A Bed Of Roses, Isabella Ross

Photo by Isabella Ross

A Bed of Roses was awarded 3rd place in The Quarry – Future Leaders Creative Writing Prize 2020


Nestled among the flowering hedges within the grounds of a Sydney cemetery, is baby Primrose. She rests underneath a canopy of white roses, a ceramic mushroom house and a fairy figurine placed next to her grave. The morning breeze scatters petals across the Baby Garden, wind chimes drowning out the hum of the adjacent highway. Next to Primrose is 10-day-old Kenzo. A sun-bleached toy car leans against his plaque, the granite surface adorned with a rose motif. These plaques are two of the many sprawling across the cemetery’s gardens.

Attending to the grounds and its 3500 roses is Horticulturist John*. With his khaki uniform and work boots caked in mud, John stomps over to the cemetery’s Magnolia Chapel, greeting me with a humble ‘G’day.’ ‘Today is actually a weird day because we have eleven babies being cremated,’ he yells over the piano melody spilling out of the chapel’s service doors. ‘Florist will be busy.’

Playing tour guide, John is to show me the grounds via his company truck, the cemetery’s logo imprinted on the side door that he has opened for me. While buckling our seatbelts and speeding away, John says his goal is to re-design sections of the crematorium into botanical sanctuaries. ‘The Garden of Eternity looks like a skate park. Idiots,’ he grumbles. Through the windscreen, the grey slab of concrete plaques can be seen, desolate of any foliage. Yet the nearby Rose Garden is no skate park. Stepping out of the truck, the sickly-sweet scent of a thousand roses overwhelms as we draw nearer. ‘The standard is to just chuck roses in wherever because that’s the traditional thing,’ John says, sweeping away the ground’s decayed leaf litter with the side of his boot. Flowering buds of white, fuscia and yellow occupy the site, along with dozens of glossy marble headstones.

For centuries humans have found comfort in flowers. Next to each headstone in the 19th Century, white roses were planted, a black ribbon tied to its stem. The black ribbon may have been left behind in the pages of history, but our appreciation for the rose has carried on. With bushy eyebrows raised, John reveals that gravesites near flowers sell quicker. ‘If the gardens around it look nice, you can ask for more money,’ he chuckles in his ocker twang, a grin spreading across his tan face. Still in the Rose Garden, John tends to one of the memorial site’s rose bushes, the tips of the leaves shrivelled and brown. Susceptible to black spot and aphids, roses are temperamental, needing to be trimmed around the clock, not to mention their sharp thorns. He notes that complaints have been lodged recently as a result of the dying flowers. ‘Water restrictions have made it really difficult. Each person you imagine would think their loved ones’ gravesite should have priority or get personal attention, but unfortunately, it’s just not possible,’ he sighs.

With the clouds looking sombre, we decide to retreat to the truck. John’s shoes squelch in the manicured grass sodden from the previous night’s storm. Driving through the grounds, there are no visitors to be seen. Pointing this out to John, he shrugs that he too doesn’t come across many people. ‘What I do notice on Monday mornings is lots of fresh flowers.’ From the car window, he points out a bouquet placed on the edge of one grave over the weekend. ‘I may not see the visitors, but I know they are there all the time.’

Our conversation is interrupted by a horn beeping furiously. Groaning, John pulls the truck off to the side of the road, letting the car behind zoom ahead. With his blue eyes narrowed, John swears under his breath. ‘That’s some arsehole funeral director there. He’s probably running late to a burial.’ Exhaling, he stretches while running his hands through his dark crew cut. Soon after, a pickup wagon hurtles down the hill toward the route of the funeral director. The vehicle’s tray is filled with excavator equipment, and John smirks, knowing his assumption of a late burial is correct. ‘Once the coffin has been lowered, they compact the dirt and wait a few days for it to settle. It often drops after rainfall and needs refilling again,’ he says, parking the vehicle next to the entrance of the Baby Garden.

