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The wall is warm and almost sticky. Splinters of brick burrow into my palm as I sit beside Elvina, our legs dangling over the edge.
“You know this is someone’s garden.” I wipe the back of my neck.
Elvina shrugs. “They won’t begrudge us the view.” She gathers her red hair in one hand, sweeping it over one shoulder as she bites into a magnum. “You’re melting.”
Honeycomb ice cream has dribbled from the cone to my denim shorts, a cream snail trail sliding down my hand. I twist my wrist and lick to the tip of my pinky, which earns a raised eyebrow.
The view is a single jasmine bush. It spills out from the neighbouring lawn, lanky stems towering ten feet above the curb to swallow the row of terraces behind. Flowers crest like seafoam onto the pavement. The petals kick out like helicopter seeds, five-pronged spirals. I reach out and rub one between my fingers, each as crisp and white as bone.
Elvina twists to an awkward angle and raises her phone. “At least pretend you’re having fun,” she says. I smile, but we both know it’s forced. “For Mum,” she adds, and I try harder.
I turn back, pop the last of the ice cream cone into my mouth. The jasmine owner is in the garden, a man with a stooped posture and thick coils of white hair, secateurs in hand.
Elvina waves. “It’s really beautiful.”
He grunts, and there’s a slight dip of his head. He bends to pick up a plant pot filled with compost, snips a browning stem from the shrub and drops it in. It would be enough, to deter further conversation, but not to El.
“Must be ten years old.”
A smile shadows the corners of his mouth. “Eight,” he says.
I don’t know how she does it. She managed to explain our parent’s divorce, and her recent university term in Barcelona, to the cashier in Lidl, found out he was off to Milan in the autumn. She wished him a pleasant trip. I told her no one says pleasant anymore.
A bee hovers by a stamen, jitters, rubs its legs together. I rock on the balls of my feet. The man gestures to the jasmine.
“It was a gift from my sister,” he says. “When she died.”
Elvina had already been forming the words – “How lovely,” perhaps – and I watch her throat bob as she swallows them down, rephrases. The freckles on her nose seem to deepen as her cheeks colour. “How kind of you to keep tending it.”
Tend. I think of hospital gowns and IV drips, coughing up mucus the green of chlorophyll. Mum’s voice arching through the hallway, the soft retreat of Dad’s footsteps.
“You must have been close.” Elvina looks at me, then, and I think if she was nearer, she would have reached for my hand. I don’t know if I would’ve taken it.
“She put a lot of herself into this plant.” He whistles through his teeth. “I wanted to do the same.”
He offers me the pot, passing it over the wall. “Help a fella out.” My arms sag beneath its weight, and I lodge it into the crook of my elbow, the bottom balanced against my hip. “I can’t reach that side.”
We pluck the florets curling inwards, discoloured, like the folded legs of dead insects. Elvina offers to take the compost from me twice, grins when I cling to it.
The bee flutters to my wrist, summoned to the honeycomb residue still traced across my wrist. When it stings, I drop the pot, sending its contents scattering across the pavement.
We pretend not to see the clean, pale white poking through the dirt, its mandible smile.