As I guessed he would, my father-in-law came outside to watch while I planted his rosebush this morning. He’d have heard the barrow rattling with tools as I wheeled it past his window, and I daresay he observed me taking out the first spadefuls of earth while he put on his hat and coat and found his walking-stick. He’s old and infirm, but nothing much escapes him. Aware that he was shuffling very slowly toward me over the drenched lawn, I thrust the spade into the ground and leaned on it, waiting for him. He caught my eye, grinned, and then began again to win each painful and unsteady step of the distance between us.
He’d been looking forward to this. Five weeks ago, at the beginning of October, he and my mother-in-law had moved down from London into the annex of our house. I’d been busy since then. This was the first chance I’d had to attend to the rosebush he’d insisted on my digging up from his small, meticulous garden and bringing with the rest of their belongings. The Saturday they arrived, well after dark, I removed all the leaves from the bush, lightly pruned it, and heeled it temporarily into some moist compost in the shelter of the garden wall. If necessary, it could have stayed there until the spring; but on several occasions he’d asked obliquely when I thought I could get around to putting it into its permanent station. “Fair planting weather,” he’d said, on a couple of consecutive evenings, as I garaged the car after work; and “Early autumn’s the favorite time for getting off to a good start,” he’d said yesterday, while I was clearing the leaves from their back path.
“The soil still looks warm from summer,” he said to me now. “The roots can get a fair grip before that first bad frost sets in.”
He was right enough. A good fortnight before their move down here I’d prepared the new, trapezium-shaped bed, and I’d shifted into it two dozen or so of my own Queen Elizabeths, framing a generous space in the centre for this huge old Peace Rose of his. The Elizabeths had already settled in well, and some of them had even made a little new growth during the Indian summer.
“Are you going to be all right there?” I asked him, once he’d steadied himself against the laburnum tree. The muscles in his legs are wasting; after the effort of his walking so far unaided, I was afraid he might slip and fall. “Take no notice of me,” he said. “I’ll just have a bit of a smoke and watch you get on with it.”
There had been a heavy shower since dawn. When he fumbled to light his cigarette, he jolted back against the trunk of the tree and a spray of raindrops spattered down on him. “No, no—it’s all right, I can manage,” he said, as I took a pace toward him; but he knew I’d seen the cigarette disintegrate through his clumsy fingers, and the shreds of tobacco and sodden paper falling between his feet. “Too soon in the day, in any case,” he said. “It’d only make me cough.” And so I nodded, took hold of the fork, and made a show of loosening the subsoil I’d already loosened at the bottom of the hole.
He can’t bear to have anybody help him. What he needs, times like this, is a short spell on his own to get things done the way he knows how. If he has a minute or two, unflustered, he can perfectly well extract the tin from his jacket pocket and prize open the lid with the second joint of his forefinger; then, if there’s nobody too close to see him do it, he can easily hold the tin to his lips, like a Chinaman with a rice-bowl, and flip up a cigarette it took him ten minutes to roll after breakfast. Over the years, on the sly, I’ve noticed these special skills of his developing. He has his own kind of high-tariff dexterity with his Zippo lighter, too. He’ll cradle it in the palm of his right hand, snap back the top with a brusque movement of the left wrist, rub the wheel along the ball of his rigid left thumb. I reckon that if he could guarantee being left alone a long while in a well-lit room he could still find the means, through his unyielding hands and fingers, of repairing the most delicate watch. Had this been his garden, not mine, he’d have had the rosebush planted a month ago. It would have taken him the best part of a whole day, but he’d have completed the job—and well—bit by bit.
“You’re making a right meal out of loosening up that bottom,” he said. “But I know what it’s like, trying to get something done with someone breathing down your neck. I’ll go back indoors.”
“It’s not that,” I said. “I’ve just been thinking. I ought to make up some planting mixture to scatter round the roots. Should’ve done it before I got started. Won’t be long.” And I strode away before he could argue about it. He probably guessed that I’d dug in plenty of good compost when I’d got the bed ready and that I simply wanted to give him the opportunity of enjoying his first smoke of the day.
