Alice surveyed the tangled mess that used to be her garden. The garden had always been Bob’s domain. Many a long hour he’d spend cutting, planting and pruning. It had been his pride and joy. Alice heaved a heavy sigh. She’d let it go. Six months now since the funeral and she hadn’t even ventured out there. She blamed the cold, uninviting weather. The bare branches and frost-crusted grass appeared desolate whereas in previous years she had been enchanted by the winter wonderland outside.
Spring beckoned. It was her favourite time of year with the trees bursting into leaf, the cheerful daffodils dancing in the breeze and the colourful tulips and iris making their appearance. Bob loved the Spring too. It was a time for planning and planting. Out with the old, in with the new he used to say. Alice sighed – she wasn’t ready to face anything new – she wanted the old back, things the way they used to be. She sighed again. Bob wouldn’t want her to be like this¸ she knew. He’d want her to get on with things and the make the most of the time she had left. Always pragmatic was Bob.
Now she gazed out at the grass that needed cutting, the hedge that needed trimming and the flowerbeds that needed weeding.
“Why don’t you get someone in?” he daughter Sarah asked. “It wouldn’t cost much to get someone to tidy it up.”
But Alice couldn’t bear the thought of another man taking Bob’s place in the garden. It wouldn’t be right. And what would the neighbours say? She didn’t want anyone thinking she was trying to replace Bob, no one could do that. Anyway, they wouldn’t do it the same as Bob – Bob had his own very firm ideas about gardening– things had to be done right. Set in his ways Alice used to say.
She smiled at the memory. That was one of the things she loved about him, his reliability. Predictability more like, Sarah said, but Alice loved that too. You always knew where you were with Bob. She wasn’t sure what she’d do now he was gone, but it wouldn’t be getting a man in to have the run of the garden that was for sure.
No – she’d do it herself. Bob’s tools were still in the shed. She’d do it just the way Bob used to.
The array of tools in the shed – pristine and orderly – jolted Alice back to earth. What was she thinking of? She didn’t know where to start, then she remembered Bob’s Gardening Magazine. It still arrived every month. She hadn’t had the heart to cancel his subscription, it would be too final, like cancelling Bob out of her life.
Back indoors she swallowed her doubts and sorted through the magazines, opening the ones still in polythene. Inside she found the column headed ‘Jobs to do this Month’. Great, she’d start there.
She began by cutting the grass. According to the magazine the state of the lawn set the tone of the whole garden. They’d bought a new Hover mower last year, much easier to manage that the heavy old roller one you had to push Bob said. Well, that was a start. Alice hiked it out and began to mow. She found it a lot easier than she’d expected. She soon got into a rhythm – just like putting the vacuum cleaner round she thought. In fact, she quite enjoyed it. Next, she trimmed the hedges. The garden looked so much better she thought she might even tackle the weeds.
“If something grows where you didn’t plant it – it’s a weed,” Bob used to say. Alice chuckled. She fetched the hoe and hoed up anything that looked as though it didn’t belong. Once she’d finished she glowed with pride. Bob would be proud of her too, she thought.
It wasn’t long before she got the hang of things. All through the summer she hoed, watered and weeded. She picked out new plants from the Nursery to fill the gaps in the beds, choosing Bob’s favourites. Sometime she found it difficult to keep up with all the jobs that needed doing, then she missed him more than ever.
One day, as she was working in the front garden, a man stopped at her gate. He raised his hat. “Good afternoon,” he said. “I was just admiring your garden. It was always the best in the road¸ especially the roses, but I notice it hasn’t been looking so well lately. I’m glad you’ve decided to spruce it up.”
Alice stared at him. Of course she recognised him then. She’d seen him at church. He regularly arrived with several ladies. She’d heard they all lived in sheltered housing a few streets away.
“Well,” Alice said. “I’m not sure I’m doing that. I’m not sure what I’m doing at all.”
He chuckled. “It looks to me as though you’re doing a fine job,” he said. “Can’t beat a bit of gardening to chase the blues away.” He raised his hat again and moved on.
The next Sunday he nodded to her in church.
“I didn’t know you knew Harry,” Alice’s friend Betty said.
Alice grinned. “Just a passing acquaintance,” she said.
