This is not a perfume review as such. It is story inspired by Andy Tauer’s ‘Une Rose Vermeille’. Sometimes only scent can inspire words to form on my blank page. For this tale perfume has been my muse.
August is reaching it’s peak and summer sits heavily this year, how troublesome a shining sun can be when the mind is weary. The insistent, optimistic beam of golden light seeks only to cast the shadow of her ragged edges into sharper contrast. It is not usually like her to be so downcast when the trees are in full leaf. She is worried for herself. Somewhere in the cloudless blue above there is a higher part of her that shouts down in vain to the body, watching as it drags itself though yet another sun drenched day without so much as a glance at the copper beech, turning from deepest purple to green.
Today is Saturday and she must board a train. It is a country line and as the vehicle pulls into the station she thinks that it more closely resembles a school bus, with long benches and metal hand rails. She boards with her companions and they all sit in a row, watching through the windows as the countryside begins to surround them on all sides.
None of them really want to be here today. Their task (and it will most certainly be strenuous) is one they have been collectively putting off for weeks, polite excuses and prior engagements have become a little overused and the time has come to grit their teeth and get it over with. It is sad that although in this they are united, in every other way they are falling apart. At times during the journey the conversation becomes strained between two of them, the third looking on, both awkward and a little excited at the fractures forming, slowly creeping into the heart of things and allowing rot to take hold.
As the train chugs happily through the green and pleasant land she tries to get a hold on herself. She has noticed the watchfulness of her friend, the slight glint in her eyes when her stress bubbles too close to the surface. Always so supportive, always full of enthusiasm, holding herself back from the veiled resentment hissing between the other two. There is a danger that if she cannot keep it together today, she may lose her place within the group, that she will be pushed still further onto the sidelines. In her heart she knows that continuing in such dysfunction will eventually destroy her. She knows she should get out before she breaks but the path ahead is so misted with uncertainty that she is afraid to venture into it. Mustering enthusiasm for anything is so hard while the sun beats down relentlessly. She wants to crawl into a dark space between tree roots and hide.
As the train nears their stop they stuff the tension hurriedly into their handbags and instead share some fortifying words, for whatever may be rupturing between them it absolutely cannot show for the rest of the day. As she steps onto the platform she repeats it to herself like a mantra. ‘Do not lose your temper, do not lose your temper….’
Juliet is waiting on the bridge above the tracks. They can see her waving between the high grasses, beckoning for them to head through the gate. Her voice travels through the warm air like a bullet. They pile into the back of her car and hurtle down the country lanes at a ridiculous speed, Juliet chattering all the while about their journey, the landmarks they pass, the tenuous things they have in common. As is always the case she is unprepared for the physical jolt of energy that scatters her thoughts whenever Juliet is on top form. Perhaps she has become sensitive to it after a few weeks without daily exposure. She is barely holding her thoughts in place as it is. Glancing at her companions she notices that their jaws are set and their eyes falsely wide with interest. She forces her face into the same expression. God this is hard work already.
The car pulls up outside a lovely house with gardens spreading out around it on three sides. Juliet is puffed up with pride as they all gawp with genuine admiration. It is an idyl nestled in between rolling green hills. A tour promptly follows, where every treasured ornament and framed photograph is lingered over, Juliet’s whip crack of a laugh exploding far too frequently for them to relax. The three of them know only too well how finely tuned an instrument they are dealing with here. If one of them plucks the wrong string all will descend into a cacophonous riot.
