A.Vogel Blog

home / story winners / valerian


by Darci Bysouth

I’m sorry for all that happened.

Dina takes another slug of Cabernet. The cursor flashes, demanding more words to fill the empty white box.

I need you to.....

What exactly does she need him to do? She hasn’t seen him for twenty years. Two decades of theatre tickets and champagne moments and carefully managed investment portfolios. She’s been a smartly dressed success, in between the tears in the toilets of hen parties and christenings.  She backspaces.

I’d love to hear from you.

Better. Much stronger. Proactive, even.

She’d found his page without too much trouble. There had been over four hundred Sean Smiths on the site, but only one had a profile picture of an herb garden. That was so much like him. He’d loved all things green and growing.

I’m sorry for all that happened. I’d love to hear from you.

The cursor flashes. Dina pours another glass of wine. Bloody hell.  What if he doesn’t reply? What if he does?

She unclenches her thumbs from her fists and presses delete. She’ll sleep on it. If sleep should come.


They’d met on a park bench in the last days of summer. She wore the suit she’d bought with her first pay-cheque. It made her feel like a city sophisticate, and she didn’t mind eating brown paper lunches to compensate for the expense. He’d kicked off his sandals so his bare feet could knead the grass. She was a little afraid of him, of the way his hair sprang in all directions, and she’d been careful to leave a respectable space between them. He offered her a bag of sugar dusted shards. She shook her head and he emptied the bag onto the ground.

“Bourbon crèmes,” he said with a sidelong glance, “Pilfered them from work. The little ones love them.” He clucked and murmured, and the squirrels came bumping and bouncing over the grass, scattering the pigeons at his feet.

“Dina,” he said when she told him her name. Tongue between teeth in that accent of his; physical, like something the mouth craved.

He brought her flowers the next day. Ends still ragged with earth from where they’d been picked in the memorial garden, but pretty and heartfully presented. She’d laughed and held the bouquet away from her clean gray skirt.

She took him to her bed before the leaves fell. He worked night shifts at the biscuit factory; he slid shortbread rounds and ginger snaps into the big industrial ovens, tray after tray while the city slumbered. He’d climb between her sheets in the early hours of the morning with the scent of sugar still on him, he’d make love to her in the hazy surreal time when all things were possible.

“We’ll have a grand garden,” he’d whisper while his hands furrowed her body. “Lavender and roses, the first sweet strawberries of spring. Mint to waken the spirit and valerian to calm the mind.”

And she’d wind round him, loving the rhythm of his words more than the sense.

Dina glowed, and the men at work noticed. They said she was bright and hard-working, a girl on her way up if she played her cards right. She was introduced to a new boss and his boss and the boss higher up, a series of sharp-suited men whose eyes lingered on hers before they crept lower.

One of those men had manicured hands and an ironic drawl. He took her out for a coffee and lifted his eyebrow when she ordered cappuccino.

“It’s pronounced ch,” he said, “like fettuccini and Botticelli.”

She began to find fault with Sean. His job with its dismal hours and worse pay, and how it coarsened his hands. The way he took three sugars in his over-strong tea and would not drink coffee. The dense sound of her name in his mouth.

Sean began to spend more time in the garden, nestling his fledgling plants into the holes he’d scooped for them, patting their roots down and whispering words of encouragement.

“Be strong,” he’d say. “It’s a hard world, little ones. It’s easy to get lost. Look for the sun.”

Dina looked at his feet in the dirt, his trousers with the hole in the knee. Stupid. All that hard graft and so little reward. So backwards. Her stomach twisted.

The man with the manicured hands took her to an art gallery. Dina learned that Botticelli was an artist, not a shape of pasta. She stayed on later at work, until this man caught her eye and suggested dinner, and she stayed later than the coffee at his place. The taxi driver joked with her on the way home. These modern girls up to all hours and never a care. Nice girl like her, surely she’d have a husband to wonder where she was? Dina smiled at him. Uneducated, she thought, from some country where the girls marry at fourteen. Not a clue how complicated modern relationships could be.

