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Ena Harkness - by Janice Simpson

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Peter began to love roses the day his mother cut Ena Harkness, wrapped the stems loosely in day old newspaper and said "Take these to school for Miss Wannup." He put his head inside the paper and inhaled the dark sweet scent. He held them carefully all the way in the car and when his mother let him out at the school gate he barely noticed the others.
"What you got there Pete?"
"Ah, he's got flowers!"
"Yeah, he's got flowers!"

Peter proceeded into the schoolroom where he laid the bunch on the front desk.
"They're lovely Peter. Are they from your mother's garden?"
"Yes Miss Wannup."
"Do you have a large garden at home?"
"Yes Miss."
"I'd like to come and see it one day. Do you think that might be alright?"
"Yeah Miss, I'll ask Mum tonight when she picks me up."

He took a glass jar from the shelf running the length of the blackboard, went outside to the drinking taps and filled it to the brim. Remembering the stems would displace some of the water he poured a measured trickle into the trough and brought the jar inside. Carefully he unwrapped the blooms. Picking up first one then another stem he set each in the jar as he had seen his mother do although she used proper vases. Peter put his roses on the shelf in the centre of the blackboard just above the letter M.

All week he sat at his desk and watched Ena Harkness. He saw the tighter buds open in the warmth and full-blown blooms drop their petals that shrank and darkened with every day. On Friday after the last lesson he took the jar from the shelf and carried it outside where he emptied the spent blooms under the boobialla.

"Mum, can you cut me another bunch of roses for school this week?"
"Peter, we're running late as it is."
"Please Mum."

This time she cut him Papa Meilland and Sutters Gold. He laid them on newspaper on the table and she rolled them up, twisting the paper around the stems before slipping on a rubber band.

When school broke up for the summer holidays Peter asked his father to tell him the names of all the roses. "Ask your mother Peter. She's the one who loves the roses. I hardly know one from another."

On Boxing Day she took him into the garden and told him what he wanted to know. "This one's Lady Hamilton, Peter, she's a real beauty, flowers all the time. And over here's Buff Beauty. I love the way it climbs over the separator shed don't you? And Guinea, my favourite red I think although it's hard to choose what with Papa and Ena and Black Boy. They all smell lovely," and she dipped her nose into each and every one as they walked around. There was Peace and Adolf Horstmann, Boule de Neige a tightly packed little white with soft pink outsides like a newborn lamb's ear, Nancy Hayward in the wisteria, The Reeve, Vol de Nuit, Madame Alfred Carriere and Sparrieshoop. There were more but Peter got lost. He was tipsy with their names and their perfumes. He set about learning them by heart and come February he could tell Miss Wannup all the roses that grew in his mother's garden.

Peter moved on to secondary school and he stopped taking roses for his teachers. He told himself the long bus ride would do them no good.

Not long after he took up with Babs. She was a dark girl and drove a car on account of putting up her age at the police station. They got along well enough for a while but he would be kissing her and thinking of how to repair his bike or what shirt to wear on Saturday night. He supposed Babs got wind of his thoughts because she told him it was off between them. He didn't mind and soon found himself going out with Celie. After Celie came Joy, and after Joy came Margaret.

Margaret was a different girl altogether. For a start she was older than him and had already been engaged. They walked in the garden every time she came over and Peter loved to show her the roses.
"This one needs a summer prune too, just a light one," he said.
"You know a lot about roses Peter. I'd like roses in my garden I think."
"Would you?" And before he knew what he was doing he said "We could have a big bed out the front with standards and bushes, and all along the side we'd have climbers right down to the back fence and then there'd be room for some more bushes to block off the veggies and some on the garage and on the driveway too. American Pillar. That looks good up a driveway. We could build a portico and have a rose on each column. Just think. Twenty or thirty of them. We'd be covered in roses."

