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Coming of Age Fiction

Author's Note: To the best of my knowledge, the violet moss rose does not exist, but the Novalis novel “Die Blaue Blume” or “The Blue Flower” most certainly does!



Jodie Marlowe grew up hating something that she wasn’t even sure existed, and that would most certainly have done her no harm. She knew that. But at times she hated the violet moss rose with a veritable passion, and thought she would have had no pangs or compunction about tearing one to pieces or trampling it underfoot.

It was true the hatred came in waves and variants, and at times it abated, and at times she was ashamed of it. But she deeply resented the fact that she seemed to play second fiddle to something that might not even exist.

When she became old enough to be aware of such things, she supposed she was living a life many children would have envied. She was the only child of two eminent naturalists, Dr Hector Marlowe, and Dr Rosalind Marlowe. Unlike some scientists, especially those with an obsession, they were well off, or at least money wasn’t an issue and a struggle. They had both published books, and done lecture tours, and Dr Rosalind had inherited Sandilands Hall from her grandfather. It wasn’t what you would exactly call a mansion, but it wasn’t one of those rickety and draughty country houses with fewer amenities than the most meanly equipped council flat. It was a fine brick building, in a little woodland, close to the fenlands, but not prone to flooding. The Drs Marlowe had little interest in gardening, which some may have found surprising, but employed a gardener to keep the neat beds and clipped conifers in order.

Jodie (her full name was Josephine, as a nod to the generous grandfather who had been called Joseph) was neither exactly a wanted nor exactly an unwanted child. Her parents had been vaguely troubled, rather than devastated, when it seemed that they would remain childless. They went through the motions of consulting a doctor, because that was what scientific people did, but when she could find no reason to explain it, did not consult more expensive doctors or seek out groundbreaking treatments. But when they were both in their late thirties, Dr Rosalind began to feel sick in the mornings, and missed her periods.

Of course she was not privy to any of the relevant conversations, but Jodie supposed they would have been pleased, well, at least she hoped so, but not elated.

She was not neglected. She lived in a large, comfortable house, had all the books she wished for as soon as she could read, which was early, and her parents treated her with affection and a degree of interest. Unlike some children growing up in isolated, or fairly isolated venues, she was not home schooled or sent to boarding school. The truth was that in some ways Sandilands Hall wasn’t in quite such isolation as it first appeared, and was within a few minutes’ walk of a main road with fairly regular buses to the nearest town. So her schooldays were fairly normal. Though occasionally piqued by the fact she was quite grateful to discover that her parents’ calling and sliver of fame did not lead anyone to expect her to excel at science. They were primary, in fact almost exclusively, known as botanists. Now it was fine to be interested in flora as part of being a wildlife or ecology expert in general, but as she once overheard her physics teacher, Mr Allison, saying, “There’s something so twentieth century, if not positively Victorian, about being just a botanist.” She wished she felt more of an urge to leap to her parents’ defence. Not that she necessarily regarded being called positively Victorian as a slight. She was at the stage when, like many adolescent precocious readers, she devoured the Brontes and Dickens and George Eliot.

But she realised pretty early on that she was of secondary importance to the violet moss rose. That was her parents’ shared obsession. Not for them the famed Bald Headed Crow sought by a young David Attenborough in exotic parts, nor anything that dwelt in a deep cave or up a high mountain. There were old photos that showed the violet moss rose blooming on the fens, although they were black and white, and it was still within living memory, with octa- and nonagenarians remembering seeing it in colour, in real life, a briar rose, not one of those plump and showy ones, growing across the flatlands of the fens, a rose the colour of a violet.

It had not officially been declared extinct. Perhaps, thought Jodie, when she was a teenager, because it simply wasn’t interesting enough for people to bother. It was just a moderately pretty flower that had apparently once flourished in Eastern England. There were what seemed to be reliable sightings from the 1980s, but unfortunately no photographic evidence. There were even tales of it being like some mirage, appearing and disappearing, but of course the Drs Marlowe had no truck with such tales. Yet there was still a certain romanticism tinging their scientific research.

And just what will it achieve if they do find the wretched thing, thought Jodie. It’s hardly going to win them a Nobel prize, is it? Nor be a cure for cancer, nor reverse global warming. It might warrant a few pages in an obscure journal, perhaps even an and finally item on a TV news show, but that would be that.