In this memorial section, ornaments are scattered around the various plaques, a toy aeroplane slumped against the trunk of one rose bush. Standing in the centre is a stone sculpture of a mother and child embracing. With a lopsided frown, John says, ‘when there’s a child and a parent grave you know something violent has obviously gone on there.’ The speckled pink windmill wedged into one of the garden beds spins feverishly in the chilly air. ‘I try to disassociate myself from it,’ he says with a shiver and shake of the head, as we take one last look at the dual gravesite. On the outskirts of the Baby Garden, two plants immediately grab our attention. One bush has been hedged into the shape of an elephant, but the other animal is unclear. ‘It is supposed to be an emu but looks like a duck. Probably better off having it as a duck I reckon,’ John snorts while inspecting the beak of the emu. Walking among the rows of infant headstones, the sweet aroma of flowering shrubs carries through the air. Engraved in between each of these plaques is the emblem of the rose – its petals, thin stem and thorns etched delicately under each name. With one last look at the Baby Garden, we head back to the truck to explore the grounds further.

Driving towards the Rose Chapel, I ask John about the reasoning behind its name. ‘It’s very traditional. They name the chapels after the certain flowers that surround its neighbouring garden.’ Slowing in speed, John notes that he and his team try not to drive by a chapel when a funeral is underway. Even amidst the pandemic, intimate services continue to take place at the cemetery. As we sit in the parked car, half-a-dozen mourners walk into the Rose Chapel, service music inviting them in rather than the usual hugs and shaking of hands. ‘As a team if we’re having a good day and share a laugh, we have to make sure we aren’t ‘too happy’ near a funeral. Making jokes and stuff isn’t cool. No leaf blowers that’s for sure!’

Near the chapel is the florist. ‘All the flowers around here are white, white, white,’ John notes. With white lilies and roses being the most common funeral flowers, the shop is abundant with white bouquets perched in silver display buckets. Seen as an emblem of spiritual love, the white rose has been given in circumstances of grief for over 12,000 years. Metres away from the florist is a magnificent ‘Teddy Bear’ Magnolia tree, its white petals open like a lotus. I ask John whether he prefers certain flowers over others. ‘That’s like asking a true horticulturalist what their favourite plant is. They shouldn’t be able to tell you because each one has its own use and beauty.’ When it comes to redesigning the gardens, roses will still play a role in the cemetery’s grounds according to John. ‘I’ll keep the monumental sections with roses, but I want to branch out, excuse the pun, and do something different,’ he tells, turning the truck’s engine back on.

Sweeping down the hillside is the Chinese Monumental section. The lawn is teeming with maroon granite headstones, each inscribed with gold Mandarin characters. ‘A normal grave here would be maybe $20,000 – $30,000 easy.’ John tells me that for many Chinese buyers of these gravesites, they do not like certain flowers. ‘Yellow is superstitious. No eucalyptus. They love gardenias,’ he lists. Driving past the Jewish section there is little planting to be seen, except for the freshly cut lawn. For Jewish burials, flowers are not as common. Instead, the placement of stones on a loved one’s graves is custom in Jewish culture, seen as a symbol of humility and respect. To them, these stones are their white rose.

Countless gums tower over the garden, some of the trees older than the deceased buried here. John is still taken aback by the fact that 20 to 30 bodies are buried here at the cemetery each day. It is a volume that is confronting. The cremation schedule and florist orders for today come to mind. Wandering down the trail, I ask John whether he would want to be buried somewhere like this. ‘You can put me anywhere I don’t give a shit. It’s up to my kids really, they can decide what they want. Maybe a staff discount would encourage me,’ he smirks. I notice a small sign requesting visitors bring fresh flowers in lieu of artificial varieties. ‘The natural appeal and beauty of our park’ is advertised as the reason for this request. ‘When you start to think about the 100,000s of graves all with fresh flowers that’s a lot,’ John says shaking his head at the thought of the price tag.

Arriving at the last leg of the morning’s tour, the rain has eased slightly. This memorial is lined with plaques. Some have tiny ceramic images of the deceased welded into the granite, others opting for engraved motifs of angels or single-stemmed flowers. Each of the graves here are privy to their own rose bush, a pastel canopy framing the lengthy pathway. Tiny nibbles in some of the petals can be seen up close. ‘There are caterpillars around a little bit,’ John sighs. He leans down, his face millimetres away from the shrub, picking off the wriggling pests one by one. Stepping back to admire his handiwork, he quietly examines the rose’s perfectly pruned petals, before continuing onto one of the cemetery’s countless other blooms.

*For privacy reasons, names have been changed.

