The Best Friend’s Gardener – Pearl Matsebula

His appearance was the perfect surprise to their mundane Sunday afternoon. They were captured by his unintentional show off of his toned arms; veins carefully peeping under his dark skin and legs perfectly fitted in his royal blue pants, as they prepared to spend it in the garden catching up about the past week. Ndeni took a step forward and shot him a smile she hadn’t anticipated.

“Ladies.” He greeted. How she wished he simply said ‘lady’ like most days when he saw her. Luckily, his sudden focus on her stopped the jealousy that was wrapping its hands around her heart; turning the gothic-look-alike princess’ cheeks red, fingers playing behind her back while making heart figures on the grass he passionately tends. But her cloud 9 moment soon ended when he shifted his focus to Zana – her best friend. She seemed to have been given more affection. Which she helplessly accepted with a smile and a crocked head. Her smile echoed too loud for Ndeni to bear. The thought of what she just witnessed drove her to the middle of the garden with a cushion and cloth in hand to dust the wooden bench. She then wondered why he came on a Sunday as he disappeared in Aunt Thelma’s kitchen.

Usually when they liked the same man, despite how innocent, they’d discuss him, but this time they kept him to each self and that had never happened before. The remnant of his effect on Zana’s face caused Ndeni a thirst she desperately needed to quench, as she happily strolled towards the wooden bench in her short summer dress with two glasses, a bottle of wine and a magazine.

They took their seat on the wooden bench they purchased together at a second hand furniture shop. Zana loved the floral carvings and Ndeni thought the wide armrests would be the perfect servants to carry her stuff. “Cheers!” Ndeni dubiously lifted her glass to toast.  To what? Zana failed to ask the question as expected. Instead, she swiftly clink her glass to Zana’s, tipped it over her red clad lips and paged through her magazine. Ndeni looked ahead at the flowers and could hear a subtle tune of suspicion inviting her to dance to its rhythm. She didn’t have the guts to directly ask what she suspected, and the thought of placing herself in that kind of awkward situation unsettled her.  The first and only time she confronted Zana was about her mood swings after she agreed to cover the rent because she’d been out of a job for a while. She’d be all puffed if on that specific day she hadn’t cleaned. The confrontation left Zana feeling attacked and made to think she was selfish, while she thought Ndeni was being ungrateful. She never entirely agreed with her. Until her rupture of tears evoked a memory that caused Ndeni to oblige to whatever that made her happy just like she’d to do her little sister. Who at one time she refused to let her accompany to the spaza, but followed her despite her refusal, then got hit by a car and died instantly. She has then, always relinquished to Ndeni’s silly demands, especially since she has traits that reminds her of her little sister.

The tension between them even after the confrontation was thick. But thanks to a lame joke on television that left them laughing together.

The other way to get an answer to the question she couldn’t ask directly would be in her eyes. A simple question about him and she’d find out what she really thinks of him, through her eyes, she plotted. But judging from the way she was glued to her magazine, the only replies she’d get would be mhs and ahas. She gently bit her lip and tapped her glass.

She stole a glance at her and before she knew it, she was holding up her glass, proposing another toast, hoping she wouldn’t pull one of her comical expressions and ruin her whole plan. Trying to make it look as casual as possible, she gave a cheesy smile. But Zana focused on her magazine, despite having noticed the gesture with her peripherals. Four…five seconds, glass still raised. Zana focused on her magazine. She couldn’t leave her hanging like that, Ndeni swallowed indignantly. Six seconds…nothing. She curled her lips hoping to suppress every emotion that was preparing to express itself through her eyes. Seven seconds… she pulled one of her comical expressions she had crossed her fingers against and clink her glass to hers. While everything in her fought the urge to kick herself, unexpectedly, Zana turned to Ndeni.

“Do you want him?” she asked sternly. She not only gave her the look that confirmed her suspicion, she also asked the question she dared not. That moment of shock as she grovelled for an answer felt like a tremor on their structure… Lay with a carpet of laughter, balanced on pillars of unhealthy unconditional love, wall paintings of their different adventures and experiences together, with bricks intricately laid atop each other’s vulnerabilities, thoughts and desires, tightly held with cement of each other’s known and unknown secrets.  “Do you also want him?” she asked again, her face looking slightly convicted. It calmed the tremor Ndeni felt on their structure, but left a pending threat of a crash. “I…a gardener?” she let out an empty giggle. Then hid her emotions behind a sip of wine, turned to Zana and shook her head with a slight smirk of ridicule.  “I’m asking cause… I don’t know… but the way you radiated when he appeared was surprisingly affectionate for a gardener,” she raised her brow to remind her of her ‘type’.  “So now a girl can’t be friendly to a gardener?” her tone convicting.  “…Ok…” she shrugged and seemed at ease.

