Roses for Him
by Sacha Hope

There are those moments in every person's life, those utter life-defining, lesson-teaching, slap-on-the-nose type of moments that forever changes some crucial thing inside you. Some ascribe this change to maturity, others to the callousness of life and lies. I simply see it as a lesson I needed to be taught, an experience I needed to have. Let me not soil my story with the wisdom and regret of hindsight. I invite you rather to live it with me.

I am a down on my luck kind of girl. Got a degree in the hopes that doors would magically open the day I graduated. Spoiler alert: the adult world does not function that way. So it was out of curiosity that I left a rather dubious career as a cashier and became a bar girl at the Canon Hotel. Sounds fancy, but it is just a tiny bar in a tiny town that has history relating to the Anglo Boer War. Nothing special. The atmosphere and laid-back nature of the hotel enthralled me. Such a drastic change from the constant hustle and bustle of the shop where I used to work. The constant flow of customers and chime of cash register became a monotonous task and I hardly paid attention on the job. Of course the one aspect I disliked about cashier work was that I could not socialize with the customers. Nothing beyond the mandatory “Hello” was permitted. Here, in this bar, with its dark mahogany counter and quiet ambience, I could let my thoughts wander. It was a pleasant change. A much-needed change.

“My word, you look just like Vicky Leandros!” The sudden exclamation nearly assured an early death to a bottle of expensive whiskey. Glancing over my shoulder revealed the culprit to be a rather aged man with wispy white hair and a thick moustache. Blue eyes shone from a lifetime of mischief. 
“Philip!” my voice was bright, and perhaps an octave too high that would be deemed appropriate for greeting an old man, “will it be your usual?”
He simply answered by winking. Nervously I got his drink of choice, a beer that was named after the colour of the label. This is my first week on the job, even though the previous bar girl trained me well, I still got nervous. Philip could be rather demanding and extremely suspicious when it came to money. He wanted a receipt for every drink and scrutinized his change regularly.
Soon two aged men entered the bar as well. William and Junior. If you see Philip, you knew William and Junior would follow soon. I served their drinks and made small talk with them. Philip insisted that I was the embodiment of some Greek singer I never knew existed before that day. Eventually they left, but not after the mandatory hug and some lame jokes. Evening was approaching.

The rising moon seem to draw all kinds of characters out of hiding, their destination being the bar. It does not help that the bar is the only source of entertainment in this small dusty town. Quickly the bar became busy and I scrambled to fill orders and pour drinks. Music played loudly. Electricity was in the air. A skinny young man, with startlingly beautiful hazel eyes and a camouflage hat, suddenly commanded my attention (his name was John). I grinned with mischief. The other customers in the bar could wait.
“What will it be?” I asked with an extra bright smile. I made effort to notice dark stubble on his face.
“Single rum and Coke, and the pool queues.” 
My was blood alive and tingling with playfulness. This was the third week in a row John came to the bar. I wanted his attention and needed to make a plan. I handed the drink and pool queues to him (we kept the pool queues behind the bar, because some customers thought pool queues made great Light Sabres). Out of its own accord my right hand reached out and snatched his hat. Deftly I set it upon my head. “Its mine now,” I declared triumphantly and dodged quickly from his attempt to reclaim the hat. His responding grin set his eyes alight and departed with a group of friends to occupy the pool table. As the evening wore on the customers drifted away. Only the few playing pool remained. 
With my newly stolen hat on my head, I busied myself with replacing the empty brandy and whiskey bottles. I did this mainly to prevent myself from staring openly at John. The little vixen in me assured, however, that John had the most flattering view of me as I climbed onto the counter to replace bottles. 
John walked over and invited me to play pool with them. Mission accomplished. I had his attention now! My heart did a little flip of joy.
“I can't, I got work to do.” A game ensued and the hat was “stolen” from me moments later, whereby I would proceed to steal it back the next time he ordered drinks. This little game lasted until closing time. As I was locking up he simply deposited the hat on my head and walked home, smiling. Feeling like the triumphant vixen I practically skipped all the way home, proudly bearing my prize.

