THE SICK ROSE.
Fourteen-year-old Nina sits on the edge of a large blue garden pot in a sheltered spot of her Uncle Lear's garden. In her right hand she holds a red rose, which shows brightly against her snow-white dress, where it lays limp between her knees. Her golden hair rests over her shoulders and her light-blue eyes stare out into the rose garden beyond. She doesn't hear her seventeen-year-old cousin Freddy come up behind her, and when he squeezes her waist she lets out a scream.
"Freddy! You frightened the life out of me."
"Sorry, couldn't resist it. You were miles away." Freddy releases his cousin and takes the rose from her hand. "What a sick rose. Where did you find it? Nina looks at the rose and then at her cousin.
"On the path." She gazes at Freddy as he turns the rose in his hands. "I love red roses." Freddy looks up from the rose and stares at Nina, at her beauty, at her light-blue eyes.
"A sick rose."
"So? It is still a rose." Freddy looks into Nina's light-blue eyes and perceives sadness there. He thinks she misses her parents away in India and senses something he has sensed before, some days back, a certain feeling within him which for the moment bewilders him.
"There is another sick rose." He lowers his eyes to Nina's lips and watches the soft pinkness of them.
"What other sick rose? Nina asks still gazing at Freddy.
"The one hidden." He smiles as he looks away from Nina's lips and indicates with the rose.
"Hidden rose? Nina frowns. "What hidden rose?
Freddy taps the rose against her lower groin. "There."
Nina blushes as if she herself were the red rose and looks away down towards the rose garden. "You are being rude, Freddy."
"Remember last Sunday? Freddy studies Nina, her eyes, her hair and her pale features. "In Cornwell's old potting shed? He watches as Nina closes her eyes and bites her lower lip. Nina thinks back and suddenly his words sink in, the sick rose, yes, she recalls, that was what he said, when he...She opens her eyes and the rose garden is still there and her cousin just to the side of her, she can see his white trousers out of the corner of her eye.
"No one must know," Nina says, snatching the red rose from her cousin's hand. "No one must ever know what we did."
"As if I would tell."
"Never, dear Nina." He pauses. He remembers the previous Sunday, the deed done, the semi-darkness of the potting shed, the warmth of Nina against him, her breath on his neck. "Its our secret."
"Why sick rose? Nina asks shyly, remembering the potting shed.
"Think on it."
Nina thinks, turning her eyes away from the eyes of Freddy and tapping the rose against her thigh. Then, as if she'd been slapped, it comes to her, rushes into her mind like a river. "How rude." The words fall from her lips as if they were too heavy to hold back. And the memory of her first curse comes to her. She recalls her panic as she discovered the blood, the running up the stairs shouting for her Aunt Cordelia, the fear of death, and the embrace and comfort from Sally, her Aunt's maid. Innocence betrayed. What a fool she felt.
"Have you read Blake's poem: The Sick Rose? Freddy asks softly.
"Blake? Who's Blake?
"William Blake, the poet."
"No." Nina stares at her cousin wondering what this has to do with his previous remarks and recalling the shed's semi-darkness.
"O rose, thou art sick," Freddy recites calmly.
"What has this to do with what you said? Nina asks.
"The invisible worm...That flies in the night."
"Freddy what is this all about? Freddy leans forward and whispers in Nina's ear. Then he stands back, hands behind him, watching her soft lips move to the words he has just whispered to her.
"How is the rose? Freddy asks, still watching her lips move.
Nina taps the rose against her thigh and stares up at her cousin. She looks at his blue eyes and thin lips. She wants to speak, but words refuse to move. She lifts the rose and holds it before her eyes and with the fingers of her left hand strokes the petals gently. Beyond the rose, she can still see the features of Freddy, his waiting for a reply, wanting to know, for what reason she doesn't know. Bringing the rose to her nose, she sniffs. The scent is faint, barely scented, if at all, but something else, yes, something else.
"Well? How is the rose? Freddy repeats firmly, frowning.
