EYES CAN DECEIVE

Mandy looked down at the milky residue crusted on Ursula’s chin. She should have wiped her mouth properly after breakfast, instead she had given into the unaccustomed lightness – that rare feeling of freedom experienced as she watched her sleeping daughter curled on her bed for a morning nap. Mandy tiptoed into the kitchen to brew a mug of mint tea, pinching a leaf from the pot of mint growing on the windowsill and crushing it between her fingers.

Looking after Linda’s young children should have been a foreshadowing of what it would be like as a mother of her own child. “The difference is that it wasn’t all day – and I could hand them back!” Mandy had taken to talking to herself whenever she was alone: it was a way of checking that she still knew ‘grown-up’ words and how to articulate her thoughts coherently.

Robert was photographing a golf tournament in Brazil. Mandy settled into a comfortable chair and sipped her tea thoughtfully: he was testing her range of endurance to the limit. “He’d better applaud me, or at least acknowledge how difficult it has been to cope on my own for two weeks!”

She enjoyed a fleeting vision of being able to lie back and enjoy an uninterrupted soak in a hot bath. “How my pleasures have been reduced to basics,” she told the blank television in passing. She hadn’t even switched it on since Robert’s departure. What was the use of trying to watch anything when she was so tired at night and Ursula seemed more restless than usual?

“Perhaps she’s teething,” her mother had suggested during their daily phone calls snatched between housework and Ursula. Her mother lived too far away to be of any physical help and couldn’t really keep track of the different stages or ages of her four grandchildren.

“Do we ever stop looking after people?” Mandy asked her reflection in the mirror several days later. She straightened her tartan skirt and caressed the golden head of an Egyptian goddess (which one?) Robert had brought home after covering a soccer tournament in Egypt. “At least you’re not a pyramid. I wish your eyes weren’t so blank though!”

Ursula fell asleep in the car seat almost as soon as Mandy had pulled out of their driveway to head for the airport in the next town. The day was cool and heavily overcast. By the time she had driven into the valley some distance away, she found herself having to slow down to a crawl in the thick mist. Passing cars looming out of nowhere reminded her of the shiny flashes of small shoals of fish in an aquarium.

It was a relief at last to see the tall palms that lined the avenue leading to the airport. The joy flooding through her was quickly replaced by panic: what if Robert’s plane had been held up by the weather?

Once parked, Mandy bent down to lift Ursula out of the car seat. Her face was covered by her long hair and a blob of crusted food stuck to the pretty dress Mandy had chosen for her. She wiped Ursula’s face and hands with a wet-wipe. “Come Angel, we’re going to find your Daddy.”

There was limited space in the arrivals hall. Mandy wondered if a protest was in progress and hoped it wouldn’t turn violent: the crowd was shouting, singing, waving placards and some were even dancing. The noise in that confined space was deafening. Keeping her arm firmly round Ursula on her hip, Mandy edged around the fringe of the crowd and caught the eye of a tall man standing near the door leading to the luggage collection area. He stretched out his arm, inviting her to join him.

“I can see you were worried about being crushed by this mob,” the stranger told her kindly. “I’m waiting for my girlfriend who’s been working in Scotland for the past three months. And you?” His brown eyes twinkled.

“My husband has been in Brazil for just over two weeks.” Mandy hitched Ursula to a more comfortable position on her hip. “At least the sky is clearing. Do you know if their arrival time has changed?” She had to shout against the background sound of the ululating crowd.

“They’ll land on time. It won’t have been a great flight though: they are sharing the plane with the local soccer team returning from Morocco.”

“So that’s what this crowd is about!”

The mob of fans surged forward when the soccer team crowded around the carousel to collect their luggage. Mandy was grateful for the protective arm around her and even more so when her companion hoisted Ursula onto his shoulders as they were pushed about by the crowd. Ursula held firmly onto his thumb calling out “Daddy! Daddy!” every time someone emerged from the luggage area.