Dina began to take chances, to stay later and later. She’d feign sleep when Sean climbed into bed beside her, her hair still damp from the shower and her heart pounding. It’s the rush, she told herself when her belly ached and she could not sleep.

The power failed one night and the biscuit factory sent its workers home early. Dina slunk into a candle-lit house, with the stink of expensive cologne on her and the excuses drying in her mouth.

Sean wanted an explanation. No, he would not leave her; he wanted a way to understand this and sort it out. His mouth was thick with her name.

“It’s you,” she said, “you just aren’t coming with me. Not where I’m going.”

Sean was gone by the morning. The man with manicured hands lasted until Dina got a promotion.  She used her bonus that year to pave over the garden, to put in a concrete living space with a few potted yuccas and a geometric sculpture. Her new boss demanded and she gave. She became a senior manager. She threw parties where elegant young women arranged themselves around the pot plants, hoping to catch the eyes of the boss men. Dina was generous when pouring wine for these girls. She made sure to steady their glasses while they stumbled and slurred, and she smiled sympathetically when the bosses shrugged from their clumsy embraces.

On the sleepless nights, she sat among her sharp-spiked things. The marble tiling was cool against her bare feet and the Pinot Noir tasted of cherries. She should be happy, smug even; her property had doubled in value, she had oversized art and undersized technology, her meals were selected by a dietician and her flowers by an aromatherapist. She’d beat out the competition to become managing director, and the more ambitious young men flirted with her now, caught in a heady blend of lust and terror.

Sometimes, a thin thread of sugar wafted through the night air. Biscuit factory, thought Dina, shortbread and ginger snaps. The opiate of the teatime classes. Her belly would clench then, and she’d knead it absently. Fashionably concave, hollow even. She had everything she’d worked for, she was not unhappy. She was modern. She felt nothing at all.


The signs were all there. The mergers, the acquisitions, the foreign investments. Dina should have seen it coming.

Still it was a surprise when she was called into the CEO’s office. Hard times, he’d said, but she should have no trouble finding work elsewhere. Not with her ambition. He’d write whatever she needed, he’d recommend her.

Dina drinks. A bottle at a time, clutched from her built-in wine cellar and never mind letting it decant. She sits in front of her laptop, scanning the financial markets and trying to condense the last twenty years into a c.v. paragraph. The social networking sites are a bit of a diversion, a chance to see who’s gotten fat and who lives through their children’s dance recitals and football trophies.

She googles his name after too much Cabernet, after a southerly breeze fills the night air with vanilla. The profile photo with all the greenery pops up. Yes. He would have an herb garden and a simple philosophy, he’d know why she couldn’t sleep despite her astanga yoga and life coaching and pure foods. He could help her.

I’m sorry, she types. Best to apologise, to be polite.  She needs him. The cursor flashes and the white box glares. Dina looks at the empty bottle and sighs. A top up is in order. She needn’t drink the whole bottle.

Regret how we ended. Hope life worked out well for you. Let me know, if you wish.

Sharp but insouciant. And so not what she means to say. Dina pours another splash of claret and backspaces.

I’m sorry, she writes, I’m sorry.

For all that happened, I’m sorry.  I need you. Please reply.

Her eyes blur. Bloody hell, her tears are so close to the surface these days. It must be the wine. She takes another sip. The cursor hovers over the send button, giving the word a rosy glow.

Dina aims the cursor and presses down. She watches her words fly away.


Nothing happens. Dina works on her C.V., she goes to the gym and her book club and her meditation classes before she uncorks her nightly bottle. She keeps up appearances. No sad unemployed alcoholic, her; she only drinks fine wine. She checks her messages four times a day. She’s looking for job offers, nothing more than that.

Her sleeplessness draws her to the chair in the conservatory. She brings her laptop and a glass of wine. The night air wafts through the open window, and the sweet scent of it catches in her gut. Vanilla, or lavender.

Please, she types. Wherever you are. Please.

Write to me.


Hi Dina. You sound upset. What’s wrong?

This, after a month of nothing. Dina’s heart clenches, her belly aches. The words waver and blur and she has to take a drink to steady her eyes.

Sean, I was wrong, I’m sorry. Nothing’s like it was supposed to be. Nothing’s like I planned.

