‘How would you like to come out with me for the day next Wednesday?’ said Ruth to her mother.
‘I’m not sure, dear,’ replied Jean. ‘I’m waiting to hear from Eileen about the next committee meeting.’
‘Can you ring Eileen and find out, because Wednesday is the only day I’m free for the next few weeks. I want to take you out for a treat to celebrate your birthday.’
Jean returned a few minutes later. ‘Eileen said she was just about to ring me, which I don’t totally believe. The meeting’s on Tuesday, so I could come out with you on Wednesday. What did you have in mind?’
‘It’s up to you, Mum. Think of something special you’ve been wanting to do.’
‘I wouldn’t mind going to that new garden centre on the outskirts of town.’
‘That’s not very exciting. We could go there any time.’
‘Well, what about a trip to Symonds Yat. We could have lunch by the river.’
‘That’s more like it! We could always call in at the garden centre on the way back. Now, can you get yourself ready for eight o’clock? We’ll have a longish drive ahead of us.’
‘Eight in the morning?’ queried Jean, eyebrows raised.
‘Yes, Mum. I know you’re an early riser.’
On her way home Ruth pulled in to the side of the road and rang her brother Simon.
‘We have lift off. I’ve arranged to pick her up at 8am on Wednesday?’
‘Wilco, sis. Operation Chameleon, six days and counting.’
Ruth let herself into her mother’s house just before eight on Wednesday morning.
‘Are you ready, Mum?’ she called up the stairs.
‘Just deciding whether I need a cardigan or a jacket, dear.’
‘Bring both,’ called Ruth impatiently.
‘The weather doesn’t look that clever,’ said Jean, pausing on the landing to look out of the window.
‘The forecast says it’ll brighten up later this morning. Now come along.’
The forecast hadn’t been that inspiring, but there was always a chance they’d got it wrong. Ruth heaved a sigh of relief as they pulled out onto the main road. Glancing back she saw Simon’s car pull up outside her mother’s house and grinned to herself. Operation Chameleon was all systems go.
‘I only hope we can get it all done before she returns,’ said Simon’s wife, Claire as she unbuckled her seatbelt. ‘We’re not professional landscape gardeners by any stretch of the imagination.’
‘I’m relying on Adrian, he should be here any minute,’ said Simon, peering anxiously along the road. ‘He’s done wonders with his own garden, and Mum’s is small by comparison. Let’s make a start on clearing the garden.’
Simon’s friend Adrian turned up as they were shoving Jean’s ornamental windmill onto the concrete around the side of the house.
‘Morning both,’ he called. ‘You’ve made a good start, I’ll give you a hand with the rest.’
Operation Chameleon involved making Jean’s garden more user-friendly for a woman in her senior years who was keen to remain independent but was struggling to weed flower beds and mow the lawn. The plan was to pull up all the plants, get rid of the lawn, and concrete the whole lot, meanwhile transferring Jean’s favourite plants into raised flower beds and large pots. Jean had often said that with a Lottery win this was what she’d like to do, and for her eightieth birthday the following week her family had decided to surprise her.
‘The roots of this fuchsia must go down a mile,’ puffed Simon as he leaned hard on the fork. Suddenly the roots gave with a mighty snap and Simon pitched forward headfirst. Luckily he had a soft landing on the freshly dug earth.
‘We’re going to need another wheelbarrow to shift all this earth and turf,’ muttered Adrian. ‘We need to go down deeper to accommodate the hardcore.’
‘I’ll nip home and get ours,’ offered Claire.
When she returned she brought two friends with their own garden tools as well as the wheelbarrow.
‘Emmie and Linda are keen gardeners,’ she explained.
‘Thanks, ladies,’ said Simon. ‘I think we’re going to need you. It’s ten o’clock already and we haven’t started pouring the concrete yet.
‘And we’ll have trouble getting it to set if it rains,’ added Adrian, scanning the grey skies.
Before long they had all the surplus turf and earth bagged up in strong plastic sacks and stowed on Adrian’s truck once they’d offloaded the sacks of ballast, sand and cement.
‘I’ll ring my daughter’s school,’ said Linda. ‘They’re doing a garden project and could probably take the turf and earth off your hands.’
