Friday, 27 January 2012

Novel: Five-Leaf Clover, Take 2

Going down the steps into the underpass that led from the station to the university, I found a five-leaf clover.
     The university was a small town on the A361, four and a half miles north of Helmston. There were fields all round it, and on those days when I stayed on campus till after dark, the air smelled strongly of field, a mixture of smells I couldn't identify, though it was obvious that at least some of them were intestinal. The overall effect was of sourness and bitterness at the same time. When I asked Rob once what the smell was, he gave that baritone giggle of his that always sounded as if he was about to choke, and said, 'Oh, didn't you know, Daniel? They put chicken guts on the fields.'
     'Where do they get the chicken guts from?'
     'From the biology labs. After they've vivisected the chickens, they give the guts and anything else they have left over to the farmers, to put on the fields.'
     It was impossible to tell when Rob was joking, and a waste of time trying to find out. (Besides, as I'd discovered in the course of several maddening conversations, that was what he wanted me to do.) As for me, I could never decide whether I liked the smell of the fields or not. Sometimes during a supervision or seminar, or sitting in the bar, it was like another presence in the room with us: the evidence of some animal atrocity or just some poorly understood agricultural tradition. It seemed strongest in cold weather.
     The clover was growing on campus among the grass and weeds outside the station on the other side of the Helmston road. I didn't see it till I was half way down the steps and the cluster of leaves was level with my head. It was longer and more straggly than the plant I remembered on the lawn in my Surrey childhood, but it was certainly the real thing, and every stalk but one had three leaves on the end. The stalk leaned right over the brick wall of the underpass, and brushed my face as I stepped down. It had the usual three leaves in the familiar pattern of the Clubs in a pack of cards, but there were an additional two hanging down underneath it. They were partially fused to the stalk, and a paler colour than the upper leaves. Someone pushed into my back as I stopped to think about it, and cursed under his breath. I reached up and snapped off the stalk.
     On an impulse I showed it to Imogen when we were having lunch in the English Department Common Room, a hot dog bought at the counter for me, a tupperware box of brown rice and seaweed for her. 'That's really nice, Daniel,' she said. 'What is it?'
     'A five-leaf clover.'
     She shook her head. 'Clovers are smaller than that. And they only have three leaves.'
     'Look, this one was growing next to it. See, three leaves.'
     'So what are you trying to say?'
     'I picked the three-leaf one to show you, to show anyone, that it really is a clover, except that this one has five leaves, meaning it's lucky.'
     'Four-leaf clovers are lucky. I've never even heard of a five-leaf one.'

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