The Red Rose
By Aparajita Sen
‘Bring me a red rose every time you go away, and I shall be happy’ she said, looking into his blue eyes – blue as the summer sky, as the sea, as the bluebells he had given her. He smiled and touched her hand.
‘You know what happened to the girl who wanted that, don’t you’?
‘I do. I shall still hold you to your promise, if you agree’ she said.
‘I want to be held to my promise. I want to be beholden to you. I will bring you a rose every time I leave you. And I shall come back. To you, always, forever and ever’.
Nina picked up the coffee mug absentmindedly and grimaced. The coffee was stone cold and tasted like ditchwater – not that she had actually ever drank any, but believed it to be foul. She massaged the back of her neck, cursing once again the fact that she had promised her friend Anita to write for this Webzine. Anita had suddenly discovered that she had a talent for writing and had got involved in a group that published a monthly magazine catering to romantically inclined women.
‘Nina, my love, you must write for us’ she had asserted in her typically authoritative way. ‘You do write, we know that, at least you did before you met your Prince Charming. Come on, girl, you can still do it. And then, don’t you owe yourself the pleasure of writing again?’
‘Aw Anita, I am fine. What makes you think that I actually want to write?’ Nina had said.
‘Because you do’, said her friend. ‘Would you care to deny?’
Nina had not cared, and had not dared. She was not scared of Anita, but well, she knew that Anita was far more perceptive than her punk hairdo and scarlet nails would suggest. She was sharp and intuitive and a real pest. No point in taking her on.
Nina got up from her table and opened the balcony door. It was a beautiful autumn day. The honey colored sun doused the drab ordinary houses and made it magical. The shadows were sharp and
geometrical – Nina’s dowdy neighborhood looked like a chiaroscuro painted by a master. Nina took a deep breath…
It was autumn in Paris too. As she looked out of the window she could see the sun on top of the church steeple. The curtains were drawn back and she could see a couple of workmen on the roof repairing the guttering. She turned and looked at the man next to her, a pair of blue eyes staring at the ceiling.
‘What are you thinking?’ she asked, touching the soft blond hair.
‘Nothing, really’, he said.
‘You must, you have that look in your eyes’
‘Why do you always ask questions?’
‘Because I want to know. I want to know every scrap of thought that passes through your head. Does that bother you?’
‘No, but don’t you understand that there are times when you just live the moment, and can’t really say what you think’?
‘No, I can’t. I know what I am thinking. I am thinking that this is where I want to be, in this small studio, in this narrow bed, with the sun shining outside in this city made for lovers. I am thinking that we ought to get up and be outside enjoying the sun and yet I don’t want to. I am thinking that this is how it should be’.
‘This is how it should be, but it isn’t. You know that as well as I do, and it pains me too. I want you for myself at all times, not just random afternoons and evenings contrived. I want to go to sleep with you by my side; I want to wake up every morning seeing your face. Is it such a great thing to ask? No, but it is. We both know that, don’t we’?
‘Yes, small things, ordinary things – we don’t want much more, and still….’
‘Yes, Nina, still. So don’t ask me what I think. It won’t help either of us’.
It was her turn to stare at the ceiling, at the crack that ran the entire length of the room. It was like a river, twisting and turning, with small tributaries running off in all directions. ‘We shall set sail on that river, come what may. We shall find a fair shore and rest our oars’ she thought.
‘Shall I buy you a ring, Nina’? he asked. ‘A pearl, maybe? Or a ruby that you love so much? Would you wear my ring? So that I can look at your finger across a crowded room, and know you are mine’?
‘Buy me a rose instead’ she said. ‘We need no formal token’…
Nina peered at the computer screen, drumming her fingers on the table. She had no idea about how the story should now proceed. Although she had been an avid reader of penny dreadfuls in her youth, she now realized that she had no idea whatsoever about how to write one. On top of that, she had chosen a sort of medieval background for her story. Innocent maidens and honorable knights, promises and unspoken bonds….what on earth did she know about such things? What did she know about anything, for that matter, other than her own humdrum life? She cursed herself once again, and cursed Anita a few more times for dragging her into something she really didn’t want to do.
In the meantime, the shadows were lengthening outside. She could clearly hear the tram trundling down in the distance and picture the offices emptying out. It was Friday evening, and soon the happy hour would start in the neighborhood bars. She had looked forward to her day off, planning to do loads of things – a leisurely workout at the gym, a trip to the new boutique down the road, a spot of shopping. The last thought made her jump up in panic. She had absolutely nothing in her fridge other than a couple of yogurts. And she had planned on cooking a nice meal for Gary. That meant shopping. And now!
