“He had an appointment,” said Shifra nervously, not wanting to explain about the shiur. “That delay you had on the road means we’re running a little late.”
“A house is quite a major purchase,” Mrs Owen reminded her in a disapproving tone. A tall, elegantly dressed fortyish peroxide blonde in a cream suit with orange trim (power dressing, Shifra said to herself), she carried an intimidating aura of confidence and conveyed the impression that she measured most things in dollars and cents.
“Oh, yes! And such a beautiful house – a real little Victorian gem. But my husband’s appointment is extremely important. I’m sure you understand.”
After a moment’s hesitation Mrs Owen agreed that she understood. After all, when Mrs Levenberg put it that way, it would be a social solecism not to oblige, and Mrs Owen prided herself on her social graces. Even with people she disliked intensely. Like Orthodox Jews.
“Well, now,” said the lawyer, “is there anything more? Are we all clear on which furnishings are being sold with the house?”
“I think so,” said Shifra. “If Mrs Owen is happy for me to take care of the house clearance… Are you sure you don’t want any of your mother’s gardening books? And the gardening tools? I’d love to have them, but…”
“You’re welcome to them.”
“I’m not a gardener – not yet, I mean – but I’d like to be – and your mother’s garden –” Stop it, Shifra told herself. You’re babbling. Mrs Owen was giving her a wary stare and she couldn’t blame her.
Shifra tried again. “But would you like any of the plants from the garden, Mrs Owen? Your mother must have been a really devoted gardener.”
“Is. Or would be, if she were still up to it.”
“She’s alive!” Shifra exclaimed.
Mrs Owen looked down her nose at Shifra. “Of course my mother is alive. What made you think she wasn’t? And is it relevant?”
“Because – you see, I love gardening, too – I mean, I think I’d love it – I’ve just moved to this area and I don’t have friends, yet, especially not people who like gardens – and I’d love to talk to her about what she planted – if she can, of course –” I don’t blame Mrs Owen for looking at me like that, Shifra thought. I sound like a complete dork.
“She’s perfectly compos mentis, if that’s what you mean,” snapped Mrs Owen. “I’m dealing with selling the house because she said she was too old to be bothered with paperwork.”
“Oh, good! Does she live locally? In sheltered housing?” Shifra pressed on.
“Sheltered housing with a nursing wing. And she’s not short of visitors.”
Shifra smiled, with an effort. “I’m sure she isn’t. Someone who planted a garden like that would have loads of friends. You must miss the house and garden yourself.”
“I’d moved away by the time she bought the place. It’s just a house.”
“What a shame – I mean, you’d have loved the house – anybody would.” I’m babbling again, Shifra thought. I know I’m babbling.
There was a pause. Mrs Owen appeared to make a sudden decision. “All right. I don’t see what harm it can do as long as I warn the staff.” Her voice was edged with a hint of menace. “If you upset my mother they’ll make sure you never visit again. In any case, my mother has a mind of her own,” she added in a brisk tone. “Mrs Mottram. She’s at the Sunnyfields nursing home.”
Shifra sat up straighter. “Sunnyfields? I thought that was a Jewish-oriented facility.”
“It is. My mother is Jewish. Nominally. I married out. And let me tell you, Mrs Levenberg, she was entirely happy with that decision. So don’t expect to turn her into the same kind of religious fanatic you are.” When it came to Orthodox Jews Mrs Owen’s gracious veneer tended to slip a little.
The lawyer, who was not Jewish but whose clientele was almost entirely Jewish and Orthodox to boot, and who knew which side his bread was buttered on, looked mildly shocked and cleared his throat.
“Ah, Mrs Owen,” he interposed, “we don’t want any actions for slander, now, do we?”
Mrs Owen glared at him but subsided.
“Now, Mrs Owen, Mrs Levenberg has offered to let you take plants from the garden. Do you want to take her up on that?”
“I live in a twelfth-floor Manhattan apartment,” she said shortly.
“I think we’re finished, then.” The lawyer reached into drawer and extracted several sets of keys. “Four sets, there, Mrs Levenberg. That’s right, isn’t it, Mrs Owen?”
Mrs Owen nodded.
“Four. That’s right.” Shifra smiled. Don’t babble. “Thank you so much. Have a pleasant trip back to New York, Mrs Owen.”
A cold nod from Mrs Owen.
The lawyer stood up. “Thank you both for coming. If you have any questions, Mrs Levenberg, please feel free to get back to me. It was a pleasure meeting you and your husband.” Turning to Mrs Owen, he added, “And to meet you again, too.”
Shifra left on Cloud Nine. How long had they been saving for a house? And to have found one with a garden, a garden that was not only a decent size but a – what did they call it? – a mature garden! She gave her handbag a little shake, just for the pleasure of hearing the keys jingle inside, and clutched the folder with the paperwork a little tighter.
Walking back to their apartment in the late-May sunshine (Baruch had taken the car, of course, or he’d never have made it to the shiur in time), Shifra reflected that it had been fortunate that she had met Mrs Owen at the lawyer’s office. In another setting, she was sure Mrs Owen would have been far more unpleasant, and because Shifra wasn’t accustomed to it she didn’t know how to react. People weren’t usually impolite to Shifra. They might laugh at her behind her back for her babbling, but to her face, at least, they weren’t unfriendly. Only Mrs Owen.
Shifra shrugged. Not my problem, she thought. She’ll be back in New York and out of my life. And her mother can’t possibly be like her. Not with a garden as warm and welcoming as that one is. An inner glow of delight suffused her. The house might need a kosher kitchen and some new windows, but the garden – !
She walked a little faster. True, she had allowed extra time and the babysitter didn’t expect her back yet, but when you’re new in town you don’t want to alienate anybody, least of all a really helpful middle-aged woman like Mrs Sussman who can come in the middle of the day.
If only the kids were behaving for her…
The children had been children, and Mrs Sussman was used to that, but the landlord – !
“Mrs Levenberg,” she began as soon as Shifra let herself in, “The landlord has been up twice, and he’s awfully intimidating. I was really taken aback! I don’t think I can babysit for you again.”
“No! Please!” Shifra begged her. “We just signed for a house of our own! Please, Mrs Sussman! Don’t take me off your list!”
About Henye Meyer