Rather than writing in to Mariella or Coleen or Alain, I commune on a semi-irregular basis with a host of different spirits on the anniversary of their death. Spirits being what they are, specific questions won’t normally be possible (though you’re welcome to send in requests!). Usually I’ll leave myself open to whatever advice they wish to bestow on me.
A strange one. I’m not the gardening kind, and as it gets colder and wetter I’m less likely to start doing anything about the state of our weed-infested front garden. In the last few months it’s got so derelict with weeds I have a suspicion that it’s being treated as a local landfill site. At first I was just finding empty cans of Pringles and cardboard boxes; soon it was soiled diapers and condoms, old copies of the Radio Times; once I tripped over a life-sized zebra-print rug. None of this made me more likely to take up gardening.
A part of me also came to fear that, eventually, I would find a dead body there—an elderly man, Pringles in his beard, clutching at a copy of the Radio Times, swaddled in a rug, staring at and through me from beneath the undergrowth.
The only way to deal with an irrational fear is to act as if it has already happened and ignore it. So every day for the last few months I’ve made my way to the front door—keys out, eyes down—as quickly as possible. Dump the bodies of elderly relatives outside our house if you want, but don’t think I’ll notice.
The weeds, though, the weeds—they invade my dreams. Last night I saw them creeping up the side of the house and slipping their fingers beneath our bedroom window, shoving it open. Then a voice came to me—a whisper, really—that sounded like that of a woman, a Scandinavian woman.
Suddenly the weeds vanished. I sat up, sweating, but she was still talking. Though I couldn’t see her—at least not in the sense of someone sitting opposite me—I imagined her wearing an old-fashioned smock and kirtle, smiling at me in a distant, kind of teary way.
I fell back asleep and when I woke up this morning I dismissed it as just another product of my unresolved gardening issues. But after breakfast, for whatever reason, I searched for “Swedish Catherine” online. I recognised the first image that came up. It was her. Last night, without realising, it appeared I was talking to royalty. “Swedish Catherine” (see image on the right) was the third wife of King Gustav I and Queen of Sweden from 1552 to 1560. I read her Wikipedia entry and discovered that, yes, of course, she had died on this day in 1621.
But what to make of what she said? I was confused. If I was an agony aunt on a par with the Daily Mirror’s Coleen Nolan, perhaps I’d say it had been directed to anyone in a lustreless or lopsided marriage, finding it hard to reconcile the present and past, bowed down by the weight of old dreams, but I can’t be sure. I’ll leave it to you to respond how you will. I’ve transcribed it as follows:
When my aunt died I married her husband and became, among other things, responsible for a household that included seven young children and two adolescents. But I was a child myself, only 16 at the time.
When I was told of the marriage I remember running to hide behind a rose bush in the garden. On this rose bush were three roses about to reach their full bloom. They put me in mind, as nature must have intended, of Gustav—not King Gustav, my aunt’s husband, but of the handsome, golden-haired young Gustav whom I had been intending to marry and whose family name was “Three Roses”. I plucked a single rose and, in a gesture that still surprises me, ate it.
A thing’s apparent beauty does not guarantee its taste. But, to my mind, it didn’t taste bad—it was as bland as grass. And when I think about it now I can almost taste it again, as clearly as the surströmming I had for lunch today. (Yes, we do have salted herring where I am now.)
I hear that in your time there is a vast library where all of the world’s knowledge is stored? Apparently among its shelves there exists an entry on me suggesting, on whose authority I’ve no idea, that I would talk in my sleep and that every night I whispered the words “King Gustav is very dear to me, but I shall never forget The Rose”.
If this is what has become of my name, I should make something quite clear.
I mourned golden-haired Gustav as a young woman but my memory of him faded quickly. It’s not as though I forgot him but he was rather crowded out by a great many other chores and worries and fantasies, some concerning my lovers… Or did you imagine I remained celibate? My husband was 56 when we married.
I did never forget the rose, though. Amid the many anfractuous paths my mind wandered down—a Queen’s life is not without event—I would always stumble upon the image of myself, aged 16, in a loose smock and red kirtle, kneeling behind that rose-bush in Torpa, eating a rose. I tasted it again, dull as grass, salted with tears, and heard myself whispering the same words I said then: “never forget the rose.”
Leaving the house to get some more milk after breakfast, I faced down my fears. There in our front garden, amid the rotting fruit and broken furniture and wasted carrion, was a rose bud. I leant down to smell it, to taste it with my lips. My eyes opened.
Reader, it was disgusting, and not a rose.