She turned the corner and there it was. ‘The white, weatherboard house at the end of the street’, was how her mother had always described it. But the street was in fact an avenue. An avenue of remembrance, lined with tall, sturdy, horse-chestnut trees. Their highest branches meeting to form a triumphal arch, that gave the avenue a church-like aspect.
The trees had been planted with great ceremony and reverence, after the Great War, by those left behind, grieving and seeking solace in nature. A tree planted for every fallen soldier of the town, never to return home. And each spring, the trees would repay their planting, by bursting into jubilant displays of pink and white blossoms and then by shedding shiny-brown conkers in the autumn, to the delight of the local children.
One of these ‘trees of remembrance’, was situated at a corner of their garden. And it was at this tree, that a young and troubled Florrie would often sit, finding consolation with the long-deceased soldier, who she had come to regard as her own special friend and confidante.
That afternoon, was the first time Florrie had returned to her old family home in many years. And apart from a few clumsy pigeons, that crash-landed noisily onto the broad-leaves of the trees, there was only a slight breeze to disturb the quiet garden. She had been tempted to return many times before, but had never felt quite ready.
So as she stood outside her childhood home, it occurred to her that all that remained, to tell her early childhood story, stood decaying before her. A black, and rusting, wrought-iron gate, formed of two inter-twined hearts, a house with peeling paintwork, slipped roof tiles, cracked windows and an overgrown garden, where rampant weeds ruled supreme. They ran riot through hedges, flowerbeds and shrubs, while rose bushes, once the stars of the show, and her mother’s pride and joy, cried out for rescue. Their thin stems, barely supporting overblown flowers, that nodded in sadness towards an unkempt lawn.
She could just picture her mother, drifting around the garden, her wide-brimmed straw hat shielding her delicate ivory complexion, maxi-skirt skimming the neat grass, as she gathered only the best blooms. A younger Florrie trailing behind, desperate to help, but unsure how to please her remote and beautiful mother.
And she recalled the day when she had been taken away. Watching out of the rear window as Alfie, and the perfect white weatherboard house, disappeared from view. An old biscuit tin, beside her on the back seat, where she had squirreled away bits of treasure. Amongst her finds were scraps of ribbons from under the sewing table, a broken brooch glittering with paste diamonds and faux emeralds, that had been discarded in the bin, her world-beating conker and a handful of acorns.
But just at that moment, a patter of rain, signaling the arrival of a sudden downpour, interrupted Florrie’s thoughts causing her to run for cover. Instinctively, she ran to a nearby tree. From past experiences she knew that this particular leafy canopy would offer protection against any harsh elements, both natural and those of human design. She ducked under straggling branches, that reached out to her in welcome, and embraced her old friend with a wide, and honest, hug. Then, on her knees searched the ground for something she hoped could still be found.
Alfred. G. Wright 1897-1917
He died for Freedom and Honour
‘Hello again Alfie.’ She said, pulling at weeds and garden debris that had buried the tarnished, pitted, brass plate. Then sat back, and considered with fondness her old friend, who seemed to have grown even taller, and broader, during her long absence. ‘Long time no see.’
* * * * *
‘Go outside and play.’ Florrie’s mother said firmly, as she sat at her sewing machine.
‘But I want to help mummy.’
‘I won’t tell you again. Go outside. I’m busy.’
‘But why can’t I stay with you?’ Florrie’s stubborn reply met with a warning glance, and she bit her lip, as her hated tears threatened to make an appearance. And mummy despised her tears.
‘No time for this Florence. Go out and play!’
‘The day of the dress’, was how Florrie had always remembered that day. Her mother had been making her sister, Sylvia, a new summer dress. She had ached to caress the smooth, satin finish of the fabric and the scent of the flower-sprigged cotton, still lingered in her memory. She had known that it would come to her eventually. Just like the one she had been wearing that day, and the ones before that. But by the time she inherited this dress, it would be careworn and mended. She would be tugged and pulled into it, with only the faded hemline, and the awkward fit, to betray its pre-owned life.
Because it was unfortunate for Florrie, that although five years younger than her older sister, she was a few inches taller, and wider too. In fact, the two sisters were unalike in every way that counted. Sylvia had waist-length, ironed-straight hair, the colour of harvested corn. By way of a contrast, Florrie’s unbrushed, shoulder-length, mouse-blonde hair, was forever tied back in an impossible, rubber-band tangle. And where Sylvia had inherited her mother’s cornflower-blue eyes, Florrie had inherited her paternal grandmother’s gold-flecked hazel eyes. Through which her troubled young soul frequently communicated, but behind which she could never hide.