You'd think that being a bar girl meant having a paid social life. That it meant meeting tons of new people and seeing interesting faces, but in all honesty you start remembering people by their choice of drink. Brandy Special being a case in point. Every afternoon this tall, broad shouldered gentleman would order the brandy special. I had no idea what his real name was, but he had a certain cultured refinement about him that is the trademark and lure of some older men. Great conversationalist, and I often got the impression he only wanted someone to listen. I happily obliged. The stories he told was interesting, but I digress. I've known this gentleman for a week, ran tabs under the name of “Brandy Special” for him. It was only when Philip asked his name that I became enlightened. 
“Karel.”
“You mean your name is not 'Brandy Special'? That's news for me!” My jest elicited a grin from him. A rather delightful smile, coloured by a salt-and-pepper beard. He never ordered the brandy special again, but a shaky friendship started instead.

The routine of my days became established. I had the regular crowd during the day which consisted mainly of Philip and his entourage, and in the evenings John would appear (hatless I might add). 
I was wiping the counter. The past few days working alone were particularly tiring. It was a Saturday morning and I could hardly keep my eyes open. Luckily the bar was empty as I pulled a chair closer to the counter and settled down to nap uncomfortably. I was just about to close my eyes when Brandy Special, um, Karel, appeared. 
“Your usual?” 
“Nah, I'll just have a beer, thanks.”
When his beer was in his hand I settled back into my original position of being half sprawled across the counter.
“You look exhausted.” The concern was touching and I managed a lop-sided smile.
“Yeah, this is my seventh double shift in a row. Boss doesn't know when he will get someone to help me out.”
Karel muttered something about unfair labour practices before my head slumped on the counter. His gentle tone of voice lulled me to sleep, however my ears remained alert. I jumped at the slightest noise, only to discover Karel looking at me with a guilty expression. It took a few moments for my tired mind to comprehend what he was doing. A warm jacket was draped around my shoulders.
“You were shivering,” he answered my befuddled look. 
“You know you are too old for me, grandpa,” I teased. All sarcasm was lost in the tired monotony of my voice. Bundling up his jacket, I opted to use it as a pillow instead. It smelled nice. 
“I hope it doesn’t smell bad...” 
“Nah, cigarettes...its nice...” I mumbled before napping for what must have been half of the day. 
When I eventually awoke I found two pairs of eyes staring at the overhead TV. 
“John! How long have you been here?” I mumbled, half asleep. My body craved sleep badly. 
“Just a few minutes, why don't you give me a drink and join us?” I was too tired to make excuses this time. John had his usual rum and I took my place beside him. He draped an arm easily around my waist and chatted away with Karel about sport. I had no interest in sport and nodded toward sleep again. John pulled me closer and I felt at home, napping with my head on his lap. I smiled and wanted to imprint the memory deep into my soul. The warm feel of Karel's jacket, the protective security of John's arms...this must be what dreams are made of.

The dream only lasted until Karel wanted another drink. John wanted change for the jukebox, and I happily obliged. A lively tune cracked over the speakers and he innocently held out his hand to me, bright hazel eyes pleading. I could not refuse those puppy eyes.
He held me close and danced easily with me. His steps being quick and graceful, whilst mine was uncoordinated and clumsy. The song ended, with the new song Karel demanded a dance. He was very tall and it was rather uncomfortable to dance with him (being vertically impaired myself). It was just the three of us. I'm pretty sure it will be one of my favourite memories, even amid heartbreak.

