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.

WINTER GARDEN 2020

The winter cold is associated with the end of a vibrant life cycle and a period of dormancy as shown by these leaves and the dead dahlia head:

Leaf litter

Dahlia head

Most of our trees are evergreen, as are the euphorbias and aloes:

Euphorbia

Aloe leaf

The aloe flowers are both beautiful and provide important nutrition during this harsh season.

Aloe flowers

Blackjack seeds abound, just waiting to be dispersed.

Blackjack seeds

While self-sown cosmos make a brave start.

Cosmos seedling

ALOE SEASON

We are missing out on one of the highlights of the year, the widespread blooming of aloes that brighten the otherwise drab landscape of late autumn and during the winter months. I had a legitimate reason to drive out of town last week for the first time since the Covid-19 lockdown began and noted many aloes blooming along the road towards Port Alfred, their flame-coloured blossoms lifting my spirits enormously. Fortunately, as their flowering season is fairly long I am hoping that the restrictions on our movements will be relaxed further before it ends. In the meanwhile, I am confined to observing the aloes in our garden.

Some have progressed from showing tightly closed cone-like buds like this:

To fully opened blossoms like this one:

The aloes attract birds, such as the Greater Double-collared Sunbird above as well as a variety of insects:

I am interested to see the damage done by ants at the base of some of the tubular flowers:

There haven’t been many bees around yet – perhaps they need the flowers to open a little more. I will be keeping an eye out for them.

NEW GROWTH

We missed out on the joys of spring this year, thanks to the long drought which seemed to suck the marrow out of the earth. Now, in the autumn, there are pleasing signs of new growth to celebrate the renewal of life. First up is one of many lavender buds that hold the promise of colour and food for bees:

Around the bird feeder are some self-sown tomato plants – I have already picked one small ripe one – a bonus:

In the thick leaf litter in the back garden came an interesting surprise in the form of these two mushrooms:

In the same leaf litter – dry leaves falling off the Erythrina caffra – is the start of a new tree:

Soon the garden is going to be ablaze with the beautifully vibrant aloes, still tightly wrapped:

Then there is a single self-sown Californian Poppy in a pot:

Where there is new growth there is hope.

ALOES – a story

Note: This is a continuation of the story entitled GERANIUMS, which you can find at https://somethingovertea.wordpress.com/2020/02/03/geraniums/. Two bloggers suggested I take the story further …

“I don’t see why we should help them. They didn’t even send a delegate!” Kelsey’s face reddened as she reached across the wooden school desk to gather up the files belonging to the English Department of her school.

“Kelsey, they are six hours away from us; they need guidance and it is up to us to give it.”

“You’re so prissy about these things, Fiona. You take your job as Cluster Co-ordinator far too seriously.”

“It’s the job of all of us to help schools in need.”

“My foot it is. Look,” Kelsey leaned across the narrow desk until her face was only inches away from Fiona’s. “There’s no way I’m going to share my exams and worksheets with a tuppence ha’penny school down the road!”

Fiona scraped her chair back to create a distance. “That’s rich coming from you, Kelsey.”

Kelsey snatched up the files she needed and marched across the room. “I’ve had enough of this. It’s a sheer waste of time. In any case, I must get ready for an important date tonight.” She slammed the wooden door behind her, leaving Fiona white-faced and close to tears.

She turned to Ian, her Head of Department. “How dare she say that? Did you note that several of the entries in her school portfolios are identical to the ones we used last year? All they’ve done is replace our badge and names with theirs!”

“Leave it, Fiona. It really isn’t worth it.” Ian touched her lightly on her shoulder. “I’ll help you put together the critique along with some examples on Monday. Perhaps I can persuade the Head to agree to us visiting the school later in the week.”

“I’d rather not: I’m hosting my garden picnic on Saturday and there’s a lot of tidying up to do outside before then. Are you and Beth still able to come?”

“Of course we are!” He looked at his watch. “Beth’s got yoga after work. Let’s have coffee and cheesecake at Allie’s Cake Shop. It’ll be on me.”

