A Bed of Roses?
By Michael D Swindells
Is this what garden leave feels like? Friends, colleagues, others you have known thrown out to graze, put to a pause. But you didn’t imagine it could happen to you. You could define the logic, the greater good, the opt out for the unfortunate human in question. But still, you didn’t imagine it could happen to you.
You know it’s time. There’s a ruffle of air in the room, respite to the cloying warmth. In the foreground there are suppressed voices from the past, voices that reach forward, step back, fade into the background. Behind that the symphonic hum of construction. That crisp airflow is interrupted by speech, familiar, clear. Their intensity changes. the pressure over your face, the mask that tightens muscles, deep scored furrows around those eyes, the ones you studied hard to win, earned at successive sittings over time, that thing you know it is.
There is just the breeze. You feel it blowing over …
Your hammock is suspended from an arc, a curve of engineered Birch, angled to achieve the breath of God, rippling over the bed of Piccadilly gold standard roses, the ones you planted in memory of your mother. When one died, a victim of a parasitic blight, you learnt the truth about the species, that they poison the soil with a self-concocted chemical in a game of warfare. The replacement didn’t stand a chance.
That semi-breeze defuses the heat that this extended summer has created, swaddled from neck to toe in a white shawl, voiceless, a silent passion on a movie set. The fragrance holds, fills the space to near suffocation, intensity builds in your throat, and you begin to choke. A hammer drill breaks the silence. The breeze returns, the air refreshed.
You pulled into the service station ahead of schedule. They were glad you had offered to help, an opportunity to spend time. Your sisters’ children, boys you had known throughout their life, present at the birth of one, back in the day when you had the power to gown up, be there in the delivery room. Your eyes testified to the long slog, the pause, that moment when breath didn’t come. You yourself panicked, knew the procedure as well as they did, traced each step with them. You took that breath in tandem.
He was dressed in a lemon baby grow, the start of a new tradition. She hadn’t wanted to know, liked the surprise. That breeze flowed through the delivery suite until the doors closed. The heat built as you knew it would, one last push. On its second use, just over a year later, you were absent, a position too good to refuse.
The elder called shotgun and took the front passenger seat. He threw their rucksacks, one a vibrant rainbow, at the younger who stowed them in the empty spaces in the rear. Over the summer they had bleached their hair, strong proud daffodils. They acted like twins. You wanted to ask about the rucksack, but didn’t, unsure of how to form the argument. These were the young men who watched as you dug the bed that the roses occupy. Their voices fill the space.
The elder has cranked the heating to an uncomfortable stickiness and the choking feeling builds. He unscrews the cap from the Evian and raises it to your lips. You try to gulp but it won’t happen, the innate action has betrayed you. The voice from the back seat, softer, gentle is disguising the emotion he feels. You want to comfort him, but that role is not yours. You hear the klick, then the melody of the window being lowered. The music of roadworks, concrete compactors, saws break the moment. The air is refreshed by the action, onslaught of the motorway din.
The front seat passenger fiddles with the settings for your Sat-Nav. The voice has changed, a sing-song American boy band with a whiney tone. They sing-song back the directions in imitation of the synthetic speech. By the next junction you have joined in. They begin to add their own words, improvised sit-down comedy, throwing lines between the pair. Join in. You know you want to.
The vocal range adjusts, takes on a lighter, higher pitch gaining momentary clarity and your eyes search for the source. Focus evades you. A chilled blast blows through the window followed by a pocket of warmed air. You cough, uncontrolled. Something has changed, the water has a tang, a metallic undertone. It is good for you.
That fragrance, heavy, enclosed, golden…
Your mothers voice in that background, the song of a joyous childhood. She had taken permanent residence in the UK after graduation. Then followed medical school and the long absences. In later life you understood, but in the slivers of recollection you recall the absence.
Your father is with her. He was the one you sought out when ‘no’ was the answer, was the one that filled the spaces, that sustained summer. Mother was the roses. Your golden-haired nephews appreciated the significance. Selling that house didn’t bring the closure you expected. It amplified the final loss. When that bed was ready, the one the hammock brushes against, they were the ones who uprooted those rose bushes, shrouded the roots in dampened newspaper and encased them in hessian sacking. They tended to their needs until you were ready to transplant. They were the grafted buds, branches from a split blood line, technically half. The power of blood.
