A Rose By Any Other Name by Newton Webb
It was cold and damp, a typical February morning in Kent, as Sara sat looking under the polythene sheets in her rockery. No matter what she tried, she couldn't recreate the gardens she'd seen in Crete. Her particular patch in Kent’s garden of England just didn't have the baking sun or the right soil for it. She dug out the deep taproots of the dandelions that were more than happy to try and take over her attempt to recreate Eden. 'Tea and toast,' Dennis bellowed from the bedroom window. She jumped. The small trowel slipped and cut through the root instead of neatly excavating it. Her husband was awake and from the sounds of it, was feeling the effects of last night down the Red Lion.
'Coming right up,' she called back to him. It would be time to get Rory ready for school soon anyway. Leaving the weeds in her bucket, Sara headed inside to boil the kettle.
Rory was already sitting at the kitchen table, gripping the latest edition of the Eagle comic in his hands. She poured him a glass of milk which he duly ignored, his attention dominated by Dan Dare's adventures on the planet Venus. Making a fresh pot of tea, she grilled two slices of toast for Dennis, then set about a new batch for Rory and herself. 'Rory, get this up to your dad.' She handed him the plate and a chipped mug of milky tea. Rory could smell lavender as she leant over him. His eyes gleamed as he dashed to obey. Her eyes dropped down to his comic and she smiled.
She filled the sink with hot soapy water and gently dropped the dishes into it. Popping into the living room, she collected the glasses from last night. Dennis had kept her up entertaining his old partner in crime, Reggie. It didn't take a master detective to tell that they had hit the whisky after the pub. No wonder Dennis is in a foul mood.
A frown crossed her brow. On the side table was a sales brochure for a jewellery shop in Hatton Garden and a AA Map of London. A sick feeling churned in her stomach. Dennis had promised her that the last job would be his final one. Their house in Kent was meant to be a retirement bolt hole where they could live off the proceeds of his past jobs.
Dennis had made it this far through luck and skill, but that wouldn't last forever. As far as she was concerned this job was the last straw.
* * * * *
Waving Dennis off to the Red Lion, she returned to fill the sink with the dishes from lunch. Rubbing the hot suds over the greasy plates, she reflected on the latest time she had been happy. It had been in Crete, on their honeymoon drinking wine in the tavernas by the sea and basking in the scent of the salty sea, the sweet honeysuckle and the roasting lamb. The sounds of merriment, laughter and the gently lapping waves. The white washed buildings stood in stark contrast to the colourful people and vibrant way of life.
On her return, she had immediately set about recreating the beauty of Crete in her garden with a trellis, wooden decking and the pride of her garden, a large rockery. But like her marriage, it had never really taken off. Like her marriage, it became choked by weeds and failed to grow. It just wilted.
The doorbell rang. Startled, Sara dropped the plate she was drying. It shattered into tiny pieces as it hit the tiled floor. Pausing in indecision, she looked at the broken crockery, threw her hands up, and answered the door.
'Hi, hi, hi.' Her friend Hazel beamed at her. No matter the situation, Hazel was always able to put a positive spin on things. Leading her into the kitchen, Hazel gasped at the shattered crockery and immediately, the two of them set to clearing it up.
Crisis over, they settled down with cups of tea. 'What's got you all riled up then, pet?' Hazel blew on her mug, displacing a gout of steam.
'I think Dennis is planning another job.' Sara confessed. She looked down. 'He said the last one would be the final job. He promised me. How could I have been so stupid?'
'Oh, Sara.' Reaching over, Hazel stroked Sara's hand. 'I suspected Reggie might be up to something.' Looking her in the eyes, she asked, 'Are you going to do what we discussed?'
'Of course, I'm done expecting him to change. I've got a taxi coming in an hour to take us to the train station. I'm going to pack up Rory's things and take him with me to stay at his Aunt Jane's.'
'You are making the right decision. This is no life for a child.' Hazel sipped at her tea.
'What about you?' asked Sara.
Hazel pulled a face. 'We don't have kids to worry about. If Reggie goes down it won't change much for me. It isn't like he spends much time at home anyway. He's always out with your Dennis.' She laughed. 'Sometimes, I wonder if it's you or Reggie that is Dennis's real wife.'
Sara got up. 'Well, Hazel, thank you so much. You have always been my best friend. But, I had best get Rory ready.'
'Good luck, Sara and god speed.'
* * * * *
There was a honk from outside.
'Rory!' she called. A small pale face appeared and then came running down the stairs. His knobbly knees poked out above long socks. Chucking a scarf around his neck, Sara pulled a woollen cap over his head. He could smell her lavender perfume as she adjusted his jacket. 'Come along.' She planted his suitcase in his hand and then opened the door to see... Dennis.
Dennis looked smug as he peeled off a note and handed it to the taxi driver. The taxi slowly reversed and left. Fear gripped her heart. 'Dennis,' she said. Her voice sounded thin and reedy. Warily she put down the suitcase and walked towards him. 'I told you, we have a kid now. We agreed, no more jobs.'