‘The young man got off his horse and lifted his face to the sky. He was tired and sad and missed his home, poor though it was. Her mother and sisters would be busy by now, cooking, cleaning, and drawing water. His brothers would be feeding the animals. He could see the tumbledown house and smell the smoke. And he could also see the manse just across the field like he was standing in front of it, talking to beautiful Rosalind and then…
No, this will not do, he told himself – he won’t allow any self-pity to slow him down. He intended making a fortune and return to the Manse one day soon. And he won’t forget the red rose. She promised to wait for him – she will keep her promise, he knew. The young man smiled. The sun was shining, the road ahead stretched to the horizon, he was young and healthy and determined. He patted his horse and led him to the little stream’…..
The lights were coming up in the residential complex outside Nina’s window, while those in the office building next door were going out. The dusk shimmered, almost like the little stream where she had gone for a picnic on a warm sunny spring day all those years back, a group of young people just happy to be out in the country. They spread their picnic on the grassy bank, used bungee cords to dip bottles of white wine in the cold stream. Several games were going on – some playing cards, some fooling around with a Frisbee, the quiet place reverberating with the sound of young carefree voices. Nina sat on the bank, watching the couple standing on the edge of the stream, hand in hand, totally absorbed. She did not know that he would come with his girlfriend. She had no idea how smart and attractive Alexandra was, totally at ease with people she did not know, charming and self-assured. Oliver had never really talked about his live-in girlfriend and Nina, as always, had opted for the ostrich policy – bury your head in the sand, don’t look, what you don’t know can’t hurt you. She felt miserable and betrayed.
‘Come play with us, Nina’ one of the card players shouted. ‘We’ll play whist, and need a fourth person’.
She had joined the card game just to do something. It did make her forget her misery. And the rest of the day had passed reasonably well, with Nina joining every game with manic energy. Oliver had tried to talk to her once while Alexandra was busy serving food.
‘Nina, I’m sorry, she was supposed to go see her parents. She changed her mind last night. I couldn’t let you know…’
‘Oh don’t worry, Oliver. She is your girlfriend, after all. And why are you sorry? Aren’t you having a good time? I am’ – she had said brightly, and felt very proud of herself when she saw how hurt he looked.
‘Don’t be like this, Nina. Don’t treat me like a pariah. Do you think I’m enjoying this? It’s like walking a tightrope – don’t you understand?’
‘Not really. Enjoy, Oliver. The sun is shining and we’re young’ she had said lightly and left it at that. Looking at the deepening dusk, Nina could still remember the long trudge back home, taking the snail like suburban train and then the metro, a self-inflicted punishment since she refused all offers for a lift back to Paris stubbornly. ‘I’m seeing a friend and need to leave before you do’, she had lied, and spent a miserable evening curled up on the settee, not watching the puerile soap on the television, the images of a handsome couple forever etched on her tired burning eyelids…
And then, all of a sudden, it was here and now. Hic et nunc. And another burst of memory – the beautiful aquarelle that was her parting gift from Etienne. Where was that watercolor? She had not thrown it away, certainly. She had meant to frame it, and never had. As she got up to switch on the lights, Nina promised herself to find it tomorrow. But right now, there were other things to do before Gary arrived. She rushed through her apartment, putting the meat in the oven, boiling water to cook the vegetables, pouring the wine in the decanter, putting the cheese out on the platter, tidying up the detritus of a day at home – books and magazines and CDs strewn all over the place. Not that Gary would notice, she thought wryly, but this is what she had been taught to do by her mother. She was glad – all this flurry of activity had driven away the cobwebs of memories from her idle brain. ‘Hic et nunc, girl’, she told herself. That’s the way to be.
‘His horse was tired by now. He had been riding the whole day, following the course of the river. He had seen towns and villages in the distance, shimmering on the horizon as a mirage, but he had not strayed from his narrow path. He intended to go to the fair city, where the king lived in his magnificent castle, and work was aplenty. He was a skilled ironsmith, but he could coax the dark stubborn metal into beautiful things too. He had made a small chariot for Rosalind once – complete
with the horses and the coachman. She had liked it. He had forged a dirk for her father too, and she had not liked that. ‘I don’t like weapons’ she had told him. ‘They are wicked and they have a will of their own. Why do you have to make knives and swords and dirks and daggers?’ she had asked, her hazel eyes brimming with tears. ‘They are evil. They make men evil. I would have you making beautiful things, like my chariot, or that little toy soldier you made for your brother’.
‘I would if I could, my love, but they don’t bring the meat to the table’ he had replied. Maybe he will be able to make enough money and have his own smithy soon. Then he could make beautiful things while his employees took care of the weapons of hate.
The sun was going down over the horizon. He was tired and sore and hungry. He would have to stop soon to avoid falling off his horse. ‘I’ll stop at the next inn I see and rest for the night’, he thought, and that made him spur his tired horse. ‘Come on, Dobs, find me an inn, and you can eat too, and rest for the night. Let us find a place where they have fresh hay and cold water and a decent stable. I shall rub you down good tomorrow and brush your mane. So let’s go’.