Empty spaces taught you to understand. Those thorned stems protect. They draw blood. They watched you dig, not out of youthful idleness but hard held respect. Taking turns would have robbed you of dignity so they watched, guarded you, supported the gesture. They were the transplant.
As your cradle rocks in the breeze that golden border sways, the movement unsettling, disturbs the tick-tock of the world. The sound of construction returns, the air is sucked out of the room, that gagging sensation a fight against the pipe in your throat.
The collision crumples the boot, engineered zones absorb energy, diffuse, and distribute through the structure. The second force is deafening in comparison, the glass panels having deconstructed on impact. It propels you forward. You cough, choke, feel the trickle of moisture. A rigidness in your throat, one you understand yet fight against.
They were proud when you took that first step, when you mooted following in the family profession. Your absence made their transition a formality, hadn’t twigged the separation as you studied, locked into condensed thought. You had the knack, regurgitate words onto a page. In that swaddled coffin room, repeated the mantras, acronyms, anything to remember the volume of knowledge. When you emerged, ready to take off they were already divided. It was him who transplanted, left the family nest in the first year of medical school. She had hardly noticed, single minded in her own absorption. You understood that. You feel that rising tension in the throat and cough. The pipe constricts the action.
You struggled back to consciousness, the gilded glow, disguised concern, soothing tones. The passenger seat is empty. You try to turn your neck, shout to the boy in the rear. That voice drops the pretense, there is panic, you feel it. Something is clawing at the structure of the car, shredding the support arches. The heat rises, mechanical warmth from petrol generators powering the cutting gear. They tell you to remain calm. You know the drill. You hear the drill. Before the switch from medical to surgical there was a stint in A&E. It confirmed the strategy. You signed on for a short stretch, two years in the sharp end of the hospital, did it because of the thrill, needed the chemical blast it provided. There is the yellow reflective coat of the emergency worker keeping you under control as bodies are extracted. You feel the choking action, try to cough but the plastic stops you.
Mother didn’t cut the roses, she liked to see them in the garden. They lasted longer. Your stepmother filled the house with summer blooms from the florist, the one she worked part time at. It was the difference in perspective. Father tended the garden. Mother was at work. The boys are your nephews, blood of your half-sister, blood of yours. She supported you in the switch to surgical. She got the point. A&E had confirmed the immediacy to play semi-God. She was the one you flew to Amsterdam with, Van Gough, sunflowers. You bought a print in the gallery gift shop which she framed. A French window opens onto the patio, pot-bellied planters stuffed with miniatures of the real thing, grown from descendants of seeds you bought at the floating flower market. They shimmy in the breeze, faces to the light.
Your mouth is dry. A hand squeezes yours. Voices become clear, recognized, emotional. They have given up the pretense of normality. She’s telling you about the garden, the roses. She thinks she saw you smile. She didn’t. Not because you didn’t try, but the medication has removed that possibility. You cough, feel the absence of the tube. Then blood. The alarm, the one that triggers the nursing station to run. There’s a mild pain, a pricking of the arm.
You know she doesn’t blame you. She knows what happened, how the car in the distance braked, set off the domino ripple ending in the fall of you all. She had seen the bloodbath as they led her through the back corridors of A&E.
What she doesn’t know are the conversations taking place. You’ve formulated a prognosis. You’ve had time, the cracks between painkillers, heard the discussions in that background, when she was absent. You are unresponsive, comatose, a mental garden leave, realized you haven’t coughed for a while. Longer than expected because time has paused. Or drank, eaten, just the basic bodily functions. You know that distinctive sound. Life support. They held a bedside conference, certain of not being overheard, closed the windows to deaden the noise. But you heard, didn’t you? You know why that machine is consuming power.
There is a bright side.
You are not trapped, left that shell, arose, marched through the corridors with her, things you needed to see, the repercussions of someone else’s actions. You knew the room they had been given, the one with the sleeping space for significant others. The wing renamed, redesignated after a spruce up funded by a generous benefactors’ family seeking a possible alternative to mortality.
This is a room of time, questions, difficult ones. That question, the question she has just been asked. She is your only surviving kin. a word with specific meaning embodied into the fabric of the room. Blood. This is your bright side.
