Do you know that moment when you realise that life has given you exactly what you wanted, in the easiest way possible, at the best time possible, and in the best order possible, even if you couldn’t recognise it at the time? That’s where I am right now.
Here’s how it began.
When I was a little girl, I used to dream of living in a rose garden. Not just a nursery with rows of spindly saplings, covered in dead-heads and hips, but a rosarian Eden, a semi-wilderness of dense, luscious verdure, the boughs drooping and nodding with the weight of blooms, and the garden itself drowsy with the layered scent of every kind of rose from every corner of the world. There were arches and trellises, bowers and pergolas, walkways and mazes, parterres and promenades, walled gardens and sunken gardens, courtyards and follies, fountains and shrines, and any other structure that the world offered to my notice. Not to mention hothouses, and glass houses, and potting sheds all filled with fragile specimens. My childish imagination knew no bounds of taste, fashion, or possibility, but heaped all of the rosy richness of the world into a single tapestry that would have cloyed any garden designer, except perhaps a few of the Victorians who were inured to floral overcrowding. At any rate, I have never found that a garden could have too many roses for my liking, so that was my fantasy – a garden of roses perpetually in bloom, where I could escape, lose myself, and have anything I wanted.
I called it Truria because Trury was my last name. If ever I came across a description of a rose in a book, or found one in a park that I had never seen, I would touch a stem or a flower, close my eyes, and look for it in Truria. And if I didn’t find it, I would carefully transpose it there, first into the nursery, from whence they would be found a bed for life. My family and friends teased me for daydreaming.
“Stop and smell the roses,” was the refrain, and it soon became a sort of epithet, which I loved. Every day at school I pinned a tiny rose brooch to my uniform, secretly under the hem of my skirt, or inside my cardigan, so that the teachers didn’t notice but I knew it was there. I also decorated all of my stationery with roses – rose stickers, rose patches… I even tried my hand at a rose cross-stitch for my pencil-case. It reminded me that no matter the difficulties I was facing, Truria was always there, unassailable.
By year eight, my epithet had been shortened; I was now called “Roses” wherever I went. As I grew older and began learning the names of the roses, I would write them out on tags and tie them to the roses in my mind. My aim wasn’t to memorise the names – I simply took pleasure in the words – but I inadvertently became something of an expert on rose species, at least within my social circle. Of course I knew nothing about caring for the roses, not yet, because there was no weather, and no seasons in Truria, and the plants grew perfectly of their own accord. Occasionally one of them would get twiggy, or monstrously oversized, but I let them. If that’s what made them happy, I didn’t mind. I had plenty of other avenues to explore.
As my school examinations approached, I found myself seeking refuge in the rose garden ever more frequently. Sometimes I lay for hours in a quiet courtyard, a warm, gentle breeze swaying the roses, a few petals drifting into the pool. To my surprise, I found that night fell. The white roses shone as if in sympathy with the moonlight, and the scent of evening was even more delicious than that of morning. I studied late into the nights, dipping in and out of my study garden to hang notes on the roses. There was a bed each for biology, mathematics, history, philosophy, Latin, and English literature. I noticed that the roses that grew tallest and most profusely were those dedicated to my favourite subjects, and by the end of the exam period they were hung with so many bits of paper that they sparkled and shivered like aspen trees whenever there was a breeze.
Friends and family began asking me how I managed to remember so much, and after some hesitation I told them.
“It doesn’t have to be a garden though, just somewhere you love spending time.”
But everyone wanted specifics, and step-by-steps, and urged me to write a book. I did. It was called, Into the Rose Garden, and in it I applied my techniques to memorise ‘Burnt Norton’.
I had only intended to make a few copies to distribute to people who had asked for one, but to my amazement my mother sent the manuscript to a publisher and they took it up. The book was a success, as far as memory went, but I felt that the rose garden had so much more to offer. I wanted to write another book, to take readers deeper and show them the true power at the heart of the garden.
I had just started university, and time was scarce. Perhaps because I enjoyed my studies, and the new people I met, I had little reason to seek solace in Truria. Part of me even wondered whether I had not outgrown it. Then during one winter break as I was hiking in the hills around my home, I came upon a thick, gnarled rosebush that transfixed me. I couldn’t identify it, since it wasn’t in bloom, but the colours of its frail, mildewed, autumn leaves held a richness that I longed to capture, and the hips, wet with morning dew shone out like rubies. The new branches were a ruddy brown, as if beneath the wood the plant was circulating blood, and I could well believe that this rose possessed a soul as well.
