Copyright is held by the author.
AT LAST I am on my way to meet Diana at the railway station. I hold on to the handrail in the steep cobbled lane, made slippery by the remaining drops from the overhanging trees. Behind me, in the midday summer sun, the meandering river shines like a polished salver. I keep breaking out into an occasional grin, and hum a snippet from Land of Hope and Glory.
Since Max’s diplomatic career — and his life — ended with a heart attack just two and a half years ago, I have taken refuge in my garden, and the internet. On one of his occasional visits, Daniel, my son, has helped me sign up to the Golden Gardeners website. Daniel warned me not to use my own name, and so for my nom de plume, or “username” I became Potter.
Gardening, of course, is the main topic of discussion: the best way to get rid of dandelions, how to plant leeks, what are the best shade plants. And so on.
Perhaps the Pope is right, that people can be numbed by the internet? All I can say is that I have a jolly good time reading what the Golden Gardeners say. And when BusyLizzie asked, “How can you stop carrot fly?” I posted the answer: “Try thinning the plants in an evening without wind, then water them. Put up a barrier”. After a few months, BusyLizzie came back on to tell me it had worked.
I take all the usual precautions to keep safe from the more disagreeable aspects of the internet but I know from forty years of meeting devious diplomats and arrogant ambassadors that SallyHolmes is genuine.
Roses were a favourite of Max’s. On a posting in Japan, we took a holiday to the northern island of Hokkaido and visited the Old British Consulate in Hakodate — long since disused as a consulate. Max’s kindly charm persuaded a gardener there to cut a few of the famous white roses for me to carry back to the hotel and arrange in a vase. One of the first things I did after he died was to plant a rambling rose, a white one. When I asked how to treat it SallyHolmes quickly came up with: “Prune it in the early autumn” and “Don’t hesitate to get in touch if you think I can help in any other way”. It was such a charming message that she sent me so I told her of its special meaning for me. She, too, loves roses.
We continued to exchange messages. It was very relaxed and I mentioned the riverside walks, all my figurine collection. She took an interest in the wildlife in garden of her isolated house — she has no neighbours to talk to. I sent her a photo of a miniature ceramic fox. In her reply she pointed out that foxes were ‘extremely competent and flexible predators’ and that this particular specimen was probably a female. That wasn’t something I had thought about but I suppose all knowledge is useful. To tell the truth this was a Christmas present from Max. His last Christmas as a matter of fact.
A widow needs at least one good friend. The ones I made overseas are still abroad, or retired to distant parts of England, Scotland and Wales. If I had a friend nearby we could have jaunts to stately homes and gardens, go on a holiday together, visit the sights, giggle at the other tourists’ outfits. So, when SallyHolmes told me she lived only a few miles away, a handful of stops down the railway line, I knew this was an auspicious coincidence.
Now, after two years, I dare to invite her to lunch at the house. We agree to start using each other’s real names. And that is how I met Diana.
This house was to be a retirement home. It is well over two hundred years old, no smooth walls or straight lines. The deep blues and reds of Max’s Turkish rug collection, the dark sheen of the original wide floorboards and every possible surface covered with my ceramic collection has only welcomed a handful of visitors since Max’s death. Where is the poised lady who organized, supervised, hand-shook or air-kissed her way through 200 refined, sophisticated and sometimes belligerent guests at foreign office parties? Can I get her back again?
Diana orchestrates a tour of the whole house. Both bedrooms are inspected. She spends at least ten minutes examining the large utility room (a quirk of the house — it’s just off the sitting room), storing all the rugs, figurines and other accumulated goods and chattels I can’t bear to sell or take to the charity shop and for which I have no room in the rest of the house. Then up to the bathroom. Down again to the sitting room and finally the conservatory. Steaming hot after the rain – it takes me back to Hong Kong summers before air-conditioning, with a stylish but soaking cocktail dress that clung like an extra, redundant skin. For months a pungent foliage bouquet embraced you like an invisible mist.
Spireas are my speciality. I am sure I mentioned this to Diana and I am eager to show off my modest array in the far corner of the back garden. And she follows me up to the bed. And agrees it is a “lovely show”. Then I point out the carmine thrift, the glowing white rambling rose which trail all over the back fence, my healthy carrots (not a sign of carrot fly), and even the rhubarb. She nods.
Lunch at half past two has been delayed by the house tour.
“I’d no idea just how extensive your figurine collection was.” Diana lights up with enthusiasm.
“Oh, well, you know . . . I can’t resist getting just another one. There’s nothing particularly valuable, anything a real collector would want.”
“My pension is small. I have to be careful.” She cups her hand round her mouth as if in a crowd who are listening to our conversation and, with an apologetic and embarrassed laugh, whispers, “If I go to a café I always take a few of those little packets of sugar home. It all adds up doesn’t it?”
Now my carefully prepared lunch is ready. Here it is, the results of searching through long-held recipe books, looking at shelves and chill cabinets in delicatessens and supermarkets, worrying what the protocol is for a Golden Gardeners guest and, really, I am so out of practice.
After half an hour my anxieties abate. A gazpacho soup, a selection of cold meats, salad with Dijon-style French dressing, and finally the thawed-out (thank God!) profiteroles are devoured. Diana is more of the gourmand than the gourmet.
Lunch over, I leave her slumped on the sofa in the sitting room. I get out the neglected cafetière, heap in the coffee grounds, boil the kettle, retrieve some of my most presentable coffee mugs, spoons, sugar and milk. I fill the cafetière and set everything out on a tray.
Carrying the tray into the sitting room, I am disconcerted to see her standing up, jacket on, handbag over her arm, saying:
“Sorry, sorry. Gotta go. Remembered I’ve got to get some shopping for my next-door neighbour.”
After my visitor’s abrupt departure, I find myself once again moving through the rooms of the house and ending up in the utility room. More like a junk room, Max used to say. The long white-washed wall facing me is completely covered with deep open shelves, all built into the wall so many years ago that you can’t even see where the supports end and the wall begins. A decayed whiff of distemper still registers despite a coat of emulsion applied when we first moved in. A stranger would just see random items — a large, pink faded lampshade, two piles of paperbacks that must date back to the 70s, demi-johns and bottles from the days of home wine-making, ornaments which I’ve taken from other rooms when I wanted a change. Ditto Max’s rugs. I must get round to phoning a charity to finally get rid of the clutter. But they have been there so long that I know exactly what is there.
And what is not.
A fine layer of dust has been allowed to settle over all the surfaces in here. I peer at a space just behind a pink pot-bellied pig. The small fox figurine is missing and in its place a figurine-shaped dustless gap. A small deception.
I return to drink my half-cold cup of coffee. Through a now rain-spattered window I watch white swans drift on the pitted, steely river. Above, a grimy train clatters over the viaduct, on its journey to other stations down the line. Across the river, on the steep bank opposite, a small group of slender silver birches stand as bleached beacons in a narrow sunlit shaft.
When the rain clears again perhaps I will take a walk by the river, always beneficial for leaving behind unpleasantness, and making plans.