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Roses are Red

Kate stumbled down the neatly raked path, her glasses steamed up with the heat of raw emotion and half-blinded by tears.

She trusted she would find her way to her favourite spot in the Walled Garden if she were blindfolded, or even in the pitch dark. That was if the entrance hadn’t been barred by solid metal doors at nighttime.

It was as though she was led by a homing device to her place of refuge, a bench tucked in the corner of the garden, with a rambling wild rose bush trained on the wall behind.

In summer, she came here during her lunch break, marvelling at the beauty of the miniature roses studding the branches. They were of the deepest, richest blood-red and the delicate blooms held the most astonishingly intense perfume.

For some reason, she never told Jake about her habit of coming here whenever she could. He would have raised a cynical eyebrow, lips curving in that rakish grin, laughing at the idea of his super-efficient girlfriend needing to commune with nature. Normally, she took his teasing with good humour, but for some reason she couldn’t explain, she didn’t want this special place ridiculed.

The thought of her boyfriend made her gasp as if in pain, 'Oh Jake, oh God,’ and she groped for the bench just in time. She sat down heavily, with no grace, sobbing out loud, almost wailing in her distress.

In the small part of her mind that remained aware of her surroundings, the garden was thankfully empty so late on a dull spring day. The café was long closed, with mothers and toddlers now home for tea in the comfort of their families.

The thought of such ordinary warmth made the tears flow faster. She leaned over, crushing the organised contents of her immaculate designer handbag on her lap without caring.

‘It’s all my fault,’ she told herself, the thought echoing in her mind like the tolling of a dismal bell. After all, she had encouraged Jake to consider the offer of the six-month secondment when it had first arisen in his department at work. She had agreed it would be so good for his career, endlessly talked through all the options with him, provided a neutral sounding board like a good partner should.

Of course, she had taken it for granted she’d still be part of his life, just at a slight distance for a relatively short time. There would be phone calls, messages, visits at the weekends. This would just be no more than a slight pause in a long-term relationship.

When he’d booked the taxi to the airport that morning, she’d assumed he was simply being thoughtful; sparing her a drive straight to work on her way back from the airport, battling rush-hour traffic.

She had got up early to have breakfast with him, determined to stay cheerful and positive and not wanting to be a damp squib at the start of his adventure. When he was ready to go, Jake had turned to her, bag on shoulder, familiar grin in place and said, “Well, I suppose this is it, then?”

Her bewilderment showed clear in her expression.

“This is what?” she asked stupidly. She still had no idea that the parting would be permanent.

Jake’s grin glazed on his face, his body language twitchy and impatient. He would not meet her eyes, his gaze flickering past her left ear, as he always did when he lied, saying, “but I thought you understood?”

‘How?’ her brain was screaming as she looked at him in dumbstruck disbelief. The moment stretched to breaking point until the blare of the taxi horn allowed Jake his clean escape after all.

God knew how she had got through the day. ‘Complete denial, really,’ she thought as she hugged herself on the bench. She had been on autopilot, dealing with the here and now of tasks to be done and colleagues to be consulted.

It was only when she left the office building that her loss struck her with full force. She couldn’t bear to go to her empty home. As she felt the tears rising uncontrollably, she made for the garden like a homing pigeon without a second thought.

She curled up on the sanctuary of the bench, her feet resting on the solid wood slats, her arms wrapped around her knees, head bowed, lost in misery.

“Seven years,” she whispered to herself. “Seven years,” she repeated like a mantra.

From their first weeks together, Jake had always praised her efficiency, her skill at organising him and caring for him and their home. He seemed to delight in that. They became the golden couple of their circle.

They fit perfectly together, as opposites often do. There was passion and laughter and a shared life. How come she hadn’t realized she’d gradually become no more than a social secretary and housekeeper to him?

She wept at her own stupidity. With the depth of hurt came the beginnings of humiliation. It was bad enough to keep this heartbreak to herself, but the thought of breaking news to others made her curl in on herself even more tightly.

Her friends would be sympathetic, of course, and try to give comfort, as she had similarly done in the past, trying to help someone she cared for through a breakup. Thinking it would make her feel better, they would point out Jake’s faults.

“But then he could be rather selfish. Do you remember that time…?”

“He always took you for granted, you know.”

These would be the very friends who had praised Jake to the skies, who had said repeatedly over the years that they were the perfect pairing. Kate began to sob uncontrollably as another thought hit her. ‘Oh, God! What will my parents say?’

If she said she had something to announce to them, she knew with a leaden lump in her chest where her heart should be, that her mother would expect an engagement.

She’d been hinting enough recently, “I mean to say, Kate. It has been seven years.”

She could only imagine the upset and bemusement her news would cause. However kind the words, there would that look on her mother’s face, silently asking, ‘what did you do wrong?’

Kate was crying in earnest now, the bench juddering in time with her sobs, knocking against the red-brick wall, making the new leaves of the rose bush quiver as if in sympathy. As the desperate sobbing continued, it was as if the tendrils seemed to elongate, the spring growth of greenery increasing rapidly. A shadow created to shelter Kate’s private agony from the chance glance of prying eyes.

As the storm of tears gradually settled back into sobs, the rose bush continued to respond empathetically. New shoots twined protectively, weaving around each other, gathering pace in abundance until they almost swept the ground, as if to create a verdant bower for Kate and her heartbreak. The leaves softly waved with each out breath and Kate settled into a grief-stricken doze, lulled by their rustling.

And there she stayed. If not for a hundred years, but at least until the evening when the park would close.

The flourishing cocoon of leaves and branches absorbed her pain and heartbreak. Providing a gentle balm for her anguish at devoting herself to someone who did not truly value her. As she slept in the healing, loving, protective circle of the rose bush, the leaves rippled in heightened awareness, as if on alert; waiting for some sign or signal.

Watchful, as if listening carefully for a certain firm step.

As Ben the gardener did his rounds final rounds of the day, the loose tendrils seemed to wave towards him as if drawn by an invisible sigh of a breeze.

Ben, who always seemed to be working nearby when Kate was in the garden. Ben, who looked sadly after Kate, as she walked on obliviously, after only exchanging a few polite words.

As he turned the corner where the bench would become visible, the protective covering of rich greenery seemed to shrink in on itself. The leaves curled up and retracted, their protective vigil over.

This revealed Kate, curled up tightly on her side on the bench, deeply asleep. The tears had dried on her face and her glasses were askew. Coming up to her, Ben touched her gently on the shoulder and Kate’s eyes opened, meeting his for the first time, as if in a moment of true recognition. They both smiled.

Then Kate started to recover herself, full consciousness returning as she sat up, adjusted her glasses and put a hand through her untidy hair. Embarrassed by her bedraggled appearance and the remains of strong emotion, she was about to stand up and make her excuses; after all, the exit would be shut soon.

Before she could move, a sudden gust of the fragrance of roses seemed to dance all around her, stilling her movements and filling her senses.

As she hesitated, Ben sat down on the bench next to her. His heart beating fast, he gathered his confidence and began to speak to her. As he talked softly, meeting her eyes, she looked at him and saw him clearly. ‘A kind, caring man,’ a voice in her head seemed to say, ‘a man who nurtures both plants and people.’

She listened and gradually responded, slowly at first, and then, as they conversed, the tentative beginnings of a smile gradually returned to her face. After a while, it seemed the most natural thing in the world to wait on the bench as he quickly finished his duties so they could leave the garden together, locking the gate behind them.

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