SHE hears him outside the bedroom window -the sound of the spade like a hacking cough as he digs, slicing into soil.
He grunts as he leans into the job. She hears the crack of branches breaking, the thud as he throws them aside. He’s demolishing the rose garden.
There’s one remaining rose in a jar on the dresser; he promised not to dig up the bushes before this year’s bloom was over, and at least he’s kept his word.
She savours the deep burgundy of this lone survivor, its image reflected in the mirror behind it as though it would reproduce itself in defiance.
Worth 1000 words: Margaret Leggatt’s winning short story Coming Up Roses was inspired by Max Mason-Hubers’s photo of a man and his dog resting in the shade.
He’s right, of course, this time. Roses weren’t the best option for that bed, shaded as it was until mid-afternoon. It produced few blossoms, but the colour and fragrance when they appeared took her breath away.
She never picked them, but left them there, outside the bedroom window, so the aroma would drift in when the breeze was right, filling the room with sweetness.
Miriam rouses herself and moves the jar away from the mirror. Defiance never helps.
“Ah, you’re awake,” he calls, spotting her. “Enjoy your nap? Thought I’d get started before you changed your mind.”
She watches him from the window, his back and shoulders straining, his face glistening with sweat, red with exertion. He isn’t a young man anymore.
Miriam was drawn to Graeme when they met by the way he tilted his head to one side and hesitated, considering before he spoke; because of his seriousness. She was tired, at the time, of flatterers, of men too quick with the right thing to say. She’d been hurt of course, and recently, by such a one. His brooding quietness answered some need in Miriam. He had depths to plumb. She was intrigued.
They started out like most young families of their generation: a rented flat, three kids before they could really afford them, the slow haul up the ladder to a degree of security.
Miriam goes through to the back of the house, to the kitchen they’ve recently renovated. He comes in through the back door, wipes his face on his sleeve and moves beside her to pour a glass of water.
They’re cramped, there by the sink. “I knew we shouldn’t have put in so many cupboards, Miriam. I knew we’d have no space to move. I wish we’d thought about it longer. I should have known it wouldn’t work.”
Miriam smiles and nods. It is small, but she loves it. She loves having the room to store things, and the broad marble bench with space to spread out when she’s cooking. She knows not to disagree. No point.
Graeme sits at the table, takes a long drink and sighs. “That’s that, then. Those roses were wrong for that spot. I should have known. Thorny, unproductive things; a waste of space.”
Miriam smiles and joins him at the table.
This kitchen setting was their first purchase when they bought the house. Thirty years ago it was perfect – sturdy, and big enough for the five of them.
Now, of course, it dominates their diminished kitchen space. Miriam knows every dent and scratch in its surface. She remembers every set of birthday candles that have marked the years. She has pushed it against a wall and removed the extra chairs, but still, it leaves little room for movement. Graeme says nothing as she squeezes in across from him, but she reads his face.
It isn’t clear to Miriam exactly when discontent became the theme of their life together, when Graeme’s youthful introspection and self-analysis, the qualities that attracted her in the beginning,revealed their true colours, and Graeme became lost in regrets.
It isn’t clear when the effort of arguing for the positives became too hard.
“We could have put on an extension,” he says now. “I should never have settled for that second-rate job offer. I should have held out for more pay. I would have got it. If only I’d waited. We wouldn’t be here now, in a house that’s too small, and the boys never coming to stay because there’s no room. We’d have been on easy street.”
Miriam casts her eyes down and gathers her wits. What has made him remember that, at this moment?
The words are out before she can catch them, and she knows it’s too late. “You did what you thought best at the time. No-one can tell the future. You were a new graduate, and the company’s been good to us, really. We’ve been all right. The boys are just busy with their own lives, that’s all.”
“Easy for you to say,” he snaps. “You don’t know how hard it’s been, with my brothers all sailing through life, while I’m stuck in a dead-end job with a wife who always thinks everything’s rosy. Why can’t you face reality sometimes? We’re going nowhere. Every move we make is cursed.”
Miriam stands. She’s seen this coming for days now – Graeme’s burst of enthusiasm and energy, the rose-bush removal campaign, his exertion to dig them out today, to have them gone and replaced with something better. She’s been there before. She knows the signs. But it doesn’t get any easier.
She returns to the bedroom. There’s nothing she can say. He’ll finish his drink, go outside and brood for a time.
She remembers reading something about two dogs, a black one and a white one, fighting for dominance in each human soul. Graeme knows the black one well. He feeds it.
She imagines a large, gentle, pale dog, its tail wagging, watchful eyes turned towards Graeme. She imagines it leaning in so close that he could reach out and touch it, if only he would.
Outside her window the shadows lengthen, this last afternoon of summer. She lifts the rose from its water and drops it in the waste bin.