They were married in December. After a short honeymoon on the river they returned to town and set up together at the end of the main street. Peter began at once to dig the garden he'd promised Margaret while she set about putting the house in order sewing new curtains, setting their wedding presents in the crystal cabinet and giving the linoleum a thorough cut and polish. April came and went in a flurry of rose catalogues and July saw Peter burying over a hundred fresh rose canes in his beds. He pushed a stake into the earth in front of each one on which he affixed the labels. He meant to spend more than a few evenings tooling names onto aluminum strips and glueing them on as a permanent reminder of who his new beauties were. In September they rewarded him with cornelian shoots that he sprayed every other morning as a precaution against aphids.

The roses grew lustily and by November the garden was dotted with colour. He did not lose a single one. "Margaret, get out the rose bowl. I've just picked our first armful."
"You get out the rose bowl!" and she slammed the oven door so hard the egg timer fell down the back of the stove. He put his roses on the kitchen table and quietly unlocked the crystal cabinet. He set his blooms into the mesh top and gingerly poured in tepid water before dropping in an Aspro, the better to preserve them. He pushed the bowl to the centre of the table and stood back to admire his work.
"Don't leave them there. They'll drop petals all over the place."

When their first child arrived in July Peter had long forgiven Margaret her first outburst and indeed the many others which followed reasoning as he did that having a child was no easy task. He wanted to call their girl Rose, or at least Rosemary, but Margaret wouldn't hear of it and so she became known as Sharna. Peter wasn't sure he liked the name but he loved his girl and it wasn't long before she was following him around the garden.

After Sharna came Patricia and after Patricia came Deidre. Margaret said enough was enough and moved Peter into the guest bedroom. He knocked up some bookshelves in the garage and soon felt at home with his wireless next to the bed and the rose bowl, always full, on the dresser near the doorway. Peter replaced the water every morning before work and was mindful to pick up any dropped petals although he liked the way they layered one another like a litter of puppies.

And then a strange thing happened. Overnight all the new shoots and buds disappeared from his roses. When he went out in the morning he was so struck he could not even bring himself to play with the girls as he did every morning before he went to work, before they went to school, before Margaret had the house to herself. The next morning was the same only new wood had disappeared and dark tough leaves too. That night he sat up in the chair at his open bedroom window and watched. He wasn't sure what he would discover and because his suspicions were roused he wasn't at all sure he wanted to discover anything.

Around eleven he saw something. He squeezed his eyes into slits and looked hard into the dark. There, down by the garage just near American Pillar. He saw it again. It was something big. "Oh Margaret, don't let it be you," he moaned, "I've tried, I really have. Leave my roses Margaret, please leave my roses." And to his surprise Margaret emerged from the dark and moved down the driveway right past where he was sitting. She was so close he could have touched her. She was carrying a suitcase. His eyes followed her. He saw her disappear out the front gates. Almost immediately a car drove off. "Margaret, who else is in this with you? Why are you killing my roses like this and taking them away in suitcases?" He tried to keep his eyes fixed on the garden but his troubles had welled up so much that tears poured down his cheeks.

He sat for a long time at his window. He wondered what he would say to Margaret in the morning.

But in the morning he didn't need to say anything for he found a note first thing on the kitchen table.
Peter - there's enough cut lunches in the fridge to last the week and the girls all have clean uniforms in the wardrobe. Look after them as well as you do your roses.
He still had it in his hands when he walked around the garden, and when the girls came in for breakfast Sharna said "Where's Mum?"
"She's gone to Aunty Liz's for a few days."
"Great!" squealed Deidre "You can drive me to school and I can take as many roses as I like. He crumpled up the note then and threw it in the firebox.
"Yes, you can too my girl, you can."

