The Hedge by Sheila Kinsella

Oscar pulled the branches to his side of the fence and snipped them with the secateurs. A sharp, resounding clipping sound that was oh so satisfying. The cheek of that woman, letting her hedge grow so tall and wide, impinging upon his airspace. ‘Carpinus Betulus,’ or the Common Hornbeam, that App thing he had downloaded on his smartphone said it was.

‘Oscar, come and help me with the baby!’ His wife shouted from the open window.

Oscar put his noise-cancelling headphones on and continued snipping. 

‘Hello there,’ his neighbour said through the hedge.

Oscar did not hear but caught a glimpse of that nondescript middle-aged woman next door through the dense foliage and kept cutting.

‘Hello there!’ the neighbour raised the volume.

Seeing that she did not move, Oscar downed tools and went into the house with a plan to resume pruning later. From the bedroom window, where he had been summoned to change a nappy, he observed that woman sitting on a chair in her garden staring at the hedge.

Later on, in bed, Oscar’s wife said, ‘There, there, it wasn’t so bad, changing a nappy, was it darling?’  Before turning over to sleep. Oscar didn’t reply, he was listening to the news on his tablet. He set his phone alarm to vibrate at three in the morning.

The rumbling noise of a plane flying overhead woke Oscar at two-thirty.  He flicked his alarm off, slipped into his jogging pants and a t-shirt and went to the garage. Several large bottles of vinegar sat waiting for him. The moon shone across the garden; its luminous glow afforded the hedge an alien-like appearance. Oscar poured the vinegar along the root line of the hedge. The acrid smell of the liquid rose upwards into the early morning dew, causing Oscar to cough. He tried to muffle his choking with his fist but failed. As he sneaked back into the house, mission accomplished, a light flicked on next door.  

The next-door neighbour, being a light sleeper, was already awake when Oscar committed his evil task. She slid the patio door open and admired the moonlight glowing across the foliage of the hedge, bestowing it a ghostly, ethereal allure. A sudden pungent odour wafted upwards, causing her to catch her breath. It was very odd. Surely not. Her new neighbour had expressed his discontent at her beautiful hedge, but would he go to such lengths? Prevention is better than cure, she thought and set about searching on the internet how to neutralise the vinegar. She checked the weather forecast; heavy rain was due at about eight o’clock. Well, she couldn’t sleep anyway, and there’s no time like the present.

Her late husband had been a dreadful hoarder; the garden shed was riddled with bottles and tins containing chemicals for this that or the other. After a brief search, for he was a tidy man, she found a sack of the necessary lime to increase the PH value of the soil and reduce the effects of the acid. Her dressing gown trailed in the early morning dew settling on the grass; no matter. It wasn’t that difficult to spread five tablespoons of lime around the roots of each tree. The predicted downpour would do the rest.

Upon her return to the kitchen to put the kettle on, Pinot meowed as he snaked his furry body in and out of her legs.

‘It’s a bit early for breakfast Pinot.’ She stroked his chin and rubbed his head and ears. ‘Ah well, what’s the harm.’

The dish clattered against the tiled floor as Pinot wolfed the food down.

Afterwards, as she sat in her comfy armchair by the window with a cup of tea, Pinot jumped onto her lap, snuggled down into the shape of a doughnut and purred.

Next morning, while brushing his teeth the regulation twenty times per mouth section, Oscar stood on tiptoes to stare above the opaque part of his bathroom window out at the offending hedge. Hmmm… slight yellowy tinge to the leaves already, he smiled at the thought and spat frothy toothpaste bubbles into the sink. He hoped that the early morning downpour hadn’t diminished the strength of the vinegar. Stupid old bat next door won’t know a thing.

‘Darling, put the rubbish out, would you?’ His wife yelled up the stairwell.

Oscar gathered the scourge of waste of dirty nappies and half-eaten packs of crisps, shoved all the smaller waste bags into the standard white bin bag with the council’s name printed across it and deposited the bag on the pavement.

‘Morning!’ 

Oscar preoccupied himself with the rubbish bag and turned his back to the next-door neighbour.

‘Good morning!’

The insistence of the woman. He slammed the front door shut. 

‘Oh, there you are dear. Sorry, the baby’s dirty nappies from last night should go out too.’ His wife shoved them into his arms.

Damn, Oscar thought and kept his head down as he walked to the binbag; it took quite some time to undo its thumb knot.

‘Lovely morning!’

That bloody woman, will she never give up? Oscar rammed the nappies into the top of the binbag. The sticky tape on one of them not being adhesive enough, flipped up and stuck itself to the side of the binbag, unrolled itself and deposited an orangey-brown mess all over the pavement.

‘**it!’ Oscar said.

‘Oh dear, having a spot of bother?’ The woman next door said.

Oscar swore he heard a chuckle before her front door closed.

‘Oscar, what are you doing?’ His wife shouted out of the living room window.  

After putting out the rubbish, the woman next door laid a line of breadcrumbs on her garden table next to a large bowl of water for the birds.  She didn’t worry about Pinot chasing the birds, he was far too fat and lazy to bother with all that.