After mixing peat and bone meal together in a pail, I looked at him from the shed window. He was prodding the ground with his stick, testing for firmness. His cigarette was lit by now, and a ragged streamer of smoke was rising through the bare twigs of the laburnum. He looked frail but obdurate, a waif in some old-fashioned, sentimental movie. I was glad to see him there. When the fine weather came round again, he would become a familiar figure in my garden. He’s in his mid-seventies; I wondered how many years he had left to enjoy it before he had to be confined to the house. I felt fond of him, protective towards him. Maybe he ought to be offered a plot of his own to look after, I thought—some easily manageable, compact bed it would please him to tend. He’d be able to push a light Dutch hoe between some vegetables, or keep the hose running during dry spells. These days it’s possible to buy all manner of tools and gadgets specially adapted for the disabled. He’d be glad to feel he was being useful. However, there were months to go before any such idea could be entertained. First, he had what promised to be a severe winter to get through; frost, snow, and ice couldn’t be far away now. In March I’d take the garden furniture outside again. He could sit at a table by the laburnum tree while I pruned the roses. Probably he’d try to cut back his Peace Rose himself. I hoped it would flourish for him. I threw an extra handful of bonemeal into the pail and stirred it in.
“That looks like a bit of good, rich stuff,” he said, when I put down the pail in front of him. “What are those white flecks—hoof and horn?”
“Bone meal,” I said. “Hoof and horn’s a thing of the past.”
“Hoof and horn. Bagged it up by the ton when I was a kid. Of course, that’s going back 60-odd years. Came from the slaughterhouse into the crusher. Stank to high heaven.”
I dropped four or five double handfuls of the planting mixture into the hole and then raised it into a mound for the roots and stock of the bush to rest on.
“And Irish moss peat,” I said. “Best there is.”
“Fancy having to import stuff like that. Fancy having to buy it. Leaf mold, I always swore by. You’d tie an orange box on the back of your bike, take the coal shovel with you out of the hearth, cycle up to the woods. Lovely, that mold. Soft as a woman’s glove when you sank your hand in it. All those trees got felled, though, when they built the housing estates.”
“Beeches. Long time before you were born. All part of Greater London now. We did our courting up in those beechwoods. You’d say you were going to get leaf mold for your father’s roses, but really you were going to have a few hours with your girl.”
I held the bush by the tallest stem, placed it on the mound, and kicked in enough loose soil to hold it in place. “Think it’s going to look all right here?” I asked him.
“My old man knew what I was up to. He never said anything, but I know he knew. He had his leaf mold, he was happy. Yes—the bush’ll look fine as it is. Just needs treading in. It’ll do. By God, though, that’s turning cold all of a sudden.”
“We’ll go inside for a cup of tea,” I said. “I can finish this off later. Don’t want you taking a chill.”
I persuaded him to place his right hand on my shoulder, so that I could steady him over the grass to our back door and into the kitchen. My wife was rolling out pastry. “Your dad’s pinched with cold,” I said to her. “Put the kettle on, will you?”
Jane filled the kettle and plugged it in as we sat down. “Your mum might fancy a cup, too,” I said. “Shall I go and fetch her round?”
My father-in-law shook his head. “I shouldn’t bother, if I were you,” he said.
“It’s no trouble.”
“A fool’s errand,” he said. “She’s probably not out of bed yet.”
“But it’s gone eleven,” said Jane. “Not like her.”
“Well, it is Sunday, after all,” I said. “She’s having a lie-in. And why not?”
“It isn’t that,” he said. “She never gets up at the right time these days. If I didn’t keep on at her, she’d stay put until the afternoon.”
“I don’t like the sound of that,” said Jane. “Something’s the matter. Maybe she ought to see the doctor.”
“No. There’s nothing untoward the matter with her. Only the sulks and general cussedness. I don’t know what anybody can do about it. She didn’t want to move down here, and staying in bed is her way of paying me out. I expect she’ll get used to it. Just got to come to terms. Take no notice.”
Jane sighed. “It’s so silly,” she said. “You’re so much better off here. Country air. Out of that damp old house which was falling down round your ears. Away from all that noise and dirt. The planes taking off and landing every few seconds at Heathrow.”
“You don’t have to tell me all that,” he said. “Of course we’re better off. Every way, we’re better off. Try telling her that, though.”
Embarrassed for him, I got up and fetched the cups and saucers, sugar and milk, spoons, biscuits, plates. There’d been something of angry desperation in his voice. Ever since I bought this house—more than ten years ago—the annex has been set aside for their use. Each Easter and Christmas, a fortnight every summer, they’ve spent their holidays in it. It has always been understood between us that the annex was for them to live in permanently when they became old and in need of looking after. There are no stairs to climb; it’s compact and snug, self-contained. The old man had been delighted to come—he would have come down as soon as he retired, if he’d had his way—but from the moment they arrived with their furniture and packing cases, my mother-in-law had been withdrawn and grim.
“I expect she’s still missing her friends,” I heard Jane say. “She’ll be all right as soon as she’s made some new ones.”