The crowd thinned out at last as the rest of the passengers came into view. “There’s my lass!” The man lifted Ursula down. “Look, she’s the one with the long blond hair. She’s limping in that moon boot – broke her ankle a while back.”

Mandy felt her companion’s stance stiffen at the sight of his girlfriend giving a tall dark man who had appeared behind her a hug. The two figures waited at the carousel until the man picked up a large rucksack to add to the heavy bag he had already slung over his shoulder. The blond woman touched his arm and smiled broadly. He shook his head and placed his arm around her in a protective way until her suitcase into view and then he lifted it off the moving belt for her.

“She seems to have got hooked up with another fellow on the plane.” The stranger sounded glum as they watched his girlfriend hook her arm into that of her companion and leaned into him as they walked towards the open door.

“You’re crying,” the stranger observed, looking down at Mandy. “Right now I wish I could.”

“Don’t! The man with your girlfriend is my husband.”

“Daddy! Daddy!” Ursula beamed as her father lifted her from Mandy’s hip and twirled her above his head before hugging Mandy with his free arm.

“My girls!” He kissed Mandy’s cheek. “Meet Iris, she’s from Scotland – “

“I know.” Mandy smiled through her tears. “This is –“

“I’m Evan Langford.” Her companion shook Robert’s hand. “Thank you for looking after Iris.” His voice was gruff.

“Thank you for looking after us too.” Mandy gave him a brief hug.

What bliss it was to be driven home by her animated husband, who regaled her with tales of his adventures.

“There’s no place like home,” he remarked as he drove up the last of the hills before reaching their town. “I’ve negotiated a year’s contract covering international events on our own turf.” Robert squeezed her hand. “You need a life too, my love, and I need to see more of our Ursula.”

Mandy hoped that her airport companion was feeling as happy as she was.

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CREDIT BALANCE

Afrida Madinda initially scanned her salary slip with dismay then her face cleared with the realisation that this would be the last time R200 would be deducted from her salary. The R800 she had borrowed hadn’t gone very far, but it had at least helped to tide them over a rough patch.

“It’s pay day today! Why are you looking so glum Afri?” Thembisa Tanyana stretched her arms above her head, shaking her body in a mock dancing movement. “I just love pay days. On Saturday morning I’m going to buy that lovely white dress with the black collar. You know, it’s the one I told you about last week. When Jake sees me wearing that … our weekend will be made!” She twirled around in a whirlwind of happiness and pretended to cuff her colleague on the shoulder.

“I feel I’m working for nothing, Thembisa.” Afrida sighed heavily, spreading out a sheaf of e-mails she had printed out as she did at the end of every month. “All I ever seem to do on a Saturday after pay day is walk around town paying bills.”

“It’s that husband of yours, sister. You should make him pay for some of those things.”

“He can’t help it, Tembi. He’s a man after all and so he needs some pocket money to use for cigarettes and to buy drinks for his friends. He says he would be the laughing stock of everyone he knows if he couldn’t do that.”

“When last did you get something for yourself, my friend? Some nail varnish or a new bracelet? I don’t think I’ll ever get married if my husband won’t even allow me to buy a new pair of earrings just because he chooses to bet on the horses or something!”

“Wilfred would never do something like that.” Afrida was still scanning the printed sheets when her eyes widened with indignation and she let out a small shriek. “Oh no!”

“What is wrong?” Thembisa dropped her modelling pose.

“These aren’t just the usual accounts. This one is also a letter of demand!” Afrida was barely whispering. “I can’t bear these threats anymore. I’ll have to see Mrs Odell about another advance on my salary.” She folded the printed sheets and shoved them into her bag, trying hard to hold back her tears.

“Look on the bright side,” Thembisa was trying to sound cheerful. “At least this way you’re not paying heavy interest like you did when you borrowed from the moneylender in ‘B’ Street.” She hugged her friend. “I must go now; I don’t want to wait too long for a taxi tonight!” She went out humming a happy tune.

