Barbara touches the soil in the Swiss Cheese plant (Latin name: Monstera Deliciosa,) to check if it needs watering. It’s damp.
Through her kitchen window, Barbara watches the warm yellow sunlight turn the verdant South Downs to mustard. She looks around her small garden making mental notes on small jobs to do. Water the alpine rockery, fill the gaps where plants have perished. Deadhead the roses. Tidy the summer house.
A delicious smell of simmering beef fills the air as Barbara opens the oven door, lifts the lid of the casserole and stirs the stew. She checks the timer; another few minutes and the dinner will be ready even though it’s barely breakfast time. The hotpot is for Arthur, a neighbour who, since his wife died, is unable to cook for himself. She’ll pop it by on her way out.
The telephone rings as Barbara hangs the oven gloves back on their hook by the pantry. It only rings four times before she answers.
‘Hello Edith. How are you today?’ Barbara replies.
‘What’s that you say?’ Edith says.
‘Turn your hearing aid up dear!’ Barbara shouts.
‘Oh that! Right.’ Edith twiddles the knob on the hearing aid. ‘Now I can hear you. Do you know I hardly slept a wink last night.’
‘Oh dear, poor you,’ says Barbara. ‘Maybe we should put off our trip to the Rockery.’
‘Oh no dear! I wouldn’t miss it for the world!’ Edith exclaims, ‘Highlight of my social calendar this week!’
‘Shall we meet at the entrance at eleven?’ Barbara asks.
‘Inside or outside?’
‘Outside,’ Barbara replies, ‘don’t forget your OAP card, it’s 50% discount on Thursdays.’
‘Fine. See you there.’
Barbara hears a faint ‘Bye,’ from Edith as she replaces the receiver. When will Edith learn to switch that blasted hearing aid on in the mornings. She hopes Edith’s good on her feet today; Preston Rockery Garden is a hilly challenge for less agile pensioners than herself.
At ten thirty-five Barbara waits at the York Hill bus stop for the 5A. After dropping Arthur’s dinner pot off she’s running slightly late. Arthur kept her chatting, lonely old soul.
‘Excuse me, would you like to sit down?’ A young man asks Barbara.
‘No, I’m fine thanks,’ Barbara replies, and realises that it must be the walking stick she’s carrying that makes her appear infirm. She’d grabbed it from the umbrella stand on her way out, an unwanted gift from her daughter on her eightieth birthday, the cheek of it. Edith would need it; of that she was certain.
Two lanes of choked traffic inch along. Turquoise and white taxis sniffing the tails of double decker buses. Barbara sits downstairs on the bus, near the front. She reads the list she’d made yesterday after her patrol of the garden. Phlox Subulata ‘Maischnee’ - evergreen perennial with dark-green leaves and salverform small white flowers. Phlox Subuluta Bavaria - round white petals encircling shocking purple eyes. Oleraia Macrodonta or New Zealand Holly, not only presents quaint daisy-like flowers, but makes an excellent cat deterrent due to its prickly leaves. Barbara sniggers.
Hydraulic brakes burp the bus to a halt and Barbara alights. As the bus pulls off, she sees Edith standing outside the entrance to Preston Rockery Garden and quickens her pace.
‘Sorry Edith. You know how I hate to be late, but the traffic was terrible.’ Barbara touches Edith on shoulder.
‘Not to worry dear,’ Edith replies. ‘Lovely day for it.’
‘Yes, look at the view from here. Aren’t the gardens splendid?’ Barbara gazes up at the Rockery carved into the steep railway embankment that rises up from the main Brighton to Lewes road. The scene is flanked either side by the huge Rhubarb-like leaves of Gunnera Mannicata (or dinosaur food) at the forefront. Purple and varying shades of green bushes and trees lead the eye up to a Japanese wooden bridge in the centre.
Edith and Barbara walk up a path lined with Feather Top or Pennisetum Villosum grass sprouting with fresh spring growth, their fronds arching out to visitors. The Daffodils Narcissus pseudonarcissus are past their best, their yellow petals are now a crusty brown.
‘Oh Edith, careful!’ Barbara took Edith’s elbow to prevent her from slipping. ‘I almost forgot, here take my walking stick!’