“Friends? What friends? She hadn’t got any friends up there. All her friends had long since gone. They’d died or been rehoused in those highrise flats the other side of the borough. They’d gone away to live with their children, else, or in one of those old folks’ homes, the back of beyond. I had friends—one or two. There was old Charlie in the corner shop, and Smithy, that I worked with years ago. But I was stuck in the house all day long, wasn’t I? I never got to see my two or three friends. She wouldn’t let me out in case I fell down. Four walls was all I ever saw. Your mother went out of the house, went downtown for a bit of shopping, but she had nobody to talk to except the girl at the checkout.”
“The neighbors, then.”
“You’re joking! Wouldn’t so much as go out into the yard if she saw any of the neighbors in theirs. Fell out with the whole bunch of them, one time and another.”
I made the tea and carried it to the table.
“It’s bound to be difficult,” I said, “learning to adjust to a new place. All the upheaval of moving.”
“I’ve lost count of the number of times we’ve moved since we were married. And that’s not including being bombed out during the Blitz. God knows, she ought to be used to packing and unpacking. It’s something else.”
“Prices are higher round here,” Jane said. “No big supermarkets. A penny on this, a penny on that. It must be a worry.” She poured the tea.
“Not that, either. Our pensions are more than enough for our needs. I can’t remember when we were better off. We don’t have to be all that careful with money.”
With the palms of his hands he lifted his cup. “It’s something else,” he said. “Something else. I know what it is, too, but she’d dig up anything to moan about sooner than admit it. Nothing’s right for her. Doesn’t like cooking with electricity instead of gas, doesn’t like a shower instead of a bath. Says the bus fares are expensive. “Up in London,” she says, “you can travel free if you’re an old-age pensioner. You can sit on a bus all day long and not part with a penny piece. You can go right into the city, up the West End, go and look at Buckingham Palace.” And she’s dead right, of course, no denying it. But what she’ll not tell you is that she’s not gone a hundred yards on a bus these last five years to my certain knowledge. That’s not what’s bothering her, either.”
I drank my tea as quickly as I could. Jane and her father would have to sort out the problem between them, whatever it was. I got up and made for the door.
“It seems so ungrateful,” he said to me. “I’m thankful to be here, though. You know that, don’t you? You shouldn’t have had to sweep those leaves from our path yesterday. Difficult job for me to do, the way I’m fixed, but she could have done that.”
“It was no bother. I’d just been sweeping our path.”
“But it’s all part of the same thing. She’s not unpacked our pictures yet. I’d do it, but I’d be afraid of dropping them and smashing the glass. She’s not got around to fixing the curtains properly. I wouldn’t know how to do a job like sewing curtains. They look stupid, hanging down much too far. Five weeks, we’ve been here. Five weeks and a day. Still those curtains with frayed edges.”
“It’ll all work out,” I said. “Now I must go and finish that planting.”
Five minutes later, when I’d trodden the ground firm, I took the tools back to the shed. I’d spend 20 minutes more, I thought, before going back to them in the kitchen—time enough for them to talk things over. I had some tidying-up to do, and the lawn mower needed greasing over if it wasn’t to rust through winter. Jane would pour a second cup for them both and then get on with her baking. A gentle rain began to fall, which would save me the bother of watering in the Peace Rose.
It was I who bought that rosebush originally. Twenty years ago, that was, at the end of the fifties. Three shillings and six-pence, I paid for it. I remember counting out the coppers and small silver into the nurseryman’s hand, knowing that it was about to rain and that I hadn’t the fourpence left for the bus fare home. It was a spindly-looking plant, I recall; two weak stems and a rootstock like a ball of fluff. Had I known then what I know about roses now, I wouldn’t have dreamed of paying good money for it. It was wrapped in a Daily Express, and when I stuffed it into my mackintosh pocket I pricked my thumb on a thorn. What possessed me to buy a rosebush, that autumn afternoon on my way home from work, I simply can’t remember. At 24, I had no interest in gardening. The plot of ground in front of the house I’d rented was still full of decaying rubbish abandoned by the previous tenants. I had no tools—not even a spade—with which to tidy what remained of the sour and long-neglected flower beds I would be obliged, under the terms of my lease, to keep in good order. Maybe the purchase was simply a romantic and rhetorical gesture on my part. I might have been attracted by the name. Peace, 3/6, I’d read from the chalk scrawl at the nursery gate. Those were uneasy times. During the years I lived in that house, I was to see, successive Easters, the vastly long processions of the C. N. D. marchers passing our front window with their banners aloft; some of them—usually young mothers with children in push-chairs—would accept a cup of tea and drink it without a word, resting against our wall. It was always the Easter Sunday when they reached us, having been on the road from Aldermaston since Good Friday. On the Monday they completed the few miles into central London for the mass rally in Trafalgar Square. And there was to be a day, after I bought the rose, when I kissed my wife and children goodbye in the morning and went to work as usual, trying not to show the anxiety I felt about the American warships which would be closing upon Russian vessels off Cuba about the time I’d be breaking for coffee. Yes—I may have bought the rose for its name. Peace was something worth paying the price of a couple of beers for. In middle age I find it difficult to reassemble the feelings of the young man I was, but I think it quite likely that I intended the straggly bush to grow in my derelict garden as a kind of charm or talisman. Three years before, soon after our marriage, I’d sworn that I’d go to prison rather than fight Anthony Eden’s war with Nasser over Suez. Now, so soon after, I was the father of three babies, poor, sharing a damp and decrepit house with my in-laws, with few prospects of ever getting out. My wife looked worn out, the children suffered from the smoggy climate of the Thames valley; it could be that the rose had more to do with my inner turmoil and despair than the world’s. When I got home, I left it in its newspaper in the porch. I felt ridiculous and embarrased about it, I suppose, because I didn’t mention it to anyone, or do anything about getting it into the ground. It stayed where it was, next to the milk-bottle crate, for the rest of that week and all the next.
