She picks my purple bottlebrush flowers from the bush which brushes the cracked flagstone path outside my block in Hastings. Hastings, a home of sorts, a home at last, after moving from London, ten years back. She - who is she - reaches higher, her head covered with a lilac scarf, skirt swooping the fag-butts and chewing gum dots, as she tugs at the stems on the unyielding bush. It grows and droops where once stood a castle, strong then on the clifftop, a mighty defence over the Channel. Now, jagged half walls and a caved-in archway, sink stone by stone into the soil from tourists, grumpy-faced at the biting winds and steep entrance fee.
Hey you! Leave my flowers alone.
I want to say.
My purple companions, time markers, wayfarers for when life was reduced to boxes on a screen. Now, my prayer flags, hope makers, faith holders for peace as wars rip out the heart of our globe.
Hey you! Don’t take what isn’t yours.
Only I don’t say it.
I hang back down the road and watch, as if the chewing gum has stuck me to the spot. She’s up on tiptoes, grabbing the biggest spear at the top, risking, surely, getting caught. The beauty, the memories, perhaps too bright, for her to leave abandoned now. The loose fabric of her sleeves, wing-like, flutters in the warm June breeze. Her right hand cherishes the blaze of mauve and lilac. She scans the left-side of the bush, brushing her fingertips across the leaves. A peep of a soft face, bright now, a half-smile. The hedge sparrows tweet loud, and flap into the air, soar and curve, landing back on the lower branches of the oak at the corner.
I walk closer towards the clearing where the bushes frame the crazy paving which leads to my flat.
She turns, sees me, and hurries off in the other direction.
I run to catch up with her. But she’s already turned down the other street.
A mum, three kids and a buggy brush past me on their way to school. I turn back home.
Early next morning I wait between the two bushes, my soul awakened by the hedge sparrows’ chorus in the rising midsummer sun. The pavement groans under the stream of frowning parents, striding ahead on the school run. Behind a bundle of children, heavy with huge book bags and sullen faces, a head-scarfed outline emerges, a head suddenly bent. Did she see me?
She looks down as she passes the bush.
These are for you.
I hand her a packet of callistemon seeds, mauve mist its popular name, the packet says. Native to Australia and Tasmania. Far from home, I think.
She looks at my face, confused, and gives way to a smile.
Thank you. Thank you.
Her voice, crackly, stumbly, whispers as if I’m the first person she’s spoken to today.
I live here. If you want, we can have a cup of tea?
Her eyes shine. With tears.
She nods, can’t stop nodding. We walk, side-by-side, down the pathway, edged with dandelions and oxeye daisies, to my block. I rummage for my keys and smile at her clutching the packet to her chest, beaming.
As my front door opens, I give a quick tidy-up kick to the higgledy-piggledy pile of shoes littering the hallway. It’s been a while since anyone stepped over the threshold. Ages now since my eldest, my only, packed his Airforce trainers and left for London, our home of old.
The beams of sunlight from the kitchen window bounce off the hallway mirror and make rainbow patterns on the laminate floor. She looks at my purple-beaded door curtain which jangles as I disappear into the kitchen to put the kettle on.
Oh! I have back home. Back home.
She strokes the beads, brushes a strand against her cheek, says something in Arabic, I think, from a far-away land called home. She’s still holding the beads when I set two willow-patterned cups, the ones that aren’t chipped, on the small round table.
Make yourself at home, I say, offering her a seat and wrapping the bottlebrushes in tissue paper for her to carry home, this new home.
We drink tea. I offer her cream crackers and cheddar, making a note to start buying in biscuits again. She shakes her head. The plate looks sad. I jump up, pick up a spice jar and shake sprinkles of brick-red sumac over the cheese. She picks one up, I take the other. We crunch and spill crumbs and smile and laugh.
Come again I say when she leaves.
After setting the dishes into the washing up bowl, pleased at the sets of two, I turn on the radio. I switch the dial from talk radio to the music station, The Golden Oldies. Shiny, Happy People comes on. I haven’t heard it since I first lived here for a summer season, twenty years back. I give the tabletop a quick wipe, break into full-on bops, with flicks of the tea towel. Feels almost as good as that first time when I called Hastings home.
I tuck the slip of paper with her address safely into the cutlery drawer. With all my other keepsakes.
Chocolate Digestives, that’s what I’d get tomorrow, and maybe some Hob Nobs.
Nicky lives in Hastings, UK after decades in London and abroad. She enjoys writing fiction and creative non-fiction. She writes on motherhood, place, belonging, luck and transience. Insta: nickytorode Website: www.diamond-minds.co.uk