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Hikikomori, Alice Maher

Photo by Alex Knight on Unsplash

Hikikomori was awarded 1st place in The Quarry – Future Leaders Creative Writing Prize 2020


Haibun
The title Hikikomori refers to a Japanese social phenomenon whereby adolescents (and some adults) withdraw from the outside world to seek extreme isolation and self-confinement.
A Haibun is a Japanese form combining short prose with poetry; in this case, a haiku.

I am not clover. My roots, if I have roots, run shallow and thin. I do not spread and I do not travel. My sun is an incandescent bulb, and it does not move across my ceiling sky. My days and nights are not bound to natural lights. If I am awake, it is day. I sleep, and it is night. Food is left at my door, coldly waiting for me to creep to it. Morning meals of bread and miso arrive when I am tired. Evening meals of rice and fish accompany my waking yawn. Sometimes I eat and am grateful. Sometimes, craving warmth like the clover I am not, I venture to a darkened kitchen and heat an always-full kettle.

Mother’s love for me
Cup ramen in the cupboard
Never running out

I may not travel, but every day I journey. My portal awaits, one of three choices, but the one I always take. One is a third-storey window that leads nowhere I care about. It is death, and I am not quite desperate enough to step out yet. One is a door, safe at certain times. Quick dashes to the bathroom and the kitchen, hiding my body from my mother like it’s a game we agreed to play. My portal sits on the desk and hums in a soothing voice. Its light is more important than the bulb, far more important than the sun. I step through, plodding familiar paths. Here, people are words. I am also words, when I choose to be. Mostly, I like to be eyes.

Eyes that see a world
Where ‘avatar’ means more than
Simple godly things

Every so often, my journey is interrupted. My god-eyes turn away from the screen, to give my human ears a chance to hear. Voices: Mother. And some other. Noises like murmuring, but harsher, more demanding. I sit in the dark and ignore their building rhythm. I ignore the breathy voices calling to one another. I do not hear the moment breathy becomes breathless. I squeeze a plastic cup of broth, willing warmth back into it. But it has sat for hours, quite stale. Nothing I want anymore.

I feel a leaving
I sit and almost enjoy
The sound of sobbing

I never understood the human world. I am like a beast, hiding in my hole through an endless winter. Humans pass over my buried head but do not disturb my sleep. Humans with their crying sounds. Humans with their human food, left on the ground at the entrance to my burrow. Humans with their animal coupling and their human way of complicating even simple things. My mother is a human. I caught a glimpse of her recently, quite by accident. It was the time that humans usually spent in bed. I dashed from my shelter to satisfy my needs, but this time I was hunted. My mother’s face glowed in the dark. It burned a ghost behind my eyelids.

‘Kenji, listen dear.
I can’t do this anymore.
I’ll leave you some cash’

No more bread. No more fish. Some rice and miso has been left, optimistically, but I do not know how to make it into food. No more crying, or noise of any kind. I can walk the house freely, at any time. But still my room feels like the only space that belongs to me. I ventured into my mother’s room, half-fearful of her ghost. But there was a disappointing amount of nothing. My room grew fuller and fuller of stale smells, unwashed sheets and dishes. My mother’s room smelled like no human. I let it be.

What happens later,
When the cup ramen runs out?
I eye the money

I am eight years old. My mother is holding me, and I am drinking in her warmth. My father has left us, and now we are a pair. That’s what my mother murmurs into my hair. You and me, we have to be strong now. I want to please you so much my stomach hurts. My hand curls around you right before you push me gently back. You stand, pulling me up with you. You tell me I am your special boy; no, your special man. I will look after you, I say. I know you will. I know.

Everything I am
Refolded, crammed further down.
We are now a pair

I start rationing the ramen. Every time I go to the cupboard and see the plastic towers dwindling, or refill the empty kettle, my heart empties too. Then, slowly, my stomach follows. I crawl on my belly like a snake, hugging pillows to my crushed abdomen. The money sits on the kitchen counter where she left it. A bundle of notes, and a credit card. I can’t breathe.

Come back, please mother.
I forget being a man
Please teach me again.

I tread delicately down pixelated paths, this time on a quest. I tap the keys, ignoring my usual sites. A map appears on the screen, of the area just outside my apartment. I barely recognise it. It looks dense, packed with buildings, roads, and other signs of human activity. Dots appear, a whole cascade of them. Are there really that many places that sell food nearby? My belly howls with impatience even as my tongue becomes swollen and stiff. I sift through the listings one by one, searching for key phrases.

