Discover more from Dear Reader, I'm lost
51. The gift that kept on giving
Until it didn't.
A while after I’d boomeranged back into my parents’ home due to illness, followed by a lengthy stay in hospital, I found myself aged 26 and out of the loop in terms of relationships with my own friends.
So my first Christmas back in the outside world I was immensely touched with the gift of a tiny pink cyclamen from Julia, a friend of Mum’s.
It was not one of those big-bloomed hybrids which you can buy as a houseplant: this was a small-featured, delicate plant which had been sold in a tray with eleven other specimens, each in a little black pot, intended to naturalise in an informal garden setting. Julia had spread the gifts around her friends in Mum’s spinning group, and there had been one for me.
My new friend naturalised on my windowsill, not in the garden. No, on a succession of windowsills, because once my boomerang years were finally accomplished several years later, I again moved out of home and into my own four walls.
From 2001 until 2022 I can scarcely remember a week in which this plucky plant hadn’t had a flower in bloom: it just kept going, spreading positive pink-petalled power from its vantage point between me and the world outside my window.
A few years into its life it began to struggle, and in a panic I consulted a greener-fingered member of the family. ‘The tuber has reached the limits of its tiny pot, look!’ I was told. ‘It needs more room.’
Duly repotted into larger quarters my fine-stemmed friend again began to flourish. Every year I gifted it some summer respite outside the kitchen door amongst the higgledy-piggledy pots of rampant mint and tarragon.
That first time outside, its new-season salad bar of juicy leaves was too tempting for the rowdy rabble of spring-fledged starlings, and it was a day or three before I even noticed. In a belated effort to protect Julia’s cyclamen from the hungry bullies I wedged the little pot behind two others. The shredded leaves grew back: my friend was going to be fine.
In the June heatwave last year, the first of two that exceptional British summer, we found we needed to replace the kitchen door. On the day of the job we moved some pots down the garden to clear some space for the contractors to work in, and that evening were admiring the view across the parched lawn through a glazed door that actually closed properly.
The second heatwave came along in July, scorching the grass further and putting paid to any dreams we had of harvesting any runner beans. This weather was something else! Every now and again I’d give the pots that we’d put back outside the new door a drink, careful always to do it when the sun was off the plants.
Towards the end of the summer I needed a couple of handfuls of mint for a recipe. Opening the back door I was surprised not to see its pot.
‘Oh, it’s still with some of the other little pots halfway down the garden. We can move them back now.’
Reader, I was horrified. I’d taken my eye off the ball.
Now, mint is very difficult to kill: the prolonged summer drought hadn’t beaten this doughtiest of herbs. But behind the mint’s temporary billet we found a little black plastic pot containing the dried-out tuber of Julia’s cyclamen, shootless and rootless and almost indistinguishable from the dark compost it was sitting on. Next to it was a bigger pot which had contained a bigger, hybrid cyclamen I’d been given the previous autumn: its huge white flowers had been lovely, but were a flash in the pan. The thing had flowered once, not like its elder but smaller pink cousin. And now its disc-like tuber looked as hopeless as Julia’s.
We moved the pots back to where they belonged, outside the kitchen door.
I rang my horticultural helplinefor more advice. ‘Don’t worry, darling – cyclamen are dormant in the summer. They might rally later, you’ll see.’
Cyclamen are extraordinary. Outside, looking dead to the world for part of the year, come autumn these brave little tubers send up their new shoots, with flower stems appearing before even a single leaf.
Mindful of their snoozy lifestyle, and taking good care to keep both pots watered, I examined the tubers daily for any signs of life.
There: a shoot! And another!
On the white one. The blowsy hybrid showed its first signs of new life right at the end of the year.
Julia’s cyclamen didn’t. And won’t. Because by now just a dried-out husk, Julia’s cyclamen had already given all it had.
Julia’s empty pot remains outside the back door, with tiny self-seeded landcress shoots slowly taking over the compost. If its neighbour the three-leaved hybrid does keep going, I don’t know whether to welcome it inside or to plant it out into a little hidden corner of the garden where I won’t be reminded of my carelessness on a daily basis.
My friend the pink cyclamen had been so special. Julia’s gift at such a difficult time all those years ago reminded me that I was human, valued, and going to be okay.
And I was okay.
I AM okay.
And although the plant is gone, by golly it had done its job for over twenty years.
Ever since I’d put Julia’s cyclamen outside last summer there had been an empty space on my windowsill. And when I found the plant dead, a matching empty space had arrived in my chest. But ready now to move on, I’ve been to the garden centre to buy myself a new tiny pink cyclamen.
The space on my windowsill has been filled with brand-new pink-petalled power. And this rediscovered treasure has naturalised in this spread in my art journal:
Thank you, Julia.
You’ll find all the posts in my ‘Art & Treasures’ series here.
If you’ve enjoyed reading this post, the second in a regular series exploring some of my past treasures in words and art, please let me know by clicking the heart. Thank you!
If you’ve been following my correspondence with my fellow Substacker Terry Freedman you’ll know that it’s my turn to reply to him on Wednesday! You can find his latest letter to me here, and links to our entire canon of letters here. Do have a read of our light-hearted exchanges about British life over our shoulders!
My next ‘Dear Reader, I’m lost’ post will of course be published next Saturday.
Thank you for reading! If you enjoy ‘Dear Reader, I’m lost’, please share and subscribe for free.
Answers to the name of ‘Mum’.