Thank you for your kind comments about the first part of this short story, The Path to Recovery, that we published last week. In that chapter we got to know Kathy, an American lady living in Provence, who recently lost her husband of 40 years. Her family and friends were concerned that she’d be lonely, and so was she, but she had a plan. Today we see how that plan unfolds.
If you missed the first chapter you can find it here.
The remainder of the week was spent in a bustle of activity. The house was cleaned and tidied, the beds made up fresh, even the kitchen cupboards were thoroughly sorted and the result was an overall sense of calm, a clean canvas for Kathy’s project to begin. Over the weekend she put on her old gardening gloves and went out to the shed on the far side of the big expanse of lawn behind the house. At one time she had used the shed for growing seeds, and repotting plants, but Pierre had never shown any interest in having a garden full of flowers, or even a kitchen garden. In fact it was the one thing they never agreed upon.
He used to say “Why spend so much time growing vegetables when we have a wonderful farmers market, with local produce on our doorstep?! or “Why would you want to spend so much time digging a flower bed, when we have this stunning view and nature all around us”. So it was that Kathy had never created the garden that she dreamed of. And today, in the middle of her sadness, that was the project she felt she could now work on and where she could find some fulfilment and maybe even some healing.
Once the shed was sorted, she took stock of her tools and started a list. “To begin with all I need is a big ball of string to outline the beds and several truck loads of compost”
In all the years that she and Pierre were married, she may not have had the opportunity to create the garden of her dreams, but that never stopped her thinking about it. Tucked away on her bookshelves was a filing box full to the brim with pictures and magazine articles that she found inspiring.
Each evening that week she poured herself a glass of wine, and filled a notebook with lists of plants and an outline to her garden design.
Early autumn was the ideal moment to prepare the ground for the next year, and over the next weeks her days were spent measuring out flower beds, a cutting garden and a potager or kitchen garden. Once the shapes were clearly measured and marked out, she heaped compost and mulch over the carefully traced squares. Her back was tired, and she had blisters on her hands but she felt happy to be active .
Marie France stopped by one cold afternoon in November, only to find her friend outside in a lightweight shirt, jeans and boots. She was ankle deep in compost and her jeans were smeared in mud. She even had a streak of mud across her forehead where she had pushed her hair out of her eyes with a dirty glove. “Oh mon dieu!” exclaimed Marie France, as she picked her away across the garden in her chic suede moccasin shoes “mais qu’est que tu fais?! What are you up to, nobody ‘as seen you for weeks!!”
She tried to coax Kathy inside for a coffee but her friend resisted “They are announcing a drop in temperature and a lot of rain, so I’d like to get this finished before the weather turns” To explain the ‘this’, she waved her arm vaguely at a pile of compost and manure, then noticed Marie France’s look of surprise, “don’t worry , I’ll be fine, I’m having a wonderful time”
By the end of the day the news was out that Kathy had most certainly lost her mind, and needed some careful surveillance. The result was a regular stream of girlfriends knocking at her door, more curious than anything. They wandered around her garden, nodding and listening, pretending to understand her enthusiasm. Sometimes she brought them inside for a cup of tea and they were reassured to see that her house was as beautiful and well kept as ever. Nobody knew why she suddenly wanted a big garden but despite their lack of comprehension, they all had to admit that she looked pretty happy, and together they decided to leave her in peace.
Mid-December a truck arrived amid tipping rain with twelve fruit trees on board. The two young men in the truck unloaded the saplings and stood them up against the barn wall. Kathy invited them into the warm kitchen for a coffee. Respectfully they took off their boots at the door, and politely accepted the hot mugs, while she showed them her plans for the garden. The two young men were called Thomas and Paul. They were students at the local horticultural school, and worked part time for a tree nursery. They examined Kathy’s garden sketches carefully, nodding approvingly at her design. “And how many people work with you in the garden” inquired Thomas, “Oh no, it’s just me” they looked up from the plans, surprised “Quoi? Vous ne pouvez pas faire tout ça toute seule Madame! You can’t do all this on your own!”. Kathy felt suddenly foolish, was she really being totally unrealistic? She muttered something about having time on her hands, and enjoying the exercise, and before they could contradict her, she thanked the boys for their help and shuffled them out of the door.
The next day she planted the trees successfully, but she was surprised at how tired she was by the evening.
Christmas was spent in Paris, in the company of Emma and her boyfriend, and it was a lovely week of good food, laughter, a theatre outing and the fun of exchanging gifts. Emma asked her Mom if everything was OK, and if she wasn’t too lonely. Kathy reassured her, telling her that she was keeping very busy and all her friends were being extremely kind.
The truth was she was eager to get back South and to her new potting shed and garden plans. She had a first batch of seeds in the greenhouse, and she was dying to check on them.
As weeks went by, and winter edged on towards Spring, Kathy’s project really began to take form. She drew the different areas of the garden out on large pieces of paper and pinned them to the wall in her kitchen. Lists of plants were written beside each of the flower bed shapes. Evenings were spent browsing seed catalogues and reading more about garden design and techniques.