It was time for change in Truria. Autumn came, and with it, birds that fed on the rosehips. I had a feeling that there had always been birdsong in the rose garden, but I didn’t recall ever seeing a bird. Now they were everywhere, building their nests safe in the tangle of thorny rose stumps.
That was another thing – rose prickles. Once I recognised the beauties of the colder seasons, I was eager to embrace the shadow of the rose too. I went walking in the countryside every day, sketching rose thorns so that I could envision each Trurian rose without its flowers and foliage. It was a strange occupation, but satisfying.
It wasn’t until I had finished university that I returned to the idea of writing another book on the rose garden. I had taken a job at a bookshop until I figured out what I wanted to do with my life. Every morning, before I left for work, I entered Truria and searched for heart of the rose garden. I wanted to write a big revelation scene where the clouds parted, choirs sang, and I presented to my spellbound readers, the key to the kingdom on a silver platter.
But every morning the rose garden presented me with an ever denser thicket that eventually resolved itself into a dead-end of the maze. I wandered around in this labyrinth of blue and red roses like Alice in Wonderland. I felt as if the garden was deliberately thwarting my efforts. I soon grew frustrated and offered her an ultimatum: if she brought me to the same dead-end one more time, I would lock the door and leave her all alone. Until that day I hadn’t even known that Truria had walls, but true to my word, when I got stuck in the same rosy maze again the next day, I found the door hidden behind its overgrown climbers, pushed the key around in the rusty lock, and sealed the garden shut. I wanted to punish it for deserting me when I needed it most, but I knew I was really punishing myself. My work at the bookshop had become a chore. I felt as if I was wasting my life. The only accomplishment of those weeks was making my way systematically across the memoir shelf. I wanted to know how people had lived, what they had done with their time on earth, and what I should do with mine. It wasn’t until one day when I started chatting to the courier who came to pick up the orders that I realised I had been looking in the wrong place.
The courier came almost every day. She delivered around the city on her motorbike and we usually exchanged a few quick pleasantries, but that day there were more orders than usual, and I hadn’t finished packing them all, so she browsed the shelves while she waited.
A few moments later she returned to the till with a book.
“I’ve been trying to remember the order numbers so I don’t have to look them up every time I need to fill them in. Do you think this’ll help?”
It was a well-loved copy of Into the Rose Garden. I didn’t know what to say. I stood staring at it for some moments while the courier awaited my verdict.
I swallowed the lump in my throat. How long had that been on the shelves without my noticing?
“Yes, I’m sure it’ll help,” I said at last.
When she came in the next day she was grinning from ear to ear. She slapped my book on the counter and peeled off her gloves.
“Hello, Miss Trury,” she said. “Fancy not telling me that this was your book!”
“Honestly, I’d forgotten all about it,” I said.
She laughed. “Forgot that you’d written a book on memory. That’s a good one!”
“It’s true. I was trying to write a sequel, but it wasn’t going well so I sort of, put it out of my mind.”
“No wonder you’ve been looking so glum,” she said. “If I’d been clever enough to write a book I wouldn’t soon forget about. Or let anyone else forget about it neither! But I tell you what, if you’re in need of inspiration, I have a friend who works up at Thornton Hall. Do you know it?”
“Yes, my parents took me there a few times when I was little.”
“Well, my friend’s been working on some manuscripts they found up there, but she asked just yesterday if I knew anyone who knew about roses, and that’s why I was poking around the gardening section when I came across your book. Someone must have filed it in the wrong category. Anyway, I told her about your work and she was very interested. Asked if you’d like to pop over this evening for a chat.”
“Oh, I’m really no expert on roses,” I said.
“No matter. I think she wants a fresh pair of eyes more than anything. I can pick you up at closing time and run you up. It’s not far out of my way.”
I thanked her, and spent the rest of the evening watching the clock in eager anticipation. To have a break from my dull routine was excitement enough.
It was only as I was locking up the shop that I realised she meant she would pick me up on her motorbike. I stood on the pavement, eyeing the great black beast apprehensively.
“Haven’t you ridden a motorbike before?” she asked, tossing me a helmet. “Oh, nothing to it. Just mind you lean into the turns, that’s all.”
