AIDA AUSTIN: "Ninety-nine percent of the time you’re not competitive"

Sligo, Saturday, early afternoon. My sister and I are in the polytunnel, preparing our entries for the Boyle Summer Show, which takes place tomorrow at midday.

I am entering into its ‘Best Wild Flower Bouquet’ category. My sister is entering her rhubarb into ‘Best Fruits’.

I am all of a dither, quite unable to account for my sweaty palms and trembling hands; I fear they may point to something my husband said earlier: “Ninety-nine per cent of the time you’re not competitive. But you pack some frightening stuff into the one percent of the time that you are.”

“I mean, would you describe me as competitive?” I say, not looking up, for I am trying to achieve natural-looking height differentials in Fire-Lily stems.

“Well,” she says, not looking up from whatever she’s doing to her rhubarb, “what are you thinking about right now?”

“Winning.”

“And what are you feeling, deep down inside?”

“Like I’ve had 14 coffees.”

“Is that all?”

“Exhilarated and... vicious.”

“You need to get out more,” she says.

“But would you describe me...”

“...as someone who packs some frightening stuff into the one percent of the time that you are competitive? Yes. Now shut up, I need to sort my rhubarb.”

3 pm. I am drinking coffee in a garden centre with my sister and her lovely friend Kirsty (Bsc Hons in Horticulture, delightful smile, fantastic hair, last year’s winner in ‘Best Bouquet’). She also works in the garden centre: I am definitely the underdog.

“So have you decided what you’re going to use in your bouquet?” Kirsty asks. 

A customer approaches her for assistance and I am able to hiss at my sister quickly, “Don’t breathe a word about the Queen Anne’s Lace. Remember - blood.”

“Blood?” she says, “what about blood?”

“Thicker than water,” I say, “not a word.”

“Frightening stuff,” my sister says.

3.30pm. I’m driving down to Lough Arrow.

A car pulls up beside me. The driver rolls down his window; it is my sister’s husband, Rudi.

“What are you kerb-crawling like that for?” he asks. “It looks really peculiar and suspicious.”

“I desperately need some Queen Anne’s Lace,” I say, “for my bouquet. I saw a patch of it somewhere along here yesterday.”

4 p.m. I am standing up to my thighs in lake water, dress hitched up into my knickers; I have five bulrushes but I want four more. I want them even more than my right shoe, which I lost half an hour ago while trying to find some purchase on the mud with it.

9am. Sunday morning. I am in bed. A tempest howls outside.

“Show’s been cancelled due to rain,” my sister says, “but you and Kirsty are going head-to-head at Angie’s house. 

Kirsty’s on her way over there now. She said her bouquet is in the front seat, wearing a seat belt and to remind you that your bouquet has to have a name.”

“I was awake all night thinking of one,” I say.

“Well,” my sister says, “what is it?”

“‘Lake Water Lapping,’” I say, “a line from...”

“Doesn’t matter where it’s from,” she says, “it’s sick.”

11am. Bsc Hons goes to unbuckle her bouquet from its seatbelt. I collect mine from the front foot-well of my car. Pieces of paper are passed around: voters are to put into a hat the name of the Best Bouquet. Bsc Hons has christened her bouquet “Ash.”

11.01. People scribble in silence.

11.02. “Stop mouthing “blood” at me,” my sister says.

11.30. The vote is in.

4pm. Return journey to Cork. In the car, I keep finding myself humming, “We are the Champions,” by Queen.

Frightening stuff.


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