The yellow rose moment, final heads in mid-autumn before nature culls the flower, cuts buds before the cold snap. There were other conversations to remember, but you didn’t imagine it could happen to you. You approached them with as shared trained detachment. Not because you were disconnected, separated from being human, but because of it. Your face held the secret impossible choices that had to be made. Age hadn’t touched you; time had left you alone. Those questions were what did the damage.
The perfume of yellow roses has filled the room, the last of the showing before the cull. You are surprised you can smell anything. She will make the right decision, the only possible pick.
The room contains two beds, against the advice of the medical team. You understand the reasoning, the possible repercussions, would have given the same warning. These are family, that kin thing, the thing that your sister is the last of, the person with the final say.
Something is pulling you back to your space, but you resist, need to hear her make that choice.
They know you are on the register, didn’t reserve anything. Father opted to retain his eyes, wanted to know where he was going. You know there should be no question, these are your blood, established compatibility, kept the body in suspension until…the last kind thing.
She has left the room, out into the corridor and beyond to the lift. She doesn’t have your emotional control. She’d once called you cold, robotic, an unfavorable comparison to a parking meter. You follow her, aware of her destination. She’s pulled you along, one last scene. The room is full of roses, the ones you transplanted with the boys. The body is still, serene. Almost dead.
You are back in the hospital bed, your parents garden, that first family house now sold. You see the boys digging up those roses, feel the heat of their bodies, wrap those roots. They make their plan. They want to help replant them. They talk about their mother, your father, and your mother. The respect is transferred into the energy of each thrust of the spade, the switch to a fork to mitigate trauma, protecting the roots.
The hammock rocks gently, the one you gave your father on his retirement, the year before his heart attack. By then both mothers had passed. Now you know what garden leave feels like. You didn’t think it would happen to you. The elder was in the front seat, singing back the words of the boyband satnav. You joined in; you all did. This was not your fault. You feel the impact, thrown forward, unconscious.
The ambulance lights cut through the vehicles, lorries and cars halt, pulling to the curb. The voice on the radio has that playful melody. You want to sing back directions. At A&E you lead the way. They paused in the carpark; the entrance shrouded in scaffolding. Crash team pulled you back to that body, the one no longer needed – by you.
You see a body in that bed, the white sheets, calmness, take the last steps with her. You know it’s time. She’d talked to you along that corridor, no expectation of answer. As you climbed into that final resting place you tipped the roses over, toppled, sent them to the floor. Apart from two.
There is a moment where what feels like eye contact is made. She’s stroked your hand, wet your lips. In the hours when you briefly regained consciousness you coughed, stole breaths, and she had dripped water into your mouth, first from a bottle then from an ice cube. She opened the window; you had never liked the heat.
The one time she had left the hospital she had gone to your home, cut all but one of the roses of flowers, filled vases to flood your room with memories. Then they explained what you already knew. That they had induced a coma, held you in suspension. They had established facts, confirmed the register. They had stopped the discreet whispers. That decision was hers alone. You would have rationalized it for her, withdrawn the emotion like a parking meter.
Two lives were saved that day. A future overworked Senior House Officer and a Paramedic survived the accident, at the time two young men singing satnav directions, armed with a fistful of A levels who were mulling over career decisions.
There is a remaining rose bush in flower. It’s stubborn, clinging on to those last heads of gold. For you. On that day she cut only two, placed them in the whicker casket, in your left hand, trusted to take them safely home. She paused, recalled the conversation with the boys, both unable to leave their beds. A second memory propelled her to reconsider, and she cut two more, placed them in your right, returned to their root.
Five years later she still holds on to you. They know this can’t be healthy, isn’t repairing the gap that will not be filled. Their absence is the thing that she remembers. They maintained that respect, made the decision for her. On your birthday they returned to that rose bed.
She reclines on the hammock, sways gently, calms herself. They escorted you to this place but respect the task is hers alone. With time she will appreciate their sacrifice. At the edge of the lawn, they have set a screen, an old Super Eight projector runs fragments of history, yours and theirs, a splicing of celebrations, occasions transferred back into the past.
One married, two boys. She was there at the births. One partnered, a prospective husband, a match you approve of. You met him. Yellow roses, Piccadilly, fill the air. In the garden there is a new bed. They planted three, one for each child and one for you.
The new children live in your house, play in the garden you will not leave.