With this cursory admonition began the most thrilling journey of my life. As we wove through the slow city traffic and then out into the country roads on that warm spring evening, I knew my career would never be pedestrian ever again. The rose garden wasn’t something I could shut away in my mind. It was everywhere, always, spilling out in gorgeous profusion. I only missed it when I focused on the noise of the world.
“Follow the roses,” I chanted under my breath, under the motor hum and into the wind. Roses were my bliss. Roses were my white rabbit. Roses were the symbols the universe was using to communicate with me, because it knew I loved roses. The roses lit up the path that led to my deepest desires; a rose-strewn path, like the ones in films when the man wants to surprise the woman.
“That was amazing,” I said, when we arrived at the Hall, and I had taken off my helmet. “I can’t believe I’ve never done that before.”
“Ha! I’ll give you some tips to pass your licence exam, don’t you worry,” she said, with a wink.
I had never been inside Thornton Hall before. Visitors were only allowed in the park, except on occasional open days when there were house tours with activities for children, but I had never attended one of those.
The Hall was a modestly-sized building by country house standards. It had been built using material from the abbey that had once stood nearby, and was now reduced to a picturesque ruin with only two-and-a-half gothic arches intact. As we entered, I looked out of the window and saw the lawn and pond framed as perfect as if in a painting. Why had I never thought to build a house in Truria?
The historian came down the steps to greet us.
“Hello, Mary! Miss Trury, how do you do? I’m Madge. So glad you’ve come. I’ve got the papers here. Why don’t we all sit in the winter garden. I do feel a bit naughty when I’m on my own, but after all we are allowed.”
“I’ll put the kettle on,” said my messenger friend, whose name, I now deduced, was Mary.
The conservatory was warm and had a wide view of the park. The gates were now closed, and a gardener was weeding a flower bed, pulling up handfuls of trailing goosegrass and herb robert and tossing them into a wheelbarrow.
Madge spread a pile of photocopied facsimiles of some old, handwritten letters on the small table between us. “These were found tucked into an old tome in the library. A very boring book, needless to say. They’re drafts of letters written by the third Lord Thornton to his eldest son. They’re mostly to test his son’s Latin, although as you can see the pater himself struggled a bit.”
She pointed to a paragraph that bore many crossings-out and corrections, but I couldn’t decipher the handwriting. “The thing is, he relates an anecdote about Lord Fauconberg stopping off at the abbey on his way back from the Battle of Towton, which is quite likely, but the tale goes that the Abbot gave Fauconberg a white rose, in full bloom. Thornton describes it as the York rose, but you see the Battle was fought in March, and from what I’ve been able to gather, the York rose doesn’t bloom until May at the earliest.”
“I see,” I said, just as Mary came in with the tea-tray.
I took the opportunity to let my mind drift around Truria, to see if I could find an old white rose that bloomed in early spring. I felt sure I had seen something of the kind, but before I could discover it, Madge asked, “milk and sugar?”
The conversation drifted for a few minutes, then I asked, “are you sure the rose wasn’t forced? Maybe it was grown indoors.”
“I thought that myself, but there’s more. Among the papers was this paragraph, apparently copied out from a manuscript. We can’t find the original in the library, if it exists, but I wrote to the Bodleian to ask if they had anything similar. Anyway, the paragraph mentions that a scion of this white rose that was given to Lord Fauconberg was planted in the Abbey grounds, and continued to flower every year in March, except for the year in which Fauconberg died, which is probably hyperbole, but nevertheless, it does add some credence to the story. And Lord Thornton writes as if he knows the plant, and as if his son knows the plant so well that it isn’t worth elaborating upon. But we haven’t been able to find a rose that matches the description, and it would be such a boon to the house to be able to say, ‘this is the rose that Thornton Abbey gave to Lord Fauconberg after his victory at Towton.’ Or at least, ‘this may be the rose…’”
I smiled, and took a sip of tea. “It’s a good story.”
The gardener suddenly appeared in the doorway.
“Hello, Madge, sorry, I didn’t realise you had company,” he said. He was holding a rose with a long stem. “This was broken off one of the bushes. I thought you might like it.”
“Oh, I think Miss Trury should have it, Robin,” Madge said. “She’s the one who wrote the book I told you about.”
“Indeed?” he said, and held the rose out to me instead.
