THE FRAGRANCE OF WHITE ROSES
It was the television which first made Beth think David was trying to reach her. It started to come on of its own accord and at the most peculiar times of day and night. At first she put it down to the set, which was old. Then she thought it might be the video machine, because the signal came in through that. Or so she understood. She wasn’t sure, though, because David had always handled that side of things.
But she began to take note of which programmes were coming on. There was Grand Prix motor racing from the other side of the world, or tips for amateur painters or an Open University course on the role of gladiatoral combat in Roman society, all the sort of things David was interested in. The telly came on in the morning for two married chat show hosts, and it came on in the late afternoon for a word game. They had always watched the two programmes together, Beth doing the ironing and David doing his crossword puzzle.
David was always fascinated by television. He had been in his late forties when the family first acquired a set. They couldn’t afford to buy one and had been gifted it by neighbours emigrating on the government’s assisted passage scheme to Australia. The whole family gathered to watch the crude images, which were never truly black and white but varying shades of fuzzy grey. They watched everything¾toffs singing calypsoes on the nightly news magazine, old films on Sunday afternoons, surreal children’s characters like Andy Pandy and Looby Loo, an enthusiastic David Attenborough watching natives swing across the jungle on liana vines. The kids got used to it and somehow adjusted to the fact that they could see so easily into other people’s lives, but David had been brought up in an era of closed doors and lace curtains. He never lost his awe at the machine which relayed the world to their living room.
Now that he was no longer there to watch them with her, the programmes seemed empty to Beth She’d make a pot of tea and bring it through in the mornings, but she’d find herself thinking how smarmy the presenters’ smiles looked, or how tedious all actors were. She wanted to smash the jolly fat women who wittered about cookery right in the face.
In the old days she cooked beautiful dinners. She got the recipes out of women’s magazines. When David’s family came to dinner for the first time she made crown roast of lamb, with little paper hats on top of the chop bones and a dish of apple and mint jelly on the side. There were profiteroles for afters, with a smooth dark chocolate sauce. Her husband’s niece Peggy was in awe of her. The only desserts their family had ever had were fern cakes from the City Bakeries or sherry trifle at Christmas. ‘You were the first great cook, Beth,’ she said at the funeral, though Beth had done none of the catering. She was too tired. They went to a hotel instead and had Scotch broth and steak and kidney pie, David’s favourite foods. Beth had always loathed both.
It was over one of those family meals that she and David first started their long-running discussion about the nature of existence, about life and death. Beth knew David was cleverer than she was; that was one of the reasons she found him so exciting, though sometimes he exasperated her too. On their honeymoon he went for a quick walk and came in hours later with what he claimed was a Roman coin. It was pouring that afternoon and he was soaked right through. She wouldn’t have minded if he’d remembered it was their honeymoon and had fun taking his wet clothes off, but he was so excited about his discovery that he spent the next day and a half phoning up universities and famous coin collections to check what he’d found. In between sneezes.
The story became one of those family fables, the first marker in a long dialogue that went on throughout their marriage: she sensible and wedded to the world, he with his mind engaged elsewhere. David’s was a curious, and to her, fascinating mind. He would wrestle equally happily with esoteric philosophical problems and with the minute details of how machines worked. If her washing machine failed he would have all the parts spilling over the kitchen floor and into the hall, like guts falling out of the belly of the machine. Sometimes he even put them all together again. But he would also spend hours discussing the beauty of mathematics or the work of Kierkegaard.
She never missed ‘Coronation Street.’
In the other’s weakness each found a kind of strength. Beth was doubly practical and down-to-earth so that he could explore the universe of thought for both of them. He was doubly interested in the mechanics underlying daily life so that she could put all her creativity into the graces of home-making. If to a certain degree they were each trammelled by the expectations of the other, they compensated for it by a joint mythologising of their life together. No-one else’s life was as funny as they found their own to be.
But with David, the intense humour was accompanied by an intense sensation that the world and the universe in which it stood were not wholly benign. Beth never felt herself to be unhappy, no matter how awful things were, so she could never understand the black moods that sometimes gripped David. Sometimes his tantrums just blew up out of nowhere. Once, in a rather fine restaurant near Wells Cathedral, he flew completely off the handle when he thought the waiter was mimicking his Scottish accent. ‘I’m calling the manager. That guy’s taking the mickey. Do you hear the stupid, high-pitched way he’s talking?’ he said.
‘She’s a woman,’ said Beth. ‘She comes from Fife.’