He left the path by the river and headed for what looked like a hamlet not far off, nestled at the bottom of a small hillock. Night was falling fast and lights were coming up while a light mist veiled the valley. Soon he was in the little village with its cobbled main street. He peered at the houses huddled on both sides– none of them seemed to be an inn. He could see figures moving inside some houses behind grubby windows. Smoke drifted out of chimneys laden with cooking smells which made him realize how hungry and thirsty he was. He walked to the end of the street, and stood in front of the last tumbledown house. The hamlet ended there, and he could not see anything beyond the fields. Desperate now, the young man knocked on the door though the there was no light in the front parlor as in the other houses. He saw a light moving through the dark interior and the door was opened by a large man wearing a leather apron.
‘What may you wanting in my house, stranger? ‘he asked in a gruff voice. ‘This is no time to come knocking on a man’s door’.
‘I am sorry, but I have travelled a very long way – I was hoping to find an inn for tonight. I shall be gone tomorrow morning’.
‘There are no inns here, young man. We don’t get many travelers here. As you can see, this is a very humble place.’
‘Can I find an inn somewhere nearby? Are there villages further up the road?’ he asked, almost collapsing with hunger and fatigue.
‘Not that I know of’, he said, ‘and I know this area pretty well’. He looked closely at the young man and seemed to make up his mind. ‘You better spend the night here. There are many dangers on this road, and I can’t send you away at this time of the night. I can offer you plain honest food and a pallet. I have hay aplenty for your horse too and fresh water in the trough’.
The young man felt faint with gratitude. ‘I shall remember your kindness all my life, Sir. I can’t pay you much today, but I shall do it one day’.
‘My hospitality is not for sale, Sir’ the man said sternly. ‘We shall eat together, and you shall be on your way tomorrow morning’.
He was shown into a small room. His host brought in a jug of water and a tallow candle. He took off his boots and stretched out on the pallet. The room was warm and smelt of fresh hay. He sighed and closed his eyes….’
The loud commentary of the rugby match floated in from the front room as Nina stared at the screen absentmindedly. It was getting late, but Gary would not move before the match was over. A bright crescent moon hung just outside her window like a Chinese lantern from an inky sky. Not a red moon that she had seen all those years back in that little village when their car had just stopped and refused to budge an inch right in the middle of a narrow country road. They had pushed the car to the side of the road, put up the safety triangle and set off to find some help. The road, bordered on both sides by tall sycamores, was illuminated by the moonlight. There was not a sound to be heard other than their footsteps. Olivier was fretting silently, Nina could tell, and yet she had felt nothing but joy. She had taken his hand and said softly that they would surely be able to find help soon and
be on their way. It was yet another snatched day with Oliver, woven with half-truths – he had to visit a factory in one of the nearby provinces and had asked Nina to go with him. It was a short visit but he had told Alexandra that it was for the whole day. He would be back in the evening. They had spent the day out in the country, walking in the forest, eating a leisurely lunch in a little country inn where they were the only diners, savoring every moment of togetherness. The comely woman serving them had told them about this lake hidden in a forest that became almost magical when the moon was full. They both wanted to see it before they set off for home, but now they would not any more, it seemed. Nina was not overly worried – she was sure that help was just around the corner…
Except that it wasn’t. When they reached the little village, they discovered that there was no garage or service station there. There was a tiny grocery store where the owner told them that the nearest garage was almost thirty kilometers away, and that it was shut for the week since the owner was in the hospital for some minor operation. They used the telephone in the shop to call a towage company who promised to come first thing in the morning. A desperate Oliver had tried everything but had to accept defeat – he could do nothing about the car that night. He finally called Alexandra to let her know. Nina had walked out of the room, but guessed later that the conversation had not really gone that well. She did not pry, however, just kept quiet while Oliver sorted things out. The shop owner towed the car to his farmhouse and offered to feed them and give them a room for the night. He refused all offers of payment, insisting that the room was in any case unused, and that his wife would kill him if he made them pay for a meal. They had spent the night, their first night together, in the attic transformed into a cozy bedroom, moonlight streaming in through the tiny glass window, in sheets smelling of lavender, under a duvet soft and warm. They had slept very little that night, totally inebriated by the moon and the silent night and by each other…
‘He woke up with a start and could not at first remember where he was. The candle had almost burnt down and the room was now quite cold. He was desperately hungry and hoped that he had not slept through dinner. He pulled his cloak closer and sat up. The house was totally silent, but the smell of cooking hung in the air. He got out of the straw bed and peered out of the door. A faint light came from the end of the dark corridor and he started walking in that direction resolutely. Soon he was standing in the doorway of the kitchen where a pot bubbled on the open hearth. The big man who had let him in stood hunched over a wooden table cutting bread. He looked up briefly from his task and asked the young man to be seated. “We shall eat soon. You must be very hungry and tired. Elga has gone to fetch some ale from our neighbor. We don’t usually drink ale” he said.
“You should not have troubled yourself, Sir. I come from a poor home, and we don’t have ale very often either”.
