The Blue Rose
Life begins the day you start a garden.
She woke to a murder of crows.
The noisy fluttering and cawing came from an entire family of them, as they took off from the top of a towering cedar in the meadow behind the wall.
Kate Sheppard yawned, stretched and sat up on the rickety old white bench. How long had she been napping, she wondered. Rubbing her eyes, she gazed up at the birds, now black specks disappearing in the hazy distance.
A murder of crows. Who thought that one up?
A parliament of owls; a mustering of storks…an exaltation of larks.
An exaltation of larks. That, she decided, was her favourite.
Why on earth did she retain such useless trivia? She was getting as bad as Alex, her husband – he was a veritable repository of frivolous facts, figures and minutiae, always bringing them up at dinner parties.
Kate yawned again. It was unusually warm for the time of year. She felt like taking another forty winks. Glancing down between the slats of the seat, she noted flakes of white paint on the ground. Another item for the ‘to do’ list. She reached into the canvas bag beside her and pulled out a small notebook with a pen clipped to it.
Kate could recall in precise detail the events of that morning when she and Alex had stumbled on The Parsonage, a small nineteenth-century country house on the edge of the village of Steeple Tarrant in Wiltshire. With its high-walled garden that covered more than two acres, it had made a powerful impression on both of them. She still didn’t know what it was that made her ask Alex to stop the car and back up as they were leaving the village early that Sunday back in March. She hadn’t seen the discreet For Sale sign when they first drove by, but there it was. With nobody in sight and few cars on the road at that time of day, they had both taken turns peering over the high wall. With scarves up to their chins, shivering in the hoar-frosted silence of the sleeping village, they had stared in disbelief at a real-life version of the sketches Alex had been drawing over the past months. Sketches of their ideal country home. To see so many details replicated had been positively spooky.
A surrounding wall of russet-coloured brick some eight feet tall concealed the honey-gold stone structure from the street. Two weathered stone pillars, each with a lichen-crusted stone ball on top, flanked the driveway. Intricately scrolled iron gates – their once shiny black paint now chipped and dulled – rested permanently in the open position, the lower rails on each side anchored in a dense tangle of dark-leaf periwinkle that fringed the sandy drive. Set high in the left-hand pillar was a tarnished bronze plaque. Engraved on it in Roman type were the words, OLD STEEPLE TARRANT PARSONAGE. The villagers, they found out later, simply called it The Parsonage.
Alex, an architect, was smitten by the house, blathering on with phrases like ‘sympathetic alterations’, ‘integrity’ and ‘reflective of the period’. Kate had instantly fallen in love with the garden. The house was nice, but it was the enchanting old garden that made her heart race. It was exactly what she’d always dreamed of owning.
On that bleak morning the only colours in evidence had been various shades of green, where the sheltered sides of evergreen shrubs, box and yew hedging, the leathery leaves of evergreen clematis and jasmine had outwitted the uncharitable frost. Save for them, she might have been looking at an old silver-print photo. In spite of its neglected state, there was no mistaking the garden’s ambitious design. With its mature trees and shrubs, mellow brick and stonework, thick yew hedging, different levels and shifting viewpoints, it had obviously once been a garden of considerable importance. Such gardens take many years in the making.
Immediately below her, matted tangles of climbing rose canes hugged the inside of the wall. At their base, some of the main canes were thicker than Kate’s arm. Farther along, the wall was given over to espaliered fruit trees. A wide border that ribboned the garden’s perimeter was scattered with twiggy mounds and dark clumps of dead vegetation. Rose bushes, dotted here and there, resembled stark miniature trees. Closer to the house were several lattice structures and a long pergola festooned with silhouetted vines.
At that telling moment, Kate knew that The Parsonage would be their home.
Two months and a few days later the house was indeed theirs. Despite Kate’s taking the week off, moving and settling in took longer than anticipated. Any worries they might have had earlier, about their furniture fitting in, were unfounded. With few exceptions, all the pieces from their two-storey house in Bath – most of them antique – slipped into place as if they’d been there for years. A spell of unusually showery weather hadn’t prevented Kate from making several exploratory trips around the garden.
Now – three weeks after they’d moved in – the moment she had been waiting for had finally arrived. They were going to begin the daunting task of restoring the garden to its former glory. No more just looking and making notes – they were going to map the garden, begin cutting back, raking and shovelling, and start the lengthy clean- up job. Finally they’d get a true idea of just what they were dealing with. The night before, Alex had agreed – after some coaxing and a couple of glasses of wine – that, as long as the weather held up, they would devote the entire day to the garden.
They had awakened to blue skies. A day alive with the earthy smells and sounds of summer. A perfect June day for exploring the garden and starting to catalogue its overgrown contents. She’d already made a note in her book to ask her friend, Vicky, to help identify the many roses scattered throughout the garden. A few still had their original markers, but most of the roses were unknown, the markers having long since been buried or displaced. Vicky Jamieson was one of the owners of a successful nursery called Holly Hill in the neighbouring county of Berkshire. Way back, Vicky had helped establish the garden at the Sheppards’ home in Bath, and since that time had become their gardening guru and closest friend.
Over breakfast they divided the property into eight distinct sections, each named and numbered on a plan drawn by Alex. Kate would start by conducting a recce of the entire garden, making notes as she went along. Alex, the self-professed ‘black thumb’ in the family, would start on a general clean-up.
‘And whatever you do, Alex,’ she had said with a smile and wag of the finger, as they were about to leave the house, ‘don’t cut anything or pull anything up!’
Legs stretched out, hands clasped behind her head, Kate lolled on the bench, waiting for Alex to show up. After two hours of wandering around the garden, she was enjoying the break, drinking in the surrounding loveliness. The last several days had been warm, and a myriad of roses, perennials, shrubs and vines had exploded in a breathtaking spectacle of beauty. Their brilliant petals and seductive perfumes were the signposts pointing the way to pollen and nectar for bees, butterflies, and all the flying creatures responsible for most of the pollination essential to a garden’s survival.
She was aware of a sudden shifting of light. The scene grew dappled as the sun dodged in and out of the fleecy clouds moving in. It was definitely getting cooler. She’d noticed lately that the garden was beginning to exert a subtle influence on her. It had a pleasurable way of intensifying her emotions, a bewildering sway over her that