The moods could not always be laughed away. There were days on end when it seemed as if life was too difficult for David. He couldn’t concentrate on his pupils’ English essays; he was bored even with his beloved theory of relativity. Beth would try to talk to him about perfectly ordinary things and his face would close off from her, as if he was locked in behind it somewhere, unable to respond. She hated the lack of connection, hated him when he was like that, missed him. She felt it was his fault, that he could do something about it, even though in her rational mind she understood he could not.
But when things were normal, when the him of him was restored, David could be the most romantic man in the world. He didn’t always remember birthdays or anniversaries, but once, when they had an argument, he planted a rose bush specially for her. It was called ‘Peace,’ a white rose with the flush of pink at its heart. She laughed when she found out the name. When she reached 70 he had a star named after her. They read about it in the paper and both agreed it was a pretty silly way to spend money, but David sent off to the address in the paper without telling her and then presented the certificate at her birthday dinner. They both laughed. But Beth loved the thought that somewhere out in the night sky was an astral celebration of her.
In the early days of their marriage his family often came for dinner. Or ‘tea’ as they called it in those days. He was morose as she served the whole ham baked in cider and cloves, the piped duchesse potatoes. ‘I love mash,’ said his older brother, eager to compliment the chef before he’d even eaten. Beth smiled at him and piled his plate high.
It was enough to produce a paroxysm of jealousy from David. Out in the kitchen, between courses, he turned the hot tap on to disguise the sound of him hissing at her. ‘Why are you being so nice to Charlie? Do you think I’m daft? That I don’t see what you’re doing?’ She looked at him in astonishment. ‘Don’t be so ridiculous, David,’ she said haughtily, producing an airlock from the hot tap and a gurgling sound from her husband.
That night, towards the end of the meal, they all got on to religion and the way modern living was eroding people’s morals. David was very quiet, and she knew it was because in some as yet indefinable way he no longer saw through the same eyes as his hotly Catholic family. Only when they had all gone away and the two of them were sitting with empty whisky glasses and full ashtrays crowding in on them, did he admit he no longer believed in God or the afterlife.
To Beth, God came complete with angels and a shimmering heaven in some undiscovered corner of the universe. This was an utter shock. ‘But who do you think made the world?’ she asked. And was somewhat disconcerted when he seemed amused. ‘Who?’ he said gently. ‘Why should it be who?’ His description of the Big Bang theory left her bored as much as bemused. ‘You might as well say Big Ben invented the world,’ she said. ‘That’s just as plausible as God,’ said David, maddeningly.
This debate too became part of the mythology of their marriage, a knotty little outcrop working against the shared grain. There were times when they were so close that Beth lost all sense of herself. She became ‘Mum’ even to herself, the designated controller of daily living. David as much as the children used this name, not because he looked on her as a mother, but almost as one of those affectionate private names you see in the personal columns of newspapers. Where these people called each other ‘Poochie Poo,’ or ‘Snuffles,’ they called each other ‘Mum’ and ‘Dad.’ So their squabbles about the provenance of the world came as a useful reminder to both of them that they were separate human beings and not simply part of some great welter of gene creation.
Not long before David died they had their final discussion on the subject. Their children were there, for once without the accompanying rabble of grandchildren and partners and grandchildren’s partners. Over Drambuies they talked about a forthcoming eclipse of the sun and where would be the best place to view it. ‘Up on the moors,’ said their daughter Ella, the romantic one. David talked of an eclipse he had seen in his youth, when the sky went dark and a kind of shiver ran through all the people watching; everything in the world seemed to be in a state of suspended animation. ‘My mother thought the end of the world had come,’ he said.
That set them all off wondering whether the world would ever end and whether there was life on other planets and how it all began anyway. David’s shrunken frame seemed possessed of a strange energy as they talked. ‘If I think about infinity, it seems to go on and on in my mind and I get dizzy,’ he said. ‘It’s like falling in a dream. You’re in blackness and everything lurches and you don’t know where you are. I find it frightening.’
There was silence round the table. David was very weak. His cancer had become much worse over the last few months. Beth felt cold. She couldn’t bear the thought of her frail husband being afraid. Not now, in his last days.
She remembered that conversation on the day he died. She didn’t realise he was going to go, though he held her hand and told her she comforted him. ‘You look especially beautiful today,’ he said. She still thought he was going to be all right, that this was just a day of sickness. He was vomiting, a thin stream of little more than mucus because there was nothing left in his stomach. She wiped his mouth and face and went to throw the tissue in the wastepaper basket. As she walked back toward the bed, she saw the look. It was a look she had never seen before. His eyes were focused on something she could not see, something beyond the limits of this little room. He drew himself up in the bed. His nose became hawklike, his mouth set. He was glaring into nothingness. Beth thought he looked as if he was facing down the devil.