The man nodded and continued with his task. The young man sat at the table near the open hearth, already feeling a lot rested. He idly wondered about Elga. Must be the mistress of the house, he thought. He wished she would come soon because the bubbling pot redoubled his hunger pangs. The master of the house lifted the heavy iron pot onto the wooden table and busied himself setting out wooden bowls and spoons and pewter tankards. Now footsteps were heard in the dark passage and the young man looked up into a pair of bright blue eyes. A young girl stood in the doorway with a largish jar in her hands. Her fair oval face was framed by an abundance of bright auburn hair that tumbled down well beyond her rounded shoulders. Her cheeks were rosy from the cold, her full breasts heaving probably with the brisk walk. The man gave her a stern look and waved her to the table.
“You took long enough, Elga. I asked you not to stop anywhere”.
“I did not, Father. I had to wait for Amory to serve me” she said with a pout.
“Well, let us eat then” he said. “Serve our guest first, Elga”.
The young man could not take his eyes off the beautiful girl, though she did not look at him even once. She was graceful and dexterous, and they were soon eating the hot stew.
There was very little conversation while they ate. His host had not even asked what his name was or shown the slightest curiosity about his plans. The girl ate with lowered eyes and other than asking
once if he wanted some more stew, she did not speak. Her voice was low and melodious, almost as beautiful as her face & body – thought the young man.
Soon the meal was over, and the young man politely asked if he could go and look after his horse in the stable. ‘I have given him some hay and fresh water’ said the man. ‘But he probably needs some more. Maybe you want to rub him down as well. Elga will show you to the stables. Take a couple of candles too – the one in your room is probably burnt out by now’.
Nina almost jumped when Gary spoke to her, standing right behind the desk.
‘How long are going to be, Nina? It’s well past the witching hour. I am ready for bed – it has been a long day. And that delicious meal you put on the table – I have this lovely warm feeling in my tummy.’
‘I’ll need another five minutes’ Nina said. ‘You go on while I switch off the computer and load the dishwasher’
‘Don’t worry your pretty head about that, love. I have done it. The dishwasher’s on’.
Nina smiled tenderly and squeezed Gary’s hand ‘you do spoil me, you know’.
‘You deserve all of it and more’ he said easily and disappeared into the bathroom.
Nina lay awake long after Gary had fallen asleep. The moon peered through a chink in the curtain, an oblong patch of moonlight nestled on the floor beside the bed. She felt strangely suspended between fiction and reality but very much awake. She wondered how the story she was writing would end, totally aware that as always, the story will actually take her somewhere or nowhere and not the other way round. She was shaken by the floodgates of memory that had suddenly opened up.
She hardly ever thought of her time with Oliver any more, had not for a very long time now. But today she was remembering everything in graphic detail. Nina was very good at pushing disturbing things at the back of her mind, but it was not working today. She wondered where Oliver was now, whether he was still with Alexandra, whether he was happy. They had agreed to make a clean break and had not been in touch after that fateful evening…
Nina shut her eyes tight and turned towards Gary. Though fast asleep, he sensed the movement and put his arms around her. The warmth of his body and his regular breathing gradually calmed her down and she drifted into a deep dreamless sleep.
She woke up to a bright sunny Saturday morning to the smell of fresh coffee. Gary as usual had got up early and was pottering about in the kitchen. She lay in bed, listening to ordinary everyday sounds of her busy neighborhood. Voices floated up the open window. A dog was barking somewhere. A car honked. There was much less traffic on the road and so each sound was crystal clear. Nina ran the errand list through her head – it was going to be a busy morning. She pushed back the covers and headed for the kitchen.
‘He followed the young girl down the dark passageway and out into the stable. Dob whinnied as soon as he heard them. Elga stood to one side while he checked the water trough. He was acutely aware of her presence, and thought that he could actually smell her, mixed with the odor of the hay. “I’ll be a while, Miss. You don’t have to wait for me” he said. “If you’ll just leave the candle…”
“Can I touch him?” she asked timidly – the first words she addressed to him.
“Of course you can” he smiled. ”He is very gentle, and loves being stroked.”
After that, conversation became easy. She was curious and before long knew his whole life story – almost. For some strange reason, he did not talk about Rosalind. He told her about his ambitions, his determination to become rich and go back to his humble village. He told her about the long journey. He asked her about her own life.
“I was born here”, she said, “and I have never gone anywhere other than a country fair with my father when I was much younger. I don’t remember my mother – she died when I was very young. My father never married again, and now I look after the house and take care of my father. But I would
like to travel too, visit the big city that has all sorts of wonderful things. My friend Martha went to the city once and liked it very much.”
“Which big city?’ he asked ‘Is it where the King lives? That is where I want to go too.”
“I don’t know where the King lives. Do you”? she asked.
“No, but I am going to find out” he said.
The candle was nothing more than a stub, flickering in the gusts of wind. Dob had long finished his meal and was probably asleep by now. There was no sound anywhere but the wind howling outside. He suddenly became very self-conscious and a bit scared. He was with the daughter of his kind host in the stable and the impropriety of the situation now dawned on him. He picked up the candle from the floor to go.
