THE FLOWER LADY

Andrea was already in her mid-fifties when she and Peter moved to Stony Brae, the farm that had been in his family for generations. She had always known that Peter wanted to farm even though she had happily moved with him to wherever his engineering jobs had taken them. When they had finally settled in Somerset West so that their sons could complete their schooling in one place, she felt they had come to the end of a long journey at last.

Stony Brae had been their regular holiday destination. This is where Mark and Michael had learned to drive their grandfather’s tractor; where they had joined the groups bird hunting with dogs when the season was right; and both boys still loved riding horses and hiking in the hills. Stony Brae had always been the perfect place where the family could unwind.

It had been easy to unwind in such a beautiful place, she reflected, where there were so many things to do and where one could hive off somewhere for a period of peace, to watch birds, or to read in the shade of one of the many trees in the large garden stretching away from the homestead.

That garden. Peter’s mother had been an avid gardener whose passion for plants, both exotic and indigenous, had kept her occupied in between canning fruit, making jam, baking, and overseeing the magnificent vegetable and herb garden outside the kitchen. Andrea loved that garden that was so different from their small one consisting of a lawn, a few trees, a narrow flower bed along the perimeter walls, and herbs growing in pots. She never gave a thought to the upkeep of the garden at Stony Brae – it was always there and always looked beautiful, whatever the season.

Peter’s father remained on the farm for five years after his wife had died unexpectedly from a snake bite. Andrea and Peter visited the farm more regularly during that time. While Peter discussed farm matters, Andrea and her sons walked along paths in the hills and Andrea began taking an interest in photography.

It was Eleanor, from the farm next door, who pointed out the weavers constructing their nests in the Cape Chestnut trees between the house and the garages for the tractors. They had been sitting on the shady lawn when Eleanor had leaned back in her deck chair with her arms outstretched. “I’ll be glad when the ploughing season is over. All that dust in the air coats everything in the house.” She cast her eyes around the garden, her next words chilling Andrea to the core. “It’s a shame to see how neglected this garden has become since Julie passed on.”

The Garden. From that moment Andrea always thought of it in capital letters: The Garden. Peter made repeated noises about taking over the running of the farm, yet she had placed his enthusiastic, “You can learn to bake bread and perhaps turn out your delicious cheddar and bacon pies for the monthly market” on the back burner. He had been talking about farming since before they had got married.

It was true that Andrea enjoyed baking. Both of them liked entertaining and the farm would be ideal for that. But gardening? Eleanor had made her look at The Garden more closely and her heart quailed at the responsibility looming ahead.

Five years later, Andrea could laugh at her fears. She still preferred The Garden at night when solar lights in the flower beds turned it into a fairy land. Still, after years of pruning, weeding and having to deal with drought, Andrea had planted banks of aloes and succulents that more or less looked after themselves. Encouraged by her neighbours, Philip and Mary, she had devoted a particularly fertile section of The Garden nearest the house to cut flowers. Even though Mary had practically bullied her into selling flowers at the monthly market (along with her baked cookies and pies), Andrea found that she had such an abundance of flowers that even her neighbours had run out of space for displaying them.

Andrea began making up bunches of flowers the afternoon before going to town for the weekly shop. She would leave them in buckets of water overnight and wrap them in newspaper before placing them carefully in the boot of her car. She never failed to experience a thrill of joy whenever she presented unsuspecting people in the supermarket car park, or even in the street, with a bunch of beautiful blooms. “To make you happy,” she would say, or “I have far too many.” She always refused payment, saying “I would like you to have them.”

It wasn’t long before Andrea became known as The Flower Lady. She was happier than she had been for years – until a florist opened next to the supermarket. Susan Finch was quite blunt: “You cannot give away flowers, Andrea. I need people to purchase flowers from me.”

“I have been giving away flowers once a week for years. Why should I stop?”

“Because selling flowers is how I make a living!”

For weeks Andrea miserably dead-headed the flowers in The Garden. Susan had offered to buy flowers, but they weren’t for sale. Where would be the joy of giving – and what if The Garden decided to sulk and not produce? Andrea didn’t want to feel obliged to grow flowers ‘on contract’.

Sister Louisa phoned early on a Wednesday morning, urging Peter to visit his father in the retirement home. “He’s not well, Peter. He’s very confused this morning and is determined to get out because he has to take sheep to an auction.”

Peter’s father hadn’t farmed sheep for twenty years. Instinctively, Andrea cut a bunch of flowers to take with her. There was no point in giving them to the old man and so, while Peter led his father out to a lunch on the veranda, Andrea went in search of a vase.

“Are these really for us?” Andrea’s heart soared at the delight on the faces of the care-givers. She was even more touched when the matron placed the flowers in the rather drab communal lounge “so that more people can enjoy them.”

From then on Andrea the Flower Lady urged The Garden to do its best to deliver blossoms in abundance. Her first stop in town every week is the retirement home with enough flowers for everyone. She wickedly holds back three bunches, which she defiantly hands over to the first three elderly people she sees emerging from the supermarket.

The Flower Lady has tamed The Garden and remains undaunted.

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