by Alison Burnside
Nell took big strides down the stepping-stones of her cottage garden and snipped three stems of Moroccan mint from a plant she’d grown from seed. She steeped the mint in a pan of hot water until it bled a yellowy-green juice and then she poured in three teaspoons of honey. It was Monday and on Mondays Marjorie came to tea. Marjorie needed a lot of sweetening up.
These visits to see Nell were part of an unspoken rota that the other allotment holders had started up since Nell’s husband, Tom, had died last summer. One of the other allotment ladies – Mary – had found Tom face down on the allotment, freshly unplugged carrots still clasped in his hand. He’d died doing what he loved best, in the place he loved the most.
‘My tummy problems are always so much better on a Monday,’ Marjorie told her as she sat at Nell’s kitchen table and watched the steam unfurl up from her mint tea. ‘And Sid,’ Marjorie pinched her lips as she always did when she spoke of her husband, ‘well he’s never so argumentative at the start of the week, I can’t work it out.’
Nell smiled to herself.
Since Tom had died she hadn’t actually missed the company as much as she’d thought she might. She’d always talked more to her plants than she had to Tom, often got more sense out of them too, and tending her allotment and kitchen garden kept her busy enough. But still the allotment holders came. They hadn’t thought to ask if she needed company, they’d just assumed it and so she just had to go along with it.
Tuesday was the turn of Sid, Marjorie’s husband.
‘Can I smell those lovely biscuits again?’ Sid asked as she led him through to the back room. She baked lavender biscuits for him every Tuesday. He worried too much about Marjorie and their son and it showed itself in the bruised half-moons beneath his eyes.
‘I always sleep so well after I’ve visited you,’ he said.
She smiled to herself and pushed his warm cup of chamomile tea towards him.
Wednesday, Lily came. Dear, dear Lily who carried more sadness about with her than Nell would ever know. She burned cedar oil to give Lily the courage to keep going and cooked her a stew stuffed full of bay leaves to give her strength.
‘Last week, after I visited you, I had a dream that I went travelling. On a cruise,’ Lily’s frail frame sank back on the sofa, ‘can you imagine that? I asked my nephew to look up the cruise-liners online, mammoth things they are, a hotel free to roam the world. I booked myself a trip right there and then, all because of a dream…can you imagine that?’
Nell smiled to herself.
Thursday was Fred. Nell had potted him up a Rosa Rugosa and lit a rose-scented candle to burn while Fred sipped on his Jasmine tea. He lived alone now too. Nell always moved Tom’s picture from the sideboard out into the hall when Fred came to visit. In the photo, Tom held his prize pumpkin with pride. He’d beaten Fred to first place at the village vegetable contest and so Nell told herself she moved the photo to save poor Fred’s feelings.
‘You’re a good woman, Nell,’ Fred winked, and she smiled to herself.
Friday was Mary.
‘No sage tea today?’ Mary asked. Her lips were stained a shade of sour blueberry, her nose dry with powder, a pressed collar overshadowed a neat row of pearls. It was a lot of fuss to go to, Nell thought, just to visit her. ‘I got nearly every question right on Millionaire after I saw you last week. I reckon there was something in that brew.’
‘Good for you,’ Nell said and dropped the Angel Trumpet’s bonnet-like heads into the pan. ‘I’ve grown this one especially for you,’ she said, adding an extra dusting of crushed root powder to the tea.
Mary winced at the first sip.
‘It’s very bitter,’ Mary said, pausing with the teacup midway between her mouth and the sideboard.
‘You’ll be on Millionaire yourself if you keep getting those questions right,’ Nell reminded her.
‘The others have said how their visits are helping them as much as they’re helping you.’
Mary closed her eyes and gulped the rest of it down. She paused, shuddered and then opened her eyes. Nell noticed how her gaze, as always, fell on the photo of Tom on the sideboard.
‘Look at him wearing the ‘best in show’ rosette himself, he was such a joker,’ Mary kept staring at the photo as she rubbed the back of her neck. Then she gasped.
‘Did you hear that?’
‘Hear what?’ Nell tilted her head.
‘Tom…in the photo, he just spoke to us, well, to me?’ Mary cranked her neck around to face Nell. Her berry black eyes had spread, her face pale, a sheen of sweat breaking through her powdered cheeks. She pulled again at the back of her neck.
‘It’s just a photograph, Mary dear,’ Nell said, ‘what did you think he said?’
‘He said “Don’t drink any more tea”,’ Mary set the cup down on the dresser beside the sofa, ‘but you’re right, a photograph can’t speak. Whatever is wrong with me?’
Nell smiled to herself.