Still, at least it would mean they stopped looking for it! But in her heart of hearts, Jodie knew it really wasn’t that simple. If anything it would obsess them even more.

The Drs Marlowe intermittently employed people, though the only permanent fixture was the gardener. Jodie always addressed him respectably as Mr, and was sorry when Mr Edwards retired and was replaced by Mr Alladyce. Though she was living in her grandfather’s house, or what had once been her grandfather’s house, she had never known either grandfather, and she supposed that Mr Edwards partially filled that role. Though it was not part of his duties, he was the one who set up a swing for her on the lawn. Otherwise, they came and went, and of course they weren’t called servants, not now, and not even staff, just personnel or assistants. Various local(ish) women popped in a couple of times a week to do what Dr Rosalind called the “heavy cleaning”. Research assistants came and went, though neither of the Drs Marlowe ever had a secretary, being quick and accurate at the keyboard themselves.

Jodie had never actually been banned from her parents’ studies and laboratories, but wasn’t encouraged to go in either. It was as if they had already realised she didn’t share their enthusiasm. Still, she did have a look, in that half-surreptitious way of children who would almost prefer something to be totally taboo, as breaking a taboo was decidedly appealing. Everything was a disappointment, of course. They were neither laboratories full of equipment that was fascinating and vaguely dangerous, nor sweet with heavy floral fragrances and bright with their colours. Jodie had once bought a book from a charity shop and found some pressed flowers in it, and they gave her the same feeling as those rooms.

She was an able scholar, if no scientist, did well at school, and got into the university of her first choice. She would have denied only choosing it because of its geographical position, but couldn’t have denied that it played a role. In fact, there wasn’t a university near enough to Sandilands Hall for her to get home every night, especially as she hadn’t yet passed her driving test, but she probably wouldn’t have chosen it if there had. But she chose one near enough, that meant she could come home at weekends if she chose. She realised with something of a start that she was probably more attached to Sandilands Hall than she was to her parents, She loved her room with its clutter and its books and its view across the wide expanses of the fens. She didn’t yearn or pine for it as she sat in her neat little room in the hall of residence, but liked to be able to remind herself that she wasn’t obliged to be there all the time.

Though her love of English Victorian literature remained, she was taking a degree in modern languages. Her parents accepted this with mild interest and a mild approval that almost made disapproval seem preferable. Jodie also couldn’t help having the suspicion that if there had been a university near to home, and she had chosen to study there, they certainly wouldn’t have tried to deter her, but wouldn’t have been overjoyed either, just as a choice further afield may have made them a little regretful, but not heartbroken.

They are kind to me and amenable to my wishes, thought Jodie, as she sat in the car on the way to the campus. They would never wish me any harm, nor begrudge me anything. But that was as far as it went. To her, they were benevolent and dutiful. But the violet moss rose was what they really cared about. She sincerely hoped that it wouldn’t arise for a very long time, and was also determined to be financially independent, but she wouldn’t be at all surprised if they left their money to further research into the violet moss rose. They had probably already appointed one of their research assistants as the anointed acolyte. She was glad her parents weren’t involved in her physical transportation to University. One of the nearest things they had to a neighbour, a farmer called Andrew Heriot, was going to an agricultural suppliers on the outskirts to pick up an order, and said it would be no trouble at all to give Jodie and her luggage a lift. She supposed that when she came home at weekends, not encumbered by so much luggage, she would take the bus. Andrew was a taciturn man, but a good hearted one, and without saying it in so many words (he was the kind of old fashioned man who didn’t believe in talking of people in their absence or impinging on others’ family life, implied that he knew that Jodie had had a strange sort of childhood.

“You should be fine at that university,” he said, helping her carry up her luggage to her room in hall, “My younger brother went there, though he graduated three years ago, and he didn’t have a bad thing to say about the place.”

“Oh, I didn’t know that!” It was a simple statement of fact, and with no disrespect to Andrew’s brother, she certainly hadn’t been deprived by not knowing, and yet somehow it was symptomatic of the abnormality of her family life. Her parents just hadn’t bothered to enquire about such things, not even of the nearest thing they had to neighbours and people they liked. It wasn’t exactly selfishness, and it wasn’t exactly rudeness, but it was something more onerous, in its way, than either.

