THE MEMORY OF ROSES
Innocence and hope blended together with fallen petals. By Elizabeth Day.
My mother had a set of three melamine mixing bowls. They nested into each other like Russian dolls, each one a gradually decreasing circle of egg-yolk yellow. These bowls made recurrent appearances throughout my childhood. The big one for making chocolate truffles at Christmas to give to my primary school teacher. The middle one for when my older sister baked a coffee walnut cake, allowing me afterwards to lick the bowl, scooping raw dollops of sugar and butter and egg into my mouth from a wooden spoon because this was in a time before anyone knew about salmonella. But the third mixing bowl was my favourite. I decided it was mine because I, like it, was the smallest in my family. Every spring, when the roses started to bloom, I would take my mixing bowl out into the garden and gather up the petals to make perfume. My favourite time to do this was just after a rainfall, when the grass was lush with watery sunshine and the ground smelled of damp soil and promise. I focused my attention on the blush-pink petals that had fallen on the lawn, fragile and translucent as days-old confetti. I never touched the roses still growing on the bush. I knew that was wrong, like crossing the road without looking both ways or talking to strangers outside the school gates. Back inside, I would add a precise amount of water from the tap. Too much and the blooms would lose their delicate fragrance. Too little and it wouldn’t resemble proper perfume—the kind I saw in glass bottles on my grandmother’s dressing table, with exotic-sounding words like “Mademoiselle” or “Lace” or “Trésor”, which seemed to represent to me all the most glamorous, unreachable aspects of adulthood. I would pound the rose petals with a wooden spoon, crushing them against the sides of the bowl, squeezing out the flower’s thin-veined moisture until what remained was a disappointing mush. The petals would lose their pinkness and become tinged with brown. There was always a moment of guilt when I saw this happen, at the willful destruction of something so pretty. But it was worth it because, after a few minutes’ pounding, I would be left with the pure essence of rose petal: a fresh, sweet smell with a sharp undertone that stopped it from being a saccharine. When I dabbed my home-made perfume on my wrists, I smelled of rainwater and sunshine. The mixing bowl was a glorious cocoon of scent. I inhaled deeply, as if I were already losing it. And I was. My perfume never lasted more than a few seconds. The smell faded almost as soon as it was made. I refused to accept this. Year after year, I gathered rose petals in the mixing bowl, each time hoping I would hit on some magic formula that would make the fragrance last. It never did. A smell, like a feeling, is hardly ever what you think it should be. It is difficult to define. It flickers on the edge of your consciousness—a floaty memory of what once was— and you spend the rest of your life trying to recapture it. After a while, the mixing bowl was returned to its place in the cupboard and the rose petals were left scattered on the lawn. I grew older. I sought out shop-bought alternatives that would bring me back to my childhood garden. As a teenager, I stumbled across the Body Shop’s Tea Rose perfume but again, it never seemed to last on my skin for more than a few minutes. As an adult, a boyfriend bought me a bottle of Coco Mademoiselle from duty free when returning from a work trip. It was pink in colour and though it didn’t smell of roses, there was something about its florid crispness that reminded me of the crushed petals in that long-ago mixing bowl. I still wear it now. Sometimes, when I walk up a London street, past a bush heavy with blossom recently dampened by rain, the fragrance on my wrist mingles with the smell of the roses and I am transported back to that lawn, to the scent of hope and innocence, to that lifelong desire that guides us all, of always wanting a beautiful thing to last just a little bit longer.