My father-in-law planted it. While I was out with the children on the Saturday, he borrowed a trowel from a neighbour and cleared away enough rubbish to make room for it. When I got home, I noticed it at once as I pushed the three babies in their pram up the path to the front door. No comment was passed by any of us. It wasn’t until the bush bloomed the following summer that it caught my attention again. Two yellow, pink-edged flowers opened, so heavy they bowed their stems almost to the ground. The plant sent up new stems from the base, and the next summer there were to be getting on for a dozen blooms. By then my father-in-law had made the whole plot sweet and trim. Slowly we had begun to be on good terms. I learned from him some of the basic skills of gardening; how to dig, rake the soil to a fine tilth, how to sow seeds and how to thin them, how to transplant. He showed me how to prune a rosebush, cutting to an outward-facing bud with a clean, sharp knife. “As soon as you can, you want to get away and start again,” he said. “Save up the deposit for a house. A couple of hundred pounds should be enough. Young people shouldn’t live with their parents or in-laws. I ought to know—it’s what I did, and it’s a miserable business. I know you were glad to have us move in with you when you took on this house—help with the rent money and Jane’s mother to give a hand with the babies—but you’d be better off on your own. I’ll take the lease off your hands. It’ll be no trouble finding tenants for your part of the place, if needs be.”
Another two years elapsed before I moved my family down to the coast. I saved what I could, month by month, but the money accrued very slowly. I kept up the Saturday ritual of taking the children for long outings in their pram. It gave Jane a rest from them, and I used to love going to the river, or to the great parks and estates that were just within walking distance. Often we’d go to Kew Gardens, having crossed the bridge at Richmond and followed the Thames down past the Old Deer Park and Isleworth Eyot. Sometimes we went as far as Richmond Park, looking out for the wandering herds of deer, seeing the dome of St Paul’s in the hazy distance when we reached the bandstand. More often than not, though, we went to the grounds of Osterley House. To get there, we had to cross a busy road—The Great West Road—which connected Heathrow airport with central London. There would be crowds gathering along the road, sometimes, to catch a glimpse of some celebrity who had just flown in. Crossing that road on the way to and from work each day, I often saw famous people being driven past, Eisenhower, I saw, and de Gaulle, and Harold MacMillan, and J.F. Kennedy, and Yuri Gagarin in his officer’s uniform, standing up in his open car to wave to us. Up in Osterley Park, though it was surrounded by trunk roads, factories, housing estates, it was like an idyllic, pastoral landscape out of classical literature. There was a formal pond, full of carp and golden rudd, its surface almost entirely covered by waterlily pads and exotic waterfowl. There were vistas of greensward, avenues of mature trees, dark thickets of rhododendron, a field or two of cows. The warden, a former policeman called Sergeant Guthrie, showed us birds’ nests full of eggs: a mallard’s and a barn owl’s only feet apart in a hollow oak, a goldcrest’s, exquisite and delicately woven into the hanging fronds of a cedar. I learned much of my natural history during those walks. “One of these days,” I used to tell the children, “we’ll live in a place where you can see birds and fish and trees all the time. You’ll not have to walk far to see them. You’ll just look out of your window, and there they’ll all be.” But the truth was, I didn’t believe we ever would. I used to push them home before it got dark, before the fogs began to assemble in the streets. By the time we reached the front gate, they would be fast asleep, crammed together like dolls in the pram that was getting too small for them. It wasn’t until our doctor told me, of my eldest, the boy, “This child has bronchial pneumonia, you must remove him from this house, this area, if you want him to survive,” that I began to believe there had to be a life for us elsewhere. I got myself a job in a nondescript seaside town, raked together what little money I had, borrowed 50 pounds off my mother. In July, we packed our possessions into a small, rented van, drove out of the Thames valley, across the North and South Downs, and moved into a small, raw, brand-new box of a house which still smelt of plaster and fresh paint. There, for about three years, we lived frugally until, like an unexpectedly early spring, prosperity arrived to amaze us. We bought this house, cash down, guessing that the annex would always be useful for visitors, or for our parents when they grew old.