“Take me with you”, said Elga.
He was not even surprised. It was as if the whole evening was leading up to this moment, and he was ready with his reply.
“I can’t, Elga. I have no money- I don’t know where I am going to be tomorrow. I have a long way to travel and find work. Your father will never accept, in any case.”
“I was not planning to tell my father” the girl said heatedly. “I don’t want to spend the rest of my life living here and taking care of the house. I like you – you seem to be a good man. I could help you as well.”
“You would run away with me? Now how can you even imagine that I’d do something so dishonorable? Your father took me in and I have eaten at his table. Do you think that I’ll repay him by running away with his daughter?”
Elga turned away without saying a word. He followed her with the candle and went into his room. She did not bid him goodnight, did not look at him again. She disappeared down the dark passageway. The young man felt strangely sad and empty. He had felt strongly attracted to the girl – not only because she was beautiful, but also because he had felt very comfortable with her in the stable. She was very easy to talk to. But deep down he knew that he had done the right thing. He had made a promise to another girl and intended to keep his promise. He closed his eyes and drifted into sleep with a clear conscience only to wake up what seemed a few moments after, but could have been hours as well. The room was dark. A huge storm raged outside making the old house rattle at every joint. He woke up to find her in his bed. No words were spoken, none were needed. Their hands and lips and their bodies said everything that needed to be said. Or not.
When he woke up in the morning he could no longer be sure if it had been a dream but soon found enough evidence that it was anything but a dream. He felt confused – elated and guilty at the same time. He wondered how he was going to face the father and the daughter again. The house was totally silent, the weak early morning sunlight creeping through the high window. He went out of his room and peered down the corridor. He did not know where the rooms were – he had only been in the kitchen last night. He crept to the kitchen – it was cold and empty, no signs of the meal last night. A pitcher of water stood on the wooden table and he drank deeply from it before splashing some on his face. He wanted to be on the road again, but felt that he could not leave before thanking his hosts. He decided to go and see to his horse. Maybe by that time the household would wake up’.
Nina felt desperately tired. She had been laboring with her story for a couple of hours now, and still had no idea how to end it. Gary had left early since he had a few deliveries to make. But it was high time she thought about preparing lunch. She felt lethargic, and had no motivation to go into the kitchen. She felt uprooted and somewhat depressed and ravenously hungry. She decided to order a Thai meal from the little restaurant down the street. The thought of hot spicy food perked her up somewhat, and she wasted no time in placing her order. The food would arrive in half an hour, so she had enough time to have a long hot shower. She picked up the cell phone to call Gary and practically jumped when it started ringing. It was Anita, ringing up to remind her that the story had to go online in the evening. ‘I don’t want to pressurize you, honey, but I really need it by this evening’, she said breezily. Panic seized Nina immediately. ‘Anita, I don’t know if I’ll be able to make the deadline. I am
getting nowhere with my story. Tell you what – why don’t you publish it in the next issue? I’ll have enough time to finish it then’ – she pleaded.
‘Oh no Nina, you can’t do that. I have the layout all prepared. I’ll have to change everything if you chicken out now. And honestly, darling, you’re not competing for the Booker prize. As long as it’s a reasonably good read, I shall be happy’.
Nina sighed. There was not much point in arguing with Anita. ‘OK, I’ll do it’, she said, hating herself once again for being weak. ‘Atta girl’ said Anita and rang off.
The afternoon was rapidly melting into twilight before Nina switched on the computer again. The quick shopping and a walk around the neighborhood park had done her a lot of good. Gary was going to a football match with his buddies and won’t be back till late. Nina would cook one of her favorite dishes later with loads of hot spices. But right now the story needed to be finished.
‘He fed and watered his horse. He was feeling very hungry himself and longed for something to eat & drink. He walked Dob to the stable door and slung the bridle over the doorpost. He went back into the house to get his things, hoping to meet either Elga or her father. The house was as silent as before.
‘Hello’, he called. ‘Anyone there? I have to be on my way.’
There was no answer. His voice echoed down the empty corridor. He went into the kitchen again. It was as empty as before. He felt sad and bereft, remembering the evening and the night. He wished he could leave them a present, something to express his gratitude. But he had nothing to give. He looked out of the window and spotted the small garden behind the kitchen. It had been too dark to see it last night. He went out of the front door and into the garden through a wicket gate. It was basically a vegetable garden, but a climbing rose covered one side wall. He picked the most perfect rose he could find. On his way out, he left it on the kitchen table.
He travelled a long way that day, often distracted, thinking about Elga. He wondered where father and daughter had gone so early in the morning. He fought back the desire to turn around and go back to the house and have another look at the beautiful young girl. He hung his head in memory of Rosalind – he had not stayed true to her. But Rosalind seemed like a far off dream, though he had left her only a few days back.