With all hands on deck they shovelled the rough stone chippings into the cavities which had previously been the lawn and flower beds. Meanwhile Adrian was laying out a complicated wooden framework for the cement. Then he started up the cement mixer and they formed a chain, passing buckets of the grey slop down the line.
‘We’re going to need more,’ sighed Adrian. ‘Simon, I think you’d better do a dash to the builders’ merchant.’
Simon returned in record time, his car weighed down with heavy sacks. Gradually they worked their way back to Jean’s back door, from which they surveyed an even expanse of grey.
‘Time for a bit of lunch,’ said Adrian. ‘And keep praying that it doesn’t rain.’
Then Simon’s mobile phone rang. It was Ruth.
‘Mum’s getting restless. I don’t think I can keep her here much longer. It’s starting to rain.’
‘Oh, great! We’ve only just finished the concrete. Now we have to wait for it to dry before we can start on the raised beds and the trellis and stuff. Can’t you take her shopping or something? We need you to stay away until at least five.’
‘I’ll do my best,’ sighed Ruth.
After he’d eaten his sandwich Adrian started throwing stones, testing whether the concrete was setting.
‘I think we’re okay down the left side,’ he said. ‘Ellie, you’re probably the lightest. Can you walk out and give it a try?’
The concrete held Ellie’s weight without giving, so they started barrowing bricks down the side of the house, wheeling the barrow along a plank so it wouldn’t mark the fresh concrete. Meanwhile Claire and Ellie were doing their best to paint sections of trellis with quick-drying blue woodstain. The area at the side of the house was a jumble of muddy plants and building materials and there was very little space to work.
Simon’s mobile rang again while he and Adrian and Linda were laying bricks.
‘We’re at the garden centre. Mum’s had two cups of tea and a piece of cake. She’s in the ladies now, and she wants to come home. How are you doing?’
‘Blimey, Ruth! It’s only half past three! We’re still laying bricks for the raised flower beds, we haven’t even started planting yet. Can’t you think of anything? The car won’t start, for example?’
‘I’ll do my best,’ sighed Ruth.
At ten to five Simon started sweeping the mud from the concrete at the side of the house. ‘Ruth hasn’t rung, but she probably won’t be long. Can you move your truck please, Ade? It’s a dead give-away.’
Simon leaned on his broom, surveying their efforts. Ellie and Linda were training Jean’s climbing roses up a section of trellis at the back of the garden. Claire was adding touches of blue paint to Jean’s windmill, made by Simon’s late father. It took pride of place in the middle of the new garden. The four raised flower beds were planted up. They’d erected a trellis arch between the two beds at the back and planted clematis in pots at either side. There had been just one mishap: some of the brickwork on one of the flower beds had bowed a bit due to being filled with soil before the concrete was properly dry, but they’d tapped it back into place and supported it with timber and bricks. They’d painted Jean’s old wooden table and chairs, and hoped they’d dry in time to drag them into position.
Simon’s mobile rang.
‘We’re coming, ready or not,’ said Ruth.
‘Strange how the car started okay the second time,’ said Jean as she opened the front gate.
‘It does that sometimes, it’s a bit temperamental,’ said Ruth, glancing around for anything out of the ordinary. All she could spot was the concrete at the side of the house looking suspiciously damp, but Mum hadn’t noticed. ‘I’ll come in a minute if you don’t mind, Mum. I need the loo.’
Jean started a little as she walked into the sitting room. The net curtains on the french windows obscured a clear view, but there were definitely people in the garden.
‘Leave this to me,’ said Ruth, taking the key from the kitchen drawer and marching purposefully across the room.
‘Surprise!’ called the working party.
Jean was of course stunned into silence, her hands clapped over her mouth as her eyes travelled over her new garden. Tears trickled down her cheeks.
‘Oh, it’s lovely!’ she sighed.
‘Operation Chameleon complete!’ murmured Simon as he flopped onto one of Jean’s wooden chairs. Everyone laughed when he discovered the paint wasn’t quite dry, and he had a blue bottom and one blue hand.
‘Oh, Ruth!’ chuckled Jean. ‘Now I understand. I didn’t really enjoy my day out, but of course I forgive you. I couldn’t want anything better for my birthday present!’
by Karenne Griffin
Last Modified on: 05-11-2015