‘I've got compassion fatigue,’ announces Steph, plumping down on the bench next to Vera.
‘Sounds serious,’ deadpans Vera. ‘You could get signed off work with that.’
‘Well, I'll be off work soon anyway,’ says Steph, running her hands over her stomach.
‘Mmm. And what's brought on this terrible condition?’
Vera smothers a laugh. Steph shoots a look at her. She often suspects her mother-in-law of mocking her.
‘No, dear. I meant your compassion fatigue.’
Steph launches into a meandering complaint about the multitudes who make unreasonable demands upon her - girls in the office, neighbours, strangers in the street it seems - all drawn towards and depending upon the saintliness of Steph.
‘...and you know me, nothing’s too much trouble. I'd give anyone the shirt off my back – ‘
Vera smiles in reply. Today is a good day. She can sit upright, she’s warm, and surrounded by the scent of jasmine. Her son rootles around in the garage while his pregnant wife sits here alongside her on the wrought iron bench, glowing with life - with two lives. The child Steph carries will take the family forwards, into the future. Vera has made peace with the idea of the future. Her son will be there. Her grandchild will be there. Her garden will keep growing even when she cannot tend it.
Today is the longest day - the day that doesn't want to end, and never does quite end. There will still be threads of cobalt and violet in the sky at midnight. Vera plans to stay up late. She doesn't want to miss anything. The youngsters will have gone home by then, carrying the bowls of food and parcels of clothes she’s pressed upon them. She'll have given Steph her old sapphire ring, and it will be too small for Steph's swollen finger, but never mind. They won't understand her generosity - not yet.
Vera feels the sun against her eyelids. Even the birds have fallen quiet in the heat. Only Steph is audible, although Vera isn't really listening. She's never much liked her peaches-and-cream daughter-in-law. Peaches have stone hearts. But, after all, the peach stone begats the peach tree...
Vera's gaze moves over a ragged lawn. Blackbirds fossick among bark chips in the flowerbeds, and a few precious bees circle the roses. White hydrangea blooms will glow when Vera limps around her garden at midnight.
‘...and what about you?’
‘Me?’ Vera is surprised to be asked a question. Steph's normally incurious blue eyes rest upon her.
‘Have you thought about downsizing? I mean, this place – the size of it. Must be hard to maintain.’
Vera has the distinct impression that Steph is calculating the property's square footage. The young family live twenty miles away in a three bed semi which Steph has filled with mirrors and crushed velvet couches.
‘I won’t be leaving for a while,’ says Vera.
'Seems wrong somehow,’ sighs Steph, as though changing the subject. ‘That some people have so much, whereas others...’
‘I know,’ says Vera. ‘Some people have youth, and health, and love.’ She pats the younger woman's hand. ‘The trick is to enjoy your time in the garden. Because it only lasts a moment.’
(c) Josie Turner