SHORT STORY – John Herbert

Image: Esteban Vicente – Bridgehampton Rose (1970)

This short story by John Herbert appeared in our second print issue, which is available for purchase here.

John Herbert is an English teacher from Brighton, UK, holds a PhD in modernist fiction from the University of Birmingham, and is an alumnus of New Writing South’s Creative Writing Programme. He was Highly Commended for the 2017 Brighton Prize for short fiction and will appear in their anthology this year. In 2018 his work has also appeared in The Forge Literary Magazine and DNA Magazine and is forthcoming in The Nottingham Review and Words for the Wild. He will perform his work this year at Rattle Tales and The Brighton Festival. 

Cultivation

The rose had grown luxuriant, the graft of the new branch firm. The join, now unbound, shone green, a shade paler than the stem. It had sprung up under his ministrations, there in the greenhouse. Fresh manure from the stables at the big house up in town, along with his attention, had been enough to see two fine shoots grow from the grafted branch.

He pulled his knife from a pocket. He had worked on the blade with a whetstone, honing the edge. A man needs a sharp instrument, he thought, and looked again, stroking his beard and weighing it in his palm, enjoying the reassuring heft.

Should one stem go, though? He pondered, a hand still nesting in his beard, feeling the play of the autumn sun, intensified through the panes, on the thick tweed of the jacket in which he used to teach and which now he wore as he pottered. He breathed in the rich scent of moist soil and smiled as he thought diversion of energies caused weakness – or so the theory went – while pruning meant stronger stems. Cut back the weak. So true in nature. He remembered his apple tree and how the girls, when they were wee ones, had been upset when they thought he’d ruined it.

“You’ve killed it, Daddy,” Niamh complained all winter but watched as it bore more fruit. She had begged Sheila to make apple pie and urged him on with his trimming the next winter.

In life as in nature, he thought, and stood back and looked out down the long garden, back towards the house, the apple tree tucked still by the kitchen window with its last flush of leaves.

Wasn’t it as true for the lads at his school too? Forty years, he’d seen them come and go, fresh-faced young fellows when they arrived, all eager for the books, down from the hill farms and villages. Many of them were faces that he passed still when he went down into town to buy what he couldn’t grow. He still got the respectful nods from them, asking him “How are you, Mr O’Callaghan?” or, worse still, calling him sir, some in their fifties themselves, bald too now, with guts slung over their belts, acting like they were ripe for a ticking off.

McCarthy the estate agent, once his star pupil, he saw regularly.

“Still at the plants are you so, Mr O’Callaghan?” he’d ask whenever he saw him.

“I am indeed, Dermot,” he’d tell him, always asking after his business. But, even with his own young lad dead in a car crash twenty years ago, the Dermot McCarthy in O’Callaghan’s mind was the wee lad fresh down from his own Da’s farm, who would help him with the pond after school, studying frog spawn. He’d been a bright lad, that one. But then had come the hurling and the girls, the smoking and the pubs, the slow drift away from his books. He’d been there, soon enough, calling him Beardy O’Callaghan in class with the rest of the wastrels, passing up a place at the college in Cork city for a job in town. A waste of a good mind.

No, a choice has to be made. He felt the two buds that had grown on the stems. The bulging tightness of the left-hand branch promised more, heralded a mass of firm leaves, poised to bloom, the stem waxy and dark beneath it. The right would have to go.

The chosen one would be the first of a new breed, his hybrid. He felt the outer wall of the stem break under the pressure of his thumb behind the blade and let the knife glide through, giving a jerk of his wrist to ensure a clean cut. He held the severed stem in his hand. The cut was neat and he dabbed away a little sap and paused again to examine his work.

Rosa cultv. Keela. He could see it now, the name of his own variety on a label, picking up a prize at a show. He rubbed the sap, unthinking, into his beard as he admired it. “Sure, she doesn’t look much now,” he said and heard the sound of his own voice rebound from the panes, “but come the end of the winter, we’ll get a proper look at her.”

She’d been a challenge, the rose, from the new woman who had started working in the café at the big house in town. Keela, her name was, up from Kinsale where she’d taught as well. She’d taken early retirement, she told him, a dead husband left behind. A heart attack, so she said. He’d seen her about the place when he’d come in for his lunch at the café, or brought her in the produce he grew in the walled garden.

They’d come to talking at one of the events at the old house, a big Georgian pile of a place that used to be owned by a Brit before the war and the declaration of the Free State. Nature poetry it had been, the talk, and not just Cork writers. A thin fellow had travelled all the way from England, an Irishman by descent, so he said, in horn-rimmed spectacles, making references to Heaney and Shakespeare and Wordsworth.

