Hazel was being transplanted – but with her sunny outlook, it wouldn’t be long before she was branching out…
I can see you’re wondering if I’ve made the right decision, Anna, but I’m sure I have. I’m really looking forward to a new start. Pretty new curtains, a new rug… and I’m treating myself to a new TV too, one of those big flat ones.”
Hazel Willis had been a widow for five years, and she had been finding her old home difficult to maintain. The past few winters had been a nightmare of blocked gutters and frozen pipes and she felt great relief that these would no longer be her problem.
“I know the flat will suit you better, Hazel,” said her friend Anna. “I just hope the new owners appreciate your lovely garden.
“Of course it doesn’t look much at the moment, but every spring it’s been such a showpiece with those masses of tulips and daffodils. And all your gorgeous petunias and pansies later on. Couldn’t you take some bulbs and cuttings of your perennials, as reminders of this beautiful spot?”
“Good idea. There’s a big balcony on the south side, I could have some shelves made for pots.”
It was difficult to choose. In the end Hazel had two cartons full of small terracotta pots with well-rooted candytuft and silver-leafed brunnera, lots of her hybrid primroses with their exotic colours as well as bulbs and seeds of just about anything she thought might do in a pot.
Mick the Moving Man grinned as he loaded them into his van.
“Those’ll look good on your balcony, Mrs Willis. Brighten up the place.”
“I hope so,” said Hazel. “I don’t think there’s much of a garden there at all.”
The area around the small block of flats was paved for parking, with a spindly crab apple tree struggling to survive in a corner.
Poor thing, thought Hazel, it needs a bigger circle of earth around it and a good dollop of fertiliser and manure.
She made up her mind to see to it as soon as she could.
She looked up at her flat on the first floor and saw a young woman standing on the balcony next to hers. Ah, her new next-door neighbour.
She didn’t seem to have noticed the commotion with the van being unloaded, and when Hazel waved cheerily up at her, she didn’t respond but just stared out towards the park.
Daydreaming, thought Hazel. She’s young – I wonder if she has children?
“Hi there – moving in?” A young man smiled at her as he crossed the parking space to his car, a rather elderly Morris Minor estate car with wooden panels.
“Are you number eight?”
“No, I’m Hazel Willis,” she laughed.
“OK, that wasn’t very well put, was it? I’m Richard Bostock. Number ten.”
He shook her hand and peered at the pile of boxes next to the van.
“Can I give you a hand with any of these?”
“Thanks for the offer, but I think Mick and his son are managing just fine,” she answered with a smile.
“Right. Well, see you around.”
What a pleasant young man, thought Hazel. If everyone is as friendly as he is, I’ll soon feel at home.
The flat, once she had her things arranged, was exactly right. It was spacious and would be sunny once winter had passed.
She’d had a hard time deciding what to bring with her, but in the end had sold most of the heavy furniture and bought some light cane chairs and a glass coffee table.
Her new candy-striped curtains added a cheerful touch to the room and by the time she had all her books unpacked and her china ornaments on the shelf above the heater, she was well pleased.
Anna called on her a few days after she’d moved in. She came bearing a chocolate cake and a long-spouted watering can as a housewarming gift.
“Just what I need!” exclaimed Hazel in delight. She showed Anna proudly around her new domain.
“This seems very comfortable,” she said approvingly. “Bigger than I expected.”
“It’s not too bad at all,” said Hazel. “And look, my plants are very happy on the balcony. I’m so glad you suggested I take cuttings, Anna – they’ve made all the difference.”
She’d arranged them in tiers; with the bigger pots standing on bricks, so that once they were growing properly the effect would be a colourful wall of greenery and flowers.
She had planted Oriental poppies, and tulips and primroses and was hoping her big pot of bluebells would flourish in a shady corner of the balcony. And a small clematis looked as though it was already producing a bud, although the weather was still icy.
“So, have you met your new neighbours yet?” asked Anna over tea and cake.
“Only one. A nice young chap called Richard, and he lives somewhere along the landing. I’ve passed several people on the stairs but they just nodded, I didn’t even get a chance to introduce myself.
“And there’s a young woman next door to me. I’ve never hear any voices, so I think she’s on her own.”
“Be grateful for that,” said Anna. “Noisy neighbours could be awful.”
The next morning, as Hazel was going downstairs to tend to the crab apple tree, she met her young neighbour with a small child, also heading down the stairs.
“Why, hello,” said Hazel warmly. “I’ve just moved into number eight next to you. Hazel Willis.”
“Good morning,” said the girl shortly, hardly stopping. “I’m Zoë Carrington and this is Jessie.”
“Hello, Mrs Willis.” The little girl turned and beamed at Hazel over her shoulder as her mother hurried her on down. “I’m going to nursery school. Goodbye!”
“Well, hello and goodbye to you too, Jessie,” called Hazel.