Soon he was out of the valley – when he looked back at it once it seemed to be shrouded in mist, though the sun was shining where he stood. He rode on, every step forward pulling him back. He gritted his teeth and continued to go forward.
Before long he joined up with a broad road that was crowded with horses, carriages and pedestrians, all busily going in different directions. A city loomed in front of him, the church steeple almost hidden by the clouds. The young man felt elated -he had reached the city where the king lived, though the bustle and the confusion scared him a bit. He got down from his horse and started walking toward the center of the city. The wide cobbled street was flanked on one side with stone houses. The other side of the road seemed to be occupied by all sorts of tradesmen selling their wares. Everyone seemed to be busy – the entire place hummed like a bee hive. The young man stood on one side soaking in the scene. He was very hungry and decided to have a meal first. He went into the first inn he saw. There were not many people inside, and he was soon served by the inn keeper. The food was piping hot, and he fell to it with great gusto. He went up to the owner to ask for some hay and water for his horse. He tied Dob to the post and came back inside the inn to pay. He decided to ask the innkeeper for the information he needed.
He walked for a time before he found the smithy the innkeeper had talked about. The blacksmith was a big muscular man with flaming red hair. He needed an apprentice, he said, but did not want a greenhorn. He quizzed the young man for a long time before he accepted to take him on. “I’ll throw you out if you are no good, or idle, or unwilling to learn” he warned. He was shown into a little room at the back of smithy that would be his home from then on. He put his few belongings in the corner and decided to go out and explore the neighborhood after a short rest’.
Nina looked at the clock on the computer and decided that it was time to take a break. She went into the kitchen and poured herself a glass of wine. She suddenly realized that she was alone on a Saturday evening after a very long time. Gary came around almost every weekend now, and they either went out or cooked their meals together, normally with the TV chattering in the background. The apartment felt suddenly very empty and silent. Nina switched on the radio – the TV at this hour of the day was totally unwatchable. She started preparing her simple meal only half listening to the songs. She leaned against the windowsill looking at the lights in the distance, and suddenly it was Diane Dufresne singing ‘Je voulais te dire’. Nina couldn’t believe her ears – she had not listened to this song for ages though she still had the CD somewhere in her the apartment. And in a moment she was teleported to the little studio that overlooked the Champs de Mars…
On that evening as well Nina was cooking a meal in her tiny kitchen, listening to this same song when the buzzer had rung. Although she was not expecting anyone, Nina pressed the button. Her friends were always drooping in on Weekends. She didn’t answer when she was with Oliver, and they went away uncomplaining. Since she lived in a really lovely area, her studio was a favorite meeting place for her friends. Oliver was away on another business trip & won’t be back for a couple of days. So Nina opened the door and gaped when she saw that it was Alexandra. She had never been to Nina’s place before – Nina had no idea that she actually knew where she lived. She had managed to force a smile and stammer a welcome. Alexandra looked strange that day, not as cool and collected as on the day of the picnic. Nina didn’t know what to say, and asked her to sit down.
‘Would you like to drink something, Alexandra? I can offer you tea, coffee or a glass of orange juice?’ she said timidly.
‘No thank you’, said the other girl. ‘I am sorry to barge in like this. But I need to talk to you’.
Nina managed to hide her surprise with some difficulty. ‘Of course’, she said. ‘Is anything wrong’?
Alexandra looked at her for a long time. ‘You do have some cheek, Nina, to ask if anything is wrong. You see, I now know everything about your affair with Oliver. How disgusting, Nina, when you know that he belongs to me’ she said icily. ‘I am not going to tell you how I found out. I am not going to ask for how long this has been going on. I have come to ask you to stop. At once’.
Nina was stunned. She felt miserable but could not stomach the imperious attitude of the woman in front of her.
‘I suggest you talk to your boyfriend first, Alexandra. What right do you have to come barging into my home and insult me like this?’ she said, but her voice was trembling and she could feel tears pricking her eyes.
‘I came here to do you a favor’ Alexandra spat out. ‘To tell you something that you’re better off hearing from me than from someone else and much later. I am pregnant with Oliver’s child. It will be a spring child, Nina. I am more than six months gone’.
Nina was aghast. Six months! And Oliver had never once spoken of this. They had gone backwards and forwards over his relationship with Alexandra, the difficulty of severing ties, his guilt, his frustration. His growing claustrophobia of being in two relationships. But never this!
Alexandra sat straight-backed on the canapé. She didn’t take her eyes off Nina’s face.
‘Congratulations Alexandra. As you can make out, I didn’t know about the baby’
‘I didn’t think you did. That is why I came here, Nina. But now you do. So lay off. I can forgive Olivier over time. He is the father of my child. We are founding a family. You can’t break up a family. Aren’t families sacred in your culture too?’
Nina’s childhood flashed before her eyes. A cozy home, caring parents, a cat, trips to the zoo, amusement parks, ice-cream parlors and restaurants; birthday parties, visits of the tooth fairy, little treats that made her world brighter. Growing up with her own problems, uncertainties, drifting away from her parents and then drifting back again. And the lovely woman sitting across from her, intent eyes, waiting for an answer.
