The Damask Rose: PART 2

Lucy's efforts to find a rare flower for a handsome customer were proving impossible, but then luck smiled on her and she finally found out the heartfelt reason for his mysterious request

Lucy was determined to source the beautiful Persian rose the dark-haired man with the piercing blue eyes had asked her to find. Shespent the rest of the day searching online rose wholesalers, between serving customers in her florist's shop. She hardly took her eyes off her laptop as she took card payments and handed over bouquet after bouquet of Valentine's roses. She stayed late at the shop, feigning the onset of a cold to Archie as an excuse for him not to come over for dinner - he was phobic about germs.

Though Lucy waited till almost midnight there was no sign of the man.

The next day she got up extra early to cycle to New Covent Garden market, asking all the flower sellers if they had stems of Rosa Damascena for sale. She was met with shaking heads and blank expressions.

'Don't ask me for anything fancy on a day like today,' one burly flower seller said. 'It's bloody Valentine's Day tomorrow! Or didn't you realise?' Lucy did indeed know there was only one day to go. By lunchtime the queue from her shop snaked all the way down the cobbled alley and out onto the main street. When the last bunch was sold there was almost a riot. There was no time to look for Rosa Damascena.

As Lucy finally closed the shop she heard a text arrive on her phone. 'Are you still ill?' It was from Archie.

'Yes, flu I think.' She tried not to feel guilty as she pressed send. 'I'll stay clear,' was his response.

Lucy tried to convince herself the relief she felt was because she was so busy. She had the final bouquets of red roses to make up, in preparation for the lastminute rush the next day.

She put Adele on Spotify and took out the boxes of roses that had been delivered a few hours before, separating the stems into bunches of a dozen, singing along to Someone Like You. She stopped singing as the shop bell jangled.

Her heart soared as she spotted the familiar long tweed coat, then sank as she realised it wasn't the blue-eyed man wearing it but a small woman with sleek, black hair.

'I've come to see if you've managed to find the Rosa Damascena.' The woman's voice was urgent.

Lucy put down the bouquet she had been tying together, noticing the coat was much too big for the woman.

'Are you...?' she hesitated. 'Did the man...?'

'Yes, he said you were going to try to find it. Have you succeeded?'

Lucy shook her head.

'It seems impossible to find.'

The woman seemed to shrink even further into the oversized coat.

'I did try,' Lucy said.

'If you do find it, could you bring it to the hospital.' The woman pointed in the direction of St Thomas', which was a short walk away. 'Though I must warn you, there isn't much time.' She turned to go, but then turned back, staring intently at Lucy.

'He was right about you,' she said. 'You are beautiful.' It was only then that Lucy noticed the colour of the woman's eyes - they were the exact same startling blue as the man's.

Lucy opened her mouth to ask a question, but the woman was already out of the door and hurrying down the alley.

Lucy couldn't sleep. She tossed and turned all night, wishing she had time to go on looking for the rose, but the next day was Valentine's Day - it was going to be one of the busiest times of the year in the shop.

In the morning she got up and dressed hurriedly, hastily writing a Valentine's card to Archie as she ate a slice of toast and gulped down her coffee.

Even though she knew she wouldn't be getting anything from him for Valentine's Day she always gave him a card. This year it had a glittery heart on the front she suspected he would hate. She wrote her usual 'guess who?' inside. In the mirror she applied red lipstick and kissed the envelope, leaving a scarlet imprint on the back.

As Lucy bumped her bike down the steps the morning sky was already a cloudless blue. She heard birds singing and noticed fat, pink buds on the magnolia tree across the street. It felt like spring, and she found herself humming a tune as she pushed back her long red curls, put on her cycle helmet and mounted the bike. Archie only lived a few streets away, so it wasn't too much of a detour on her route to the shop.

While Lucy rode along her mind wandered to the man with the blue eyes and the rose that seemed impossible to find, while Archie's Valentine's card bounced up and down in the bicycle's wicker basket.

She almost ran straight into Archie as he stepped in front of her. He wasn't looking where he was going because the huge bunch of flowers he was carrying was obscuring his view - Lucy calculated five dozen roses at least.

