I noticed immediately. She was wearing a shapeless navy blue sweatshirt, pilling at the elbows and fraying round the hem. Lilac velour trousers, baggy at the knees and an inch or so too short. And her hair, the colour and texture of used wire-wool, poked randomly from beneath a wide brimmed hat. It wasn't raining and the sun was barely out, so the hat must have been a necessary part of her gardening uniform. As were her purple Crocs.
I followed her in through the gates. She shouted and waved 'good morning' to everyone she passed. I thought she might be a worker arriving for her shift, but judging by the number of employees who checked over their shoulders to see if she was actually talking to them, I realized she was not. She raised her arms to touch the low hanging branch of a tree and as she did so, I noticed something, possibly egg yolk, smeared all over her sleeve.
The nursery is quite bare so early in the season. Apart from a few trays of pansies and a pallet of hellebores, most of the plants on display were evergreen trees and deciduous shrubs. I was there to check out details of classes and other up coming events, and to kill a bit of time before meeting friends for lunch.
But instead of heading straight to the information desk, I trailed after The Lady in the Purple Crocs. I was looking for my next blog victim, it's true, but there was something about her that would have fascinated me at any time. I suspected she was about to do something out of the ordinary, and she didn't disappoint.
The Lady in the Purple Crocs made her way along the rows of plants. Every so often she chose one, reached out a hand and clasped a twig or stem. She closed her eyes and took deep breaths. She to muttered to herself and I thought she might be praying. After a couple of moments she would open her eyes, brush her hands over the foliage, and move on to the next.
I followed her and watched as she repeated the ritual another five or six more times. I held my phone, ready to look down and pretend to send a text if I thought she had noticed me watching.
She stopped next to a fountain and dipped her hands into the pool. She turned positioned them palms upwards so that the falling water bounced across her wrists. Her sleeves were wet and I wondered if she was trying to wash the egg away. But her eyes were tightly closed and she had lifted her face towards the clouds.
We rounded a corner and I turned my head. The scent of a yuletide camellia had captured my attention. A heady, sweet, aroma, impossible to resist.
I abandoned my prey and changed course.
I reached out and fingered a bloom. The defiant red petals were firm and waxy to the touch and stood out proud against the leaves of emerald green. Humming birds love them and so should the rest of us. They challenge winter and boldly announce spring. And then of course there is the smell. I leant forward and inhaled.
I was wearing large, silver hooped earrings. Not typical nursery or gardening attire it is true, but as I mentioned before, I was heading out to lunch. One of the earrings snagged around a flower. I pulled away but couldn't free myself. I tried again but seemed to make things worse.
I don't think it's just because I'm English that I'm uncomfortable when a stranger play with my hair. But there she was. The Lady in the Purple Crocs. Leaning over my shoulder and pulling the strands free. When my hair was out of the way she unclipped my earring. I stood upright and she handed it back to me.
"They smell delicious don't they?" she reached out and touched the tree.
"Yes, they do." I nodded and agreed.
We paused for a minute. She watched me thread my earring back through the tiny pierced hole. She touched my hair again. I didn't mind this time.
"Lovely" She said. "So soft." With the best will in the world I couldn't think of anything nice to say about hers. So I just smiled and thanked her for the compliment.
"I'm three years cancer free." she told me. Suddenly. Out of nowhere. "I come here every spring. Well actually I come here all year round, but especially during the spring. I love to see all the signs of life returning. I swear I can feel it in my blood."
I nodded, because I knew just what she meant. She squeezed my hand.
"Have a nice day" she said. And went back to holding and stroking and savoring life.