With closing time both John and Karel stayed and helped me to lock up. John escorted me to his car, as was his habit by now and drove me home. In the driveway he switched off the car and turned to me. Moonlight illuminated the sharp contour of his jawline. 
“I'm going away for a week tomorrow afternoon,” John was a truck driver. He spent most of his time on the road. This was no strange news to me. I was used to John disappearing for a week and magically reappearing on a weekend. What surprised me was how sad I felt at the thought of not seeing John for another week. 
“Well, you better drive safely,” was my reply. “Here, take this...to protect you...” I added quickly as I unclipped my necklace and placed it around his neck. The thin silver chain and delicate cross gleamed in the darkness inside the car. He sighed. His calloused hand reaching out to pull me into one of his tight embraces. My body willingly followed. Instead of the tight embrace I was expecting I found his lips gently brushing against mine. A cold, electric current surged through my heart and heated my blood. Knees went weak with the intimate contact. He deepened the kiss, his stubble scratching my face and adding to the pleasure. I tasted his cigarettes and rum on his tongue. Musty tobacco combined and complimented the sharp, clean taste of rum. He broke the kiss and regarded me carefully.
“How long did you want to do that for?” my voice was a breathless whisper. 
“Since the day I first saw you.” 
I needed more. My body craved the close proximity provided by the kiss. All thoughts and desires for sleep was replaced by a singular need to kiss John as much as possible. Our lips embraced and this time there was no turning back.

Philip was giving me the evil eye. I was texting John, its been nearly a week since I saw him. We have been seeing each other for a couple of weeks now. 
“If I see you on that phone again, I'm walking out and calling your boss. It's unsociable and rude.” Philip's threat was as empty as his glass. 
“I'm sorry, I'll get you a refill.”
“She's been ditzy all week,” Junior commented sourly.
“It must be John. Looks like he did something right to have her smiling the whole week,” William added. 
Heat coloured my cheeks the same cherry red as my hair. “It's not like that...I just miss him.”
“When is he coming back?” William enquired.
“Tomorrow, I...” my phone interrupted my thoughts. It was John. 
Philip rolled his eyes. “Oh, for goodness sake! Answer him and get it over with.”
“You know are still my favourite, uncle Phil,” I replied with a wink before furiously attacking the touch screen to reply. 
Karel was observing everything from his corner. He kept an eye on me daily when John was working. It was probably some guy thing that I did not understand, although the kitchen staff insisted that he was after me.
“Why so sulky, Karel?”
“It's Valentine's Day tomorrow and you are taken. That's reason enough to sulk,” he replied before winking and demanding another beer. 
“Bad day at work?” 
“Yeah, something like that. Have I shown you pictures of my son yet?” His phone was out and the picture gallery was open before I could protest. Snapshots of a cute, gangly teenage boy performing a wheelie on a motorbike greeted my eyes. 
“He sure knows what he is doing on that thing.”
“He sure knows how to give me grey hair,” Karel grinned. Pride lit his eyes and he instinctively squared his broad shoulders. Strange how I never saw this side of Karel before. I've known him for months now! 
“He's coming to live with me soon. I can't wait! When he is here, I won't have reason to come to the bar.” 
“I'll miss you.”
He eyed me mischievously before responding, “Don't you go crying after an old man now.”
“Oh, I won't, grandpa,” I quipped before sticking my tongue out at him. I was truly happy for Karel. All the time he spent in the bar made sense now.

The rest of the day was rather uneventful. I lived for the weekend these days. That's when John came home. Recently he have been talking of us moving in together. He wanted to take me one weekend to a game farm where lions are kept. He had so many plans. I felt unworthy of his attention and efforts. After all, I was just a bar girl with nothing much to offer, other than sardonic comments.

Whenever I began to question the validity of my worth, I would stare blankly at a space. I chose to stare at the bar counter this time. The fine lines and scrapes of usage gave away the popularity of the Canon Hotel. I learnt from a local that the bar counter was still the original counter from when the hotel was first built way back when. The town has a rich history as well (rich enough to deserve a historic society dedicated to preserve crumbling buildings with barbed wire and fences). My thoughts drifted back to John. I am glad I stole his hat that night, but I resent the loneliness throughout the week. I asked him a few times to take me with on his long journeys. The truck was roomy. Wisely he did not give in to my requests. I do not think I would be much fun or good conversation on a long road.

