Emily walked through the garden. The house may be small and somewhat cluttered with an ever-present light layer of dust which it seemed beyond her control to keep at bay. The garden, now that was a different story.
Emily was just about to celebrate her 65th birthday. She was walking more slowly these days and used a stick when she was out and about. It was she told everyone, a fashion statement rather than a necessity. The crows’ feet around her eyes and the lines around her mouth gave her face character and definition. She kept her hair in the same style, tied neatly up on the crown of her head, as she wore it when they had first met. It was grey now and the auburn curls had given way to straight locks. Her hands showed the passage of time most, she felt. They were no longer plump and soft and pale with her nails neatly trimmed and occasionally painted in glowing pinks or a vivid red. Her hands were now reshaped by arthritic changes, the pale skin had long since yielded to a smattering of brown liver spots and her fingers bent into unnatural shapes. Somehow, these changes did not upset Emily. Her hands had worked hard, not perhaps in the conventional sense of paid employment but in her garden. In their garden.
When they married, the little property was their dream. It had never been a dream house but it had a very large garden and they both loved to be in the garden. Over the next forty years they had tamed it, shaped and reshaped it, experimented with a range of plants from the exotic to the mundane, they had grown fruit and vegetables with mixed success and they had spent as much time in the garden as work and the English weather would permit. Emily had kept records of the plants and noted the successes and failures of their planting endeavours in her garden book. It was aged now and the pages yellowed by time seemed not to be able to close together, filled as they were with memories and ideas and fantasies, dreams and hopes. The covers were bursting with the love they had shared in the garden. It was in the garden where they had been closest to each other. They had made love outdoors in the shelter of the hedges, they had lain stretched out on the lawn watching the clouds float by on summer afternoons; they had watched the stars on summer nights, they drank wine wrapped in blankets in the cold early spring days, they shared barbecues with friends and they built snowmen and sat with mugs of hot chocolate admiring their efforts. The mugs of coffee and tea consumed in the garden throughout the seasons were innumerable. The garden was more than a collection of plants; it was a memory of their life together.
Emily held the notebook now as she walked towards her favourite part of the garden. It was the rose garden. There were climbing roses so entwined with the trellis of the arches that the two had become inseparable over the years, there were standard roses and rose shrubs, wild roses and cultivated roses and every colour imaginable was represented from reds and whites, yellows and pinks to the almost black Rose Black Baccara. Old fashioned roses and scented roses with intoxicating aromas and winter roses braving the harshest of weather, had all found their way into the collection. There were roses with only a half dozen petals which opened fully to embrace and life and the sunshine. They had tiny roses in tubs and large roses rambling wherever they were permitted to grow.
This garden had been his gift to her as each year on their anniversary and on her birthday he gave her a new rose. It had started when he noted the roses in her simple wedding bouquet. The idea had taken off and neither of them had any idea that it would grow in the way it had made itself manifest. Of course, not every rose over the years had survived, but the majority were strong and healthy, from the Ash Wednesday climbing rose to the Rambling Rector. So many roses that were not the archetypal roses of the movies, so many expressions of his love for her and so many memories, literally planted in the garden. She moved slowly to the centre of the rose garden and settled down in her side of the love seat they had placed there on their fifth anniversary.
As she breathed the scented air, she opened her garden notebook. In it she had kept a record of which rose had been gifted on which occasion and where they had planted each one. She hardly needed it as most were emblazoned on her memory. The deep red for their first anniversary was beside her, the wild climbing rose for their twenty fifth was hanging above her, and the pale yellow when their first child had been born sat in front of her. And on the other side a collection of white roses, all different and all pure, planted not to mark anniversaries or birthdays but a death, they marked the unexpected death of their only child. Julia had died unexpectedly – a cot death they were told – there was no reason, nothing anyone could have done to prevent it, it was ‘one of those things’ and that was the platitude most commonly presented to them during that painful year. This small section was different from the rest of the garden and special to Emily, even now so many years later she could feel the body of her baby resting in her arms. She no longer wept but she did remember those short 52 days of Julia’s life.