Really, she could have stopped for one minute, she thought, remembering how most folk in her old street had had time for a chat over the gate. But people in flats seemed to be so concerned about keeping their distance that they were positively unfriendly.
Perhaps because we’re all living too close together, it’s not natural.
And it’s not natural for this poor tree to be so hemmed in with tar.
Hazel jabbed at the thick layer which was laid right up to the base of the trunk, and found it crumbled away quite easily.
She chipped it off vigorously, to form a bigger circle of open soil around the roots, then she dug in the packet of fertiliser she’d bought.
She couldn’t spot a hose anywhere so went upstairs to her apartment to fetch a bucket and filled it from the tap, letting the water soak into the newly dug soil.
“There you are, you poor thing, I can almost hear your sigh of relief!” smiled Hazel to the crab apple.
That evening while she was on the balcony watering her pots with her new watering can, a small voice said, “Is that your garden?”
Jessie was peering over the wall that divided them.
“Yes, Jessie, do you like it?”
“Yes. I like those pink flowers. They’re pretty.”
“Those are called Busy Lizzies. They grow in lots of different shades of pink, and white too.”
“Pink’s my favourite colour,” observed Jessie. “What’s yours?”
“Mmm. That’s a difficult question. Blue, I think.”
Her mother came out onto the balcony, frowning slightly.
“Don’t make a nuisance of yourself, Jessie. Come inside. Sorry, Mrs Willis.”
“Oh, please, she’s not a nuisance!” said Hazel. “We were just discussing my so-called garden.”
“Look, Mummy, aren’t they pretty?”
“Yes, they are.” Zoë looked at the bank of pots. When she smiled, her narrow, rather severe face was transformed and she looked much younger and quite beautiful. “You must have green fingers. I can’t grow a thing.”
“Anyone can grow plants in pots!” said Hazel cheerfully. “You just have to remember to water them.”
“Maybe. Well – say goodbye Jessie, time for tea.”
Hazel watched them go in with regret. She felt she and Jessie had been getting along nicely, and she was glad to know at least one of her neighbours.
The next evening she listened as Jessie came out onto the balcony and gave a little shriek of excitement.
“Mrs Willis! Is this yours?”
Jessie carefully held up the pot of bright pink impatiens which Hazel had popped over the wall that morning..
“Well, Jessie, it’s yours now. I thought you might enjoy caring for a plant. After a few months it will grow bigger and bigger and you can nip off bits to grow more plants, if you like. You’ll have a whole balcony full of lovely pink flowers. I’ll show you how.”
“Oh, it’s lovely! Thank you, Mrs Willis. I want to show Mummy.”
Jessie disappeared back inside the flat.
Her gift of the plant for Jessie seemed to open the door to friendship with her mother and before long Zoë took to popping in for a chat.
“Your balcony is looking beautiful,” said Zoe. “What’s that purple-leafed stuff hanging down in a cascade like that?”
“Plectranthus,” said Hazel. “It grows like a weed. I’ll give you a slip of that when you go.”
“Have you noticed how pretty it all looks from down below? The whole wall is so colourful. And those petunias are gorgeous. If everyone had a balcony full of greenery like you do, it would change the look of the place.”
“I suppose people just don’t have the time,” said Hazel. “They’re out at work most of the day, aren’t they?”
Zoë smiled. “The first thing Jessie does when we come home is run outside and water her plants!”
Jessie’s balcony garden had grown to seven pots and was doing nicely. Besides the Busy Lizzies, five tulip spears were just breaking the surface of one, and some Oriental poppy seeds were showing tiny green leaves in another.
“Is it just you and Jessie, then?” asked Hazel. “She never mentions her father.”
She’d started knitting a pullover for Jessie, with a white rabbit on the front, and Jessie loved having it held against her to check the length.
“He left before she was born.” Zoë’s face clouded over. “But the two of us are doing fine.”
“And your mother?”
“She lives in Switzerland. We only see her once a year.”
“It must be difficult for you, though,” observed Hazel. “To have any social life, I mean. Don’t you ever want to go out of an evening? I’d happily babysit Jessie for you.”
“Social life? What’s that?” Zoë laughed shortly. “I never meet anyone at work, I’m stuck in a little office working for two elderly lawyers and I never see another soul all day.
“And besides, the only time I have to do any housework is when I get home at night, after I put Jessie to bed.”
Hazel remembered Richard, the nice young man who’d greeted her on the first day, and thought he’d be perfect for Zoë. What a pity they’d never met.
Hazel was very busy for the next couple of mornings. She went down to the garden centre and bought a great many small pots as well as potting soil and root hormone.
Then she paid a visit to her old home.
She was pleased to see that her old garden was being well kept, and noted the daffodil shoots pushing up along both sides of the garden path.
She had a nice cup of tea with the new owner Mrs Minton, and told her what she wanted.
