Academic publications include Existentialism: A Guide for the Perplexed, The Pub in Literature, and Beginning Realism.