Fiona sighed as she placed her pencil case and note book in her bag. “You’re very kind, but I’m taking a drive out of town with my camera. That’ll clear my head.” She stacked the portfolio files of pupils’ work and headed towards the door, then turned back to him. “Thank you, Ian, but I’d better go while the light’s still good.”

Her altercation with Kelsey rankled, even as Fiona drove out of town in the direction of the farm Oakhaven. Don’s previous two invitations had had to be turned down because of work commitments. “Blast Kelsey! I can’t have her spoiling my afternoon!” Fiona switched on her favourite playlist and sang along loudly until she felt the tension ease within her. She halted at the discreet sign to Oakhaven and smiled as she opened the silver-painted farm gate. The ‘Please close the gate behind you’ sign gave her a warm feeling of anticipation.

Don met her in the driveway. “Down boy! Down!” He admonished Sebastian firmly as Fiona emerged from her car. “Welcome at last,” he smiled and kissed her lightly on her cheek. “Meet Sebastian and then we’ll go in for tea.”

Fiona relaxed in the cushioned cane chair on the deep, shady veranda overlooking the farm stretching into the distance. “What a marvellous sanctuary this is from the heat,” she exclaimed as Don brought out two mugs of tea on a tray along with a few slices of date loaf on a plate. “Goodness, do you bake too?”

“No,” Don laughed heartily. “Tilly Ford, my neighbour, brought it over this morning. I told her last night I was expecting a guest for tea.” He nodded towards her camera. “I’m glad you’ve brought your camera along.” Don looked at her intently, as if weighing something up in his mind. “I think you will enjoy walking up the kopje.”

He pointed out interesting plants and rocks as well as insects and birds as they wound their way slowly up a rough path that took them to the lichen-covered rocks at the top.

“Oh Don, you were so right! This view is absolutely magnificent!”

“I should have brought some sundowners.” Don passed her a bottle of water from the day pack he had carried with him. “Only Adam’s Ale I’m afraid.” He sounded rueful.

“It’s perfect.” Fiona enjoyed the breeze whipping her hair around her face and the way Don’s shoulder touched hers when he pointed out landmarks below them. For a moment she felt transported to a different world – a world filled only with contentment. She drained the water bottle before turning to her companion. “It’s no wonder you enjoy living here.” Just then, her eye was caught by a patch of aloes highlighted by the lowering sun. “Are those visible from your house?”

“They’re too low to see from the veranda unless you stand up. You’re welcome to have a look at them while I fix us a drink when we get back.” He helped her up from the rocks. Sebastian stopped along the path ahead of them and whined almost imperceptibly. He looked up at Don, who scanned the area around them. “What’s wrong boy?”

“Has he seen a snake perhaps?” Fiona hung back.

“No, but something’s up.” Don stiffened as they rounded a corner that afforded a view of the farmhouse and the road beyond it. “Damn! There’s someone coming. Talk about timing!”

They quickened their steps as a vehicle drew up next to Fiona’s car parked under a shady tree. “I’ll go down to the aloes if you don’t mind.” Fiona followed the stony path that wound towards the spiked flowers glowing in the late afternoon light. Entranced by their beauty, she photographed one after the other, then halted at the sound of an all too familiar voice coming from the veranda.

“Don dear, I hope I haven’t arrived too late. Look, I’ve brought us a supper basket. When I saw … last weekend …”

Last weekend? Had Don invited Kelsey out after Fiona had told him she couldn’t come? She fumed inwardly at having had to attend the Grade 8 music concert on the Friday night and accompany the fourth hockey team to their away match on the Saturday. She gripped her camera tightly as her pulse began to race. What now?

Don met her along the path. “Fiona, I wasn’t expecting this. I – ”

“No matter,” she answered tightly. “It’s time I headed for home anyway.” She pushed past him to retrieve her car keys and camera bag from the veranda, which now looked far from peaceful with Kelsey setting out an array of cheeses, biscuits and fruit.

“I was hoping you’d stay for a sundowner.” Don addressed her retreating back.

Fiona closed her car door firmly and rolled down the window. “It wouldn’t be appropriate Don, you know that.” As she started the engine she trusted herself to say only, “It’s a pity I didn’t get to see your ‘delirium of geraniums’” before pulling slowly away.

