Rhododendrons [University Project]

I initially wrote this for an assignment on my degree. Completing my literature/creative writing BA, I was tasked with writing a piece of fiction and decided upon this. I want to take this further, given the fact I felt 1,500 was too little a word count and I had too many ideas for the characters. Anyway, have a peruse if you will:

When Emlyn crossed the threshold and met Mr Dawson for the first time, he couldn’t quite discern which of his senses were being assaulted the hardest. Sight or smell?

The immediate barrage of reds and creams and browns and greys pained his eyes, coupled with the foetid whiff of soup and unclean skin, which had him reeling in the hallway, almost missing Mr Dawson’s wheezed invitation.

Two shiny buttons peered out from beneath the wrinkled folds of two sets of eye lids. A purple lip quivered.

“Hello!” He beamed.

Glued. Emlyn’s eyes were frozen stuck, pointing directly at the old man’s spit flecked mouth. The folds of tired face hanging around it. He felt stupid all of a sudden, embarrassed when Mr Dawson’s repeated attempts to address him went unanswered.

“Sorry, yes er… your grand daughter. Your grand daughter,” he said, Mr Dawson smiling dumbly back up at him. “Well she said it’d be OK for me to come see you everyday.”

“Yes yes,” he grumbled, moving passed him with all the gusto of a 7 stone man nearing a century.

Emlyn side stepped back, hugging the wall and waiting for cue. Mr Dawson did give one, disappearing down the long red and cream and brown and grey hallway to the kitchen.

After the minutes had bled, sat dead centre on a floral patterned settee, Emlyn grew uncomfortably aware of being watched. Mr Dawson was still busy in the kitchen the strange notion arose that it might be the room itself. He frowned at the idea and scanned the furniture, his eyes falling on rows of picture frames on an ornate mantle piece. On a velvet burgundy arm chair beside an antique coffee table. The mirrored cabinet with shelving inside. The wood of which was a dark oak. And everything was watching him.

Other things came to his attention. Small things hidden about the room. He noticed the old hoover, snot tissues crammed down the cracks of seats, stacks of dusty newspapers, a waxy hearing aid, slippers full of yellow flakes, little ornaments of cherubs on the window sill, framed by a thick golden curtain with musty tassels. A gurgle in Emlyn’s stomach made his eyes close slowly. This was the front line.

An eternity of time slid passed before Mr Dawson appeared in the door, a tray of tea shaking in his grasp. Skin pulled taught over veins. Like mole rats, Emlyn thought. Fingers twisted up from arthritis. He stood up and took the tray from him, the pair exchanging a smile before he set it down upon the table in the centre of the room.

Mr Dawson didn’t say anything.

They both sat down, wordlessly for a moment, sipping at their tea’s another moment later without too much eye contact. Which meant Emlyn’s eyes began to wander again, spotting the dead skin in his slippers, which fuelled his eagerness to start up conversation.

“The tea’s nice.”
Mr Dawson looked at Emlyn.

“Can I call you John?”

Mr Dawson looked at Emlyn.

Pausing in thought, he contemplated the best way to get out of no man’s land.

“I’m a fan of stories. Do you er, have any to share at all,” he asked. “I don’t mind what type or how short. Anything really. Anything with a good, you know, story to it.”

John slapped the armchair with surprising force. Then coughed.

“Oh, oh!” He exclaimed, shuffling in his chair for quite a few minutes, trying to get at ease. “Yes well, yes. Splitter mine?”

A deep furrow in Emlyn’s brow suggested that he either didn’t understand the question, or didn’t realise Mr John Dawson was asking one at all.


“A Betty.”

“Cath she er, she says you served in the war? Do you mean a Bouncing Betty?” Emlyn over annunciated the final part, but Mr Dawson was old, not deaf. And Cath was his granddaughter and Emlyn’s friend. Whom he had happily made an agreement with to spend some time with him whilst she went on holiday.

The old man scowled, waved a hand at Emlyn and sat back in his velvet chair, his bony feet curled inside grey socks. “Hundreds of ’em. Hundreds. Hundreds.”

Months later, and many more tales about John’s exploits in World War 2, Emlyn had his eyes peeled wide open into a completely new world. John’s previous life. Even after the first few weeks, he began to look past the false teeth left on the kitchen radiator, or the times he found he’d pissed a little all over the toilet seat. Forgot about the colours. The reds and creams. The browns and greys. Saw a prisoner of war trapped by bones 100 years old. A mind still urgent.

