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Authors: Christine Breen

Her Name Is Rose

BOOK: Her Name Is Rose
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Table of Contents

About the Author

Copyright Page

 

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To Niall, Deirdre, and Joseph

 

Acknowledgments

I'm indebted to quite a few people—for without them this novel would not have become real. For her editorial insights I'm very grateful to Hope Dellon of St. Martin's Press. For believing in the story from the beginning, my agent Rowan Lawton at Furniss Lawton, and to Rachel Mills and Caroline Michel at Peters Fraser and Dunlop, who carried it further. Thanks to the members of the inaugural National Academy of Writing in London and its administrator, Rena Brannan, and especially to its director, Richard Beard.

To the members of the Kiltumper Book Club, I am grateful for their continual reminder that storytelling counts first and foremost. And I thank them for putting up with me as their facilitator these seven-plus years. Thanks to Marie O'Leary, Siobhan Phelan, and Isobel O'Dea, and especially my sister Deirdre Breen, who read the story in its first draft.

But most of all, I owe more gratitude than can be expressed in words to Niall Williams, the man who has believed in me since that first day we met in a university café in Dublin many, many years ago. Without him—and our children—I would never have had this story to tell.

 

Plants are always from some sort of family.

—from
Swimming Home
by Deborah Levy

 

One

The nurse who performed the X-ray had a magenta streak in her short dark hair. She had a Dublin city accent and her name began with “L.” Maybe it was Letitia? Loretta? Latara, maybe? Iris had been too apprehensive to listen. In the center of the windowless room stood an old diagnostic thing, a white metal machine. By the door was a black plastic chair with chrome legs and in the corner, a half-wall-half-glassed-in partition, inside of which L stood. Half-hidden.

It had been one of those days for Iris. That morning her editor had asked her to call in to the offices of
The
Banner County News
and she'd arrived thinking he was going to offer her a permanent spot. He'd sat her down. What he offered was coffee. He'd never done that before. Then he propped his short legs in their beige cords against the desk (a somewhat Scandinavian-looking piece, very minimalist) and explained the newspaper was taking a new direction. They didn't see gardening articles as appealing to the newspaper's current market.

“Of course,
I
love your pieces. Even read them. But, that's progress isn't it?” He looked at his watch. “I'm sorry. I have to tell all the freelancers today. Not just you. There's crosswords. He has to go, too. And the books guy.”

Iris had looked out through his wooden blinds onto the street.

“I know, Iris. Rotten luck. But it's coming down from the board. Things are tight and we have to cut. Cut, cut. You know how it is these days.” Arthur Simmons was the son of the owner of the paper and ten years her junior, and for a moment she had thought how stupid his hair looked, sticking up like a modern mohawk. He hadn't even got it right. And he was too old for it. And
he
certainly didn't know how it was these days.

She felt he was expecting her to say something but as she hadn't, he straightened away from the desk and looked down on her. She was looking at the fine wool floor covering.

“Are you all right?”

She had forced herself to turn her upset face to him.

“If not coffee, tea maybe?”

“No.” She ran her hands through her hair, then smoothed it. “I've got to be somewhere.” She stood up. “As of when?”

“Sorry?”

“When do I finish?”

“Well. Actually…” His hands were in his pockets and he rocked back on his heels. He had an apologetic look on his face. “As of today … so sorry.”

She had looked at him for one long moment. His face had reddened.
Was
he sorry?

“I just thought … it was going well,” she said. “I've been getting questions from readers, you know. ‘What's the best time to prune an apple tree?'”

“Iris, please.”

“‘When can I move my peonies?' ‘When's the best time to transplant carrots?'”

He tightened his lips together, raised his eyebrows, and slowly he shook his head. Apparently, there was nothing more to say.

She walked toward the door, had her hand on the handle and was about to open it.

“Listen. Wait,” he said. “Wait … I'll tell you what. We're starting an online version of the paper. A blog might be perfect for you.” He paused. “I mean, if you don't mind doing it for free…”

A pair of secateurs had just sliced through her little moment of hope.

