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.

MY AUTUMN GARDEN

The heat combined with a prolonged drought has meant a paucity of flowers blooming during the summer. A light autumnal rain encouraged a few hardy ones to brighten the space – mostly singly and so each has required a much closer look than usual, which I share with you. First is the Plumbago (Plumbago auriculata). These are generally enjoyed en masse and we pay scant attention to the delicate texture and pattern of the petals.

This is the only lavender flower in the garden. Buds have appeared on other plants since the rain and so I have more flowers to look forward to.

The spreading perennial, Commelina benghalensis is starting to blossom. The flowers are so small that one does not usually bend down to appreciate them. At this stage though anything with colour is worth a closer look!

We are approaching the best time of the year to appreciate the trumpet-shaped orange flowers of the Cape Honeysuckle (Tecoma capensis), another flower one tends to admire from afar instead of appreciating the delicate darker orange stripes on the petals and the dark stamens.

Then there is a scruffy looking geranium that has survived, bravely showing a flower or two that is also worth a closer look in order to appreciate its beauty.

These pictures were all taken with my cell phone.