“I feel as if I had opened a book and found roses of yesterday sweet and fragrant, between its leaves.”
― L.M. Montgomery, Anne of the Island
“There is nothing more difficult for a truly creative painter than to paint a rose, because before he can do so he has first to forget all the roses that were ever painted.”
While I had been away, with my back turned, travelling in The Other Island, the roses in my garden had stolen a march, had sneaked up on me.
They waited until I had left, until the sound of my motor had faded and gone, until I was well out of sight. Then they did what roses do in summer. They abandoned the dry, sterile armour of their ugly twigginess and put on their party clothes, covered themselves in makeup and sat there across the summer, over the shoulder of Christmas, when there is nobody around, when New Zealand has shut down and gone off in search of beaches and barbecues, like so many beauties bathing by the side of the pool.
I didn’t really notice the change at first. I arrived home late in the evening, tired after a day at work in Dunedin and a long drive home with a car boot full of fresh groceries. It had been a long journey and I was ready for a rest. John Fogerty’s songs for everyone had kept me company on the road, as I made the swirling lope past Lee Stream and Sutton, the focused gallop up the straight through Middlemarch, and the final feint and weave around Hyde and Kokonga into the Maniototo.
Anyway, my mind was full of the Things Which Must Be Done with a silent and waiting home when you return from a journey. I unlocked the door and opened all the windows, shooing out the dead and stale air. The wind picked it up and took away somewhere for refurbishment. I opened the cupboard and switched on the hot water cylinder. I rekindled my salt lamps, which were looking somewhat frosted, and I lit some candles to welcome me home. Then it was time to haul in the groceries and get them packed away. My bags could wait until the morning.
I locked the truck, went inside, switched on the television and then promptly turned it off. As usual, nothing to watch unless you like DIY or cooking shows, and I poured myself a glass of wine. I was home.
The silence crept in closer. Away across the evening, in a timeless place where the sun refuses to give up for the night and go to bed, I heard the sound of sheep and the obdurate barking of a dog, probably a huntaway, judging by the depth and assurance of its voice. It was comforting and grounding.
Only then did I look outside.
In the shimmering half-light something was different. A shadow blocked my view across the garden to the shrubs filling the corner. Something had changed. Something was different. I put down my glass and went outside.
The 3 roses in my garden sat there, smiling at me. See what we have gone and done.
“Are we pretty or what?” they smirked at me.
I agreed. I absolutely agreed. In the half-light they…hummed. I bent down to smell and honour them. Their perfume vibrated in the still air. Better than Givenchy, they purred?
Wow! Look at you, I said. Flirts.
I went to bed.
In the morning I dragged my aches and soreness out of bed and went outside to greet the dawn, to watch the stars fade into the background, with only the Southern Cross holding out against the coming of day. My ladies were there waiting for me.
I realised they had names. These were old roses, probably brought in from a farm somewhere many years ago. They had probably been here since the house was built, a year after I was born.
They reminded me of my grandmother and her sisters. The bright yellow one spoke of my Grandmother Maude Emily, who had made it to her late nineties and died disappointed that she hadn’t received her telegram from the Queen. The large pink and multi-coloured one made me think of my Auntie Connie, a large, impressive woman, whom I would visit each week or two, and who had two things of great importance for a boy; a television and chocolate biscuits. I would visit her on Saturday nights and we would watch Ironside together. She always made tea in delicate china cups decorated with pink and purple roses. She had made it to 97 before making the crossing.
The third rose, delicate and pink, with hints of violet and mauve, reminded me of my Great Auntie Jessie, who, in spite of her apparent frailty, had waited until she was 103 before leaving. She too had possessed an amazing collection of bone china. Like her china, she was both seemingly fragile and yet tough and strong.
Away off, at the other end of the garden, closer to the gate, was another rose, which looked pale and sickly and unlikely to do much. It reminded me of my Great Uncle George, the ‘baby of the family’, who had somehow seemed diminished and overshadowed by his older sisters. He boarded the Train to Somewhere Else at the age of 94.
Then, as I moved around them, I heard a dry rasping sound beneath my feet. I looked down at the lawn. Over Christmas, in the time I had been gone, it had gone from being green and lush to resembling a Marine haircut. It was brown and parched and gasping for water. Something needed to be done.
A few days before, my friend Steve had rung me. Where are you? I get asked that a lot. Upper Moutere. Be glad you haven’t been here, he said. It’s been hot as. 30 plus most days. You won’t recognise the place when you get back.
As I stood on the crewcut grass I understood. The lawn mirrored the sere minimalism of the hills, a visual haiku strong on structure and short on adjectives. The roses played an astonishing counterpoint to the desiccation of the garden. Now I understood why there were so many roses in Ranfurly gardens.in a world of brown and blue, the green and cheeriness of the roses was necessary.
I mentioned the lawn to another friend. I wouldn’t worry about it, she said. Nobody bothers watering lawns around here. Anyway, it always comes back in the autumn.
I headed home and found the hose.
I owed my great-aunts that much.