Of course she thought about Pierre all the time, but after a while she realised that it was more difficult to be in the house where his clothes, and books were a constant reminder of how much she missed him. Being out in the garden brought a gentle relief. This was her territory, it held no memories of a former shared era, and most of all it allowed her a freedom to create that she hadn’t known in years.
By April the young trees were showing the first sign of new leaves, the beds were tidy and she was ready to do some serious planting, and she headed over to the horticultural college where the students sold young plants every week. With her wish list in her hand, she wound her way through the displays until she found the varieties of old tomatoes. “Alors, which ones do I want?”
Kathy was so engrossed in finding the Noir de Crimée and the Marmande plants that she didn’t notice the young men standing beside her. “Bonjour Madame”, she turned around startled. Thomas and Paul, the boys who had delivered her trees were holding crates of plants and grinning at her. “Comment allez-vous? How are you and how is your garden going”
They started chatting, and Kathy showed them her list of plants when Thomas interrupted her. He waved to an older man the other side of the ranks of vegetables “Francois, venez voir” He turned to Kathy, “this is Francois, he is our teacher and we told him about your garden.
Francois walked across carrying a tray of young lupins. “Bonjour Madame, I have heard a lot about your project, I am very happy to meet you”.
In no time at all Francois, Thomas, Paul and Kathy were deep into a discussion about how long it takes to create a garden; the correct choice of plants for this part of the world and important details like the preferred variety of roses for climbing up a barn wall or how to install effective irrigation.
Kathy came away with a car full of plants, but also with a nagging feeling that she had bitten off more than she could chew. Once home she unloaded the pots and watered them all, then headed indoors to make herself a coffee and sit down to think.
It had been a cold damp morning and as she walked inside to the warm kitchen she was suddenly overwhelmed by a need for comfort and support. She sat down heavily into an armchair beside the open fire and tears started to pour down her face. “Why am I doing this? What is the point? “. At her feet Ben, the golden retriever looked up, he could sense that something was wrong and he nuzzled her hand as if to say “I’m here, I’ll look after you”. Kathy laughed “Oh Ben, you are so sweet, but it’s Pierre that I want to be here. I’m so lonely all the time”. With the warm fire crackling in front of her, and the big dog at her feet, Kathy dozed off and slept deeply.
She was woken by the phone ringing. “Bonjour Madame, c’est François. We met this morning at the plant sale. I have something I’d like to talk about with you, would you mind if I came over to your house this afternoon?”
Kathy was only half awake, and surprised by the unexpected request, she mumbled a reply and put down the phone. Turning to Ben, she raised her eyebrows “looks like we have a visitor coming!”.
True to his word, Francois drove up to the house around 3. He didn’t come alone. As Kathy walked out to greet him she was surprised to see Thomas and Paul get out the car, and wave to her smiling.
Without losing any time, Francois asked if she would show them around the garden. The next couple of hours went past very quickly as they toured the beds, examined the young trees. She explained how she planned to water, she showed them the greenhouse where there were trays and trays of plants ready to pop into the ground. Francois and the boys were visibly impressed. It started to rain and they pulled their collars up around their necks.
“Kathy, everything you have achieved here is wonderful! Really amazing! But we think that there is a lot of work ahead as the plants begin to grow. I have a proposition for you, can we go inside and get out of the rain?”
The four of them hurried towards the kitchen door as the rain grew heavier, and inside they sat down around the kitchen table. “I’m intrigued, said Kathy, what is it you want to tell me?”
We fast forward to the next summer. A lot has changed for Kathy. The garden looks stunning, but it is even bigger than she had originally planned. The beds are bordered with wooden beams, and the beds are so precise they look manicured.
On the far side of the orchard a large wooden barn has been built, and above the door is a discreet wooden sign ‘The school garden’. Kathy is in the kitchen, humming to herself as she gets a cake out of the oven, and looks through the window towards the gate for the twentieth time. Her children are due back for a week of sunshine, and Kathy can hardly wait to see them.
She’s not alone though. Between the rows of tomatoes and beans a couple of youngsters are picking and dropping vegetables into wooden crates, and in front of the new barn there stands a tall pile of crates already filled, apparently ready to be transported to the market the next day.
On the wall of Kathy’s kitchen there is no longer her original garden design, but a careful plan for rotating crops, and a list of names written into a weekly calendar. On the window sill stand pots of delicious smelling herbs, and above the fireplace, among the family photos is a framed picture, showing Kathy beaming, cutting a long red ribbon at her garden gate, and surrounded by a smiling group of students all wearing t-shirts from the horticultural college.
It has taken a while, but Kathy has found a new happy place, and a real role to play in the local community. Her garden is the experimental garden for the college. A place where students put into practice the theory they learn in class. They produce so much fruit and vegetables that they sell to the local market to cover any costs. Kathy is never alone, she feels useful and alive.
Of course she never has forgotten her darling Pierre, but at least she believes that he would be proud to see how she turned her life around. She continues to live in their home, and everyday she feels very grateful for the happy memories that they made there together.
Voila! I hope you enjoyed this tale. Please feel free to click on the Fiction category in the Blog dropdown to find other short stories that have been published here over the years.
Photos 3, 5 and 7 by Franck Schmitt for the book My Stylish French Girlfriends