the pot of geraniums; or, work with what you’ve got

November 28, 2008

One morning a cross old woman was preparing a thin broth for her crotchety old husband to eat when he came back from the fields, when a peddlar came to the door of her hovel. With many personal remarks about the state of the place, he persuaded her to buy a small geranium in a pot, to brighten the place up a bit. She gave him one of the few pennies she had hidden for a rainy day, and the peddlar left with a wink. “You’ll thank me,” he said mysteriously as he shut the gate behind him. “Thank him indeed,” muttered the old woman, as the peddlar strolled away laughing down the lane.

The old woman put the geranium on the table, stood back and admired its pink, red and greenness, its freshness. “The old man had better not ask me how I paid for this,” thought she, returning to her work. “He’s always said I was a slovenly housewife and I am forced to admit that he is right, if even this peddlar can see it. And I’ve always found it hard to buckle down to work in this place.”

But she wasn’t happy. “Something isn’t right,” thought she. With the jaunty geranium sitting on it, the table looked old and dirty. “That table isn’t good enough to have such a fine geranium on it,” she thought. She rolled up her sleeves and sanded it till it was white, scrubbed it till it shone golden, and stood back to have a look.

Rubbing her sore arms, she thought, “That is much better! Now I’ll be able to work in here. But something isn’t right.” The table indeed looked clean and crisp with its jaunty geranium, but the floor it stood on was dusty, dark and full of rubbish. “The floor isn’t good enough to have such a shining table and a jaunty geranium on it,” she thought. So she rolled her sleeves up again and swept the rubbish out the door, and scrubbed the floor until it gleamed. Standing there in the cottage, with its gleaming floor and its shining table and its jaunty geranium, and the steam from the thin broth rising in the corner, she was well satisfied.

“That is much better!” she thought. “But something isn’t right.” She looked at the three windows, two in front and one at the back. They were grey with grime, and the curtains hung limp and colourless. The place looked far too dark to have such a gleaming floor, a shining table and a jaunty geranium, and it was frankly quite hard to see print. So she rolled up her sleeves again, and washed the windows will they sparkled like diamonds, and washed the old curtains and hung them in the sun to dry. After that she blacked the stove, carefully laying newspapers out so as not to wreck her lovely clean floor (she really was a slattern: everyone knows you work from top to bottom and do the floor last).

The broth bubbled merrily in its happy pot and she was well satisfied. “Now I will be able to work in here!” But with all the light streaming into the cottage, she suddenly saw the grime on the walls. “Oh!” she cried, and set to work, whitewashing the walls till they were whiter than the first snow of winter. At last she stood up.

Rubbing her aching back, she looked around admiringly at her sunny hovel, her snowy walls, her sparkling windows, her gleaming floor, her shining table, the jaunty geranium that had started it all, and her crotchety old husband’s merrily bubbling broth.

“Oh! The old man had better be pleased!” she said to herself, and went outside to put all the rubbish onto the tip out back, behind the woodshed. On the way back from the woodshed her heart fell. “Something isn’t right,” she thought as she looked at the dilapidated hovel, with its broken shutters and its grimy old whitewash. “This doesn’t look like a hovel with all that shining and gleaming and sparkling going on inside it.” She thought, “what will the neighbours think.”

Well, suffice to say that by the time sundown came the shutters hung neatly on all their hinges, and the hovel had for all the world the appearance of a prosperous little cottage. Even the trees began to look dingy beside it; but that is another story. As the sky began to pinken along the horizon she took her bright, clean curtains off the line, ironed them with starch, hung them up in the sparkling windows, and waited for her husband to return and see what she had done. She poured merrily bubbling broth into two dishes and waited. Dusk settled around the little cottage, and then nightfall, and still she waited. The stars twinkled in the sky, right into the little cottage, through the sparkling windows, and the moon shone pale on the little old woman as she waited for her old husband to return.

All night the old woman waited for her old husband, and you may imagine she never had a wink of sleep. At dawn, feeling very cross indeed, and more than a bit worried, for how would she manage without the old codger, she dragged herself out to the woodshed to get a log to light the fire and reheat the broth for her breakfast, before thinking what to do next.

And lo! What do you think she saw when she opened the door of the woodshed? There, asleep among the logs, was her husband. She shook him awake and he said, “Where am I? How did I get here? We worked late in the fields, and when I came home everything was dark, and I could see a beautiful shining cottage, but our familiar little hovel was nowhere to be seen. I thought the goblins had taken you, old woman. Imagine my relief when I found our old woodshed! So here I slept all night as best I could, terrified lest the little folk would come and take me before morning, and hoping that by the light of day I might see where I had wandered to.” And with that the old fool collapsed sobbing into his wife’s arms. From far off she thought she could hear a faint laughter, similar to that of the peddlar who had sold her the geranium. She resolved at that moment never to let anything come between her and her work again.

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