The kind you see in old houses. The ones where the Lord of the Manor builds a stone garden for his wife and fills it with roses. He carves her a bench to sit on, and tells the gardeners to clear off at 10 in the morning so his lovely wife can sit in the silence, the breeze gently ruffling her skirts, and contemplate.
She was the rose garden.
The gift that gives.
A smile when things go wrong. Gentle hands to wipe away tears, caress a face, run over smooth silky hair.
He watched from afar for years.
He watched her roses bloom, but never for him.
She danced through life sunlight glinting on golden locks. Larger than life, large as life, real. But never tangible.
When she laughed, with him, at him, next to him, but never for him, his heart would ache.
She gave him her friendship, held it out on a gilded plate. A bouquet of roses, their edges curly, their centres blushing, their scent tantalising.
She put her hand out, and when he took it, she let go.
He was there, you see, for all her joys and sadnesses, but never a part of them.
And he asked her. He asked her once, and she…
She was the rose garden.
He only wanted one rose, but she was a rose garden.
Lights reflect messily on the rippling surface of the river, and when she walks across the bridge under the lampposts and the falling leaves of a dark, dark November night… why, the possibilities are endless.
She thinks things she would never dare contemplate in broad daylight.
Things she has tucked away in the furthest corners of her mind.
The streets, so familiar by daylight, have turned into magical avenues. Lined with tall trees, branches half bare, half covered with yellow and brown leaves. Leaves adoring each avenue, piling under the lampposts, which light up the night softly. Delicately.
Allowing room for thoughts to steal into her mind where they have no business to be.
Mellowing her firm heart.
There he was, waiting for her, just as Mary said he would be. He stood in the doorway of the post office, his cap pulled low over his eyes, arms folded to keep out the cold. Their eyes met and his lit up. Hers scanned the ground by his feet.
‘I told Mary I would walk you as far as the dorm block,’ he began, when she stopped in front of him.
‘That would be… thank you..’ she said, her voice low and demure.
‘I daren’t go any further than that,’ he went on and a wry smile took hold of his features.
‘Aunt Martha would hang you,’ Laura smiled then.
That was not so hard.
Things were normal.
It was just the night, and these strange strange streets.
Grim November evenings, still gorgeously autumnal, the river and its lights, the students walking back from the ball, carefree laughter.
Rendered skewed by the romantic nature of the night.
‘She would hang me, and roast my legs and serve them up with dinner,’
‘Thank you, Tom. For taking the time. You needn’t have bothered yourself.’
‘Don’t I always walk you home?’
Yes but this time it feels different.
‘Yes, and thank you,’
She did not see the bewildered glance he threw in her direction, nor the way his eyes lingered on her face as she looked up through the half bare branches at the beautiful old moon, which was witness to…
They sat next to the window and facing each other. An old rickety table separating them, their heads down, eyes scanning their books, lips pursed in an attempt not to erupt in uncontrolled mirth. The woman next to Laura had her head on Laura’s shoulder, and her mouth was wide open.
Clouds tinged with red and yellow sped past, and the train clattered relentlessly over jumbled piles of back garden. Clothes pinned with wooden pegs hanging like ghosts before their window for a split second before being whisked away by relativity. Time twisted and changed and distorted things. A man walking forward appeared to be rewinding himself backwards as they shot by. Like a pair of bullets from a pistol.
Each time the train lurched to the right or left, the woman sleeping soundly on Laura’s shoulder gave a little shuddering snore.
Laura glanced out of the window, then at Mary. Her friend’s dark eyes still scanned her book, not seeing any words, and Laura goaded her with a glare she knew Mary could see. When she finally looked up, both girls erupted, their books falling from their hands. The sleeping woman jerked into consciousness, and rubbed her cheek crossly. She drew her shawl over her shoulder and sniffed. Other passengers looked curiously at the two girls. One woman across the aisle tutted loudly. Another man began to smile, as though he were in on the joke.
The train drew to a stop. Both girls got up, legs shaking, and still giggling they stepped onto the platform.
‘Aunt Martha said she would be here,’ Laura said, taking her friend’s hand and tucking it neatly in the crease of her arm, clearing her throat and blinking the tears from her eyes.
‘She said nothing of the sort to me,’ Mary retorted, but allowed Laura to lead her off the platform and into the wide station. They both glanced about, suddenly looking quite small under the colossal ceilings.
‘She wrote last week. She said she would be here.’ Laura was firm. She tapped her foot.
‘Oh Laura. That woman. She was drooling on you!’
Laura began to laugh again. ‘Don’t!’ she pleaded, ‘I don’t want to laugh like this in front of Aunt Martha. She will think me most improper.’
‘You are improper! The way you carried on in that train. Very unladylike.’
‘Anyway,’ a toss of her curls, ‘Laughter is befitting a young woman. It’s vitality. I hope I shall always laugh, snooty aunts or not.’
‘Speaking of snooty aunts…’ Mary cautioned with a whisper, and then began to wave heartily at a little lady who was tottering towards them at a pace which defied her height and stature. Behind her, a tall figure hurried to catch up with this small, round fast-moving woman.