When Afrida knocked on Mrs Odell’s door, the manageress of the transport depot was talking on the telephone and hardly seemed to notice Afrida, even though she motioned for her to be seated. This was disconcerting as Afrida had dressed with considerable care in a pink blouse which complemented her darker mauve skirt set off with a wide leather belt which boasted a fancy brass buckle. The cream calf-length coat was her most recent acquisition and exactly matched her soft leather shoes. She had wanted to look her best.

“I’m very sorry, Afrida.” Mrs Odell’s voice sounded much kinder than she looked. “Your records show that you have only just finished paying off your previous personal loan. If we advance you money now, you’ll simply be in debt again.” Her eyes were kind.

“Please Mrs Odell. I couldn’t bear the humiliation of being served a summons in front of our neighbours. We recently bought a house in Sagar Extension Three and I do so want everything to be perfect. If you can arrange for me to have an advance this time it will prevent that from happening. I will sort the accounts out regularly from now on, you’ll see.”

“You and your husband should sit down and work out a budget together,” Mrs Odell continued firmly. “You cannot go on like this. Your computer skills are improving and once you have learned to handle the reception while Mrs Philips is away, I’ll see what we can do about an increase for you. In the meantime, you simply have to curb your spending!”

‘Pay Saturdays’ were an agonising round of paying accounts. Usually Afrida tried to avoid letting anyone who knew her to see her at the accounts desks because one could never tell whether or not the clerk would say something embarrassing about the amount still owing. This time, however, Wilfred was with her and he was in a good mood.

“We need to buy a decent dining room table and chairs,” he told her gaily. “That ‘kitchen set’ just doesn’t look good with the new lounge furniture we have. Our friends will think we’re trying to live on the cheap!” He guided her into the furniture store, where she felt engulfed by the array of tables – and quaked inwardly at the prices. The shop wouldn’t extend credit, the salesman told them curtly, as they were already behind with their payments. He lost interest in them and turned his attention to other potential customers. Wilfred looked angry.

“Wilfred, perhaps we should wait a month or two,” Afrida suggested tentatively. She hated his sudden mood changes.

“Nonsense, Afri! I’ve already invited the Ralas and the Mdanas round for a meal on Sunday.” He sounded sulky.

“Oh Wilfred, how could you? What are we going to give them to eat?” She tried to suppress the panic welling up inside her.

“If you feel that way, I’ll simply take the menfolk to the shebeen.” He still sounded angry and was clearly disappointed.

“No, wait. Let us open a new account at that furniture shop in Kerry Street. We’ll manage the repayments somehow.” Afrida desperately wanted to encourage their relationship with the Mdanas as they were a well thought of couple who served on several community-based committees. Mrs Mdana, she hadn’t dared yet to call her Noluthando, had shown some interest in her after church. To be openly connected with her socially would be akin to stepping into a higher level of society …

Afrida felt pleased with the furniture once it was installed in their home and she basked in the admiration from friends. “How do you and Wilfred manage to do it?” they all gasped. She consciously suppressed the nagging concerns about making the repayments; the salesman had made it all sound so easy and the admiration of their friends made it all seem so worthwhile anyway. Wasn’t it?

“You’ve remembered that my parents are coming to stay with us this weekend?” Wilfred sounded anxious, having borrowed his taxi fare from Art Lencau, a moneylender who charged a high interest for even small amounts. “We must have the place looking good for them. Have you got a new duvet cover for their bed?” He laughed happily at the prospect of his parents’ admiration.

Afrida smiled at her husband as he left the taxi at the stop before she got off. Their little house looked perfect. She had seen a picture of a large bowl of fruit on a dining room table and planned to use the closely woven basket her mother-in-law had given her two years before. A variety of fruit could be bought on Friday afternoon. Still thinking about the forthcoming visit, Afrida smiled at Thembisa as she sat down in front of her computer.

