Friday, January 20, 2012

A Well-Ordered Garden

The undertaker arrived at Mrs. Barrington's house a little after nine a.m. The milkman, alarmed at the number of bottles that had accumulated on her front porch, called the police. The police knocked and entered the house, finding its owner in bed, dead several days, with an assortment of pills and a bottle of laudanum on the bedside table. Eventually the undertaker arrived on the ferry from Glengarry and did his work.

I watched the comings and goings from a window in my library. Mrs. Barrington lived next door to me and, while we were not close, we conversed as neighbors do. She often worked in her well-ordered garden, taking pleasure in growing vegetables for her table and flowers to display throughout her house. Her husband had passed away a year or so ago, and I had noticed that she was spending less time puttering in the garden, and that the paint on the house was starting to flake away just a bit. Still, tending to an old house was not easy, particularly by a solitary elderly woman - she had a live-in maid, but the rest of her help was sporadic. I was barely home myself, so I knew well how quickly a house could deteriorate when left untended.

I thought back to my last conversation with the lady. It was early autumn, and the weather was turning colder. She was in her garden and I was on my way to send a telegram.

"Good morning, Mrs. B."

"Good morning, dear."

"Lovely spell of weather we've been having. You must be enjoying spending so much time outdoors."

"Yes, indeed, though I confess I've done more sitting than working ever since Howard passed on."

"How are you getting on by yourself?"

"Some days are better than others, but I'm managing."

"Is there anything I can do for you? I'm on my way into Oxbridge Village and would be happy to pick up anything you might need."

"That's very kind of you, dear, but I'm fine. Enjoy your walk."

"I will. Good day, Mrs. B."

"Good day, Miss Jameson."

That conversation again echoed through my mind a few days later as I struggled into a somber dress and set out for the funeral. The ceremony was short and tinged with regret; by then the coroner's verdict of suicide had become widely known. I sat by myself in the church, perched on the back pew as I listened to the minister speak a few words about a woman he had known for decades. Remarks about her dedication to her husband, her children, the community. A personal anecdote about a flower arrangement Gloria had once done for the church. Both her sons and her daughter spoke briefly about their mother, all warm remembrances, though the memories largely came from childhood rather than more recent interactions.

At the graveside I found myself next to Bartholomew Griffin, who ran a small grocer's shop near my house.

"Very sad, Miss Jameson."

"Quite, Mr. Griffin. So utterly unexpected."

"No, who would have thought such a thing could happen? She always seemed a rock, even after her youngest left for Steelhead. I once asked her if she missed her children, thinking what ma doesn't, but she smiled at me and said she and Howard had done all they could and it was time for the wee ones to live their own lives. I nodded - wisdom, innit?"

"It would seem to be."

Our talk left me uneasy, but I put it aside. With some surprise, it occurred to me that one person I did not see at the funeral was Arlene Smith. This surprised me because Arlene was Gloria Barrington's closest friend from childhood, when they were Arlene Devries and Gloria Arment. I wondered about that, and my conniving mind went to work to see what I could learn about her absence. I went home and rummaged in a closet before finding a small vase. I then purchased a spray of flowers of the types that Mrs. B liked to grow and placed them in the vase before wrapping the entire package. Catching the 2:15 C.A.T. airship to Victoria City, I arrived at the Smith house in late afternoon.

"Mrs. Smith? You probably don't remember me. I'm Rhianon Jameson...we met at Mrs. Barrington's house some time ago."

"Of course, Miss Jameson, I remember. Poor Gloria."

"I apologize for arriving unannounced, but I just came from Mrs. Barrington's funeral and recalled that she had once given me a favorite vase of hers, one that she said always reminded her of you. I know how close you two have been, and I thought she would have wanted you to have it. Here, I added some flowers from her garden."

Arlene Smith looked embarrassed, but took the package. "Yes, poor Gloria," she repeated. "I should have gone to her funeral. I feel awful for not doing so, but I just couldn't bear to be there. Facing her children,... We were once so close, but..." She hesitated. "Things change, of course. People change. We say things we regret..."

I started to reply, but she seemed to have forgotten I was there. Suddenly, she forced a smile and said, "Perhaps I could have been a better friend. Thank you for the vase. I appreciate having something to remember her by." Now it was my turn to feel guilty about my little deception, but I merely murmured something polite and said my farewell.

How well we think we know someone when, in fact, a friend could be a stranger. I saw Gloria Barringer in her well-ordered garden and exchanged pleasantries, but knew nothing of how she lived her life. She lost everyone dear to her - children, husband, and best friend - keeping up a brave facade while crumbling inside. I felt terrible, and angry at myself.

On my way home, I stopped at my local pub. My favorite bartender, Sam, was on duty. "Hi, Sam, how are you today?"

He made my absinthe cocktail absent-mindedly, replying, "Fine, miss."

I put a gloved hand on his arm and he stopped what he was doing, startled. "No, Sam, how are you?"

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