‘Snooty aunts and your brother!’ Laura whispered back, and she waved also, a bright smile suddenly transforming her features.
‘What are you smiling about?!’ snapped Aunt Martha, who, upon reaching the two girls deemed it appropriate to straighten Laura’s bonnet and tighten Mary’s collar ribbons. She inspected them both shrewdly, sharp brown eyes passing up and down their bodies with such vigour that it took all of Laura’s willpower not to burst into frightful giggles again.
Mary nudged her roughly, and beamed at her brother, who stood behind Aunt Martha, and cautioned the girls with wide eyes and wriggling eyebrows – this did not help Laura’s state, and she was mightily relieved when her aunt took hold of Mary’s arm and instructed Tom, aspiring doctor, to escort Miss Smith outside, and to follow sharp on her heels lest someone think something they oughtn’t to.
No! NO! For goodness’ sake. Don’t think like that!
Is it so terrible?
YES. Tom. Ugh. Don’t ruin it.
Alright. ALRIGHT.Carry on, your Highness.
Two people dancing, but they’re slow. A little rickety. There are stars above them. Hundreds and thousands of stars, and they are almost floating. Her hair is silver, ethereal…
Ahh. Like Persephone’s hair?
Exactly like that! You know, don’t you!
I like to think I do.
You do! Oh, you do. So she has her ethereal floating hair, and his is white as snow, brushed back tightly, just as he used to brush it in his days of youth. In fact I do not think he has ever stopped or brushing it like that or changed the way he got ready everyday.
You’re saying, they are dancing just like they did when they were twenty?
Ye-ee-eess. That is what I am saying. They are dancing in a window, you see, and the window is tall, with many pretty panes, and it curves at the top. Slopes up and then down. A beautiful rainbow of a curve. And each square pane is a picture of them dancing. In and out. Holding hands. Separating. Coming back together. And each pane is a different painting. There is a meadow full of poppies. An old house, dilapidated. He is young in that one. Muscular. She is so beautiful, and she holds him tightly. And in the next pane the house is freshly painted, and they are dancing close, but not holding each other, because their arms are full.
Full of what?
Little cherubs of children, of course.
Is this a moving picture?
It’s alive, Tom. Brimming with life. It moves and breathes, and there is a climbing rose growing about its edges.
Climbing rose. I like that.
It’s climbing around the edge of the window, and along all the frames which surround all the panes containing the tiny figures of my dancing couple. They are young and old. Near and far. Dear and departed.
Are there any where they are cross with each other?
Yes, a few. There is one where she dances away from him, her nose turned up, eyes closed, and he knits his brows together so that they make a nice long dark scarf. Oh, he is mighty cross.
Do they ever stop dancing? When they’re cross, I mean?
And this rose that surrounds them, is it thorny?
Roses, Tom. ROSES. And why do you ask such a question? I don’t know if it’s thorny. I don’t think of the thorns. I think only of the blooms.
What do you think?
I like to think of this painting. Drawing. Picture. Image. I think of it often.
It’s a little magical, I suppose.
Not very adventurous. But I never was, you see. You’re the one who wants to go gadding about the world, doctoring people back to health. I am quite content to stay here in a nice house overlooking the hills, rolling along with the seasons.
Pricking your fingers on the thorny rose bushes…
You’re laughing at me!
I am not!
You are! How cruel! I shan’t talk to you anymore.
Come now, Laura…
YOU may prick your fingers on the thorns. I never do.
You certainly do not.
You ought to paint your picture, thorns and all.
I shall, I think. And I shall ignore your comment about thorns.
The most darling month of the year, she would like to argue.
Make a case.
Type it up.
Send it to court.
Not court. That would be too drastic.
Somebody must declare it for all to know. It would be a travesty if nobody were to be so absolutely certain of the superiority of October over all the other months.
In October, her roses still bloomed. Less enthusiastically, but they opened their soft delicate petals to the grim clouds above and strove towards life. Something she always took inspiration from.
Briskly tying her boots, brightly buttoning her coat, tucking the old brown umbrella that belonged to a certain someone that she would not name under her padded arm.
Every morning at ten o’clock she exited from the kitchen door to inspect her beauties. She had twenty varieties which she had cultivated lovingly over the last six years. She had climbing roses winding their way intricately around metal trellises and wooden archways. Shrub roses adorning every inch along the pathway which curved its way around the little rose garden, and in the middle an orchard of tree roses. Yellow, white, pink and lush peach. The scent in the summer was overpowering, wafting towards the kitchen on cool gusts of wind. In the winter it was a mess of thorns, with some roses struggling their way through the dreary storms of the season.
In October, however, there was still beauty.
The trees surrounding the rose garden were alight with colour. Fiery, furious, yet lovely and soft at the same time. Tame flames. And the rose bushes still nodded with blooms, even as the season’s change wrestled around them. In the morning they were bejewelled with droplets of glittering dew.
She would cup an ungloved hand under a deliciously fat rose, and bend her nose to it, closing her eyes.
The earth rumbles with the sound of the distant train. The sky, the atmosphere, the air she breathes crackles with it.