"Not sick? Nina shakes her head and rises from the blue garden pot and walks away from her cousin. "Wait, Nina. He pauses. Taking the rose he lifts it away from her and throws it to the ground. "You must tell me the truth."
"I am, Freddy, I am." She senses his hand hold hers, tight at first, but then, eases, gently, until it holds hers softly. They walk along by the rose garden, neither of them looking, neither letting their eyes move from the rough stone path in front.
"Our secret, Nina, remember."
"Would I tell?
"Not thinking to, but you may let it out not thinking."
"Am I a fool?
"No, I never meant to suggest you were.
"Then trust me." They reach the lawn with the box hedging. They turn and look back at the house wondering who may be gazing out at them from one of the many windows.
"We need to be out of sight," Freddy says staring at the windows. "Too many eyes may see us here. Too many tongues may start wagging."
"I was out of sight when I sat alone." Nina looks up at Freddy and wants to hold him near her, to kiss him. Until recently she'd not seen Freddy since he was seven. Now it was different. So different.They enter the small box hedge maze and walk slowly together. Nina muses about Freddie's words and the potting shed. Freddie looks at his cousin beside him. "Why did your parents leave you here when they went to India?" he asks.
"They wanted me to finish my schooling here."
"Will you go to India after?
"I think they want me to remain here. They think I'll marry well if I remain behind." Freddie places his arm round Nina's waist and she doesn't resist him.
"Do you want to marry?
"Only if it's out of love." Nina stops and looks at Freddie.
"Did your parents marry out of love? Mine didn't. My Mother wanted someone well connected and wealthy and my Father wanted someone reasonably beautiful and not too bright. Both seem to be contented."
"And you, will you marry? Nina asks quietly.
"I haven't given it much thought. Maybe, if the right person comes along."
"And who will be the right person?
"Who knows. We will have to see who turns up in my life," Freddie says casually. He releases Nina from his hold. "Some person is close to me already."
"Who? Nina asks taken aback and moving away from her cousin.
"You, of course. Who did you think I meant?
Nina moves closer to Freddie and puts her arms around his waist. She wants Freddie's words to be true and hopes they are. "You are being truthful, aren't you?" she asks, gazing at her cousin's blue eyes.
"Ive never been more truthful. Some things I don't lie about. You must know how I feel about you, surely?
"It is love, isn't it, not lust?
"Am I so shallow? I love you, there, I've said it." Freddie kisses Nina's lips and holds her against him. The closeness of her reminds him of the previous Sunday and her warmth enters him. Nina muses on her cousin's words and remembers the potting-shed and the smell and semi-darkness and closes her eyes.
"What would your parents say if they found out about us?
"Lets hope they don't," Freddie says, releasing Nina and standing back. "They wouldn't understand, not just yet."
"Not now, of course, but later. What then?
"We will have to see. But at the moment we must say nothing and be careful." Freddie moves on and Nina follows, she watches his legs pace forward and tries to keep up. He seems wrapped up in silence, she muses, as he moves forward his eyes downcast, his thin lips sealed. She gazes at his pale face, his slim frame, and wishes at that moment he would stop and turn towards her, but he doesn't. They come to a dead end. Freddie looks about him. "Blast! We've missed the right turning." He turns back, she follows, and they go along a different path in silence as if the entire world was watching them.
Later that day Nina is standing in her bedroom looking out on the garden. Freddie had said little over lunch and Aunt Cordelia seemed far away as if something was on her mind. Uncle Lear was in London, her Aunt had said when Nina had asked about him. After lunch she came to her room to read, but instead she stands by the window staring at the garden. After a few minutes, there is a knock at the door.
"Come in," Nina says, turning to look at the door.
Her Aunt enters slowly and closes the door behind her. She looks at Nina carefully as if she'd not seen her before, then moves closer until she is beside her niece at the window. "You and Freddie seem to be in each others company quite a lot these days," Aunt Cordelia says looking down on to the garden.
"Why? Shouldn't we? Nina says defensively.