Key phrases such as:
‘Open 24/7’
I start making plans.

The paths I tread now are hostile. It is 3:30am and I thought I would be safe from human eyes, but they persist. I dodge down side streets, lit only by foxfire lanterns leading on to homely haunts. Places mentioned on my map but unsuitable for my needs. The thought of sitting, ordering food, waiting among strangers and then eating among them, is far too much. Even my current mission, far more modest, sends my palms sweating. Everyone can see how uncomfortable I am. I am one of those stray cats, an abandoned pet to be turned back at any threshold I am presumptuous enough to approach.

Finally I see
Blue and green: ‘Family Mart’
Ironic perhaps.

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my grandmother’s charm bracelet, Ceilidh Newbury

Photo by Sabina on Unspash

my grandmother’s charm bracelet was awarded highly commended in The Quarry – Future Leaders Creative Writing Prize 2020


my inheritance part one
the fourth time we meet it isn’t in person
it’s in my inheritance
a chain that threads little silver pieces of you
i run them cold through my fingers and try
to hold your hand

the hedgehog
the hedgehog is a mother with spines like nails
to protect her children your four stubborn sons
you’re in a new house this third time frail and shrinking
nervous to touch you lest like moth dust i wipe away something important
but in old photos you are fierce

a silver sixpence in her shoe
the end of a rhyme something borrowed
from the british i had to look it up no one could explain this charm
if true your father tucked the coin into your shoe and watched
you limp on blistered heel into your (un)happy future

the lamp
god’s word was a lamp that guided you to start
you lived a little lost your faith forgotten in a box of memories or stuffed
behind the couch cushions of your heart
life was too hard to keep it you saw too much
to believe

the bells
two bells tied as one with a ribbon unbreakable
charms clink like wedding bells chimed
broken not long ago before i knew him and now you follow
finally two bells are one again

the well
wet your lips with the freshly pulled water or
give it back to the earth so new life will bloom
my second time in your house your son is upset
you’ve been working in the garden again last time you
fell so he scolds you like you are a child
you wink at me and smile

the scales
september twenty seven i guess you were a libra
can’t believe i didn’t know that until now
born nineteen thirty-two seems so far away you were witness to a world torn up
became our lady justice keeping balance keeping peace keeping contact
keeping us together
and apart

your bible is locked
away inside you there was too much war
countries cities children cheating husbands chasing women
you snuffed that light
one your sons never lit
no one read the book over your grave but they never would have anyway

the crown
queen of miskin street and newburys reigning from across the seas but
no one believes in monarchy anymore
my first sight you sit royal clasping shaking hands and staring through cataract eyes
maybe i should curtsey but instead i sit and cross my arms and hope
you love me

my inheritance part two
there’s something else in this bag
another inheritance i would pass down if i wanted children
a ring
gold and fragile so small it doesn’t fit my fingers
like that bracelet couldn’t fit your life and i remember now
i don’t know you

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He Disappeared into a Bottle, Alyssa Byrnes

Artwork by Taylor Amy

He Disappeared into a Bottle was awarded 2nd place in The Quarry – Future Leaders Creative Writing Prize 2020


Some used to talk,
obligation building in the throat;
‘How’s John?’
asked for the sake of asking.
Though they knew,
rather, didn’t know.
Lips pursed in the silence,
discomfort clear in shifting eyes,
hopeful for swift response.

Nieces and nephews knowing they
have an uncle, never really known,
never really knowing who he is.
Vague memories slip, of who
they might have recognised,
once,
at Christmas time, around
an old table,
calloused hands around
a bottle
of something or other, unimportant
/quite important/
comfortable in a rough palm,
a cigarette pinched in the other hand,
and ten years later,
the burnt acid scent reminds us of
a lost uncle,
lost man.

But how lost is lost?
There is an overwhelming
loss
but we know where to look,
most days of the week.
But does he? (Feel lost?)
While we search, at a loss
following empty footprints
round and round.

Drowning deep beneath,
a bottle cap, in
government home,
shaky legs and mess
of teeth and muted TV,
flyblown fruit skins
left on almost bare
benchtops
to rot.

Or not, not
intentionally at least.
So, he forgot,
where they go
where he goes.
Where does he go?
Does he know,
as he wanders,
further from home.

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