In the days and months that followed Beth went over and over that day in her mind. She was afraid that he had been afraid at the end, afraid that she had let him down by not recognising the moment when it came. For the first time in her life she took no comfort from the thought of heaven and the afterlife. It did not seem to her that David was anywhere. Before he died she had imagined that she would sense his presence with her. Now that he was gone she sensed nothing. She felt only his absence.
So when the television started switching itself on and she was nowhere near it, it was as if a tiny sprig of hope had been proffered to her. ‘I’ll come back and let you know if there’s something beyond this,’ David had said, teasing. ‘What? And admit you were wrong?’ Beth said and they both laughed. ‘You'd better do something big enough so I know it’s you.’
She told Ella about the mysterious behaviour of the television. Ella’s husband James said it meant either the television or the video was on the blink, but Beth and Ella both had this sneaky hope that it was nothing scientific at all. ‘Why would it come on if it was on the blink?’ demanded Ella. ‘Surely it would be much more likely to keep going off?’ James explained that it was something to do with electrical synapses, that the connections were being made intermittently as a prelude to total blackout. It was not a comforting explanation.
That night, after Ella and James had gone home, there was a power failure in the area. The lights went off in the living room as Beth sat there brooding. Without the street lights it was pitch black. Beth thought James might have left behind some matches when he finished his pack of cigarettes. As she scrabbled around for them in the dark, she caught an elusive flash of scent. She abandoned the search for light and sought the smell. It was both musky and sweet, like the rose David had bought for her. There were no flowers in the room, and she wondered was it the smell of furniture polish or a lingering scent memory from Ella’s perfume? She had read of Padre Pio, the Catholic mystic, who was said to incarnate himself in the scent of violets. Maybe something similar was happening with her much loved husband.
Some months after David’s death, Ella decided Beth should have a holiday. They got cheap flights to Paris in a promotion so bargain basement that the fares cost less than the airport tax. Ella found them a hotel through the internet. Beth had always been intimidated by the thought of this ultra-modern form of communication, but the hotel was lovely and clean, close to Notre Dame.
They arrived quite late, but Ella still insisted they walk down by the Seine to see the great cathedral. It was only April, but a warm night. Some Africans were drumming in the square in front of Notre Dame. With the heat and the scent of trees and the river, the complex kaleidoscope of rhythms being pounded out by the drummers made Beth feel at once grounded in the earth beneath her feet, and yet soaring high above the square like a bird. The cathedral was pure white in the darkness, the finely wrought detail of its tracery lost in the luminosity of its presence. Beth felt almost happy.
Over the next few days she and Ella were drawn back there again and again. It was not that Beth found comfort in the religion being celebrated here. She was no longer convinced by the idea of God. But here people had worked together to create something beyond themselves, something very lovely. There was a service there one day and they stayed to listen to the music, the evening Salve Regina. Beth disliked the words. Even in Latin, moaning and wailing in this vale of tears seemed too pompous for her own life. But the music was beautiful. The choir’s voices lifted towards the vaulted ceiling, like the outpourings of one exquisite shared soul. Upwards journeyed the sound, up beyond the carved choir and the light suffusing the nave, up the length of the slender columns, to the knot where the points of the arch met. There the sound melted, dissolving into this stone junction which bound the roof to the earth and prevented it stretching into eternity.
At midnight on their last night Beth and Ella went for a drink at a little cafe on the Petit Pont, just opposite Notre Dame. They were disappointed to find that the cathedral was unilluminated. ‘Only in the summer, when the tourists are here,’ said the waiter. Still, they drank their glass of cold champagne and thought of David. ‘I wish your Dad could be here,’ said Beth.
‘Yes,’ said Ella, then, ‘I wish the cathedral was lit up.’ As she spoke there was a sudden flare of light and they could see the jagged teeth of the spire, the primeval flying buttresses like some giant pterodactyl’s wings. The iron roof of the main chapel was bleached white as if a bolt of lightning had set it ablaze. Beth felt something fierce pierce the centre of her chest. ‘I told him he’d to make sure I knew it was him,’ she said. Ella laughed exultantly. ‘Well, that’s spectacular enough,’ she said.
But she asked the waiter about it as they left. He told them that the bateaux-mouches carrying tourists on their midnight cruises lit up the cathedral as they passed. Ella shrugged, disappointed despite herself. ‘Oh well,’ she said.
They stepped out of the cafe. Beth said nothing, for she was struggling to contain the sensation that the fragrance of white roses, musky and sweet, had come to her in the darkness of this Paris street.