'Is that why I find you skulking out of here like a thief? You coward. You couldn't even face me, could you.' He stepped towards her. 'Our family stays together. Forever. You know that Sara.'
'Go inside Rory. Wait in your bedroom,' Sara ordered. Her stern matronly voice quavered. 'It's all going to be fine. Just go inside.'
'Well then, we have matters to discuss, don't we.' Dennis pointed at the garage. 'Why don't we step into my office and have a wee dram, eh?'
'Dennis...' She took a step back.
His eyes hardened. 'You can step in there now, dear or I will drag you in by your treasonous hair. Do you understand?'
She looked at the garage. 'Promise me that you’ll look after Rory and I'll do whatever you want.'
'Oh, he'll be fine. I already have someone to take care of him. Someone who won't try and separate him from his dad.' He pointed. 'Come along. Chop, Chop.' He grinned. The smile failed to reach his eyes, which resembled cold, dead lumps of coal. 'I haven't got all day.'
* * * * *
'Where is Mum?' Rory asked as Hazel cooked dinner.
'With your Aunt Jane,' she said, smiling. 'She had a right barney with your father and needed some time to really think about what is important in her life. Don't you worry, she'll be back soon enough. She has just been very stressed recently.'
She would never leave me here.
He looked down at his pork chop with roast potatoes and carrots. His appetite faded. Cutting them up and forking them into his mouth, he fell silent.
'Tell you what, why don't we plant a rose in the garden to show just how much we love her?' Hazel mixed him a glass of squash. 'She would love that.'
Rory nodded. 'A red rose.'
'Of course, I'll pick one up tomorrow. We can plant it together.' Hazel beamed at him. 'We are going to be great friends, Rory.'
I don't want to be your friend. I want my mum.
After dinner, he excused himself. His dad was still down the pub. He'd been there since he'd argued with Mum. His plate was on the side. The gravy had grown cold. White patches of pork fat were congealing on the surface.
He heard the front door slam and the heavy tread of drunken footsteps as his dad returned. He rinsed a claw hammer and returned it to the cupboard.
He lay in bed, eyes open. Sleep eluded him. He knew his mother was never returning. He could feel it in his blood. He was trapped with his father, the ogre, the bogeyman—the ever-present source of fear in his life.
He didn't sleep that night.
In the morning, he lumbered out of bed, red-eyed and swaying from exhaustion. Hazel was waiting for him. A large bowl of porridge sat congealing on the table. Next to it was a glass of milk. Numbly, he consumed both before leaving to walk to school.
* * * * *
When Hazel had put the beef joint into the oven, she picked up a bowl of batter. 'Come on, Rory. I got you a little something for your mum.' Leading him outside, they walked down to the end of the garden to where Hazel had left a small white rose and, next to it, a trowel.
'Thank you, Hazel.' A large trench of disturbed soil attracted Rory's attention. 'What is that?'
Hazel was beating the batter to get the fresh air into it. 'Leave that well alone Rory, that is just manure to help the garden. Look how vibrant it is becoming.'
Rory looked around. Sure enough, for the first time, their garden was blooming despite the season. His mum’s plants were looking healthy, green and sturdy. Her centrepiece, a small olive tree, was flowering for the first time with small crimson blooms.
The bushes of star jasmine were thick and luxurious. The star-shaped blooms they were named after blossomed with velvety red petals. He peered closer, he was sure that they had been white last year.
Clumps of oregano, rosemary, and thyme were spreading across the bed. Bees were buzzing happily, harvesting the fresh nectar. A wondrous sense of calm settled over Rory. Having successfully beaten enough fresh air into the batter, Hazel had disappeared inside to make Yorkshire puddings.
Rory looked at the trench.
If it's manure then it'll be good for the rose.
Rory took out the rose and dug a small hole for it in the disturbed soil. He planted the rose in the middle of it and tamped down the earth. As he admired the rose, one of its thorns pricked him. He winced and looked at his finger. Blood welled up and he sucked it to staunch the bleeding.
His father was back home from the Red Lion, early for once, Reggie was with him and they both tucked into the roast beef.
'This is magnificent, thank you, Hazel.' Dennis raised his pint to her. She beamed in response. 'I got a little something for you this morning while I was out.' He held out a small box.
Hazel opened it and squealed with excitement. It was a silver pendant with a mounted sapphire. Handing it to him, she excitedly asked him to put it on for her.
'Oh, course.' He pulled her hair clear and clasped it shut.
Hazel ran to find a mirror, leaving Dennis to smirk at Reggie. They clinked pints as Dennis forked another two Yorkshire puddings onto his plate.
After dinner was over, they retreated into the living room for private conversation while Rory was banished to his room to read his comics.
It was early in the morning. The sky was still dark when Rory first woke up and heard it. A whisper, almost a sigh.
It could almost be a gust of wind. Rory snuggled down into his duvet, pulled a pillow over his head, and remained awake until the sun rose.
* * * * *
When he returned from school, he heard a scraping, a whimpering, then a bang. Creeping through the house, he saw his father slamming into Hazel through a crack in the kitchen door. She was mounted on the table moaning with pleasure.
