At present, the glorious flowering of my rosebushes is coming to an end. Where just a week ago the roses were pert and full, now they droop and fade, petals falling like gentle snow to collect on the ground below them. My mock orange is the same; the boughs are no longer quite as heavy with scented flowers as they were some days ago, instead the withering petals decorate the garden table, the chairs. And it’s heartbreakingly beautiful, this dusting of dying flowers on the grass and stone flags, but in a melancholic way, a foreboding of autumn and winter (not yet) of nights that almost become permanent as we near Christmas.
The other day, I drove by an isolated little timber building – originally a barn, I think. The wood hadn’t been painted for years, the structure leaned to its right, towards the propping presence of an old oak. Cowparsley stood thick around it, there was a stand or two of foxgloves, their bright pink contrasting against the soft grey of the worn planks. The building looked as if it was slowly sinking into the ground around it, a silent, protracted decay that should have been accompanied by a muted tenor voice singing “E lucevan le stelle” from Tosca. I was overwhelmed by an urge to leave the car and wade through the knee high grass to caress the silky wood. It was warm to the touch, crumbling from the bottom up as the damp ate into planks of wood that someone once had so carefully joined together into a pleasing, functional whole.
All of us have at some point in time, I think, been fascinated by a ruin. People lower their voices as they tread round the remains of a church, a castle, an abbey. I’m not the only one who will stand stock still in what used to be the nave of a mighty church, listening for echoes of the voices that once rang loud and clear under whole, vaulted ceilings. Sometimes I believe I hear a whisper, a soft Pater Noster qui et in caelis winding itself through my head. Mostly I don’t – unfortunately.
Some of the most forceful works of art depict decay and death. In the Duomo of Milan, there was a statue I will never forget of a man reduced to a skeleton with a rather uplifting legend along the lines that what I am presently beholding, I will soon become. Every time I studied it (and they were many), I had to knot my hands behind my back to stop myself from stroking the beautifully shaped skull, the femurs and clavicles. Like a complex jigsaw, the sculpted skeleton stood before me, every piece slotting seamlessly into the next. A miracle, a construction as impressive as the building I was standing in.
A fallen tree in the woods, weathered headstones in an abandoned churchyard that lean this way and that, the outlines of homes long since razed to the ground that remain visible through earth and vegetation – so sad in a way. Nature thrives on decay; ivy covers age old fortifications, grass rustles over tiled floors, sinking the past into an eternal Cinderella sleep. And yet if you look closer you might discover the tenacious rose bush that someone planted long ago, a gnarled collection of old stems that still lives, one single perfect rose dripping pink petals onto faded granite blocks.
“I was here,” the bush signals. “I lived, I loved, and once upon a time I planted a flower that you may look at it today and wonder who I might have been.” I always do, sinking into long daydreams starring women and men that have long since been converted to dust.
With a little sigh the rose disintegrates, the last of its petals floating to the ground.
A rose will bloom, and then it fades – and if it didn’t, would we savour it’s perfection as much as we do?