“… just until we see what traffic it generates.” She turned back to the door. “Iris?”

“I'll think about it.” She was about to step out into the corridor when she swung around, looked directly at him, and in a voice solid and unwavering she said, “You never transplant carrots.” And then she was gone. Out through the maze of other Scandinavian desks and past
The
Banner County News
staff with their averted eyes. Did they all know she had been let go? Keeping pace with a thrumming in her chest, she had gone down the stairs and out into the street.

*   *   *

“Are you still having periods?”

She was jerked back by L's question.

“Yes.”

“When was your last?”

“Two weeks ago.”

Stripped to her waist, Iris was directed to the machine and positioned, or rather her breast positioned, in place. First the right.

“Turn this way. Put your arm here. Like you're hugging it.”


Hugging
it?”

“I know. It's only for a bit. And I'm sorry, it's cold.”

With Iris's cheek turned sideways and one arm stretched around the contraption in the opposing direction, L lowered the plate. The radiographer was so close that Iris saw the butterfly tattooed behind her right ear. And she breathed in the scent of the sea off her hair.

Then the left.

It had hurt, the squeezing, but not as badly as Iris expected.

L said, “It'll just take a few minutes to scan these.” Iris went back and waited, half-naked, on a small bench, in a blue cape of crepe paper in an airless cubicle with the door closed. Her hair clashed with washed-out blue she was sure. She reached into the rattan basket she used as a handbag and found an old lipstick and steadied her hand to put it on. “There,” she said to the back of the door.

*   *   *

People used to say Iris Bowen was beautiful, what with the wild weave of her red hair, the high cheekbones, and the way she carried herself like a barefoot dancer through the streets of Ranelagh on the outskirts of Dublin city. But that was a lifetime ago. That woman, the woman Luke had said was the most beautiful he'd known, was now wearing a blue paper cape and her best summer shoes, a pair of thinly strapped black sandals. How vulnerable she felt, half-dressed.

The old linoleum was so polished that with every move, as she crossed and uncrossed her legs, it squeaked. The chill in the air made her shiver. She clutched her breasts. Nobody had touched them since Luke. She held her breath and counted. Exhaled long. Breathed again. One, two, three—

“Mrs. Bowen?” L knocked on the door and opened it a crack. “We need to retake one. Left side. The X-ray hasn't turned out good enough to my eye. Sorry, but it has to be clear for the radiologist.” L was used to anxiety, but her chosen professional manner came in short sentences. “Don't worry. Happens all the time. Doesn't mean anything. These old machines.” She guided Iris back to the mammography unit. “We're due for a digital machine next month. They get much better results.” L laid bare Iris's left breast on the cold, black square. She sandwiched it with her clean hands and lowered the machine. As she squeezed down Iris thought of the word “mamma.” And with that came sudden fear. Nothing but cold white fear.

She waited again for L to view the result. Panic rising, she forced herself to picture her garden—her poppies, the ones she'd grown from seed that were looking gorgeous. Yes. Gorgeous. They absolutely were. And she thought,
It takes many people to make a garden: those who dream it and those who create it. Without gardeners, flowers are like orphans
 …

“Mrs. Bowen, it's all right now. You can get dressed.”

Iris let out a slow exhale and in her shiny black sandals and paper cape went down the corridor to get dressed.

When she reappeared in the X-ray room, L said, “The results will go to Dr. O'Reilly as soon as the radiologist has read them. Probably early next week. Sometimes … just sometimes … the radiologist will send them on to the consultant in the Breast Clinic in Limerick. But only if there is the slightest doubt.” L looked up from her clipboard long enough to break into her version of a reassuring smile.

In the long corridor with its tea-colored walls and hand-sanitizer dispensers, Iris passed a woman she recognized from the village where she lived but she cast her eyes down. She sensed the woman pause and lift a hand but Iris kept walking.

BOOK: Her Name Is Rose
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