It wasn’t easy to type very fast and accurately when the language was unfamiliar and she particularly disliked being given the Afrikaans letters to do because they slowed her down even more. At least the spreadsheets were increasingly easier to manage. Thembisa was happy enough checking the parcels and other cargo against the lists on her clipboard as they were loaded or unloaded. She also enjoyed flirting with the drivers, but one couldn’t do that forever. Afrida had ambitions to go further.

She noted with distaste that Thembisa was wearing more or less the same outfit for the third day in a row. Her own style of dressing meant more laundry to be done over the weekends, but at least she looked different every day. Why, only last week, someone on the taxi had asked if she was a secretary at the legal firm nearby. Glowing at the thought, Afrida halted her typing in mid-sentence: clothes. They would need new clothes for the visit!

She rushed out during her lunch break to look for a suitable outfit at the nearby clothing shop. Wilfred had an account at a men’s clothing shop and could get something later. She placed her carefully chosen items on the counter and withdrew her card from the leather card holder – a gift she had received for opening an account. The sales assistant rang up the purchases, took the card and pressed a key on the computer. She scanned through the seemingly bewildering columns of figures on the screen and returned the card with a slight smirk.

“I’m sorry, you are too far behind with payments for us to allow further credit on your account. If you would like to pay a cash deposit on these …” Afrida didn’t wait to hear the rest. She replaced her card in the holder and walked out of the shop with as much dignity as she could muster, leaving the clothes she had selected in an untidy heap on the counter. Deposit? She only had enough cash for bread, milk and the taxi fare in her purse – and what about the fruit she needed to buy?

Suppressing the horror of receiving yet more letters of demand, Afrida calmly opened a new account at a slightly cheaper clothing store and added the shiny new plastic card embossed with gold numbers to the others in the leather holder. It was a relief to know that she would be well turned out for the visit after all. She walked home with her purchases despite the heat, saving the taxi fare for later. Mamma Keletso might be persuaded to part with some of her fruit with a promise to pay later …

“Wilfred, you’ve got to do something about this!” Afrida had begun to cry. “What will the neighbours think of us when they see our furniture being collected at the end of the month? They will laugh at us and we will lose all the social connections we have made.” Tears rolled down her cheeks. “Your birthday bonus could help to clear some of our debts. Perhaps if you stopped drinking with your friends at the weekend and if you took a loan against your salary we could – “

“Nonsense Afrida.” Her husband’s voice was sulky. “I’ve already promised our friends a braai with my bonus. What a fool I would look now if I said my nagging wife wishes me to spend it on accounts instead. Nobody spends their bonus on settling debts, Afrida – nobody! I’m not about to be the first. I’ve worked hard for that money and deserve to have a little for myself.” He closed his wardrobe door with a slam and shrugged into a casual jacket. “I’m going out!”

“What about our beautiful furniture? I would never be able to hold my head up if they took it away.” Weeping, Afrida thrust the demand note at him. “We only have three weeks, Wilfred, please!”

Afrida emerged from the furniture store feeling close to tears and yet triumphant at the temporary stay of execution. Wilfred had grudgingly handed over a portion of his bonus and that, together with the advance she had begged for had ‘bought’ another month. During her discussion with Mrs Odell to secure the advance, she had become overwhelmed with what their lifestyle was costing them. It had been embarrassing to reveal her debts, but Mrs Odell had insisted this was the only way she could guide her through her predicament.

To her surprise Mrs Odell had offered to pay her to sew new curtains for the office reception area. Afrida rented Mrs Molefe’s sewing machine for ten percent of whatever she earned from it. Wilfred, still angry about having to cut down on the food and drink for his ‘bonus braai’, had stopped accompanying her to church and spent most of his weekends drinking and playing cards with friends in the local shebeen. Feeling hurt at being left alone to cope with the housework, Afrida negotiated an extended loan of the sewing machine. As they seldom entertained anymore, she decided to do something to get them out of the quagmire they were in – even if Wilfred tried to pretend that they had no financial difficulties.