The bar was quiet. My eyes drifted towards the fireplace, located five or six meters from me. The small wood pile practically begged to be lit. Fumbling in my back pocket for the lighter (an item I acquired to play with and to light other people's cigarettes) the wooden floor creaked underfoot as I crossed the small space. Soon the tiny, orange tongue from my lighter multiplied and danced hypnotically. 
“It's not that cold, you know.”
Recognition snapped me out of my reverie. “John! I thought you only came back tomorrow.” I think he tried to say something, but was cut short by my squeal and rib-squashing hug. His arms wrapped around my waist. Immediately the safe, secure feeling of being home enveloped me.
“Are you free tomorrow?” his gentle voice tickled my ear. I responded by nipping his ear and neck. A low grunt escaped his lips. “Naughty, naughty girl,” he mumbled protest before his lips met mine and forced me into delicious obedience. “Behave,” he chastised, light from the fire gleamed in his exquisite eyes. Snuggling deeper into his embrace, his scent filled my lungs. Musky cigarettes and something else that could only be described as “essence of John”. Such a lovely, manly scent...
“You haven't answered me.”
“Oh, I'm sorry. I'm free tomorrow.” I smiled my best smile at him, but was immediately taken aback. His eyes, usually a source of joy and mischief, was clouded and sad. “I've never seen you like this. What's the matter?”
“It's nothing,” he soothed, giving me an unconvincing peck. His embrace tightened and my arms responded instinctively. 
“I love you,” I whispered into his chest. 
“I know you do,” another kiss lingered on my hair. 
Uncertainty nibbled at the essence of my being. “You know you can tell me what is wrong.”
Silence greeted my plea. His body stiffened before withdrawing from me completely. The distance from his comforting embrace left me vulnerable and cold. Heat from the fire crawled over my back, but it did not reach my chilled heart. 
“John, please talk to me...”
“I think you need to sit down,” he said mechanically as he guided me to a seat. The cosy bar suddenly felt like a gaping chasm waiting to swallow me. John worked his jaw, trying for a long time to find the words, yet nothing passed his lips. Little voices in my head insisted that he was on the point of breaking up with me. After all, who would want to be stuck with a good-for-nothing bar girl?
“There's no easy way to say this,” he began. Tension made my hands tremble and I swallowed at an imaginary lump in my throat. 
“I'm very sick. My time is limited...”
Oh, dear heaven no! Please don't have Aids...I thought in horror. Seconds slowed to become minutes. My jaw moved, but only a raspy breath escaped. 
“Stomach cancer, its too advanced. Nothing they can do. Doctor said I've got six months if I am lucky.” He shrugged his shoulders as if he was talking about the weather and not announcing his death sentence. 
Tears stung my eyes. I wept uncontrollably as he pleaded with me over and over again not to cry for him. Tears made him uneasy, but I could not stem the flow. My body quivered with unspoken emotion and fear. How could this happen? How could he be dying? Just when I found my happy place, my home...
“Stop your damn crying or I am leaving and never coming back,” he muttered, exasperated. There was no conviction in his words. I buried my face deeper against his chest. A familiar, burning tang of cigarette smoke reached my nose. I knew John was smoking now because he was stressed. 
“Isn't there anything they can do?”
“No, I won't let them cut me. I've made my choice and I'm done talking about this.”
Numb and with leaden limbs I barely took note of the passing time. Mutely I flipped switches and locked doors and windows. The bar was eerie and dark. Catacomb silence clung to it like decay. Shadows and ambient light drew my thoughts into their depths, suffocating all traces of hope until only blankness remained. So intent was my focus on the shadows and dim light that I barely registered John's gentle touch on my cheek. I hardly heard him speak. His grip became firmer and my unseeing eyes were forced to look into his dazzling orbs. The sparkle of mischief was back and drew me in. His mouth searched my neck carefully before claiming my lips. 
Lifting my jaw he gazed deeply into my eyes. “I'll drop you off at home, OK?”
“I don't want to go home,” my petulant retort was nothing more than a whispered protest. This time my wish was granted.
He gazed deeply into my eyes for a few moments. “Come, there's something I'd like to show you.” John swiftly guided me to the car. Soon the tyres creaked with movement and the our surroundings became a montage of moving, blurry shadows. 
Tar gave way to bumpy gravel and pitted farm roads. I was too preoccupied with shock and disbelief to notice that the car had been standing still for a while. A cool breeze drifted in from an open window. The playful splash of water intrigued me. Carefully I clambered out the car. The sight arrested me. 
Soft, silver moonlight illuminated the lake. The country surrounding the lake rolled gently into low hills and steep dips, the low hills caught some of the soft light whilst the dips were painted in charcoal. The lake was perfectly still, reflecting the moon and stars in dark water. John was bathed in gentle moonlight, the delicate hollows and peaks of his face shaped by light and shadow.
“Oh John, its beautiful.”
“This is my favourite place.”
My arms sneaked around his waist and he held me close. 
“What's the time?” John asked. 
“After one, why do you ask?”
“Its Valentine's Day today. I've been meaning to give you this,” John said as he fumbled with one hand in his jeans pocket. He produced a small box that was velvet to the touch. 
My heart raced. This little box looked very suspicious. 
“Open it,” he urged.
With trembling fingers I pried the lid from the box. Moonlight gleamed on the silver chain bracelet. A delicate little sapphire charm dangled precariously in the middle.
“John...it's beautiful...” 
Easing the bracelet from the box, John clipped it onto my left wrist. His kiss was gentle and searching. 
“Will you be my Valentine?” his voice was teasing and soft.
“Yes, for this year and every year after.”