When I went back into the house, I found Jane on her own. She was sitting at the kitchen table, reading the Sunday Times. I couldn’t be sure, but I guessed she’d been crying.
“Your dad’s gone back next door, then?” I said.
“Yes. He got upset. Didn’t want you to see him in a state.”
“I’ve got his rosebush well and truly into the ground. That’ll please him.”
“I’ve been thinking about old times, how he planted that bush after I’d brought it home and dumped it in the porch. Remember?”
“That’s probably why he wanted to bring it down here. Still thinks of it as being mine, even though he’s looked after it for 20 years. I like your old man. He’s one of the best.”
Jane folded the newspaper carefully into its creases, smoothing the wrinkled front page.
“We’ll have to think of a way to jolly your mother along,” I said. “We’ll take them out somewhere, get them to join the Darby and Joan Club or something. She likes a game of cards. You could take her to a whist drive. She’ll soon forget that slum of a place they’ve come from.”
“It’s where they lived.”
“That’s a strange thing to say. It was in ruins, nearly. Ought to have been condemned and pulled down. You heard what your dad said. There was simply nothing left for them up there.”
“But it’s where they lived. They lived in that house much longer than they’d lived anywhere else. You know how superstitious my mother can be.”
I knew well enough. She observes all the conventional superstitions and is forever surprising me with irrational notions I’ve never heard of. On the day they arrived here, when I helped to arrange their furniture in the rooms, she wouldn’t hear of the beds being placed across the line of the floorboards. The bedroom is a long, narrow room; the divans would have been much more conveniently situated, had she allowed them to stay where I’d put them. “It’s bad luck like that,” was all she’d say. “Bad luck to cross the lines.”
“I’ll tell you why she won’t get up of a morning,” Jane said. “And I’ll tell you why she’s not bothering to unpack the pictures and alter the curtains. She’s convinced that they’re going to die, now they’ve moved here. It’s not worth doing anything that’s lasting. She’s got it into her head that they should have stayed where they were. Where they lived. As though by coming here they’re giving in. Dad’s just been telling me.”
“Her first words when they came. “This is where we’re going to die.” What can any of us do to talk her out of that?”
“I don’t know. I really don’t know. The trouble is, she’s right. But not yet, for God’s sake. Not for a long while, yet. Your dad’s not as sprightly as he used to be, but she’s in perfect health.”
“That’s exactly what he said.”
“Don’t let it upset you, love. It would have been worse, if we’d let them stay up there—another of those damp winters.”
“I asked him if that’s why he brought his rosebush with him. To show her that he was thinking of the future. Something to look forward to, I mean.”
“And what did he say?”
“He said it was nothing of the sort. It hadn’t crossed his mind. And I don’t believe he thinks of it as your rose still. He brought it because he’s fond of it. No other reason. He said that since it’s so old, it might not survive being uprooted, but it was worth giving it a try. You know my dad—there’s nothing soft about him. If the damn thing dies of the frost, as it well might, he’s not going to read any stupid symbolism into it. He doesn’t think like that. Never has done.” She started to gather up the cups and saucers. “All the same,” she said, “I hope you’ve made as good a job of planting it as you can. He said to say thanks for taking the trouble.”
We left it at that. After dinner, Jane went round to spend an hour with them. I expect she found the right words to say; common-sensical things about what her plans were for the next few days, when she’d be driving into town, how she’s thinking of preparations for Christmas. She won’t have said anything about death or getting old, and she won’t have done any false jollying. Jane’s very like her father. When she’d been gone about half an hour, I went out into the garden for a breath of fresh air. A touch of frost was crisping the grass, and the sky was clear. For a few minutes I watched them from the far side of the lawn. Light was blazing from the living-room window. I saw Jane get up and walk towards the window, stand on a chair, undo the curtain-hooks, slowly. By this time tomorrow, I guess, she’ll have fixed those frayed hems.