“Ho there, d‘you know you’re trespassing? What d‘you want?” She demanded brusquely of Joanna.
Joanna searched around her for inspiration and it came to her as if on cue.
“I‘m so sorry...I was so interested in your plants, I wasn’t thinking,” she stepped backwards towards the gate.
“My plants?” the old woman repeated scathingly, pulling off her gardening glove and lifting the veil of the hat to reveal a deeply wrinkled face in which the eyes glittered and darted with surprising vigour. “I assure you, I take no credit for this weed-garden! I‘m trying to get rid of them. Just been incinerating some of the wretched things,” she explained, indicating behind her, where, sure enough, from behind the greenhouse a plume of smoke ribboned skywards.
Joanna delved into her pocket and stepped forward, with her card in one hand and her other extended in friendship. “I‘m Joanna Sterne. I work at The New Way to Health Centre, perhaps you’ve heard of it? And I‘m doing some research into the medicinal properties of certain plants,” she lied. Having said it, she realised it sounded very unconvincing. The old woman scrutinised the card but ignored the hand.
“And you just happened to be passing my back garden?” she asked sceptically.
“Not at all. A good friend of mine lives nearby and often uses this shortcut. She mentioned that you have an unusual collection. But actually, I was just admiring your lovely bay trees.”
“Ah yes! Now those I do take credit for. This barbarous lot here, however, were a madness of my sister’s. Like you she was interested in their inherent powers, until she broke her hip and became housebound. We’re selling up now and moving away, so I thought I‘d best try and sort this lot out. Some of these could be dangerous in the wrong hands.”
“I see. Yes, I noticed the laurel, which I know to be poisonous,” Joanna indicated the low shrub with its small greenish-yellow flowers and the woman gazed at it for a moment and then turned her full gaze back on Joanna, examining her face thoroughly.
“Indeed it is. Stinks too, at this time of year. Now why would anyone deliberately cultivate an abomination like that, do you think?”
Joanna shrugged warily. She felt as if she was being tested.
“The leaves are quite attractive, but it’s wild, isn’t it? Perhaps it just appeared before its harmful properties were known?”
The old woman continued to watch Joanna’s face for several seconds after she had finished speaking.
“Do you think so? But you knew.”
“Only because I came across one once before and I happened to recognise it.”
“Well look your last on this one. I‘m about to dig it up and put an end to it. Is there anything else you recognise as being poisonous?”
And then Joanna realised why so many of the plants seemed familiar. She had seen several of these beyond the old orchard at Chichester Court. The little, shrubby pine tree that looked like a small Cypress, for example and the low spidery plant that Joanna had seen before on rockery gardens and which reminded her of an exotic fruit and was now just coming into flower; and then there was the low blue plant with its clusters of narrow leaves and aromatic, spiked flowers which used to grow in abundance in the grounds of Chichester Court. So the Chichester ladies had brought a little bit of their past with them. But why... especially if they were known to be poisonous?
“I‘ve got a catalogue of the species we’re interested in at home,” Joanna said rather glibly. “I wonder if you’d mind if I took a few photographs, to look them up later?”
The old lady frowned as she considered the request, looked again at Joanna’s card to examine her credentials and, having satisfied herself, said at last.
“I don’t really see why not. I believe we should all co-operate in the interests of science and research. But I must warn you, certain plants have to go. I‘ve agreed it all with my sister. And of course, I shall expect to see a copy of your paper to assure myself of its ethics. No formal acknowledgement will be necessary, however.”
Joanna didn’t hesitate. She pulled her phone from her bag and began to click away as the old lady fussed and fretted beside her.
“I‘d really rather you didn’t touch that one, my dear,” she complained as Joanna was about to rearrange the spiky head of one of the plants she had recognised in order to photograph its yellow flowers. “I can tell you about that one, anyway. Its Latin name is ajuga chamaepitys, commonly known as yellow bugle or ground pine,” and then as Joanna moved to a new patch of the garden. “Oh surely you know those - their medicinal value is already well-documented. That’s cotton lavender and that one under the wall is rue.” And then later: “I suppose, while you’re here, you’d better look in the greenhouse,” and Joanna was led into the fetid gloom where a few plants thrived in the bosky interior warmth. “Some of these are hybrids, so you won’t find them in your catalogues. I expected them all to have died out over the winter. But this one here, though...do you recognise that?”
Joanna could just make out the Latin name from the tag: asarum europaeum. It had small, fleshy, kidney-shaped, leaves and a deep purple, bell-shaped flower. It looked like some kind of vine.
“It doesn’t really need the greenhouse, of course, but it seems to thrive so well in here. Its name is asarabacca and it’s probably older than me! Oh no, I‘d rather you didn’t touch it, my dear. Not in your condition.”
Joanna lowered her phone slowly.
“My condition? What on earth do you mean?”
The woman looked around her as if someone else had uttered the curious statement, before muttering under her breath to herself and then turning her candid gaze back on Joanna. She pressed her fingers to her pursed lips and said nothing for a few moments. Then,
“You’re pregnant, my dear. I‘m sorry. I assumed you knew.”