Sea Salt and Geraniums
This story was inspired by a Reedsy Prompt - write about a person who meets with the ghost of an old friend for tea every so often.
The smell of geraniums makes me think of sex and Fred. Perhaps it’s the metallic tang, like electricity, or adrenaline on my tongue. Did I always feel like that, or is it just since we started meeting in the vibrant perennial section at the Botanical Gardens? The atmosphere sizzles with the aroma, giving me an indecent thrill. Ironic, really, with a name like Lily, that I should be so taken with geraniums.
I love this part of the Gardens, by the cafe, on my regular bench. It’s indoors, with enormous windows that stretch to a dome overhead, and the warm, earthy air settles my arthritis. That must be why Gemma—the manager of Cherry House, where I live—agreed for me to come here every month. And why they allow me to enter alone, leaving the escorts outside in the car. They think it’s the relief from pain that lifts my mood. If only they knew.
Fred’s not here yet, and that’s good. I like to arrive first, to feel the salty breeze on my face as he appears. Makes me imagine heaven is by the seaside. At least, he says he’s in heaven. He was rather a wild one in his youth, he told me, so I’m not sure. Then again, he could have made the whole bad boy thing up and I’d never know, because we met in our fifties. Two whirlwind years of laughter and naughtiness, we had, before he was taken away from me. Heart failure, they called it. His heart never failed me.
Today I’ve another reason to be early. Time to settle myself, rehearse my lines. I’ve thought about what to say so many times. Still, I need to run through it once more, in my place, before saying it for real.
Charlotte, the waitress, brings tea on a tray. She sets one pot and one cup and saucer on a wrought iron table beside me with a smile. A couple of shortbread fingers nestle on the saucer. You’re not supposed to take tea in the gardens, but I’m such a regular I’m almost part of the display myself. They probably think I’m a batty old woman, chuntering to myself. So it must seem to them.
I’ve hardly had time to pour when the breeze picks up. It swipes dirt from the plant pots, sends dried leaves skittering across the tiled floor. I breathe in the sea air.
“Lily, my lover.” Beside me, his voice is soft and deep; suggestive.
As I twist towards him, a crude warmth grows between my legs, despite the anxious knot in my throat.
“Fred.” My dry lips are numb when I try to smile, and he must notice because his own grin warps. A shock runs down my limbs. Can he read what’s on my mind?
No. How foolish of me. He’d have mentioned it before.
“You could at least buy me a drink, woman.” It’s an old joke of his, meant to break this new ice.
“Daft sod.” I peek sideways at him, ambushed all over again by how young he looks. His hair is laced with only a little silver, his ruddy cheeks glow. And in between, those dark, wide eyes. To him, I must look old. Ugly, perhaps. I wonder if that’s why I…
“Oh, Lil. I’ve missed you.” His hand on mine is as solid as can be. “It’s so good to see you.”
“It’s only been a few weeks,” I say.
“A few weeks is a long time in heaven.”
That stabs at my heart. “Fred…”
“Yes?” Oh, those eyes.
“I—I’ve met someone.” My stomach flip-flops, like I’ve jumped off a ledge and decided too late I want to live. “Someone…”
“Alive?” His back stiffens. “Oh.”
No choice, I have to fall now. “His name’s Harry.”
Fred looks down at his knees. He sniffs.
“I’m so sorry.” My last word is choked.
“No, don’t.” He smiles, but a tear drops onto his tweed trousers as he turns to face me. “You don’t have to be sorry. We know better than anybody. It’s never too late.”
“I love you, you must know that. I always will. But—”
His finger rests against my lips, warm and steady, ceasing my babble. Without thinking, I kiss it. His saline scent blankets me as my own tear trickles onto his hand.
“All I want,” he says, stroking my wet cheek, “is for you to be happy. Feel loved. And I can only do that for you every few weeks. It’s not enough for a woman like you. You deserve much more. Twenty years is long enough to grieve, don’t you think?”
My reply dissolves into a shuddering sob. The geranium scent hits the back of my throat as I turn away.
“One thing. Is he as handsome as me?”
A laugh splutters out of me, or a strangled cry. “Not even close.”
“Good. No point dying young if some doddery octogenarian can come along and hammer you in the looks department.” He sobers. “You understand, I can’t come back anymore? Not like this.”
I nod, though my neck feels like it’s made of rusted iron. It’s what I feared most.
“But I’ll never really leave you.” He glances over. “Except when you and Harry are… you know. I mean, I don’t want to spy on you, or anything.”
“Oh.” My cheeks grow hot under the drying tears. “Fred, we haven’t…”
He holds his hands up, his checked shirt just visible through them. “Fine. It’s fine. I don’t need to know.”
“You’re leaving now, aren’t you?”
“I think so. I feel strange.” A draft lifts his hair. “It’s like somebody’s pulling at my chest.”
“I love you, Fred.”
“I love you, L—”
The world swirls around me as he fades in the sea breeze. And then he’s gone, and I’m left alone, staring at my cold tea.
In the dining hall at Cherry House, Harry peers at me over his beef cobbler lunch. “Lily, are you alright? You seem sad. Your trip to the Gardens usually cheers you up.”
George Bennet shuffles past on the way to his place next to Elsie. He glances at me then winks at Harry. I tut and shoo him away. Cheeky sod.
“For the twentieth time, Fred, I’m fine.”
His gaze flickers, but it takes me a second to realise why.
“Harry. Sorry. Harry.” I wiggle my fingers around my head, indicating my declining brain. Sometimes it helps to be a little senile.
He gives me a compassionate smile, deepening the dimples that make my heart swell, and skewers a dumpling with his fork.
Isabellina, a nurse with the most makeup I’ve ever seen on one person, opens the window across the room. “Let’s get some fresh air in here,” she growls. “It’s so stuffy today.”
The net curtains billow around her head, giving a momentary preview of Isabellina as a sharp-faced bride.
It’s unmistakeable, undeniable; so much like a Greek island balcony. Over the oniony smell of lunch, and the faint aroma of urine from the day room, it floats in on the breeze.
Ozone and salt. One more goodbye.