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My Heart Is Like An Apple Tree

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Rose woke on the morning of her birthday to the sight of sunlight filtering through the curtains. Still, still she was not used to them: the plain creamy linen that Mum clucked over in a half-hurt confusion at the choice.

Only a remnant for a small window, and she had made them over herself. Sewing in the train between Bradford and Leeds, York and Doncaster, Terza curled in the next seat with one leg under her, for so she always sat, scratching away in her exercise book: her handwriting still pointed and foreign.

The noises in the flat were only the noises of Judith as she made the coffee, the kettle whistling and a hushed mezzo. Around us for gladness the bluebells were ringing, Judith sang. Ah! then little thought I how soon we should part.

Rose got out of bed and pulled the curtains. Three months ago a flower-shop had opened across the road, and she loved to see the flowers standing thick and damp and bright in their serried buckets, and the shy choosing hands of those who had come to buy.

It was a cold morning in spite of the sun, and her best jersey lay on a chair under the window. Drina had brought it back from America: a periwinkle blue, and the wool as soft as feathers, as soft as the little folded ears of cats, that Ilonka could never restrain herself from stroking. She pulled the jersey on over her pyjamas, and heard the clock in the other room chime seven, its quiet notes interrupting Judith's song.

She followed its sound and Judith turned and smiled at her, and said, “Rose! Oh, I was going to bring this in to you – ”

They had one tray, it was Judith's really, painted white wood with rather awkward handles. It held a glass of freesias and an empty cup, for the coffee was yet brewing and Judith had been contemplating food when Rose emerged. “Happy birthday,” she said, thinking how very pretty Rose was, more and more as she got older and lost her childish delicacy. Drina was unfairly good at clothes, but at least she applied her talent to presents and not only to herself; Rose's skin glowed against the blue.

Rose said, “I thought it was going to rain last night, but I couldn't have been more wrong – thank you.” Judith had poured the coffee and pressed the cup into her hand. She bent to smell the freesias, she touched them, and said, “Oh, Judith, they are lovely, thanks. Did you run across and get them from Parkinson's?”

“Yes, I know how you like the shop. I say, we've got bread, how about toast? Shall I put the grill on?”

“Toast and jam,” Rose said, with a smile. “We can feast before the rehearsal. I'll just put something on and run down to see if there's any post. Mum's bringing a present round this evening, she said, but Drina may've written.”

She slid into jeans and the shoes she liked to wear at home: old red leather and almost flat, worn until they were like old friends. Downstairs on the table in the hall, there was a little heap of cards and parcels, so she gathered them up and ran back upstairs: three flights for they were at the very top.

“Letter from your brother, I think,” she said, waving Judith's post at her. “Cambridge postmark; you see, I'm practically a detective.”

“How do you do it, Holmes?” Judith said, accepting the letter and propping it against the butter-dish to be read over breakfast. “Goodness, what a lot of stuff!”

“Drina's in Italy,” Rose said absently, opening a card from Marianne Volonaise, who was beginning to think her very promising indeed. “These two are from her – ”

Even Drina's love for Italy, her unvoiced knowledge that its heat and its skies and its air woke something in her that made her more herself, had not quenched the regret she felt at being absent on Rose's birthday. Such absences would be ever more frequent as more was asked of them, and both girls realised it. Drina had had influenza, and though she had not been very ill, a rest had been adjudged sensible: yet she had not forgotten Rose. There was a long letter, and one parcel holding a little leather bag that smelt deliciously foreign and hung on a long narrow chain.

In the other package was a nightgown of white lawn, the work of tucking and embroidering so exquisite that Rose actually gasped as it came out of the tissue paper, and Judith said, “My word, that's – heavens – it's like something out of a film.”

“I can't imagine when she thinks I'll wear it,” said Rose in a deliberately sensible voice. “It's beautiful, but I can't see myself swanning about in digs with this on; can you?” She stroked it, the tentative, intimate movement of her hand showing how much she really liked it.

“But if one were, how shall I put it – assoluta,” Judith said, both joking and a little serious, for everyone knew now that Rose was going to be much more than good. She was rising slowly, slowly; nothing like Drina. But as she perfected each new role – and they were not quite so small, now, as they had been – the critics kept on noticing her, and the Company could not have failed to notice too. “Then it would be just the thing. In a few years, you know.”

Rose said, “Oh, silly,” and went into her bedroom to put the presents away and to set up the cards on her chest of drawers. She glanced at herself in the mirror and pulled a comb through her bright brown hair before going back to Judith and the coffee and toast, and the easy intervals of quiet as they read their letters, and chat as something struck one of them as too funny not to mention.

I know it's old-fashioned, Drina had written, But I hope you like it – I went to the little room where the women sit to sew them, and they still wear the black, you know, just like a painting, or 'Giorno dei Morti' – I don't mean they seemed sad, though. They told me that they've been making them like this, in that village, for at least a hundred years, and probably before, only nobody could write so it can't be proved.

She seemed suddenly, to Rose, very far away, though as a thought it was nonsense.

Judith said, “Jeremy's got a decanal fine for climbing on the roof of Old Court. Not as stealthy as he's always imagined, I suppose. Anyway, he sends you his very, very best regards.” She smiled at Rose and poured them both some more coffee.

“My heart belongs to Igor,” Rose said, in the voice of a tragedienne, and they both laughed. It was time to dress, and then to run down the steps of the underground and get to rehearsal in time for everybody to wish Rose many happy returns of the day. That night they were to dance in The Sleeping Beauty. The ballet mistress watched everybody carefully; Rose, perhaps, a little more so, though not in disapproval.

After the rehearsal, Rose's friends crowded around her and bore her off to a late lunch in the little Spanish restaurant beloved of the corps whenever they could afford it. Nearly everyone enjoyed the succession of odd little dishes that proceeded out of that kitchen, so unlike ordinary English food. The coffee afterwards was strong and different too, and when they came out of the restaurant there was even more sun: the afternoon was full of it, like wine or honey.

“Let's go and walk,” Jan said. “In the park – come on, you'll come, won't you, Terza?” Half of Jan's attention, these days, was devoted to drawing some of the sadness out of Terza's eyes.

So they all went, Rose and Judith, Jan and Terry and Mark, Terza so gay and walking so lightly, yet always a little apart, Ilonka smiling, the hood of her funny green duffel coat humped untidily behind her head.

Rose and Judith got back to the flat just before five, and Rose was glad that they had, for it was less than a quarter of an hour before the bell rang and she had to run downstairs and let Mum in.

“We're coming to see you tonight, love, you haven't forgotten? And we'll come back afterwards, I've told Dad.”

“Oh no, I've not forgotten,” Rose said. “Course not. Same dressing-room as always.”

“I must get straight back and get the tea on,” Mum said, “Or we'll all be going hungry, but I wanted you to have your present now, and not be waiting around for it.”

Two nighties, one with narrow frills, the other edged with slightly scratchy lace. The frilled one was lemon nylon, the other a very pale blue.

She had put Drina's present away in her second drawer, so there was no need to worry. She kissed Mum goodbye, and carried them into her room which was darkening slowly, the setting sun touching her curtains with a rose-pink light. The walls were not thick on the top floor so she could hear Judith's soft voice very faintly, even when they were both in their own rooms, only she could not quite make out the song.

She had put the glass of freesias on her chest of drawers amongst the cards, and the scent seemed to fill the room: as music could a theatre, as dancing could your body. And really she was not lost at all.