“It will be my pleasure, Mrs Willis,” she said. “Your garden is a treasure trove of wonderful plants, and of course we can spare whatever you need.”
The next day was Saturday and Hazel enlisted Jessie’s help in her project. They worked together nearly all morning, and when they were done they sat back and grinned at each other.
“I think we’ve earned an ice-cream, don’t you?” suggested Hazel.
They perched on stools on the balcony in the small space that wasn’t covered in small pots of cuttings and enjoyed large bowls of strawberry ice cream.
“Tomorrow, we’ll do the party invitations,” said Hazel. “Could you bring your crayons when you come over?”
“Oooh – is it going to be a birthday party, Mrs Willis?”
“Not exactly, Jessie. It’s going to be a Spring garden party.”
So what’s this all about, Mrs Willis? Excuse my oily fingers. I’ve been adjusting the spark plugs.”
Richard met Hazel and Jessie on the stairs. Jessie was carrying the bucket to water the crab apple which had responded nicely to all the attention and was now bursting with tiny leaf buds.
Richard had one of Jessie’s brightly coloured invitations in his hand and a box of tools in the other.
“Just what it says, Richard,” beamed Hazel. “A party to welcome spring. Just a little get-together in my flat after work on Friday for all of us at Jubilee Mansions. I hope you’ll be able to come?”
“Yes, sure, I’ll be there.”
“And there’s presents for everybody!” piped up Jessie. “It’s a surprise!”
“Oh good, I love surprises,” grinned Richard. “You live at number seven, don’t you? With your mum?”
“Yes, my name’s Jessie. I helped to make the invitations.”
“They’re very pretty,” he said. “Well, I look forward to seeing you, Jessie.”
“And my mum,” said Jessie.
“And your mum. Right.”
On Friday evening, Hazel was worried that Zoë might not get back from work in time. Five of her rather mystified neighbours had already arrived and introduced themselves to her and Richard, who had volunteered his services as a barman.
He was busy pouring red wine or beer for everyone, and there was a cheerful buzz of conversation when Zoë and Jessie appeared at the door.
“I’m so glad you’ve come!” exclaimed Hazel. “Zoë, I want you to meet Richard. He’s a neighbour, from number ten.”
“Hello,” said Richard. “I’ve seen you often on the stairs but we’ve never met properly, have we?”
“No,” said Zoë. “But I’ve seen you too.”
They stared at each other awkwardly for a minute, then Zoë said, “You drive that Morris, don’t you? That’s a real collector’s item, I’ve always admired it.”
“My Morris? I call her Dolly!”
“Dolly?” Zoë smiled. “My father drove one of those little cars for ages and he called his Minnie Mouse! Everyone who owned those seemed to have funny pet names for them.”
“It’s a great old car. I’ve been working on her for months and I’m hoping to restore her in time for the national rally.”
“What model is it?”
“She’s from 1967.”
Good, they’ve found something to talk about, thought Hazel, moving on to chat to her other guests.
“I do so admire your colourful balcony,” said the woman from number four. “I’m Marion Pritchard by the way. Every time I look up and see your plants I’m quite inspired to buy a few myself, but I just haven’t got round to it.”
“We’ve got a surprise for you, Mrs Pritchard!” Jessie could hardly contain her excitement.
Maybe it was time to hand them out.
“Jessie and I have something for you all,” she announced, and opened the door to the balcony. “This is why I’ve called this evening a spring garden party.”
Arranged in neat rows were fifty little pots containing rooted plants of every sort.
“So many people have admired my balcony that I thought perhaps you’d all like to start your own little pot gardens,” she said. “Please choose five each.”
There were murmurs of surprise from everyone as she handed out Busy Lizzies, primroses, fuchsias, red-leafed coleus and geraniums.
“Oh, what a lovely idea!” said Mrs Pritchard. “That’s just what I need to get me started.”
“I hope mine don’t all curl up and die,” commented Richard. “I don’t think I’ve got green fingers at all.”
“Oh, you don’t need green fingers!” said Jessie. “They’re easy to grow. They just want the nice warm sun and a bit of water every day. And sometimes you give them some plant food that you mix in a jug.”
“Really? Maybe you’d like to come over and show me how to do that one afternoon,” said Richard. “And maybe you could bring your mum?”
He smiled at Zoë as he spoke and she grinned back, nodding.
“My mum can come,” said Jessie. “But she says I’m really the gardener in our family.”
Hazel smiled to herself. The party had worked out just as she’d hoped.
She’d met all her neighbours and made a date for the following afternoon to play Scrabble with Mrs Pritchard. She’d discovered that Miss Higgs on the ground floor belonged to a book club and would take her along to the next meeting as a new member.
But best of all, Zoë had met Richard and they liked each other, as she’d expected they would.
Now, like the little plants they were holding, she’d just have to wait and see if matters between them would take root and flourish. As things usually did, in the spring. With the right sort of care and attention, of course.