She skidded to a halt, while Archie stared at Lucy with an expression that could only be described as horrified.

'I thought you were ill,' he said.

'I'm much better.' Lucy couldn't take her eyes off the roses. 'Wow! This is a first. Were you going to give them to me later?'

'I, I...' Archie stammered. 'Actually Lucy, I, I...'

'Archie. Come on,' the voice came from above them. 'I've been waiting for ages.'

Lucy looked up to see a woman she recognised from the advertising agency where Archie worked. She was leaning out of the window of his flat with a beguiling expression. Her blonde hair was dishevelled and a towel barely covered her ample cleavage. Lucy looked back to Archie. His mouth was opening and closing like a fish.

'I thought you were ill,' he repeated.

'Evidently!' Lucy said as she manoeuvred her bike around him. She started to cycle away, then stopped. Grabbing the envelope from the basket of her bike she took out the card with the glittery heart on the front and ripped it into pieces. Then she cycled back to throw the pieces, like confetti, over Archie's head as she passed.

'You're welcome to him' she shouted up at the woman who was still leaning out of the window, though now with an astonished expression.

Lucy cycled away as fast as she could, turning down roads she didn't know, until she was lost in a maze of Edwardian terraced houses. At last she stopped, breathless from her furious pedalling. She got off the bike and sat down on a low stone wall, staring upwards, trying not to let the tears that were welling up fall. That was when she saw it: a single rose, bright against a dense tangle of foliage and thorns.

Lucy blinked, then rubbed her eyes. She took her phone out of her jacket pocket and Googled images of Rosa Damascena. It looked like the same flower. It was the most beautiful rose Lucy had ever seen, with multiple pink petals like velvet.

She stood up and climbed onto the wall to get a better look, managing to reach up to pull it closer to her. The sweet, honey-like perfume filled her with a longing she could hardly define.

The rose was growing in the garden of an almost derelict house covered in scaffolding. It didn't look like anyone was living there, and judging by the piles of bricks and the cement mixer it seemed as though the whole house was undergoing an extensive renovation. Lucy stared at the blank windows, then glanced up and down the quiet street. Surely no one would mind if she took a single rose? And who would even expect one to be flowering in February?

Lucy reached up and snapped the stem. She sniffed the flower again. The scent was intoxicating.

She looked at the time and realised she was going to be late to open the shop, but getting the rose to St Thomas' hospital suddenly seemed like the most important thing in the world.

Lucy tenderly put the rose in the envelope that had contained Archie's Valentine's card, placed it in the basket of her bicycle and cycled away.

At St Thomas' she made her way to the main reception, but it was only as she walked into the busy concourse that she realised that she had no way of contacting the man or the woman to tell them she had arrived with the precious rose. She was standing hopelessly looking at a map of the hospital when she felt a light tap on her arm.

She turned to see the woman.

Lucy smiled. 'I've been trying to work out how to find you.'

The woman's blue eyes searched Lucy's face anxiously.

'Have you found it?'

'Yes.' Lucy held up the envelope, but before she could take out the rose the woman took her by the arm, guiding her through the busy reception area and down a series of long corridors. Finally she pushed her way through swinging double doors and down another corridor. At the end she stopped at a window that looked into a small room. On the other side of the window Lucy could see the man with the blue eyes, sitting by a bed. He was holding the hand of an old woman. Her skin was as pale as parchment, her hair grey, and her face lined, but Lucy could see by her profile that she had once been very beautiful. Beside her a green line pulsed weakly on the screen of a monitor.

'She's in a coma,' the woman beside Lucy said.

'Who is she?' Lucy asked.

'She is Rosa, our grandmother. The doctors don't know if she'll wake up. They say we need to talk to her, stimulate her, remind her of her past. That's why we thought of roses.' She gestured towards the room on the other side of the glass.

Lucy saw that vases of roses covered every surface. They were crowded on the bedside table, arranged all along the window sill and on the shelf above a tiny sink.

