I backpacked for exactly one year, travelling the world, seeing all the sights I’d dreamed about, sending Maddie postcards from every location, especially the gardens.
She loved flowers, Maddie, the girl next door, but it wasn’t until I strolled through Dutch tulip fields that I realised I no longer felt neighbourly toward her; no, I wanted to go home and ask her to spend the rest of her life with me.
“How’s Maddie?” I asked Mum, driving home from the airport.
Mum fell silent before answering. Fear gripped me, my heart thumped. Had Maddie found someone else while I gallivanted around the world?
Mum continued. “After you left, Maddie was attacked on her way home from work. Bruises healed, and they got her handbag back, empty, but she couldn’t leave the house. The doctor diagnosed post-traumatic agoraphobia.”
Maddie hadn’t said anything in her emails. She’d filled me in on local news and I hadn’t suspected.
I unpacked, then knocked on Maddie’s door. She opened it tentatively before inviting me in. We talked for hours but she didn’t mention the attack or her condition.
I gently kissed her forehead as I left, an idea forming.
The following morning I began the first part of my plan.
In the early afternoon I knocked on Maddie’s door.
“Just one step, Maddie, to the Gardens of Versailles.” She looked terrified, peeping outside to see the mini-garden I’d re-created in a terracotta pot.
“I can’t,” she said.
I returned the next day and the next until at the end of the week, Maddie held my hand and took that step to inspect the tiny garden.
I made a replica of Kirstenbosch, followed by Kew Gardens; each week another, a few steps further on until Monet’s Garden outside Mum’s front door.
Maddie’s hand never left mine as she challenged herself and eventually the trembling abated.
I proposed beside Monet’s garden, dropping to one knee.
Maddie said yes but it will take time. Each day another step until one day Maddie will walk down St Joseph’s aisle toward me, and an altar festooned with flowers.