Two months later, Afrida had sewn two dresses for her mother, two outfits for herself and four dresses for Mrs Cetu’s granddaughters. Having been praised for these and been paid in cash gave Afrida the confidence to wear her own creations to work. “You look wonderful Afri!” Thembisa greeted her warmly. “With so many debts to pay, how do you manage to dress so beautifully still?” Thembisa sounded wistful.

“I sewed this skirt and blouse myself.” Afrida proudly turned about to show her outfit off to best advantage. “I dyed those beige shoes of mine to match and see,” she placed her foot onto a chair to invite closer inspection, “you can barely see the scuff marks, so it looks like a new pair of shoes!”

“But how do you pay for the material?” Thembisa eyed her curiously.

“I started with the curtain money Mrs Odell paid me and keep some back from what I charge others to sew for them. I have vowed not to buy any more clothes on account until I have cleared them at both clothing stores.”

“And Wilfred?”

“He must look after himself.” Afrida turned away quickly before Thembisa could see the tears pricking at her eyes. “I must get to work now.”

“Wait, Afrida. Would you sew me two outfits like that before I go on leave next month? I’d pay you cash for them.” Afrida felt as though she was typing on air. Nomfundo Hlati had ordered two long skirts and Princess Liwani had brought her a pattern and material to sew an evening dress: she could begin to increase her charges!

“That’s the last of your debt paid off, Afrida.” Mrs Odell smiled as she handed over the payment slip. “I hope that this time your advance really helped you get yourself sorted out.”

“Oh yes, Mrs Odell. That, together with the money I’ve made from sewing has cleared my clothing accounts. I’ve also started doing alterations and I am hoping to offer to buy Mrs Molefe’s sewing machine for cash at the end of February.”

“What about your husband?”

Afrida laughed out loud. “He got a real fright when he was thrown out of the shebeen. That was when his ‘friends’ abandoned him. He comes to church with me sometimes and has promised not to buy anything more until we can afford it. In fact, he’s actually enjoying making money on the side from the vegetables he’s started growing in our back yard!”

“Power to you, sister!” Thembisa laughed as they walked to the taxi rank together. “I say, is that a new perfume you’re wearing?”

 

THE PURPLE GIFT BAG

Colin felt stupid. Really stupid. Stone-kicking stupid in fact. He had been relishing the prospect of attending David’s birthday braai lunch all week: they had all been cooped up for far too long, thanks both to the Covid pandemic and the fact that their school had opted to continue using remote learning until the end of the term. That was so daft, Colin thought, when restrictions on social movements had already been relaxed.

There will be eight of us. Don’t be late. David’s reminder had boosted Colin’s frame of mind on waking. The really cool thing as far as he was concerned was that as David lived only a few houses away, Colin could walk there. At eighteen, he bridled at the thought of being dropped off anywhere by his mother.

When can I get my driver’s licence, Mom? He was shovelling cereal into his mouth and had spilled milk on the placemat.

When you learn to eat like an adult for starters. His mother picked up his still over-filled bowl and wiped underneath it.

Oh come on, Mom! Neither you nor Dad have offered me a single driving lesson yet. It’s not fair: Brenda got her licence when she was eighteen and you gave her a new car for her twenty-first.

Correction Colin: second-hand car. His mother was loading the washing machine.

It’s still not fair. I’ve been eighteen for three months already.

There’s the small matter of getting your learner’s licence first. Now, if you really put your mind to it you could have one in a jiffy. There are a lot of people out there who are prepared to make more of an effort than you do.

Colin could feel the flush of embarrassment spread across his face and down his neck: he had failed the test twice already. He upset the bowl of cereal in his haste to rise. I’m going for a run, he announced.

Just look at the mess you’ve made!

