Wartime, in a northern town in England.
In this grey, cold city a young woman is away from her family, far from home because the college where she is studying has been evacuated away from the danger of the bombing raids that are concentrated on London and the southeast of the country where she lives. She is in the company of friends and is enjoying her studies, but all the same she misses her home and her family.
In a town near London my grandmother is standing amongst the rose bushes in the garden of her house, separated by hundreds of miles from her daughter. How do you reach out to someone you love when she is hundreds of miles away, when there is no way to speak except by letter, when you can’t hold her in your arms, or smile at her across the table, or make her a cup of tea? When you miss the sound of her voice – singing, usually – or the noise of footsteps in the hall and the door opening and closing as she comes home? My grandmother, smelling the scent of the roses, has a thought and going indoors she finds a biscuit tin and some pruning shears. Later she will get out brown paper and string.
The next morning my mother receives a parcel in the post. It’s large but not heavy, and although she knows who it’s from by the spidery handwriting of the address she can’t guess what’s inside, so she is already smiling as she undoes the knot in the string and then carefully unwraps the paper. She opens the lid of the tin.
She smells the scent of them before she sees them, the fragrance wafting out and around her and filling the room. Bending forward she holds them up to her face and breathes in deeply, smiling, and then shuts her eyes as she breathes out slowly, slowly, seeing her mother in the garden with the shears, choosing the flowers, clipping them carefully, tenderly laying them in the box. She is filled with thoughts she can’t name and flooded with love.
Sixty years later, I am in the northern town that is my home, many miles from the town of my birth and feeling, not for the first time, lost and very alone. The grey sadness that descends on me from time to time has settled this time like a cloud and the world feels like a dark place. I speak to my mother on the phone but we cannot meet, and she can’t hug me as she wants to. I can feel the love in her voice, but we are both familiar with this darkness and know how love just has to wait it out, as I know that hers will, with the unconditional compassion that is motherhood.
A few days later, a packet arrives in the post. It’s small and not very heavy, and I can see from the label where it’s from but I still don’t know what’s inside. I open it and find bubblewrap protecting a small beautiful blue glass bottle, the maker’s name in etched glass on the side and for the first time in many days, I smile. I am still smiling as I read the label and unscrew the curved black cap, and take a sniff. The scent of roses, the essence of rose in its purest form. Rose Absolute, one of the most difficult essential oils to make requiring thousands and thousands of rose petals, one of the most precious and expensive. One that I have always wanted and never had. I close my eyes and take a longer, deeper breath of it, and breathing out slowly I feel a warm sense of peace, and almost imperceptibly the darkness fades. It still weighs on me like a shroud and cuts out the light, but the weight is less and for a moment or two the first glimmer of light has given me hope. I can feel the love there, even if I can’t yet let it in.
When we speak on the phone, she tells me the story of the roses that arrived by post in the biscuit tin.
I have kept this little blue glass bottle on the table beside my bed ever since that day that it arrived in the post, and whenever I undo the cap and breathe the scent of roses the three of us come together, my grandmother, my mother and me, across time and space. We were all of us writers in our way – of journals and poems and letters – but no words could ever have been as eloquent, or could have connected us in this way, nor would they have brought with them such a flood of love, as did the scent of roses.