The kitchen table is groaning under the weight of the feast set upon it. The platters of food look delightful and Juliet requires only a little help to finish it off. Whilst the others carry tables and cloths into the garden, Juliet instructs her how to dress the summer fruit salad. Juliet has a tone to rival any Victorian school mistress and the well intentioned guidance is like a physical assault. To see Juliet here, in her home environment, she had hoped to understand the woman better. There has always been such a contradiction at play, she is never sure how to handle it. Juliet is at once free spirited and stuck in her ways, open minded but also terribly prejudiced, young at heart with a lifetime’s experience, fierce yet fragile, manipulative but naive. She had been hoping that in her own home Juliet would become less frustrating. It seems though, that the whole house pulsates with the strength of Juliet’s contradictions, the pitch of her personality resonating at a purely vibrational level. It makes her head spin. She knows this woman loathes her, loathes all of them in one way or another. The invitation to be here today is an act of defiance, disguised clumsily as a gesture of solidarity. She can’t help but feel paranoid that Juliet has noticed the spots of disease forming within the group, even though they have been so careful to keep it from her. Bad feeling is like fuel to Juliet, it makes her burn all the brighter.
Juliet leaves her instructions hanging in the air like a velvet wrapped threat and departs to ensure the garden tables are being arranged as she intended. Waiting until Juliet has gone, she lifts the lid covering the green dish and breathes in the scent of summer berries. Plump raspberries, blushing strawberries, the softly bloomed skin of dark blueberries. She sprinkles sugar crystals all over, slices a lemon in half and squeezes the tart juice sparingly. Next to the sugar pot stands a dark brown bottle of highest quality rose water. She opens the lid and inhales the wonderful bouquet that blossoms forth, wondering as she does every time at the decadence of such a thing. Luxury is Juliet’s biggest weakness, so she is never one to scrimp on things she considers essential. This rose water is simply beautiful, as you would expect. Placing her thumb over the top, she tips the bottle and pours a little into the fruit, then stirs it all together with a silver serving spoon. The scent is exquisite. Sweet, tart fruit combining with rose into a frothy pink celebration, the lemon just sparkling away at the top to keep it from becoming too sugary. It strikes her as very poignant that such a joyful combination could exist in the tension fueled buzz of this afternoon. Inhaling one more time, she places the cover back over the fruit and steps out into the garden to join the others.
Time passes slowly, compliments are lavished upon the food and the beautiful surroundings, polite conversation is painstakingly crafted through sheer force of will. Juliet seems unaware that the situation is awkward. Another of her strange contradictions is that although she is always the one to cause trouble, Juliet feels adamantly that it is not her but them who are to blame. For once she is running the show and it is a role in which she thrives. To Juliet’s mind this is the way it should always be between the four of them. It is a never ending challenge to keep her in her place, a delicate balancing act performed with a tact and subtlety that once she found admirable. Now she finds it terrifying. She is no longer safe from the master tactician with whom she travelled here today. Sooner or later the true intention of this pleasant get-together will have to be discussed. Ironically, Juliet is in the safest position, even though she makes the biggest waves. Juliet remains the only permanent fixture, like a towering cliff on the shore of a turbulent sea. No amount of crashing and splashing will budge her.
Notebooks emerge from bags and the conversation turns finally to business. It all feels very formal somehow, even though the situation has been engineered to be as relaxed as possible. As she gropes around for her pen she is painfully aware how little she has prepared for this. Her mind, so fuddled and foggy with unhappiness, has been solely focused on getting through each day. Until now she has chosen to cope in this way, but as all eyes turn to her, expectant to hear her solutions and ideas, she realises with sinking certainty that she has not done enough. However constructively her lack of input is dealt with, she can tell from a look that she has greatly disappointed the person she is expected to support the most. That look is one she has encountered with more regularity in recent weeks than anyone in her position should. Her friend happily fills in the blanks she has left, seemingly prepared to do both their share willingly. Shame rolls over her like hot thunder. She has made herself redundant in this quartet, she sees it as plain as this summers day, yet she feels totally unable to change it.
Juliet, however much she feels superior, is managed with breathtaking precision. Her misguided and narrow minded input is made, to her, to seem both valid and useful, whilst actually being of no help whatsoever. This is how the four of them have rubbed along together these past years. They know that Juliet cannot be budged, so they tread carefully and take advantage of her short sightedness. This has become entirely too exhausting to keep up for the one who is unhappy, anger flares inside her with the white intensity of a lightening bolt. ‘Do not lose your temper, do not lose your temper…..’