'You see, our grandmother was brought up on a rose farm in Iran' the woman continued. 'In the district of Kashan, where the land is cultivated with field after field of roses - it is hard to imagine the beauty, or the scent, unless you have been there. Our grandmother married the son of the rose farmer on the next estate. They were childhood sweethearts. It was a marriage of true love, Pasha was her soul mate. He called her his “Rosa Shahbanu”, the Queen of all the roses. Pasha and Rosa farmed together. They made rose oil for the royal household in Tehran, and had an idyllic life together until the revolution of 1979.'

'What happened then?'

'Rosa escaped to England with our father, who was just a child. Our grandfather was meant to join them when the rose harvest was over, but he died in an accident on the farm. Our grandmother's heart was broken.' The woman wiped a tear from her eye. 'When our own parents died in a plane crash Rosa brought us up. She dedicated her life to supporting her family. She never remarried or loved another man.'

'The roses that Rosa and Pasha farmed?' Lucy asked. 'Were they…?'

'Rosa Damascena' the woman nodded as she finished Lucy's sentence.

At that moment the man looked up from the bedside. His eyes met Lucy's through the glass and he rushed to the door.

Lucy passed him the envelope containing the rose.

She saw him looking questioningly at the lipstick kiss.

'That was...' she attempted an explanation but realised it didn't really matter, the man was already taking out the rose. He held it briefly to his nose, before turning back towards the door of the hospital room. He beckoned to the two women to follow and sat down beside his grandmother's bed.

'Look, Maman-Joon' he held the rose close to the old woman's face. 'This will remind you of home.'

Nothing happened. They waited for a long time, watching the old woman's motionless face, listening to the faint beeping of the monitor. The man let out a sigh, dropped the rose onto the bedclothes and looked away.

'It was worth a try,' his sister said, her hand on his shoulder.

Suddenly Lucy saw the old woman's mouth twitch, then her eyelids flickered.

'Look!' Lucy cried out. 'She's waking up.'

The old woman's eyes opened wide to reveal the same startling blue as the eyes of her two grandchildren. The green line on the screen beside the bed began to pulse in stronger waves, the rhythmic beeping grew louder.

'Pasha...' The old woman murmured the name of her dead husband.

'Maman-Joon,' said the man, gripping the old woman's hands. 'You have come back to us.'

The younger woman bent over the bed and kissed her grandmother's cheek.

'We've missed you.'

The old woman's lips parted and she smiled. Her eyes looked bright.

'Here is the rose of your childhood,' the man said, placing the single stem of Rosa Damascena in one of his grandmother's thin hands. 'It is the rose of your homeland, your farm. This amazing woman found it.' He indicated towards Lucy.

The younger woman whispered conspiratorially to her grandmother: 'He likes her Maman- Joon, I can tell.'

The old woman's smile broadened. 'Love at last, my boy' she sighed happily. Her fingers fluttered over the petals of the rose in her hand as her blue eyes turned to Lucy. 'He is a good man, like his grandfather.' Then her body seemed to stiffen, she let out a groan and once more murmured her husband's name.

She closed her eyes.

The thin green line stopped pulsing and became a single stripe across the screen, and the rhythmic beep became a high-pitched noise that brought doctors and nurses rushing in.

Later, much later, Lucy sat beside the man on a bench, watching the lights of the Embankment reflected in the ink-dark water of the Thames.

'I'm so sorry,' Lucy said. 'You did everything you could.'

The man reached into his coat pocket and brought out the stem of Rosa Damascena.

'At least she had this with her when she died.' He touched the petals lightly with his fingertips. 'A reminder of her past and the man she adored.'

'It seems like a miracle that I found it at all,' Lucy sighed.

The man held out the rose to her.

'For you,' he said. 'The first of many.'

Lucy looked questioningly into his beautiful eyes.

'I intend to plant a bush of Rosa Damascena, and when it's in bloom I will cut its flowers for you every day. It will be our rose, just as it was for my grandparents.' He planted a single kiss on her lips. 'Happy Valentine's Day, my very own Rosa Shahbanu.'