“Anyway, good luck, love,” said Andrew, giving her a quick little hug. “And remember that Jan and I are there to give you a lift any time you like.” She was pretty sure she wouldn’t impose on good nature unless she had to, and yet there was something about his beloved but slightly battered 4 by 4 that had felt comfortable and somehow instantly familiar, even though it was the first time she’d been in it.

Jodie was quite relieved that it wasn’t the kind of university that made a big deal of Freshers’ Week. The new students arrived at exactly the same time as the old ones, though they had a Thursday and Friday and long weekend before their actual lectures and seminars started. There were some social events, but pretty low key and not compulsory, and various societies put out fliers and invited folk to have a chat, but that was pretty much as far as it went.

In common with many first year modern language students, Jodie found herself in the position of already having studied a few of her set texts f or her A-levels – she was already familiar with Camus’ La Peste and Mann’s Der Tod in Venedig and quite a few of the others, though she supposed she would be studying them in more depth. Though it wasn’t actually compulsory (like the social events, but like them, it was made plain it was better to get involved!) especially students like Jodie, who were already familiar with some of the texts, were advised to “take advantage” of other courses available to them. She decided to sign up for a course in Spanish, a language she could understand a little through French and Latin, but couldn’t really speak herself, and for an added German course on the Romantics, who didn’t become part of the curriculum until the second year. She decided to give herself the time she still had before she plunged into the waters of medieval French.

But within a few days she was on the point of replacing her German romantics course with the varied delights of the Chanson de Roland’s high heroism and Rabelais’ earthier world. Because she discovered that one of the German Romanticism texts was called Die Blaue Blume by a writer who went by the name of Novalis, and was about a man obsessed with his quest for a flower. For a bloody flower! Okay, it was blue and not violet, and it was supposed to be entirely symbolic of romantic longing rather than botany, but she’d had enough of that.

She’d exchanged a few desultory phone calls with her parents, but was surprised to get one on Thursday evening, when she’d planned to go home for the weekend the next day anyway. Her parents kept passing the phone one to the other, in a state of what appeared to be bliss. “We’ve found it!” Dr Rosalind exclaimed. “Just growing on a river bank, over by Willington Fen, as good as hidden in plain sight!”

“That is good news,” said Jodie, trying not to sound sarcastic, trying to convince herself that she was delighted, and telling herself no, she couldn’t cancel her plans to go home for the weekend – could she?

“And you’ll never guess what we’re going to call it!” Dr Hector said, sounding more breathless and exhilarated than he ever had in its life.

Suddenly Jodie exclaimed, the words out before she could stop them, “Why not call it Novalis? Though I don’t suppose you understand the reference!”

“Actually, we do,” said Dr Rosalind. They often spoke in the collective. “Remember we both had a spell at Heidelberg. “Most strange book, compelling in its way. But no, it won’t be called that.”

“It will have that proper Latin name we decided on ages ago, following all the rules of toponymy,” said Dr Hector. “But you know we both believe in good, honest names that people can understand, too.”

“It has one of those,” Jodie pointed out, “The violet moss rose.”

“No, love,” said Dr Rosalind. “That was just a description. Handy, but a tad prosaic. We only ever had one name in mind for it. It will have the familiar name of Beloved Josephine.”

Why was it, thought Jodie, that you never had a handkerchief or a tissue when you needed one.

April 19, 2021 07:39

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4 comments

Rachel Loughran
10:59 Apr 19, 2021

What a lovely ending! This was a great piece - I felt really attached to all of them throughout, and I love the pace and detail you give about this unusual life. I could read a much longer piece about this family!

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Deborah Mercer
05:57 Apr 20, 2021

You are far too kind - though I hope that in the not too distant future you won't be reflecting on the advice to "beware of what you wish for" :-)

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Rose Of Venus
12:31 Apr 26, 2021

I love the ending! And the pacing of this story. Moss roses are actually native to Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay. They vary in colors from violet, pink, white, salmon, orange, red, or yellow, with bright green leaves and a reddish-colored stem. So, yes, there actually are violet moss roses. I had to look it up, so here's my source: https://www.gardenia.net/plant/portulaca-grandiflora-moss-rose

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Deborah Mercer
17:21 Apr 28, 2021

Oh, that's wonderful - I am delighted to discover my violet moss rose does exist, although not in Lincolnshire - many, many thanks!

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