A Passion for Gardening
It was 5.30 in the grey morning. Carmen Frazer, who slept lightly, was already dressed. With thickening fingers, she pinched the yellowing leaves from the bottom of the chilli plant on her kitchen windowsill. The plain white saucer had two tartar tidemarks of lime scale and a mascara of grit in the remaining dirty water. Her passion was gardening.
She was 66 and had been retired for seven years. Her sturdy rubber-tipped cherrywood walking stick leaned in the corner. Arthritis of her left hip had made her job at Oxfam impossible: she was co-deputy editor of JobsWorth, a small in-house magazine. But the stairs were too difficult. Manoeuvring herself into the car wasn’t easy either. She was in constant pain, despite the anti-inflammatories. Toothache the length of her leg, touching a nerve. For her valete in JobsWorth, she made a little joke: who put the ‘ouch!’ in touch? (Colleagues at Oxfam had always found her ready, nervous laugh irritating. Anything – the weather, mention of a queue at the post office – could activate that bright, brief, unconvinced laughter, a door-chime of high soprano, a joke alarm at the lowest setting.)
A second rubber-tipped beechwood outdoor walking stick stood in the hall. Her walk had a dramatic list to the right as she took the weight off her stiff left leg. To spectators, it looked as if the trouble was in the right leg. As if it were shorter by six inches. Wrong. The hitch was like some South American dance step – a secret weight change in the tango. Except that it wasn’t secret. Only misleading.
In 1964 she had taken a boat to Valparaiso. It flew the Liberian flag – easily mistaken for the Stars and Stripes – but was called the Regina del Mare and was crewed by Italians mainly, with four Russians who smoked together in the evening – cigarettes with pinched cardboard tubes. It sailed from Liverpool. She was 22. She was going to marry Frank, her fiancé. It was the first and, as it proved, the only time she ever went abroad. The fare, one-way, round Cape Horn, was £275 and fifteen shillings. It included two meals a day. The journey by sea took ten weeks. In that time, she spoke only five words of English: yes, no, please, thank you. Her laugh, she found, was multilingual, a kind of Esperanto. She became familiar with the horizon. She read and then re-read the ten Agatha Christies in her travelling trunk.
When the ship anchored in Montevideo, to provision and take on fuel, at night she heard for the first time the stridulation of insects like an automatic sprinkler system. In the morning, when she walked to the consulate, carefully watching her sandals on the pavement, she glanced up and saw a Negro wearing a stack of panama hats. Maybe twelve. She never forgot the bandoneon of brims, the perfect stutter of hat. There was no mail waiting for her at the consulate.
On the way back, keeping to the shady side of the streets, she saw the bronze scrotum in a bronze church bell. She waited a while, wanting it to strike, staring at the dark metal bruise where it had struck before. Where it always struck. When it struck. But not today, a Saturday.