How Does Your Garden Grow?

Peggy Blanchard fanned her flushed, plump face and mopped her forehead with an embroidered handkerchief. "Heavens, Lydia," she gasped, "is it me, or is the sunshine hotter than normal today?"

Lydia Warren raised an eyebrow and wondered if it would be wise to tell the portly Peggy that if she lost a few dozen pounds, she wouldn't find the summer heat so uncomfortable. She opted for discretion.

"It certainly is a scorcher," she agreed, consulting the list in her lace-gloved hand. "But only one more entry to judge and then we can go back to the Brigadier's manor for some nice chilled lemonade and Eccles cakes while we tally the results."

Huffing, Peggy trudged up the gentle incline to Miss Contraire's cottage as though she were scaling the topmost peak of Scafell Pike. "I understand you've cultivated a new variety of rose this season, Mary," she wheezed, catching her breath by resting her unwieldy bulk against Miss Contraire's picket fence.

The elderly spinster smiled. "A rather intricate procedure. I do hope you deem it worthy of consideration." Giving the prolific bush a final burst of midge spray, she unlatched the gate and beckoned the two ladies, who were themselves far from being spring chickens, to enter.

Miss Mary Contraire...she always insisted on being called "Miss" instead of the more fashionable "Ms.," which she considered to be vulgar...was nervous. In the fifty-or-so year history of the Bournemouth Horticultural Society's annual "Prestigious Posy" competition, she had only ever managed to attain second place. Sinful as she knew the thought to be, she dearly coveted the highest ranking.

Lydia adjusted her bi-focals and peered curiously at the flowers in full blossom. "Exquisite shade of crimson," she remarked. The blush which crept into Miss Contraire's papery cheeks almost matched that of her cherished blooms.

"Thank you," she simpered, pursing her narrow lips. It was important to be gracious, even though a disagreeable voice inside her head was griping, "It's about time I received some well-deserved recognition!"

Peggy inspected the velvet surface of the petals with a fat forefinger and even fatter thumb. "This really has an extremely unusual but most delightful texture," she said. "Smooth and pliant as the skin of a young girl."

Miss Contraire glowed. Surely this would prove to be her year. Lydia made careful and precise circles on a pre-printed sheet of paper attached to her clipboard. "Have you given this new strain a name?" she asked.

Miss Contraire gave an audible sniff and dabbed daintily at a tiny tear trickling from the corner of one pale green eye. "I call it 'Ruby's Remembrance,'" she whispered.

Peggy placed a comforting, if ponderous, arm around the matron's fragile shoulders. "Such a fine tribute," she said soothingly. "You are surely the kindest of souls. There are not many these days who would take in a girl of doubtful parentage and provide her with room and board in exchange for a little light housework."

Miss Contraire much in an attempt to slough-off Peggy's weight as anything. "I like to help where I can," she replied softly. "It's the Christian thing to do. Used to be that I could train them in the crafts necessary to become a skilled and capable maid, but modern girls aren't interested in such a profession. It's a lost art!"

"Indeed yes," agreed Lydia. "You can't teach today's youth anything. From what I understand Ruby wasn't even grateful for the most part when you agreed to take her from the orphanage."

Miss Contraire sighed. "Nevertheless, she was a willing girl and showed her appreciation in certain other ways. I miss her very much and still fret about where she she's doing...whether she's alive or dead."

Lydia made a noise which resembled something like "Hrmphfff!" Miss Contraire was rather shocked and appalled at the ungenteel-like exclamation. "Excuse me, Mary," said Lydia. "But I do find it irritating. Doubtless, she's run off with some acne-ridden fly-by-night who turned her head with his promises and left you here, without a word, to worry yourself sick. It just isn't right!"

Miss Contraire lowered her head and dabbed again at her eyes.

Peggy found the silence to be discomfiting. She coughed. "I understand you've agreed to take in another poor unfortunate," she said brightly.

Miss Contraire nodded enthusiastically. "Yes," she replied. "Quiet, simple, unassuming little slip of a thing with the most enormous blue eyes. In fact they are really quite extraordinarily striking...almost violet. Her name is Blanche. She should be here by the end of next week if all goes well."

Lydia tucked the clipboard under her arm and shook Miss Contraire's hand. "I have a feeling all is going to go well for you today too, Mary" she confided with a conspiratorial wink. Miss Contraire beamed and waved a cheery goodbye as she adjusted the wide brim of her straw hat. The baking heat of the afternoon sun really was becoming unbearable.

Tilting her head to one side in the manner of an attentive sparrow, Miss Contraire listened intently to the sing-song sound of the children who were skipping rope in the park across the way.

"Mary, Mary, quite contrary, how does your garden grow...?"

She imagined the beautiful first place trophy cup, highly-polished of course, taking pride of place on her mantle.

"...with silver bells and cockle-shells..."

Next year, perhaps another new hybrid of Rosaceae...white and pure and virginal...petals possibly edged with an uncommon tint of delicate purplish-blue. "Periwinkle," murmured Miss Contraire, believing that to be correct term for such a color. She would give a great deal of consideration on what to name the would, of course, have to be appropriate.

Her thin, reedy soprano mingled with the voices of the chanting children as Miss Contraire made her way back to the cool interior of her cottage.

"...and pretty maids all in a row."

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