“Without a name, and in most cases, a good, specific local one,” he had said, “a thing does not spring into life.” The man had told them words were local to a place just like the nature they described, “We should look to express ourselves not,” he had said, “as Ó Ríordáin, would have it,” and he had stressed the pronunciation, paused a moment, proud of himself, “in ‘the civilised halter of English’ – we should ‘return again to our own’. And it seems appropriate here, that in a house, once English, now Irish, that we should look to make a Munster poetry to portray Munster. To parse Shakespeare, ‘A rose by any other name’ is a different rose.”

“Do you think you could do that, Mr O’Callaghan?” Keela had asked him, grabbing the arm of his better jacket, the one he’d worn specially that day, “Make a Munster rose?”

“And would you name it yourself?” he had asked. She had told him that she wrote poems too. He smiled at the thought of it and looked down at the stem before him.

O’Callaghan opened the door of the greenhouse and stepped out, closing it with care lest the fragile wood of the old frame gave way. A chill breeze hit him after the warmth inside. He passed neat beds of cabbages and, beyond, the herb garden. He pottered around his hives, the odd bee still about. He saw a fat one perched on a sprig of rosemary. “What are you about?” he murmured to it. “You get yourself back inside, you hear?” He checked the hive feeders, squinted at the levels and, as he walked back, examined the grass, lush with these warm autumns. It worried him, the weather, like the thinning of his hive. Not that he’d have to worry too long about it, he supposed, but what of Niamh and the boys in Boston and Aoife’s wee one up in Galway? It’s a mess we’re making, he thought.

He heard the click of his knees as he bent and felt the dense spring of the grass back at him. Should he give it a mow later, when he was back from the big house, perhaps? He could hear Sheila’s voice, strong still though a decade dead, telling him, “You’ll mow it as bald as yourself, you old coot. Leave it alone, will you?” Not that he was an obsessive, one of those military stripes men like Egan down the road. They used to joke that Egan had a spirit level to check the flatness of his front garden. Niamh had reckoned he came out in his undies in the middle of the night, scissors in hand, to tame any blade of grass that rose above its station. No, O’Callaghan thought, that’s not me – short and tidy does it but none of your neurotic stripes. Keeps it lush, a cut. But, as he thought of the lawnmower in the shed near the house, he heard Sheila’s voice again, through the years.

“You’re not at it again, are you? You only did it Saturday, Gerry. Will you not spend a bit of the day indoors with us?”

“I spend all week inside,” he had told her then, “it will only take an hour.” He could see her mouthing it back at him, his standard retort, half a beat ahead of him, her head wagging all the while in mock consternation. And it was a lie too. He spent all week off with the boys at school, catching caterpillars or out with the quadrats, exploring or tending his hives.

His girls loved the bees too. Niamh had asked for her own keeper’s suit and hood. He still had it, tucked away somewhere in the attic. He should get up there and clear out all the junk. But he had felt sick to the guts dragging the boxes of Sheila’s dresses up there, two years after they’d buried her. He had left it too long until Aoife had come and helped him.

“She’d not want you to dwell on things,” she’d told him, holding one of the dresses up in front of her, a red polka dotted one that Sheila always wore to church while he’d stayed home. Sheila had worn it the last time after the chemo had taken her hair, before she got too weak to go.

“How do I look?” she’d asked him, giving him a twirl. “I’m as bald as yourself now, you old heathen.”

He’d left the girls’ bedrooms as they were for when they came back. Their own wee ones thrilled at seeing their mammies’ toys. Perhaps he should take it all down to the St Vincent de Paul shop too. Maybe later. Not while the sun shone and he’d work to do.

He knew he’d to be at the old house first and Keela, most likely, would be giving tours or working in the café. Maybe she’d make him lunch. Besides, he had to get some muck dug into those rose beds before he could think of transplanting his hybrid up there. Still, perhaps before he went, he had time for a quick pipe. Keela could not abide the pipe smoke.

He ambled back in to the house to make tea and eyed the basket, half full of logs. He looked down at the ancient setter who raised his head from the basket at the gush of the tap. O’Callaghan stroked the down behind the dog’s ear and heard his gurgle of contentment and the crane of his neck insistent for more. He put another log in the burner and gave the dog a quick final pat on the block of his skull. “Best keep you warm, Bob, while I’m gone, you lazy old soul,” he said.

He felt the familiar bulge of his tobacco pouch in the jacket pocket and mustered tea bags and milk, took a honey dipper and administered a generous drizzle over the waiting bag. The whistle of the kettle made the dog stir again.

He carried the steaming mug outside and placed it on the arm of the bench that sat in lee of the kitchen window. Bob limped out to join him, nestling down on the sun-warmed slabs the bench sat on. O’Callaghan reached into the pocket and pulled out his pouch. He freed his pipe and stopped for a moment to inhale the moisture of the coarse blend. It had worked its way into the grain of the old leather, just as he supposed it had into his own skin. He sighed as he exhaled the first full draw.

She could wait a little while for her rose.

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