The Last Rose
by Sally Hughes
He came into the library every Thursday morning, dapper in a neat blue suit, pulling his tartan shopper behind him. “Hail to thee, blithe spirit!” he would say when he came to the desk to change his books. He enjoyed westerns with lurid covers and titles like The Vengeful Deputy and Open Range Fury. Always six books in, six books out. One for each evening, with Saturday spare for the Manchester Guardian.
He lingered longer at the desk as he got to know me. He liked me because of my accent. It reminded him of training in Achnacarry, being billeted on the Isle of Bute. He had become so close to the woman he stayed with in Rothesay that he continued to visit for years and she had named his three children: Donald, Morag and Eilidh (the neighbours always had trouble with that one.) He talked about Scotland with the fondness of someone who still believed in an uncomplicated Britishness. “You must be missing home,” he would say, and I nodded, because I could see why he would think that.
Had things been different, he wouldn’t have stayed in Halifax, he told me. He’d been accepted to Art College but there simply hadn’t been the money. Then the war came. He still wondered about what kind of a painter he would have made. But it wasn’t all bad – he had his garden, his roses.
That’s the thing about working in libraries. You think it’ll be all about the books. In fact, it’s all about the people. They offer up their stories as if they know you will care for them as tenderly as you do the novels on the shelves.
Another thing about libraries: when you issue a book, it’s like you’re giving a precious, handpicked gift. People have to give you something in return. Sometimes it’s chocolates. Sometimes it’s secrets. He would bring me oatcakes when they were on offer in Morrisons, and Tunnock’s teacakes that I left in the staffroom.
Hail to thee, blithe spirit.
Despite myself, I looked forward to seeing him. I kept an eye out for any westerns he hadn’t had. He had no memory for covers or titles, and so would pencil a tiny grey cross on the corner of the endpapers of the one’s he’d read. X marks the spot.
It became a struggle to find him new ones to read. I asked my supervisor about ordering some new titles, but the publisher was phasing them out because their readership was dying. I phoned the other library branches and asked them to check the shelves for any westerns without a cross in the back.
For a few happy weeks, they came pouring in: Dead Men Don’t Bleed; The Hunted Four. He went home every Thursday with a shopper full of books. But soon the flood became a trickle, and then I had nothing new to offer him.
The weather was growing colder when, one morning, he came in carrying a single white rose in a tiny glass vase. He put it down on the desk in front of me.
“For you, Puck of the books,” he said. “The best present I can give you – the last rose from my garden.”
I had never been given such a gift.
As winter set in, his body shrunk, and his suit lost its smart fit. He still came into the library each week, clinging onto his shopper grimly, but our chats were brief, and he left without any books.
My Christmas present to myself that year was a night in London, to stock up on out-of-print Penguins. I was on the top floor of a second-hand bookshop when I saw the tattered image of a moustachioed man gurning at me from a dusty table. There was a whole pile of them, and I didn’t recognise a single one. 15p each. I bought a boxful and carried it down Charing Cross Road as carefully as if it contained a kaleidoscope of rare, live butterflies.
Two Thursdays in January passed while the box waited in vain for him under the issue desk. I looked up his address and drove there on a Friday afternoon. My sat nav took me to a suburban part of town I’d not visited before, filled with modest, respectable houses treasured by the first generation that didn’t have to rent.
He lived in a street of pebble-dash bungalows, and his was the only house without a paved driveway. The whole front garden was covered in rose bushes, cut savagely short. He opened the door in a stained plaid shirt, using a Zimmer frame to walk. “Hail to thee, blithe spirit,” he said, showing no surprise at seeing me. “Come in.”
He led me through a boxy kitchen to a living room with an upright piano and embroidery samplers on the walls. Grey underpants dried on the radiator, and it was unbearably hot – both the gas fire and the central heating were on. There was a sour smell in the air.
When I gave him the box of books, he drew a shaking hand over his face. “Ah,” he said. “You’d have been drowned as a witch in olden times, I’m sure you have some magic in you.”
The skin on his wasted arms looked shiny and paper-thin, as if the slightest touch could split it.
There was a vase of blowsy white roses on the mantelpiece, and as we talked, his gaze kept flicking back to them. “Aren’t they beautiful?” he said finally. “You know, it was illegal to grow flowers on allotments during the war. They needed the food. But my dad didn’t care. He carried on growing his roses, though he could have gone to prison for it. He said, what’s Yorkshire without her roses?” His voice cracked and he closed his rheumy eyes.
He died in the spring. His funeral was on a Wednesday, delivery day. We had six crates to unpack that morning, and at the top of one was a brand new western. A grizzled cowboy gave me a world-weary smile beneath his Stetson.
Hail to thee, blithe spirit.
I turned the book over in my hands, feeling the smooth plastic cover beneath my fingers, and delaying for just a second the moment when I would have to look inside. Then I held my breath and opened the back cover quickly, as if I was ripping off a plaster. The endpaper was an unmarked cream, pristine as a flower petal.↑