Some times Emlyn would go over not out of duty, but to speak more with him. Listen to more of his stories. Tales that blew apart the days, shot through the weeks and left him exhausted. Wounded even. There was a day, not long after third second month in, that Emlyn would find John stood by the door, or had a kitchen stool by the hallway cabinet, not ten paces from the it.

A thick lump would rise in his throat whenever he remembered his face, beaming up at him when he visited. Half a year later and the git still spilled his tea and pissed everywhere.

Mr Dawson squinted out the back window, into the small patch he had for a garden, and mumbled a word Emlyn couldn’t distinguish.

“What’s that John?”

The old man made a cracked whisper. “Rhododendrons… Those there..”

“Rhododendrons?” Emlyn quizzed, frowning as he looked out into the garden, to the spot that Mr Dawson was looking at. But there were no Rhododendrons. In fact, there were no flowers at all. The area was concreted years ago.

And then his face said it all in just one brief glance up at Emlyn, and Emlyn felt a heavy pull from somewhere deep inside him. He felt a warmth gush out, a clench in his throat and when Mr Dawson looked back, he was surprised to feel himself welling up.

“The big pink ones in the corner there,” John said. “You see?”

Emlyn swallowed, then breathed out low and slow. “They’re beautiful.”

When another round of tea had been prepared, Emlyn felt completely at ease, as if the moment with the imaginary flowers had never happened. The cream living room, trimmed with red furniture, old brown ornaments and instruments, with the blandness of grey everywhere, looked spotless and fresh from a recent dust and hoovering.

The two men sat adjacent to one another, sipping away as John delved into another story about the Bouncy Betty’s. The time on the grandfather clock in the hall told them it was nearing eight, and sure enough a darkness enveloped the house, street lights burning and lamps in the room clicking on. The mood was set, as their still shadows lay across the wallpaper, and the space held them in peace for a time. It almost felt like a momentary truce, Emlyn thought.

“So,” he said much later, following John’s next story with rapt attention. “How many in all, do you think, you disarmed? That’s quite a… John? John what’s up?”

Mr Dawson was quiet, staring into a space between the coffee table legs.


Spit appeared on the old man’s lower lip. Emlyn felt himself clenching, wanting to shy away behind something. Could smell dead skin somewhere.

“Do you want me to get you so-”

“-Loneliness,” whispered Mr Dawson. “Terrified me more than the bombs. The fighting.”

Everything seemed to stop. Even his own heart. Cars outside vanished, dust in the air paused in fall and time itself came to a sluggish stand. And we listened.

“I… have been… so lonely. So lonely. But it’s… not what you would imagine. Not the yearning for company, or… being scared of nobody there… No. No it was with the bombs, Emlyn. When… when I would at time, in our small group… I… I would have move out into no man’s land.

The fighting space between buildings, or two walls. It was… was anything.”

Mr Dawson paused for breath, adjusting himself whilst Emlyn gripped the arms of the settee, his eyes unblinking. Never had he heard John sound so fragile and soft before.

“Boy… in that time and space, between you and… and the ones shooting at you… You are truly alone. At first you believe of spirit, you believe of country.” He took another breather. “And you hope you have a sense of something being there with you. But… when you see them. The dead… the… the… young Sargent you had breakfast with last week… and you are sharing companionship with…. with something designed only to oblit- obliterate you. You are truly alone.”

A rushing of sound and awe hit Emlyn and he felt his ears ringing from the emptiness of the room without John’s voice.

“Have you told anyone?”

He hadn’t. Mr Dawson laid dead on the settee where Emlyn used to sit for a day, before Cath broke the news to him. She had gotten back from her trip late, hadn’t called Emlyn and had found John there the next morning. Nothing really prepared Emlyn for that. The sudden numbness in his face or the coldness in his feet and hands. The knowing that a bit of warmth would never return to him, no matter how hot a summer, or scolding a bath.

And sat at home, looking around the room at his things. His possessions. His furniture. His walls. He saw through the chrome and white, the blue’s and greens. Instead, the reds and the creams and the browns and the greys. And for just a flicker of a wink, he could almost hear the kettle boiling in the kitchen, for another round of tea.

© Jason R. Vowles 2016

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