The People's Friend

The Garden Room

This was the place Harry was happiest, and it was all thanks to Shirley . . .

- by Deirdre Palmer

HEARING the rattle of cups and the clunk of the biscuit tin, Harry smiled. He wiped his hands on his jeans, moved away from the bench where he’d been transplant­ing a tray of seedlings into pots and sat down in one of the saggy garden chairs.

She kept to her times, Shirley did. He could say that about her.

Actually he could say a lot of things about Shirley, all of them good.

Harry ran a finger around the neck of his skull-print T-shirt, and tried to think of a bad thing about her. Nope, nothing. Not unless you counted the first time he’d come here.

He’d got lost and walked for ages through the rain. When he’d walked in she’d called him back, pronto, from the hallway and made him wipe the mud off his trainers on the doormat.

But that wasn’t really bad. She’d just been showing him the right thing to do. At the home, everyone rushed in and out. He wasn’t even sure there

was a doormat.

“Here we go.” Shirley put his tea down on the wobbly bamboo table between the two chairs, along with the biscuit tin. “I think we could do with some more air in here, don’t you?”

Darting across the garden room, she opened the door wide, attaching the metal hook to the catch on the inside wall.

Harry liked the garden room. Of all the rooms in the big old house, this was his favourite. It had a sloping glass roof, windows all the way along with coloured glass patterns at the top and a sweetish, earthy smell that could knock your socks off on a hot day.

There were plants on the window-sills, the shelves, the floor – everywhere. Leafy, flowery, spiky, all sorts.

It was just as well the garden room was Harry’s favourite; apart from the garden itself, he spent all his time in here on the days he came, the days when he wasn’t working in the stores at the cash-and-carry.

With the big garden and all these plants to look after, Shirley needed his help.

At first, he hadn’t known the names of any of the plants or flowers, apart from buttercups and daisies and dandelions. He’d never seen a daffodil bulb, let alone known which way up it went.

And he’d never thought about how lettuces grew when he’d seen them in plastic bags in the supermarke­t.

Now he knew loads of stuff, including the names of the weirdest of plants. Shirley said he had a retentive memory, which was a sign of a good brain.

Harry had wondered, out loud, where this good brain had hidden itself when he was at school, and Shirley had said never mind about that, it was the future you had to think about.

Holding her mug, Shirley was at the bench, inspecting his potted seedlings. The sun shining through the glass made her hair even brighter than it already was.

It was pink today, like the clematis that covered the fence. Other days, it was red, like poppies, or orange, like marigolds. Harry sometimes wondered if his mum had coloured hair, like Shirley’s. He kind of hoped she did.

“A good job well done,” Shirley said, coming to sit down. “Those’ll grow into fine plants. You’ve got green fingers, Harry.”

She said that all the time, about his green fingers. It had worried him at first until she’d explained what it meant.

“I just like it, the garden and everything,” he’d said, feeling a bit shy.

The first time she’d talked to him had been from behind her desk while he’d been waiting for his social worker, who’d been held up in traffic.

Shirley had looked for a magazine for him to read to pass the time, but she only had women’s ones, so she’d talked to him instead. She’d asked him about things he liked, stuff he was interested in.

He hadn’t been able to think of anything except football, so Shirley had told him about the things she liked, which were mainly gardening and travelling.

When her husband was alive, she said, they’d been to all sorts of places like India, Thailand and South America.

Harry’s next job was to dig over the border Shirley wanted to replant. There would be manure to add to the soil before the new plants went in.

It ponged a bit, but you had to get used to that if you were a proper gardener, she said.

But the digging was to wait, because Shirley was telling one of her stories, which began the way all her stories did.

“Did I tell you about the time when . . .?”

This one was about Brazil. Shirley had an endless supply of stories, some of which she’d told him before. She’d laugh and apologise for repeating herself.

But repeating was good. It made Harry feel as if he’d been in one place for a long time.

Shirley never asked him questions about himself. He guessed she knew a bit already, from working at the youth office, including the time he was up in the juvenile court for shopliftin­g.

He’d been let off with a caution and sent to the home because his dad

couldn’t cope, what with the drinking and that. Perhaps Shirley knew about that as well, but he didn’t mind. With Shirley, it was as if he could tell her things if he wanted to, but if he didn’t, that was fine.

He’d told her about the money. The home manager had taken him to the quiet room and said that his nan had died.

He could hardly remember her but she must have remembered him because she’d left him a lot of money. A few thousand.

Shirley had got all excited, so excited that she’d shot up out of her seat and nearly sent the tree fern flying.

She’d shown him an advert in the paper for the local college. There were courses on everything you could imagine, including horticultu­re, which you could make a living at.

Harry had thought about his green fingers, and how brilliant it would be to work with soil and plants, making gardens for other people to enjoy.

He’d thought about it a lot since then – the money, and what he could do with it. He’d thought a lot about Shirley, too. And then he’d used the computer at the home to find out all about it and see how much it would cost.

Harry looked at Shirley now, dunking her biscuit in her tea. She had a faraway look, as far away as South America, he shouldn’t wonder. He had something else to tell her today.

She caught him looking, and smiled. “What?”

Harry told her about how he was going to Peru, to a place called Lima, to help build an orphanage for the poor children. After that, he might go to India, or Thailand, or anywhere.

Then he’d have his own stories to tell. The gardens would still be here when he got back.

Shirley was up out of her chair, clapping her hands. And this time the tree fern went right over, pot, soil and all. n

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