I hadn’t seen my great aunt Sophia in five years because I had been travelling the world and Sophia only had a landline phone. So, I thought it would be nice to go and spend sometime with her. She was my oldest relative and I loved hearing the stories of her life, family members and past friends.
Great aunt Sophia’s cottage hadn’t changed. There were roses, honeysuckle and jasmine growing up the house towards the thatched roof. There were loads of other flowers and plants in the front garden which reminded me of being in a gardening shop. There was actual a sign with faded words on it declaring Plants for sale on the front gate.
I walked up the path and knocked on the door with the iron knocker. How many times had I ran around this cottage, laughing and chasing butterflies? So many of my summers had been spent out here as my parents, who worked difficult, long hour jobs in London had used great aunt Sophia as a nanny.
‘Sophia? It’s me, Hattie! Are you home?’ I called out.
I tried the door and found it locked.
Dumping my heavy hiking bag, suitcase and duffel bag on the doorstep, I walked around the side of the cottage. The back garden was a huge acre lawn with large trees dotted about to give shady patches and at the sides were long flower beds containing all kinds of bright, sweet smelling blooms, wild flowers and small evergreen plants.
There was no path across the lawn, so I walked on the grass down to the bottom, where half hidden by a weeping willow was a large Victorian glass and iron greenhouse. The door was open and I stuck my head inside to call out, ‘great aunt Sophia? It’s Hattie.’
‘Who?’ a soft, old voice spoke.
I entered the greenhouse, heat wrapped around me, catching my breath and making it harder to breath. Long leaf tropical plants brushed my face and arms, making me feel like I had walked through spiderwebs. Narrow bench tables ran down in rows though here and there, a rickety table or a massive plant pot sat.
Slipping through a gap, I saw a white haired and hunched woman in her late eighties, sitting on a old wooden chair, looking around confused. Sophia was so much older then I had last seen her, there were more wrinkles, her skin was too tanned with sunlight, her eyes looked duller, her hair shorter but she was still great aunt Sophia. She was wearing a pale blue summer dress with a white lacy trim.
‘Your only grandniece, Henrietta. Hattie. Hat. We spoke on the phone this morning, auntie Sophia. Remember?’
Sophia stared at me, taking in my boy short brown hair, sun kissed skin, my too thin but muscular body, the torn jean shorts and white crop top I was wearing.
‘Ah! Hat!’ Sophia cried.
She struggled to take off the thick gardening gloves she had on.
‘Here,’ I said and helped her take them off.
‘I was just repotting these baby cacti,’ she replied.
I looked at the tray she had been working on and saw lots of new cacti in tiny brown plastic pots. There was a mix of different kinds; some looked like little tufts of fluff, others was straight and tall, there were round pin cushions, some had different colour ‘buds’ on them.
Behind the tray, more cacti grew and some were quite big having been in the greenhouse for more then forty years. I realised we were standing in cacti corner and the familiarity of it made me feel right at home.
‘You should have seen some of the cacti I saw in America! They were huge!’ I spoke.
‘Is that where you’ve been, Hat?’ Sophia asked.
I nodded, ‘I went to California, Texas, Arizona, Washington D.C, New York and Louisiana.’
‘All of those?’
‘Yes. I’ve been to other counties too. Canada, Japan, China, Australia, New Zealand and Italy.’
‘Your parents funded it?’ Sophia asked, knowing it was true.
‘Mostly. I did work in a few places. I taught English.’
Sophia patted my hands, ‘I bet they were glad to get rid of you again.’
I sighed and decided not to get into that argument. It was a part of an old family feud; parents having children and not bring them up themselves; old traditions and rich fathers.
‘It’s too hot in here,’ I said, ‘let’s go in and I’ll make us afternoon tea.’
Sophia agreed and we left the greenhouse for the coolness of the cottage. In the kitchen, I found everything I needed to make a pot of old English tea, sandwiches, and small cakes. I brought everything into the living room which was soft and cosy.
Sophia was dozing in a large armchair and I took the other one. The windows were open and I could hear bees buzzing and smell the flowers outside.
I poured the tea and give Sophia a cup.
‘How are you?’ I asked, ‘have you been trying to go out?
Sophia glanced at the windows, ‘no,’ she replied.
I clutched my saucer and cup, wondering how to carry on this conversation. Great aunt Sophia had agoraphobia. No one knew for how many years she had suffered with it, she had had lots of treatment but nothing worked for long.
Now, it was so easy to blame it on her old age; she struggled walking and standing, she had bouts of confusion and she didn’t have many local family and friends to visit anymore.
‘And why would I want to?’ Sophia picked up, ‘the world is a bad place. I’m safe here and anyway my plants need me.’
I sighed and sipped my tea.
‘You must have seen the badness in your travels. I worried about you. I got all your postcards…’ Sophia trailed off and got up to go to the fireplace where there was a stack of postcards resting against the wall.
‘I saw lots of good and amazing things too. I got photographs to give you,’ I replied, ‘and I’m glad you got my postcards.’
Sophia sit down again, postcards in hand, she shuffled through them, looking at the imagines of all the different places.
‘Do you like them?’ I asked.
‘Yes. Very nice,’ Sophia replied, ‘where are you going to go next?’
‘You’re staying at home?’
‘I’m going to stay here and look after you,’ I said.
Sophia smiled but said, ‘I don’t need looking after, child!’
You do, I thought, instead I replied, ‘I meant help you out and stuff, like I did before.’
‘Right then. Those cacti still need potting. Off you go!’
I rolled my eyes, grabbed a cake and left the cottage for the greenhouse.
Somethings never change but I was happy to be back again.
(Inspired by; https://mindlovemiserysmenagerie.wordpress.com/2019/07/18/tale-weaver-232-july-18th-visit/ with thanks).