The bud was just poking out from under a leaf, a tiny pink shoot, hard and barely formed, but visible nonetheless. The heat had gone from the day although it was still light, in fact, thought Michael, as he uncoiled the garden hose, it would probably still be light at nine o’clock and once again he wouldn’t be able to sleep in the hothouse that was his attic bedroom. It had been Madeleine who wanted a loft conversion in their bungalow. He’d laughed and said the whole point of a bungalow was no stairs, but she’d felt that stairs would be good for them and that it would mean they had a spare bedroom for grandchildren or friends who might like to come and visit now they had retired to the seaside.
The grandchildren had loved the spare room, Maggie and Rachel, twins born to their only daughter, Abigail, unexpectedly at the age of 39 when they’d pretty much given up hope. One final shot at IVF and suddenly there they were, a perfect pigeon pair, identical apart from a tiny birthmark on the back of Rachel’s hand. They’d shared the big old double bed in the spare room on high days and holidays, until Madeleine had to move downstairs to sleep, unable to climb the stairs any more.
He'd noticed the lump first, one evening when they’d sat curled up together on the sofa watching Bake Off. He wasn’t really that interested in cake making, but it had become a habit, shared time together, choosing who they wanted to win; enjoying the ups and downs of the contestants successes and epic fails. He would rather have been in the garden, watering, pruning, doing a last bit of weeding, but Madeleine had always called him.
“Bake Off’s starting,” and he’d put away his tools and tidied away his gardening shoes before coming to sit and watch together. And that’s when he’d first spotted the lump. Not that big really, just making her breast a little misshapen, and he should know the shape of her breast, after 53 years of marriage.
“You should get it checked out,” he said, trying to sound casual as he curved his hand round, gently prodding the little solid mass under the surface.
“It’ll just be fatty tissue, don’t fuss,” she’d shrugged it off. Fixed her eyes on the TV, comforted by Mary Berry’s predictability.
He wondered if he should have been more assertive, firmer about the need to get it checked. Perhaps if the diagnosis had come in sooner she might have responded better to the treatments. It had been nearly six months before she’d finally popped into the doctors about a chest infection and mentioned the lump in passing. Another month before she’d had a mammogram. Another month before the results confirmed their worst fears. They’d removed both breasts almost immediately, but it had already spread into the lymph nodes in the axilla and then on through her body. They discussed chemotherapy, radiotherapy, a new trial of a drug that was just coming on the market, but it was pointless. He’d watched her waste away before his eyes. Becoming weaker and weaker and less and less able to look after herself. They’d moved downstairs into the spare room, the grandchildren’s room. And eventually, when it became too painful, he’d started sleeping on the sofa with the door open between the rooms so he could hear her call if she needed him.
The NHS had been brilliant. They’d brought her a water mattress when it had been too uncomfortable to sleep on foam. The Macmillan nurses had popped in every day and helped administer her drugs and monitor her pain thresholds, but despite everyone’s kindness it didn’t change the fact that she was slipping away, dying, and there was nothing he could do. They’d moved her to a hospice and then suddenly she was gone. One day he’d been persuading her to sip a little milky coffee through a straw and then the next morning she’d passed away. Given up in the night, no longer able to fight. He’d known it was coming, but the shock was totally unexpected. He thought he’d be strong for their daughter, for Maggie and Rachel, but they’d had to be strong for him. He’d spent days sitting in the garden numb, nights howling into the pillow in the spare room trying to smell the scent of her shampoo, catch a whisper of her perfume on the clothes in the cupboard.
Abigail had booked him a few days away on a coach trip for singles with an interest in gardens. He’d headed up to Northumberland and visited the garden at Mindrum, the Manor House in Whalton and spent a day wandering around Alnwick . Before he left she’d said she was going to sort out her mother’s clothes and was there anything he particularly wanted to keep. All of it he told her, but he knew she was determined that he move on, that he’d wallowed in misery for the past six months and he needed to pick up the pieces and rejoin the land of the living. A lilac cardigan, a green scarf patterned with leaves and a shawl in shades of blue were neatly folded on Madeleine’s side of the bed in the loft and when he got back. The twins were coming to stay for a few days, she said, and wanted their old room back. They were 9, sober, quiet little girls who loved to read and draw. Maggie spent hours scribbling in notebooks, long complicated stories that she read in the evenings while he fed them fishfingers and chips, burgers and chips, sausages and chips and one day, in a moment of inspiration, pizza that arrived on a motorbike delivered by a boy with long greasy hair, who didn’t look much older than the twins. “Have you thought about getting a dog?” Abigail said when she came to collect the girls. “It would keep you company and get you out.”
The twins nodded thoughtfully. “We’d like that,” they said in unison.
So Poppy arrived. A small bundle of scruffy mischief who forced him outside, reminded him that it was time to get up, dinner time, was the focus of conversation with other dog walkers. It was Rachel who spotted the Dog Show at the local garden centre.
“Grandad,” she said over the phone, her 9 year old voice very serious, “Can you come and visit. Poppy is the cutest dog in the world and I am sure she’ll win the cutest puppy category. Can we enter her?”
Which was how he came to be at the garden centre on a sunny Saturday in June with Poppy and Rachel bouncing along beside him. Maggie had disappeared off somewhere with her mother, something about toilets and ice cream, but Rachel was not letting Poppy out of her sight. She’d tied a red ribbon through her collar, spending a good ten minutes making sure that the sides of the bow were equal and folded just so. “Hold her still, Grandad,” she’d demanded as the little puppy had wriggled around trying to escape.
By the time Maggie and Abigail came back Rachel was about to walk Poppy around the makeshift ring that had been set up on a patch of lawn at the back of the restaurant. He wasn’t really expecting Poppy to behave, but amazingly she walked round with her head alert and her ears up, looking with interest at all the people clapping and urging her on, as they came to a little see saw and tunnel that she had to negotiate.
“I knew she could do it,” Rachel was smiling as she held up the second place certificate while Maggie tried to attach the silvery coloured rosette to Poppy’s collar.
“I’ve bought you a little present, Dad,” Abigail was smiling. “It’s what took us so long, I’ve put it in the car.”
It was a rose bush, a pink rose bush, a Eustacia Vye Rose.
“Return of the Native was Mum’s favourite book wasn’t it?” Abigail looked a little nervous, as if perhaps the sentimental gesture might tip her dad over the edge again. “It’ll be a year next week. I thought we could plant it in her memory, maybe her ashes could…?” She stopped, shrugged slightly leaving the sentence unfinished.
That was three years ago. The little rose bush had flourished. Grown stronger and bushier but no flowers, not till now, till today. Poppy bounded round the garden, a little older but no less mischievous. She dropped a ball at his feet and looked expectantly. Throwing it down the lawn he watched as she bounded away, full of energy and then he pruned away a little of the foliage on the Eustacia Vye Rose, just a little, so that he could watch from the kitchen window the progress of the tiny bud.