“Ah, thank you.” I put my teacup down, and took the rose he offered. As soon as I gripped the stem – with unnecessary strength – one of the prickles dug into my finger. “Ouch.” I looked at the little drop of blood that grew on the end of my index finger, and at once I remembered the gnarled old rose bush that I had met on my travels; the one that had convinced me of the beauty of autumn and winter with its dappled leaves and ruby-red hips, and then sent me on a frenzied quest to draw thorns.
“Are you alright? I’m so sorry, I should have stripped the thorns,” Robin said.
Mary hurried to hand me a napkin.
“Oh, it’s nothing,” I said, sucking my finger. “It’s my own fault, I was careless. No, please don’t strip it, I love the thorns.”
He gave me a strange look. Apparently he was thinking, how does anyone love thorns?
“Besides, they gave me an idea,” I said. I knew it was illogical, but I felt an uncanny certainty that my gnarled rose was white, and ancient, and hardy, and bloomed almost as early as the snowdrops. “Did the description say anything about thorns?” I asked.
“Well, not exactly,” said Madge. “But there is an epigram noted on one page.” She rifled through the papers until she found the one she was looking for. “Here we are. Tu spina misere pungeris, ipse Rosa.”
“You are pricked wretchedly by the spines, I myself by the rose.”
“And… oh, he’s drawn an arrow next to it. An archer’s arrow, I mean. I thought it was pointing at something that had been torn away. But no, perhaps he meant to draw an analogy between thorns and arrows.”
“That would certainly make sense,” I said, “and it would interest the boy more than roses, I’m sure.”
“So you have an idea about the rose?” asked Robin.
“Yes, I think I may have seen one once that fit the description, but I’ll have to go and see it to be sure.”
“Where is it?”
“Not far. In the hills near my parents’ house. I can check this weekend if you like.”
“But if it flowered in March, the flowers may all be gone by now.”
“Yes, but I should be able to tell when it flowered by how well-developed the hips are. And it may have had a second flush, of course.”
In the event, Robin and I went to find the rose together. And find it we did, topped with a crown of mottled, drooping, gone-over brown-white roses. We found something more too, but that’s not what this story is about. We gathered a few of the rose-hips, and Robin showed me how to plant the seeds and pot the seedlings. So far they’re doing well, and he thinks we’ll have a show of blossoms for our first anniversary.
“But I’m not promising you a rose garden, mind,” he said, wagging a finger.
“That’s alright,” I said. “I’ve already got one.”
This morning I felt like trying to start working on my book once again. I’m sitting at a desk on the first floor, overlooking the park. People pass by below me, wandering from one window-frame to the next, with their prams before them or their dogs in tow. I closed my eyes and found myself back at the labyrinth that had so frustrated me all those months ago. I no longer felt as if the rose garden was putting obstacles in my way. Once again I was sure that it was leading me somewhere important, somewhere vital to my happiness.
I strolled for a while, admiring the roses that bloomed richly all around me, up the steep (but perfectly shaped) walls of the maze. Then I heard a sweet chirp behind me. It was a robin perched on a thin branch. He dipped and turned, dipped and turned, making the branch bob up and down. Then he took off. I took off with him. I rose, high above the labyrinth, and finally saw what the garden was trying to tell me all along. The maze formed the shape of a heart.
I made this list at the beginning of the week:
- No adultery
- No children
- No shooting
- No memory loss
The obvious choice was to write a romance. I always have my Things I Love worksheet to hand, and my love of roses is pretty plain, although I think my ignorance of roses must be equally evident! I had to do a bit of research. I discovered that the oldest living rose bush in the world is The Rose of Hildesheim, that shoots that don’t bloom are called, “blind“, and that no one really knows where the Rosa alba came from.
Into the Rose Garden
I decided to test whether a “memory garden” would work as the narrator describes. After watching a few videos by Nelson Dellis (an excellent teacher!), I tried out the method of loci to memorise the conjugation system for Latin. I had little doubt that a technique that has been around since antiquity would be worth its salt, but I hadn’t anticipated just how quickly it could yield results, or how fun it could be. Which makes me wonder… why on earth aren’t memory techniques taught at school?
The Romance of the Rose
I was also inspired by my recollection of the medieval French poem, Roman de la Rose. I thought it would be fun to write “from the other side of the wall”, from the point of view of a female (rose), or someone with easy access to the garden.
But really my main aim was to write about being in love with the forces that bring you what you love. I hope I’ve succeeded even a little, at least until I get a chance to edit. :)
WORD COUNT: 3597