Sorry, but I must go. If his timing was right, he would meet Alice at the bottom of the hill. He could walk her home and perhaps be offered a mug of coffee in their kitchen – her mother may even have baked something …

The morning turned out to be beautifully sunny and mild. Colin pulled on a pair of shorts after his shower and took special care over his choice of a T-shirt: Alice confirmed that she too had been invited to the braai. Almost as an afterthought, Colin donned a loose casual jacket as potential protection against the chilly breeze that was bound to spring up as the afternoon drew to a close. At least he would be able to offer it to Alice …

He picked up the gift he’d bought for David a few days earlier. Mom! Where’s your wrapping paper?

Look in the bottom of the cupboard in Brenda’s room. His mother’s voice was muffled because she was ironing upstairs.

Colin rifled through the cardboard box, tossing aside the carefully folded coloured wrapping paper: Christmas, more Christmas … nothing plain or ‘manly’. David certainly wouldn’t appreciate having his gift wrapped in paper covered with purple dinosaurs. There’s no birthday paper here!

Of course there is. If you don’t like what I have then choose a gift bag.

Once again Colin delved into the depths of the cupboard. He found lots of bags better suited for wine bottles and a few far too small for his need. Mom! He called loudly for he was running out of time. I can’t find anything!

His mother eyed the mess on the floor then expertly flipped through the collection of gift bags – she firmly believed in re-using such things. This will fit, she announced triumphantly. We can use this dark blue tissue paper on top to hide the gift.

Colin stared aghast at the bright purple gift bag with a metallic sheen and covered with a sparkly pattern that flashed in the sunlight. You do realise that David is a boy who has turned eighteen, not eight? He spoke slowly.

He’ll be more interested in what’s in the bag than the bag itself, came the firm response. Look, the tag is blank: you can write on it.

No way am I going to place my name on such an un-masculine monstrosity! He recoiled as if burned.

That’s okay my boy. You’ve got fifteen minutes before the party starts. If you like, I can drive you down to the supermarket for you to buy one that suits your taste and I’ll drop you off at David’s house on my way home.

No thank you on both counts, I’ll use this one and hope everyone thinks it comes from one of the girls.

Which is why Colin was walking along the sunny street holding the purple gift bag at arm’s length while he felt stupid. Really, really stupid. Stone-kicking stupid in fact.

THE SINGLE PEACH

They both loved peaches and were determined to grow their own. The man at the garden centre helpfully steered them away from varieties not suited to their soil and gave them careful instruction for planting the sapling of their choice. He also advised them where to position the tree in their still undeveloped garden.

Nicholas had followed the instructions to the letter. Mary teased him about the neatly square hole he had dug in the hard ground with considerable difficulty. They nurtured the tree along with their dream of the first harvest. As the months passed, they staked the tree to prevent the howling wind from bending it double. Later, they erected a wire frame around it – and with each passing month they eagerly watched it grow.

Over time their lawn became well established and both were pleased with their efforts to grow vegetables. Mary became adept at planting flower seedlings and kept the borders looking cheerfully bright. The peach tree continued looking healthy yet remained stubbornly barren.

At last, after three years of continued attention, Nicholas and Mary were overjoyed to see the peach tree covered with delicately beautiful pink blossoms. They were so delighted that they celebrated this spring show by opening a bottle of bubbly, which they sipped late one afternoon whilst sitting next to the tree.

It was with sadness and a deep sense of loss that Mary watched the strong wind scattering the fragile petals across the lawn as if they were confetti.

Several weeks later, Nicholas whooped with joy upon discovering a single peach beginning to swell amid the foliage. This time they toasted their good fortune by sipping at tall glasses filled with gin and tonic. They began to dream again.

Nicholas and Mary took to checking the progress of that single peach every day. It remained the only fruit on the tree and, to their immense gratification, was swelling in a most satisfactory manner. Eventually, the single peach began to sport a promising blush.

Their excitement mounted as they debated when the time would be right to pick it. Both nurtured a dream of biting into the warm sun-kissed peach and were determined to wait until that single peach felt ‘just right’ before plucking it from the tree. “We’ll do it together,” Mary said. Their mouths watered in anticipation of tasting their first home-grown, sun-ripened peach.