‘Why did you come to tell me this, Alexandra? Didn’t you trust Oliver?’ she said.
‘Oliver is weak, Nina. Too gentle, too nice, too considerate. I am not. I love him, I want him, he is the father of my child. I shall fight tooth and nail, Nina. I will make your lives miserable, now that I know
how and where to find you. I spit on your love nest, Nina. I curse your relationship. Can you live with that?’
Nina looked at the distraught woman – clenched hands, heaving breasts, a lovely face ravaged by anger and fear. She thought of the baby, serene, uncaring, growing every day inside her mother’s womb. Another three months, and the most perfect of god’s creations will come out into the world.
‘Go home now, Alexandra. You look tired. Your beautiful baby will not grow up without her father. You have nothing to fear.’
Alexandra gathered up her things and left without saying goodbye. That was the last time Nina saw her.
A couple of days later, she received one perfect red rose and a CD with some beautiful songs. The last one was by Diane Dufresne. The bubbly girl who delivered it congratulated her about the perfect taste of her admirer. Nina left Paris three months later. She never went back.
Nina put away the carefully cooked meal in a Tupperware bowl. She was not hungry anymore. She poured herself another glass of wine and ate a couple of crackers with a bit of cheese. She wandered around the silent flat, putting away magazines, straightening cushions, dusting the crumbs off the tables, filling up the washing basket with discarded clothes draped over the chairs. She almost jumped when her cell phone beeped and the smiling face of Anita flashed on the screen. ‘How are you doing, baby’? read the text message. Nina sent a smiley back. And all at once, she was back to her normal self again. She changed her mind about not eating, and thoroughly enjoyed the hot curry she had made earlier. She switched on the lights everywhere, put on her all-time favorite Abba CD and returned to the computer.
‘It was five long years before he even thought of going back to his village. By this time he was well established in his trade. His Master was extremely happy and asked him to do more every day. He had a young apprentice himself now, and enjoyed teaching the young lad the intricacies of the science and art of blacksmithing. He had adjusted to the life in the big city perfectly and loved its variety and diversity. He had not yet seen the King but now it mattered little. He had seen the ornate carriages and the elegantly dressed courtiers several times. He thought of his home often but was always too busy to make the trip. But he had met a person from his village totally by chance a few days back who told him that his father was not well and that two of her sisters had got married, now living in nearby villages. Their farm was doing well – both his brothers worked hard. He asked about the Manse, hoping to hear about Rosalind. Was she married too? But the man did not have much information to give him, saying that the family spent more time away from home. He was homesick all at once, and went straight to his Master to ask for some days off. “I can’t refuse you”, said his Master – “you have not been absent for a single day since you came here. But come back soon. I am not as strong as I was, and I need you here”.
He spent a whole day buying gifts for his family. He took out the exquisite rose he had made for Rosalind – he had worked long hours to make it look like a real rose. And he couldn’t stop thinking about Elga either. He wanted to see her once more, if only to hold her hand for a second and look into those beautiful eyes.
He started his journey with a light heart and a spring in his steps. He knew he had a long way to go, but it did not bother him. It was wonderful to be out in the open countryside, away from the heat and the fumes of the smithy, the noise and bustle of the city. He had enough food and water with him. Dob, much stronger now, made good time. The weather was mild and sunny. He felt happy.
He reached the valley after three days. It was covered in mist again, just like the day he had left. He could not see the hamlet, but knew that he had to go straight to reach it. He spurred his horse, now impatient to get there. He got off his horse when he reached the house. It looked even shabbier than before, the grime tainted windows were like blind eyes. Now he was seized with doubt. Would they even remember him? As he stood undecided in front of the rusty gate, she saw a little girl in the small garden, trailing a skipping rope, one finger in her tiny mouth. A tangled mass of auburn hair reached almost down to her waist. The young man started – she was the spitting image of her mother.
“Hello Miss. That’s a fine skipping rope you’ve got there” he said. “Is your Mummy at home?”
She looked at him for a moment before answering. “My Mummy is a fairy. She comes only at night, when I go to bed” she said solemnly. “Who are you”?
“I am a friend, and I have come a long way to see her. I have a present for her. Can I give it to your father or grandfather?” he asked.
“My father lives in a big city, very far from here. Grandpa is in heaven. He too comes when I am in bed, to kiss me goodnight.”
“Who looks after you then? What is your name?” asked the young man his voice now choking with emotion.
“My name is Anna. But I don’t live in this house. I live with Dame Edith. I can read now.”
The young man went down on his knees and touched the little girl’s hair. He took out the silver comb from his saddle bag and held it out for the girl. “I got this present for your Mummy, Anna . Will you tell her tonight that I came to see her and gave you this?” he asked.
The girl stuck the comb in her hair. “Yes. What is your name”? she asked
“Tell her that Arthur came back to see her. Tell her that he had not forgotten her”.
