he garden was overrun with wild grass and tenacious weeds had pushed up through the crazy paving. Apt description, I thought as my view followed the path on its meandering journey from the back door to near the bottom of the garden. It then branched into two then set off again to surround the small flourishing orange grove.
‘‘Hola! Buenos Dias.’’ The old woman was peering over the stone dike wall and into my garden.
‘‘Hola…..eh,…morning, Senora,’’ I replied but she was already making her way to the wicket gate, her grey shawl bobbing along the top of the wall like a ship’s sail on a distant horizon.
The fact that I barely spoke a word of Spanish mattered not a jot to this woman. I’d first met her a couple of days after I’d moved in. She’d introduced herself when I was cleaning the windows at the front of the cottage. Then she appeared at the stone dike wall a few days later. I didn’t know what she was saying but she concluded each sentence by nodding her head and smiling. Then the following day she just strolled into the back garden chattering away in Spanish! She was carrying a wicker basket and walked up to me whilst pointing at the orange trees and said ‘‘Muchas de las naranjas, si.’’
‘‘Yes, eh…oranges, yes. Si Senora,’’ I had replied. It was true. The trees were laden with oranges and many of them had fallen onto the wild grass underneath. She then announced ‘‘Voy a hacerte una mermelada!’’
I guessed the word marmalade was in there so I had nodded vigorously and said ‘‘Yes, of course, you can. Yes.’’ With that, she’d strode down to the trees and began filling the basket with oranges. Then with a cheery wave, she was away! Like she’d known me for years! It didn’t seem to matter that I was a complete stranger, a foreigner in fact who only took up residence here a few weeks earlier.
I wonder what Ruth would have made of it? I had thought at the time. Ruth, my beautiful wife had succumbed to breast cancer six months earlier. Ruth, my childhood sweetheart, lover, and soul mate. She’d fought it of course, but then she would. She was a fighter with a big heart. But it became clear that she wasn’t going to win this one. Ruth and I had been born on the same day and she made such an effort to hang on so we could share our fortieth birthday together. It was hardly a birthday bash. Just a few close friends round, some nibbles and drinks but Ruth was so drugged up that the occasion seemed to slip by her in a haze.
The next day she had seemed surprisingly chirpy and even suggested fish and chips for tea from the chip shop in town. She’d said ‘‘Cancers like pregnancy, Mike. You develop strange cravings!’’ I had read this as a good sign. Maybe her appetite was returning? Maybe she was on the mend? Later, as I was standing in the queue waiting to be served I felt a growing feeling of uneasiness. It had unsettled me. I’d ran out the shop and dashed home, bursting through the front door and calling out her name as I ran up the stairs.
She lay across the bed. An empty bottle of pills was on the bedside table, next to a note. She didn’t want to fight anymore. And she didn’t want cancer to dictate when she was going to die. Her note ended with
So I’m choosing eternal sleep and will dream of you constantly, my gorgeous, wonderful husband. The love of my life. In the time it is my wish that you can move on.
Cancer. I couldn’t actually say the word out loud. Watching her deteriorate and suffer had nearly destroyed me. Cancer, the ultimate parasite. It chooses a host then sets to work on it. It’s not infectious. It’s not contagious. It’s not a threat to anyone else. It exists to live off, then kills off its host. And in killing its host it kills itself.
And I had moved on. A few months later, despite protests and concern from family and friends I’d sold up and moved here to this small, whitewashed village in the province of Seville. A few mornings later the old lady entered the garden and approached me as I sat reading at the wooden trestle table. I beckoned her to sit down. She chose the bench seat opposite me and, once she’d made herself comfortable, retrieved a jar of marmalade and a loaf of uncut bread from her basket and laid them on the table.
‘‘Mermelada!’’ she exclaimed, excitedly. I smiled and went to the kitchen, returning with a bread knife, two plates and two mugs of coffee.
‘‘Café con leche!’’ I exclaimed, pleased with my pronunciation. The old lady cut two thick slices off the loaf then removed the paper lid which had been holding onto the jar with an elastic band. Finally, she smeared the thick orange marmalade onto the two slices of bread and passed one to me. We ate in comfortable silence. Suddenly the memory of companionship caused a lump to form in my throat. I looked down as a wave of grief overcame me. The old lady’s rough, calloused hands moved across the table to cover my own. Her face had an expression of understanding and compassion. She didn’t speak but nodded slowly which somehow soothed me as she rubbed her course fingers across the back of my hands. Salty tears slipped down my face and I nodded slowly in silent acknowledgment.
It wasn’t until she’d left and I was clearing the table that I noticed the paper lid that had covered the marmalade jar. I picked it up and smiled. On it the old lady had written
I lay awake a long time that night thinking about Ruth. Smiling through tears as I remembered our countless little private jokes. Then I slept and dreamt deeply and vividly. We were at home in the evening and it was peaceful. I was watching her reading a book. I was thinking God, I really love you when she suddenly looked up and caught my gaze. Slow, knowing smiles broke across our faces. Ruth had a repertoire of smiles and this was the vulnerable, lop-sided one that always made me feel so protective of her.
I’d kept a long, pink ribbon, its color a recognized symbol of defiance against the cancerous invader. After breakfast the next day I retrieved it from a ‘yet to be unpacked’ trolley bag and went out to the garden. Under a brilliant blue-white sky I followed the path’s meandering journey down to the orange grove. There were six trees; four almost identical in size and shape were huddled together and off to one side a larger tree with a smaller one in its shadow. This stunted tree’s main bough had grown out in an unusual angle in order to receive sunlight from under the larger tree’s canopy and had a, kind of, lop-sided look about it. I tied the ribbon tightly around the trunk of this little fighter then slowly retraced my steps to the cottage.
Time heals all and today the hurt began to fade.