“He used to have the big house on the corner of the Avenue, you know,” Betty said. “Huge garden and he kept it lovely. Always out there he was, planting, tidying up, cutting and pruning. I bet he misses it now.”
Alice’s heart turned over. She knew what it was like to miss something or someone you loved. Tears welled up in her eyes at the thought.
After that, whenever Alice was in the garden and Harry passed he’d stop and admire one of the plants. “That lavender’s a treat for sore eyes,” he’d say. Or “I’ve haven’t seen prettier geraniums this year,” and Alice would smile and nod and wonder if she should invite him in for a cup of tea.
She religiously followed the advice in the gardening magazine and as autumn arrived she managed to sweep up the leaves and compost them. She was beginning to feel like a real gardener, until the weather turned damp and her knees started playing up and she found her back ached, then she’d think how pleased Bob would be and she’d carry on.
The only thing she was wary of was the pruning of the roses. The column in the magazine said now was the best time for this onerous task. As she walked around the garden she recalled how Bob had planted rose bushes to mark milestones in their lives: Happy Event the day Sarah was born, Iceberg for their Silver Wedding Anniversary and Ruby Red for their fortieth. Bob took real pride in his roses. He’d won ‘Best in Show’ at the local Horticultural Society Competition several years running. Alice had been fine with dead-heading them as the blooms faded but pruning was a different thing.
She checked the diagrams in the magazine and looked at Bob’s reaching for the sky rose bushes. There was no resemblance. Her heart fluttered. Supposing she did it all wrong and killed them? There’d be no prize winning blooms next year for sure. She thought about it for several days. Each time she gathered up her courage to step outside, secateurs in hand, her nerve deserted her. If she made a mess of it Bob would be spinning in his grave but if she didn’t at least attempt it she’d feel a complete fool.
She did nothing about it until, one day she caught her sleeve on a rose bush growing alongside the path in the front garden. A thorn wedged in her jumper and tore it.
That was it; she’d have to prune them now. She huffed and went to get the secateurs. She’d just raised her arm to make the first cut when Harry stopped at her gate.
“I wondered if you’d prune them,” he said nodding at the rose bushes. “Best time to do it now. Cut them back hard for good growth next year.”
Alice stared at him. Her heart sank, she really had no idea what she was doing. “Know much about roses do you then?” she asked.
He chuckled and raised his hat again. “Harry Budd, champion rose grower at your service,” he said.
Relief flooded over Alice. “Do you think you could…” she waved her secateurs at the straggly bushes. “I’ve never done this before.”
A wide grin spread across Harry’s face. “I’d be delighted,” he said.
After he’d pruned the roses Alice offered him a cup of tea and some of her special Dundee cake. “It’s the least I can do when you’ve been so helpful,” she said.
Over tea and cake Harry told her how he missed his garden now that he’d moved into sheltered housing. “Don’t get me wrong,” he said. “My flat’s lovely, modern, bright and easy to clean but I miss my garden. There’s a communal garden, but it’s not the same as having your own plot.”
As he spoke Alice saw the same gleam in his eye that Bob used to get when he talked about his garden.
“This is grand cake,” Harry said. “It’s as good as my Martha used to make and that’s saying something.” He gave a wry smile. “I miss my Martha an’ all,” he said.
He told Alice how his daughter Janie had insisted he move into a place they could keep an eye on him. “She worries about me being on my own does Janie,” he said.
By the end of the afternoon Alice had learned that Janie lived in Portsmouth with her husband who was in the Navy and her young son and how Harry missed Martha’s cooking and still had the cookery magazines she used to read delivered as it kept him feeling closer to her. “Couldn’t bear to cancel her subscription,” he said. “It’s the last thing I’ve got to remind me of her. I’ve never managed to cook anything decent from them though. Must be a knack.”
Alice laughed. They had so much in common. Surely it wouldn’t be so bad if Harry came round now and then to do the garden and she’d teach him to cook just like Martha.
He wouldn’t be taking Bob’s place – no one could do that. No it would just be a couple of friends helping each other out. No-one could object to that.
(First Published in The People’s Friend Magazine)
If you enjoyed this story there are 20 other stories in The Cappuccino Collection, available here.