We spent the entire night by the lake, simply holding each other. We watched the sunrise paint the sky and lake in dazzling colours of pink, orange, yellow and red. Birds sang and the world seemed at peace. Last night's news seemed an impossible prospect in the light of this perfect day.

It came as a shock when John's condition deteriorated rapidly. His skinny frame became a gaunt, skeletal shadow of the man he once was. I will not tell you of the pain and agony he endured. Of the nights he spent vomiting blood. I do not want to remember him that way, as a sick man dying a slow death. Nor do I want to go into detail of how his degeneration killed something in my heart. He outlived the doctor's prognosis by a few weeks, but in the end death claimed him, as death would come to claim us all. 
 
I wear my bracelet still. The delicate chain and sapphire charm never left their place on my left wrist since John clipped it into place. There were times I wanted to tear off the bracelet when my grief threatened to crush me, but I could not bring myself to commit sacrilege. To discard the bracelet meant to discard what he meant to me, and on a deeper level it would be to deny the validity of his existence. I could never do that. John has my heart still. Scooping up the roses on the dining room table, I headed for the car. It's been three years now. There was a place I needed to visit.

The drive to the lake did not take long. In daylight the lake seemed an empty and barren place. Not a shade tree in sight. Bare gravel and sticky clay constituted the shallow banks. By day the lake did not deserve a second look, but I knew better. I knew its beauty by night and the special memory it gave me of John.
Wading deep into the icy water, I laid the roses on the choppy surface and watched them drift away and eventually sink. It was his wish to be cremated and have his ashes scattered. My hands played over the choppy waves. Sadness lingered in my heart, though it was not as crippling any more. Time does much to heal the heart, though the gaping hole in my soul still lingered. Its been three years since I saw his face, his smile...

...those brilliant eyes...

“Happy Valentine's Day, John,” I whispered. I know I will visit the lake next year again.