He left the little girl in the garden admiring the shiny comb. Tears pricked his eyelids and his heart was heavy. He blamed himself for not coming back sooner. She named her daughter Anna. Wasn’t King Arthur’s daughter called Anna as well? He couldn’t remember…
Another two days travelling took him home. He had not spared himself or Dob – they had ridden hard and fast. He wanted to feel his mother’s arms around him again, wanted to see his father, wanted to clasp his brothers and sisters in his arms. He wanted to find out if Rosalind had waited for him to come back. He found them all on the village common when he arrived, dusty, thirsty and travel weary. The harvest was good that year, and the villagers were out in the honeyed autumn sun, celebrating. A huge cheer went up as he entered the common. ‘Look who’s back! Its Arthur, come back home’. He was soon enveloped in welcoming arms of his young strapping brothers, cousins, and neighbors. Tankards were thrust into his hands. A babble of voices welcomed him back. His two youngest sisters came racing from the table where the midday meal would be served. ‘Where is mother and father?’ he managed to ask. ‘They are at home’ said Martha, her youngest sister, a pretty woman now, very different from the skinny girl he remembered.
“I’ll go and see them first”, he said, “and then I’m coming back. Save me some food and gallons of ale. I have travelled a long way”.
As he rode towards his home, he made a short detour to pass in front of the Manse. The shutters were all closed, and the place looked uninhabited. The garden was overflowing with weeds. The grass had not been cut for a long time, it seemed. Arthur felt depressed. Maybe they had all moved away, leaving the Manse to gentle decay. He slowed down to a walk, lost in his thoughts, and then suddenly saw a woman walking slowly down the narrow path almost smothered now with weeds. She was in a soft grey dress, a grey bonnet perched on the top of her head. His heart lurched. It had to be Rosalind. He got off his horse and called out. The woman turned. A pair of bright hazel eyes looked at him in askance. No, it was not the eyes he remembered, green and brown, changing colors constantly.
“Pardon me, I took you for someone else” he said stiffly. “I shall be on my way”.
“Tarry a while”, said a melodious voice. “You are Arthur, aren’t you? Have you come back then? Why couldn’t you come earlier?”
He stooped in his tracks. “You know me”? he asked. “I don’t think I know you, Lady”.
“I am Gwyneth, Rosalind’s sister. Don’t you remember me?” she said
Arthur now looked at her more closely. He didn’t know this woman. Rosalind’s sister was a gawky young girl when he saw her last, who would dart past every time he talked to Rosalind.
“Gwyneth? How you’ve grown! No, I did not recognize you. You were a slip of a wench last time I saw you”.
“Why have you come back now, Arthur? What kept you away so long? She was waiting for you”.
“Gwyneth, I am lost. I went to the big city to make my fortune. I promised Rosalind to come back when I was ready to ask for her hand. Why do you speak like this, Gwyneth? Where is Rosalind? Is she married? Is that why you said I am late?”
The young woman turned around to face him. She was beautiful, very different from her sister. Dark curls framed her face, escaped from the chaste bonnet. Her brown eyes flashed at him.
“She waited for you, Arthur. She fought with Papa and refused all proposals for marriage. She spent her days looking out of the window, hoping to see you. She waited in vain for a letter from you – going down to the town center to meet the post coach. There was nothing. She came back every time more dejected. There was no letter for her. And then last winter she fell sick. It was the ague, the doctor said. She never recovered. We buried her early spring.”
Arthur stood there shivering. “I brought her the red rose she wanted”, he said. “What am I going to do now?”
“I can take you to her grave”, said Gwyneth. “You can give her the rose. She loved roses – red roses. We planted red roses on her grave. Mother goes there every day to water them. And the parson’s wife tends to them when we are not here. Rosalind’s grave has roses all around the year”.
He walked with her to the grave, a quiet corner where roses flowered in abandon – red, pink, yellow, white. He took out the rose that he had made for her and put it on the grave. He said a silent prayer, and asked for pardon. For keeping her waiting, for not fulfilling his promise, for betraying her, even if briefly. He looked up at the sky and wondered how he was going to live. He looked at the young woman standing across the grave, and speculated if salvation lay there.
Nina saved the file, and looked at the clock. It was not yet midnight. She opened up her mailbox, and did not even look at the in tray. She sent the file to Anita, not even bothering to proof read. Anita would do that before publishing. She was sure of that. She had no idea if the readers of Anita’s webzine would like her story, or even read it. She wasn’t overly bothered. She logged off, and went into the bedroom. Took off the bedspread, and fluffed the pillows. She lit the fragrant candle on the bedside table, and instantly the room was filled with the delicate exotic perfume. She changed into the sheer black nightdress that Gary loved. She dabbed herself with the authentic Eau de Cologne she had bought in a chic boutique in Cologne. She brushed and flossed her teeth and then switched off all the lights. Hic et nunc. She got into bed waiting for the key clicking in the front door