But that moment of silence between them was like a rewind of a tape to Ndeni. How she felt when she first saw him, guided by a jealous iris that almost covered his entire eye, sheltered with fluffy eyelashes that drew her in and reminded her of her someday-little-one who’d have his eyes. How his voice straightened the crooked weaved strings in her mind, and how his smile resuscitated the girl she never couldn’t be at her mother’s tea parties…

Do you want him? Do you also want him? she recalled Zana’s question. And it was enough to tell her what she’d been dying to know “Oh my gosh! really!” with an underlying tone of shock and disappointment. “What?” Zana stroked her collarbone and downed a sip.  “You want him!”

”Want who?” she asked defensively. “Him,” she pointed to the direction of the kitchen. “He might look like Idris Elba, but he sounds and has nothing like his, no offence.” That was to get Ndeni off her case, not to hurt him, she sulked.  “Mm!” she cupped her chin and raised her eyebrows as if waiting for a reply. How sweet it was to watch her lie while she already knew the truth.  Zana ignored her and reached for the bottle between them for a refill. ”Not until you tell me the truth.” Ndeni grabbed the bottle and placed it on her armrest. ”I like the works of his hands,” she stole a smile.

Then recalled how he carefully mended her broken vase that could once again hold flowers. How he caught her when she almost slipped on paint, assuring her safety and protection after she lost it when daddy failed to catch her when she fell off her bicycle. Then walked out the back door with another woman leaving the front door open to a stranger who deflowered her and gave the flowers to her mother who watered them relentlessly. Despite their quench, they still dried up. And his touch, it felt like butterfly wings on her skin when he whispered, “I got you.”

Gardener or not, she wanted to feel that again, all the time.

“What?” Ndeni snapped. “Check out the garden.” She said in confidence and manoeuvred out of her secret thoughts of him. “Ok that’s a given,” she surrendered. But her mind analysed the depth of her statement, ‘the works of his hands’. “I appreciate good handiwork, but I’m a sucker for the fruits of the mind and its juices.” Her ego throbbed, while her conscience suffocated her as she blatantly lied and demeaned the man who had grown to mean much to her. That to Ndeni sounded like: she could have him – who he was and what he did was not paramount at that moment – without compromising their friendship.    “So the only reason you don’t want him is because he’s not ka-chinged?” Ndeni asked gladly. “I don’t want him because…” she stalled, “because I don’t want him.” She quickly paged through her magazine.

Being asked about his money reminded her of how accurate Ndeni’s predictions always were when it came to her relationships. Like the recent one that failed because she made a little more than him, and she convinced her he was intimidated by her and she fell for it. And the other times where she forced her ‘good’ advice on her best relationship. She relinquished all her opinions contrary to hers. It kept the relationship going and that made her feel good and in control until he moved overseas. She had become her relationship expert. Especially after she enlightened her about standards. Everyone who came after that had to live up to ‘the list’. But with the gardener, ‘the list’ was ready to be compressed, despite the fear of failure to be with the perfect suit and tie guy she always preferred and the glory that came with it.

While her fears tortured her, Ndeni enjoyed the relief because she was now convinced Zana would not bend her ‘list’ like that. She liked them loaded, amongst other good things.                                                                                                                                                       Unexpectedly he appeared from the kitchen with what looked like a scissor.

They secretly readied themselves for anything he might do or say. Ndeni adjusted her posture and t-shirt. Zana sat up straight and crossed her legs. Their hearts leaped as he cut the flowers.  “Refill?” Ndeni asked, desperate to distract what her heart and mind were doing.                                                                                                                                                       “Sure,” she said quickly and hid her excitement of what was about to happen, and reached out her glass to Ndeni who accidentally poured the wine on her hand. Zana dropped the glass and it spilled on Ndeni’s cushion which her late grandmother had made specially for her. She gave her an apologetic stare but quickly responded to the ‘hunter after prey look’ Ndeni shot her as he drew closer with the flowers. They quickly looked at his direction then back to each other and realised they were after the same thing.

He cut the moment when he handed Ndeni a yellow rose. She stared at it in disbelief and it shot straight to the memory of her mother’s tea parties… When she met his eyes, it unexplainably assured her she was always that girl she thought she couldn’t be.  As Zana watched, the strings that had pulled her heart to dance for him the very first time she saw him, pulled further than she expected and they snapped. Her heart dangled. Then she saw delicate pink petals and recalled how her mothers’ dried up, despite how she relentlessly watered them. When she looked in the rose as he brought it closer, she saw one little petal not yet blossomed, with no prospect of blossoming, she realised it’s that little one that would resurrect all the dead ones in due season. The tears in her soul tasted bittersweet, but the sweetness lingered. She looked up at him and accepted the pink rose.

When they snapped back to reality, they saw the red rose in his hand. Both swallowed hard and hoped to be the recipient. He smiled softly, took a step back and returned to the kitchen with it behind his hands. They looked at each other in awe and the hope on each of their eyes cracked. Zana quickly picked up the cushion, Ndeni grabbed the magazine, glasses and bottle of wine. Then telepathically, they tossed the roses on the bench and headed back to their humble haven.

 

Photo: Hazel Fasaha Tobo

 

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