Juliet, smug with achievement, skips off to fetch the dessert. The other two fall into further conversation, hatching plans whilst on the sidelines, the miserable one battles the storm intensifying within her. She sits mute, with eyes downcast, shame and anger and humiliation smashing at her battered will. She is disgusted with herself for not trying harder, furious that such little effort is praised in someone else. Her fragile ego twists in pain as she listens to her friend proving how much more she deserves to be here, while a little voice in the back of her head is questioning why she cares. It is too much. She is fully aware that while all this emotion is rocking her little boat, outwardly she appears to be in a deep sulk. A child sitting morose until the adults forgive her. She simply cannot find the strength to pull herself out of it. There is that look again, except this time the eyes flicker to the kitchen and back with a raised eyebrow. Juliet must not witness her meltdown or the hierarchy will crumble like a sandcastle, leaving her at the bottom of the heap.
Dessert is served in delicate china bowls. There is vanilla cheesecake too, deep, silky creaminess speckled with black seeds. The combination of smooth vanilla, sweet fruit and fragrant rose is so stunning that in the midst of her turmoil, eating it seems like a cruel joke. A tear escapes and drips into her bowl. She prays for the clouds to roll over the sun and shut out the infernal brightness. For all the lazy bees to take cover under the leaves and cease their happy droning. Glancing at her watch she counts another hour until it is time to catch the return train. She picks up her wine glass, drinks the previously untouched pink liquid in one and reaches for the bottle.
Halfway down the second glass she risks a prolonged glance at Juliet. She still seems totally unaware that she could cut the atmosphere with a knife, working her way steadily through her own bottle of wine. The conversation has moved away from business, notebooks stowed back into bags and laughter coming more easily. Maybe it it just she who is still submerged in this murk, it appears that the others have released some of their pent up tension and the mood at the other end of the table is significantly lighter. With an odd mixture of shame and relief she allows herself to relax slightly, although she knows that in the past hour something has broken. Tiredness rushes over her, encouraged by the wine slipping too easily down her throat. In her befuddled state she watches Juliet and the others chatting away, feels so separate from them that it is almost an out of body experience. A bizarre burst of sympathy for Juliet takes her by surprise, dining blithely with the wolves who manipulate her so cunningly, though she is a dangerous creature herself. It does not last, this fleeting kindness, but is does cast Juliet momentarily in a different light.
The last minutes of the party play out in a half drunken fugue of hot sun and pollen filled air. She is unsure whether she rejoins the conversation fully, she still feels removed from herself. The car ride through the lanes is a green blur, Juliet’s goodbyes are hurried as the train is already waiting. She falls asleep on the journey home. At the station they exchange hugs, bid farewell to their friend, then she and the other agree that they need to ‘have another chat’. The concern is genuine but she knows this tough woman too well to feel comforted by it. As she trudges home, slightly nauseous in the balmy evening, she tries to reflect on what exactly has happened. It feels like a dream now. The reality of her situation and the ultimate change in her mindset will not dawn on her fully until the next morning.
Arriving home she lowers herself wearily onto a chair in the kitchen and opens her bag. Tucked inside is a small tupperware pot with a folded note secured by an elastic band. The pot contains the last of the summer fruits, still sublimely fragrant but slightly bruised from being jostled around on the journey. Strange, she didn’t remember asking for it. She opens the note and reads it once, then again and again. Finally she drops it onto the table next to the little pot of jewel bright berries, pushes herself away from the table and slowly climbs the stairs. In her bedroom she draws the curtain to finally shut out the sun, climbs fully clothed into bed and pulls the cover over her head. She is asleep in seconds.
The note remains on the table until she emerges the next morning to read it again……
“For you, because I noticed how much you enjoyed it.
She folds the note into a tiny square and throws it in the bin.