‘Pinot, Pinot!’ She cried. ‘A little snack before lunch?’ The saucer chinked against the patio stones as she set it down.

‘Miaow, miaow, miaow,’ said Pinot as he waddled towards the food.

Oh dear, she thought about the man next door, I’m on the receiving end of the silent treatment. Ah well, no bother. What day is it today? Friday? I must finish knitting that hat and scarf for the homeless charity, I can pop it off when I nip into town tomorrow and get some more wool.

‘Pinot, you won’t be able to fit inside the cat flap if you carry on eating like that love!’

Pinot meowed and licked his chops.

On Friday evening, upon his return from work, Oscar did a recce of the garden, feigning little interest in the hedge. Although it did seem strange to him that it was showing little sign of degradation.

‘Lovely evening isn’t it?’ A voice came from over the hedge.

Oscar turned away to catch sight of a heavy-looking monster of a cat defecating on his micro millimetre lawn.

‘Shoo! Shoo!’ He made a starting movement to try and frighten the cat, which grinned, yes, grinned at him, flicked his tail up in the air like a loo brush and scampered off through a gap in the hedge.

‘Oh Pinot! There you are, love!’ That woman next door said. ‘Come on now, dinner time, although I guess you’d eat anytime.’ She laughed.

On Saturday morning, Oscar’s wife said to him during breakfast, ‘Darling, the baby almost picked up something disgusting in the garden. Can you check?’ 

The minute Oscar set foot in the garden he saw the offending poo. Even cats are too lazy these days to dig a hole and, well you get the picture. He took a piece of stiff cardboard from the recycling, scooped it up and launched it over the hedge.

The woman next door was spraying the roses for black spot when the crusty item landed at her feet.

‘Well really!’ She whisked it up on her trowel and rocketed it skywards. It shattered at Oscar’s feet upon impact.

‘Darling! What are you doing?’ Oscar’s wife yelled out of the window.

Oscar’s pallor changed from its usual whitish-green to pink, then red, rising to the bald spot at the centre of his scalp.

Later that evening, while his family slept. Oscar searched the internet: stop cats soiling your garden; foods harmful to cats; how to kill cats. How to kill cats and hedges. Satisfied, he went to sleep. 

Coming home Monday morning after a night on the tiles, Pinot crept in his true languid fashion through the gardens, poking his nose in here and there. Home, at last, he got a whiff of something tasty. It wasn’t in his normal dish and its usual place. Fishy. Plenty of food at home he thought as he squeezed through the cat flap. 

Pinot was sleeping on the sofa when the woman next door came down the next morning. Ah, bless, she thought. The sun glinted on to the water feature creating spangles in the morning light. The terrace was bathed in the warm sunshine. Wait, what was that over there? A saucer of cat food? How odd. She sniffed it: garlic. Well really! Did that man think Pinot was so stupid as to eat something bad for him? The gall of the man. 

On Thursday, Oscar’s wife said, ‘Darling Oscar, we need a break – a night out.’ Trails of milk regurgitations decorated her shoulder as she spoke.

‘Yes, dear.’

‘On Saturday night you are taking me out to dinner. No ifs, no buts, it’s all organised.’ She smiled and passed him the baby.

Oscar burped the baby and handed him back. He stared out of the bedroom window and blinked his eyes several times. Was that next door’s cat sitting dead still in his garden glaring at him? How was it possible? 

Friday morning, Pinot waited for Oscar outside the front door when he left for work.  A still, black cat, startling green eyes staring into the void. Oscar stepped over him. Pinot coughed up a furball and deposited it at his feet.

Friday evening, Pinot rolled in the dust on the pavement outside Oscar’s house, swiftly redressing himself to glare at Oscar, the tiny speckles of dust clinging to his fur gave him an angelic look.

At midnight, Oscar changed the baby’s nappy and glanced out of the bedroom window to see Pinot brushing against the glass, bottom first.

Saturday evening, Oscar’s wife said to him, ‘Right Oscar, best togs on, we’re going somewhere nice.’

Later on, when the doorbell rang, a melody of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons resonated throughout the hallway.

‘I’ll get it, darling,’ Oscar’s wife pattered downstairs to the front door with the baby in her arms.

Oscar descended the staircase wearing his best casual clothes and looking quite dapper.

‘Oscar darling, we were just talking about you!’ His wife said, before turning to reveal the babysitter. ‘You know Iris from next door, don’t you?’

Iris smiled in a sort of smug way and hugged the baby closer to her. ‘Hello Oscar,’ she offered her hand.

Oscar’s mouth dropped open, speechless for a few seconds before he managed to mutter ‘Err… Hello,’ as he shook Iris’s hand.

 Belgium based writer Sheila Kinsella’s short stories draw inspiration from her Irish upbringing. An avid watcher of people’s behaviour, and blessed with abundant natural curiosity, Sheila lures the reader into a shrewdly observed world via imagery and comedy. Her short stories have been published in three anthologies and also in The Blue Nib.

Sheila graduated with an MA in Creative Writing (Distance Learning) from Lancaster University in the United Kingdom in 2017.

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