Well, in this instance, roses. Two especially had hovered in memory for decades. Two, regained, have just been in flower, and made me wonder if Proust’s madelaines were really, in later life, and not in the imaginative realm of the novel, quite as he remembered them from childhood.
First, the London house in which I was born. Modest and suburban, when my grandfather bought it as my parents’ first home in England, he also bought them plants for the garden. Fruit trees went in at the end of the strip, lots of privet for the hedges, and roses. The path to the front door was lined with bushes of ‘Ena Harkness’, but at the back of the house, where there was a concrete terrace reached by steps from kitchen and dining room, he bought, for the green trelliswork pergola that separated it from the garden proper, ‘Goldfinch’. I adored it as a child.
Now, it is in flower, its long wands beginning to clothe the north wall of the ‘ruin’ at the end of my garden in Scotland. It’s like nothing else we grow. I still love the way its pretty clusters of biscuit-orange buds open to slightly paler flowers, which themselves age to almost white. It is as rampant as memory insists, giving rise to rows between my parent (my father loved chopping things down). What it hardly has, and which didn’t bother me as a child, is perfume. Perhaps it has the slightest hint of tea rose… Anyway, there are plenty of others in the garden here quite dripping with smell anyway, so it is hardly necessary. And, of course, as a child I didn’t notice that it is more than a little prone to blackspot. Or, for that matter, that its season of flower is short, if quite astonishingly abundant. On that terrace, long ago, the petals shed in such drifts that I could shuffle through them, or try to make rose petal snowballs. My father would sweep them off to the compost bin before I had a chance to try rose petal snowmen. Perhaps the new one here will make up for that lack, providing there is no-one looking if I try.
The second ‘chose’ is a rose too. Imagine a sunshine-and-drizzle day in a Scottish June. Imagine a slightly unkempt walled garden of an ancient house. Imagine box hedges, seriously ancient yews, brilliantly grass-green grass, the scent of honeysuckle and philadelphus. Imagine a long path, half occluded at its end by the flower-bent branches of a tall. gawky, rose, something to scramble through, get scratched by, to curse. The flowers were large, flat, quartered as an old rose should be, intense pink in the middle, getting a trifle paler to the margins. And amidst drizzle and curses, a perfume that quelled anger, repelled the dank, and took one to, well, wherever… The mossy label proclaimed ‘Ville de Bruxelles’.
Now, decades later, something with the same august name is in flower in my garden, down by the lower pool where it will, in a season or two, cause scratches and curses. But is this really the same one? Is my memory false? What gone wrong? It is pink, though almost paler centred. It is pretty. It does smell delicious. It will sprawl. I will curse it.
But it won’t ever, I think, be the same as that one, that day, that place. But perhaps the recipe has changed. Is all that madelaine stuff bunkum after all?