It’s both a humdrum event, but also a sound that signals to her very core. After all evidence of the distant train vanishes, it is still her and the sky and the earth in the pitch black night. The stars are numerous. So numerous they make her heart ache for some ancient sadness that she cannot explain.
Maybe a current sadness too.
She is waiting. And picking roses, snipping them in the silvery light of the moon. She can’t see the thorns on their stems, but her slender fingers know where to press, to hold, to pull gently into her basket without pricking her fingertips or getting scratched. Her feet are bare, the cold grass and earth are soft, soggy under her feet. The night breeze, the one they caution is so terrible for health, brushes its calm hands through the locks of her hair that have escaped their braid.
It took about an hour. She stands in the light of the full moon. Her basket piled with rose stems, her feet icy, the stars speaking a language only she seems to understand.
An hour before she hears the clattering sound of a horse and carriage pulling up the drive of the Manor.
Murmurs, the sound of cases being put on the gravelly path. A door opening. A light behind her as the kitchen is warmed up for the person she knew would arrive at this time. She knew when she heard the night train. Three years of waiting; she knew.
And yet she sets her basket down in the inner porch, walks slowly to the backdoor, and melts into the darkness of the hallway within. The warmth immediately seizes her feet, encasing them in a comfort which awakens her as she walks silently in the dark, past the kitchen door which is slightly ajar, and where she can hear him telling Mr Baker about the delay, and which patients he had to see tomorrow. Up the stairs, through the numerous halls. Her bare feet making no sound on the carpets.
And into her own room at last.
She puts her face to the window, the stars gleaming at her, the moon so bright she almost has to avert her gaze. Her rose garden below, thorny yet beautiful, her roses are their own little moons, nodding in the breeze at the brilliance above.
And then her heart lurches as she sees a figure exit from the kitchen door, a floor below and adjacent to her bedroom window. It’s him.
She sees him turn towards the rose garden, and his face looks up… she moves sideways.. but he is looking only at the moon.
She watches him stand there for a long time. Until eventually he turns back to the kitchen and closes the door behind him.
He asked her, you see. Three years ago before he left.
He stands tall on his hind legs like a two-legged creature, his head is turned upwards and to the right. By his side is a little thing. Big ears, elephant-like, but smaller than a mouse. They are walking into the sunset.
I like to think there is an ocean before them, frothing and foaming and if they were to take one step further they would float down into its murky depths. Poor quality imagery, no details, fine lines taken away stroke by stroke, muddy waters brushed over the image until it is as lucid as the ocean in which they should fall.
Sadness is a heavy, dull emotion. You can’t always contain it. It seeps like octopus ink, making marks on everything I touch. Large questioning eyes. Tears when one should be laughing.
Accusation everywhere, deep insecurity, and overwhelmed burnout.
See I don’t know what that bear and elephant-mouse are looking at. I see them everyday in the shower, when I brush my teeth, when I cream my face. Same motions, autopilot, but I always find my eyes drifting to meet that bear, tall, six foot, seven, eight, even. I like to think he is looking off at the answer. And that he might know what it is.
There are several of him, you see. Identical bears, their backs to me, better places, better sights, better feelings.
Each bear is a muddied, marbled grey abstract on a large rectangular wall-tile in my bathroom.
As the day wanes, and the sky gives way to the ever-lurking darkness, the sounds of life retire.
But not quite so.
Under a darkening sky, the stars begin to wink. Off and on, in and out, and the purple tendrils of space creep in between them.
And the earth begins to hum, a strange hum that nobody notices by day.
In the silence of the night, they say.
But the night is never silent.
A small face, from the third floor window, upturned towards the sky. It stretches beyond, forever. Stars upon stars, and when you look away, more stars appear, only to be wiped out when you focus on them. And the more you look, the more she looked, layers of stars appeared, until the sky was alight with them, hundreds of thousands, how had she never seen that many before.
And through the years, when life takes her up in its arms, harassing and tugging and screeching like an unstoppable machine, the night still hums with the sound of the earth. Not heard as often, when sleep embraces her warmly, when she snatches at what little she can, she forgets that the earth hums. Hums with the sound of millions, droning through the dark. And the wide silence of space, above.
The night has sounds, you see. Far away freight trains, spilling their hoarse roars into the atmosphere. A dog barking, yowling over the distance, like a banshee over the hills, distorted by the long shadows of trees and the loud silence of night. A car driving by, the engine obscenely loud. And lights in houses, everybody tucked away, except those who dare venture out in the echoing dead of it all. Breathing, as a whole. Breathing, as one.
Dead, but alive.
Alive, but not living.
And the stars, the same, but different. Through older, wiser eyes. Twinkling that same old story, through thousands of years.
And the sound of the earth humming its hum, uninterrupted by machine life.
The sound of the earth, humming, louder and louder, as the inky blackness of the sky spreads its fingers down to earth.
And the stars wink brighter, one by one.
This, this is the night.
And she is at peace, in the thundering hoarseness of earth, the trains in the distance, the snippets of humanity, the wind rustling through blades of grass, the insects, teeming at her feet. She is at peace, as the world sleeps around her, and the earth keeps on humming.