Days turned into months and the girls stopped asking him about Margaret. He was relieved in a way because he had the extra burdens of running a household to consider as well as his nightly schedule of possum trapping, for he had discovered that it was possums, not Margaret at all, that were systematically destroying his roses. He had tried laying baits; he had borrowed possum traps from the RSPCA and carted his quarry forty miles away; he had set up electrified wires; he had even bought a shotgun and sprayed possum innards over the garden. But still they came every night and ate any tender young growth they could find. Peter began to think of it as a war and knew in his heart when over seventy of his beauties were eaten beyond regeneration that it was a war he was losing.
When November came and there wasn't a single bloom in the entire garden Peter gave up. He returned the traps, dismantled the electric wires and sold the gun to a dealer. He found he had more time to spend with the girls and they went on picnics to the hills. One evening just on nightfall they walked through the gardens in town after the pictures and saw a young possum crouched low down in the hollow of a tree. The girls stopped.
"Look at its eyes Dad. They're pink, just like its ears." When Peter looked he could not find it in his heart any longer to muster up the hatred that had kept him going for the eighteen long months of possum warfare.
"Yes Dee they are. And can you smell that scent of fear about it?" The girls sniffed looking a bit like possums themselves he thought, and yes they could all detect a muskiness quite different from anything they had smelt before.
"Have we still got possums in the garden Dad?" Sharna wanted to know, "Because if we have I want one for a pet."

Peter read up a bit about possums and began to lay crumbled bread and birdseed along the kitchen window ledge. He put out bits of quartered apple too and within a month four possums were regular feeders. Peter started to leave the window open and talk quietly to the possums as they fed. One night he reached out his hand and stroked the black tipped fur running along the back of the smallest possum. It hardly flinched.
"Come on my beauty," he cooed, "come to daddy, come on, come to daddy." Before long the possum would leave the window ledge and climb along Peter's outstretched arm settling down on his shoulder. He would bring round his other arm and pat her, for he was sure she was female being so small and so daintily coloured, at first quite lightly and rhythmically as if she were a cat.

Every evening she would sit on his shoulder and he would pat her. Soon he was able to shift the possum with his hands and hold her cradled in his arms making it easier for him to stroke her.

Peter's interest in possums grew as did his possum collection. He gathered about him some thirty of the creatures before twelve months was out, many of which became regular visitors in the kitchen. The girls were enthralled.

When Sharna went to the big secondary school she asked Peter if she could bring a friend home to see the possums. "Of course love,' he said, "Everyone's welcome here, even the possums."

"Where's your mum?" Anne wanted to know after she walked into the kitchen.
"She's gone to Aunty Liz's."
"When will she be back?"
"When did she go? This morning?"
"No, almost three years ago now."
"Three years! What's she do there?"
"Dunno," replied Sharna who hadn't thought about Margaret for some time and in all truth didn't know.
"My Mum wouldn't have let me come if she'd known that. Anyway, what are all these for?" Anne pointed to some two dozen brightly coloured bowls lined up on the window ledge.
"They're for Dad's possums."
"Your dad's got possums?"
"Yeah. They come to feed every night."
"Here. In the kitchen."
"In the kitchen? Boy, no one lets possums in their kitchen. My Dad reckons they're vermin." And by next Monday recess Sharna found herself in the centre of a ring of girls in the schoolyard.
"Sharna's a possum lover. Sharna loves possums. What do ya do with the possums Sharna?" they shouted at her, and Anne shouted loudest of all.

That night Peter put his arm around Sharna as he could see that something was up but she shrugged him off. "I'm sick of these bloody possums!" she shouted. "There's never any Rice Bubbles left for us in the morning. And when's Mum coming home?"

Peter didn't know what to say so in the end he said nothing at all. Instead he began filling the bowls with all the possums' favourites: wheat germ, apple, sunflower seed, Rice Bubbles. "Well my little beauties, you'll have a lovely feast tonight," and he smiled at his reflection in the kitchen window.

He opened the window and sat down at the table. "Come on," he crooned, "come to Daddy." as the first possums appeared out of the dusk. Peter looked out for his special possum, the little female that first allowed him to get close. There she was, perched over on the fence. "Come on baby, make your little Daddy happy tonight," he whispered as she clambered down and made her way up onto the window ledge. She quickly settled down into the crook of his arm and he began stroking her, gradually increasing the pressure of his hand all the while murmuring close to her pink ears. As he had come to expect she raised her thick muscular tail and brushed it over his face emitting as she did a sweet dark odour, not dissimilar Peter thought to Ena Harkness.

Janice Simpson © 1998