Dina clicks send. She pauses, and then types some more.

It was work, Sean. I had to do things I didn’t want to do.


Maybe I did have a choice. I chose to be good at my job. Now I have a house full of designer furniture too expensive to use. My sheets are one thousand thread count Egyptian cotton and I still can’t sleep. There’s original art on my walls. It’s ugly.


I’m ugly, Sean.


I’m ugly and lonely and I drink.



I’m sorry about the ugly art, Dina. Never much understood the modern stuff myself. We all make mistakes. In life, I mean, not just art. It sounds like you have regrets. Try to move on.

Dina weeps a little at this. She knew he would understand.

There’s more, Sean.

Dina has to pour herself another glass of Merlot before she can continue.

Sometimes I drink too much.

Her hand wobbles and the cursor bounces, doing an ironic little jig before landing squarely on send.


Dina. You need to stop drinking. A friend of mine went to one of those twelve step programmes. It worked out pretty good for him. He quit drinking and met some nice ladies there.

PS. Try valerian tea. It works pretty good for insomnia.

Dina weeps a little more. He always did take care of her, even if she was blind to it back then.

I’m so sorry, Sean. Please forgive me.

She presses send.


I forgive you, Dina. Now forgive yourself.

Dina tries hard. She drinks a cup of valerian tea before bed, and ignores the urge for something stronger. She fails. One day, she wakes to broken glass and a blossom of bruises, and doesn’t remember how either came to be. She doesn’t tell Sean this, but confesses it all to the nice lady on the helpline.

The people at the meetings are kind, but Dina doesn’t think she belongs there. They assure her that she does.

Dina begins to go to job interviews. She drinks a cup of valerian tea every evening, just before bed. Something about the faintly musty odour reminds her of earth, of bare feet in the garden and the promise of green and growing things. Sometimes she sleeps through the night.

The spring comes and brings the first of the green shoots with it. Dina gets a job at a small but reputable company. She buys a window planter for the kitchen to celebrate, and tucks a few leafy plugs into its dirt. She forgets to write to Sean. Sometimes she thinks of him with a kind of fond remembrance. A nice man and so helpful. Still, he probably felt more for her than she did for him, and her therapist says imbalances are never good in relationships.


Sean straightens up, swearing a little as his back unknots itself with an audible pop. Damn garden’s more trouble than it’s worth sometimes, but it had been Ellie’s pride and joy and he’ll keep it going for that reason alone.

He leans on the hoe and watches the sun sink into the western mountains. Nearly time to go in, to heat up some of that soup Lizzy left in the fridge and see what’s on the television. Maybe he’ll get on the internet. Look up fishing holidays and check his messages on that social site.

Lizzy hooked up the computer, and laughed when Sean took to it like a duck to water. “You’re a natural, Grandad,” she said. “A real silver surfer.”

Lizzy hadn’t been so pleased when he’d told her about the woman.

“She sounds like a nutcase,” she said. “A real cyberstalker.  I hope you’re going to tell her the truth, Grandad.”

Hell, he knows he should have come clean with the woman. But she sounded so sad and desperate. And he’d been taught to always respond to a letter, no matter its source. Maybe he would have confessed if she’d asked something about him. But she never did, not once.

Truth be told, it was nice to be needed. He hadn’t felt that since Ellie died. God knows Lizzie was good to him, but she was a modern girl and too busy to need anyone.

This woman, this Dina, she was youngish in her profile photo. Attractive, if a bit hard-looking. From London, England.

And he liked that. He liked that he could write to an attractive young woman from London, England and help her through a bad time. Ellie always said that nothing given in good heart was ever wrong.

Sean leans on his hoe and watches the sun go down. The valerian tea was a good touch, though. Ellie used to make him a cup when he was restless. It calmed his mind, it let him sleep like an innocent.

Judges comments

''Valerian is uplifting and warm; a great reminder of getting some perspective to your problems.''

James Wong

Winning stories 2011

1st prize - The Bed Lucy Made, And She Lies In It

2nd prize - Body

3rd prize - Sinking

3rd prize - Valerian

Highly commended

0 items in your cartcart-icon