One afternoon Mary happened to glance out of the kitchen window in time to see their weekly gardener washing his hands at the outside tap after putting the lawnmower away. He wiped them on his overall trousers as he strode purposefully across the newly cut lawn.

Mary watched in horror as the gardener headed straight for the peach tree. She felt rooted to the floor as he plucked the single fruit with a firm tug of his hand. Feeling numb, she watched him bite into that precious sun-ripened peach warmed by the afternoon sun. She stared at the juice running down his chin and stifled a silent scream when he nonchalantly tossed the pip over his shoulder.

DAN’S PEONIES

Linda paused to admire the abundance of peony flowers blooming in Dan’s garden as she had done every morning and afternoon on her way to and from the bus stop at the corner ever since the first blossoms had appeared. Today the sun was shining brightly and the air smelled so crisp and fresh that she wished she could have stayed at home. Instead, she called out to Dan who was clipping the edge of his lawn, “They’re doing so well this year, Dan!” She waved towards the flowers. “They really make me smile.” Linda waved cheerily and hurried on her way.

Dan was waiting at his gate the next morning when Linda walked past. “I picked these to cheer you up while you are working at your desk,” he said, handing her a bouquet of peonies neatly tied with string.

“Oh Dan, this is so sweet of you!” Linda admired the blooms as she looked for a seat on the bus and beamed at the compliments from some of her fellow passengers. It is going to be a good day, she thought as she settled into her seat for the short ride into town.

Before long Linda became aware of ants scurrying out of the flowers, marching down the stems and crawling onto her hands. “Oh!” she shrieked upon seeing a seething mass of ants swarming along her handbag and onto her lap. Linda flapped her hands frantically and tried her best to flick the unwelcome visitors off both her handbag and her lap.

She was mortified when the earlier compliments turned into hoots of laughter. Linda threw the flowers onto the pavement as soon as she stepped off the bus and strode on without looking back. She tried to surreptitiously brush the ants from her skirt before she got to work.

It was mid-morning when Dan walked across to Jennifer’s house and handed her a bunch of peonies from his garden. “Dan, how good of you,” she said. “I just love their fresh, sweet aroma.” She placed them in a pretty glass vase and invited Dan to join her for tea. They both admired the light shining through the glass vase and back-lighting the flowers.

Dan took his leave an hour later and walked home clutching a container filled with freshly baked brownies, a gift from Jennifer. Life is good, he thought happily as he clicked his garden gate closed behind him. He was blissfully unaware that Jennifer was frantically wiping ants off her little round table, having tossed his prize blooms onto the compost heap in her back garden.

Meanwhile, Alice buried her nose in the posy of peonies Dan had left on her doorstep while she was out. She adored their sweet, rosy fragrance and knew they were from him for she had frequently admired his blooms whenever she walked past his garden. She was still smiling as she carried the flowers indoors. Dan was such a good man.

Moments later, her nose began to itch frantically while she was filling a pretty vase with water. Alice was aghast to see her hands were covered with ants – and she could feel ants crawling in her hair! She ran her fingers roughly through her hair, totally destroying the neat style her hairdresser had left her with. Instead of placing the beautiful flowers in the vase, Alice dropped them in the outside dustbin.

Annie, who had always admired the large, soft and silky blooms – even regarding them as superior to roses – had received a bouquet of peonies from Dan the previous year. She smiled happily at the potted peony he held out to her over the gate. “You’ve told me that you prefer seeing them in the garden, Annie.” Dan beamed at her. “I hope this one will grow well for you.”

Later that afternoon, Dan sat on his favourite garden bench and cradled a large mug of strong tea in his strong, capable hands. He admired the peonies while he chewed thoughtfully on his third chocolate brownie. He had made one young woman and three elderly neighbours happy. His eyes misted slightly: Jessie would have been pleased.