"I didn't think you two had much in common. In fact when your mother asked me about you staying with us during the holiday periods I wasn't sure you would have sufficient company, but you and Freddie seem to have found something to draw you together." Aunt Cordelia turns and gazes deeply at Nina.
"We like each other's company."
"What do you find to talk about?
"All different things." Nina senses herself blushing and looks away from her aunt's gaze. She tries to shut out the memory of her and Freddie and the potting shed, but fails. "Roses," she mutters.
"Roses? Aunt Cordelia repeats. "What does young Freddie know of Roses?
"Quite a lot, you'd be surprised what he knows about roses," Nina says staring at the far away Maze.
"Well, well, that does surprise me. Aunt Cordelia pauses. She breathes in deeply and places her right hand on Nina's arm. "I have been surprised by other things recently."
"What other things? Nina asks feeling her face blushing and her body perspire, so that dampness creeps about her.
"You and Freddie were seen entering Cornwell's potting shed last Sunday. What were you two doing in the potting-shed? Aunt Cordelia's voice pierces Nina's head and she feels faint and wishes Freddie were near.
"Nothing much. Freddie was showing me things."
"Potting things...Garden things." Nina pauses. Her words drift away like balloons on the wind. "Can I sit down, Aunt, I feel faint?
"Yes, of course, Nina, lie down if you need." Aunt Cordelia helps Nina to the bed and watches while her niece finally rests. "You must be careful what you do, you and Freddie, some people may come up with certain ideas."
"Certain ideas? Nina repeats in a whisper.
"Well other people don't know you as well as I do, they may think things are happening when they're not." Aunt Cordelia moves away from the bed and goes back to the window.
"What things? Nina asks defensively. "What kind of things?
Aunt Cordelia does not reply, but stares at the garden silently.
A month has passed since she sat in this sheltered spot of her uncle's garden on the edge of the same large blue garden pot, now she sits staring at the ground with a limp red rose in her right hand.Lifting her gaze from the ground she spots Freddie walking towards her slowly, his hands in his pocket, his head lowered.
"I want to say goodbye before I leave," Freddie says pausing anxiously in front of his cousin.
"Leaving? Where are you going?
"Father is taking me to London for a few days."
"But I return to school tomorrow...I thought we could be alone together for a while." Nina looks at Freddie with her light blue eyes as if they could plead for her where her words might fail.
"I had to sneak away to see you as it was..." Freddie pauses.
"Is that why you've hardly spoken to me these last few weeks?
"They said I was to leave you in peace."
"They suspect something, I know they do." Nina rises from the pot and walks a few steps away.
"Ive said nothing. But they are worried about us seeing too much of each other," says Freddie. He looks behind him at the house barely visible through the sheltering bushes and trees.
"I must tell you something."
"What? I can't stay long; they'll be looking for me."
"Do you love me? Nina asks softly as if her words were silk.
Freddie stares at Nina for a few moments, then says:" Yes, you know I do. Why ask me now? But before Nina can answer Sally the maid appears before them out of breath and sighing.
"Your father is looking for you Master Freddie, he is growing very impatient," Sally says, her dark eyes gazing first at Freddie, then at Nina whom she studies with a frown.
"Im just coming, Sally," Freddie says. He looks at Nina for a few seconds, then departs quickly through the bushes and trees towards the house as if death itself were at his heels. Nina watches him go and her heart sinks. Sally stands beside her holding her hands folded against her stomach staring towards the house.
"Can you give Master Freddie a message before he leaves? Nina says suddenly, a hint of sadness in her voice.
"Yes, Miss Nina, if you're quick," Sally replies, her dark eyes alert as if woken from a deep sleep.
"Tell Freddie, the rose is not sick."
"The rose is not sick? Sally repeats a puzzled expression on her face.
"Yes. The rose is not sick." Nina watches as Sally makes her way towards the house at a hurried pace. She sits once again on the edge of the large blue garden pot, staring towards the house through the shelter of the bushes and trees, picking off the petals of the red rose one by one and letting them fall like drops of blood from a pierced heart. "The rose is not sick," she whispers to herself, "the rose is not sick, is not sick, not sick, sick."