‘Thank you, Barbara,’ Edith steadies herself and accepts the cane.
‘Mind these steps now,’ Barbara says, ‘You go first.’
Edith uses the walking stick to navigate the six steps leading up past a moss-covered building.
‘That’s the toilet over there,’ Barbara says. ‘When I was a child, my grandfather used to tell me Santa Claus lived in that building.’
‘Ah bless,’ Edith says as she pauses to catch her breath.
‘Look!’ Barbara says, ‘Over there, Yucca Gloriosa Variegata!’
‘Delightful,’ Edith replies, taking tentative steps forward.
‘The waterfall is just around the corner,’ Barbara says. ‘There’s a bench nestled in the trees just at the foot of the steps.’
‘Good idea. I’ll sit and wait for you there.’ Edith says.
Barbara sniffs the damp air surrounding the waterfall. The climb is tricky, slightly mossy underfoot, thank goodness Edith sat down. She hears the water cascading down the rocks towards the pool.
Green wire fences, like interlocked upside-down letter U’s protect the visitor from a good thirty foot drop down to the pool below. Her eyesight not being what it was, from this distance Barbara cannot see exactly which plants are growing in the rock garden below. Still, she continues on her way, squeezing past a gardener who is pruning trees.
Before descending, Barbara leans on a large rock built into the side of the wall.
‘Are you ok love?’ The man asks, secateurs in hand.
‘Yes, fine thanks,’ Barbara replies.
‘Well, if you’re sure,’ he turns back to his task.
Barbara clutches the side rail on her way down, treading carefully from one step to another. Suddenly, she catches sight of it - Phlox Subulata ‘Maischnee.’ Not quite in flower yet, but almost. No visitor in sight, or gardener for that matter; Barbara makes a grab for it and tugs a few stems gently to ensure a good root capture before shoving the lot inside her left pocket. She looks around before stepping across the crazy paving towards the rock pool. The steppingstones are large enough to tread on with both feet and since the weather is dry, they are not slippery today. Barbara steps boldly on to the first flat rock and pauses to look down at the fish below. Staring at the water makes her feel dizzy; she steadies herself.
‘Excuse me,’ the gardener appears from nowhere to offer his hand to Barbara and leads her back to edge of the pool. ‘Let me help.’
Back on terra firma, Barbara says, ‘Thank you, but I’m fine you know.’
‘Yes, I’m sure you are.’ The gardener replies.
Barbara switches her handbag from her right shoulder to her left, ‘Beautiful garden,’ she says.
The gardener eyes the Phlox Subulata ‘Maischnee,’ forming an ‘S’ shaped green trail over her beige raincoat. Their eyes meet. Barbara feels sheepish.
‘Well, I must be on my way. I left my friend Edith on the bench over there,’ Barbara points in the direction of a large Maple tree – Acer Rubum.
‘Wait,’ the gardener touches her arm.
Barbara tries to pull away.
‘You’re not supposed to take cuttings. It’s stealing.’ The gardener says. ‘Look, I won’t report you. I only do this as a hobby, I’m a pensioner.’
Barbara smiles, ‘Thank you. I’m sorry.’ She notices his kind blue eyes and suntanned skin.
‘Anyway, that Phlox is pretty common. Quite frankly, not worth the effort. If you fancy something special, try Phlox Subuluta Bavaria,’ the gardener says. ‘Look, it’ll be flowering in a couple of weeks. It has quite ordinary white petals, but stunning purple eyes.’
‘Phlox Subuluta Bavaria!’ Barbara gasps. ‘Where?’
‘That would be telling!’ The gardener replies. ‘Come back in three weeks and I’ll prepare you a cutting. I’m here every Thursday about this time.’
‘Thank you!’ Barbara clasps her hands together, smiling.
‘But you must promise not to steal cuttings from here again!’ The gardener winks at her.
‘I promise,’ Barbara nods her head in agreement.
‘See you then,’ the gardener turns away.
‘Bye,’ Barbara shouts at his back, before quickly teasing a clump of Phlox Subuluta Bavaria off the rockery wall to her left. Thought I didn’t see it, Barbara stares at the plant and smirks; I’ll start you off in a pot. But first, let’s rescue Edith.
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