And that had been the real source of the problem. And it would only be in later years that Florrie came to understand why her appearance, and nature, so enraged her mother. As a child she had been too young to understand the subtleties of inter-family dynamics, or maternal psychiatric conditions.
She had been named after her grandmother, her father’s mother and couldn't have realised that everything about her, from her name and paternal family similarities, to her personality and aching vulnerability, reminded her depressed mother of an intensely disliked relative. But the older Florrie had been counselled to understand these complex things, and been advised that in order to move on with her life, she would need to forgive and reconcile with her young past.
But forgiving hadn’t meant forgetting. And the sharp slap she had received, on ‘the day of the dress’, always stood out as a watershed moment in her young life. It had stung so fiercely, that her well-guarded tears eventually betrayed her, rolling unchecked down her cheeks.
‘Don’t start crying now, for goodness sake!’
And Florrie knew she only had moments before a second, sharper slap, would sting her summer-bare legs. But on that day, and on the many others that followed, Florrie had chosen to withdraw. Because she knew, that Alfie would always be waiting for her in the garden.
* * * * *
The sudden cloudburst petered out as quickly as it had begun and Florrie ventured out from her safe haven. It seemed the house was magnetically drawing her towards it. And with a sense of anticipation, she followed the familiar path that led to the back of the house. Here tendrils of blossoming honeysuckle enjoyed unbridled freedom. They had seductively draped themselves over the roof of the old wooden veranda, a waterfall of flowers that scented the damp air with their bee-seeking, honeyed fragrance.
And as she climbed the steps to the dining-room doors, it brought to mind happier times. Summer days when her mother would make jugs of freshly-made lemonade, that tinkled musically with ice. She would carry hers to a swinging bench in the garden and sip the sweet, lemony drink, as she rocked herself to-and-fro, make-believing she was in her own enchanted paradise.
Florrie peered through the dusty windows into the familiar, but now sombre interior of her family home. Thinking that even now it still retained traces of twinkling candlelight, vases of fresh flowers, and her parents slow-dancing to their favourite music.
She tried the handle. Locked of course. A flash of memory, led her to a loose brick in the wall.
Florrie smiled in triumph.
The spare key.
* * * * *
‘Hello! Hello over there!’
Florrie turned. An elderly gentleman was struggling through the overgrowth and waving his hand at her.
‘Neighbourhood Watch. I live next door.’
‘Hello,’ Florrie replied, slipping the key into her pocket, and extending her hand in greeting. ‘Pleased to meet you, I’m…’
‘Is that your ‘Florrie and Alfie’ van parked on the drive?’ The neighbour interrupted, his punctuated speech reminding her of a retired colonel.
‘Yes it is I…’
‘Well I hope you are here to finally clear up the garden? Bringing down the neighbourhood it is.’ He looked with distaste over a wilderness of plants. ‘Scrape it back I say. Turn it all to grass.’ He stopped to draw breath. ‘Strange name for a gardening company? Didn’t they win first prize at the Chelsea Flower Show this year?’
‘Yes that’s right, I…’
‘Got an award from the Queen for the palace gardens too, I heard. Sorry! Here’s me rambling on again…I didn’t quite catch your name…?’
‘Florence…but everyone calls me Florrie. Pleased to meet you.’
He looked puzzled. ‘Now that is a coincidence! Fancy having the same name as the company. I’ve always wondered who Alfie was ...?’
Florrie giggled softly, before replying with an amused smile. ‘No…you misunderstand. I’m Florrie…the Florrie on the van and Alfie…well Alfie lives just over there.’ Florrie gestured to a magnificent horse-chestnut tree, taking up a large portion of the front garden.
The neighbour, who had never met a celebrity before, let alone one who had also met the Queen, didn’t quite know what to say to this charming woman, casually introducing him to a tree.
Florrie felt she owed the elderly gentleman, a better explanation, so continued. ‘I grew up here you see. But I went to live with my aunt, my father’s sister, when I was quite young. When it came up for sale recently I had to buy it. So now here I am. Back home again.’
With an expert eye, she glanced over what remained of her once enchanted paradise, then quietly added, ‘and this is going to be Florrie and Alfie’s best project yet!’
* * * * *