He backed away. Ditching his bag, he ran outside.
He walked slowly towards the rockery. The plants had exploded in size. He marvelled at the rich, verdant foliage, then saw the rose, his rose. It was already a large bush sporting dozens of red blooms. Its roots had covered the trench with a thick mass. Not one of the blooms was white. He raised one of the flowers to his nose and the scent... the scent was lavender. He had a sudden vision of his mother, of her thick cream jumper, of her rubber boots, of her cradling a cup of tea. He looked at the trench.
He heard it again. This time he listened to the faint whisper.
Looking down at the trench, he shuddered. A tear rolled down his cheek. 'Mum?'
He placed his hand under the rose bush and pressed it against the soil. 'Mum,' he whispered. A sudden sharp prick lanced into his hand. He jerked it back. Thorns were visible in the soil. His hand was bleeding.
'Rory, I'm sorry, I’m just so hungry.'
* * * * *
Rory backed away from the rockery, creeping back inside the house. He hid in his bedroom until he was summoned to dinner.
Dennis was home early from the pub for once, he'd brought Reggie and they were tucking into the roast beef as Rory came down. Raising his pint, Dennis graciously toasted. 'Compliments to the chef. You make a fine meal, Hazel.'
Chuckling, Reggie clinked with him.
'Come here, Hazel.' Dennis held out a small box. 'This morning, I was having a good old look around and I found you a token, a small token, of my appreciation.' Hazel squealed with glee and clacked over in high heels and apron.
Her eyes widening theatrically, she held up the box for everyone to admire.
Opening the box, she revealed a platinum bracelet.
Eyes widening, she clipped it round her dainty wrist.
Dennis smiled through a mouth full of Yorkshire pudding. He forked another onto his plate for good measure.
Rory had finished his meal and was sitting politely when his dad looked up at him. 'Fetch the whisky and two glasses, son. The men need to talk.'
Rory nodded and did as his father told him.
He waited in his bedroom, listening to the commotion downstairs. After about an hour, the front door slammed shut as the men moved on to the pub. Walking downstairs to the kitchen, he saw Hazel dancing around as she gathered up the dishes.
'You know Dad hid another present for you.' Rory gathered up some plates and brought them over to Hazel as she put her rubber gloves on at the sink. 'He was talking about it with Reggie, about where to hide it. Rory went back to grab the empty whisky glasses. 'He buried it outside by the rose bush. Something about a ring.'
Clasping her hands together and peeling off the yellow washing-up gloves, Hazel leapt about with excitement. 'You have to show me where exactly.'
'I don't know,' Rory said dubiously. 'I don't want to get in trouble.'
Hazel gripped his hands, her eyes feverish with glee. 'Rory! You can trust me. We are best friends.'
'Okay, but you must act surprised when he shows it to you.' Rory warned.
Hazel had already opened the back door, 'Yes, yes.'
Rory led her to the rose bush. 'It's down there.' He pointed.
Peering down, Hazel poked at the bush with her hand. 'Oh, it's all thorny. Where is it, Rory?'
'It's just under the soil, by the roots.'
Placing her head under the leaves, she scrabbled under the bush on her knees. 'Oh Rory, I can't find--Rory, I am stuck!'
Rory watched dispassionately as Hazel started to choke. Rose branches coiled around her throat. The thick scent of lavender wafted up from the rose bush as it shivered. Its thorns lanced into her skin.
Rory smiled. 'Compliments to the chef. Hazel makes a fine meal, Mum.'
* * * * *
Rory was waiting at the kitchen table when the front door slammed open, indicating that Dennis had come home from The Red Lion. He was drunk and stumbling.
'What are you doing up?' he slurred at Rory.
Rory looked up, his face crestfallen. 'It's Hazel. She is hurt.'
'What?' Dennis started forwards, correcting his gait after almost tripping. 'Where is she?'
Rory pointed at the back door. 'She was in the garden, Dad, in her high heels, and fell down. I didn't want to call the authorities because...'
'Never call the authorities!' Dennis bellowed. 'We don't want their kind sniffing around here, thinking they are better than us.'
Dennis stumbled outside. He could see the distant shape of Hazel through the dense foliage. 'Hazel? Hazel.' He looked down at her with horror. The roots bound her to the soil. Her limbs were tied with rose branches as thick thorns punctured her skin. She was a dried sack. A large red rose blossomed out of her mouth.
A claw hammer smashed into the back of Dennis's skull. He spun furiously. 'Ow, that hurt, you little prick--'
Dennis growled and tried to lurch forward, but the roots had wrapped around his ankle, pulling him backwards. He stumbled, falling backwards into the beckoning branches of the rose bush.
'Our family stays together. Forever. You know that, Dad.' Rory held the bloody claw hammer to one side as he stared at his father.
The scent of lavender filled the air as Dennis was entombed by nature.
* * * * *
Rory sat on the train to Nottingham, reading the latest issue of The Eagle. He hummed a tune to himself. Beside him sat a cutting of a red rose bush in a plain, terracotta pot. Sniffing, he detected the delicate scent of lavender.