She stopped just out of sight of the farmhouse to put her cell phone onto flight mode and then drove home as calmly as she could. Of all the women in the world, she thought angrily, why did the intruder have to be Kelsey?

Fiona splashed her face at the garden tap on Sunday morning and wiped it dry with the hem of her T-shirt. Even though it was only eleven o’clock, the day was proving to be unexpectedly hot. “Good for drying the laundry though,” she said aloud to herself. Fiona had been talking to herself all weekend, as if she had to make sure she was alive. A loud banging at her front door stopped her in her tracks. She cautiously moved from the line of recently pegged laundry to investigate, then she burst out laughing.

“Ian! Why are you bashing my door?”

“Fiona!” The relief was clearly evident in his voice. “Thank heavens you seem to be alright.”

“Is something wrong?”

“You tell me! Beth’s been trying to get hold of you since Friday night. You’re not answering your phone and our messages aren’t getting through. Your landline doesn’t work either. ‘The number you have dialled doesn’t exist’”, he mimicked a recorded voice.

“The line is so crackly that I never bother with it. I generally only use my cell phone anyway.”

“Beth’s been trying to invite you to lunch. Come home with me.”

“I look a mess!”

“It’s only us,” Ian encouraged her. “She wants to chat to you about your picnic next Saturday.”

Fiona studied the screen of her cell phone while Ian was driving. A regular ping of messages came through, one after the other. She smiled, three were from Don: ‘Please tell me you’ve arrived home safely’; ‘I have been trying to call you. Please let me know you’re okay’; and ‘Where are you?’

“Popular girl. Why did you switch off your phone?” There was an edge of irritation in Ian’s voice.

“I usually switch to flight mode while I’m driving. I must have forgotten to change the setting. These are mostly missed calls and messages from Beth anyway.” Fiona knew she had not forgotten her phone.

It was after work on Wednesday afternoon that Fiona found three small potted aloes at her front door along with a note from Don: Aloes stay spiky forever. These ones will remain proudly erect even when they grow old and their bottom leaves dry up. Despite their apparent harshness, every year the beauty of their blooms provide nourishment to a variety of insects and birds. Like all aloes, I know you have a softer side. See you on Saturday.

Did she still want Don to join her garden picnic? Fiona was no longer sure. Nonetheless, she was so busy making salads and setting out mismatched crockery, glassware and cutlery on Saturday afternoon that she had no time to think.

“Shall I light these candles in the paper bags now, or do you want to wait until it gets darker?”

“Oh, I think they will look pretty now, thank you Beth.” Fiona collected empty wine and beer bottles from the table to put aside for recycling. Her picnic was a success, she thought while happily surveying the eight guests on the lawn. There had been plenty of food after all.

“Come and join us Fiona!” Ian waved his wine glass at her. “I need someone to back me up in this raging argument about poetry vs science for environmental education.”

She glanced at the table on which she had stacked ten of everything. Only one plate remained untouched and mocked her in passing. ‘Why should he come, Fiona? Does ‘thank you for the aloes’ sound forgiving or welcoming enough?’

‘Does it?’ The empty wine glass echoed shrilly. ‘Does it?’ the single set of cutlery still bound with a floral ribbon shouted at her.

“I’ll join you in a moment,” she called and turned to find a bottle of grape juice in the large metal basin filled with ice and icy water. The thud of a vehicle door shutting attracted her attention away from the cheerful voices on the lawn. They faded to a hum as Fiona concentrated on the familiar squeak of her garden gate and the heavy footsteps behind the Plumbago bush. She stopped breathing as the tall figure with close-cropped dark hair made his way to her front door.

“I promised you eggs and tomatoes from my garden,” he said quietly. “I’ve been working with the vet: a cow had a difficult birth.” He sighed ruefully. “It’s been a long haul.”

Fiona took his offerings and hugged him warmly. “You’ve come to my picnic. After all that, you still came?” She couldn’t help the glisten in the corner of her eyes or the slight quivering of her lips.

He opened the beer she had thrust into his hand. “I wouldn’t have missed it for the world, Fiona. Not for the world.”

She took him lightly by his free hand. “Come and meet my friends,” she said happily.