The rose garden had become something of an obsession and something of a local interest story. News of their roses had spread and once the local television news crew had come to film them both in the garden. They had spoken a little about how it had happened, almost by accident, how they had become interested in roses and how they had acquired what had been described by the young female reporting the story as “a wealth of knowledge of these plants”. Hardly a wealth of knowledge but it was a kind thing for the young woman, who clearly had no real interest in gardens of any type, to say. She was however, more struck by the romantic connotations of a rose garden and was surprised that not all roses speak of love. She did not mention the small area of white blossoms.
“In fact, white roses mean a ‘heart unacquainted with love’ or ‘purity’ and yellow roses speak of ‘jealousy or infidelity’; modesty, passion, pride, enthusiasm, gratitude they are all represented in our little garden.” He had told her. “All life it in the rose.” It was his motto.
Those had been the heady days of their marriage. It was the time when everything seemed possible to them when they sat in their garden. It was their retreat and place of solace. So much so, that they hardly ever left home except for an occasional long weekend to visit other gardens, preferring to pass their time and their holidays in the garden, sharing their lives in this little corner of heaven they had created for themselves.
He had died last year, but even after his death, the roses had continued to come. He knew he was dying and he had arranged for a final anniversary and birthday to be acknowledged in the customary way, with a new rose. The letters he had written to accompany each were now pressed between the pages of Emily’s garden book and brought feelings of both joy and deep pain as she read them. Her eyes filled with tears as she saw the corner of one of the envelopes peeping out from the book.
Rising from her seat, she planted the last rose he would ever give to her. She took her time and finally, after patting down the soil, she watered the plant. Every evening she walked through the rose garden, feeling close to him and finding comfort in the memories. Even the odd argument did not hurt her anymore; she was at peace with him in this place of beauty. She weeded as she wandered through and kept the soiled clear of these intruders which threatened her paradise. It was a habit she had copied from her grandmother, who had never been able to walk through her own garden without stooping to pull a weed or pick off a deadhead. These actions had kept her occupied, kept her active and kept her with him.
Now, she settled down on the seat again. She rested her precious garden book on the other seat, where he would have sat as they shared their tea, shared their ideas, shared their memories and it was the only place where they ever spoke of Julia.
She began to feel drowsy. It was the heady scent in the garden and the warm summer sunshine; she knew it was also the sleeping tablets she had taken. Life without him was not tolerable. She had tried, she had endured over a year, seen out every anniversary from their first date, their first kiss, and the first time they held hands, to each birthday, Christmas, New Year, Easter and bank holiday. She had endured the pain of each of these ‘first time without him’ events and moments. Everyone had said it would be easier after the first year. But what did they know, how could they understand? They tried to be kind. They tried to be supportive. They tried to cheer her up. She had received flowers, gifts, invitations for anything from concerts to walks in the park and then there were the unsolicited food parcels, casseroles for one were kindly meant but only emphasized the truth… she was now “one”. Emily had thought about it carefully and had not rushed the decision. He had been the healthier and the fitter, the stronger and the more robust. It seemed cruel he had died before Emily. He would have been able to keep the garden flourishing if she had died first. Over the past year and a bit, the garden had started to show, only slightly but nonetheless relentlessly, early signs of decline. It was not as perfect as she wanted it to be. Julia had gone decades ago. He had gone now too and slowly the garden would ebb away from her. No amount of help would keep it as the special place it had always been, no one else would understand the meaning of the whole garden, never mind the rose garden. No, she had decided she would leave the garden, before it left her.
Taking from her pocket a tiny sock which had once been Julia’s, she sat holding it enjoying the view before her. She was content, truly content for the first time in many, many months. The decision had been made and the action taken. Now she could rest and give her remaining thoughts to her soul mate and their child. The sun shone across her precious roses, they lifted their heads towards the sun and freely gave off the scent as if a parting gift. The sound of bees and other insects buzzing surrounded her filled the air. She smiled. She breathed slowly. As time passed, the clouds floated above in a clear blue sky, pausing for a moment as if to admire the rose garden. The sun set and darkness fell around Emily’s body.